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Pro-tips: successful domain acquisitions

June 16, 2020

Pro-tips: successful domain acquisitions

Chapters

Introduction

Contemporary SEO is hard work. Those who’ve been in the game long enough can reminisce about the hacks of yore, and it feels like a different world to the rest of us.

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to be reminded that in general, ‘too good to be true’ SEO tactics, tend to be either:

  • only impactful for a short time (until search engines ‘catch up’)
  • totally ineffective
  • or worst of all, susceptible to penalties.

You wouldn’t think twice about meaningfully anchoring an SEO roadmap around link directories, forum/comment linking, or half-baked robot-first content. Would you put domain acquisition in this bucket? You’d be wrong if you did.

Do any desk research into domain acquisition, and you’ll find forums awash with questions around purchasing keyword-specific or older domains, and pointing them to a primary or newer domain.

Did this ever work? I wouldn’t know, I never tried it. But it’s true that:

  • exact match domains (EMDs) would regularly over-achieve in Google’s search engine results (Matt Cutts, then of Google, was quoted as saying as much)
  • older domains or EMDs were perceived to gain traffic faster than generic or newer domains
  • older domains or EMDs were in high demand among webmasters looking to build microsites, with or without the express goal of redirecting to benefit a ‘master’ domain.

It’s also true that Google has since taken specific action to mitigate over-achieving exact-match domains, and they’re not fooled by fast and loose low-value link building obscured by 301 redirects.

There’s plenty more SEO folklore about the benefits of domain acquisition. This piece will go out on a limb and say it’s reductive to dismiss domain acquisition as an illegitimate strand of SEO strategy.

Five credible types of domain acquisition

It needs to be set down for the avoidance of all doubt: domain acquisitions may not always be effective. But as with most things in SEO, this can be on account of a number of overlooked tactical and technical details. It’s more complicated than a context-less quote from a Google employee may suggest.

Under the right circumstances, they can still be useful. But unlike times gone by, domain acquisitions take time. They require creative thinking, in-depth research, and a double dose of good tactical judgement.

We’ve identified five shades of the same basic domain acquisition tactics, and listed them below.

1 of 5: acquiring expired domains with legacy ‘authority’

Of the five types of acquisition, this is the least likely to be effective. When all is said and done, the value of acquiring a domain without intellectual property is in the links.

Pointing acquired domains to like-for-like portions of your site should pass on a portion of that link equity. Relevance is key here, as is the original worth of those links.

The greater the relevance, the greater the likelihood of meaningful value being passed from those legacy links.

Example scenario: a whisky retailer has a landing page for ‘scotch’. They identify that ‘scotchwhiskys.com’ is recently available, and has relevant, useful backlinks. They conduct due diligence, acquire the domain, and have it redirect to their scotch landing page. It’s quick, clean, and guarantees links will resolve on the target location. The alternative of conducting broken link outreach is more time consuming, and has a lower chance of implementation success.

Some points of caution: a tactic like this can give a site a jump-start, but once those links are gone, the value of the activity can diminish with them. Never be prepared to spend more on this kind of initiative than you would be prepared to treat as a sunk cost (for example to acquire a similar outcome through a Digital PR campaign).

It also follows that the longer a domain has been available for purchase, the less likely it is to still be receiving valuable editorial links.

Finally, Google themselves are a registrar, and so have information associated with domains. They can identify:

  • when ownership changes occur
  • if domains have ‘dropped’
  • and more importantly: whether the content significantly changed.

Which leads us nicely to our next acquisition type.

2 of 5: acquiring domains of relevant and recently defunct businesses

The principles of this are the same as the first type, but it represents a more specific & realisable opportunity.

Let’s be real; the chances of a relevant and useful domain being available when you want it are low. A more effective domain-only acquisition blueprint would involve having a reactive plan agreed in principle, costed, and ready to roll when opportunity knocks.

Any organisation that keeps a close eye on the competitive landscape is in a good position to acquire the domain of a failing or recently-defunct business, and redirect relevant pages to like-for-like portions of its site.

Example scenario: a new car marketplace is fighting for its first breaths. In the first few months of trading, a regional dealership chain folds. The marketplace conducts due diligence on the redundant site and finds it healthy with a like-for-like structure. They contact the owner, acquire the domain before it drops into an aftermarket, and redirect relevant portions to their own pages.

Again for avoidance of doubt:

  • the possible value in domain-only acquisitions can be found in the relevance and authority gained from its links
  • never spend more on a domain-only acquisition than you would be prepared to treat as a sunk-cost (for example, the cost of acquiring similar links through a digital PR campaign)
  • The practice of buying domains on account of keyword relevance is largely pointless.

Where the acquisition opportunity is an active and functioning site with intellectual property, the rules of thumb can be different.

The next three types of acquisition are varying tactics for taking advantage of the same basic assets.

3 of 5: acquiring technical disasters for ‘moating’

All SEOs have been there; in the course of competitor or keyword research, we encounter lesser known & poorly performing purple cows that are committing cardinal sins. Rich, unloved domains that we dream of being able to work on. Sites with fundamental errors such as:

  • no navigation from child pages
  • extensive robots.txt disallow
  • extensive internal link nofollows
  • extensive legacy noindexes in place
  • multiple versions of identical pages

If these unloved sites are easy to spot, and present themselves semi-regularly, consider the opportunity cost. Is there value in acquiring them, implementing basic technical SEO, and enjoying the value of shutting a competitor out of results pages (or ‘moating’ them) for relatively little effort?

The value in this type of acquisition is in having the discipline to limit scope-creep: knowing the value is in the ‘quick win’. As soon as resources are diverted into managing and maintaining other aspects of a second site, there’s an argument for stepping off and refocusing on a primary site.

Example scenario: an investments site already has extensive & high-performing information on cryptocurrency, but regularly comes across excellent, similar articles on a homemade blog with significant technical SEO mistakes. They conduct due diligence, find the site to be sound, and acquire it. They then implement basic technical SEO fixes (and possibly nofollowed banner advertising for their own site), and watch as a competitor is pushed from the SERPs for a range of valuable query groups.

4 of 5: acquiring active domains to repurpose intellectual property, then ‘moat’

A spin on the previous acquisition type, this reflects a domain acquisition where the primary site can directly benefit from the intellectual property.

Creating excellent content and tools, building a following (and the links that come with that) takes time and money. If a site has intellectual property that could be useful to you, it’s a target for acquisition. This applies in spades if that intellectual property is currently targeting a different but related audience.

The value of the acquisition should be weighed against the time and cost of creating similar content from scratch.

Scenario: picture bicycle manufacturer looking to support product-specific head terms by building out a long-tail of traffic for serendipitous modifiers. Here, an informational maintenance site struggling with its ad revenue model could have appeal.

This acquisition type arguably carries most potential for a marketplace business too.

Scenario: a gourmet foods marketplace wants to expand its search engine footprint without muddling its brand positioning. It acquires a budget foods marketplace, and they share listings – one serves product data geared more towards nutrition information, the other serves product data geared more towards cost information. The two share stock, but serve different audience needs via distinct brands. Thus, they legitimately fulfill diverse intent types with the same products.

Here’s Blue Array’s own Simon Schnieders illustrating the effectiveness of this technique for Zoopla with their acquisition of Prime Location and Homes24.

“The original plan was to redirect Prime Location to Zoopla, but we were prevented from doing this because of the perceived value of Prime Location’s premium brand among customers. We ultimately got duplicate product listings ranking on different domains by ‘shuffling the furniture’: listing the same products in a meaningfully different way.

With no need to stop there, we made a crawable white label for Homes24, and again ‘shuffled the furniture’ to good effect.

In a number of cases, the aggregated traffic of these ‘moated’ results was greater than or equal to what we would have achieved from occupying position #1 with a single domain. A search for ‘property for sale in Leeds’ still demonstrates this to good effect.”

5 of 5: acquiring active domains to ‘shear off’ authority

A final take on this type of acquisition sets aside the concept of ‘moating’, and involves acquiring a specific domain with valuable intellectual property (as set out previously), but with a view to shearing off some or all of its value. For the highest likelihood of success, this would be approached as a site migration and utilise redirects from the acquired domain to the parent one.

If there are stakeholder-orientated challenges with the notion of redirecting content, consider the second option of duplicating pages and adding a cross-domain canonical tag (à la syndicated content). A cross-domain canonical tag is almost always a backup option for SEO purposes given that it’s not a directive. The additional, theoretical ‘watch out’ for cross-domain canonical tags surrounds how Google may interpret the ambiguous editorial accountability for content: John Mueller has given us plenty to muse on the topic of what Google might evaluate as editorial integrity vs what it might evaluate as low-value ‘leasing’.

Making the right judgement

The domain acquisition types laid out in 3, 4 and 5 are different flavours of the same substance. There’s no way to shortcut which is the right one in any given circumstance. To make the best evaluation, detailed consideration needs to be given to whether a given asset should be:

  • left as is
  • left as is, but repurposed for the primary site according to the needs of a differing audience (without running the risk of IP theft).
  • kept on both sites with a cross-domain canonical from one to the other
  • migrated and 301 redirected.

There are merits and drawbacks to each of these, and the only way to decide on the right course of action in each case is to conduct a type of content gap analysis that factors in:

  • the volume of relevant content on the acquired domain
  • the actual traffic to relevant content on the primary and acquired domains
  • (or if this step is taking place pre-acquisition, the actual traffic of the primary domain, and the perceived traffic of the prospective acquisition according to a third party tool)
  • the importance of that content to the prosperity of each domain
  • the extent of target audience overlap between primary and acquired domain.

Technical considerations

Clearly the different acquisition types have unique SEO considerations, but they also have UX ones in common. For users specifically, think about the journey of visiting a legacy domain via a bookmarked page or an overlooked link. Unless pages on an acquired site are kept live for ‘moating’ purposes, the user will likely either:

  • land on an entirely new or unexpected site as a result of a redirect
  • get stopped dead by a 404 page
  • discover the ghostly remnant of an asset-stripped site.

These experiences are jarring, and risk of the user bouncing. Some bounce is inevitable, but it can be mitigated in collaboration with developers.

Work to equip the primary site with a small, unobtrusive banner that triggers when the referring URL is from an acquired domain. Experiment with gentle messaging to soften the blow, eg “we’ve evolved…”, “we’ve moved…”, “we can now be found at…” – etc.

Where redirects are used, but not site-wide, consider a custom 404 page for those that remain. Again, this page would contain gentle messaging explaining the change. Such a page can serve a 404 response, but then meta refresh after a short pause, redirecting to the home page of the primary domain. This should only be used on low-value pages that will otherwise be set aside and slowly drop out of Google’s index.

Still following? There’s a lot to take in here, but these points mostly boil down to tactical or technical detail. The key message so far is that there are many options for getting value from an acquired domain.

Arguably there are other, more significant health checks to carry out earlier in the domain acquisition process, and we’ll consider those now.

How to successfully vet opportunities

Six figure domain acquisitions happen for SEO purposes alone – and whether you’re spending hundreds or hundreds of thousands on your acquired domain, due diligence needs to take place.

There’s no substitute for a full site audit, but given that some level of redirection will likely take place post-acquisition, there’s value in paying close attention to five checks specifically.

The distribution of the backlink profile

It’s important to check how the most valuable links are distributed throughout the target domain. The target domain should have like-for-like sections, and the more directly these receive useful links, the more appealing the target domain is.

It’s also crucial to consider the overlap in valuable referring domains between the primary site, and the target for acquisition. If the most useful referring domains are overwhelmingly distinct, this is another vote in favour of the acquisition target. Conversely, if the two share a number of the best referring domains, the appeal diminishes substantially.

Perceived link ‘toxicity’

If your acquisition target was previously involved in illicit link-building, you’ll want to know about it. It can be incredibly hard to evaluate this objectively without insider knowledge, so consider seeking help from something like SEMRush’s toxic link scoring feature. Arguably this feature is overzealous in labelling links ‘toxic’ and recommending a disavow, but it’s a solid starting point for scoping what can be an arduous (but necessary) job.

Remember: Google’s John Mueller has said repeatedly that most ‘never need’ to use the disavow. The inference is that it’s best left as a belt-and-braces option for site owners to protect themselves against their personal spammy link building legacy.

The perceived trust-type link metrics

It’s not difficult to analyse a site’s useful, meaningful links, and industry-leading tools are invaluable for making a judgement on the likelihood of past spammy link-building. But for a credible view on how everything in between stacks up, there’s no substitute for cross-referencing a domain’s perceived trust-type metrics. Given all we have are third party approximations, there’s value in using as many as possible. We would typically use at least Majestic and Ahrefs’ evaluations as a minimum. Of course there are many, many more tool options in this space.

There’s an argument that what ‘good’ looks like is relative, but the object is to identify strikingly good and strikingly poor third party evaluations of an acquisition target.

Historic traffic patterns and events

Take the long-view of an acquisition target’s organic traffic. Naturally, this is with a view to pin-pointing sudden drops or meteoric rises in traffic, but it’s also a solid evidence base if it’s unclear whether an acquired site will be maintained for ‘moating’, or redirected to the primary domain. Considerations are:

  • is there a longstanding upward or downward trajectory?
  • can any peaks or troughs be attributed to significant algorithm updates: e.g. topics relating to thin content, spammy link-building, mobile friendliness, etc
    • can a webmaster at the acquisition target account for perceived dramatic changes?

If a target site’s Analytics views aren’t available, there’s value in cross-referencing two third party takes. SEMRush’s traffic trend report can be startling accurate at times, and should be measured up against something like Sistrix’s visibility index (which is agnostic of seasonality). Wayback machine continues to be invaluable for providing snapshots of sites before and after significant traffic events, and Moz’s history of major Google algorithm updates is possibly unrivalled for filtering and contextualising them.

Again, the object is to look for outliers that could be indicative of startling good or startlingly poor domain health.

How ‘futureproof’ is the high performing content?

Nobody can predict the future, but it is possible to make some logical, positive assumptions about future content performance based on what search engines aim to reward. To this end, Google’s quality rater guidelines are useful when not over-analysed. This topic could be an article in itself, but there are key considerations anyone can evaluate. In looking for symptoms of over-achievement, look at top-performing content and ask:

  • is it easy to envisage a better way of satisfying these query groups?
  • is the top-performing content authentically evergreen, or inherently time-bound (think Brexit, etc)
  • does the top-performing content demonstrate editorial integrity as part of a topically organised site, or is it user-generated content mixed amongst a mire of other clutter?

Again, not only is this an essential step in basic due-diligence, but it can help inform a judgement on redirection vs moating post-acquisition.

SEMRush is the preferred tool for this check.

Recognising snake oil when you see it

It’s frightening how often talented entrepreneurs are taken in by snake-oil salesmen offering domains at hugely inflated prices. Legitimate organisations make legitimate money brokering domains. Just look at GoDaddy. But advice on due diligence doubly applies when instigated off the back of outreach emails commonly peddling:

  • that competitors are bidding for a specific domain
  • urgency
  • barely relevant statistics around the monthly search volume for keywords in the domain name
  • statistics with unlinked or purposefully hard-to-trace sources
  • snapshots of low-context graphs (see real-life examples below).

For most people, these points are a warning that preaches to the converted. But for others, they are a crisis averted. There is little to no discernable advantage in acquiring a domain on the basis of a keyword match.

Carrying out a domain transaction

With the right tools, analysis for prospective domains is almost intuitive. One of the biggest barriers to first-time domain acquirers can be knowing how to physically manage the transaction.

Clearly, acquisition of a domain alongside an entire online business will feel very different to a transaction for an unregistered domain, but the same five overarching steps apply.

These five basic steps are:

  • first and last, conduct the due diligence outlined
  • establish a value based on
    • a credible third party domain-only valuation
    • the unique value to your specific SEO circumstances
      • remember – never spend more than would be appropriate to treat as a sunk cost (for example to achieve a similar outcome in a digital PR campaign)
  • attempt to contact the domain owner with a one-time offer
    • note – site owners may be less mercenary when dealing with an individual vs a faceless organisation, or an individual evidently acting on behalf of an organisation. Consider using a neutral email address throughout the process
  • where a domain owner’s contact details can’t be traced, approach a brokering service such as Go Daddy, or contact another individual decision maker associated with the site
  • protect the domain owner from ambiguity aversion, and show how services like Escrow can safeguard the transaction.

Post-acquisition: KPIs to consider

Picture the scene: a domain acquisition has gone through, and you’ve spent your budget in an unorthodox way. Expect additional scrutiny on ROI.

The output metrics should be clear: traffic (relevance is assumed) and, if appropriate, conversions.

But beneath that, there are a range of meaningful input metrics that ladder up those.

Improved domain ‘trust’ metrics

Domain trust/authority metrics are third party creations and not tied directly to real-time performance. That makes this a highly contentious suggestion. However, with most domain acquisition types utilising redirects, it’s easy to argue that improved ‘trust’ or ‘authority’ are the most appropriate input metrics available. For users of Majestic, a more balanced ratio of perceived ‘trust’ and ‘citation’ metrics could be appropriate.

With this particular input metric, it’s important not to be a slave to reporting. These metrics are not real time, so it’s more rational to take a longer view than it is to report on a weekly basis.

Yes, these metrics are fallible. But it’s precisely because of this that we report on a selection of them.

Increase in relevant average ranking position

For most domain acquisition types, look out for improvements in average ranking position. Crucially this could be across topics or pages that benefited from the acquisition (as opposed to individual relevant keywords, which can be volatile). Beyond this, it’s wise to be awake to second or third-order improvements in average ranking position – for example across topics or pages well linked-to from the primary ones.

New ranking keywords

We’ve mentioned that a type of content gap analysis is useful for understanding which flavour of domain acquisition is right for a target site. Achieving meaningful new visibility for queries in this gap represents a measurable success.

Improved referral traffic

For any domain acquisition initiative resulting in links, remember to look beyond organic traffic as an input metric. Especially for ‘moated’ sites, increased referral traffic can be a relevant and respected input metric.

Cost of achieving the same through digital PR

This is the final link-related input metric, and the final time we’ll say it: the cash value of a domain acquisition can be positioned in context of achieving the same outcomes through a recent digital PR initiative. If this frame is used to persuade stakeholders to stump up budget for an uncertain outcome, it’s only appropriate to measure the success of the initiative against the same yardstick.

Cost of achieving the same through paid search

Because paid search is such a trackable performance channel, it’s often a sensible proxy for ‘good’. The paid search costs for increased traffic (calculated from uplift on account of increased average ranking positions or new ranking keywords) are just as relevant an input metric here as they are for any SEO initiative.

Summary

So that’s it. Six key things to take away:

  1. Domain acquisition doesn’t necessarily have to involve traditional redirection – acquisition for ‘moating’ (occupying more real estate in SERPs with separate domains) can be lucrative.
  2. There are several shades of the same basic types of domain acquisition, and all can be valuable in the right circumstances.
  3. Some careful acts of due diligence will help identify suitable acquisition targets, as well as what to do with them.
  4. Domain acquisition is not conceptually difficult.
  5. Like a good digital PR campaign, don’t spend more on a domain acquisition than you’d be willing to treat as a sunk cost.
  6. Domain acquisition is unorthodox, but it’s also logical and rational. It can be measured.

SEO Manager Ben is a career marketer with a near-obstinate belief that bullet-proof operations are the backbone of organic search success. He's particularly interested in the characteristics of high performing teams, and has previously helped two large generalist marketing departments establish and embed specialist functions and processes.

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