Having invested significant time and financial resource buying an internet business, you now face the exciting prospect of cementing your online strategy. Following the ups and downs of deal execution and transfer, some buyers experience post-deal ‘blues’ and the penny suddenly drops – “what happens after I buy an online business?”
At FE International, we are often asked this question and our advice differs on a case by case basis, every internet business is unique and unless you have an agile methodology in place, strategizing and planning can become an arduous and ineffective task. To this effect, we have put together a step by step approach that any new website owner should look to follow.
1. First Steps
Unsurprisingly, we often come across buyers who are eager to rush straight into growth planning. Before doing so however, we would encourage you to spend some time reflecting on any key findings noted over the course of due diligence, Q&A sessions and transfer/inspection. Some examples include, installing Google Analytics correctly, optimizing ad placements etc. You have designated time set aside with the previous owner during the training period, it is important that you use this in the most effective way.
For the first 5-10 days you should be working closely with the seller to pinpoint and implement any pre-existing or newly discovered quick-wins. Most of these are likely to have been put on the back burner for some time; the seller is well-positioned to help you execute these and it is a great opportunity to learn more about the business. Be proactive and prepare a draft list of quick-wins for discussion, in advance of your first training call. Common quick-wins are usually concerned with general site management, rather than SEO or conversion rate optimization (CRO) specifics. We have outlined some examples below:
1.1 Installing Webmaster and Google Analytics Tools Correctly.
Google Analytics is an industry standard tool and will help you analyse site traffic as well as providing a detailed picture of your audience and their behavior. For numerous reasons, Google Analytics is often not installed as it should be. Take some time to setup the web tracking code correctly, so you have full confidence in the data that is being presented.
1.2 Fix Any Site Redirects (e.g. 302s, 307s and 404s).
If a related domain name was part of the internet business acquisition, you may wish to implement a site redirect. Equally, a site redirect may have been setup during transfer. Either way, make sure that there are no redirect issues on-site, which may be hindering traffic.
1.3 Ensure AdSense and Google Analytics Accounts are Correctly Linked.
If your internet business generates revenue from Google AdSense, you would have replaced all AdSense codes during transfer. Now is a good time to ensure that you have correctly linked AdSense to your Google Analytics (see how to add Google AdSense). It is also worth checking that the site is still operating within Google’s TOCs.
1.4 Check for Technical Issues in Google’s Webmaster Tools.
One of the first items to check is whether or not the site has any live technical issues that may be reducing site performance or traffic acquisition. Over the transfer period, it is not uncommon for minor issues to crop up. Use Google Webmaster Tools to diagnose site errors.
1.5 Optimize Ad Placements.
If you are savvy, you should look to spend some time reviewing current ad slots and placements. The previous owner may have been less accustomed to CRO – review ad sizes, placements and overall coverage. There are plenty of optimization tips that are straightforward to implement.
1.6 Reduce/Eliminate any Penalty Risk.
All sites should be analysed and cleared of any potential, impending Google penalty risk, to avoid any negative impact on traffic. If you have any reason to suspect that the site may have been recently penalized, consider following the steps below:
- Remove thin content that is unrelated to the site’s main purpose (“linkbait”).
- Reduce keyword cannibalization (“keyword stuffing”) on page content.
- Correct all on-site grammatical errors/spelling mistakes.
- Merge any duplicate content, product descriptions etc.
- Review and test the content for plagiarism (use CopyScape).
The above are just some examples of quick-wins, the list is by no means exhaustive. Before moving on, ensure that all quick-wins have been successfully implemented.
There is little point in making any fundamental changes to the internet business you have acquired, until you have a firm grip on how the site fits together, from a technical and commercial perspective.
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It’s time to dig a little deeper into the site and conduct some value-add analysis. We recommend conducting a full website audit, to provide critical insight into your online businesses’ historic and current performance.
A website audit can serve multiple purposes, depending on context and application. For you, it is a key step in understanding the current state of your business and it will help in pinpointing opportunities for improvement, through answering some of the following key questions:
Site Audit Insight:
- Is the site’s audience actively engaged?
- Is the site’s conversion funnel optimized in the best possible way?
- How are visitors interacting with the site and content, what are their main challenges?
- What needs to be done to increase the site’s visibility in search?
- In what ways can user experience be improved?
- Is site content keyword optimized?
- What new content should be added to the site’s content plan?
- Does the site need to be mobile optimized?
- Does the site’s backlink profile contain spammy links?
- Would the site be better served on a Content Delivery Network (CDN)?
To ensure that nothing is overlooked, we recommend splitting the site audit down into the website’s constituent parts. Whilst each website will differ, the fundamental premise of a website audit remains the same, regardless of the underlying business model / niche. We recommend that you include the following in your website audit – we have already covered the ‘First Steps’ above:
Conducting a Site Audit
A site audit is about analyzing data to determine improvements. Once you have uncovered all areas requiring attention, it is much easier to prioritize and put together an actionable plan that can be implemented.
Be mindful of your audience as you run through the audit process; search engines and robots (“spiders”) and customers, prospective clients (“people”) both need equal consideration. In order to attract people, you first need to attract spiders. Placing higher weighting on one over the other may result in skewed audit results and an ineffective course of action.
Most successful internet businesses are mechanically sound, rarely affected by down-time or any indexing issues. The technical audit is therefore the natural place to start. In order to keep the technical audit as readily accessible to buyers as possible, we have summarized the key areas that require a deep dive.
2. Technical Audit
By their very nature, technical audits are prone to rapid change. A few years ago, there was barely a requirement for mobile optimization. Fast forward and it is more important than ever, with research indicating that 57% of mobile users abandon a purchase, if a site takes more than 3 seconds to load.
To begin with, it is important to understand a bit about your website’s underlying technology, Built With provides a useful framework for this and indicates any issues being caused by software/platforms in place.
2.1 Site Speed
Visitors tend to have fairly limited patience when it comes to waiting for a site to load. Aberdeen Group found that a 1-second delay can yield a 7% loss in conversions. With a growing number of internet resources at their fingertips, users don’t need to be loyal.
But it’s not just users that require optimal site speed, spiders or web crawlers also have limited time to evaluate a site. Google have started to include site speed as a highly-weighted signal in their search ranking algorithms. As a consequence, sites that are quicker tend to be viewed more thoroughly and more consistently.
To get a sense of your site’s speed, try conducting a website performance test, to see whether load times require improvement. It is also worth checking your competitors’ website’s speed, using Web Page Test. If your pages are taking more time to load relative to competition, there are numerous things you can do to increase slow load time. For example, try using a caching plug-in or switching to a reputable Content Delivery Network (CDN) to reduce any rendering/latency. Reducing the number of files that need to be loaded will reduce the number of HTTP requests, speeding the site up.
2.2 Search Visibility
If search engines cannot crawl your site, even the most engaging content is likely to sit idle and remain unranked. Fundamentally, the more pages that your site has indexed the higher potential the site has in terms of traffic and page ranking. It is widely accepted that companies with more indexed pages have higher lead generation potential.
Many accessibility issues experienced by ‘spiders’ are derived from a site’s ability to index. You can quickly test the ratio of your site’s indexed/non-indexed pages by doing a search. Note the number of pages that are returned. If you find that 80% of all site pages are unindexed, there could be a numerous factors at play. This is our preferred technique for getting to the root-cause, quickly:
- Log into Google Webmaster tools and navigate to ‘Health – Crawl Errors Report’.
- Load Robots Checker – this will indicate whether you have unintentionally blocked any pages from being crawled. It is important that each page on a site uses a robots Meta tag, this tells the search engine spiders to index a particular page.
- Ensure that the internal linking structure of your site enables each page to be found. Xenu’s Link Sleuth will uncover any holes in your internal link structure that may be prohibiting indexation.
When you are comfortable that you have found the right solution, compare the number of page results to the number of pages tracking within Google Webmaster Tools and follow up with an ‘Index Status Report’.
2.3 Mobile Optimization
With one-quarter of global web searches conducted on a mobile device, mobile optimization has become increasingly important in recent years. Over 45% of Fortune 100 businesses now have a dedicated mobile site. Not only do consumers expect an engaging, mobile-centric user experience, they content to be readily digestible.
There are also benefits to be had for website owners; mobile users are reportedly more impulsive and often spend more money and mobile optimization has become a growing priority for web spiders. With Google launching their mobile-friendly algorithm in 2015, mobile-friendly sites will begin to rank more highly. It is important therefore that you consider how best to capitalize on mobile and shift towards becoming ‘mobile-friendly’, Google provides some guidelines on this.
Whilst mobile optimization is attractive, it is not a short-term fix and needs to be considered in light of other, often more pressing opportunities. Mobile optimization is unlikely to be the ‘silver bullet’, but is an important weapon in your armoury, particularly when 90% of mobile searches result in action.
To begin with, understand the extent to which your site is already mobile-optimized/mobile friendly. Tools such as Google’s mobile-friendly test are helpful as are mobile usability reports available in Google Webmaster Tools. These will indicate any major mobile usability issues prevalent across the site.
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3. SEO Audit
Conducting an SEO audit is pivotal, content is king in today’s marketing world, as competition for customers continues to get even tougher. There are numerous approaches for completing an SEO audit, all serving different purposes. As they can be immensely time consuming, we have detailed some of the key steps to follow. We have split the audit into two sections – ‘technical’ and ‘non-technical’. Both overlap and are just as important as each other, requiring the same level of attention throughout.
Again, an SEO audit is not about collating reams of incomprehensible performance data, it is about making informed decisions. Unfortunately though, before any decisions can be made, the site needs to be crawled. There are plenty of tools out there to help with this, Screaming Frog is particularly good. We would advise carrying out the non-technical audit first, much of this task is concerned with prioritizing and reducing underperforming on-site content. Doing so, will reduce the scope of the technical audit, making it more manageable.
3.1 Non-technical SEO Audit
Conducting an on-page SEO audit is critical, particularly when having acquired a website. It is likely that the site has been neglected for a number of months, content and on-page SEO may be fundamentally outdated and will probably require some re-invigoration.
Before diving into the analysis, it is useful to have done some basic keyword research, perhaps building on work already conducted by the previous owner. If this is new to you, it can be a tad complicated at first, but it can be done in less than 90 minutes. Start by creating a basic keyword matrix (list of target keywords vs. page titles) in excel, this will become a good reference point for subsequent optimization.
You should now be ready to concentrate on raw content and performance metrics, looking specifically at the value currently being driven to your audience. The fundamental aim here is to replace underperforming, unengaging content with content that is pertinent, relevant and of high performance potential.
In order to access content in a digestible manner, you can either use Google’s cached copy of the page (text-only) or trial a simple tool called Browseo.
At this stage, it is worth mentioning that the level to which you assess content will very much depend on the number of indexed pages on your site. Always try and apply the 80/20 rule where possible, to make the task more manageable and ultimately more effective. For example, if your site has over 10,000 indexed pages and you have limited time/resource available, you should focus on the top 20% of pages (in terms of performance), spending less time analyzing pages that provide less value to your audience.
As a general rule of thumb, when analyzing each page you should aim to review and evaluate the following performance indicators
- Page views – rising, steady or declining?
- Unique visitors – rising, steady or declining?
- Word count – is the piece of content too thin or too long?
- Bounce rate – how many visitors instantly click-off?
- Links – how authoritative is the piece?
- Social shares – does the content have good social signals?
Carrying out the above should give you a good indication of how well a particular page is performing from a quantitative perspective, relative to other pages. Once complete, then look to assess the content from a more subjective standpoint:
- Is the page valuable to the specific site audience?
- Is the piece well-written?
- Does the content target industry keywords well?
Once your page analysis is complete, you should be well-positioned to evaluate the best course of action for the page / content:
- ‘Remove’: Generally speaking, you could look to remove content if it hasn’t performed well to date (no links, no social signals etc.), a re-write is unlikely to yield any performance improvement and the title is not a strategic priority, from an SEO perspective.
- ‘Improve’: Page content should be improved if it is popular (number of page views, low bounce rate) but there is opportunity to improve CRO and/or it is a strategic keyword priority.
- ‘Leave’: If the page is extremely popular, well-optimized and converts, then leave it. Use it as best-practice for any subsequent posts.
Once you have decided on the pages that wish to retain or improve, try mapping your target keywords to each. If high-performing keywords have not been mapped to a specific page on-site, then prioritize topics/ideas around these to be fed into your content strategy/plan, going forwards.
3.2 Technical SEO Audit
Once you have conducted all non-technical SEO, you need to ensure that each page is robust from a technical SEO perspective. If you don’t, you stand to lose traffic and potential business. With so much effort going into content development, it is critical that just as much time is spent ensuring that people see it. We have reviewed numerous on-page optimization checklists and put together our own as a useful starting point:
3.2.1 Ensure Title Tags are Optimized
- Title tags are used on search engine result pages (seen as “snippets”). It is important that they are concise, relevant and easy to digest, so that users make the decision to click on a search result.
- Google usually displays the first 50-60 characters of the title tag – ensure that your primary keyword is included within the snippet.
- It is key that you learn more about optimizing your titles and stick with a specific method, when optimizing your site. There are plenty of tips around using pipe symbols for example, which help with snippet aesthetics.
3.2.2 Ensure Internal Link Structure Provides Optimal Navigation
- The internal link structure of your website is important for on-site navigation and usability, it also has a direct impact on “page rank”.
- A good rule of thumb is that your site’s ‘click depth’ or number of times a user has to click on a link to get to the desired page, should be no more than three.
- You can use a tool like Internal Link Analyzer to determine the number of internal links on your site, as well as identifying duplicate links and so on.
- Ensure that anchor text used on-site is named correctly, includes target keywords and that the links function. This is particularly important if you plan on removing content from elsewhere on the site.
- There are plenty of resources available, which explain how to use anchor text in backlinks.
3.2.3 Improve Backlink Profile
- Top SEO experts believe that external links are the most important source of ranking power, therefore, you should learn how external links help SEO and get to grips with using a tool called ahrefs.
- In essence, unlike internal links, external links have “link juice”/credibility from an SEO perspective. Obtaining links does not happen overnight and directly requesting links has a low, 5% rate of return.
- It is just as important to identify bad links and disavow them/request their removal. If stuck, always refer to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
- At this stage, ensure that all high-quality external links are working correctly and seek to develop your link building strategy, overtime. This should not be rushed into.
- There are plenty of resources available, which explain how to turn broken links into powerful links.
3.2.4 Submit Quality Sitemaps
- XML Sitemaps are a very easy way to help ensure that search engines are able to find your pages and content.
- Research conducted indicates that submitting a thorough XML Sitemap can push indexation levels from 24% to 68%, directly increasing traffic to your site.
- Nowadays, you can often enable/submit an XML Sitemap using your dedicated CMS platform or via an available sitemap plugin (if using WordPress, for example).
- Make sure that sitemaps include all new links and don’t include any broken links, XML Sitemap Validator is a useful tool for this.
- Ensure that the sitemap dynamic, so it can be updated routinely and automatically.
3.2.5 Ensure Meta Titles/Descriptions are Optimized
- According to Moz, the Meta Tag is the most important element for on-site SEO, so take some time to learn to craft better Meta descriptions.
- The precise wording and structure used in Meta titles/descriptions will impact clicks and visits to your site.
- Use keywords intelligently, use a title that will engage the audience, keep it short and relevant (Meta descriptions should be <90 characters).
- The production of great visual content is increasingly important and search engines factor the optimization of images when determining page rankings.
- Ensure that you optimize the image file name with your primary keyword and that the image has a caption and surrounding text.
4. CRO Audit
In essence, CRO is about maximizing the percentage of users that complete a desired action. Research has found that a 20% increase in decision simplicity often results in an 86% increase in the likelihood of purchase. To do so, CRO experts look to improve a website or landing page with the aim of creating a more effective experience for the end user.
Having already conducted some analysis around the performance of site content, mobile optimization, click depth and the site’s overall architecture, you should have a good idea as to the state of CRO. Nevertheless, it is important to conduct a full CRO review to lay the foundation for ongoing optimization.
4.1 Calculating Conversion Rate
Every website owner should have a specific goal in mind for their site, which will differ depending on the specific business model in question. For example, an e-commerce site exists to sell products, a lead generation site exists to collate data for resale and an advertising site exists to generate revenue through click-throughs. Before you start, it is imperative that you determine your website’s current success rate against its primary goal. In order to do so, web masters look to their conversion rate, a key metric.
There are different ways of defining and calculating the conversion rate, it is important to stick to one method. At this stage, you are simply looking to determine a site benchmark that can be tracked during split-testing (covered later) to measure any improvement (or decline) overtime. We recommend determining your conversion rate for key category, product, landing as well as high-volume traffic pages. The formula is outlined below:
Once you have calculated your conversion rate, you will probably be wondering what it tells you, what is a good conversion rate?
There has been plenty written on the subject and it very much depends on the specific niche and business model. For example, research by Marketing Sherpa found that retail/e-commerce sites achieved a 3% conversion rate, whilst media sites routinely aim for and achieve 10%. It is generally accepted that conversion rates should fall somewhere between 2-15%. Try not to compare your conversion rate to other sites or industries, the key is to focus on your own site and lift the conversion rate from what it is today.
4.2 Benefits of Conversion Rate Optimisation
- Reduced cost-per-acquisition (CPA) = more money for re-investment.
- More value driven to affiliates = higher bargaining power on commission rate.
- More sales = higher revenue and more bargaining power with suppliers.
- More engaged customers = positive ranking signals picked up by search engines.
- Stronger brand = able to push ahead of competition.
- Happier customers = increase in Lifetime Customer Value (LCV).
4.3 Conversion Funnel Optimization
If you suspect that your conversion rate is lower than it should be, it is important to define a goal or target. For example, if you sell t-shirts, the goal may be to double t-shirt sales in 12 months. In order to do so, you will need to start by understanding the current process or ‘conversion funnel’ for your website.
How do visitors to the site go about purchasing a t-shirt?
If you want to physically map the process, Cacoo is a user-friendly tool, allowing you to create flowcharts and mind maps. Try imitating the customer yourself, running through the process from landing on the site to buying a product / clicking through to a specific advert:
- How easy was it to perform the end goal?
- What obstacles got in the way?
- Was the experience enjoyable?
- How could it be improved?
In order to understand the customer journey in-depth, there are a number of tools that can help. Crazy Egg is highly regarded, showing you exactly where people click on your website. Similarly, Click Tale is useful for creating videos of user interactions as well as heat maps. Having mapped out the various customer journeys, ideas for improvement will begin to flow. As optimizing your website’s conversion funnel is so critical, there are plenty of resources and tips available to help with the brainstorming process.
4.4 A/B Testing
Once you have determined any holes/weaknesses in the conversion funnel, you will need to find solutions for each. One of the most effective ways of doing so, is to follow a hypothesis-based testing method, A/B testing. A healthy hypothesis will have three key characteristics:
- It can be tested
- It is goal orientated
- It gives insights, no matter how the test ends.
It is wise to learn how to create effective A/B testing plans before starting. Split-testing is critical to improving your conversion rate, so review the current literature. It may be tempting to test everything at once, but this would be counter-productive. Aim to prioritise tests and ensure that they remain mutually exclusive. Don’t expect every test to result in a significant conversion rate uplift, only one out of eight A/B tests drive a significant increase.
Remember that CRO isn’t a fast or cheap task – just because a particular CRO strategy worked for another website, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work for you. Make sure you stick to what the key performance indicators (KPIs) are telling you, instead of becoming too attached to any theoretical ideas that are not supported by quantitative data.
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Whilst taking time to conduct the more site specific audits outlined above, it would be easy to forget some of the most important external factors that play a part in achieving optimal business performance. It is rare that an internet business exists in complete isolation.
In fact, many internet businesses rely on key partnerships, whether the website is advertising, affiliate or e-commerce focused. The likelihood is that the previous owner forged relationships early on in the development of the business and made decisions that continue to have an impact today. Consequently, the commercial audit is about understanding key decisions (often in the form of agreements), pinpointing opportunities to improve upon them in order to strengthen the bottom-line of the business. We have split this particular section out by business model:
If a significant portion of your site’s revenue is generated through advertising, it is worth reviewing the proportion of direct and targeted ads on-site. It may well be that the previous owner did not maximise the site in terms of revenue yield. By switching ad networks or moving to direct advertising, you could see a considerable uplift in revenues and net income.
5.1.1 CPM Networks
CPM stands for “cost per thousand”, CPM networks pay web owners for displaying an advert (impression) 1,000 times. The CPM rates that networks offer are usually fixed but tend to vary across the market. If your site is yielding high traffic, then a CPM network may be the right option for the website. There are a host of different CPM networks out there, Tribal Fusion have historically paid the highest rates, but it is important to review each in turn. If your current rates are sub-optimal, consider negotiating or switching to another provider.
5.1.2 Direct Advertising
If your site has a niche specific audience and reasonable traffic, you may be debating a shift to selling advertising directly. After all, with advertising networks out of the question, you stand to make significantly more revenue. It is worth determining the relative upside of forging direct advertising relationships. Take into account the value of your time – you will need to conduct contract negotiation and build advertising relationships etc. Overall, if your site is relatively small, the upside is unlikely to be worth it. Nevertheless, the opportunity should still be explored.
5.2 Affiliate Marketing
If your site is focused on affiliate marketing, you are probably promoting a product or service on your site, via an affiliate program. Whilst affiliate marketing is generally quite a passive monetisation model, you should carry out some research to ensure that you are getting the most out of it.
5.2.1 Review Affiliate Program
As part of the handover, you should have been given the direct contact details of the site’s affiliate manager, it is worth contacting them to introduce yourself as the new owner of the site. Find out more about the affiliate program and determine compensation structures based on performance. There are numerous ways of assessing an affiliate program and you shouldn’t assume that the current program is the best or right path for the business. You should be using an affiliate program that is fundamentally linked to your audience category to yield a strong CTR with the aim of increasing affiliate sales, overtime.
When reviewing your affiliate network, look at merchant specific conversion rates, threshold for payment and payment frequency, this will help you determine whether or not it is worth negotiating commission percentages or moving networks/programs entirely. If you chose to move networks, consider each in turn – Commission Junction is particularly reputable. If your site is focused on digital products, ClickBank and e-Junkie are the biggest networks in the market. We have seen plenty of clients moving to these affiliate networks.
5.3 E-commerce / Drop-ship
If you have acquired an e-commerce website or drop-ship business, spend some time reviewing current setups and agreements. We often see buyers making significant cost-savings and generating a stronger bottom-line in a relatively short period of time, through doing so.
5.3.1 Review Merchant Account Fees
To begin with, have a look into how much you are paying your current merchant processor. Generally speaking, fees of 2-3% are relatively standard. Nevertheless, there are certainly better deals to be had, if you are savvy and conduct some research. There are a few different ways to lower fees. If you consistently generate high sales volumes or you have experienced high growth, negotiating directly with the merchant processor is not out of the question. If you use a PayPal Merchant account, you can lower fees by as much as 0.7% if you process enough volume or have lots of micropayments.
5.3.2 Review Warehousing Costs
Often, warehousing represents a significant, if not the largest proportion of expenses for e-commerce businesses. Warehousing directly reduces the bottom line of your business, take some time to review your current warehousing setup and any agreements that are currently in place, to ensure that you are getting the best possible deal.
There are a number of different ways to reduce warehousing costs. You could consider conducting a warehousing audit, but this is likely to be very time-consuming. Instead, ensure that you are using space as efficiently as possible. If you have a low number of SKUs with a relatively fast turnaround, you may be making inefficient use of space which will translate into increased costs that are fundamentally not required.
When reviewing warehousing and vendor costs, don’t forget to consider the option of moving to a drop-ship model in the medium term. Running an e-commerce business is often more profitable and easier to manage when you don’t need to deal with the movement of physical products and distribution. In fact, drop-shipping businesses have been known to earn 5.18% more profit than their warehousing counterparts. Ship Wire take care of warehousing and fulfilment, this may be the right option for you.
It doesn’t really matter what type of internet business you have acquired in terms of business model or niche, a full website audit is a great initial step to take, following acquisition. By the end of the exercise outlined above, you should have got to grips with the inner workings of your online business, embedded some quick-wins and have documented an extensive list of ideas for how to take the business forward. The next step is concerned with bringing it all together, prioritizing the output and shaping a coherent, robust and actionable plan for implementation. We will be covering this in our next post, using a case study approach to bring the subject to life and unlock the true value of following the methodology outlined above.
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