How to buy websites using cold email

A look at how I find and outreach abandoned projects with a lot of potential, authority and links.


Despite being pretty active since 2006 in acquiring and selling websites and apps, I’ve haven't actually used a marketplace to buy a site for at least 10 years.

The best deals I’ve ever done have come from manually searching for under-monetised or abandoned projects and cold emailing the webmasters. Hat tip to Scott Jones who was very much the pioneer of finding sites like this.

The idea was that these hidden treasures could become a much bigger pot of gold. By developing the site and giving it the care it needed, the authority, age, and backlinks would deliver huge growth just by having a modern design, adding content and doing basic on-site SEO.

Here’s an example of a site bought for $2k and the growth it’s had with a redesign and programmatic SEO content:

The new site was originally launched in late August 2020, and you can see how quickly it took off from there. The peaks and troughs are because it’s a very seasonal niche!

Finding the needle in a haystack

When I first started out, I would search Google for specific terms that webmasters put on their site when they are done with a project. This is the exact approach Scott was using back in 2007!

You can also combine these with specific topics or niches you’re interested in, or search for last updated dates. For example:

Looking at just those two examples, one site stands out to me as having potential: exoticrainforest.com. It hasn’t been updated since 2011 according to the site, and ranks for some pretty obscure plant names like “Philodendron warszewiczii”.

It looks like it’s owned by a botanical garden in Arkansas, so they probably wouldn’t sell, but I never let that stop me. Email as many sites as you can, as often as you can. You never know who might be retiring or looking to move onto something else.

For this site, you could revamp it as a blog and sell info products teaching people how to grow and care for their own tropical plants.

The problem is that these types of searches have been common for a long time, so now even more than ever you’ll need to think outside the box to make it worthwhile.

Luckily, there are lots of ways to use the new technology available to find sites that aren’t updated and could be acquired. Here’s one example to give you an idea.

BuiltWith lets you find sites built with specific technologies. What if we used it to find sites that were still running a really old version of WordPress? Here are some sites BuiltWith thinks are running WP 3.4 (from June 2012):

The third site in that list, backyardaquaponics.com, has a 2012 date in the footer. The SEO performance has declined massively in that time, but it has a solid backlink profile and could be turned around:

Another one is theofficelife.com, which is a business blog last updated in 2015. The pattern is the same, everything is trending downwards but there is the potential to relaunch this site and piggy back the age and authority into something great.

They also have an info product you could try to acquire as part of the site to improve, market, and sell to the audience.

I haven't done this type of outreaching for a couple of years (which is why I'm now comfortable sharing) because I no longer need to.

I spend my days randomly diving into weird and wonderful niches, looking at competing domains of them in Ahrefs and SEMrush, and I find so many interesting opportunities by going down those rabbit holes.

Searching for contact info

Once you have a list of interesting sites you want to contact, you need to get your Sherlock Holmes on and find their contact details.

This can sometimes be a challenge as webmasters don’t always make it easy to find them. Here’s a list of typical places and ways you can find them:

  • Site footer, contact page, about me page
  • Privacy policy or terms page
  • Whois lookup
  • If there is a name on the site, search Google to try and find other sites they own (that may have contact info on)
  • Same as above but for author photo
  • Same as above but look for posts from the author on forums, social media sites, etc)
  • Find other sites they have by running a reverse Analytics/AdSense search with DNSlytics
  • Check social links from the site (do they accept DMs? Who do they follow? Who follows them?)
  • Put the URLs in Buzzstream and let it find contacts for you
  • Check backlinks in Ahrefs or SEMrush to see if they have links from an owner blog or other sites
  • If the site is on WordPress, add /wp-json/wp/v2/users. to the end of the home page URL and see if you can find an owner name (use JSON Formatter to make it legible)

Like everything I do, you need to think differently and persevere. The thrill of chasing and finding contact info is really fun. I’ve called random numbers, emailed business partners and spouses of the target webmaster, anything to try and get hold of the right person.

Getting webmasters to respond

Once you have some contact info to work from, it’s time to start the actual outreaching.

There’s nothing hugely innovative about my process. It’s really a game of cat and mouse. Send a lot of emails, get a lot of rejections, and you’ll start to understand what works and what doesn’t.

You may send 100 emails and get 1-2 replies and you’ll get a lot of rejections or people looking for $1m+. The more you do it, the more you’ll get a feel for what works for you.

Here are some of my best tips for getting webmasters to answer and reply to your emails.

Test your subject lines

Cold outreach is no different to email marketing. You want them to open the emails, so you need a good subject line that makes them want to read and see what you have to say.

The trick is to keep it short, catch their attention enough that they open the email, and not look spammy.

For example, if you mention the site name, don’t use the URL. “coolproject.com” in the subject doesn’t look as natural as “Cool Project”.

You can use some of the examples below to riff on and create your own unique subjects:

  • {Site name} question
  • Question about your site
  • Question about {site name}
  • Is {site name} still active?
  • Broken link on {site name}
  • 404 error
  • Site not working?
  • Site for sale?
  • {Site name} for sale?
  • I want to buy your site
  • I want to buy {site name}

Don’t just take these and use them verbatim. The whole point is to NOT do what everyone else is doing. Try to stand out and do things your own way.

Overcome objections

Anybody who has done sales knows that if you want people to take action, you need to be able to overcome any barriers or objections. If the site is very old, it’s very likely to be a labour of love for them and there may be obstacles to overcome.

Some common objections you might experience:

  • Email accounts. A lot of people have email tied to the domain name which is used for many things. If you can preempt that and offer them the ability to keep it for however long they need it, you’re more likely to do a deal.
  • Keeping the content free. These webmasters have probably spent many hours creating the content with no expectation of money. You can assure them that you plan to keep the existing content freely and publicly available.
  • Still wanting to contribute. Many webmasters don’t have the time to operate the site, but do still want to be involved and contribute. You can overcome this by offering to pay them to create new content. In my experience, any contributions are short lived, but it’s a subject matter expert to create content for you!
  • Maintaining the site for the long term. Most site owners won’t just hand over the keys unless they trust that you have the best interest of their site at heart. I overcome this fear that the site could be deleted or quickly sold on by showing them examples of previous projects I’ve acquired and revamped. I’ve also provided references of others I've bought from.

Obviously you can’t cover all of these in a short and sweet email, but if you’re able to get a back and forth going with the seller, you can explain more about your plan for the site.

Make it personal

Most spammy outreach is obviously, blatantly, templated. I used to use Buzzstream and send very simple, non-personal template emails. It kinda worked, but the reply rate was awful. Now I write each email uniquely and tailor it to the person I’m emailing:

  • Mention their name and site name
  • Pick something unique about their site that I like
  • Briefly give example of a similar project I’ve acquired
  • Try to be “likeable”

Often I’ll put an offer amount in the first email just based on what I predict the site might be worth using tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush.

If you do this, make sure you don’t low ball because that could disqualify you right off the bat. I try to do some simple math on these and offer about 12x their monthly earnings on a $5 RPM.

So, if I think the site might be getting 30k visitors a month, I’ll start my offer at around $1,800. This is totally flexible too, so if I know that the niche will likely have a $10 RPM, I’ll offer $3-4k.

The most I ever paid was 83x for a site making $600 a month, because I knew it had huge potential. A year later, and it’s making 10x what it was when I acquired it!

Following up

Perhaps the most important step in this whole thing is chasing your leads and checking back in with them.

There’s a fine line between following up and being very annoying. Luckily, most webmasters that I email are not savvy internet people and don’t get salty like your average journalist might.

The vast majority of people will not respond to you after one email. There’s too many spammy SEO agency emails flying around and your email will likely be considered the same.

By following up 2-3 more times over the following weeks, I increase my reply rate by 5x. Generally, I follow a schedule something like:

  • 1 week later: “Hi John, just following up to see if you received my email last week? I’m really interested to buy Cool Project so please do let me know if you’d be open to it!”
  • 2 weeks later: “Hey John, I know you’re probably very busy so I won’t continue to bother you. If you do decide to sell Cool Project I’d be willing to pay around 3-4x your annual earnings for it. Let me know either way!”
  • 4 weeks later (optional): “Hi John, I haven’t been able to find anything nearly as good as Cool Project, so I’d like to offer you $5k for the site in cash. If you’d be willing to sell for that price, please let me know!”

It’s important to note that these snippets are all just examples. I don’t follow a set formula and try different things all the time depending on who the person is.

If I don’t have much information about them, it’s more basic, but I’ve written much longer emails to people where I think a more honest approach will work better.

For the last email, if I do decide to send it, I go in hard with the absolute highest price I’d be willing to pay just to see if I can grab their attention with cold, hard $$$.

Handling “no”

You might think that once you get a reply that you’ve got one foot in the door, but 9 times out of 10, the reply will be some form of “no”. There can be many reasons for this:

  • I want $1m cash!
  • I’m not selling ever, ever, ever
  • I still have plans for the site, just been busy, etc

For the first two, I just reply saying “thanks for getting back to me, if you ever change your mind please let me know”. They’re never gonna sell so don’t waste any more time on it.

It’s this last group of people that are most interesting. A lot of times, they want to work on the site but life just gets in the way. They think it still has potential, but in my experience they almost never do go back to them.

I’m very patient and will follow up with people every 6-12 months just to see how they are, how the site is, and whether their situation has changed.

I’ve bought two sites in the last 6 months that I’d been chasing for years. The first one I’d been trying to acquire since February 2018 and the second one since October 2019.

You never know when or how people’s situation will change, so it’s worth checking in on them as you would with an old friend.

Putting it all together

As you can see, my process is very simple and just follows best practices when doing any kind of email marketing, link building, or cold outreach.

I’m not an expert at this I’m just very determined and very patient. I get enjoyment from finding projects for sale that will never, ever, be listed on a marketplace and growing them into something amazing.

Here’s a very rough example of the type of email I might send to try and acquire a project:

Subject: Is Cool Project still active?

Hey John, I found Cool Project recently and saw it hadn’t been updated since 2010! Is it still active? It’s a fantastic resource!

The reason I ask is because I’m running Another Cool Project and have been looking to expand. If you have no plans for Cool Project I’d really love the opportunity buy it from you and continue building and modernising it. I’m really flexible so if you need to keep any email accounts on the domain that won’t be a problem at all.

I could offer you around $1000 for the site, but if you have any stats on the traffic you could share, that might change the value!

Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you!

Cheers,

Ian

There’s no one-size-fits-all so take the elements you like, remix them with other techniques you think work better.

And that’s about it. If you have any other interesting ideas or ways to outreach that I haven’t mentioned, hit me up on Twitter and I’ll add it to the article!

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