That time I got ripped off on Flippa

In my defense, I’m a grown ass man and I knew exactly what I was doing. I was really intrigued by all of the “automated websites” that Flippa is overrun with and figured I’d set myself a very modest budget of 250$ and see what trouble I could get myself into. I had placed some bids on a few types of sites, mostly news aggregators and affiliate sales platforms, and ultimately ended up with an Amazon affiliate site for digital cameras. The site ran me 197$, was built in PHP and can be found at DigitalCameraDevice. The whole process from the bidding to me taking over the site was pretty sketchy and I couldn’t have imagined being a wide-eyed optimist buying this site thinking it could make any money (and subsequently being really disappointed).

The bidding process was actually pretty painless but not without suspect. After my initial bid was accepted, bidding escalated quite quickly up to the reserve price. Once near the reserve, I said “fuck it” and bought it for the reserve. No doubt in my mind that I wasn’t a victim of shill bidding. I also bid on some other sites and noticed that almost all of them approached the reserve price in the same way and didn’t sell and were relisted with the same reserve. Safe to assume with these chop shop, lower price sites this is a common scenario. One really weird thing was when I bid on another site and the seller sent me this:

Thanks for bidding on this gorgeous looking hotel / flight website.
Can you please confirm that you are a serious bidder. I want to sell this website to a guy who is serious for money making.

You can go for buy it now option to avoid bidding war.
You will get ONE extra website, free transfer, free lifetime support & much more as BUY IT NOW buyer.Do not forget to check buy it now bonuses.

All the best.

I replied back that I was completely serious and they thanked me for the confirmation. That particular auction went unsold at 30$ and there was no bidding war. At this point I was shill bid into purchasing a site at the buy it now price and blew through my budget since there were no sites going for less than 50$ from what I saw. I was happy with just the one site because I was very skeptical of the quality of the products but still wanted to get my hands on one. It was for science and figured would make a great blog post 😉

The seller of DigitalCameraDevice was very nice and quite responsive at the beginning. He offered to set up the site on my hosting service but I declined because I already didn’t trust the guy after I suspected shill bidding. I also didn’t trust the code enough to put it on my main server and opted to toss it up on a small Digital Ocean droplet for 5$ a month (if you do the same, be sure to tell them I sent ya

The site was in fact built in PHP but was also running on this canned affiliate sales platform called Associate-O-Matic and the code of that platform was compiled / encrypted. I pretty much paid for a template slapped onto this platform, oh and for a newly registered domain that had negative SEO mojo 😉 I knew about the age of the domain going in, obviously new domains carry little to no value these days. From what I’ve gathered, most of the “budget” automated sites being sold on Flippa are built on top of these canned platforms and very rarely will you find a domain that’s over a month old in the listings.

Getting the site up and running wasn’t that bad. I ran into PHP errors that I worked through and was able to configure my Amazon referral code in Associate-O-Matic and start my road to riches (lolol). After updating the referral code, I started to poke around the site to make sure my referral code was showing up everywhere it should have been. Lo and behold, it wasn’t showing up everywhere it should and there were 2 other referral codes showing up. At this point I emailed the seller and asked what was up because it seemed like I just bought into some MLM where each time the site is sold a new affiliate link is added to the pyramid. Seller went unresponsive for a few hours and during that time I was able to find in the admin and in the code where the referral codes were coming from and swap them for my own. Far from an ideal scenario especially if I wasn’t a developer.

Once I worked through all of this, I spent a little bit more time making some code changes and fixes. Specifically, I dropped the home page slider from every page, swapped the bottom leaderboard ad unit for 2 medium rectangles (double the pleasure) and set up SEO friendly links via Associate-O-Matic and some mod_rewrite entries in .htaccess thanks to their FAQ. After getting the site set up in Google Webmasters I generated a sitemap with (limited to 500 links) and submitted it just to help the indexing process a bit. A few days later I noticed Webmasters reporting some errors with the RSS feeds on the site so I fixed that as well. All in, I probably spent 2-3 hours between setup and the subsequent fixes and tweaks.

The seller’s description of the site was that is was “SEO Optimized” which is far from accurate if you ask me. I do have over 14k pages indexed by Google as of this writing (I thank my own efforts with submitting a sitemap) but there’s a ton of duplicate meta descriptions and title tags (nearly 7k of each). I do plan to put a bit more effort into optimizing those and implementing Google’s Data Highlighter around the relevant content. Even with the site being “SEO Optimized” and having a “memorable domain with keyword included” the site gets virtually no traffic and has yet to show up in any Google queries. A buddy of mine mentioned that they may be down ranking the site because it’s just a mess of affiliate links. He may be correct, but I also feel it may still be a bit too early to tell. I won’t rule out the possibility that the site will never gain any traction, but I won’t euthanize it until I’ve cleaned up the duplicate meta.

This diatribe isn’t meant to discredit Flippa as a service but to make obvious the fact that I feel like there’s quite a cesspool of crappy sellers mucking up the site. There’s probably a few good sites mixed in with all of the bad but for the most part if you’re looking in the sub-300$ range don’t expect to buy a site that can make you any money whatsoever.

After this experience I did do a little reserarch and found that there is a company that’s helping to vet sites being sold on Flippa called FlipFilter. FlipFilter (part of Centurica) offers tools to help cut through the low quality noise by allowing you to search / filter based on qualified data (age of the domain, revenue, traffic, et cetera). When I searched for a “camera” site to see if there was anything comparable to the steaming pile I bought only a single auction was returned (compared to the 16 returns on Flippa, some of which weren’t even related to cameras or photography). The site is being sold for 48.5k$ but is generating over 14k$ a month. You get what you pay for!

If you are reading this and interested in giving FlipFilter a try, Justin (one of their co-founders) was kind enough to hook me up with a coupon code for my readers – DNT-MEM1 – for 60 days of premium membership free of charge!

Even though the site I bought was garbage, I’m still making it a personal challenge to see where I can go with it over the next few months. Hopefully I’ll have a follow up post to this about how I flipped the site for 400$ and doubled my initial investment 😉 Highly doubt it, but a boy can dream. Would love to hear any success or horror stories you may have about Flippa or some other service, comment below!

Josh Sherman - The Man, The Myth, The Avatar

About Josh

Husband. Father. Pug dad. Musician. Founder of Holiday API, Head of Engineering and Emoji Specialist at Mailshake, and author of the best damn Lorem Ipsum Library for PHP.

If you found this article helpful, please consider buying me a coffee.