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Finding success a name at a time

Sandpoint Web retailer’s formula is about mastering the domain game

Richard Marks, president and CEO of ClickShops.com, a Web retailer, in his office in Sandpoint. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Richard Marks, president and CEO of ClickShops.com, a Web retailer, in his office in Sandpoint. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A small, relatively unknown Sandpoint company has turned itself into a thriving Web retailer, developing a successful formula that puts its name atop Google search results when people look for products like safes, computer desks, garage cabinets and massage chairs.

The twist is that Sandpoint-based ClickShops doesn’t make anything it sells. It simply scores high search-engine rankings and uses its sophisticated Web tactics to sell other companies’ stuff on its own Web site.

Launched in 2005 by brothers Richard and Doug Marks, ClickShops runs about 30 Web sites for products ranging from computer desks and massage chairs to garage cabinets, outdoor furniture and gun safes.

The eight-person company’s busiest, most profitable site is Gunsafes.com, which gets between 20,000 and 30,000 visits per day. That site generates about 60 percent of the company’s revenue, said Richard Marks, CEO and president.

It’s also the No. 1 site on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing search engines under the term “gun safe.” Because of that ranking, the company is profitable and generates about $400,000 per month, Richard Marks said.

The monthly sales help justify the expense the brothers took on several years ago when they paid more than $100,000 for Gunsafes.com from someone not actively using it for retail sales.

“Keyword domains like (theirs) are inherently very valuable,” explained Sam Niccolls, who works at Seattle-based SEOmoz.org, a Web search optimization company. “They have a built-in advantage just having a URL (Web address) that includes the exact term people are looking for,” Niccolls said.

Another reason a keyword domain is so valuable is that many people just type “gunsafes.com” and assume, without searching, there has to be a site matching the term, said Niccolls. A second factor that boosts keyword domains, said Niccolls, is that search engines look at a site like Gunsafes.com and award it extra value if the site does in fact sell safes and isn’t just a parking space for junk ads.

Visitors to Gunsafes.com find dozens of photos of products from nearly every major U.S. safe company. But except for a safe or two from Liberty Safe Co. in its downtown Sandpoint showroom, ClickShops has no safes on its premises.

“Essentially they act as an affiliate or as the middleman in the transaction, and they don’t provide any other value other than showing up at the top of search results,” Niccolls said.

When the Markses launched Gunsafes.com as a retail site, they struggled to persuade safe manufacturers to work with them and ship products to customers buying from the site. Companies like Browning, Liberty Safe, Winchester and Cannon didn’t care or didn’t understand what the Markses were doing.

“They didn’t want the hassle of having to ship items after we sold them,” said Doug Marks, who is also a Sandpoint attorney. But over time the safe manufacturers noticed that Gunsafes.com was landing atop Google’s search results.

That high ranking eventually led nearly all the safe companies to agree to ship products sold through Gunsafes.com.

The manufacturers sell the item at wholesale prices to ClickShops, while the Sandpoint company charges the customer the retail price plus shipping costs.

In a few instances, ClickShops maintains some safes in warehouses in the Midwest to manage orders for companies requiring that arrangement.

“Winchester was the last holdout of all the manufacturers,” Doug Marks said. “And they finally called us a while ago and asked us to be their exclusive online seller.

“For us, once they did that, we knew we’d arrived,” he said.

When the brothers started the company four years ago, they had the vague goal of being an online retailer. “The prevailing view is that you get successful selling small things on the Web,” Doug Marks said.

“But we decided we’d try to do the opposite, to sell big things.”

The Markses know they’re not your everyday Web retailer. Their business plan sounds simple: Buy valuable Web addresses, persuade manufacturers to work with you, then improve the site by helping establish its Web ranking so other sites and customers find you.

The major upside for ClickShops is avoiding taking on product inventory and online advertising. Who needs advertising, they say, when half of all people online looking for “gun safes” end up coming through Gunsafes.com because it’s the first result they find?

The company’s key challenges are the cost of buying high-quality keyword domains, then developing those sites into online destinations that manufacturers will support and work with, Richard Marks said.

One worker in the Sandpoint office manages the ClickShops Web sites and their content. Five others are customer service workers.

ClickShops also uses a group of freelance search specialists to establish and maintain the wide network of links from other sites and help Gunsafes.com score high in search results.

The way Google or Yahoo ranks the best pages for any search term is to look at which sites get referred to – or linked to – most often in relation to a topic or a product.

When the other sites generally offer links to a site like Gunsafes.com, those links – in search engine terms – are considered votes of confidence. The higher the quality of the sites linking back to Gunsafes.com, the higher its own search score will be.

What ClickShops has done is develop a sizeable network of external links pointing toward Gunsafes.com and other retail sites it owns, Niccolls said.

Using SEOmoz.org’s special link-tracking tools, Niccolls found Gunsafes.com now has more than 1,500 Web pages linking to it. That large number, along with generally high quality among those 1,500, is a key reason why Gunsafes.com ranks at the No. 1 spot on Google, Yahoo or Bing, he said.

Several years ago Web designers devised various “black hat” tricks to spam the search engines in an attempt to produce higher result rankings than a site would otherwise.

Over time, Google and other search engines improved spam site filters and tweaked their rankings, so that valid links are given higher value and sites that deal in spam or pointless content are discounted in the overall rankings.

The Markses acknowledge they at times offer links to others in exchange for those external sites linking back to them. That search-optimization option is considered normal, Niccolls said.

In other cases, ClickShops will make a payment to an external Web site operator, in exchange for that site linking back to a site like Gunsafes.com, Richard Marks said.

That doesn’t happen often but includes some instances when he wants one of ClickShops’ sites to be included in another site’s directory of products.

ClickShops has no “secret sauce” to explain how it gets Google rankings as high as they do, Doug Marks said. “It’s a combination of things. But ultimately, what you have to do is create a quality site and make it good enough that other sites link to you,” he said.

“What Google wants to know, ultimately, is what site is the most relevant for whatever someone is searching for,” he added.

The brothers are also interested in finding investors to back them as they move forward, acquiring more domains and improving the value of the ones they already have.

“If I had a wish list,” said Richard Marks, “we’d like about $20 million. That would let us buy a bunch of great domain names and help our company explode.”

But not every domain that ClickShops has purchased produced good results.

A few years ago they bought www.quantum- titanium-jewelry.com thinking it would help sell a large volume of products in that category.

The effort was a total bust, said Richard Marks. It did so poorly ClickShops no longer owns that domain.

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