A 2-year-old Website Teardown: The Mistakes, Lessons, Profits

Discussion 2: A 2-year-old Website Teardown: The Mistakes, Lessons, Profits

A 2-year-old website teardown (the mistakes, lessons, profits and everything in between) Hey gang,
I've been lurking around this subreddit for a while now like a Cobra. I was planning to start sharing monthly reports for my website for a while now but never got to it. In the spirit of new years resolutions and all – I decided it's time to get the ball rolling.
Hopefully my experience can help you guys out in the journey AND kick my ass back into gear at the same time 🙂
Note: This post is basically a 2-year recap – so it's going to be a bit longer than usual. My sincere apologies to the goldfish in the crowd.

Background

I started my site around 2 years ago after I closed my (failed) tech startup. I always wanted to give the whole digital marketing thing a shot – so after closing shop – I decided it's time to give this whole affiliate thing a try and started my first niche site. I won't reveal the exact niche, but I'll just say it's in the health & lifestyle category. The niche is moderately competitive, with a few big players capturing most of the traffic and a few small ones settling for the breadcrumbs.
Starting out, I had zero experience in digital marketing, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), affiliate marketing… the result? I made almost every mistake you can think of.
Examples?
• Started the site with Bluehost (I know, I know 🙄)
• Spent too much time optimizing and perfecting useless shit at the beginning. Themes, plugins, logo, design, speed – all the things that don't matter in the beginning (I'm an engineer – it's a blessing and a curse)
• Hired shitty writers (and then re-wrote the whole thing)
• Writing content that didn't target any specific keywords, competing against eCommerce keywords or just keywords that were WAY too competitive.
• Promoted cheap products (many of them $30 or lower)
• Experimented with Facebook ads
• On-page SEO mistakes (example.com/super-long-semi-keyword-stuffed-URLs-like-this is just one example)
• Started other sites and projects in between (I suffer from severe shiny object syndrome)
I can go on and on, but I'll spare you the snoozefest.
Believe me – I learned things the hard(est) way.
And boy did I pay for it…
It took me:
• 6 months to cross 1,000 monthly organic sessions and cross the $50/mo mark.
• Almost a year to cross the 10,000 monthly organic sessions and cross the $500 mark (and that's mostly thanks to the holiday season)
Key Lesson: The good thing about affiliate marketing – is that these mistakes don't (necessarily) cripple you financially. They mostly cost you time, rather than money. As long as you keep moving and keep correcting your mistakes along the way – you'll become a little smarter every time (or rather – a little less dumber).

The Burnout (or "Freeze") period

After year 1 (< year >) I had around 50 content pieces published, of which 30 or so were commercial and 20 were informational. Needless to say – most of them weren't even ranking (and had no chance of ranking).
Unfortunately, after year 1 I was completely burned out and the slow progress really demotivated me. So I kind of took a "break" from publishing new content on my website and started working on other projects (I actually started several other sites, hoping they'll spark my interest. That didn't work).
In the first 6 months of < year >, I haven't written anything and just let the site sit there and marinate.
Luckily, the few articles that were ranking were bringing in between $500-$1000 a month.
Key Lesson: Even after so many mistakes – turns out I lucked out on a few. Sure, you can say that "even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while". But it just shows that the Pareto principle (the 80/20 rule) applies here too: 80% of your revenue will come from 20% of your content. In other words: content marketing is a numbers game – even if most of your content sucks, you only need a few quality articles to make you most of the money. And the higher the quality – the higher the probability you'll be able to rank for more keywords (aka the Equal-Odds rule).
After the "freeze" period, I came back at around Q3 and started publishing new content – mostly informational with a few new commercial ones.
In Q4 of < year > I spent most of the time rewriting the shitty content I wrote or outsourced when I was starting out… at least the ones that showed "potential" (according to Webmaster Tools).
During this rewrite frenzy – I realized how many of the products I was promoting were either not available anymore, went out of stock or completely changed. This annoyed me so much that I took a few weeks to develop a tool that helps me track which of the affiliate products I promote go out of stock/unavailable/deleted/updated so I can immediately respond – instead of leaving money on the table on a regular basis.

The Strategy

Let's dive into the nitty-gritty – my current process and strategy going forward:

Keyword Research

Nothing too groundbreaking here. I use a variety of tools to collect keywords related to my niche and store them all in one big spreadsheet (my content calendar).
The process looks something like this:
• Collect keywords and group them into topics. Each topic is a potential article. For example: the keywords best Nike shoes and cheap Nike shoes are grouped into an article topic called Nike shoes
• Categorize topics by category/silo. For example – Keyword: Nike shoes. Category: Shoes
• Prioritize keyword topics by search volume, ranking opportunity (a 1-10 score based on competitive analysis of this topic/keyword) and estimated earnings per sale. I take these 3 parameters, multiply them and calculate a score (I call it "content score") I use internally to decide what topics to target first.
• Choose the one or two categories to focus on by comparing their content scores, and start filling that category up with content. This allows me to establish topical authority in the eyes of Google. For example, instead of writing one article about shoes, one article about dresses and one article about hats – I'll first focus exclusively on shoes. And then once I'm finished "filling" that category, I'll go to the next categories in line.
• For each topic I'm about to write about – collect a list of keywords to target (I mentioned the tools I use below) into a spreadsheet and filter the keywords relevant to the article.
• Keyword research tools I use: Keywordtool.io , Ubersuggest, Google Keyword tool, Answer the public, Soovle, Keywords Everywhere

Content Creation

The website currently has around 70 articles. 75% of it is commercial, 25% of it is informational.
Like I mentioned earlier – I started off outsourcing articles and writing some of it myself. At the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing – neither in the hiring or the writing. I used to hire people at Upwork for $25-$30 for 1500 words or so, but ended up rewriting most of it myself (because it was shit, and because I'm a lousy perfectionist). I ended up spending just as much time rewriting the damn thing as I could've If I had written it myself.
I realized how challenging it was to find good writers for such a low fee, so I decided to stop outsourcing content for the time being until I increase the site's revenue.
Nowadays, I write all of the content myself.
Every piece of content I write around 2,000-3,000 words.
Because I'm a small website competing against large players with a giant budget – every article has to be 10X better than the competition to get a chance for competing.
Better content, better user experience (lower bounce rate, higher time on page, higher Click Through Rate (CTR) etc'), better design, better EVERYTHING.

Content Optimization

Every few months I go back to my top 20% articles and update them. This tactic is very underrated IMHO, and can lead to nice boosts in traffic and conversions if you do it right.
Here's what my process looks like in a nutshell:
• Upgrade the top performing products and downgrade/get rid of underperforming products. Let's say I have a "10 Best Nike shoes" article. If I see that product #6 gets 20% of the clicks, and product #2 gets only 15% – I'll swap positions between the two.
• Replace out of stock/unavailable products. I wrote a Google Sheet script that periodically scrapes the products and sends me an alert when a product becomes unavailable for whatever reason.
• Optimize the keywords. I check what keywords I can rank for that my content isn't currently optimized for – and update the article accordingly.
• Featured snippet optimization. I check what featured snippet Google is currently ranking on position #0, and then try to "steal" that snippet with a similar/better answer.

Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

I do CRO on an ongoing basis to improve conversions on my site (I use Google Optimize). It's a shame not to, since it requires minimal effort to set up the test and then you forget it.
I've improved Click Through Rate (CTR) and conversions on some of my articles significantly just by making a few tiny (and some larger) tweaks.
That being said, you do need a decent amount of traffic for CRO to be effective.

Backlinks

I barely spent any time or effort actively building backlinks. Yet, I still acquired something like 20 editorial links (not including spam or auto-generated image links), most of which came naturally (including a link from one of my biggest competitors who clearly outsourced their content to a freelancer who "dropped the ball" 😀).
I got most of these links by accident just by creating top-notch informational content that also passes the eye-candy test. Turns out, if you create the best content on the internet on a certain topic that doesn't have as much competition, then you can rank for these keywords pretty easily without any backlinks – and then get organic backlinks that way.
Besides that, I did write something like 2-3 guest posts when I started the site, and got a few links through Help a Reporter Out (HARO) which probably helped (especially one from a big news website with Domain Authority (DA) 85+).
Looking back, I probably should've spent more time actively building links. Some keywords are just a pain-in-the-ass to rank for, no matter how good my content is. Big-ass websites with a piece of shit 500-word article that barely says anything still outranks me for some pretty strong keywords – just because of their domain authority and a few ancient links linking to their shitty article.
I'll probably allocate some time on link building in the next few months to give the flywheel a little push.

Key Performance Indicators (KPI)s & Metrics

Time for the interesting part – the numbers! Since this post is more of an annual review – I'll use annual figures as opposed to monthly figures.

Traffic

In < year > (the first year), I had a total of 82,194 organic user sessions, most of it coming after month 6.
In < year > (the second year), I had a total of 279,011 organic user sessions.
This might seem like a big jump, but it's actually very disappointing considering that my website barely got any traffic for the 6 months.
For example, December < year > had 16,374 organic user sessions, while December had 23,758 organic user sessions. Not a dramatic change. But not really surprising, since I didn't publish that many articles in < year >.

Earnings

In < year >, the site made a total of $5,585.08 (most of it coming from the last 5 months of < year >).
In < year >, the site made a total of $15,088.95, which is an average of $1257.41/mo.
If you take an apples to apples comparison – Q4 of < year > averaged $994.36/mo, while Q4 of < year > averaged $1,479.40/mo.
EDIT: 65.24% of the earnings come from Amazon (mostly Amazon US), 26.38% from a niche site, and the rest comes from a bunch of other sites.
Again, not quite an exponential jump. I definitely could've done much better if I had pushed through and published more in < year >.
• Note to self: Stop slacking off, kid!

Expenses

Since I stopped outsourcing content (for the time being), my only current expenses are hosting, which costs $6/mo. And a domain name (what is it, $12/year or something?)

Goals Going Forward

My main goal for this year is to grow this website to 50,000 – 100,000 monthly organic sessions, and grow the monthly earnings to $5K – $10K/mo. I know it's pretty aggressive… that's on purpose – to keep me focused and persistent.
I'm also planning to add additional income streams (advertising, digital products) after I pour additional content into it and once the site gets bigger.
The goals for the rest of this month are simple and modest:
• Publish more content
• More Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)
• Move all 3rd party code to Google Tag Manager
I hope some of you found this mini-novel useful (I'll be shocked if any of you made it this far)
Here's to a productive and profitable < year >! That's my goal anyway.
And if I slack off – I'm giving you guys permission to spank me till my butt goes red!

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Discussion 1: Zero to $1k per Month in 6 Months With Amazon

$0 to $1,000 per month in 6 months with Amazon – Complete Case Study Here's the story of how I got an Amazon Affiliate site from $0 to $1k in 6 months from January to June < year >.
The juicy stats you all want:
{• Jan: $4.00; • Feb: $10.45; • Mar: $26.28; • Apr: $149.21; • May: $611.41; • Jun: $1293.71}
At the time I had a few other sites running, but this my was my first attempt at an Amazon Affiliate site. I was happy that I got it to $1k in 6 months and to tell you the truth I didn't do anything special to make it happen. So long as you show up everyday and keep going – you'll get there too.
I've waited over a year to post this case study as I know some of you are super sneaky sleuths. I've seen people uncover niches and sites from the smallest of details in case studies before on this sub. It's been plenty of time now.

Niche

I knew I wanted to try to build an Amazon Affiliates site. So where better to start my research than Amazon.com?
I didn't want to pursue a 'passion' so I just went on Amazon and started looking through their categories – clicking through pages and pages until I found interesting products.
When I'd find one I'd do some Googling around relevant keywords to check out the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).
For me, this is more of a qualitative process than a quantitative one. I look at what's ranking and think about if I can beat them. The main question is – Can I make better quality content? If the answer is yes, I have a chance at success (especially with lower volume keywords).
You have to be honest with yourself here. If there are authoritative giants in the niche that you'd have to pull your hair out trying to beat… that's probably not the niche for you.
I searched my way through a lot of different niches until I landed on one I was happy with. The competition was average and I was interested enough to stay dedicated to the project.

Keywords

I didn't want to spend too much time on this site so I kept my keyword research very basic.
I went to ubersuggest (this was before Neil Patel ruined bought it) and got heaps of ideas. Back then you could put in a base search term and it would spit out hundreds of ideas using Google's autocomplete.
As an example, if you put in 'best shoes for…' it would suggest topics based on this term and then subsequent searches using every letter of the alphabet. So 'best shoes for a…' would get you 10 ideas, then 'best shoes for b…' would get you another 10.
It's restrictive in the formatting of the search (you'd get 'best shoes for dancing' but not 'best dancing shoes') but it gave you a lot of useful ideas really quickly that would inform further research.
I've since hacked together my own ugly version of ubersuggest using Python. I did this because I like getting a lot of ideas easily and the current version isn't even close to the utility of the original tool.
I then threw the list I got in the Google Keyword Planner to get more ideas and a guesstimate on search volume (as they need to be high enough to justify your time).
This first list was focused around a specific product type which is where I wanted to start in the niche. I was happy with the volume these articles could provide and so I moved forward. It's ok to get to this point and go back to square one if it's not going to be worth it.
The list the Keyword Planner spat out was then grouped into topics and sorted by search volume.
With plenty of articles to write I got stuck into it.

Initial Content

The next thing I did was to sit and write 10 articles that averaged probably 3000 words a piece.
This isn't the way people usually do things.
Normally in these case studies people will mess about with hosting, theme, plugins, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), etc before they've even written a word.
Focusing on content early is important.
You get to learn about the topic and discover if it's even halfway interesting. More importantly, you find out whether you can tolerate reading and writing about this stuff. Online marketing is a lot of hours doing boring things.
If you can't write the first 30,000 words, you can't read/write the 100,000s that need to follow.
During these first 10 articles I got to know a lot about the topic and nailed down the tone of the 'author' of the site. This is important for a later step – hiring writers.

Domain

I bought a brand spanking new, brandable domain.
I didn't use an expired domain as I try to keep things as white hat as possible. However, an expired domain would have sped up the process considerably. Oh well.
The domain didn't mention a specific product but was obviously about the niche – so I could expand to all sorts of products when the time came.
The extension (.com, .net, .org) doesn't matter.

Hosting

The first site I got to $1k a month (not this one) was hosted on the most basic shared server offered by BlueHost. The hosting was trash, but it didn't matter. The site was great and the money came rolling in.
So my hosting recommendation…
It doesn't matter that much.
If you're not technical and don't want to be – go with shared hosting. I like Siteground as their tech support is the bee's knees.
If you're sort of technical go with Cloudways managing a DigitalOcean droplet. It's quick but you need to understand a bit of backend stuff and there's no cPanel so get excited about using an File Transfer Protocol (FTP).
Anything outside of these options is too complicated for me.

Website

The site uses WordPress and a Genesis theme.
Genesis isn't necessarily the best/quickest but the code is clean and there are SO many tutorials on how to edit the framework's PHP that even a complete beginner can do some cool things.
I installed the standard plugins I always use to cover the basic stuff (sharing, contact form, caching).
I spent a bit of time (not much) messing with the theme's Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and functions to get it looking nice and clean and in line with a colour scheme suited to the niche.
Then I formatted the first 10 posts.
Doing the formatting for 30,000 words means you'll cover just about everything you'll want or need to format in the future. Images, tables, buttons, videos, block quotes… the list goes on. By the time you're done, you'll have dedicated CSS to handle all of your page elements and get them looking pretty.
From there you can create a spreadsheet with a few IF statements that will cut hours off your article upload time. Just paste the content in and then tell the spreadsheet what it is. Boom – your page is formatted.
I'm not big on back-end page-builders, plugins for tables, shortcodes etc. so pretty much everything in my posts is HTML. This isn't for everyone but it's how I do it and it helps with load times too.

Writers

With a working site and 10 articles up, I didn't want to write the rest of the site all by myself, so I went in search of writers.
Upwork is my site of choice. They're slowly killing themselves trying to make the platform more and more profitable but it's still useable. Feel free to post jobs multiple times a day to try to get more takers from different parts of the world.
The freelancer hiring and firing process deserves a dedicated post. I won't go into much detail here but instead provide a few tips that will give you a bit of a head start:
• Your instructions should be very specific. Make it as specific as possible, then go back and make it more specific. Although the freelancer isn't an idiot, assume they are so you don't leave anything out. After hiring and firing hundreds of freelancers you learn one thing. If you leave room to move in the instructions – they'll zig when you wanted them to zag. Don't give them the chance.
• Test writers with a shorter informational post before giving them longer money posts. This will give you an idea of their writing quality and let you know they can follow your instructions.
• Know when to be flexible. If a good writer misses a deadline, don't dump them. They likely got into freelancing for flexibility just like you want an affiliate site to be more time flexible (so you don't have to trade time for money). Relax a bit.
• If quality drops, warn them. If it doesn't improve, get rid of them. If you're constantly providing feedback and spending hours proofing their terrible work it's not worth it. If they're not helping your business they're hurting it.
• Always be respectful and polite. Angry / rude messages do nothing except hurt feelings unnecessarily – don't be a douche.
I pay per 1000 words on Upwork. I don't have a fixed price but rather negotiate based on their quality and experience. You can get good writers for $12 per 1000 words if they're new to the platform and you work at finding them (needle in a haystack kind of thing). But you won't keep them for long because their rates will go up the longer they're on the site.
Negotiations can be awkward but just be honest about your budget and their quality. If they want more than you think they're worth they can try to find it elsewhere. There're plenty of writers in the sea.

Link building

During these 6 months I didn't do any link building. None.
I've done a bit of outreach for links outside of the timeframe of this case study but it hasn't been that much. This was more of a set and forget thing from the start.
I probably would've gotten to the $1k mark quicker had I invested more time in link building. However, I think as a newbie your focus at the start should always be content. So if you're tossing up between the two in the early days of a site – make more content.

The Money

By the end of June I'd put somewhere between $2500 and $3000 dollars into the site (hosting, theme, writers etc.).
At that point I'd made just under $2100. So I was down.
In July I made nearly $1500. So I was up.
And I've been up ever since.
Although it's scary to invest in a site in the early days you should get comfortable with the idea. Outsourcing to remove yourself as the bottleneck in your business is easiest and quickest way to grow this kind of thing from a side gig to your full-time job.

The Attitude

I wrote this whole thing and forgot about an obstacle that came up early on for me. Amazon changed their whole commission structure!
Under the old tiered structure I would have made $1,717.38 in June. The change resulted in a $400+ loss!
It was a big deal at the time and I thought about giving up on Amazon Associates to focus on other things. But I didn't. And that's often what separates the people who make it doing this and those who don't.
I could've stopped and complained about the lost money but I soldiered on and quickly became profitable despite the changes (although it would've been quicker if they hadn't changed it!).

What's Next?

When I first started out I was excited by the chase. Could I do it? Can I make this my full-time gig? Now that I have and am making more than I ever was at my old finance job the thrill of the chase is wearing off a little and the detachment of affiliate marketing is kind of getting to me.
Maybe I'll start another site soon and give you guys delayed updates (but not quite as delayed as this one). Maybe I'll help someone start their own site (I always got excited when Humble and W1ZZ said they were going to do that). Maybe I'll move on to something else entirely.

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