You have probably been asking yourself a lot of questions about niche sites. Is it for real? Can I make passive money? How long does it take? Is it a scam?
Those are all excellent questions. I went through the same thing when I was starting out. The answers are yes, it's real, you can make passive income, it takes a lot of time and hard work, and it's not easy. However, for me it's been worth it.
In this article, I'm going to pull back the curtains and show you what I went through and the results that I've seen so far.
I'm a big believer in full transparency, so honesty is my mission.
This is a real life case study of my first niche site's performance.
My hope is to provide you with some realistic perspective on what it takes to make a successful niche site.
To start it off, a little more about me. I jumped into internet marketing 2 years ago and have been doing it full time ever since. I started my first niche site in May 2016 and have seen great results.
In just 1 year, a brand new domain website went from 0 to over 5,000 organic monthly searches and is now approaching 10,000. You can see the progress in the graph below. This site was done the right way by the book using only white hat techniques.
Keep in mind that real life results don't always match what some guru will try to sell you. Niche sites are not easy, require a ton of work, and take a lot longer these days than they did a few years ago. Why? There's tons of competition out there now.
If you are looking for a get rich quick set of tricks, you're not going to find them in niche sites. In fact, you won't find them anywhere, but that doesn't stop people from trying to sell you their "secret blueprints".
This article is not about secrets, tricks, or blueprints. It's an honest account of my experience so far. I walk you through my journey and open the door to show you the inside results. Your experience will vary, depending on many factors I discuss next.
Why Would Anyone Start A Niche Site?
There I was, sitting in my cube at a Fortune 500 company, working on design work that I had wanted to do for over a decade, and there was just one problem. I wasn't enjoying it.
"What's wrong with me", I thought. Is this just some sort of spoiled 1st world problem? That must be it. I swept it under the rug thinking I may just be bored. However, the feeling kept coming back over and over again for an extended period of time.
How can you have a dream, struggle for many years to see it come true, and then when you get there, find out that it may not be the best fit for you? I was lucky to get where I was, after tons of work, but is that all there was to it?
As I began talking to people about it, I found that I wasn't alone. It turns out that many people today are at jobs that either they don't enjoy, are unfulfilling, or downright toxic.
Mine was a mix of all three.
That's what led me down the road of exploring the concept of passive income. Through lots of research, I found my way to Pat Flynn at Smart Passive Income. From there, I found other experts on the subject, and began learning as much as I could.
After about a year of studying different ways to do passive income and internet marketing, I finally left my corporate job and jumped into the deep end. Crazy? Maybe. I sure was excited though. Of course, I had to get my finances in order first.
I realized that I have to actually start doing it instead of just procrastinating by learning if I ever want to be successful at it. "Don't worry, it'll be easy", I told myself, and there were plenty of experts that agreed and would show me the way for $19.99.
It's Easy They Said
In hindsight, after doing internet marketing for about 2 years, I now know that anyone that says it's easy is either: inexperienced, lying, or bending the truth to make a sale.
There is an entire market of people out there making money online teaching you how to make money online. The catch is that you won't buy their 'blueprint to millions' unless they convince you that it is easy. It's not.
I get it, we are all human, and it's so enticing to fall into the trap of thinking that you are just missing that one simple secret tip that is keeping you from all of your desires and fantasies. And this expert is going to sell it to you for the price of a pizza.
The problem? Well, life just doesn't work that way. If you want to build an amazing online business that earns tons of passive income, you can. But you're going to have to work your rear end off for it.
Just for reference, I'm about 2 years into actively working internet marketing. I've had tremendous progress, but I still have a long way to go. How long will it take: 3 years, 4 years? I don't know. Ask me again at that time.
It means that I'm in it for the long haul. You have to be too if you want to go down this road. There are no shortcuts or easy paths. The only failure is giving up.
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After a huge try with Udemy, thinking I was well on my way to riches in passive income, the market came rushing in to knock me humbly on my rear end.
It turns out that nobody gets to tell the market what should pay them the amount of money that they want.
It actually works in reverse, where the market asks for value to be provided, and graciously sends money in the direction of those that provide that value.
Thanks for the humble pie, market. It's the best that I've ever tasted. I realized that in order to get people to buy anything, you have to first find out what it is that they want.
It sounds so elementary now (it wasn't for me in the beginning), but market demand is a critical first step. What do people want and what are they willing to pay for it?
If you create something that nobody wants and aren't willing to pay anything for, then nothing happens. In hindsight, it's so obvious.
In my post crash analysis, I realized I hadn't really looked at demand, and also had no way to send traffic to some courses that I had created.
This was back when I didn't know much about organic search, SEO, paid ads, etc. So I went back to the drawing board and worked on figuring out how to get traffic.
The search for getting traffic led me to Spencer over at Niche Pursuits. Luckily, as time would have it, he was managing an internship to teach people how to set up niche sites from scratch.
I applied and got accepted. What I learned there was a big crash course on niche sites which also gave me a huge leg up on the learning curve with templates on how to do articles and keyword research.
The funny thing? It turns out that keyword research IS market demand. I had found a missing piece. When you create a quality site wrapped around market demand (keyword research), you get traffic. With my new found knowledge, I pushed forward.
While finishing up the internship, I couldn't wait to apply what I had learned to my own niche site. I was so excited, and in hind sight very inexperienced, that I quickly picked a niche and went down the path of working on the site.
What I didn't know is that my keyword research was not on point, my writing skills were mediocre, and I really only understood the basics. In my mind, I was already a pro though and ready to push my way to success.
So I set up a niche site using WordPress and started putting my new skills to use. In my mind, I was going to be making thousands of dollars within 6 months. Easy Peasy. What could go wrong?
At this point in my journey, I knew how to use WordPress, and thought that there wasn't much to setting up a website with it. There's many easy 5 minute tutorials on how to do it.
After the past 1.5 years though, I realized that I was a white belt in WordPress and could follow those easy 5 minute website setup tutorials and think that I was done.
And then the problems started coming out of nowhere...
Here's some things that I didn't know and caused me to hit some road bumps along the way:
- The WordPress platform is easy to install on most web hosts and only takes 5 minutes. Many tutorials out there show you this to get you to use their web host affiliate link. There's actually a lot more to completing your site.
- You have to get a good security plugin and set it up right to keep your site from being hacked.
- WordPress plugins can be created by anyone, and many are not maintained, conflict with each other, slow down your site, and have vulnerabilities for hacking. Pick them wisely.
- I had some performance issues with my initial web host who I also registered my domain with. It turns out the pros usually register with one company, and get hosting with another to avoid massive problems if you have to change hosts.
- Your web host matters for site up time, performance, and page load speeds. You must choose wisely.
- The WordPress editor sucks. Seriously, I'm not joking, it's a huge time sink. I finally got smart and started using the Thrive Themes Editor which is so much better and quicker.
- You need a good way to backup your site regularly. If you choose a good web host, you can do this for free in cPanel. I messed around with crappy plugins forever until I figured out how to do this one.
- Your site speed matters. Originally, I had articles that took 6 seconds to load and my bounce rate was high. Because I had a good web host, I turned on some free speed upgrades and removed bad content and reduced the speed to under 3 seconds.
The good news is, as I'll cover later in the article, that I created a step-by-step guide to walk people through how to set up a niche site with WordPress and avoid all of the problems that I just mentioned.
If a guide like that is something that interests you, you can get a copy here.
What They Don't Tell You
From your guru of choice, they usually cover the bare basics of running a niche site. Things like keyword research, content creation, and a little bit of link building.
What you usually don't hear about is how long it takes these days to see results if you are using white hat techniques. For me, I'm 100% white hat because I only want to build long term quality websites.
There are folks that can get some quicker results by using black hat tactics like PBN's. It makes no sense to me, and you often see them bragging in facebook groups. You'll often see: "Hey guys, look, I got my site making $250 in 6 months".
The catch? Their site has an extremely high chance of getting caught by Google and then their site is dead. In a single day, all of their work is gone in a puff of smoke. No thanks.
The other major thing you don't hear about is all of the work that you have to do to constantly test everything from your article titles, time on page, to heatmaps of what people are clicking on.
Of course, these are more advanced techniques, but they are super important if you want to get to page 1 and stay on page 1 of the SERPs. They are not optional.
Early on, I got some articles to page 2 but couldn't figure out why I couldn't get them to stabilize on page 1.
That's when I discovered that it's all about solving searcher's intent, and creating a great experience for your visitors. You can figure this out by testing things on your site to see what works best.
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Honing The Process
You can't do anything in business without a sound process. I got lucky and got a head start on mine by completing Spencer's internship. If you don't have that, you need to seriously consider finding something similar.
To start at ground 0 is a huge disadvantage because you don't really know what works, and any process you form around what you are doing has a high risk of not working.
The best advice I can give for someone brand new is to go volunteer some free labor for a highly successful niche site or reputable expert so that you can learn the ropes of what works.
When you know what works, then you can start actively working on your own niche site. What you will find is that there are increasingly efficient ways to do things in order to optimize your labor.
If you don't do this, you'll find that your work output will be chaotic, sporadic, and the quality will be all over the place. This only guarantees weird results where you may not be able to figure out what is wrong.
Outsourcing To A New Level
Once you have your processes ironed out on how to run your niche site, it's time to start bringing in help in small bites to slowly wean yourself out of the equation.
Keep in mind that outsourcing is not an all or none concept. You build it as you grow. Outsourcing is the one super power that you must figure out if you want long term success.
Don't be like one person I know that outsourced everything by hiring a bunch of new people and having them "do the work" without really showing them, only to find out months later that his site was in shambles and being penalized.
He had never actually been to his own site to check the work. He let the hired help do it all. Wow.
The key is that you need process and documents that you put in place that take people that may or may not know how to do something, shows them exactly what to do, and helps make them good at it. Then you have to give them feedback and guide them.
What I did is break my process into logical blocks. For example, a great block to outsource is content writing. The catch is that you have to get good at hiring, which is an independent skill.
I set out and started hiring people on Upwork, which is a great site. I found that by testing my job post text, I would get different results. So I optimized it. You also have to choose between interviewing people or hiring blind.
Every person is going to come up with different hiring practices. I tested a lot of different approaches and found one that works well for me. For now, I usually find 1 great worker out of every 3 that I hire. I treat them great and they stick around.
Workers also can come and go, so your hiring process needs to be agile enough to quickly replace them if need be.
Once I got this up and running after learning how to do it over a few months, it totally changed the game for me.
Since then, I've started outsourcing other blocks of the process like editing, product research, and outreach. It's a total game changer, but it does take time to slowly get your entire process where you are hiring it done, block by block.
Are you beginning to see why niche sites take a lot of work and a while to get them going? A year doesn't seem that long all of the sudden when you include learning how to do them, creating processes, and getting good at outsourcing.
How To Make Your Site Successful
From a big picture strategy stand point, Brian Dean from Backlinko spells it out in two main parts:
- Publish high quality content
- Reach out to your niche and build links (we call it outreach)
Sounds simple, right? It is simple in concept.
However, you have to be able to consistently create quality content and build links to it, revolving around the right keywords, for an extended period of time before you see great results.
That's where it gets complicated. Not many people can consistently do these two main things over an extended period of time. They either give up, or try to cheat with PBN's. One leads to guaranteed failure and the other makes failure highly likely.
Remember earlier when we talked about honing your process? That takes a lot of work to get it right. And remember when we said outsourcing takes you to the next level? That also takes a lot of work.
But what happens when you combine both of those together, while implementing Brian's strategy of quality content and outreach? Amazing results. It takes time though.
Another thing you have to do is be thorough in following the best on page SEO practices. It seems like a lot, but when you get down into the details and wrap a process around how you produce content, it's not so bad.
Check out Brian Dean's easy to follow on page SEO guide here. Oh, and Brian has you covered for link building as well in his extensive guide here. I've followed his guidance, and it works extremely well. The results in this article prove that.
My detailed recipe for niche site success looks like this:
- great keyword research
- quality content
- solid processes and how to documents
- great outsourcing capability
- give it plenty of time
- white hat techniques only
- mission is to solve searcher's intent and create a great user experience
- split test everything on your site continuously for improvements
- new sites experience a 6 month "sandbox" period, keep pushing through it
- be genuine, honest, and real
If you are interested in the detailed data, I've taken great care in capturing how the site is doing at the end of every week for its entire life. I've found that search console is the most accurate data for organic traffic instead of analytics.
However, since I keep the organic data in a spreadsheet, I thought I would put the analytics chart for the number of sessions for the life of the site here as a reference. Keep in mind that sessions includes organic, referral, social, and direct traffic.
You can click the chart to zoom in on it. These are monthly numbers.
I captured weekly numbers where I broke sessions into organic, referral, social, and direct in my spreadsheet. I wanted to see how things progressed at a very detailed level. Because it's weekly, you have to multiply by four weeks to get monthly estimates.
Here is the result. Note: these are weekly numbers, not monthly.
In order to really understand how my efforts of producing quality content and outreach were going, I put the data into meaningful graphs which we will cover next.
Here I compare the number of posts that I published per month compared to the organic traffic. The way these charts work is that you have color coordinated bars or lines that match the color of the numbers on the left and right axis.
Confused yet? Don't be. On the next graph, the organic traffic curve is red. If you look on the left side, you will see numbers in red. Those numbers are the traffic amounts for the red line.
The same goes for the blue posts published, and on the right side you can see the number of posts. It's color coordinated and labeled to make it easy to spot.
Instead of looking at number of posts published per month, another handy way is to look at the total published posts as they increase month to month, which is a running total.
That way you can see how it relates to the growing traffic. That's what the next graph is:
As you can see, I was pretty consistent at how many posts I published over time per month, using honed processes. There is a little bit of squiggly in the line, but overall I've been cranking regularly.
Notice that the site started in May 2016, and 6 months later, in October 2016, traffic started taking off. Looks awfully related to the sandbox theory, doesn't it?
Not only was publishing quality content important, but I also worked on a bit of outreach in the form of guest posting. It's a great way to connect with other people in your niche that have websites.
The biggest benefit of course for guest posting is building site authority in the form of link juice.
Now we get to the good part that is on everyone's mind. How much does the site make? Let's take a look at how the earnings track the traffic:
The earnings track nicely with the organic traffic. The plan here is to keep doing what I've been doing to grow the earnings over time. Which leads us into our next important topic of using metrics wisely.
The thing about niche sites is that you have to do a ton of work upfront and won't see any results for a long time. Many people give up.
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What I found to be extremely important, is tracking the following metrics and working to optimize them:
- Organic Traffic
- Earnings per organic traffic
- SERP CTR
- Time on page
- Site To Affiliate CTR
- Bounce Rate
If you pay attention to the above metrics by using search console, analytics, and your affiliate account, you can then start doing tests and see how it affects the metrics over time.
This constant testing will ultimately hit your website where it counts, and improve the bottom line. If you don't watch these metrics, you are randomly shooting in the dark.
If you need help ironing these metrics out with your site, I do offer a coaching call service where we can go in together and figure out where you are at, what things you can do, and how to improve. Feel free to send me a message here if you are interested.
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How To Start Your Niche Site
If you made it this far through my journey without running for the hills, then you are most likely ready to start your own niche site.
Like I discussed earlier on WordPress sites, there are a bunch of things that I didn't know about when I first started, that ended up biting me down the road.
I'm not one to ever make the same mistake twice, so every time I learned from a mistake and how to fix it, I recorded in great detail what the fix was for the future.
I also started loaning out my notes to friends and family that are also working on niche sites, so that they wouldn't make the same mistakes that I did. It feels good that others get to learn from what I've done.
In an attempt to clean up my notes and make it into an all encompassing, easy to follow process, I spent quite a bit of time putting together a detailed, step-by-step guide.
I even had friends go through the guide and set up new sites to make sure it was all crystal clear. Whenever I would get feedback, I would go back in and perfect the guide.
I now use this guide to hire people to set up a site for me without worrying about them messing it up.
The reason I bring it up, is that one of the very first things that you need to do is set up a WordPress site so that you can get busy on working through the rest of the parts for your niche site.
At the urging of friends and peers, I made the guide available to everyone.
In hindsight, I realize that it covers about 200 hours of problems that I had to suffer through and prevents them from the beginning.
I even use the guide to set up all of my new sites now, and can usually get one done in under 4 hours.
It saves me tons of time for each site I do.
I do sell it for a small fee though. Think of it as you buying me a nice lunch, and my guide saving you 100's of hours of time so that you don't struggle through the same stuff that I did. You can grab a copy here.