Niche Site Case Study #1 – From Sandbox to First Earnings
In last month's growth report, I mentioned that I was going to be starting a couple of niche sites and I will be sharing everything here on this blog.
This post is the first of which will form a series of niche site case studies, to show you how I take a niche and attempt to rank a website that ultimately earns a passive income. With the ultimate goal of flipping these site for a 16-20x multiple.
I will state upfront that whilst I would love to reveal my domain names so you can follow along more closely, the truth is that I simply cannot risk it. I have seen firsthand how some people cannot play by the unwritten rules and wish to hurt others.
Despite taking a considerable amount of time teaching others what he knows and revealing exactly how to rank a website for a particular niche, there were some who, for reasons only known to themselves, decided to sabotage his websites by using negative SEO (which is a topic I won't get started on, let's just say I despise it!).
For that reason, my plan for these case studies is to show you exactly what I do and how I do it, whilst keeping the domain name top secret. If somehow the site crashes and burns, I may then reveal the URL so that you may learn from my mistakes.
Until then I will be revealing my plans, actions, successes and failures, every step of the way.
So What's New?
A lot has changed with niche sites over the course of the past 12-18 months. With all manner of Google algorithm updates occurring and knocking out previously solid link building tactics, along with the sheer number of people getting involved with niche site building.
My site is in the “leisure” niche and covers mostly males aged 18-40. I am a targeting UK only audience which is not something I've seen done before in any niche site case study. I know many of my readers are from the UK so hopefully this will appeal to you as well..!
This is not a passion niche, nor am I particularly knowledgeable about the market. I have simple conducted my keyword research and have discovered a good solid batch of keywords I will be targeting with this niche site.
As usual, there are 1-2 main keywords with a larger search volume, along with a few other longer tail, lower search volume keywords.
- Keyword 1 – 22k Exact UK – KC 30
- Keyword 2 – 6.6k Exact UK – KC 27
- Keyword 3 – 3.6k Exact UK – KC 27
- Keyword 4 – 1.6k Exact UK – KC 20
These keywords form the core of site and are the ones that I will ultimately want to rank for. You need to bare in mind however, that rarely do these keywords bring in the most amount of traffic. It is common for my niche sites to bring in over 85-90% of its traffic via long tail phrases (I use LongTailPro to find these).
However, the fact that most of them have a KC of 30 or less is a winner for me.
The top 10 competition for the main 22k search volume keyword looks like this (with Page Authority in brackets)
- Big UK Retailer (40)
- Male Targeted Tech Site (27)
- GumTree.com (34)
- Wider Market Ecommerce Site (32)
- Voucher Code Type Site (11)
- Large UK Online Retailer (1)
- Medium UK Online Retailer (29)
- Product Manufacturer (15)
- Amazon (77)
- Product Manufacturer (22)
The average Page Authority (PA) for the top 10 sites is 28. This combined with the bullet points below means I am confident I can eventually break into the top 10 for this keyword.
I use PA as a guideline for my ability to rank a website based on this;
Page Authority is Moz's calculated metric for how well a given webpage is likely to rank in Google.com's search results. It is based off data from the Mozscape web index and includes link counts, MozRank, MozTrust, and dozens of other factors. It uses a machine learning model to predictively find an algorithm that best correlates with rankings across the thousands of search results that we predict against.
This is taken from Moz.com as is my metric of choice when performing my competition research. I have 2 larger guides in the works which will explain how I perform keyword and competition research is much more detail.
Other Factors That Effected My Decision
- Sites ranking in position 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 in the SERP have just 1 linking root domain, which is themselves! It seems some are ranking based on their domain authority alone and there is very little content on those pages as most are ecommerce sites.
- GumTree.com sat in 3rd spot is a big plus for me. These pages are simply seller created ads and are almost never SEO'd, which shows from yet again a single linking root domain.
- The Amazon page points to a individual product that is not available or in stock – how this is Google showing the user the best content I don't know, surely this has to end at some point?
How Will I Monetize?
With this being a product related niche/keyword I will be using Amazon Associates as my primary method. I have other sites in this niche and various affiliate accounts with them for one reason…
With the millions spent on conversion optimisation, it will be my goal to get traffic off my site and onto Amazon, and let them do their job. As you will see further down, they do this very well..!
The domain was purchased back in October-13 which is when I first conducted the keyword research and decided to target this niche. I decided to go for a brand new domain, ideally I would have gone with an expired domain however I was unable to find one suitable.
The ones I did find that weren't quite suitable for a site but had some good metrics and backlinks will be used in a clever way – more on that towards the bottom of the article.
The Story So Far
The Google Sandbox
Never have I been more sure that the Google Sandbox exists than I am today.
This domain has confirmed what I have thought for some time now, and that is that the Google sandbox does exist and there is now a period of 4-6 months where your newly registered domain name will not perform well in the SERPS.
This means it is now taking around 6 months to see any positive SERP movements in Google for brand new registered domains. There are exceptions, however this has been the case for most of my sites and this one in particular.
I have thought for a long time that the Google sandbox wasn't something to be concerned with. However if we learn anything from this case study it is that the Google Sandbox definitely should be taken into consideration when starting a niche site.
How do I know?
Well, after purchasing the domain I did nothing other than set up a basic site and add 1,500 words to the homepage. There was nothing special about the homepage, just a couple of mini product reviews and an list of the pros and cons for these products, along with a tablepress comparison table.
I wrote the content myself, so I knew it was unique and pretty good in comparison to the top 10 competition based on word count and information quality.
The Waiting Game
I decided not to build any links to the site as I wanted to test how well a brand new domain would rank post algo update, on its own. Plus I wanted to test my sandbox theory.
Nothing really happened for the first 6 months, the site sat around 200+ position for it's main keyword with little to no movement.
Then something crazy happened. The day after the site turned 6 months old, I checked my rankings via SERPBook, and low and behold, there was my site sitting pretty at 40th position for its main keyword. This was with zero link building and zero updates in 6 months…!
Time To Take Action
Step 1 – Niche Selection
I will go into more detail on keyword research at a later stage, however here is a brief list of things I look for before getting involved with a niche;
- At least one ‘weak' site in the top 10 – in this case it's the voucher code site and GumTree.
- Average Page Authority below 35 – the lower the better really
- Low number of referring domains – most of the top 10 for the main keyword have just a single referring domain, and that is coming from their own domain.
- Med-High Product ticket price – if going for an Amazon product I look for the $50+ ticket items (tip – lower price items can help bump up your commissions rate as the more you sell on Amazon the higher your commission rate goes!)
- Google Ads showing in the SERP results – this proves that if people are willing to spend money on this keyword its profitable
- Plenty of content opportunities – I try to get a list of at least 50 article ideas before I build my site
- Other verticals available – are there other related products you could cross promote and write about? This tests the depth of the niche
- No more than 3 big name retailers in the Top 10 – this is flexible as I see Google giving less and less priority to Amazon etc over the last few months
There are others however nothing can beat gut feel and simply testing out the niche. If you can pick up an aged domain and set up a quick site you should be able to get a good idea for ranking capabilities within a couple of months, usually sooner.
Step Two – Domain Purchase
My first step was to purchase a domain name which takes the form of a partial match domain, such as: mykeywordhere.co.uk
As I explained above, I purchased a completely brand new domain as I was unable to find an expired domain with any decent history, which is something I would ALWAYS do before building on a brand new domain and also something that could potentially bypass the sandbox.
Step 3 – Website Structure
The third stage was to plan my website structure. For this I take a steer from my target keywords and plan how they will best fit into a websites category structure. For example, if we had a site about dogs, we could use the following structure;
Step 4 – Website Build
The best way to tackle a niche site in my opinion is to not sweat the small stuff. Countless times, I have seen people worry about which theme to use, which plugin to use for a contact page and where to find a good cheap logo.
The simple and easy answer to all this is – don't sweat it.
I am a huge fan of cutting through all of that BS and getting straight to the point. Google doesn't care if you have a nice theme. They care if you deserve to rank and if your content and backlinks are good enough to put you at the top of the SERP.
In addition, for the first few weeks and months, you will be getting zero traffic anyway. So we should use this time to plan the content, the structure and our SEO plan of attack in order to gain those organic rankings and traffic.
Then, once we have the traffic, should you worry about the look and feel of your niche site.
Step 5 – Content
You have 3 options when it comes to content for your niche site;
1 – Write the content yourself
This is usually the go to option for most first time niche site builders. Most of us have more free time than free cash to spend, and until you know you can make money it's often hard to invest cash into a project when you are not sure you will see an roi.
There are pros and cons to writing your own content.
The first is that you will know you are adding great content, as you have full control, all spelling and grammar should be correct and the level of detail ad content length will generally be above and beyond what you will get from outsourcing.
Fast forward a few months and it usually boils down to either becoming a great content writer for topics you are not always interested in, or choosing one of the next 2 options.
I have written an article in the past on how you can find great content writers for $3 per article, and whilst that is still possible, I believe that times have changed in the SEO/niche site world.
We now need higher quality content from writers that can go one step further and provide tables or data and comparisons. Almost a convergence between a writer and a VA.
I now pay my writers around $1 per 100 words, often more for the more technical niches. For this, you can get great English speaking writers who will research your topic and provide well written and thought out content.
Whilst more expensive than hiring your own writer via oDesk or eLance. These content providers offer the flexibility of not having any staff members, along with a “content on demand” service.
The biggest benefit of using this providers is the ability to choose your quality based on a star rating, along with revisions if necessary.
Personally I will be using a mixture of my own VA's and other content providers.
Planning Your content
I like to plan out my content strategy before I order any material for a number of reasons;
- It firms things up in my head
- I have at least 50 articles planned out
- It forms one of my validation steps on niche selection
- Gets my mind into the niche and the mindset of the user
You can download my content planner spreadsheet below by sharing! Thanks 🙂
Step 6 – Initial Linkbuilding
I wanted to keep track of the results of each action I took when it came to link building, therefore I decided to do 2 things;
- Use my PBN to build links
- Use a recommended external SEO package
I chose 2 domains that I already had built out by my VA. There had not been used to link to any other website and already had content. All I had to do was to inject my backlinks into the existing content where they made sense.
I created the following backlinks;
- 1x brand anchor text link to the homepage e.g “The Dog Training Blog”
- 1x exact match keyword anchor text to the homepage e.g “Dog Training”
I decided that 2 was enough and would give me a good indication of how volatile the SERP's were for this keyword.
If you want to learn how to build your own PBN, check out my course here.
The SEO package I chose was The HOTH, whom I have used before and have had great results with. I ordered the $60 package which gets you content, web 2.0 links and some tier 1 & 2 backlinks.
Their packages offer a nice mixture of links and you can select a few different keywords and URL's for anchor text diversity.
I used the following anchor text;
- Exact keyword – “Dog Training”
- Prefix with keyword – “Best Dog Training”
- Keyword with suffix – “Dog Training Tips”
- URL – “mydogtraining.com”
- Brand – “My Dog Training”
All backlinks are to point to the homepage (I don't always do this but we will diversify at a later date with another package).
Link Building Results
As you can see from the graph above, my site is now sitting in 17th position for its main keyword, which I am very happy about.
So just 415 unique visitors looking at just a single page per user, combined that with a 91% bounce rate…doesn't make for great reading huh!
I guess the thing with niche sites is that I want to get the user to click my click and direct them away from my site as soon as they feel ready. Well I am pretty happy that the site is doing just that. Check out the below.
Earnings To Date
The most exciting news is that the site has already made it's first commission!
The site made a total of £47.53 ($81.54) in the month of June, which I am really excited about as the site is only in it's first month of ranking anywhere near high enough for the big keywords.
So this commission comes from longer tail keywords that the site is ranking for.
In order to restore some balance between product reviews and helpful information, I need to add additional content in the form of “info only” articles that answer specific questions within the niche. This will also provide some long tail traffic as these kind of articles will rank for a good number of small search term key phrases.
- Yahoo Answers has been my first port of call, simply performing a search for your main keyword will bring up a host of questions.
- UberSuggest is up next and this is an awesome too to get some ‘outside of the box' keywords which you can give to your writers to add to their articles for some great LSI potential.
- Google Suggest is another free resource that I will use to gather possible type in keywords and sentences that I probably haven't thought of.
Non optimised comment links
Despite what some people say about blog comments, I think they are a great way to start a niche sites SEO campaign. A few well place, well thought out comments can bring in both traffic and a slight bump in ranking. I say slight as I don't think the benefit comes from the rank improvements as such, but more from residual traffic that will visit your site if you comment on a high traffic page for example.
The one rule I have here is to use a name NOT a keyword as the comment author.
I use this to test my niche and my on page optimisation to see what my conversion rate is. Whilst this is not super important at the start it can help with niche niche start-up blues where there is zero traffic and a very lonely niche site!
Mini 5-10 site PBN
In July I will be building out a mini 5 site PBN that will serve as a good source of powerful links that I have full control over. This will also be offered in the sale when I come to flip the site in the future, which I think add a great deal of value to a potential buyer.
I will be using a combination of Domain Brokers and finding expired domains to build my mini-PBN.
I will be writing a monthly update for this niche site case study, so if you have any questions drop them in the comments and I will be sure to cover them in the next post.
Key Takeaway Points
- A newly registered domain is now taking much longer to rank in Google – around 4-6 months
- Aged domains have the potential to bypass the Google sandbox
- If you perform good keyword research you don't need many links to rank
- An average PA of around 30 is a good indicator of a keyword to target
- Amazon converts very well, you just need to send them some traffic!
- Focus on planning and content before making your site look pretty