Case Study: How I Took An Affiliate Website from $0 to $95,134.05 Using SEO
Today I’m going to show you how I took a brand new website and grew it to $95,134.05 with over 1,000,000 unique pageviews in just its second year.
Not only that, but I did this without any ...
In fact, the site pretty much runs on auto-pilot now—no posting to social media, no emails to a mailing list—and the income is 95% passive.
So how did I do it?
How was I able to take a blog from literally nothing to nearly six-figures in income and more than one million pageviews in two years?
It was pretty simple, actually: I leveraged the power of SEO.
A Peek Behind The Numbers
But let’s first take a step back, okay?
Before we dive into the details, let’s look at some screenshots from my Google Analytics and Amazon Associates account for my site in the outdoors niche.
Note: I will not be revealing the actual site name or URL as there are way too many “copy cats” out there who will shamelessly rip off my site—and I don’t need any more competition! I will say the site is in the “outdoors” niche (think: hiking, backpacking).
Why am I showing you these screenshots?
Two reasons: credibility and transparency.
When you’re a new blogger in the SEO space, credibility is everything.
If you want your readers to follow what you say, you better be able to back it up with some real world results.
And if you plan on teaching people how do do something (in this case, build traffic via SEO), you better be able to show them how to do it!
So in 2017, as you can see from my Google Analytics screenshot above, my outdoors site had 1,156,561 unique pageviews!
Note: you’ll notice the traffic spike in the summer and then tail off starting in the fall—this is because the hiking and backpacking niches are seasonal, and get a lot more traffic in the summer months.
Now, I know a lot of the “Pinterest bloggers” (as I like to call them) out there are sneezing at those traffic numbers.
For a lot of you, 1.1 million unique pageviews over 12 months isn’t that great.
But what if I told you that the vast majority of that traffic was not from Facebook or Pinterest … but organic search from Google?
This screenshot from my Google Analytics shows how people ended up on my site:
Note: you’ll notice this screenshot actually shows “users” (instead of unique pageviews”) which is why the total number of visitors are slightly off.As you can see, 88% of my traffic was organic while only 6% was from social media!
Nearly $100,000 In Revenue
Look: a million pageviews is a neat accomplishment, but it doesn’t mean much if that traffic isn’t targeted and doesn’t convert.
In other words—if you can’t make any money from the people who visit your website, then who cares?
Luckily, the 1 million+ pageviews to my outdoors site last year was very targeted traffic—they were people interested in what I was writing about, and they were eager to buy products in the camping and hiking niche.
Side note: there are a lot of ways to monetize a website—you can sell courses, ads, sponsorships, lead generation, physical products—but for my outdoors site, I decided to use affiliate marketing with the Amazon Affiliate program because it best aligned with my audience (outdoors people who like to buy products for their hobbies).
Here’s a screenshot of my Amazon Affiliate account showing earnings for each month last year:
You’ll see in January 2017 I made $4,387.66, in July (peak season for the outdoors niche) I made $12,969.11, and in December I made $5,146.59!
And for the entire year, my outdoors site made $95,134.05 in revenue, with 88% of my traffic coming from Google search.
Let me ask you: are you starting to see the power of SEO?
Who Am I? (And Why I Decided To Start This Blog)
Look, I get it: there are already a hundred other “SEO blogs” out there today.
So why would I decide to start another one?
Well, I saw an opening in the market for an audience who was craving simple, practical SEO advice, but whose needs weren’t being met.
Think about it: are you a personal finance, DIY, or mommy blogger who doesn’t know where to start when it comes to SEO?
Do you get 75% of your visitors from Pinterest but wish you could diversify your traffic streams?
Are you a professional blogger who teaches newbies how to start a blog, but could brush up on your own SEO skills to increase your organic traffic?
Then you are my target audience and Stupid Easy SEO is the blog for you!
Those other SEO blogs, their audiences are primarily SEO and digital marketing people who work at in-house agencies, and not your average lifestyle blogger like yourself.
So these blogs exist and they serve their target audience well—the only problem is that their target audience isn’t you.
And that’s the first reason I started this blog.
The second reason is because when it comes down to it, SEO is not that hard.
In fact, when you break it down to its core concepts, it’s actually pretty easy!
At the end of the day, SEO is about three things:
- 1Figuring out what you’re going to write about (we call this keyword research)
- 2Creating and optimizing your content around those keywords (we call this on-page SEO)
- 3Promoting your content to the right audience (we call this off-page SEO or link building)
Now, I’m not going to lie: there is a LOT of work that goes into mastering those three things.
But if you can nail them down, you will drive targeted, organic traffic from Google to your site, and you will increase your audience and make more money.
How Proper Keyword Research Ranked Me For 78,000 Keywords In Google
Have you ever sat down to write a post but had no idea what to write about?
Worse yet: have you ever sat down to write a post with an idea in mind, but weren’t sure exactly which topics to include?
That’s where keyword research comes in.
When you’re writing content for your blog, you don’t want to just write about what first comes to mind.
You want to know what people are searching for in Google.
You want to know what sub-topics they’re also searching for that are related to that keyword.
Important note: this does NOT mean that you "write for Google" ... no, you first and always write for human beings ... but you optimize for Google.
And you also want to know how “competitive” your keywords are to give you an idea whether or not your can rank your article in Google.
In other words: when you’re planning out your content, you need a plan.
Let me show you a screenshot from my Ahrefs account.
Note: we’ll take a deeper dive into Ahrefs in future blog posts, but for now just realize it’s basically a web application that lets you do keyword research, see what keywords your competitors are ranking for, and also lets you keep track of backlinks, among other awesome features.
What you’re looking at is an overview for the total number of keywords that my outdoors site is ranking for in Google—you can see that this site is ranking for more than 78,000 keywords.
Now, on the surface that may be hard for some people to put into context.
What does ranking for 78,000 keywords even mean?
And is it any good?
To cover the first question: ranking for 78,000 keyword simply means that there are 78,000 unique searches in Google that my site is ranking for in the top 100 in Google.
For example: “backpacking gear”, “gifts for hikers”, and “best sleeping pad” are all unique keyword searches that people type into Google.
To cover the second question: let’s do a quick comparison to one of my favorite bloggers in any niche, Michelle over at Making Sense of Cents.
As most of you know, Michelle is a superstar blogger whose site brings in more than $100,000 per month in income. She’s at the top of the blogging food chain.
Let’s plop her site into Ahrefs and take a look:
So Michelle is ranking for about 52,000 keywords in Google (which is still awesome, by the way!) and my outdoors site is ranking for about 78,000.
You may be thinking: who cares about ranking in the top 100? Nobody searches past the first page in Google.
What about the top 10?
Here you’ll see my outdoors site ranks for 8,264 keywords in Google in the top 10 (i.e. on the first page of Google).
And again for comparison, here’s what Making Sense of Cents is ranking for in Google’s top 10:
So hopefully that gives a little context into how well I’ve been able to rank my outdoors site in Google.
(And let’s be 100% clear here: Michelle’s site is a LOT more successful than my outdoors site. It’s not even remotely close).
Oh, one other thing: I have less than 200 total posts on the entire site, so it hasn’t taken thousands of blog posts to rank for those 78,000 keywords.
Why Spying On Your Competition Is The Best Way To Do Keyword Research
Now let’s do a little thought experiment. Say you were opening up a diner in town and it was time to come up with your menu.
You know those diners that have like 35 pages of menu options? And probably 80% of the menu is never even ordered?
Yeah, you don’t want something like that.
You’re just starting out and you don’t need a 35-page menu, you just want to offer the items that customers really like.
You just want to offer the best-performing items.
Now let’s say there’s another diner a few blocks away, one that’s been in business for a few years who does really well—one of your competitors—and they have one of those giant 35-page menus.
What if there was a way for you to know what their best-selling items were?
What if you knew that the western omelette, the bacon egg and cheese, the mozzarella sticks, the turkey burger, and the Greek salad were the top 5 selling items for this diner?
You’d probably want to put those items on your own menu too, right?
The same is also true of keyword research!
When I started my outdoors site and got into the keyword research phase of building out my site … I didn’t just start randomly brainstorming post ideas and writing about every topic under the sun. This is the 35-page menu approach!
No. Instead, I wanted to write about topics that I knew my competition was already getting ranking for and getting a lot of Google traffic from.
In other words, I wanted to write about those “best-selling menu items” in our diner example.
So that's exactly what I did.
That’s great, Mike, you’re probably thinking—but I don’t know which topics and blog posts my competition is ranking for.
Reverse-Engineering Your Competition with Ahrefs
While Ahrefs is the secret weapon amongst SEO professionals and digital marketers, I’ve found that not many professional bloggers are very familiar with it.
As I mentioned, I’m not going to dive deep into all of Ahrefs features (that requires its own post), but I will say it’s the essential SEO tool to have under your belt, and I’m going to show you how I used it when I was first hunting for keywords for my outdoors site.
When I started that site, I already knew who the big players were in the niche. I knew that they were wildly successful with tons of traffic (using SimilarWeb and Ahrefs to estimate traffic) and were undoubtedly earning big commissions.
So my first step was figuring out which posts on their sites were driving the most traffic.
Using my first competitor, CleverHiker.com, I can take their URL and plop them into the “Site Explorer” tool in Ahrefs:
After hitting the orange search icon, I’m taken to a new page with a lot of information on it, but for now we’re just going to focus on two of the links under the “Organic search” section—“Organic keywords” and “Top pages”.
Clicking on the “Organic keywords” will bring up another page … and let me warn you … what you’re about to see is an absolute goldmine of information!
Yes, this is a table of every single keyword that CleverHiker is ranking for in Google, sorted by the highest amount of traffic that each keyword generates!
Again, there’s a lot going on here, but let me quickly go over six of the columns on the page:
- 1Keyword. This is the specific keyword that CleverHiker is ranking for in Google.
- 2Volume. This is the (estimated) search volume in Google for the number of people who search for that keyword each month. Different niches will have different keyword volume (and keyword intent), but a very rough estimate for me is that anything with a keyword volume of 1,000+ is worth going after.
- 3KD. This is an Ahrefs calculation estimating how difficult it is (i.e. how many links you would need) to rank for this keyword on the 1st page of Google.
- 4Traffic. Another estimation from Ahrefs showing how much traffic per month that each keyword is generating for CleverHiker (I’ve found this estimate to be really low; I generally will 3x the number to get a better idea of traffic).
- 5Position. This column simply shows what position in Google’s top 10 CleverHiker is ranking for, for that keyword.
- 6URL. This is simply the URL of the blog post that’s ranking for the particular keyword so you can check out the page.
So not only do I know which keywords are bringing in the most traffic for one of my competitors, I also know how many people search for that keyword each month, how much traffic it brings to their site, and how difficult it will be for me to rank in Google for the same keyword … all at the click of a button!
Can I ask you a question?
Are you understanding how insanely valuable this information is?
But it gets even better.
Instead of using the “Organic keywords” view to sort by which individual keywords bring in the most traffic for a website ... you can also use the “Top pages” view in Ahrefs, which sorts total traffic on a page level (not keyword level).
What does this mean?
It means that when I started my outdoors site, one of the very first posts I wrote was a review of the best sleeping bags … because I knew that my competitor was getting a lot of traffic from Google to that page!
To be clear, this strategy of leveraging your competitors' most popular content does NOT in any way mean that you are going to "copy" their content. No, your content still needs to be 100% original, in your own voice, and frankly, you should aim to differentiate your content to make it uniquely YOURS.
Anyway, this is how I started to flesh out my content calendar for my new site.
I entered 20 of my top competitors into Ahrefs and ran reports (see the “Export” button in the top right in the screenshot above) on their top keywords and top pages.
And with these reports, I was able to generate dozens of dozens of content ideas!
And the best part?
I didn’t have to guess what my audience wanted to read about. I didn’t have to guess if people were searching for these ideas in Google.
No. Because of Ahrefs, I already knew there were proven content ideas that would attract thousand of visitors from Google.
No guessing involved!
Now I only needed a plan to outline my content and optimize my posts to generate the most traffic possible from Google.
One More Example
But before we get to that, let’s do one more quick example …
I know that personal finance and budgeting is popular with a lot of bloggers, and one niche that always interested me was early retirement and financial independence.
Basically there is this whole group of bloggers who write about investment, tax, and savings strategies so you can retire in your 30s and 40s. (Must be nice).
So let’s pretend we’re launching a brand new blog in the financial independence niche and we want to research which keywords our competition is already ranking for.
Since I’m a reader of these types of blogs, I already know most of the big players in the niche. One of them is called Mad Fientist.
I’m going to plop this site into Ahrefs and using the Top Pages feature, we can see that the page (other than the homepage) bringing in the most traffic for this site is about “After Tax Contributions” and the top keyword for that page is “mega backdoor Roth”.
Ok. So let’s take one step back and regroup here for a second.
Remember, we are launching a brand new blog in the financial independence niche …
And we have ZERO posts on our site …
And we are researching some blog post ideas to come up with …
And we can see that one of our top competitors is bringing a lot of traffic to his site with the keyword “mega backdoor Roth” …
So what are we going to do next?
Well, we’re going to write a post about mega backdoor Roths!
We’re not going to write just any old blog post.
No. We are going to write the most comprehensive, most engaging, most well-designed post about mega backdoor Roths on the entire internet!
How To Do Keyword Planning & Outlining
So now that we know which keywords we want to write about, what is our next step?
If you’re like most people … your next step is to simply start writing your post.
And this is a big mistake!
You see, when you’re planning your content for SEO, you need to do exactly that … plan it out.
When I was building out my outdoors site, I did a lot of research and created outlines to for EVERY piece of content to determine exactly which topics and subtopics I should be writing about!
Yes, I said the words “research” and “outline”. (No one said this was going to be easy, right?)
Remember: in this example, we want to write the most compelling and most comprehensive guide online about mega backdoor Roths! So we need to do the prep work before we begin writing.
So let’s start to build the outline for our post.
Building an Outline
This is not a detailed guide on how to organize and outline your content (though I will create one in the future), so we’ll just go through the high-level steps of what I did with my outdoors site.
Step 1: Sign up for a free MindMeister account
MindMeister is a (free) “mind-mapping” tool which will allow us to visualize some of the sub-topics we want to include in our post.
Step 2: Search Google for your keyword and skim through the top 5 results
Remember, the idea is to create content that Google loves … and there’s no better place to look for the kind of topics and sub-topics that Google thinks is valuable than … Google itself.
So you can simply Google our main keyword “mega backdoor Roth” and skim through the first 5 results, and see which sub-topics these other sites are writing about.
For example … here is a screen shot from one of the posts ranking in the Top 3:
Clearly, people who are searching for information on a mega backdoor Roth want to know how exactly it works … so we’re going to add this subtopic to our mind map like so:
Do this for all subtopics for at least the Top 5 results in Google and you’ll start to have a nice list of things to write about.
Step 3: Use Ahrefs Keywords Explorer
Then I like to head back to Ahrefs and enter our keyword into the Keywords Explorer tool.
From here you can pull some great subtopic ideas to add to your post—just look at all the related keywords that I’ve signaled with the pink arrows above.
Add any new subtopic ideas to your mind map.
Step 4: Use UberSuggest
UberSuggest is another great (free) tool that generates a ton of related keywords for you. Here’s what it looks like after we enter our main keyword:
Obviously, not all 633 results will be useful for us, but we’ll be able to pick out a handful of relevant long tail keywords that can serve as good subtopics.
Add these to your mind map.
Step 5: Take your subtopics from Mindmeister and work them into an outline with H2s and FAQs
Finally, it’s time to build our outline. We can take all of the subtopics that we’ve added to our mind map and begin to lay them out in outline form in a way that makes logical sense.
I like to use Dynalist (free) for my outlines, but you can use whatever you want.
Obviously, this is not a comprehensive outline by any means but you can begin to see how to flesh it out.
When I was building out my outdoors site, this is exactly how I prepared each piece of content before writing it.
It made a HUGE difference in organic traffic because it allowed me to rank not only for my main keywords, but thousands of related, long tail keywords as well!
Only after I had done all my research and had pieced together an outline did I finally start writing.
And after I had filled my site with a few dozen blog posts, I started in on my most important task: outreaching to other bloggers for backlinks.
How I Built Links For My $95,000 Outdoors Site
Once I did all the keyword research and planning for my posts, and after I started to publish some of the posts to my outdoors site … what do you think I did next?
If I were like most bloggers, I would have sat back and waited for Google to send me loads of traffic.
That’s a lot of the SEO advice out there, anyway—publish great content, post on your blog consistently, and Google will reward you with higher rankings and targeted traffic.
Only thing is … this “strategy” simply doesn’t work!
Look: don’t get me wrong. Great content is the cornerstone of a great blog and I’m a firm believer that you can’t have a successful, profitable site without it.
In order for you to rank high in Google, your blog needs some AUTHORITY.
What is authority?
Well, the short answer is that sites with authority have a better chance of ranking highly in Google. They are trusted sites in Google’s eyes and Google loves to rank sites that they trust.
But how does your blog get authority so that Google will trust it?
At the end of the day, it all boils down to one thing: backlinks.
Yes, if you want to rank in Google, you need backlinks.
Now, this post isn’t meant to be a detailed guide on backlinks and how to go about getting other bloggers to link to your site.
But I will take you inside how I went about building links back to my outdoors site, which in turn gave it some authority and trust, and allowed it to rank high in Google.
Guest Posting For a Larger Audience and Easy Links
While there are dozens of backlink strategies you can try, and a handful that I used successfully when building my outdoors site, today I’m going to focus on only one strategy, one which you’re surely familiar with: guest posting.
Guest posting is great because it allows you to get your content in front of a new (and related) audience that you normally wouldn't have access to.
And from the perspective of building links, it’s ideal because for the majority of guest posts, you’re allowed to include at least one link back to your site when you publish on other blogs.
So, you get to grow your audience and build links at the same time. This is a win-win!
Let’s take a look at a random example of this in action, shall we?
Leah is the blogger behind The Sweetest Way, a “travel and lifestyle design” blog.
Now, Leah was (presumably) looking to get her content in front of a larger audience, so she published a guest post on Making Sense of Cents back in 2016:
And throughout her guest post, Leah included a few links (relevant to her post) back to her own site:
Now … not only do these links encourage readers to click back to Leah’s site, which increases her traffic and gives her the opportunity to grow her audience long term, possibly by getting new readers on her email ist …
But from an SEO perspective … these links back to Leah’s site GREATLY increased her authority and trust, and allow her to rank higher in Google.
Why? Because Google treats links like a voting system.
When Michelle from Making Sense of Cents links back to The Sweetest Way, it’s sending a clear signal to Google: this is a blog that I trust and “vote” for, so you should trust it too.
Not only that … but not all links are created equal.
No, generally speaking, when you get a link from a website that has a lot of authority itself, that link “counts more” in Google’s eyes, which makes sense: a link from Nerdwallet.com is going to be “worth” a lot more than a link from a personal finance website that just launched two weeks ago.
And Making Sense of Cents is a pretty authoritative blog. We’re not going to dive too deep into authority metrics here, but you can do a quick check in Ahrefs to see how much authority a site has by looking at the Domain Rating (“DR”) score.
Here you’ll see that Michelle’s site has a DR of 64, which is very impressive.
Generally speaking, when you get a link from a website that has a lot of authority itself, that links “counts more” in Google’s eyes.
So, now we know that guest posting not only gives you visibility to a new audience, but it’s also a great way of building authority and trust in Google’s eyes via backlinks.
Now I want to quickly show you how I used guest posts to grow my outdoors site, and how long it took for those links to boost my blog posts up in Google’s rankings and for the site to start earning some money.
Blogger Outreaching and Increased Earnings
It’s not a stretch to say that without guest posting, my site wouldn’t have earned anywhere NEAR the $95,000 it made in 2017.
Along with publishing insanely valuable content, guest posting was the #1 reason for my site’s success.
But before we dive in, I wanted to give a little context around the timeline of my site and how long it took to see results.
I launched my outdoors site in January 2016 and posted about 25 articles that first month.
After I had a good base of content set up, I started outreaching for guest posting opportunities immediately.
Here's a screenshot from my Gmail account searching for the phrase "guest post": you can see that I've sent a lot of guest post pitches 🙂
Now, a lot of website owners will ignore your emails but overall, I was able to land about 25-30 guest posts total in those first several months ... which really isn't that many ...
But you'll see how much impact those links had.
Again: I started my site in January 2016 ... and here are some screenshots from my Amazon Affiliate account which will show how my earnings progressed over the year.
May 2016: $334
July 2016: $2165
November 2016: $4525
February 2017: $7850
So after my outdoors site was live for five months, I made $300+ ... after seven months, I made $2,100 ... after 11 months, I made $4,500+ ... and after 14 months, I made $7,800+.
I had zero Facebook following, non-existent Pinterest traffic, and used no paid advertising: this explosive growth in revenue (and traffic) was 100% a result of SEO.
The Problem With Most Guest Post Pitches
This post isn't meant to be a deep-dive into how to guest post, but I can give you one strategy that can increase your success rate for your guest post pitches today.
The problem with most guest pitches, and why they get ignored, is because there's no effort to relationship build before the pitch is sent.
Let me show you what I mean.
Since my outdoors site ranks highly in Google, I get a lot of bloggers who send guest post pitches to me, looking to write for my site.
Here's one that I received recently from an SEO agency who charges thousands of dollars per month for their services, pitching on behalf of a client:
On the surface, and compared to most of the crap I receive, this actually isn't a terrible pitch.
They are doing a couple of things right here:
So overall, their pitch was somewhat personalized, clear, and short and to the point, which I appreciate.
But, their pitch is missing one big thing: I have no idea who this person is because I've never heard of them before!
One Guest Posting Tip You Can Use Right Now
Look, when you're a blogger ... YOU (and not some obscure "brand") are the face behind your site.
I know this sounds painfully obvious, but it's incredibly important.
Because YOU are able to connect with other bloggers in your niche on a personal level. You can warm your prospects up before contacting them!
And making these connections and building these relationships with other bloggers BEFORE asking them for anything dramatically increases your chances of success when it comes time to ask for something.
So, before sending your next guest post pitch, you need to get on on that blogger's radar.
You can do this by ...
Above all, you have to be genuine, and you have to be consistent. This is not an overnight process.
But once you are on their radar and they know who you are ... when it's time to ask to guest post on their site, you'll have a much better chance of getting your pitch accepted.
Now, It's Your Turn
Phew. That's one of the longest pieces of content I've ever written!
I hope this case study was able to show you the true power of SEO, and how implementing some simple strategies like basic keyword research, outlining and planning your content, and outreaching for backlinks can skyrocket your blog traffic and income.
Now ... I turn it over to you.
If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, I'd love to hear it below!
P.S. In my next post I'm going to write a massive guide called Beginner's Guide To SEO: A Field Guide For Newbies, which will cover in detail everything you need to know about SEO if you're just starting out. Make sure you're signed up to my email list to get notified when it's published 🙂