Update, Townies, and White Hat SEO

So it turns out there are a lot of people trying to make money online off of other people trying to make money online, which we knew. I wrote about this pyramid-y phenomenon in the post Black Hat.

As usual, a step back for context. Two weeks ago I wrote about the Google Dance. My niche site, which I started three months ago as a way to travel and write about it, had suddenly started showing up on page 4 of google, without my doing any more than writing articles. I wondered if Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, who said offsite SEO was obsolete, was onto something. I continued writing articles for the section pertaining to the keyword that was ranking well, creating a pretty deep resource for anyone looking to read more about any of 5-6 topics. This wasn’t the standard “500 words on a topic popular on market samurai” niche site. This was ultimate resource shit. The google rank bobbed into the mid-20s, fueling excitement I might be able to skip the “learning curve” most of my idols experienced, and monetize right away.

Well, it’s not that easy. Which is good, from the standpoint of giving advice to others. I would hate for a reader of Breaking Ferriss to attempt to implement my advice and fail simply because I got lucky.

My site has settled in the mid-30s for my keyword, and that’s where it will probably sit until I can increase my site authority a bit. The fact that it’s ranking so well with just content is a sign I chose a good keyword. Now it’s up to me.

Which brings us back to the 500-pound gorilla in every webmaster’s closet: SEO.

I’ve written in previous posts that I believe every type of link building except natural link building will soon be obsolete. That includes expired domains, currently the rage. Let’s get this out of the way up front: I may be wrong. If you’ve read this far you know I’m no expert, but neither, necessarily, is a guy whose whole livelihood depends on expired domains. What I see is steady improvement of the search engines in distinguishing genuine buzz from manufactured buzz, and if you think expired domains don’t differ from genuine high PR (page rank) sites in some fundamental ways that algorithms will eventually be able to sniff out, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. (Sure, John Smith for state senate 2006 may have a high page authority, but I’d rather get a link from a real, live webmaster, thank you very much.)

But there’s good news. There is a way to make even the old-school relationship-building it always comes back to easier, and I love it. Perry Rosenbloom, proprietor of fine business such as SEO Sherpa, discovered a way to “scrape” google results for groups and foundations related to your niche. Do the google search for your keyword, do the meta-search to trawl your results for organizations and foundations. A little leg (eye, index finger) work to discover the name and contact info of the president of each organization, a little mail merging after writing a personal message, and presto! Potentially hundreds of opinion makers in your niche just got a personalized email offering your content to their members.

Key word is “offering.” Not hard-selling. It’s astonishing now many people get this wrong.

Luckily, I’ve received a few such emails myself this week, and the reactions they elicited from meis a useful guide for how potential colleagues are likely to relate to your emails.

Which brings us back to the opening sentence of this post. The overwhelming majority go something like “I’ve noticed your site could be getting a lot more traffic.” Somewhere in somebody’s mom’s basement, the inventor of the SEO Spam Robot is chuckling heartily, because he’s the only person making any money from these messages.

A little further up the totem pole are messages that were probably written by a human being, but that seep with arrogance and totally misunderstand the basic value-adding proposition of a business deal. “I read your site and used to have the same problem. Now my site’s ranked on the first page.” Well, how did you solve my problem? The question is never answered in the email or comment. Because, of course, this is somebody doing link building for a site specializing in making money online. Beyond the unsettling questions the fact that these so-called experts are spending their time making no-follow comments on low page-authority sites- about the lowest leverage SEO there is, raises, it’s not very sporting not to offer advice, and real “gurus” like Pat Flynn and Spencer Haws rarely withhold information like that.

So you want to avoid looking like a spam bot or used car salesman. There actually is a Ferrissian best-practice for this, and it’s to make a genuinely helpful comment or open an email with a disarming overture, then suggest content you believe might be helpful – instead of just linking to your home page – and leave it there.

I got just such an email last week, and I have little doubt it was mail merged. I didn’t care. Whoever penned it – or her assistant in her stead – had done her research, and offered some thoughtful comments on how she and I may be on the same “train” (my analogy, not hers). She didn’t ask for a link and she didn’t need to. Her site is definitive. Page authority 66, and brimming with useful, user-reviewed, affiliate-monetized content. She’ll get a link from me because her site’s a great resource, and she deserves it.

Of course I played the same game in the reply, offering a couple of my articles I believed would be useful to her readers, and saying I would appreciate any thoughts. I didn’t ask for a link either – she knows the dance we’re doing and she’ll link to me if she feel its useful and or appropriate. I wouldn’t want it any other way. The rarely discussed truth about junk links is their terrible conversion rate.

I don’t want people on my site unless they want to be there – it’s a waste of their time and its worthless to me because they won’t click on my ads or affiliate links.

So there we are. Stage Two for the SEO Sherpa method is deploying it large-scale. In my research for my articles I’ve been running across many other bloggers in my niche, and I’m excited to hit the ground running with full on White Hat (only hat?) SEO.

More on the particulars, plus another discussion of music, in my next post.


The Google Dance – meditations on process

Yesterday morning my site was ranked #31 in google, down 3 from the previous evening, when it was 28. By yesterday afternoon it was 25th. Fist Pump! Checked today and it was 32nd.

This nauseating fugoid is known in the industry as the “google dance.” I’m not sure if my heroes Pat Flynn and Spencer Haws experienced it this way though – the arcs their sites took seemed pretty direct.

Here’s the second-most unsettling part: I’m not exactly sure why my site started ranking so well to begin with (a little while ago it popped onto the radar in the high ’60s), and I’m certainly not any more sure what’s causing it to rise or fall.

Here’s the most unsettling part: I’m not sure even the experts know what’s working.

We’re in the google-update hinterlands: the idea of keyword-anchored niche websites arose in part as a way to exploit a loophole in the search engines. In 2007, they still weren’t that good. At their quintessence, search engines are supposed to determine the difference between sites recognized as “authorities” on the web and those that aren’t. Small problem – it would take human beings far too long to look through all the content on the web and make determinations about its value, so they wrote code, so that robots can do it.

In the beginning, the code was simple. Any site with a lot of links ranked highly. Then it got more discerning. At that point, a small number of links from pages of high perceived authority was enough to raise your rank, but google didn’t look very deeply into what gave sites authority, so it was possible to game the system by submitting “spun” articles to article distribution robots, which those robots would then distribute to hundreds of article directories, all pointing back at your satellite site, from which you would then link back to your central site. It was fraudulent – you were creating the appearance of respected bloggers using your site as a source when it was really just you.

Then came the Panda update. Panda addressed several big things – exact match domains and anchor text. It also refined further page authority. Now you could no longer use spun articles with the same anchor text, because an algorithm compared the frequency of exact match anchor text pointing back at your site to that occurring “in nature,” and the fake identities didn’t pass muster.

Now the game is expired domains, where you buy real domain names with lots of existing links pointing at them, refurbish the sites, and link to your landing page, being careful to keep the exact match anchor text below 20%. (It reminds me of the part of Catch Me If You Can when Frank Abagnale starts printing “real checks”.)

Starting to see a pattern here?

If your layperson SEO meta-analysis is anything like mine, you’re probably thinking “this is a racket not long for this world.” And you’d have online gurus Fraser Cain and Spencer Haws mostly agreeing with you. Then you’ve got people like Hayden Miyamoto and Alex Becker on the other side, proponents of the expired-domain method.

So whom to believe?

The jury’s out. I know expired domains will work now, but I’m not sure about the future. In the end I need to address this on two levels – practical and personal. On the practical level it makes sense to diversify and experiment. If I rank for multiple keywords it’s less consequential if any one falls off the top ten. How to get there and stay there? I can use several small sites to experiment with different SEO strategies. For my primary site, I want to be the most conservative, in case any particular strategy results in a penalty.

Some strategies I know won’t result in penalties are-

Social media profiles like a Facebook and Pinterest page and a slideshare account: While the types of links social media platforms provide are inconsequential in google’s eyes, they do give you eyeballs on your site, and some of those eyeballs may belong to bloggers who may want to link to you.

Start relationships with other bloggers in my niche. Tim Ferriss has a great approach for this – simply asking people questions about their blogs and only volunteering information about my own if asked, and then only in the form of a single article I think they may find interesting. (Just the way I emailed this to you and you’re still reading, if you’re someone I emailed this to;)

Links from blogs I already own, like this one, though multiple links from the same root domain don’t have much more effect than a single link.

Second is the personal level. On that front I have to balance being hungry for success and the motivation that gives me with focusing on process more and short term results less. The mind-hack is to try to view the google rankings like experiment data rather than as a reason to jump up and down or pound the floor.

I’ve seen the summit, folks. (Of this first little hill – breaking the top ten for the first keyword and earning dollar one from Adsense.) I don’t know how much distance lies between here and there – could be two weeks, could be months – but I’ve seen it. Now the challenge is keep calm, keep doing what’s working, and stay in the pocket.


By the way, if you’re seeing a video for potato chips below this copy, I’m making no money from it – it’s WordPress.com’s way of covering its expenses, though I’m already paying an annual fee for hosting. Point being, if you like delicious lays chips, click away, but it’s not an affiliate link or my own Adsense.

Reality Check Part Deux – Baby Steps

As my website (hopefully) creeps closer to monetization, it’s useful to keep a few things in mind, and the person who put it more lucidly than anyone I’ve ever heard was Fraser Cain, in a 2012 interview with niche website expert Spencer Haws.

Before I drop the good and bad news of the reality check, it’s worth remembering the original purpose of this blog – to reality-test Tim Ferriss’ assertions in Four Hour Work Week that practically anyone can start a lucrative side business, automate and outsource most of it, and use the passive income to fund his/her ideal lifestyle.

Here’s what I’m now sure of-

1)The first website I’m hoping to monetize has a potential 3600 visitors a month with something like a $2.50 cost per click. That’s 9,000 potential dollars times whatever percentage of viewers click on the ad. Industry standard is 1%. That’s $90 a month. It could end up being more, it could end up being less, or it could end up being $90 for different reasons than I expect (if, for instance, I don’t achieve top ranking, but I get traffic from multiple smaller keywords).

2) As bleak as that looks, I believe I’ve seen far enough over the horizon to say with reasonable certainty that the model is a viable one.

Before I get into the “good news” let’s get the other “bad news” items out there:

-According to Fraser Cain, there’s “no such thing as passive income,” since market conditions change so quickly that you have to continue to innovate,

-Niche websites are actually one of the lowest-leverage ways to earn, since you’re depending on Adwords, which has a pretty low ROI compared to products, and you’re depending on search engines, which can alter their algorithms at the drop of a hat and cost you big.

I want to begin to describe why I don’t think those cold, hard facts (that business and art gurus alike agree everyone who’s going to succeed needs to face) are as damning as they seem by posing a Four Hour Work Week “acid test” in true Tim Ferriss spirit.

What’s the bare minimum Ferrissian “lifestyle design” needs to do in order to be considered a viable alternative to the 9-5, “deferred life” plan?

Well, first is – free your time so that you can use it the way you want.

How am I spending my days now? I’m certainly working more than when I was “punching the clock”. Some days I do indeed go into the office, and on those days I usually work from about 10pm – 1am on my business. Other days I work remotely, and will usually use the first 2-3 hours of the day to work on the business before turning to “work” and hammering out my daily “to do” list.

If passive income, or at least “force multiplied” income were possible, I could view every website I built-then-forgot as an income jump. Build ten sites at an average of $90/month and that’s $900/month. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but remember I’m *still* collecting a paycheck from my day job (and I sleep very well at night too – everything’s above board, and I demonstrate better-than-ever productivity at work). That’s $10,800 extra per year.

Remember, though, Fraser Cain’s assertion that there are no websites you can truly “set and forget.” Ok, so say I have to keep building new sites. But I can probably build new ones quicker than the old ones fall off the indexes, if they do at all. (By the way, is $90/month average overly optimistic? I suspect not, but I’ll explain why in a follow up article.) That means if the only thing I did to make money from now on was niche websites, I could still slow the pace of producing new ones to half or even a quarter of my current pace and keep ahead of the curve, especially considering all the time the efficiency tactics are saving me at work.

Finally, there’s an opportunity cost angle to consider. If I weren’t pursuing passive income, it’s not like I would just be pulling four-hour Arrested Development benders every night. I’d be trying to get into B-school, or taking a class to try to get a raise, or putting extra hours at the office in hope of securing (or after securing) a promotion.

What I’m trying to do is what Tim Ferriss calls “fear setting”, and what Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the great new book Decisive call “bracketing”. I’m trying to establish a realistic range of outcomes that if I’m better than average I’ll hopefully be able to improve upon.

So, have I freed time in this baseline scenario? If you calculate time both in terms of hourly earnings and raw extra hours-per-week, I’d say the answer is “yes.”

Then there’s the qualitative argument. The way I spend my time these days is: banging through office work as efficiently as possible and working on my online biz the way I described, but also:

-becoming great at the drums – putting in about two hours of focused practice every day,

-filming a web show about music, and, lastly,

-traveling around the world, because since two of my websites are dedicated to travel, travel to destinations I’m going to write about is now business travel. (Look for smartasiatravel.com – with info on multiple Asian destinations as well as hacks for airfare, fighting jet lag, getting a global gsm phone for dirt cheap, the fastest way to learn mandarin, getting an international drivers license, and more – early next year.)

When you factor all that in, the $90/month earning potential of a top-ranked website and the need to continue building new sites doesn’t negate the benefits of the lifestyle I’ve begun to embark on.

And here’s what I haven’t even talked about yet – I’m not planning to confine myself to websites, or to confine website work to myself alone. As cash flow increases, so does investment potential. Things like hiring a programmer to design an iPhone app or a software to sell, and even being able to absorb a couple of failures, come into reach. And so does another pivotal Ferrissian device – virtual assistants. The way to make niche websites work in a big way is to scale them up, and when other people can do things like research and article writing for you, your time is free to do more.

I write this all before having made dollar one, and anything could happen with this first site. Still, I’m confident that A site will succeed eventually, and that’s all that matters.

Thanks for reading!