It’s Done! – Video Trailer for 8020 Drummer

Guys quick update. Finished the roughs in Final Cut last night for the 8020 Drummer video preview. Here’s what will sit on the landing page as I do my initial conversion testing-

Of course the real video will be professionally produced. Still, I’m pretty happy with the way this turned out. I had worried that my lack of professional mics and cameras might render the whole thing really amateurish looking, but hopefully the quality of the composition, playing, and editing makes up for that.

With a few minor tweaks, this will go on the landing page Friday for phase 2 of market testing.

Thanks for reading, and back at you soon!

Long Overdue Update 2 – Hacking My Life to Bits (in a good way)

First things first: I owe you an update. When last I wrote I had followed the niche site thread to its actionable conclusion, and was investigating products to sell. Evolution up to this point as follows: read four hour work week, jumped in to try several quixotic and ill-advised ideas, settled on niche sites because of low barrier to entry and opportunity to write about things, fleshed out one site to practical “authority site” proportions, implemented some new-school search engine optimization tactics that proved pretty effective, settled at a decent rank, and discovered monetization was going to be more difficult than I thought. With that in mind, I employed a new strategy for niche sites (which I’ll describe), back-burnered them, and turned my attention once again to products, this time with the benefit of the expertise I learned from the websites.

It may be hard to believe, but I already feel a tremendous responsibility to the few folks who read this blog, many of whom are friends and family, and I’m not sure either of those is a bad thing. The temptation to “front”, or act like I know something, is constant, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Pressure to succeed, forcing myself to be honest in the process – these are the two components that will give me the best chance. Just like stick.com will donate money, on my behalf, to the Karl Rove School for Boys, should I fail to fulfill a goal, the readers of this blog are looking to me to see whether all this crazy Tim Ferriss shit works.

As in other posts, I’ll address this on two fronts, first business, then – and maybe more importantly – life.

Muse

I’m back to using Mr. Ferriss’ (and, I suppose, Homer’s, Virgil’s, and Dante’s) term, muse, to distinguish a coldly efficient moneymaking vehicle from a “for-the-love” business. I sincerely believe the ideas that flow from my creativity and twisted sense of humor, such as my blogs and web show, will eventually give me the best return – both monetary and otherwise – but I need to distinguish them from the no-moves-wasted, minimal-investment, market-tested monetization vehicle I’m trying to create.
So the travel blog is, in a sense, liberated. It no longer carries the weight of speedy monetization. Instead, it’s like a “stick” pushing me to travel and write, both of which I find pleasurable. It’s a craft the honing of which takes me out of the day-to-day concerns of the “rat race”. It’s not my startup, it’s my fly-fishing hobby.

The niche site thing, I’m discovering, is difficult. At least with a first site. I’ve learned some lessons, and here’s what I’m doing now:

-Setting up small sites for three keywords – two well-researched, with good metrics, one a wild card. The two “well-researched” keywords include one niche supplying information vital to charting a course through an education-based career-improvement – a lucrative type of niche based on my analysis of what’s succeeded for others, and one intended for monetization on Amazon Affiliates, where a reader is googling reviews of a product he/she would then plausibly buy on amazon.

-Outsourcing everything I don’t want to write personally. More on this below.

-“Waiting and seeing” – since google’s algorithms are changing so frequently, it doesn’t make sense pouring time and money into a site I’m not sure will rank. I’ll “set and forget” these three sites for a few months, see which if any are ranking well naturally, then flesh those out.

This whole process is complete. Just like a roast that needs six hours, it’s gone in the oven while I tend to the cranberry sauce.

Inspired by App Sumo’s Noah Kagan’s concept of “velocity to dollar one”, and in the same spirit of experimentation-for-my-readers I found with the travel site, I’m redeploying my drum instructional series, with a couple of tweaks. It’s true that when I initially tested this idea, I used google Adwords, which proved way too expensive to turn a profit. Facebook ads, my discovery of the summer, however, are not. As I write this I’m into stage two of market testing the 8020 Drummer 2.0. Here are the stages-

1) Confirm I can advertise profitably. I do this is two stages, the first of which is complete. First, I set up the most basic of landing pages on squarespace, took the most successful Adwords ad and repurposed it as a Facebook ad. I chose a group of about 14,000 people to advertise to, based on their interests (drum-related, in this case). Signs were positive – around a 6% click through rate and around 5 “sign ups” to a contact form on the landing page. If each of those signups were a sale, at even $25, I would be well in the black considering I spent a total of about $6 on advertising.

This alone isn’t sufficient to invest lots of time and/or money in a product, however. I need to test conversion rates. I need to see how many people actually click “buy now”, and for what price. In order to do that, there needs to be something tangible on my landing page, which is why I’m creating a video preview in final cut.

2) Outsource, and crowd fund, production. I’ll discuss below how embracing the quintessentially Ferrissian practice of outsourcing is saving my ass, but there’s another reason to do it with a video series I’m going to charge money for – it will look awesome, people should spend their money on something “worth it,” and it will save me a ton of time and hassle.

Theoretically I could simply confirm a hypothetical sales volume through dry testing, then invest in video production with relative confidence. But since I’m tweaking this process so other musicians can follow it I decided to experiment with another ingredient that could eliminate some first-time-business butterflies: crowd funding. It’s simple. (As long as you have the necessary legal disclaimers.) Market-test to a certain price point, then offer a steep discount to anyone who pre-orders within a certain “open enrollment” period. I’ll probably outsource fund-collection to a third-party escrow like Indeigogo, and the legal language can specify conditions under which I’ve fulfilled my obligations (say, provision of the videos within a certain period of time) – otherwise, people get their money back. Say my production budget is $1500. If 69 people pre-order the series for $25, that’s my funding right there.

3) Produce and “go live”.

I don’t want to paint this like it’s foolproof – every “contract for services” agreement carries a little risk. Will I be able to finish the videos in time? Will the subscription download service work, or will there be hitches? Will everybody simply torrent the video once it’s in enough people’s hands. (I think the conversion-rate testing mitigates the possibility of the third.)
Anyway, it’s “bombs away”, and I hope to have more details to report soon.

Dreamlines, and Life

Somewhere along the way, I kinda lost track of why I’m doing this, and made the dangerous mistake of establishing routines, filling time with “business-ish” activities to feel productive, and generally “playing business.” That’s contrary to the spirit of Four Hour Work Week, though. The point, I needed to be reminded, is to free myself from unproductive time and energy-wasting things in order to focus on what makes me happy. The temptation, once you’ve eliminated a lot of waste, is to fill it with new work. A couple of weeks ago I woke up and realized I haven’t been enjoying the present. Two things helped me.

1) Deciding what was important to do. I’m not talking about neurotic monuments to creativity. Any hair brained idea that has me shut up in the study playing with finale of final cut while my wife is occupying herself, and I’m not hanging out with friends is “work.” Sure, there are different levels of work – it’s better to spend my time composing and learning music and exercising my creativity than hunched over a desk looking over profit-loss spreadsheets – but I needed to reacquaint myself with things I love to do in the spaces between work. Many entrepreneurs describe the birth of their first child as an event that focused their priorities and forced them to whittle away unproductive behaviors.
As a stand-in, I’ll substitute “going deep” – any activity immersive enough to forget the compulsive need to check my email. Reading a good book. Deep hangs. Fly fishing. (Yes, dad – I get it now.) Travel.

2) Putting systems in place that won’t leave me wholly reliant on discipline. I’ll tell you a secret – I’m the biggest hypocrite when it comes to checking email outside the office. Well, yesterday I did something simple – I disabled push notifications on my iPhone and switched all my email accounts to manual. They’ll only retrieve email from the servers when I open the application. It’s only been a day, but the twofold deterrent of not seeing a number challenging me to take it down to zero, and knowing if I open my email app I’m affirmatively violating my pledge, has so far been pretty effective at staunching the temptation to check.

Second, I installed a new app called Lift. It’s a social network, but it’s like Facebook would be if everyone was on Ritalin – instead of status updates, you make resolutions, and every time you “check in” with one of them, you get “kudos” from other users. Sure it’s silly, but it redirects that very human desire to accomplish things into…things you’ve deemed important. Mine, so far, are-

-Read a book 30 minutes-a-day.

-See live music.

-Hang with friends.

-Make music with my heroes.

-Walk my dogs.

-Study Mandarin

-Avoid checking email before breakfast.

3) Finally, I’m trying to outsource everything that I was previously spending time on to feel productive, but that doesn’t require my personal touch. I finally broke the outsource barrier with a site called Odesk, where I posted a job to find a writer for a niche site whose content I don’t particularly care about, and to find a website expert willing to resolve a pesky plugin issue on Smart Getaways for Couples, which, I hope, he’ll accomplish later tonight.

Of course that’s just the beginning, but I’ve gotta start somewhere.

Anyway, there it is. State of The Life Hack, if you will. Apologies to all rooting for me that I haven’t yet reached profitability, but thanks for reading, and understand that it’s your readership that keeps me motivated.

Until next time…

Meta Post 2 – Testing Things in Parallel

Today marks a benchmark. I finally installed adsense on Smart Getaways for Couples. I’m waiting for final approval, which can take up to a week. There’s still a lot to do in terms of SEO – I want to see the impact a couple of juice links I’ve got pending have when they’re published and crawled – but it allows me to “back burner” SGFC for a bit while I work on some other things.

Which brings me to my new, carefully-searched, niche site that I would have used had I participated in Pat Flynn’s Niche Site Duel 2.0. It’s call You Can Be A Trainer, and the keyword is how to become a personal trainer. (And now it has its first link with anchor text.) Unlike Pat Flynn or Spencer Haws, I don’t need to worry that a link from Breaking Ferriss will warp my metrics, since it has nowhere near the readership of those blogs. Instead, I’m trying to implement, in small-scale, the methodology of a niche-siter I spoke about earlier in the week: Hayden Miyamoto.

Hayden, you’ll recall, launches literally hundreds of niche sites in parallel, monetizing only those that pop up naturally to the top 20 in google. By launching the sites with some basic content, Hayden can “real-world-test” how good his keyword research was. I can’t do this for hundreds of sites, but I can do it with two-or-three. And it occurs to me this might be the best way to spend the next several weeks. If you look at You Can Be A Trainer, it’s extremely basic – one article (though I’m going to give it four-or-five before leaving it), a free WordPress theme, and not many bells-and-whistles. That’s by design. It’s true, I shot for the stars from day-one with Smart Getaways, but that was hardly necessary to test my keyword.

The metrics for “how to become a personal trainer” looked great: astounding monthly exact-match search volume, and great theoretical adwords cost-per-click (which will mean more money for adsense, and will compensate for lower conversion rates, even though I want my conversion rates to be great), relative to competitiveness. I wrote a few months ago about the basic algorithm I used to tease out “how to become”.

Anyway, I’ve sort of “gone the distance” with Smart Getaways – launching the site, creating the content, doing the on-site and off-site SEO, and it’s ranking well, but it may have a difficult time busting the “top ten” bubble. I’ll do my best, but I’m fully content that SGFC be a “long term project” – a labor of love that I spend years researching and writing, that eventually ranks well for a spate of keywords I never intended. But by Spencer Haws standards “weekend getaways from NYC” is a poor keyword choice. Max of 3600 monthly exact-match searches, and hella competitive. I want to see if the more meticulously-researched “how to become a personal trainer” performs better on its own.

It only takes a couple of days to launch a site, throw up some really decent basic content, toss a couple of backlinks with anchor text its way, and wait-and-see. So I’m going to be doing this for a few other sites as well. One niche site ranking well is great. Several is even better. Developing a battle-tested method for seeing which ones are worth it to try to rank, then extrapolating a flow-chart for the fastest route to monetization, is a hack, and we know how I love those.

I’m still brainstorming products, and I’ll keep you posted about those. And the race to “dollar one” continues.

Stay tuned.

Long Overdue Update – Going Deep with SEO, the Long Game for Niche Sites, and Why the Muse May Yet Live

It’s been almost 3 weeks since I’ve posted in Breaking Ferriss. If I were the excuse-making type I’d say it was because I wanted to have something to actually report, instead of just ideas or feelings to share. Well, the wait is over. I’m happy to report I’ve been deep with the Perry Rosenbloom SEO model, that it works, and that I’m a mere technicality away from monetization.

Also, a “shortcut” I discovered for monetization may have far reaching implications for future business.

Let’s begin at-the-middle and discuss niche-sites-writ-large for a moment. I’ve devoted gallons of imaginary ink to the subject over the last several months, and continue to believe niche sites are a great “entry point” to e-entrepreneurship, requiring minimal investment (at least of money), and next-to-no-risk (especially if you consider the time spent akin to classroom learning, which I do – I truly believe I’m getting my “street MBA” for a song). They’re also about the lowest profit margin of any avenue of e-commerce.

Google Adsense pays a small percentage, but it’s peanuts compared to selling your own product. Ditto affiliate deals. When you “do the math” about dollars-of-profit-per-hour, it’s not great. In today’s search engine environment there are two ways to make a lot of money: scale up, or get lucky. Those success stories you hear on the podcasts about people making $4000 per month from home from niche sites are mostly anomalies: an average niche site with 3500 monthly visitors can expect to net $350-$500-a-month. That’s a great extra passive income stream, but you’re not going to be bumping Zuckerberg off the Forbes list any time soon.

Niche site guru Hayden Miyamoto knows how to scale up. He has a team of virtual assistants trained to trawl the search engines for low-competition keywords and thow up niche sites about them. There are thousands. If a site gets to top 20 in google on-its-own, Miyamoto monetizes, and turns on the SEO juice. Did I mention that Hayden owns several hundred expired domains with high page-ranks? He has a staff of people working on finding and reviving those, as well. Naturally, he runs a side business selling premium domain names.

Not everybody can be Hayden Miyamoto, and his model does something beyond simply scale up his earnings: it engineers luck out of the equation. By launching hundreds of sites in parallel and monetizing only those that pop up naturally in google rankings, he’s taking all the guesswork out of keyword searches. All the metrics – Moz Rank, Juice Links, etc – we use to try to estimate traffic and ease-of-ranking are still shots-in-the-dark. The only real way to find out how golden a keyword is is to launch the site and see.Those of us just starting out can learn a bit from that model – probably launching a few sites at once will give us a picture of which keywords we’ve searched well and which are too high-competition.

But there are a few reasons why we may not want to. There’s an advantage to doing sites one-by-one – the psychological literature is clear that mono-tasking improves productivity and quality – and it’s worth doing Ferriss’ (I guess Paretto’s) trademark 80/20 analysis on the whole venture. Point being – there are much higher leverage ways to make money.

None of this should discourage a reader from launching a niche site as a “gateway drug” to higher-return/more varsity avenues of business, however, and it doesn’t take into account passion. If you can find something you’re really passionate about that’s also monteizable, you can literally earn money while doing what you love. I love travel, and I wanted to do it more. Boom – travel site.

It used to be if you wanted to be a travel blogger you had to find somebody to hire you as a travel blogger. Now (assuming you can write well enough to attract an audience) you can literally just “be” a travel blogger.

Or mom-blogger, or business blogger. It just-so-happens I also love to write, so Smart Getaways for Couples (which I’m not linking to any more from this site for SEO reasons) is checking at least two boxes. If you think passion for your subject, doing it for the right reasons, and being realistic about the ROI of time/fun relative to money (it’s the first in far greater quantity) isn’t related to SEO, you’re wrong – or at least I think you’re wrong.

Ok – The Perry Rosenbloom SEO Model

Perry Rosenbloom of SEO Sherpas pioneered an SEO method for the “google of today” – i.e. a Google you can’t fool or cheat. What does google want us to do in order to build links? Simple – market our content to people who might find it interesting/useful, and it if really is, they’ll link to you. Perry describes using a toolbar to “scrape” google results, dumping it into a spreadsheet, paying a gaggle of freelancers cents-a-site to find contact info of site owners, then using a plugin to mail-merge a metric ton (literally) of emails to prospects. A cumbersome process.

Luckily, enter Buzz Stream, a site that does everything for you. Just type in what you’re searching for – I should back up and say that Perry’s key is to look for clubs or groups that might find your content interesting. For his binocular review site, he marketed to bird-watching and amateur astronomy clubs. No brainer, right? Well, try the same exercise with travel. Chambers-of-Commerce? Meetup groups? Travel Agents?

Nope – it was going to be other travel bloggers, which meant the process was going to be “sniper rifle” rather than “shotgun”. I used Buzz Stream to find about 450 sites, then started going through them”the old fashioned way,” looking at each site individually and assigning it a score that took into account relevancy, page rank, and contactability. (A sort of pre-engineered 80/20 to stop me going down a rabbit hole to get in touch with the owners of a low-page-ranked site, particularly if they had no interest in me.) Anyway, I did about 50 sites-a-day for two days, then used the mail merge feature to send personalized emails to each one. (By the time I filtered down to the highest ranked sites with published email addresses, it ended up being about 35 the first day and 20 the next.) The advantage to having spent all the time reviewing the sites was that I could include details from each in the introductory emails.

As you might expect, my conversion rate was lower than Perry’s. What incentive do other travel bloggers have to link to me, besides good karma? Perry’s birding clubs, by contrast, had an incentive to give good tips to their members. So it’s not surprising that not everyone got back to me. What DID surprise me was how many did!

All-told, I got around ten responses from just over 50 emails. Most were words-of-encouragement, and that’s fine. People shouldn’t link to me unless it’s a win for THEM. I’m not asking for any favors. But some people DID offer me links. And I’m happy to say my first two “juice” page links from high page-authority sites are inked – one is live already and the other hits virtual news stands August 30. And in the process I discovered a quid-pro-quo for link building I hadn’t realized existed – guest-posts-as-outsourced-content-creation. For some bloggers it’s better business sense to offer guest writers links than to pay them. A free link with my own anchor text from a high-PR site whose content I love, and all I have to so is write you a baller article that’s going to bring eyeballs back to my site, and that I would probably write anyway just for fun? Show me where to sign.

In the coming weeks I’m going to be doing some karmic-balancing of my own and finding ways to link to a few sites that impressed me especially (like this one from a fellow blogger going deep in Japan). As I mentioned above, the non-monetary and the subtlely-monetary benefits are what make niche-siteing worth it. If there’s not something you’re passionate about, you’re better off doing it Dane Maxwell style. 

Which brings us to Noah Kagan and the “velocity to one dollar”.

Noah Kagan and the Velocity to One Dollar

Tim Ferriss did an interview with Noah, and it’s about the most epic thing I’ve ever seen.(My anchor text is not doing anybody any good today. Sorry;) Noah, like Tim in Four Hour Work Week, likes to validate business ideas before he invests even a single dollar. “What could you do before you go to bed to see if anybody wants to buy your product?” he asks the audience. Post a facebook status? Open a google group? Tim and Noah welcome two guests as case-studies, and the amount of fat they are able to trim is appalling.

How do we make sure we’re not just playing business?” Kagan asks.

The interview reminded me of Tim’s original muse model in FHWW – dry test several products in parallel using Adwords, then launch once something is validated, using hacks like “net-30 terms” with drop shippers to avoid negative cash flow. The most difficult and off-putting part for me was the choreography of roll-out. I jumped in gamely with two product ideas, and spent around $500 in Adwords discovering one very marketable idea it turned out it was going to cost me a cool $70,000 to make. Not to mention that Adwords is far too expensive to be a viable test platform.

But something else isn’t, and, ironically it was designed by Noah: Facebook Ads.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with Facebook Ads to increase “likes” for my travel site’s facebook page. (Yes I did link to that intentionally! Like it, for Pete’s sake!) The experiment was a bust, but in the process I discovered something else. Click-through rates to the articles I was advertising to get “likes” were off-the-charts. I was getting decent traffic to my site without even ranking in Google, and it was only costing me $2.50-a-day.

Hold on – I could monetize right now.

Excited by the idea, but wary of SEO and branding consequences, I emailed Spencer Haws  of Niche Pursuits, and he was nice enough to get back to me.

“Go for it,” he said.

So there we are – I’m in the process of steam-cleaning my site to make sure any hint of copyrighted material is removed and that all the links work and all the pages and articles display cleanly. Monetization will be an experiment, to see what type of ads I’m getting, what types of cost-per-click they’re bidding, and how the conversion rates work. If I even break even on the ads, it’s worth it, considering the value of the exposure the ads are giving me. I did some back-of-the-napkin math, though, and if I have even modest conversion rates and cost-per-click I think this goose might fly.

Then I can get my tattoo.

Not that any of that is stopping me from going full-speed-ahead with SEO. The advantage to being on the first page of google with legitimate links earned “the hard way” is immeasurable.

Two Final Thoughts

This is running long, and hopefully it’s “epic long” and not “rambling long”. But I had a lot to share. The ethos of my travel site is running experiments and reporting back with hard data, and I intend for some of that to rub off on Breaking Ferriss, as I alluded to above, so that this space is not just a confessional, but more like a loose mastermind group for anyone who wants to read.

First, I’m exploring applying the facebook ads to dry-testing actual products. I’m going to be running some experiments in the ensuing weeks, and I’ll report back. A high conversion rate on adsense is still only pennies, but the same rate applied to a product, even one costing a modest $5, might be the ticket.

Second, I’m now actively looking for another day job. The skill set I’ve amassed in the last six months is immense, and includes web copy (obviously), user-level web design with some JV html 5 coding, and some pretty cutting-edge SEO. Not to mention a ton of ground-level, freshly-gleaned social-media-marketing chops from both Smart Getaways and Shed Science, my web show. Because most of the SEO science is being continually re-written, and search engines are nearing the endpoint of being able to discern genuine links from spam links, the Perry Rosenbloom method is the vanguard. If it succeeds for me I can now sit across from any interviewer and say I’ve successfully implemented post-Panda/Penguin SEO campaigns. So I’m searching for a web content creator/SEO guy position. The race – between whether I’ll make money first from my own business or from a new job – is on.

As always, thanks for reading.

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.

N

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!

Ranking Update, and Reality Check

So my existing niche site continues to climb in the Google rankings.

Here’s the progression-

June 20 – 64th

June 26th – 39th

June 28th – 38th

June 30th (today) – 29th

A quick search of the existing blogs and sites in the top ten was all the reality I needed to get my feet back on the ground, however.

They clearly have boutique web designers. They have custom made interactive maps, and charts for every article. They have slick sites with custom sidebars.

They review far more destinations than I have (travel niche).

They (to my chargin) have comments disabled, or rerouted through social media (i.e. the url that my name would link to would be my facebook profile).

Getting in the top ten in this niche might be rough, but here’s why I’m not throwing in the towel just yet.

1. This is all a learning experience. When I chose this niche I didn’t have a super firm grasp on keyword research, and part of the motivation for writing a travel blog was to give me an excuse to travel. Which is not to say I’m “moving the goalposts” – I’m still going to go after it 100%.

2. Even if I don’t get in the top 10 for my primary keyword, there’s still reason to monetize. Online biz guru Hayden Miyamoto monetizes every site that cracks the top 20. Sure, the top 20 is daunting, but that seems a more reachable goal. Moreover, I’m already receiving traffic from certain “longtail” keywords semantically related to my niche.

Let me just pause here and mention that if any of these words sound like jargon or cult-speak, as if I were talking about Scientology, you’re not wrong. If you’re crazy enough to still be reading, check out this post for background.

3. My content may not be fancy, but it’s f@#$ing awesome. Many of the competitor sites seem to pick locations and businesses to review either because of affiliations, or totally at random. The result is a fancy looking blog with very little useful information to the user. If every chamber-of-commerce or small-biz association blog were brimming with useful information, there would be no need for Yelp. Yelp isn’t fancy, but it has something far more important – credibility.

How does credibility with users translate into rankings? Not directly, it’s true. The average time people are spending on my site is close to 12 minutes, and most people are viewing multiple articles. This translates in two ways – number one, search engines do take stock of time-on-site and what’s called “bounce rate” (basically the number of people who take one look at your site and go “hup that’s not what I wanted) as a metric to judge whether your content is relevant to the search term, even though it’s not the most important metric.

Second, people liking my content translates into a repeat user base – people who view my site as a go-to for credible information, and who will potentially subscribe to a mailing list and/or check back when new articles/reviews are published.

Anyway, I’m tantalizingly close to being able to monetize my first site. What stands between me and dollar one, as I wrote last Monday, is more content, and SEO. Inspired by some of the blogs in the top 20, I want to create more destinations, and expand still more on those where more depth is available. I’m also working on the next several phases of my SEO – blog comments (easier said-than-done), and social media/gallery sites.

More to come.

Rabble Rousing – Evolving Web Directories Cheat Sheet

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m working my way through Spencer Haws’ suggestions about SEO for my existing niche website. Spencer, designer of the keyword research tool Longtail Pro, “details” his search engine optimization process in a blog post.

I’m having my Virtual Assistant submit my site to several high PR directories that are free.   Because not all of the links will be approved, I’m submitting to 50 or so directories to start.  So, I’ll get more than 10 links total, but many won’t be indexed either, so I might end up with just over 10 real links pointing to my site.  That’s fine with me.

Fantastic. Which directories?

It turns out, to my annoyance, Spencer never reveals this. (Instead he suggests readers go to a site called Point Blank SEO, which doesn’t reveal it all in one place either, unless you want to register for the online course.)

I reread the transcript to an interview Spencer gave, in which he mentions web directories, and gives three examples (don’t worry, they’ll be down below). The others, we’re told, will be in the show notes for the interview. No dice.

Ok, this is basic stuff – submit your site to 50 or so web directories as soon as it’s reasonably complete for low-medium quality base-level link building and forget about it. So why won’t anyone talk about the specific directories?

Well, that’s where your boy comes in. Increasing the abundance in the universe. I have my theories about why the major web-biz gurus are reluctant to list things, and they relate to encouraging readers to click on their affiliate links. I have no affiliate links. I have no dog in this race besides helping the maximum number of people possible crack the code to passive income. I want this stage to be a no brainer for my readers, because we’re content creators, not SEO experts.

Here It Is

Below, my working list of web directories. If you see it below, it’s because I’ve submitted, or tried to submit my site to it. If there aren’t 50 yet, it’s because I’m still adding to it.

Technorati.com – Spencer Haws’ recommendation. Registration required.

Blogs.com – submit page appears not to be working

Open Directory Project at dmoz.org – registration required

Bing.com – formerly Yahoo Directory – guess Bing bought them. Requires registration.

Gimpsy – free submission available, but currently overloaded.

Joe Ant – “become an editor” to submit a site for free.

Go Guides – only paid submission available, which I skipped because web directories are such an apparently small part of the SEO equation.

Top Blog Area – straightforward and free – just register.

BlogRankings.com – straightforward and free – just register.

Blogarama.com – straightforward and free – just register.

Zimbio.com – was hard to tell if this one worked at all – you simply enter your site url into a field and click “submit.” It only takes five seconds, so not a waste of time.

That’s it – I’ll continue adding as I discover more.

How I Found These

Googling “web directory list” was a bust. Up came a bunch of niche sites with questionable affiliations. So I googled “web directories technorati, alltop”, including the two examples Spencer Haws specified, and that led to greater success.

Again, want to emphasize that this is a preliminary step, like getting toilet paper for the John when you first move into an apartment. I won’t spend more than a few days on it. And that’s why I want it to be even easier for you.

Monday Morning Post – Countdown to Dollar One

I may regret this.

That’s one reason I’m doing it.

Remembering the importance of “stakes” in motivating me to follow through on a promise, and inspired by a recent interview I heard with AppSumo’s founder Noah Kagan, I decided to create a little social pressure for myself. I often say “talk less, do more,” mostly as a mantra for myself, but the exception to that rule is when talking big will motivate me to back it up.

Well, I’m starting to get some traffic to this blog from smartpassiveincome.com (big ups!), mostly folks trying to do the same thing I am, and feeling like a part of that community, in some small way, also gives me a sense of responsibility.

Finally, as I wrote last week, I managed to score a pretty good keyword for one of my sites, and as of last Friday was ranked 64th in google without doing any search engine optimization. (As usual I encourage interested readers not familiar with the lingo to read the archive.) That discovery made things a little more real, a little more tangible.

So I decided to take a page from Noah Kagan and work backward from my first dollar.

Here’s what needs to happen-

1) I need an Adsense account. I could sign up for one tomorrow, but for accounting purposes, I want it connected to my LLC, the paperwork for which is awaiting approval. If everything else was in place I’d be more impatient about this, but the delay gives me a chance to maneuver some other key things into place.

2) I want to improve my ranking as much as possible. The front page of google is competitive for my keyword, and I feel I’ll get a decent amount of traffic even on page 2, based on the number of page views I’m getting at #64. All that means is I won’t use not being on the first page of google as an excuse to delay monetizing. This is the first niche site – I need early victories.

But I will still do everything I can to get on page 1. To that end I’ve been studying the SEO strategy of Spencer Haws, designer of Longtail Pro. Spencer’s top two strategies are select a niche wisely and create great content. Content wise, I want to do a little more to flesh out the category I’m trying to rank for so it’s a real authority site. But I won’t let that delay my SEO.

The next stage is submit my URL to web directories and begin to make comments on relevant blogs. The first I have yet to do, the second I began last night.

After that, spencer recommends Web 2.0 properties, a squidoo lens, and accounts on Slide Share and Doc Stock. Those photo sharing sites work perfectly for my niche, which involves travel. On my own I may consider a Facebook page. I don’t want to subject my weary Facebook friends to every hairbrained project I’m up to, but I’ve had decent success generating views for my web show with a Facebook page and strategic paid advertising to increase “likes”. Social proof is a snowball effect, and google likes sites with natural traffic.

The “varsity” Spencer Haws strategy is purchasing expired domains for relevant sites, resuscitating the sites, and building links from them.

At every stage it’s a tension between SEO power and pissing google off. If I have an unnatural number of links from a single domain, or with the same anchor text it can actually hurt, since google has the power to “sandbox”, or de-rank, sites they think are using shady link building tactics. And since I’m not an SEO expert I want to be extremely careful. Better to rank on page 2 and gradually work my way up to page 1 “the old fashioned way” than to get sandboxed.

So that’s it – it’s this, along with a streamlined version of my web show – that I’ll be sweating blood over in the coming weeks.

Thanks everybody who’s been reading so far. I want to show you this is a viable alternative to the rat race, that it can be done, even by a “normal” guy like me, and I expect you to hold me to it.

I don’t usually end with “calls to action,” but I’d like your feedback – are you working on something similar? Do you have thoughts to share about your own journey? Leave a comment. This site is not monetized, so comments are purely to share our thoughts and experiences.

Thanks!