The first 4-6 weeks after acquiring an affiliate site are always action-packed…
In the first installment of Project Cashflow, you learned everything from choosing a niche to basic site valuation and negotiation.
Now it’s time to start getting our hands dirty with SEO.
This month, you’ll learn all about the crucial first steps to optimize an affiliate website and what you can do to take it to the next level.
You will discover how I approach:
- Site design and architecture
- Technical SEO
- Content optimization and creation
- Link building
- Month One results and Google’s December 2020 core update
I’ve never opened up the books like this before…
Let’s take a look.
Table Of Contents
One of the first tasks we undertook was a substantial redesign of the Project Cashflow niche website.
Everything from navigation to look and feel got a significant overhaul — I’ve detailed all the changes below.
Custom Page Builder
When I acquired Project Cashflow, it used an off-the-shelf WordPress theme.
For the redesign, we used our custom page builder.
Until recently, we used Thrive Architect to build all our sites.
But not long ago, we decided to invest in developing our own page builder.
- Faster upload times: The page builder gives our designers a predesigned template to follow. It eliminates guesswork and unnecessary revisions. The designers always know what goes where — e.g., a photo of this size goes here, a block of text with 200-250 words goes there. Having a predefined framework streamlines the design process significantly.
- Faster site/page speed (no page builder = no slowdown)
- Better CRO: After years of testing, we know what works. With the custom page builder, the CRO is baked right in.
We developed the custom page builder in-house. The whole process took two months at a cost of about $3k
Thrive, and other page builders do a solid job. But the custom page builder allows us to deploy sites with the exact layout we want quicker and with better overall performance.
The existing homepage layout was a barebones standard blogroll, displaying only the 10 most recent posts.
Navigation options were limited, showing only identical sidebar and footer menus linking to category pages.
Overall, the homepage design looked extremely dated. Other than the featured images for the 10 most recent posts, there was no branding or attractive visual elements.
From a UX standpoint, the layout made it difficult for users to access pages not amongst the 10 most recent posts.
We thoroughly modernized the design of Project Cashflow by taking the following steps (from top to bottom):
- Improved theme responsiveness for better mobile performance
- Updated all fonts
- Simplified logo, added a two-word slogan indicating the site’s mission, and a catchy tagline. The actual URL of the site isn’t featured in the design at all. The URL is great for SEO purposes, but it doesn’t lend itself well to branding.
- Added hero image with tagline
- Created two rows of 4 large buttons highlighting each product subcategory
- Added Featured Posts section: In 3 rows of 3, Featured Posts displays 9 posts — with featured images — that you select manually. Featured Posts subtly highlights the affiliate offers you want visitors to purchase amongst other informational posts. This helps obscure the fact that you’re trying to sell a specific product and lends the site more authority.
- Added Latest Posts — one row of three latest posts with featured images.
- Added footer with 7 social media icons/links.
- Added Site Navigation
- Added physical address and phone number
Product Review Page Revisions
The original design was very barebones and uninspiring. There was a lot of inconsistency in the layout with product images varying dramatically in size and placement.
We made the following changes:
- Added hero image
- Added “Last Updated” field above the title
- Rewrote headline copy to be more compelling
- Added “Editor’s Choice” section featuring 3 top products
- Reduced number of colors used in the layout from 4 to 2
- Made content formatting more consistent
- Retained CTA color (orange)
- Changed CTA text from “Check Price” to a variation of “Check Latest Price”
- Changed image alignment from centered to right-justified and resized all product images to be the same dimensions
- Removed “Highlights” section for each product and incorporated the highlights into the review copy
- Simplified layout of the Pros and Cons section for each product
- Added Quick Facts summarizing the benefits of each product
- Simplified layout of the conclusion section
- Added large “#1 Recommendation” box with large CTA and credit card/Paypal logos.
- Added Author Bio
- Added Comments section
The basic framework outlined above is one that we deploy on multiple sites, and it’s delivered outstanding results for us.
I touched on this in the section above, but I wanted to make clear that many of the design changes made weren’t just driven by aesthetics.
By switching the homepage from a blogroll to a portal design, you make the information on the site’s other pages much more accessible to users.
The current homepage portal design shows multiple categories interlinking to other pages on the site.
With the blogroll format, the content users are looking for could be 4 clicks or more away…
Not only is this a liability from a usability standpoint, but it’s also a significant technical SEO issue.
We make it a rule with all our sites that the crawl depth is never more than 2 — meaning that any content is never more than two clicks away.
Not only does this improve the UX, but it also makes the site easier and faster for Google’s robots to crawl, which can have a beneficial effect on SEO.
Whenever you evaluate a site for purchase, technical SEO should be one of the first things you look at…
There’s often vast room for improvement, and the tweaks you make can lead to quick wins.
Project Cashflow fell firmly into this category.
The technical SEO wasn’t terrible, by any means, but there was plenty of scope to further optimize the site.
Our first step when assessing technical SEO is to plug the site into Ahrefs’ Site Audit tool.
The Site Audit tool provides you with a detailed list of any technical SEO issues as well as suggestions on how to fix them.
It also provides you with a Site Audit health score out of 100 to help evaluate your progress.
Out of the box, Project Cashflow scored 52 — after the improvements you’re about to learn about, the site is currently sitting at a health score of 97.
Another area often ripe for optimization when you acquire an existing website is site speed.
How rapidly your pages load and your site performs has a significant impact not only on SEO but also on user experience, conversions, and — pretty much everything.
According to Google, page speed is by far the most critical component of UX. For example, when the time a page takes to load goes from 1 second to 3 seconds, the probability of a bounce increases by 32%.
With the rollout of Google’s Core Web Vitals, site speed looks poised to play an even bigger role in SEO going forward.
Pingdom is a comprehensive website performance monitoring suite. One of its features is the ability to show you the size and load-time of elements on a site — making it easy to identify any bottlenecks.
Like many apps featured in this case study, Pingdom scores site performance on a score out of 100 — but the most crucial metric to keep an eye on is load time.
When we first acquired Project Cashflow, pages loaded in 1.5 – 2.5 seconds. The load time is now between 0.5 and 1 second thanks to our optimization efforts.
The other app you can use to evaluate site speed is Lighthouse.
Lighthouse is an automated open-source tool from Google for measuring, monitoring, and optimizing site speed.
At the outset, Project Cashflow almost flunked out of Lighthouse with scores across the board ranging between 40 and 70. As you can see, we’ve turned things around, and the site now scores a solid 90+ in all categories.
Much of this improvement came from switching the site theme to our custom build as discussed above.
Hosting and Plugins
You can often make the most significant site and page speed gains by changing the hosting for the site and utilizing the right plugins.
One of the very first things we did when we got the keys to the site was to switch the hosting — and if your site is on a substandard host, you should too…
Next, there are a few plugins that can make a huge difference to your site performance, and again, we use them on all our sites:
I’m not going to get into the tech behind why NitroPack makes your site faster.
It just does and we deploy it on all our affiliate sites.
As you probably know, poorly optimized images are one of the biggest speed sucks your website can have.
Project Cashflow wasn’t the worst example of image management I’ve seen, but there was certainly room for improvement.
ShortPixel is our go-to plugin for image optimization and it’s especially useful for batch processing.
Plugins — A Warning
I’m a firm believer in keeping sites as lean as possible…
Every plugin you add risks contributing to site bloat and negatively impacting performance. Each plugin also adds another potential point of failure.
Think twice before trusting the stability and performance of your site to a 3rd-party plugin developer.
Project Cashflow offers a perfect illustration of why you should proceed with caution before installing any new plugin.
One of the issues we turned up during our audit was a plugin installed on the site designed to generate the schema.
Well, the plugin was generating plenty of schema, but all of it was wrong.
Instead of having one schema declaration per page — which we always prefer — the plugin created multiple declarations for each page.
Not only that, just running the plugin caused a measurable decrease in page speed.
Removing the plugin and replacing the schema it produced led to a perceptible increase in Project Cashflow’s performance.
This is a classic example of installing a plugin to improve SEO or optimize performance — only for it to have the exact opposite effect.
When it comes to optimizing existing content, where do you start?
Believe it or not, there hasn’t been an app invented yet that’s any substitute for your own two eyes.
Before we get granular and let Surfer loose on Project Cashflow’s content, we do what comes naturally.
If we come across pages that don’t make the grade, we first check Keyword Explorer in Ahrefs to make sure it’s not ranking for any keywords. If it’s a low-quality page that doesn’t have any SEO value, we delete it.
Once we’ve pruned any pointless pages, the process is as follows:
(Each section graded by letter before we got to work on optimization.)
Overall Content and Content Formatting (Grade: C+)
The existing content on Project Cashflow wasn’t half bad…
A quick readthrough told us it was relatively well-researched and probably written by a native-English speaker.
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation were all relatively on point.
Having said all that, every page required at least some editing and polishing — some more than others.
A major issue that took some time was content formatting.
All of the pages were littered with bolds, underlines, and italics. Whether this was done in the mistaken belief that bolding the keywords was hardcore beneficial to SEO or the formatting was just added for emphasis, the effect was visually jarring and interrupted the natural flow of the content.
Cleaning up the formatting was a relatively easy fix. Still, given the amount of existing content, it was a time-consuming one.
Individual Pages (Grade: C+)
When it comes to evaluating existing content on individual pages, we reduce the grading to pass/fail…
The Three Kings (Grade: C+)
If you’ve taken The Affiliate Lab you’ll be familiar with the concept of The Three Kings.
The Three Kings is where you get by far the most juice for your on-page SEO.
Whether you’re consulting or considering buying a website, The Three Kings is one of the very first things you can look at.
If there’s scope to optimize The Three Kings, you know you’re in for a quick win.
So what are The Three Kings?
In on-page SEO, The Three Kings are the URL, SEO Title and Page Title (H1).
Simply put, The Three Kings are the loudest signal to Google telling it what your page is about.
With Project Cashflow, The Three Kings were relatively solid, but there was definitely room for improvement:
- URLs: All good – no changes
- SEO Titles: Of The Three Kings, this is the one that often has the most opportunities for optimization. Project Cashflow was no different. Here’s what we fixed:
- Added numbers to SEO titles. Our testing has shown that SEO Titles with numbers perform better than those without. Project Cashflow has a lot of roundup review pages, so we added the number of products to the SEO Titles. Numbers make it clear that the pages provide a list. If the page isn’t a roundup, we added the year, 2020.
- Moved the main keywords for individual pages closer to the front of the SEO Title.
- Removed keywords that might conflict with other pages on the site, potentially causing keyword cannibalization
- Page Titles/H1s: From an SEO perspective, the H1s were mostly OK. Aside from shuffling a few keywords around, we left them alone.
Headings (Grade: D)
While assessing each page for readability and value, pay close attention to the headings (h2/h3s).
- Do the subtopic headings flow in a way that makes sense to your reader? If not, have your editor rearrange the subtopics so that the overall structure has better logic.
- Are the headings on your page similar to those on the pages ranking on page 1 in the SERPs? If not, have an editor rewrite the headings to follow what Google likes more closely.
The subtopics for Project Cashflow required quite a bit of juggling from our editor.
Even when the underlying content was usable, the way the subtopics fit into the overall structure often didn’t make logical sense.
Surfer Content Audit
I’m a huge fan of Surfer (full disclosure – I’m also an investor).
I’ve written at length about how to audit existing content using Surfer’s SERP Analyzer and Audit tool.
We didn’t go full-on geek-out mode with Surfer on Project Cashflow… yet.
We had a quick look for any content gaps using True Density and checked out our word count compared to our competitors.
But where Surfer will be invaluable to Project Cashflow is in creating new content, which you’ll get to in a minute.
Internal Links (Grade: B)
The interlinking on Project Cashflow turned out to be a bright spot.
We used Screaming Frog to audit the existing internal links.
There were some missed opportunities, but you could see care and attention went into building internal links on-page. The site had plenty of internal links going to other relevant pages.
Some internal links were set to nofollow, but changing them to dofollow was an easy fix.
The website still only rates a B because there were also a ton of irrelevant links we needed to remove.
Backlinks/Authority Links (Grade: C)
For a site with little link building effort put into it, Project Cashflow already had some decent links. 278 referring domains and 6 of them from EDU sites for a website in the EDU niche.
Plenty of room for improvement, but there’s already a solid foundation to (link) build on.
Creating New Content
Since purchasing the Project Cash Flow, we’ve published 13 pages of new content.
All 13 new pages are commercial and include twelve new individual product review pages and one roundup post — the main pillar piece for Project Cashflow.
As I mentioned in the first installment of the case study, Project Cashflow already ranks on page 5 for our desired keyword.
That’s the whole reason I acquired the website in the first place.
Not only that, the site wasn’t even optimized for that keyword and didn’t have a dedicated page for it — it was ranking purely by chance.
This roundup review page is crucial for us to get right — it can pave the way to Project Cashflow’s success.
Our process for creating the new content was to look at the pages that rank top 3 in the SERPS.
We examine all of their subheadings and create a superset of headings and topics we want to cover.
The next step is where Surfer really shines…
We plug in our competitor data and have our writer write directly in Surfer’s content editor.
The writer follows Surfer’s word count and True Density guidelines while making sure that all the subtopics are covered.
Surfer is a powerful content creation tool, but don’t geek out and try to match the more granular metrics too precisely.
Don’t expect Surfer to turn bad writers into good ones. Look at it as a way of augmenting the abilities of your writers and speeding up the content creation process.
In creating our new pillar article, we ran into another technical SEO issue — keyword cannibalization.
Our new pillar page correctly targeted the search intent for the affiliate offer we seek to rank for. But the original page was optimized for a different keyword and only coincidentally ranked for our target keyword.
Our solution for this was to deoptimize the page — all this took was removing one specific word.
Once we did this, the page quickly jumped to page 3 in the SERPS as you can see here:
When we acquired Project Cashflow, it was monetized 100% through Amazon.
All of the affiliate links were for books and textbooks.
You all know how I feel about monetizing through Amazon.
In this case, we left the existing products on the site with Amazon and just changed the links to our Amazon Associates account.
Since the existing products are books, there’s no point in hunting for a better affiliate program for those — Amazon is the only game in town.
The real money will be generated by the content we’ve created since taking over the site.
Most of the products reviewed in the new pillar page have affiliate offers through ShareASale, but we’ve diversified our monetization streams with products from Impact, Post Affiliate Pro, and Skimlinks.
In case you’re not familiar with it, ShareASale is one of the biggest affiliate marketing aggregators, with over 15k merchants offering commissions.
We applied and were accepted for seven different affiliate programs relevant to Project Cashflow’s niche.
Products from each program are featured in our roundup pillar piece.
In addition, the new individual product pages we created are reviews of a product from one of these seven programs.
Expertise-Authority-Trust or E-A-T appears to be growing in importance as a ranking factor by Google for your sites.
Even if you don’t see significant gains from building E-A-T right away, I highly recommend it as a way of futureproofing your site.
Project’s Cashflow’s E-A-T was already pretty good, but we made it better.
Here’s exactly what we did, step-by-step:
Updated “About Us” Page
The overall goal is to make the site look like a real business with multiple employees and departments. Here’s the steps you can follow to do this…
- Create 4 personas with first and last names, titles, headshots, and bios for the founder and three team members
- Add multiple ways to contact the company along with dedicated email addresses to the “Contact Us” page (support@, media@, contact@, etc.)
- Update the copy to focus on the company with zero monetization intent
- Strip out exact match anchors to other pages on the site
- Remove all links to money pages
Created Company Social Profiles
Aside from a Facebook page, Project Cashflow had no social media presence.
We built a social fortress by creating the following company profiles:
- YouTube Channel
Adding a physical address and phone number is a step many affiliate marketers neglect to take. After all, the business is online. But there may be benefits to you listing a physical address. It lends a certain credibility to an online business, and I’m all about potential benefits…
- Project Cashflow doesn’t have a real physical address, so we created one. We decided what US city we wanted to be “based in” and selected an actual address from Google Maps with no business registered to it.
- We made up a fake phone number in the correct area code.
- Created multiple citations using SEOButler’s citations building service for the business name, address, and phone number.
One of the main advantages of acquiring an existing site in the niche, rather than starting one from scratch, is that you can begin building links right away without it looking unnatural.
We kicked off our link building campaign for Project Cashflow with:
- 35 links from citations going to the homepage.
- 12 guest post links from Authority Builders
- 4 of the guest posts linked directly to our new pillar page.
- 8 of the guest posts linked to new product review pages relevant to the pillar page.
- Our outreach team got started on supplementing the guest posts from Authority Builders with link insertions. Outreach takes time, so we probably won’t see any results from their efforts till next month.
Overall, between guest posts from Authority Builders and link insertions from outreach, we’re trying to hit a KPI of 40 new links per month.
Once the site starts making $3k a month in gross revenue, we’ll reevaluate the KPI and consider increasing the number of links we build to the site.
So far for Project Cashflow, our only new hires have been the two writers. Everyone else is an existing LeadSpring team member.
The form asks for:
- Level of English proficiency on a scale of 1-10 (8 or higher is the minimum requirement)
- Level of experience in the education niche (8 or higher is the minimum requirement)
The proficiency scale encourages applicants to be honest.
A significant proportion of writers who completed the form rated their skillset 8 or 9 in one or both categories.
In reality, you only want to consider people who scored themselves at 10 for both.
This step substantially narrows down the number of applicants, making the whole weeding-out process a lot less work.
The 10/10’ers are asked to submit writing samples. We skim through them quickly and cherry-pick a few that we like.
From there, we throw them in at the deep end…
We hand them our content creation SOP and their first assignment.
If we like what they write, they’re hired.
If we don’t, we work with them until the first task is complete and publishable. If the writer’s making progress, we give them another shot.
If the content is just flat-out too bad to polish or publish, we pay them half of the agreed-upon fee, scrap the whole thing, and move onto the next writer.
Many agencies and affiliate marketers ask a writer to submit unpaid trial work before handing them their first assignment.
You’ll find that skipping that preliminary step saves you wasting time evaluating copy you’ll never use and it gives good writers a chance to shine right out of the gate.
Project Cashflow Month One Results
Now that I’ve shared everything we’ve done to improve Project Cashflow up until this point, it’s time to share with you our preliminary results…
I told you from the beginning that I’d share everything with you along the way — warts and all.
I’m a firm believer that you learn as much (if not more so) from your failures as you do from your successes…
So here’s our first whopper on Project Cashflow.
Thanks to a careless error when switching over the Amazon Associate codes from the previous owner when we acquired the site, we received no commissions for the first 20 days.
The devil is in the details with most things, and especially when you’re setting up your affiliate links — don’t make this costly mistake.
To everything, there is a season…
It just so happens that for Project Cashflow, this is the worst one…
As you can see from the previous owner’s P&L snippet above, the website made zero commissions in November and December of last year, and sales slowly started ramping up again in January.
We’ve added a bunch of new products and revenue streams, but we expect this revenue trend to continue given the seasonal nature of the niche.
I anticipate that April and May will be our most lucrative months going forward.
There hasn’t been much growth in revenue for the first month, but I’m not worried.
Whenever we take over a site, I take it for granted that we’re not going to see significant traffic or revenue growth until month two or three.
There’s a number of reasons for this…
For one thing, although all of the tweaks we make to the technical SEO and existing content are essential, the thing we do that will have the most impact over time is building links.
We did experience modest revenue growth on a Year over Year basis. We made $136.72 in Amazon Associates commissions in November as opposed to zero last year.
Nothing to write home about, but it’s a start.
Despite the seasonality of the niche, we did see encouraging increases in traffic since optimizing the site.
December 2020 Google Core Update
I’ve walked you through all the changes we’ve made to Project Cashflow since we acquired it.
As you’ve seen, we made significant improvements to the site in almost every area, so I was optimistic that the recent Google core update would give Project Cashflow a significant rankings boost.
Aside from the performance of the new pillar page, that wasn’t the case. The site’s position in the SERPs remained relatively static.
It’s too early to ascertain exactly what changed with Google’s ranking algorithm with the December core update.
It will be very interesting to see what impact our link building campaign and other SEO efforts have as we ramp it up in the coming months…
What’s next for Project Cashflow?
All of the work we did on Project Cashflow in month one should help pave the way to success going forward and hopefully provide you with some tips for successfully building your own affiliate sites.
In the next month, you’ll learn how we ramp up our link building efforts, create more content targeting lucrative offers, and continue to make tweaks to optimize the site’s performance.
Additionally, we’re looking to hire a new project manager at Leadspring who can take the reins on Project Cashflow away from Jay Yap, my LeadSpring business partner.
You’ll go deep into our hiring process for core team members in future installments of the case study.
Stay tuned — there’s plenty of nuggets yet to be uncovered next month…
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