February 2019

February 2019 Income Report

Winter, winter, and more winter – what else is new?

Actually, there is something new – I made my first commission on Amazon Associates!

Amazon Giveth…

On Feb 15th, I earned my first ever commission on Amazon Associates. #Proud

It’s not much (not even a cup of coffee), but it was earned passively.

First Affiliate Commission (Feb 15, 2019)

Since then, I’ve seen a slow but steady drip of affiliate commissions coming in.

It’s an addictive hobby. Every morning, I check if my next dollar has arrived.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of my content is not yet ranking on Google.

There’s still plenty of work to be done.

…And Amazon Taketh Away

Just days after my first commission, I received an email from Amazon:

“We’ve now reviewed your application to the Associates Program. Unfortunately, it did not meet our program requirements. As a result, we have closed the account under which you had been temporarily approved.”

Amazon Associates

Noooooooooooo… what?!

I’ll spare you the details of my panic attack.

Fortunately, a phone call and a quick edit on my site did the trick.

My account was re-instated the next day.

Why Amazon banned my account

Amazon Associates does a manual review after a site has referred at least 3 sales.

It’s well-known that these manual reviews are both mysterious and inconsistent (even to those who work at Amazon, such as the person I spoke to on the phone).

  • Mysterious: you can get banned for a myriad of reasons, from obvious ones (not providing an affiliate disclosure) to obscure references in the operating agreement
  • Inconsistent: some affiliate sites seem to be fine (despite clear violations) while others are flagged for non-consequential issues. The manual reviews are done by people, after all, and there can be inconsistencies between different reviewers.

In my case, the manual reviewer found issues with my affiliate disclosure, in that “it promotes support through use of your [affiliate] links”.

Here’s the exact text:

“We use affiliate links to support this site and ensure high quality content.”

The purpose of this is twofold:

  • It lets readers know that I use affiliate links to earn commissions, and
  • This allows me to focus on creating high quality content

Pretty straight-forward, I thought.

Well.

Amazon was not happy with the word “support”.

At the bottom of their application review process, they state that sites cannot “request support [from readers] through use of [affiliate] links.”

I’d rather keep my disclosure as-is but I don’t make the rules.

So a few edits later (removing all references to “support”), and my account was approved.

Why is Amazon so strict?

I’ve heard people say that Amazon is intentionally mysterious and inconsistent.

The company runs the largest affiliate marketing program in the US (likely in the world).

As a result, they are the prime target (pun intended) for investigations related to affiliate marketing. I’ve written on this topic before in my post The Dark Side of Affiliate Marketing.

With respect to its affiliate program, Amazon wants to limit potential legal liabilities. It does this by imposing a strict set of rules (and frequently banning accounts).

Business Update (8 Months)

Now, for the actual post – the business update.

Here are the latest stats for my authority site:

  • Content: 36 (+8 this month)
  • Links: 1 (+1 this month)
  • Traffic*: 794 (includes search, social, and email)
  • Speed: GTMetrix (2.1s load time), PageInsights (99/90)

*unique page views from Google Analytics for last 30 days ending Feb 28th

1. Content Creation

This month, I came down with a case of shiny object syndrome.

Trust me, it’s worse than the flu.

Shiny object syndrome is a common disease among all beginners. It means chasing after the next interesting thing, without finishing the original thing you were working on.

What do I mean by this?

I began the month writing an article on “best essential oils for acne scars”.

However, I quickly realized that I didn’t understand how essential oils worked. So I did a little reading. After, I thought it’d be better if I wrote a few posts on specific essential oils first.

So I started with tea tree oil (the most popular essential oil by search volume).

After a week, I had nailed down the research and published an incredible piece on tea tree oil. Plus, I could to use this article for my 2nd link building campaign. Win-win.

During this process, I noticed lots of low competition keywords in this space. Not just ones related to my niche (“tea tree oil for acne scars”), but also broader ones (“best tea tree oil”).

Could I write a better piece of content than the competition?

Absolutely. And so I did. Feel free to check out my version of “best tea tree oil” here.

Overall, I did a good job on the research. Plus there were tons of link prospects for this topic.

So naturally, I thought, “what if I write about all the major essential oils?”

And so I did. Or almost did.

I spent the next few days plowing through Ahrefs and Hunter.io to build email lists for dozens of future info articles on essential oils and carrier oils.

I was amazed by the sheer number of potential link prospects. Coconut oil, alone, has over 1,000 unique linking domains!

I had already started my next article on lavender oil. I was almost halfway done when…

I realized I was going in the wrong direction.

My site is not about essential oils. It’s (primarily) about acne scars.

Even though there are low competition keywords in this space, my site doesn’t have authority on essential oils. This could be an extension of my site later on, but not right now.

There are similar stories on the AuthorityHacker Facebook group of beginners going too broad. This can distract you from your goals and also hurt rankings for your core topics.

After this experience, I paused to reflect on where my content was already doing well. I published another 5 articles in those areas to further strengthen my site’s authority.

We’ll see how this plays out in the next few months.

2. Link Building

I completed my 2nd email outreach campaign using my article on tea tree oil.

This time, I laid out defined goals:

  • Open Rate > 30%
  • Response Rate > 10%
  • Conversion Rate > 5%

Here are the steps that I used to build my email list:

  1. Download linking domains into a CSV file using Ahrefs’ site explorer tool.
  2. Eliminate sites with a domain rating (DR) below 5.
  3. Use Hunter.io to find emails in its database. Manually find the rest.
  4. Segment the list into 2 groups: small fish (DR < 30) and big fish (DR > 30).

I’ve implemented many of my own recommendations from last month’s campaign.

This included setting up DNS records, filtering prospects, and shortening my subject line and email body. I also used A/B testing for the “big fish” group.

In terms of the subject line and copy, I was a little inconsistent in my approach:

  • Small Fish: I created a personalized subject line (“Awesome Post on X”, where X is related to their blog post) and email copy (based on the linking article and author)
  • Big Fish A: not personalized, subject line was “15 Awesome Uses of Tea Tree Oil”
  • Big Fish B: not personalized, subject line was “Can I ask you a quick question?” (as recommended in The Authority Site System by AuthorityHacker)

Here are the final results:

2nd_Campaign_Results_780x-min

My analysis & commentary

Open Rate

The personalized subject line was very effective (46%). However, “Big Fish A” (15 Awesome Uses of Tea Tree Oil) also performed very well (34%), considering it required no personalization (several hours of work). The question approach delivered the lowest open rate (27%), but the difference is far from being statistically significant.

Result: I met my target of 30% open rate (37% blended).

Response Rate

I received 5 responses to my initial email and 5 additional responses to my first follow-up.

Result: I met my target of 10% response rate (~10%).

Conversion Rate

I built 1 backlink (live). The other 9 leads were requests for money (4), guest posts (2), soft “no” (1), and other replies (2).

Result: I did not meet my target of 5% conversion rate (~1%).

Overall, this campaign was an improvement over my first attempt.

Open rates were good (30-40%) but require further A/B testing with more data.

Out of 103 recipients (adjusted for bounces), I received 10 unique responses (~10%) and closed one prospect (~1%).

Next Steps: I’ll provide my plans at the end of this post, as I intend to work exclusively on link building for the next few months.

3. Site Speed

When it comes to ranking well on Google, content and links are the biggest factors.

But site speed is still important (particularly on mobile). Speed affects the user experience.

If your site doesn’t load fast enough, visitors may just hit the “back” button.

Thanks to Daan van den Bergh and Steve Teare at PagePipe, my site now loads quickly (~2s) and passes with flying colors on speed tests by GTmetrix and Google PageInsights.

This was all achieved without spending more money on hosting (still on sharing hosting).

Here’s my current setup (performance plugins):

  • Autoptimize
  • WP Fastest Cache
  • CAOS for Analytics
  • CAOS for Webfonts
  • Lazy Load by WP Rocket
  • Cloudflare (free CDN)

A Bit of Reflection (and Next Steps)

This is the longest monthly review yet for the shortest month of the year.

I earned my first Amazon commission, I came down with shiny object syndrome, I ramped up link building, and I optimized my site for speed.

While I celebrated some milestones this month, there’s far more work ahead of me.

And I often feel overwhelmed by it all.

The endless list of things to do and the constant worry of falling behind schedule.

For the last few months, I’ve increasingly neglected to take care of my personal well-being.

Somehow, the “work” always seemed more important.

I remember having this exact same experience at my old job.

The feeling that your “work” should always take priority over your “life”.

But this is not in line with my core values. I think we need to take care of ourselves first, in order to better take care of our work and other obligations.

So for the next few months, I’ll be actively putting my health and well-being first. It does not mean that I’ll be slacking off. Rather, it means I’ll be better able to work on my business.

I’ve also started reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. I’ve heard many praises for his system of personal productivity and I’d like to apply his principles to my life.

I also want to remind myself that I need to keep learning.

I haven’t been learning as actively as I should be.

I’ve focused on executing and planning but often in isolation. I need to learn from the global community of online entrepreneurs- from their blog posts, Facebook comments, and videos.

That includes reading case studies like this one (absolutely amazing!) and taking careful notes of what works and what doesn’t.

This is a good segway to my last point about next steps.

I am now 8 months into this passive income venture. June 2019 (1-year) is fast approaching.

When I started this business, I knew it’d require at least a year or two to build out (especially as I’d be learning the ropes along the way).

At the 1-year mark, I will evaluate my progress (content, links, traffic, revenue) to determine whether I should continue to work on this site.

To be fair, my current site (The Derm Detective) was only started in November 2018. But I’ll still hold it to the same goals that I set back in June 2018.

In terms of progress, I’ve done a good job writing (mostly) high quality content (36 articles).

Traffic has been decent as well (794 pageviews in last 30 days) although that number includes visitors from social media and email outreach campaigns.

The biggest obstacle in my way (by far) remains link building.

Based on my understanding, it’s a difficult skill to acquire and even more difficult to outsource.

Therefore, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on link building for the foreseeable future. My goal is to learn as much as I can, apply proven techniques, and get better at it through iteration.

Of course, I’ll still need to write informational articles to use for link building.

My first step will be to design an expanded and revised campaign for my guide on acne scars:

  • I’m confident that the content itself is solid. It will, however, require some minor edits to clean up the writing and reorganize it into a more logical structure.
  • I will hire a professional designer / illustrator to create custom images and an infographic.
  • I will expand my list of prospects to include sites in the acne and skincare space. Previously, I used the skyscraper approach to find people who already linked to a similar article. That campaign include 166 prospects. By comparison, the case study site for The Authority Site System 2.0 (CampSmartly) ran a campaign with over 1,500 prospects!

I will also implement:

  • Click Tracking: I’ll setup the technology required for click tracking on my domain. This lets me see if people are clicking my links in the email.
  • A/B Testing: I’ll be able to compare subject lines (and eventually, email copies) with statistical significance once I have sufficient data.
  • CRM: I’m thinking of using a customer relationship management (CRM) tool such as HubSpot to keep track of people that I’m contacting. This may lead to more successful re-targeting efforts and/or simply not getting flagged as spam for excessive emails.

Until next month!

Cheers,

Tom

February 2019 Income Report

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