March 2021

By: 
Tom Qiao
 | 
Updated: 
April 1, 2021
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Welcome back to Flexibility Is Freedom!

This month, I completed my niche research and selected my next two websites. 😎

(keep reading as I'll discuss which ones and why I picked them)

As a result, this month's income report is a massive one - covering everything from niche research to keyword research to content planning.

So grab yourself a cup of coffee and let's get started!

Key Metrics

  • Revenue: $320 (+57% MoM, -48% YoY)
  • Sessions: 2,536 (+9% MoM)
  • RPM: $126 (+45% MoM)
  • Amazon Risk: 52% (down from 64% last month)

First, here's a run-down of March performance for TheDermDetective.com.

Revenue improved MoM but is still way down YoY and relative to Q4 2020.

Sessions remained about the same so it was primarily driven by higher RPMs.

Even so, it's nice to see an uptick, especially since I spent 0% of my time on it this month.

Going forward, I'll likely dedicate 5-10% of my time to optimize content, publish 1-2 posts a month, and reinvest the cash flow into backlinks via an agency like SEOButler.

This way, I can keep the website active while I work on setting up new ones.

Niche Research: Revisited & Remastered 🏆

Last month, I touched on niche research and a couple different ways to brainstorm ideas.

This month, I used an excellent framework from The Authority Site Sytem 3.0 to further define and refine my niche research and niche selection process.

Overall, the framework boils down to three key factors:

  1. Traffic: can you build (organic) traffic with a brand new website?
  2. Monetization: how well can you monetize this traffic?
  3. Passion: what is your level of interest and degree of commitment?

Now, let's discuss each of these factors.

1. The "Trifecta" of Traffic, Monetization, and Passion

I call it the "trifecta" (no Illuminati comments, please) because you need all three to have the best chance for success.

It's like the TriForce in Legend of Zelda!

Traffic

Obviously, you need visitors on your website.

The standard methodology is to look for "high traffic, low competition" keywords.

Traffic on Highway

The real question, however, is a question of tradeoffs.

How low are you willing to go in terms of search volume to find low competition (and presumably easier-to-rank-for) keywords?

Some approaches, like the Avalanche Theory on Builder Society, recommend going extremely low (0-10 estimated searches a month for a new website 🤔).

However, there really isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. Traffic analysis should be predicated on the value of this traffic (as determined by monetization options or proxied by the cost per click).

If there are high-paying, high-converting, and sustainable monetization options, I'd feel pretty comfortable going for lower volume keywords (50-100).

But if there are few monetization options and/or Amazon is the only game in town, I'd be much more disciplined about keyword volume.

Next, we need to evaluate keyword difficulty and this is the most difficult step.

As I mentioned earlier, the general principle (an assumption, really) is that lower volume keywords will be easier to win (due to less competition for them).

However, if I've learned anything from my experience with TheDermDetective.com (within the context of the broader health & fitness industry), it's that you must be spatially aware of your high domain authority (DR/DA) competitors.

Healthline Homepage

There's a point at which a website / brand completely dominates their industry (e.g. healthline.com in health, thesprucepets.com in pets) that it creates its own field of gravity.

(gravity, here, being an analogy for domain authority)

In my experience, a high DR/DA competitor will naturally attract keywords into its "orbit", even if its corresponding page is not very relevant for the keyword.

This means position #1-3 or even #1-5 might be permanently unavailable for smaller websites.

So even if you produce the best, most relevant, and most user-friendly content, you still cannot overcome the huge difference in domain authority.

In short, evaluating keyword difficulty requires excellent judgment and niche experience.

Monetization

The next factor, and the most important, is the quality of monetization options.

I learned the hard way about the risk of relying on a single merchant (Amazon) who can singlehandly cut their commission rates and/or restructure their program.

Amazon Associates US Homepage

(Amazon Europe already rolled out a modified affiliate program last year 🤔)

It's definitely one of the downsides of affiliate marketing (total lack of control).

That's why I spent most of my time during niche research evaluating the merchants, affiliate programs, and overall industry sustainability.

Once again, it's usually a game of tradeoffs.

The best merchants tend to have the worst affiliate programs. Case in point:

  • Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target: usually 1-3%
  • Sephora: 3.75% (after 25% Skimlinks fee)
  • BestBuy: 0.5%

But... if they have a high conversion rate (like Amazon: 15-20% in my experience), then overall earnings per hundred clicks (EPC) might be reasonable.

For example, I had an average EPC of $10-12 with Amazon (post April 2020 rate cut) compared to only $2 with Sephora and $4 with Ulta Beauty.

However, with some private merchants, I regularly achieved $100+ EPC. 😎

For my new projects, I'm looking for a good balance between:

  • Merchant Quality: would I feel comfortable buying from them?
  • Affiliate Program Quality: do they value their affiliate partners?
  • Number of Options: are there fallbacks in case of problems?
  • Sustainability: can they afford to pay these commission rates long-term?

A quick-and-dirty way to "feel out" the affiliate programs is to check where top competitors are sending their traffic in Ahrefs Linked Domains.

Passion

Finally, the last factor is passion (or at the very least, a strong interest).

You'll be more likely to persevere through challenges (and the lack of short-term results) when you're truly passionate about a topic.

With my first website, I definitely checked the box on passion and in retrospect, I would 100% agree that it's helped me keep going after every obstacle.

If it were a topic that I was less interested in, I may have given up much earlier.

Now, one of the challenges that many people face is they don't have a "passion" or perhaps they have too many passions to choose from.

That's why I think you only need to have a "strong interest" to start with, as you'll eventually develop a passion (or a better understanding) of your niche over time.

On the other hand, just because you have a passion for something, doesn't mean it'll be profitable if you can't build organic traffic and monetize well (the first two factors).

2. My Process Today vs. 2 Years Ago

Next, I'll compare my niche selection process today vs. 2+ years ago.

When I first started, I used more-or-less the same framework to "find" my niche. Although I must say I was very biased towards skincare due to my interest.

In comparison, I put much more emphasis on traffic and especially monetization during this recent round of niche selection, and less so on passion.

In other words, my process focused on maximizing traffic/monetization potential, subject to a minimum level of "passion".

And this led me to pick the following niches...

3. My Final Niche Selections (and why)

Now, I'll finally talk about my two niche selections.

However, I won't be releasing the domain names this time, partly to keep their backlink profiles separate but also to prevent any competitive disadvantage from doing so (if any).

My first pick is Pets (I know, big surprise! 🤣).

It's obviously a huge industry with a ton of competition from institutional websites (like TheSprucePets), YouTubers, Instagramers, and affiliate marketers.

I will be targeting a specific subset of pets (not dogs or cats) that I think is attractive from a traffic and monetization perspective:

  • Traffic: I see a good opportunity to build a low-to-medium size website given the number of low DR competitors that are ranking for commercial keywords. In addition, there's a variety of informational and commercial queries (multiple ways to win) and a strong community (Facebook groups, Pinterest, YouTube, etc.) which opens the door for social media traffic.
  • Monetization: the crux of this niche lies in monetization. Amazon pays 3% but Chewy.com pays $15 on new customer orders (any size). In addition, by using one of my plugins, I can obtain a special $20 CPA for Chewy.com. Assuming Chewy converts at only 1% (remember, Amazon is 15-20%), EPC would be $20 or twice what I'm getting with Amazon in the skincare niche (which is actually more profitable because luxury beauty pays 10%). I think Chewy could realistically convert at 2-4% which would be $40-80 EPC from a well-established brand - an extremely attractive proposition. Side note: Skimlinks network data shows Chewy converts at 35% - not sure if that data is skewed because it sounds a little too high to me.

Now, here are the major risks that I've identified:

  • Competition: while subsets of the pet industry are less competitive, there are many "broad-level" competitors such as TheSprucePets or PetMD that might be (or turn into) the "healthlines" of this industry. In other words, they become so dominant that they naturally outrank you for less relevant keywords, even if they're not intentionally trying to.
  • Proximity to E.A.T. Issues: ever since Medic Update in 2018, E.A.T. has been a hot topic when it comes to YMYL subjects - health, legal, finance, and more. Even if Google can't compare one medical degree to another, there's no doubt in my mind that YMYL requires a "special sauce" to rank well. Pets is usually not associated with YMYL, however, there are many pet topics that center around pet health, such as what to feed your pet, what to do if your pet shows certain symptoms, etc. These are really medical queries so does Google treat them with the same E.A.T. rules? If so, do authors have to be veterinarians, for example? (currently, this is not the case based on what I'm seeing in the SERPs but this may change in the future)
  • Single Merchant Risk & Sustainability: the single point of failure for this niche is the complete reliance on Chewy.com. Yes, I know I said that you need multiple merchants (and I have a better example in my second niche). Here, I'm comfortable with the fact that we are building off of Chewy.com given their quality and product selection. I recognize that their program is NOT built for long-term sustainability (they lose money on most orders with a flat rate commission), but for short-term growth. That's why I plan to hold this asset for a shorter period of time and exit in 18-24 months.

Overall, my thesis is to build ~5,000-10,000 sessions a month of traffic from a mix of informational and commercial keywords, monetize (and optimize) with Chewy.com in the form of text links, buttons, sidebar banners, and pop-ups, and exit in 2 years.

With a flat rate program, it opens up interesting opportunities in lower price items so you can promote the lowest barrier, highest converting offers to your audience, since you make the same $20 CPA whether they buy $10 or $100.

Here's a simple downside and upside scenario:

  • Traffic: 2,500 - 10,000
  • CTR (to Chewy.com): 15% - 30%
  • Conversion Rate: 2% - 5%
  • EPC (Calculated): $20 - $100
  • Revenue (Based on Previous Inputs): $150 - $3,000
  • Exit Multiple (on Monthly Revenue): 25x - 35x
  • Exit Price: $3,750 - $105,000

In addition, I believe my assumptions are very conservative:

  • Traffic: I've identified many competitors with Ahrefs estimated traffic of 2,000-10,000. In my experience, Ahrefs is very conservative and underestimates by 5-10x. This is especially true for smaller websites as they just don't have enough data points.
  • CTR: I've achieved 50-70%+ CTR for my best posts in the skincare niche. Hitting 15-30% CTR should be a reasonable target.
  • Conversion Rate: how well Chewy converts is a key factor. Based on their website, product selection, checkout process, and brand recognition, I believe they will convert very well (Skimlinks says 35% but I think more like 2-4% or single digits).
  • Exit Multiples: this is subject to change but the market is trending upwards as more institutional buyers (like PE funds) acquire online businesses, according to Empire Flippers' 2021 State of the Industry Report.

Now, onto my second pick: VPNs.

This one is pretty interesting. I knew that the monetization options were good so it was more a question of finding the right angle to build targeted traffic.

When you have good affiliate programs, it's bound to attract a ton of competition (e.g. hosting, SaaS, mattresses, credit cards, travel, etc.).

If you can find a creative angle or alternative traffic source (YouTube, Pinterest), you might be able to avoid the competition while still monetizing relatively well:

  • Traffic: the VPN "niche" is extremely competitive. Any keyword with "VPN" in it is likely impossible for a brand new website. Massive technology publishers like TechRadar, Tom's Guide, CNET, etc. dominate the SERP along with a few niche-specific ones like VPN Mentor, Restore Privacy, etc. However, I've identified a subniche that is pretty attractive with low DR competitors on Page 1. The main strategy is targeting keywords that occur much earlier in the purchase journey (lower conversion rates but less competition). These are informational queries like "how to", "what is", etc. instead of "best", "vs", and "review". My main task (after growing traffic) will be optimizing pages to drive incremental improvements in conversions (CRO).
  • Monetization: as I mentioned, VPN payouts are good (maybe not as good as hosting or mattresses, but still good). This is a natural reflection of the VPN business model - high fixed costs from maintaining or renting servers plus an IT and support team, but virtually zero marginal cost from a new customer (just like a cell phone provider). That means each new subscription is almost 100% margin which is why VPN providers are happy to pay high commissions for customer acquisition (sales). I've found that the industry standard is 100% commission rate on monthly plans and 40% commission rate on 1-year and 2-year plans. For example, ExpressVPN pays $13 on monthly plans (100%), $22 on 6-month plans (37%) and $36 on 1-year plans (36%) while NordVPN pays 100% on monthly plans, 40% on 6-month or longer plans, and 30% on renewal plans.

Like before, here are the major risks that I'm concerned about:

  • Conversion Rate: I believe I'll be able to grow traffic, but how well that traffic converts, both on my website (CTR) and at the merchant (CR) is unknown. Building content for the Top of the Funnel (ToFu) and Middle of the Funnel (MoFu) is a new experience for me so I have no idea how well it might go. This is why my top priority after traffic is optimizing my website template, page layout, and content, to drive up the conversion rate. Other relevant tactics for ToFu and MoFu content is to engage and retain visitors with an email list, push notifications, and/or social media. That way, you can re-target them with product offers and discounts in the future when they might be more ready to buy.
  • Legal: I don't think this will be a significant risk but when it comes to VPNs and other privacy tools, there may be legal requirements, disclosures, or related liabilities. I've taken the time to make sure my privacy policy and terms & conditions are updated, but I don't exactly have a legal team like the big VPN companies to handle this stuff.

Now, unlike my skincare website and the pets niche, I don't see this one being affected by any E.A.T. or YMYL related issues, which is good for my overall portfolio.

I also like that there's a healthy degree of merchants, excellent affiliate programs, and I believe current commission rates will be sustainable for the long-term.

Overall, my thesis is to build ~10,000-20,000 sessions of traffic in 24-36 months from primarily informational queries and monetize with VPN products in text links, buttons, sidebar banners, popups, emails, and more.

Unlike the pets niche (namely, its reliance on Chewy), I'm not as concerned about exiting quickly. I'd be fine to hold this asset for 2-4+ years but will consider selling it depending on market valuations and my own personal needs.

Here's a simple downside and upside scenario:

  • Traffic: 5,000 - 20,000
  • CTR (to VPNs): 10% - 30%
  • Conversion Rate: 1% - 3%
  • Payouts (using ExpressVPN as example): $13 (1-month) - $36 (1-year)
  • EPC (Calculated): $13-39 (all 1-month plans), $36-108 (all 1-year plans)
  • Revenue (Based on Previous Inputs): $65-180 (downside), $2,340-$6,480 (upside)
  • Exit Multiple (on Monthly Revenue): 30x - 40x
  • Exit Price: ~$2,000-$5,400 (downside), $93,600-$259,200 (upside)

Here's my thinking behind these assumptions:

  • Traffic: since I'm going after info keywords, I think I can build a greater level of traffic, especially considering the variety of queries and geographical possibilities. My holding period is also longer which gives me more time to reach my traffic goals.
  • CTR: I'm honestly not sure what CTR will be (and this is a huge driver). Regardless, I will be continuously optimizing it and I think 30% is a reasonable upper limit, given the informational nature of my target keywords (ToFu, MoFu).
  • Conversion Rate: again, I'll need to obtain real-world data on different merchants. Network data from Skimlinks suggests a 4% CR for ExpressVPN, 3.2% for Surfshark, and 1.4% for NordVPN. If true, clearly ExpressVPN is the industry leader here.
  • Payouts: this largely depends on what plan users choose. Users can also cancel their plan within 30 days for free (no sale, no commission). I would bet that most users go with a monthly plan, even though annual plans are cheaper on a per month basis.
  • Exit Multiples: I revised multiples upwards because this type of business should fetch far more than a typical Amazon affiliate website due to the monetization quality, as well as diversity of merchants (unlike pets, which was 100% focused on Chewy). VPNs are a hot space, given how hard it is to get traffic there, so there might be buyers that want an established domain to pump additional capital and resources into it.

That's it for the niche research and niche selection process. I'm extremely relieved to have picked my two niches and it definitely took a very long time.

I was originally going to spend all of March on niche research but I wrapped up early and have started building one of them already.

I also wanted to discuss additional topics in this month's income report, but because it's gotten a lot longer than I intended, I will save those for next month.

My next steps are to setup the first website, publish content and build a v1.0, get approved by the affiliate networks and merchants, run an Adwords fishing campaign to validate search volume for my target keyword, and then re-evaluate from there.

To Flexibility and Freedom,

Tom

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