September 2019

Welcome to Flexibility Is Freedom!

Every month on this blog, I discuss my experiences in affiliate marketing and SEO.

I’ll show you what’s working, what isn’t, and share my plans for world domination.

Without further ado, let’s dig into the results for September 2019!

P.S. I’ve completely redesigned FlexibilityIsFreedom.com this month – I personally love the new look (the old one was dreadful) – I’d love to hear what you think in the comments!

P.P.S I’ve also added a new resources page (coming soon) – this is where I’ll share everything I use from hosting, plugins, SEO tools, courses, podcasts, banking solutions, and much more. I’ll give my honest 2¢ on each product and why I use it, so hopefully you guys find that useful.

Key Metrics

  • Revenue: $230.46 (+17% MoM)
  • Traffic*: 6,185 (-18% MoM)
  • RPM*: N/A

*Traffic this month is inaccurate as my site was missing the Google Analytics javascript tag for about 3-4 days. This piece of code collects user data and provides key metrics like the number of unique visitors per day. The reason this happened was all me – I misconfigured a setting in CAOS (a plugin I used to host the GA javascript tag locally instead of fetching it from Google’s servers).

Commentary

Total revenue came in over $200, including income from Amazon UK and a merchant on ShareASale. It’s still a long way from my goal of $1,000 per month but definitely a step in the right direction.

As I mentioned above, it’s hard to say whether traffic increased or decreased due to the missing data. Daily traffic was relatively stable until mid-month when several keywords declined in ranking.

Upon further investigation, I believe this was caused by changes in site structure, specifically the navigation menu, that left some pages “orphaned” (i.e. there were no internal links to find them).

While I’m not 100% sure this was the reason, I’m definitely more conscious now of how I make site changes, even minor ones like design tweaks and plugin installations.

Thoughtful planning and documentation (in case a rollback is required) are necessary steps to avoid these types of “unforced errors” in SEO.

The 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 Rule
Image Courtesy: https://medium.com/swlh/the-80-20-rule-or-paretos-principle-explained-6345ce94ab96

The main theme of September was: efficiency.

In the year that I’ve been building my business, I’ve learned that there’s only so much I can accomplish in a day, even if I strongly feel otherwise.

Frankly, I have two hands and they can only type so fast (and for so long).

The solution?

I need to work smarter and double down on the 20% that produces 80% of my results.

This month, I’ve decided to stop doing the non-critical 80% (which made me feel productive) to focus on the critical 20% (i.e. creating quality content and building quality links).

Here are 3 examples of common site management activities that I’ve eliminated and the software solutions that I’m now using instead.

Site Speed

In terms of site speed, it is important to meet user expectations for load times (generally, under 2 seconds), particularly on mobile where network speeds are slower vs. desktop connections.

To ensure a blazing fast site, I spent hours trying different caching plugins, reading tutorials, compressing images, and of course, running speed tests on GTMetrix and Pingdom.

However, I (eventually) realized this was not the best use of my time.

Site speed is a relatively small ranking factor in SEO (though I strongly believe it’s more important in mobile searches which represent over 60% of all search queries).

Previously, I used a number of free plugins to optimize site performance:

  • WP Fastest Cache: GZIP Compression & Browser Caching
  • Autoptimize: Minify & Combine JS and CSS scripts, plus other features
  • Lazy Load by WP Rocket: Delay Image Loading

This setup works well (I use it on this site), especially with a free CDN like Cloudflare.

However, it does require a lot of fine-tuning and testing, which takes up additional time.

Now, I use WP Rocket (a paid plugin) which combines the above 3 plugins.

This costs me $49 a year (I used a 10% coupon by signing up for their newsletter) but it saves me a lot of time and energy which I can re-invest into content and links.

Overall, the performance of WP Rocket seems to be on par (maybe even slightly better) than my previous setup, but I like that it has a clean interface and is easier to manage.

I’ve also added Perfmatters (another paid plugin, see a trend here?) which I heard about on a recent Authority Hacker podcast.

Perfmatters lets me “turn off” JS and CSS scripts on a page-by-page level which is super powerful.

I can strip away unnecessary lines of code to optimize key pages where I’m competing against bigger competitors with better server resources.

This lets me stay competitive on site speed without upgrading my shared hosting plan (yet).

For sites that are built on Elementor like mine, Perfmatters is really a life-saver. You can eliminate a ton of unused elements (styling, animations, icons, etc.) that load globally even when it’s not used on the page.

Site Speed

Okay, enough about site speed! Here is my current setup:

  • WP Rocket: handles all performance optimizations
  • Perfmatters: able to “turn off” scripts, also hosts Google Analytics locally
  • Imagify: resize & compress images, serve images in WebP format
  • OMGF: host Google Fonts locally
  • CloudFlare: free CDN (content delivery network)

I’ll have more details on each plugin in my upcoming resources page!

Site Design

While working on site speed, I briefly considered swapping out Elementor for a more performance-driven solution like Astra (a WordPress theme).

After using Astra Pro (paid version) for a day, I was unsatisfied with how cumbersome it was to design the basic elements of a website – header, footer, home page, post layout, archives page, and standard static pages (about, contact, privacy policy).

Unlike Elementor, using Astra (a theme, not a pagebuilder) meant using Gutenberg blocks to create each page (Gutenberg is the latest WordPress editor).

However, this turned out to be way more work than it was worth in performance savings, so I reverted to using Elementor on my sites (I used it to redesign F is F).

Now that I’ve discovered Perfmatters, I’m even less concerned about Elementor’s performance drag as I can easily disable unnecessary lines of code.

While pagebuilders are more appealing for beginners (like me), it’s important to find the right balance between site aesthetics and site performance.

Sometimes, that means leaving the animations and fancy buttons behind when they’re not needed.

Finally, I looked into effective solutions for link management. This is, without a doubt, one of the most important (and likely overlooked) parts of affiliate marketing.

As an affiliate marketer, I only make money when someone clicks on my affiliate link and buys a product from the corresponding merchant (in most cases, Amazon).

But if that link doesn’t work, then all my SEO efforts to get that visitor to my site are for naught.

Here are some possible reasons for link “failures”:

  • The link is incorrect (e.g. I copied & pasted the wrong URL)
  • The link is missing the affiliate tracking ID (e.g. I got the right URL but forgot to insert my affiliate tracking ID, which means I won’t get paid)
  • The product is out of stock (e.g. it was in stock when I wrote the article but is not available when the visitor clicked on the link)
  • The product is not available in the visitor’s local region (e.g. it’s available in the US but not in Canada, the UK, or wherever the visitor is from)
  • The exact product cannot be found in the visitor’s local region, but there are very close matches (e.g. the same product is available but under a different product ID or in different sizes/styles vs. the original one)

In other words, a lot can go wrong with an affiliate link that may lead to a subpar user experience such as visiting a “Product Not Found” page on Amazon.

This means lower commissions as users can’t find the product they were looking for (and these are our most valuable users since they were interested enough to click on the link!)

The problem is that with hundreds (if not thousands) of affiliate links on a site, spread across text links, images, buttons, and call-to-action elements like pop-ups, it’s an almost impossible task to manually recheck every link.

Fortunately, I’ve come across across an excellent link management solution: Geni.Us.

Originally designed for iTunes affiliate links, Geni.Us has some special features for managing Amazon affiliate links. Here’s what I find most attractive about it:

  • With its plugin (Amazon Link Engine), I can insert plain Amazon product links in my content (e.g. no affiliate tracking IDs) and Geni.Us will automatically add my tracking ID to those links when they are clicked. No need to worry anymore if my links are properly affiliated.
  • Technically speaking, the user is redirected to a Geni.Us server (buy.geni.us) when they click the product link and then rerouted to their local Amazon store with my affiliate tracking ID embedded in the URL. Some may prefer this approach as users won’t see your affiliate links (this level of technology is typically seen on more established websites).
  • Geni.Us also checks “link health” and notifies me when a product is out of stock. This is super helpful as I can update the link to continue earning commissions.
  • Geni.Us displays the international Amazon storefronts that carry the same (or similar) product as the one for Amazon US. This lets me factor in international product availability when deciding which product to include in my content.
  • Geni.Us provides a unique way to monetize traffic from India (I’ll cover this briefly below).
  • Overall, Geni.Us provides an all-in-one dashboard to monitor my Amazon links and it saves me the hassle of inserting & managing them manually.

Geni.Us also claims it can redirect international visitors to matching products in their local Amazon stores more accurately than Onelink (Amazon’s own javascript code). This may or may not be true, but for me, there’s already enough value in this service so I’d consider it a bonus.

Similar to my solutions for site speed and site design, Geni.Us is a premium service that costs $9 a month for 4,500 clicks and $1 per 1,000 clicks thereafter.

It’s not cheap (at least $108 a year) but there’s a good chance it can pay for itself by monetizing international traffic (particularly India), notifiying me about out of stock items, and saving me a ton of time on manual link management.

Just 3 more things as this section is getting quite long (enough to be its own blog post).

On Amazon India:

For English-language content, the major audiences worldwide (with an Amazon store) are the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and India.

So which geographies drive the most traffic?

To my surprise, India was the 3rd largest traffic region for my site (almost 2x the UK).

Now, for the bad news.

Opening an Amazon Associates account for Amazon India is apparently quite challenging due to local business entity and local banking requirements.

This means most sites are leaving “money on the table” in a fast growing market.

Fortunately, Geni.Us provides a unique way to unlock this revenue source by partnering with Cuelinks, a link aggregator in India.

Essentially, I use Cuelinks’ affiliate tracking ID for visitors from India and they pay me the commissions that they earn in their Amazon Associates account, less fees and taxes in the process (roughly 50% according to a Geni.Us blog post).

Still, 50% of something is better than nothing!

On Performance:

Another reason I like Geni.Us is its performance compared to link services like Onelink or Skimlinks.

When installed, both Onelink and Skimlinks make additional requests on the back-end to their servers to “create” a local affiliate link for Onelink or add your tracking ID to the URL for Skimlinks.

This increases page load times and hurts site performance.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Amazon Link Engine (Geni.Us’s WordPress plugin) is very lightweight and had an almost undetectable impact on page size and load times.

On Non-Amazon Links:

For non-Amazon affiliate links, I use ThirstyAffiliates to cloak and manage links.

Cloaking means you use a “pretty” or “clean” link in your content (e.g. yoursite.com/go/product or yoursite.com/recommends/product).

The visitor is then redirected from the “pretty” link to the actual “ugly” link (e.g. affiliatesite.com/?affiliateid=12345).

Side note on ThirstyAffiliates: I don’t recommend using their Amazon Uncloaking feature.

It’s intended as a “quick fix” for sites with thousands of existing “pretty” links as this violates Amazon’s terms of service (links must show they are directed to one of Amazon’s official sites).

Using this feature on a fresh site actually takes more time than simply using plain Amazon affiliate links. This feature was also not performance-friendly in my tests.

On-Page SEO

This month, I began to systematically implement on-page SEO on my site using a master spreadsheet (to track changes) along with PageOptimizer Pro.

I briefly tested SurferSEO (another on-page tool) but found the interface was too complicated and I was not a fan of their correlational approach to SEO.

In September, I also bought Kyle Roof’s new on-page course for $379 (it’s a pre-release version as the course is still being developed).

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of SEO courses as I believe knowledge should be freely shared.

However, I’ve been following Kyle Roof for a while (he also developed PageOptimizer Pro) and I’m convinced that conducting scientific tests is the best way to learn SEO.

So far, this course has really changed how I think about keywords, site structure (reverse silo), research strategy, and on-page factors:

  • Keywords: there are actually 3 types of keywords (primary, secondary, and supporting) and each type is used in a particular way to rank an article
  • Site Structure (Reverse Silo): rather than a traditional “top-down” structure (e.g. home page >> category page >> post), Kyle recommends a reverse silo to optimize both the relevancy and flow of PageRank (i.e. links) to target pages
  • Research Strategy: whereas I was focused on tools like Ahrefs before, Kyle believes the best tool is your brain (sounds simple, doesn’t it?) and free options like Google Keyword Planner, Google Trends, Related Searches, Autocomplete, Answer The Public, Your Competitors, etc. (as well as POP)
  • On-Page Factors: Kyle has publicly presented his findings on the most important on-page factors and in this course, he explains how to place keywords, variations, and contextual terms in these factors (namely, the Meta Title, H1, URL, Paragraph Text, H2/H3/H4, Anchor Text, Bold, Italic, and Image Alt tags)

For me, the most actionable steps from this course (so far) are:

  1. Create reverse silos for key pages (high potential affiliate keywords), and
  2. Build quality links to supporting articles (my next topic)

Off-Page SEO

In September, I completed another guest post (not yet live). As of October 1, one of my previous guest posts went live on a high domain authority site.

Since I’ll be travelling in October to Southeast Asia, I’ve decided not to run another shotgun skyscraper campaign (for details, see my June 2019 income report) as this requires Scrapebox which runs best on a desktop connection.

As I noted in my July 2019 income report, I plan to use a mix of both shotgun skyscraper and quality guest posts to create my backlink profile.

That’s because each link building tactic has its own pro’s and con’s:

  • Shotgun “Spray & Pray” Skyscraper: scalable but difficult to win links and requires a lot of fine-tuning at every stage of the process (creating content, scraping & filtering prospects, finding & verifying email addresses, crafting email templates & customizing emails, sending emails & following up, replying to emails, spreadsheet & blacklist management)
  • Guest Posts: less scalable but easier to win links (often with ability to direct links to commercial content and set anchor text); also, you don’t get to keep the content

I’m currently working on a high quality informational article that I will promote next month via:

  • Custom Email Outreach: in line with Kyle Roof’s “use your brain” philosophy, I plan to brainstorm more about what sites and content are most likely to benefit from my article. Then, I’ll manually find these site using Google and Google Advanced Operators and email them my piece to start a conversation with the goal of obtaining a link (or future citation).
  • Social Media: I’ll create custom titles and images for Facebook and Pinterest and enable social sharing buttons (SocialSnap). While not a core focus, I think that getting a few shares will add “social proof” to my articles (i.e. show readers that other people have shared it) and could potentially lead to some natural links (e.g. a blogger mentions it on her site).
  • Paid Ads? Just an idea right now, but I’ve seen another SEO blog mention using Google Ads to promote their informational article with the goal of attracting natural backlinks. Definitely not a strategy for the uninitiated as you can spend infinite money on ads with zero return if you don’t know what you’re doing. I might explore this further in addition to the other channels.

I’ll still consider high quality guest post opportunities next month as well.

Eventually, I’d like to add a “Featured In” section on my home page to showcase all the places where I’ve written a guest post and add more credibility to the site.

Next Steps

Well, I’ve covered most of my next steps in the Off-Page SEO section.

I’ll continue to implement on-page optimizations (with careful documentation in case of roll-backs) and create supporting articles for my key pages (i.e. informational articles for link building).

Next month, I’ll be in Thailand ahead of the Chiang Mai SEO Conference in November so I’ll make sure to upload some photos from my trip!

Until next month,

Tom

September 2019 Income Report
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