The Wrong Way To Build Niche Sites (And What You Should Do Instead)

Things move pretty fast online.  What worked well yesterday, is no longer viable today.

This is true to some extent across most businesses, and it’s true in spades with content sites.

These days, the SERPs are dominated by:

  • Giant companies
  • Smaller site builders that have optimized the hell out of the process of cranking out longtail keyword focused posts

The problem is, a lot of the content out there is subpar.  It’s boring to read, and it’s boring to write.

But site builders feel as though this is the only way to get organic traffic, and they’re not wrong.

authority site operator

How Did We Get Here?

The Early Days

Back in the ancient days of the 1990s and early 2000s, websites were somewhat challenging to build from a technical perspective.  WordPress wasn’t even created until 2003.

Even if you could create a site, they weren’t all that easy to monetize.  These days, if you have a site with traffic, you have all sorts of ad networks and affiliate programs at your disposal.

In the early internet days, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition.  So, it didn’t take an SEO wunderkind to rank a site.  Plus, Google’s algorithm was much simpler and easier to manipulate.

Then Things Got… Easier

Some time in the 2010s, something magical happened.  Sites became much easier to build, and a new generation of entrepreneurs came onto the scene.  Along the way, someone had the brilliant idea of creating a review site – a site that was built with the sole purpose of reviewing products, often in a certain niche (mountain biking, fishing, shaving, etc.).

Naturally, internet gurus started selling courses on how to make money with content sites, and some of these courses were actually pretty good.  A newbie could shell out a couple thousand dollars for a course, and a few months later they would magically know how to put up a cookie cutter affiliate review site that would reliably generate cash flow every day of the week.

What Happens When Returns Are Too Good To Be True?

A niche site builder that knew what they were doing or got a little lucky could invest a few thousand dollars building out a site, and generate a few thousand dollars per month in cash flow.  The IRRs on these sites were so staggering, they would make Warren Buffett blush.

But, spectacular IRRs attract market entrants.  Soon, the affiliate review site became the dominant model for authority site builders, and the Internet was filled with review sites that were chalked full of posts targeting ever longer tail keywords (i.e Best Freshwater Fishing Pole For Left Handed Children).

Thus began an arms race.  Who could produce the most content, and who could build the most links?  Speed writers were hired to crank out hastily researched review posts, and virtual assistants were tasked with spamming every site owner with an email address to beg for a link.

Enter AI

If savvy niche site operators could crank out boatloads of mediocre content with low cost speed writers, things only accelerated with the advent of AI writers.  Producing dozens or even hundreds of human crafted posts each month would no longer be a competitive advantage.  AI writers with human editors could dwarf that volume, while reducing costs and increasing quality.

While this might be a great thing if only a select group of people were able to pull it off, it’s not so great when half the industry starts building niche sites this way.

That more or less brings up to the present day.

The Content Site Model Is Broken

Ok, so everyone is seeking out long tail keywords and cranking out ever higher volumes of posts to cover every imaginable angle on every possible topic.  Why is this a problem?

Posts That Focus On Long Tail Keywords Are Boring

At some point, SEOs started to notice that it was very difficult to rank for big search queries.  For example, if you want to rank for best stroller, you’ll need to build a large site with loads of links and topical authority.

On the other hand, if you want to rank for a long tail keyword like best beach stroller for newborns, you might just be able to pull it off.  This is a low volume search term, and there aren’t many people writing on it, so even a small site can compete.

While it’s perfectly rational to target long tail keywords, site builders tend to rinse and repeat this process ad nauseum.  So, after a while, they have a site that answers all sorts of obscure queries: best beach stroller for newborns, best city stroller for toddlers, best lightweight stroller for twins, etc.

While any individual post on this site might be informative to a particular reader, the overall site is incredibly dull and not particularly memorable.

Oh, and by the way, it’s not exactly a secret that most review sites don’t actually ever see or touch the products they review.  But, that’s another topic for another day.

Do Users Still Get Value From Review Sites?

Readers probably do get some value from review sites.  It might save them some time since review sites tend to consolidate other information across the web into one convenient location.

But, honestly, what is user behavior going to be on a site like this?  Imagine, you’ve just finished reading a post called Best Beach Stroller for Newborns.  Are you then going to browse around, and check out the post on Best Toddler Strollers for NYC or Best Lightweight Jogging Stroller for Twins?  Will you sign up for a newsletter to get more unique stroller reviews delivered straight to your inbox on a weekly basis?  Not likely.

Instead, if the site owner is lucky, you’ll click on an affiliate link, buy a stroller, and then never think about the site again.

Everyone Is Using The Same Tools

Now, if writing a bunch of posts focused on long tail keywords was the only issue, I wouldn’t say that the model is broken exactly.  Content site builders might still be able to generate solid cash flow.

The problem is compounded, however, by the fact that all the site builders are using the same tools.  Let’s say that your stroller site is getting a lot of traffic.  Well, everyone is going to see that in AHREFS or Semrush, and they are going to write posts on exactly the same topics.

To make matters worse, they’ll use Surfer to help them write a post that pretty much covers all the same topics as yours.  Except, maybe they’ll make their posts 5% longer and outrank you.

The net result is that more competition and more capital are chasing the same search terms, which ruins the IRR for the whole industry.  Or, at least for everyone that is operating this type of niche site.

How To Fix The Model, So That It Works For You

The problem with the dominant authority site model today is that it’s not really much of a business.  It’s much more like an arbitrage opportunity that allows the niche operators to generate temporary profits until they get wiped out by an algorithm update or until competition causes their traffic to erode over time.

So, what should you do instead?

If You Really Want To Do Reviews, Do Them The Right Way

Part of the reason that review sites took off is that they could in fact be monetized really well.  This was particularly important in the days before ad rates increased to where they are today.

I’m not knocking this model per se.  After all, review focused media has been around since well before the Internet.  Consumer Reports was started in 1936 for example.  But, if you’re going to build a review site, you should actually be using and testing the products.  Crazy idea, I know.

Wirecutter does a really nice job of this.  I personally use this site when making purchasing decisions.

There is plenty of room to start a review site in another area.  Just be aware that if you’re actually doing all of the product testing, the amount of effort required is much higher.

Better Yet, Write About Something More Fun

In the early days of content sites, it was pretty common for bloggers to take you on a journey.  They would write on all sorts of interesting topics, and then let their personality shine through.

The challenge with this is that a lot of those “interesting topics” don’t receive search volume.  So, no one ever gets to read them.  It’s a bit of a conundrum.

At the end of the day, you’re going to need to find some way to get people to discover your content.  So, you may still want to write some long tail posts.  But, you’ll have much better luck keeping them there if they find you through informational content rather than product reviews.

You should make it really easy for readers to find your interesting content so that they stick around and browse your site.

Of course, there are other ways to get readers to find your site aside from organic search.  Twitter is perfect for this.

Email Newsletters Are (Almost) A Requirement Now

Building an email list and starting a newsletter is not exactly a new concept.  But, for years, it’s been sort of an afterthought for most niche site owners.  But, if you want to produce interesting content though, and have people read it, a newsletter is the best way to do it.

Publishing interesting posts on your site is not necessarily going to result in organic search traffic.

But, if you send out interesting emails to your subscribers, they will appreciate it.  Then, you’ll reap the rewards – high open rates, high engagement, and a growing email list through word of mouth.

By the way, this is how you actually develop a relationship with your readers.

Plus, it insulates you from having a single point of failure that may be triggered at any time by a Google algorithm update.

Oh, and it’s considerably more difficult for your competitors to copy.  There is no AHREFS telling your competition which of your emails do really well, or how you find subscribers.  Sure, it’s still possible for people to reverse engineer what you’re doing, but it takes a lot more effort.

Newsletters Can Be Massive

Newsletters can be a big part of your overall site and brand.  As an example, The Hustle was a daily newsletter reaching 1.5 million readers with content on business and tech, and it sold to Hubspot for $27 million.

The Daily Skimm sends out a newsletter to millions of millennial women every day.

Both of these brands are primarily newsletters.  But, I’m not suggesting that you abandon the authority site model and go all in on newsletters.  Rather, I’m suggesting that you grow your brand by layering on a newsletter.  After all, your newsletter readers are much more likely to check out your site as well.

Protection Against The Inevitable Algorithm Update

Massive authority sites like the Penny Hoarder and The Points Guy have embraced the newsletter model as a way to supplement traffic and reduce reliance on organic search.

If you’ve ever experienced an 80% decline in traffic due to a core algorithm update, you know it’s something you don’t want to repeat.  So, why not diversify your traffic and insulate yourself from the next update that arrives.

Newsletters Are Complementary To Authority Sites

There are lots of ways that you can improve upon the business of running a content site.  You can expand into social, start a YouTube brand, start selling digital products, etc.

But, newsletters are a lighter lift than most other options.  For starters, authority site builders are already producing a lot of written content.  So, operationally, writing an email newsletter instead of exclusively focusing on blog content is not a stretch.

Newsletters feel like a natural fit to your site visitors as well.  If they enjoy reading content on your site, why wouldn’t they want to read it in their inbox?

Monetize With Ads…

There are a million ways to monetize your site and email newsletter.  But, if you want to maintain a somewhat passive income stream, I would start with ads.

Granted, finding ad partners for your newsletter is not as easy as it is on a site.  If you want businesses to advertise with you, then you actually need to contact them and negotiate a rate.

Alternatively, you can simply design your newsletter such that it sends a nice intro with a link to read the full post on your side.  Then, you can use Mediavine or Raptive to monetize these posts just as you would with any other post on your site.

If you have huge ambitions, maybe you layer on digital products, courses, or a premium newsletter where people pay to subscribe.  I don’t want to sugarcoat it though – those are all difficult and time consuming.  I’m a big fan of these options, but they really are almost a different business model entirely.

… And Layer In Affiliate Content

By the way, you can generate affiliate commissions without writing review content.

Help people solve a problem or accomplish a goal, and if there is a product that would help, mention it.

For example, if you have a post on your site that teaches people how to build a coffee table from scratch, then you should let people know what tools you use when you’re building tables.  Do this sincerely, and just suggest your favorite one.

If you earn the trust of your readers, a lot of them will take your recommendations without scouring the Internet in search of opinions from anonymous review sites.

Create Content That You Genuinely Believe People Would Pay To Read

This sounds kind of obvious, but a lot of people forget it.

If you want to be in the content business, then it’s a good idea to create content that people like.  Not content that you think search engine robots will like.

Sure, there is some short term money to be paid by answering a bunch of long tail search queries – the rank & bank model if you will.

But, you’ll make a lot more money in the long term by developing a real audience.  And, the only way to do this is to actually produce compelling content.

By the way, I’m taking my own advice here.  I don’t see how this post would ever show up in the SERPs.  So, if you enjoyed it, share it on Twitter and Facebook and help me spread the word!

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