10 Key Things I’ve Learned From 6 Months of Building Niche Sites

Niche Income Website LessonsIn the last month, I’ve gotten into building small niche websites.  So I was happy when Tom sent me this guest post about this very topic. 

I think he provides some excellent advice here. That’s why I urge you pay close attention to the lessons that Tom has learned the hard way…

It’s amazing how much you can learn in a short space of time if you apply yourself.

In 3 short months, I ranked no. 1 in Google for several fairly competitive keywords. Then I lost it all. Now I’m rebuilding with three more sites.

When it comes to keyword research and search engine optimization, I can confidently say that I have had some tough lessons. I have made mistakes that have set me back a long way.

But that is of benefit for two reasons:

  1. I have learnt from my mistakes, and won’t make them again.
  2. I am in a position to teach others about my mistakes, so that they never have to make them in the first place.

1. Diversify Your Backlinks

I can’t stress this enough. My first niche site was attracting 250-300 visitors a day after 3 months, in spite of my inexperience and a multitude of mistakes. I was just starting to target additional keywords that would bring in hundreds more visitors per day.

Unfortunately, I made the huge mistake of instigating a formulaic and predictable backlinking campaign. I was creating 10 backlinks per day, and targeting the same three keywords with those backlinks.

Such a predictable strategy was spotted by Google, and my site was dumped out of the rankings, never to return. A site that was just starting to build some momentum (earning about $2 – $3 per day) was now worth nothing.

Mix up your anchor text. Don’t be afraid to throw in generic “click here” links. Don’t just link to your home page. Never be tempted to aggressively target a specific keyword. It is not worth the risk – take it from me.

2. Target Multiple Keywords

For the first two months of my first niche site’s life, I was targeting just one keyword. Crazy, right? I just didn’t know any better. Little did I know that a far better strategy would be to target one or two “long term” (i.e. more competitive and highly trafficked) keywords for the whole site, and then target low competition keywords with specifically written articles.

I did rank for lots of long term keywords, but it was completely accidental. I was writing articles on the topic of my site and got lucky. If you write articles focused around specific keywords, you can make your own luck.

3. Ranking for a High Traffic Keyword Does Not Guarantee Success

There are two reasons why going for the jackpot of high-traffic keywords is not necessarily the best strategy:

  1. They’re usually difficult to rank for
  2. They’re usually not as relevant as lower traffic keywords

For instance, say you could rank for the keyword “golf”. That would be pretty awesome, right? But the scope of the keyword in terms of what people are searching for is huge. They might be looking for golf tips, or they might be researching the car.

You could expend 1/10th of the energy in ranking for a keyword that brings in as many relevant visitors as far more heavily trafficked keywords.

4. You Can’t Accurately Estimate Your Google Click Through Rate

This follows on directly from my previous point. There are a huge number of factors that affects the click through rate you will get from your ranking. It seems a common assumption that #1 spot in Google will bring you about 40% of the estimated search figures in visitors. This simply isn’t true. The percentage can vary wildly.

For instance, using the example above, say you had a site all about the car and managed to rank #1 for the keyword “golf”. Say 90% of people are searching for information on the sport, rather than the car. Regardless of the fact that you rank #1 in Google, the click though rate is going to be a single figure percentage point.

This is just one example – there are many reasons as to why you can’t accurately estimate Google click through rate (too many to list here). Tread with caution, and keep your estimates modest.

5. You Don’t Have To Rank #1 in Google

This was a big one for me. When researching keywords, I would decide to myself that it was “all or nothing”. I had to be #1 in Google, otherwise, what was the point? What a load of rubbish.

There is no shame at all in ranking #2 to #10 for a keyword, and having no ambitions to rank #1. If you spot a poorly-optimized site in the 1st page of Google that you think you could take on, why the hell wouldn’t you go for it? Ranking #1 isn’t the be all and end all.

6. Current Events Bring In Big Traffic

Once you have an established site, if you have the opportunity to write about “trending” topics, you absolutely should. My traffic numbers were boosted considerably by writing about current events.

7. Keyword Research Is the Most Important Step

We can talk all day about SEO and backlinking, but keyword research is by far the most important step in defining your success. Picking your battles wisely at the very start will save you a lot of headaches in future.

8. The Number of Backlinks Isn’t the Defining Factor

There are many reasons beyond backlinks why a site ranks well in Google. Most keyword research techniques teach us to tot up the number of backlinks to make an estimation of the competitiveness of a keyword. But if 90% of a site’s backlinks are from the same domain, or if the backlinks are all from “no-follow” blog comments, or for any other of the huge number of potential reasons, the numbers can be highly misleading.

I have ranked #1 in Google with a fraction of the number of backlinks of competing sites. Consider the quality of backlinks, and bear all the other factors in mind too (on-site optimization, domain age, etc).

9. There’s More to Life than Adsense

If you base your entire business model on Adsense, you could be selling yourself short. There are a lot of different ways to make money from your website, and Adsense is just about the least profitable method. It also happens to be the easiest to measure and implement, which is what makes it so popular.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Adsense. It is a great way of bringing your first few bucks in. And if you want to make it part of your long-term strategy because of its ease of implementation, I have no problem with that. But if you are willing to put the work in, you can make a lot more money with other monetization methods.

10. Patience Is Key

I was incredibly impatient with my first niche site. I would check up on the ranking of my single keyword at least twice a day. For a couple of weeks, it didn’t move at all, and I was getting extremely worried. But I was naïve.

Be patient. Climbing the rankings of Google can take time. Persistence and patience are your friends. One thing is for sure – if you stop what you’re doing, you are highly unlikely to climb the rankings. But if you have picked your keyword wisely, have a sold backlinking strategy, and good onsite SEO, it is just a matter of time before you get to where you want to be.

A Continuous Learning Process

I have listed above 10 key lessons I have learnt, but there have been many more. And I wouldn’t hesitate to say that there will be many more lessons in the future. If you are set on making money from websites, you must recognize that you won’t get rich overnight. Like any other legitimate business model, time and experience have a huge part to play on your success.

Tom Ewer is the owner of Leaving Work Behind, a site for anyone who is interested in online business or self-employment. He recently released a comprehensive free guide on keyword research. Get in touch with Tom at his Facebook page.

Take Action. Get Results.

59 thoughts on “10 Key Things I’ve Learned From 6 Months of Building Niche Sites”

  1. Hey Tom,

    Great post and right along the lines of what Steve shares here.

    I appreciate you pointing out how you went about this and even some of the mistakes you made as well. I think when getting into this for the first time it’s a lot of trial and error. Ah, the dreaded learning curves are sometimes no fun at all. But it’s what we can take away from it that’s important.

    Thanks for the great post.


    • Hey Adrienne,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 If there’s one thing I really try to focus on doing, it’s being totally candid about my screw-ups 😉

      If there’s one good thing about making mistakes, it’s that they serve as a marker that your expertise is growing (as long as you don’t make the same mistakes multiple times!). Looking at your setbacks as markers of progress is a nice way of keeping a positive attitude.



  2. This is a great write up, Tom. I love the first-hand account of the experience, makes the writing so much more lively 🙂

    A point of contention if you dont mind.

    I am totally with you on everything you said, I only want to challenge your Anchor Text argument. You say “Mix up your anchor text.”

    It sounds like a bad idea to me, and I would love for someone to disagree with me on this one.

    The “Mix up your anchor text” may have only looked like the culprit, but in fact, it wasnt. The culprit may have been lack of IP diversity, or other poor SEO practices.

    Let’s use your example as a case in point. Search for “click here” in google. What comes up as the VERY FIRST result, is Adobe Reader. Why? Because countless websites have linked to Adobe Reader using “click here” as the Anchor text.

    So my argument is DONT mix up your Anchor Text. In fact, make sure you use it as consistently as possible because Anchor Text always was and will be for a long time a VERY strong signal to google as to what you are about.

    If I am wrong on this one, someone please prove me wrong.

    Otherwise, awesome post 🙂

    • Hey Dino,

      Don’t worry – I’ll disagree with you 😉 In all seriousness though, I welcome disagreement wholeheartedly – it shows that you’re paying attention!

      “Click here” is all well and good if you’re an incredibly well-established site such as Adobe, but for a new site, hammering it with the same anchor text over and over again is a recipe for disaster.

      A consistent flow of backlinks with the exact same anchor text sticks out like a sore thumb. Google will notice.

      This is of course just my opinion – I don’t pretend to be an expert – but I read a great deal and you are literally the first person I have known to say that hitting your site with identical anchor text backlinks is a good idea.



      • yup..I seam to be in the minority, it’s just that no one has been able to show me otherwise.

        But here is where we agree.

        Having the same, short, anchor text, built very fast, from the same IP block, linking to a site with 0 authority, IS a recipe for disaster. I totally agree with that.

        However, using the same anchor text consistently, building links to it over time, from diverse IP sources, to a site that has authority is a recipe for No 1 placement on google. As proven by “click here” linking to Adobe Reader.

        • I guess we all go on our experience, don’t we? And my experience is, I was linking to a site, consistently with 3 different anchor texts, hammering away day by day with 10 fresh links (all from different IP blocks). The content was good, the design was good, the onsite SEO was good, and the site was a PR4. I can only think of one reason why Google nailed me.

          I think it’s an “agree to disagree” moment, isn’t it 😉

        • One other thing and I’ll shut up 🙂

          SEOmoz has collected a whole load of data that support my arguments. They have also collected data showing that mixing up your anchor text can actually BENEFIT ranking for keywords (as opposed to using all the same anchor text). Finally, they have collected data showing that non-exact match anchor text is BETTER than exact match. By non-exact match, I mean say you were trying to rank for “red cars” – your anchor text might be “check out these red cars”.

          These guys know their stuff, and their data is very well-researched. If you haven’t checked out SEOmoz yet, perhaps you should.

          • Thnx for the SEOMoz clue. I think I get it now.

            The divergence in opinion seams to be rooted in the fact that in my mind, I keep thinking organic building effort. Where is you (and SEOMoz) are relating the experience faced by an artificial link building effort. As in, one person (or company) attempting to “game” the system, so to speak.

            On its best day, google algorithm tries to detect unnatural, artificial link building strategy and dings you for it. Conversely, it also tries to detect an organic, natural link building swelling in your favor. As is the case with “click here”/Adobe-Reader case study.

            So, for natural link building, there is a high coloration between exact match anchor text and high google ranking. However, this certainly CAN NOT be said for artificial link building.

            And I believe this, kinda makes both of us right 🙂

            • I agree with Dino on this one.
              But only in the context of a natural looking seo strategy. If you are just doing the same thing, like getting paul/angela’s backlinks with the same keyword, the same amount each day, ping them the same places each day. Same time and more of those horrible things, then yeah, Google will get annoyed.
              But if you diversify the type of links, the amount, the IP, and don’t do other things to raise flags at google, then focussing mainly on one keyword is no problem.

              I do think that it is smart to focus on some other keywords as well, just to rank for them. And when starting your own website it is smart to rank for easy long tail keywords first. That will also diversify your keyword portfolio.
              Aiming for too many keywords at the same time, slows the ranking down. Unless the keywords are all interconnected like with the “red car” example. Rank for “red car”, “Cheap red car”, “red car review” etc.

      • Dino,

        I have to agree with Tom.

        No doubt having a lot of exact text will rank you for your specific keywords faster. But you run the risk of the dreaded Panda.

        There has at least been anecdotal evidence of sites getting hit primarily because of lack of anchor text variance. It doesn’t look natural to have all your anchor text say the same exact thing.

        Now if your site gets a lot of other organic links with different anchor texts, it is probably fine to do a lot of your targeted link building with exact match anchor text. But fresh, new, low trafficked sites, getting 2 links a day and they all have the same exact anchor text… it might seem fishy to the big G.

        Ultimately this whole thing IS debatable, because none of us really have insight into Googles exact algorithm, but personally this is one of those situations where I would prefer to err on the side of caution.

        To paraphrase an old saying

        Better to vary your anchor text and be thought a fool, than to leave it the exactly the same and have Google punch your site in the face

        I am pretty sure Confucius said that.

    • Google is getting smarter at mapping human behavior and I guess it’s a common assumption that people won’t link to your website using the same anchortext (across the internet, from different IP addresses, etc.).

      What bloggers and online marketers do with guest posting and article marketing is more or less a way of “gaming the system”.

      What I’m saying is if you do wanna “game the system” building backlinks to your website (it’s you who links up to the site so it’s not actually a natural “vote” from the third party website) then you might as well imitate what people do: each link up using different keywords. Hell, some just post the full URL there…

      So I disagree.

      That’s why I only guest posted on two blogs and the rest of my links are as natural they can be: each week I get at least a link from a forum. And each link is formatted different (some of them are like “here”). That’s genuine and Google can see it.

      So if you guest post and backlink to your site, don’t be greedy – link up naturally (not scientifically).

  3. Great tips Steve.
    I have made all those mistakes with my blog as it was my first site ever. One of the best things I have learned is that I dont always have to just target big keywords. Long tail keywords are fantastic. they are easier to rank for and they bring in much more targeted traffic than 1 or 2 words phrases.

  4. Hi Tom,
    I really enjoyed this post and appreciate your honesty while writing it. I have to agree that patience is the most resourceful state that we can be in when we are learning something new. I have made many mistakes as well on my blogging journey and I don’t intend to make them again.

    Take care…

  5. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned here, Tom. I especially like that you made mistakes, owned them, and LEARNED from them!

    I’m to the point with Google that I almost don’t care about trying to rank for specific keywords. Maybe my strategy should be just to write my awesome content and interact with the people who read my blogs and those who get to me through word of mouth and social media.


    • Hey Peggy,

      That is definitely a viable strategy, and if you do it right, the search engine rankings will come in time. It is also far less volatile a strategy (i.e. Google might decide to dump you from the SERPs one day, whereas a social media/word of mouth strategy is far more difficult to deconstruct).

      Incidentally, I follow this strategy for my blog (as opposed to my niche sites), and after a lot of trial and error, it is starting to bear fruit.



  6. The sites that were hit, were they completely removed from the index or just hit with a slap? I ask because I’ve had sites fall out of the first 500 listings, but were still indexed and after about 3 months they came back stronger than before. One of them is now 7 in Google for a tough weight loss term. My point is, if you already paid for the hosting for the year and they are still indexed I wouldn’t give up on them yet.

    • Hey Tory,

      They sank to 50th – 70th spot. I absolutely could just sit on the site and wait, as there is every chance they would bounce back eventually, but I decided to delete the site and start from scratch instead. There’s every chance that I could wait, and nothing would happen…I’d rather start afresh!



  7. Hey Tom,
    I just recently joined this blogosphere for a week now, and I am searching for an article which might could help me have some tips and guides. After reading your headline, I am so eager to read the whole body of your article. I gained a lot of knowledge from it. Thanks.

  8. Tom, thanks a lot for sharing your experience!

    I’m currently trying to rank my niche site, it’s 5 weeks old now. And to be honest, I lost my patience at time. But I understand that patience is the key factor when it comes to SEO. And I also understand that if I can’t wait for my tree to bear fruits, my efforts will be wasted.

    One thing I just want to ask you. I’m thinking about investing in Market Samurai, as I see many people tell wonderful stories about it. I see you use it on your blog so I think you can give me a recommendation. I haven’t made much money with my online business yet (about $80 from many sources), and a $97 investment for a tool (if I remember it right) like Market Samurai is a big deal for me 😀

    Thanks again man!

    • Hey Duy,

      I’m glad you’ve got a good attitude – you have to think medium-term at the least – you’re unlikely to see anything interesting develop after 5 weeks. Just stay the course…

      I understand about Market Samurai – it is not an inconsiderable amount of money! There are free tools available which can get the job done for you, but as far as I am concerned, MS is well worth the money. I use it on a daily basis. If you are going to be doing keyword research on a long term basis, I think you should invest.

      All the best,


  9. I wanted to contribute something on the issue of anchor text. The best approach is to target your major keyword but on other occasions use other keywords that are related to your main keyword.

    This other keywords can be long tail keywords and other variations of short tail keywords. For example, if your main is “make money online”, you can use “earn money online” as anchor text. On other occasions use long tail keyword phrases like “make money online from home”.

    To search engines this will appear natural and in the long run Google will rank you for even more related keywords. Apply this keyword variations in both your SEO onsite optimization and your external optimization.

    Great post !

    • Hi Stephen,

      You’ve nearly nailed the description of my backlinking strategy. I just add one more step – a liberal smattering of “generic” anchor text links (e.g. “click here”).

      A set of backlinks that only ever specifically relate to the content on your site still looks a little odd. People are constantly using “click here” as anchor text…why aren’t there any such links on your site? That’s what Google might think.

      This may sound like overkill, but I would much rather insulate myself comfortably against Google’s propensity to penalize sites than walk the tightrope.

      Thanks for your input!


  10. Hi Tom,

    great post again. It’s the 3rd guest post from you I read this week. It seems you are doing a great effort and I hope it means a ton of traffic and subscribers to your blog. Your content really deserves it.

    Btw, I agree with “Mix up your anchortext”

  11. Thanks for some great information. I have been trying to make money online for nearly a year, with very spotty results. I have had four niche sites on page 1 for a while but they all got slapped back. Thanks for the tip on mixing up anchor text.

  12. Hi Tom,
    I went through your post and all the comments. The debate was interesting, and I’m glad I could take home a very important learning about diversifying backlinks. Thinking about this, commenting using the “Name @ Keyword(s)” approach on blogs that have KeywordLuv installed can be scary for those who do a lot of commenting. Of course the solution would be to focus on other ways of getting links instead of focusing too much on just commenting, but it’s still quite concerning. Thanks for the informative post!

    Hi Steve,
    This is “Mark of Success” – the same old one – commenting with the e-mail and URL of my new site :-). Did you get a chance to check out the site?


    • Mark,

      Congrats on your move. It seems to have gone pretty seamlessly. Your redirect even opened articles in my feedburner (which is essential for me finding it lol) though at the time (a couple of days ago it was only the old articles you were importing.

      • Thanks, Steve! Yes, the launch did go very smoothly. Made sure I went live on the scheduled day, although not everything that was in the plan was completed. Redirecting the articles was one of the tasks that remained, and I took care of it the following day. The feedburner feed URL remains the same – I just updated the underlying website to the new one. So existing subscribers need not even update their RSS readers, unless their reader uses the website URL instead of using the feedburner URL.

  13. This is one of the best posts I have read on this topic. Your experience shows, Tom.
    I agree with you that Market Samurai is definitely worth its weight in gold.

    Thank you for sharing.

  14. I agree with diversifying backlinks as it can look suspicious if they all look the same. It just won’t look natural to the search engines. Another link aspect is internal links become more popular and Google really is starting to pick out the most specific page on a site even if it doesn’t have the most backlinks relating to a specific keyword.

  15. Ok, was it worth all that effort? Did you earned from them?
    Because I want to start a niche website for a long time now and I’m already impatient. I even found a niche that I’m familiar with and I also know much about, but I’m afraid I’m gonna get bored of waiting for the results and drop the project mid-way throw.

    • Cristian,

      Yes, it was worth the effort, because of what I learnt. No, I didn’t earn much from the site (about $80). But before my site got whacked by Google (because of my own stupid mistake), it was starting to generate about $4 – $5 a day, and that was on the increase.

      If you’re too impatient to wait a sensible amount of time to see if your methods work, I’m afraid no one can help you. You need to find that in yourself.



  16. Good tips. Regarding not having to be number 1, it is still interesting to see the click through percentages of the top ten results, as the drop off as you go down the list is considerable.

    Page two almost seems not worth having, however.

    • Agreed Rick – page two isn’t worth your time unless it is for a hugely-trafficked keyword (and who wants to beat themselves up trying to rank on the second page for a really competitive keyword?).

  17. What a helpful, articulate and accomplished blogger you are Steve!.All your posts are extremely useful and packed with great information. Thanks

  18. thanks for a great post.

    I am from Denmark and is even working on a couple of Danish niche sites. I do not use adsense, but affiliate advertising. for me it better be worth it with affiliate advertising.

    but a really well written post.

  19. Diversify is the next big thing after the Google Panda update. Now both nofollow and dofollow links will worth something, no to mention the diversify of the sources (don’t get stuck building backlinks only on blogs or forums or just one thing in general).
    When building backlinks you must make sure everything looks natural, gone are the days when people used blackhat methods everyday and never got penalized.
    And another thing, unique quality content – do I need to say more?

  20. “Patience Is Key”. Agree totally! SEO is a complicated progress that takes a lot of time, determination, experience, and of course, patience.

  21. Keyword Research Is the Most Important Step. It will decide they way you go is right or wrong. Focusing on the wrong keywords and the wrong target is how you give chances to your competitors.

  22. Tom, loved the post so much, I’m about to start my first niche site and your post just give me a great look at what i’m going to face and what i need to do first.

    thanks so much,

  23. I too build niche websites and you are right – keyword research is #1 in my book as well – it justifies a market when you find that many people are searching for a specific keyword…

  24. Steve,

    He there I am very much thankful you’ve shared your experience in building your site. It is such an honor for me to read and learn from the mistakes and lessons you’ve learn. I hope I can achieve the same thing on the niche that I am going through now.

  25. what a interesting topic… I think if your site is new then slow slow slow backlinking is they key, then as soon as your ranked, then double the backlinks and yes IP diversity is 100% correct. what are peoples thoughts about the new domains- the .co for example, can they reach page 1 or are they way too ?

    • David, I agree with SLOW backlinking, particularly on newer sites. It is important to be careful to slowly raise “link velocity” on sites and the newer the more important this can be.

      As for the co. and other new domains. No I don’t think much of them. Maybe eventually they will be viewed as equal, but .com, .net or .org are really what you want your site to be for now. Perhaps that will change someday, but for now I wouldn’t get a .co unless i didn’t care if it ranks.

  26. Wow what an insight! really a great piece of article i have read today. I normally do not leave comments but it was a great read!

    I too made a huge mistake with my first website which was multiple niche site. But i have moved on and learnt to wait for the backlinks to arrive and let them arrive naturally.. i ain’t going to build any backlinks ever in my life.

    This was the lesson i learnt.


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