I read a blog post earlier today about an affiliate niche site case study that was earning $2,000 per month. Of course, I'm a sucker for case studies, so I clicked on it, but was sorely disappointed by what I read. It was all the basic advice of “write good content” and “get good links”. Yeah buddy, I know. Thanks for the insight.
But it got me thinking – I actually hate a lot of niche site case studies. Why? What's to dislike about people sharing their results? A lot. And I plan to go through all the reasons below.
Overall, I can't be too critical because people are sharing, and they are trying to help. However, I do think that new internet entrepreneurs can get the wrong idea of what it's like to build an online business, and for many of them, said case studies could increase the appeal of quitting. So I'm writing this post not to discourage people from starting their first (or continuing) their affiliate niche website, but to give them a realistic look of what making money online actually looks like (for me) so you can stick around longer.
Yes, Affiliate Marketing “Works”
Before we get too crazy here, I just wanted to make the point that I'm not saying people don't make money online. This is what I do for a living! Yes, building an affiliate website is an very profitable business venture. Yes, all kinds of people are making money online. Yes, you can go through an affiliate marketing course and learn how to make money online even with no prior experience in web design, digital marketing, or SEO.
I'm a huge fan of building affiliate websites, and spend a good portion of my day helping people build their own.
I'm mainly critiquing the case studies people put out as a so-called template for success. I feel like the templates are misleading because they leave out a bunch of relevant information, and make the steps to success seem like more of a direct line rather than the zig zag any successful entrepreneur will tell you. With that being said, here are 5 reasons why affiliate niche site case studies suck.
1. Hindsite is Not 20/20
A lot of advice you hear on website case studies is just a bunch of guessing and opinions, instead of pure facts. For a lot of people that decide to do a case study, it's their first or second time creating a website. The followed a course the first time around, and they tweaked the system so it works for them. The trouble is, they present the data as “facts” instead of just something that happened.
They can say, OK, my Best Dry Sauna Home Kits 2017 blog post ranked well, therefore all you have to do is repeat that same title over and over again, and rank for all the keywords related to your niche. Easy, right? There are a ton of different factors which may have contributed to that post ranking, other than what the presenter is telling you. He doesn't know! It's just his best guess as to why it should have worked, and because it did work, well, I guess he's right…this time.
I believe this logical fallacy is called survivorship bias.
It's easy to get lost in the minutia of building a site, and claiming that pulling this lever causes this result. I bought an SEO guide back in 2011 with 20 pages of how to build an 8-tier link wheel and what keyword strategy you'd need for each tier of the wheel (this was back in 2011). It was incredibly complex, and looking back, total BS. There was no way any of this contributed to ranking in any significant way. It was just a smoke-and-mirror effort to look authoritative and keep buyers busy while they emailed me offers to my inbox.
Google's algorithm is secret, and nobody truly knows why this or that ranks well. It's all guess. Even famous SEO blogs like MOZ are just doing their best guess. Yeah, they're right some of the time. But they're wrong a lot of the time too. It's impossible to show proof that what they did worked specifically because of a thing they did.
In other words, correlation is not causation.
2. Most Case Studies Fail
Actually, starting a case study isn't an original idea. I've done several myself. All of them failed. My own failures were due to a variety of reasons: boredom, lack of time, or maybe because because I was dumb, and chose a subject on the fly to be “authentic” (shoutout to coolchairs.com LOL). After several weeks I just gave up the case study, announcing that the principles were sound, but I didn't have time to continue. I tried a beer site, a gamer chair site, and an essential oils website, among others.
Do what I say, not what I do
Not very inspirational, right? As someone that's run several failed case studies, I'm also criticizing myself. The trouble I found is that when you run a case study, a little goblin in the back of your mind knows that someone's going to copy you word for word or do a negative SEO attack on the site, so you can't get too invested (emotionally or financially). The lack of personal investment from the project starts to show when it turns 11PM and you really want to go to bed but haven't done any work on the “side project” yet.
Ugh, it can wait until tomorrow. It's not my real business.
But on top of that, many websites just fail for different reasons. Maybe you overlooked some issue with the niche and it's not as traffic-heavy as you thought, or you're getting traffic buyers aren't hungry for what you're selling.
These reasons combined are why most case studies fail. Each time I see a new one pop up, I have to roll my eyes and think to myself, “let's talk in six months when things really get interesting.”
3. We Don't See The Aftermath
Have you ever followed a case study from beginning to end? Me neither. I've only seen the beginnings, and the ends. I don't think I've ever been consistent about receiving monthly updates from a case study. You know why? Because the beginning is super boring. By the time they start earning, a lot of times there's an event where things start to crash and burn.
Sometimes, it's due to malevolence!
People are super jealous watching a website earn gobs of money, and will either copy you and hijack your rankings, or launch a negative SEO attack against you. Remember, you can broadcast to a million people and all it takes is one asshole to spend a couple hundred dollars on cheap backlinks from Fiverr to try and tank your site. Don't believe me? It happened to A Penny Shaved (now defunct). It happened to the Best Survival Knife website (now defunct), and it maybe happened to Thank Your Skin (still struggling). Oh, did you notice that “fixyourskin.com” launched just a few months after the former? LOL. The sites look quite similar, and I wonder why! /s
Part of the issue with these websites is that they were built a couple years ago, and still gaming the system with Private Blog Networks. Getting hit with negative SEO certainly didn't help though. Lucky for those guys, it wasn't their main income!
Many of these sites are good examples of the build and flip mentality that we see with websites listed for sale on Flippa. Guys will skyrocket these websites with link building techniques that aren't aimed at a long-term business strategy. They are aimed at making as much money as fast as possible, then flipping to the next sucker who can deal with the PBN fallout.
Check in on your favorite case studies after 5 years and see how they're doing! Hopefully you're still interested in what the owner's doing, and you haven't been distracted by the latest “watch me earn money” case study.
4. They Are The Exception, Not The Rule
The most glaring issue with case studies is that they are the exception, not the rule. Tons of websites fail for whatever reason. Your content isn't good enough, the competition is too tough, your keywords are lackluster, or the audience just isn't that hungry. The worst part is that many times it's just impossible to nail down exactly what goes wrong (or right). It's very hard to be able to repeat results.
I have found this frustrating more than once, as I followed the instructions of different guides showing examples of Website X doing Task Y and seeing results. So I took their examples and multiplied it by 100 on my own websites, often paying fo the content because I don't have time to research and write it myself. Six months and $10,000 in outsourcing fees later, I'm wasn't seeing the same results. Bummer.
I won't name names, because I don't want to turn this into a blame game of who's giving bad advice. However, I've invested a good amount of time and money trying to repeat the efforts of a couple of gurus, and failed. Every website is different, and following a case study, then copying what they do is not a guarantee of seeing similar results. So if copying what works doesn't actually work…what's the point?
5. Case Studies Are Rarely Repeatable
A big question I have about this whole this is that if the process is so repeatable, why aren't these guys just building a niche site factory and churning out money machines over and over again? If it's as simple as following instructions and doing Step 1, 2, and 3…why not just do that? Why do you have to share the results? It seems to me you could just outsource this strategy and build out tons of niche websites, essentially creating a very diverse, and infinitely passive income.
Instead, these guys are selling guides on how to build a niche website. “Follow my results that I definitely cannot repeat a second time!” isn't exactly a slogan that will sell a lot of subscriptions LOL.
I can't blame the guys. I guess I do something similar, by promoting memberships to Wealthy Affiliate for affiliate training. I'll just be honest here and say that sometimes, building a website sucks. It's hard. It's frustrating. I really don't have the energy to manage more than one or two at a time, so I'd rather just help people with the basics than focus on my own failures day after day LOL. I just want to emphasize that even if you follow a case study, you'll still have to figure out a lot of stuff on your own.
My Own Secret Case Study
This is the part where I advertise my own awesome case study you should definitely follow because it's better than all the other ones. Just kidding. I have been building a site as a project to get outside of the MMO niche again, but it's been in the background, and I haven't advertised it. It's taken 3 years, and is finally making profit.
Wow. What an idiot. How can I proclaim to be an “expert” in making money online, but take 3 years to make a profitable website?
Like I said above, a lot of times, things don't go to plan. Would you really follow a 3-year project while it's not doing anything amazing? Probably not. Here's the spreadsheet of profit/loss though.
This site is making about $4,000+ per month now, which is an awesome business, and worth about $150k if I'd sell it. Though on a monthly basis I'm still $20k in the hole (lots of outsourcing, lots of product purchases), the technical value is profitable. Also, I can brag now about having a “four figure passive income”. You can see the profit progress in more detail here.
Though I had a lot of successes with this site, I had many more failures, and that doesn't look pretty on paper. “Oh gee. Let me follow the guy losing $3,000 per month on a niche site project.” LOL. Yeah right. Many times, that's the reality of the situation though.
If I really wanted to gin up some attention, I could totally advertise this as $5,000 per month passive income niche site case study. I could forget about the 1000 posts that do nothing but earn from adsense and focus on the 100 posts that earn from affiliate marketing.
You know what my highest earning posts are? Product reviews with affiliate links and Top 10 lists. Duh. Did you really need to be told that?
Final Answer: All Roads Lead To Quality Content & Quality Links
Really, the point I'm trying to get across here is that most people who are publishing these case studies don't know what they're doing. They're giving their best guess as to what will happen, or why things happened.
So if nothing is consistent in the world of SEO and online marketing, does that mean you should give up? Basically, yes…but I mean give up on trying to game the system. Give up on trying to have your “big score” and find a super-secret niche that will break 1 million dollars and rank super easy because of whatever BS reason you can cook up. Stop trying to copy someone's success.
Make a website you think will be interesting. Make a website that can help people. There's a way to monetize ANY website, and if you pick a topic you're interested in, you can grow your business for decades to come, garnering tens of thousands of daily visitors.
Instead of focusing on tired concepts like “going viral” or “increasing engagement”, just try to make your website “good”. That may be a bit reductive, but so many newbies are worried about stupid things like getting an aged domain or whether or not their keyword competition is low enough when they should just try to make their website worth visiting. Once you have 1,000 visits a day, then you can start to analyze granular data and the path to profits will be much clearer!
What You Can Learn From Affiliate Niche Site Case Studies
Case studies aren't completely worthless though! They just piss me off sometimes. There are a couple of good ones out there, and you can benefit from them as an online business owner. The best way to use a case study is to simply get some ideas to try out. I've made the mistake in the past of jumping into a strategy and committing 100%. My recommendation is to just pick and choose a few things to try out, then tweak them to be useful for your own website.
Some great ideas I've gleaned from following some case studies:
- Stop targeting keywords that contain “buy”
- If your keyword has a lot of ecommerce results, best avoid it
- Top 10 [Year] posts work, but fade out unless updated
- Top 10 lists of authority figures can get some social media attention
- “Best of” category posts rank easily, but bring in small traffic usually
As much as I hate case studies, they are still fun to read, and see what other people are working on. Here's a list of case studies I've found that I think are worth looking at if you have the time, but try not to focus on copying them. Instead, take one or two interesting things to try out, and see how they work for your own business.
Got a case study you want to share? Post a link. I don't even care if it's your own case study to your own website. Self-promotion is allowed in this comment section!
Other Case Studies
- https://richardpatey.com/niche-authority-site-challenge-roundup/ (roundup)
- https://andrewgirardin.com/recommends/the-best-niche-and-authority-site-case-studies (roundup)