Ten years ago, online shopping was taking off, established web development firms couldn’t keep up with the demand for new websites, and blogging became mainstream. Online activity was booming.
To keep up with these important developments, I wanted to start a website to learn the online business inside out. Having worked in marketing and general management, I was familiar with websites but had zero technical experience.
Still, I thought to myself, how hard could it be? I’ll come back to that in a minute.
An idea for a website: Sports Feel Good Stories
As a basketball coach for my daughter’s basketball team, I communicated regularly throughout the season with the players’ parents. In one email, I asked them to share with their daughters a video showcasing Jason McElwain. Jason, a student with autism, was the team manager for his high school basketball team.
To reward Jason for helping the team throughout his high school career, his coach put Jason in his last varsity game with 4 minutes to play. The 17-year-old put on a shooting display as he made six 3-pointers and another hoop for 20 points. The video clip was a huge hit with the players (and their parents).
Hearing all the positive feedback on Jason’s story, I decided this new website would showcase inspirational sports stories that feature good deeds, overcoming obstacles, and sportsmanship. I was on my way.
While I always thought my website would be a vehicle for getting online smart, the other idea always kicking around in my head was could the site ever make money. And, could it ever generate enough revenue that I could work on it for my livelihood?
Turning the corner
Well, for about 7 years, SportsFeelGoodStories.com was a professional education hobby. It was a strong contributor to our vacation fund for a few of the years, but full-time employment elsewhere was a necessity.
Now, and for the last three years, the vast majority of my income comes from websites. Last year, Sports Feel Good Stories generated over 11 million page views. Income generated from the site comes mostly from three different sources: on-page advertising and affiliate revenue, sponsorships, and store sales.
Is it hard to start a website that generates revenue? Yes. Challenges like creating compelling content, search engine optimization, and understanding social media platforms will keep you busy thinking day and night. However, things get easier with time.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Lessons Learned from 10 Years of Blogging
1.) The way to start is to start
It’s somewhat unfortunate that two of the earliest decisions a new website publisher has to make are pretty important ones. They are:
A. Your website’s topic – what are you going to write about? It might be cooking, home improvement, travel, sports, business, or something else. Make sure it’s something you have a lot of passion for and want to write about.
B. Your web host. Yes, it’s getting easier and easier to change hosts, but it’s still a hassle. Do some research before signing up for a hosting package.
After you’ve done some research to address the topic and web host, create a to-do list and start checking things off (or follow my tips on starting a blog).
Virtually any question you might have as a new blogger has already been addressed and is posted online and in YouTube videos. More likely than not, there’ll be multiple sites with your answer when you do a Google search.
One of the best early decisions I made was selecting WordPress as my site engine. It’s still the way to go.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe wrote, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
2.) The best place to bury a dead body is page 2 of Google search results
I love this line, although I don’t know who said it first.
Here’s what it means for website publishers: create great content about topics you think your site can win. And by “win at,” I mean to be on the first page of Google results, ideally, in one of the top 3 positions.
Things change a lot in Google searches, but not too long ago, if you were the #1 search result for a topic, you received about 1/3 of the click-throughs to your site. If you were #2, you got 1/5, and if you were #3, you received 1/10 of the clicks. So, if you add it up, 63% of clicks go to the first 3 listings on a Google search results page (33% + 20% + 10% = 63%).
So, you can see, it’s a bit like the Olympics. The top three medalists make out with big paydays, and the others just competed.
A new website doesn’t have much authority, or usually, a big base of readers. So, winning at short tail keywords (lots of searches per month words) is really, really difficult. It’s generally smarter to try to win long-tail keywords as a new site. So instead of a shoe store trying to win “best dress shoes,” it would be better positioned to go after a longer tail keyword like “best dress shoes for cold weather,” as one example.
3.) You Can’t Out-New-York-Times the New York Times
For my sports site, it’s hard to “out New York Times the New York Times.” I have a hard time competing with major news outlets on recent, major sporting events coverage. Their staffs are bigger, their resources more extensive, and they have the type of authority that will beat me at nearly every turn.
I’m forced to find topics of interest that are not covered by folks like the NY Times. Identifying good niches and spending time creating great content for those niches is the way to succeed over time.
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4.) There’s No Elevator to Success, Take the Stairs
Overnight successes occasionally happen in the blogging business, but that seems to be the exception. And, a lot of times, those websites that go from 0 to 15 million viewers in a year have owner-operators who cut their teeth on other sites where the growth was nowhere near that fast.
Website publishing can be like someone starting an insurance agency. The first years may be lean. Your days are filled trying to set up new business meetings, and it takes a while to get customers to sign on the dotted line.
But, as time progresses, and if the insurance agent is good at service, business begins to grow. Referrals come in. The agents have become a little smarter at what they do. And, perhaps, the most important aspect is that existing customers return. Agents are not focused on brand new business alone.
With online publishing, your past work and successes accumulate. Stories that drove traffic in past years may continue to do so. As you add new content, you now have that driving traffic along with your past work. Plus, Google may begin to recognize your authority that comes from good content and longevity. You’re no longer starting from a dead stop—links from a new post refresh old posts. There’s synergy.
You might like How to Build a Website Audience.
5.) Depend on the kindness of strangers
When I was working on just getting my WordPress site up and looking the way I wanted it to do, it wasn’t easy. It’s much easier now. Ten years ago, I remember submitting questions to WordPress forums at night and hoping someone would point me in the right direction the next morning. Nearly always, someone did.
The most pleasant surprise about this whole industry is how much people help out others. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have come from information on websites that transparently show exactly how they grow traffic and make money.
Smart Passive Income’s Pat Flynn views himself as a “crash test dummy” of sorts as he tries out different means to add revenue streams to his website and generously shares the results. For a six-year period, Pinch of Yum published their traffic and income reports.
Videos and tips from individual publishers will show a step-by-step process for adding new features to your site.
Podcasts keep you up to speed
Podcasts are where I turn to stay on top of industry trends and strategies. Pat Flynn’s “The Smart Passive Income Podcast” is a great resource as he covers a wide variety of topics, including many interviews with folks who have made the transition from 9-to-5 jobs to owning their own businesses. Brandon Gaille provides practical advice in his “The Blog Millionaire Podcast.”
A few of my favorite articles over the years:
Brad Stevens’ Butler team had just played in the NCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship Game. I was so impressed with his coaching and bench demeanor during games that I waited a month and called him at his Butler office. We set a time, and that was that. Great guy, and good to see he’s doing so well with the Celtics.
This story on Tom Bowlin was selected as a cover story for The PostGame and then made the cover of Yahoo.com.
Baseball owner and promoter Mike Veeck wrote this touching tribute to his hall of fame dad, Bill Veeck.
Cliff Young’s story deserves movie treatment — the ultimate fish-out-of-water story with an underdog win. What’s not to like?
Jason McElwain’s story was the inspiration for this site and may still be my favorite inspirational sports story. Check out the video on this one.
6.) “Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.”
I don’t think Winston Churchill had blogging in mind when he wrote these words, but they did apply, at least for me.
When your return on time investment isn’t much as you’d like, it’s tempting to move on to other things. And, I considered it a couple of times.
Being passionate about what you’ve chosen to write about is critical. This will help offset poor financial returns in the early going.
7.) The power of pivoting
To pivot in business means to change one of the fundamentals of your business model.
One of the best decisions that I made for SportsFeelGoodStories.com was when I pivoted away from seeking advertisers on my own and partnered with an ad network that would seek advertisers for my site on my behalf.
In hindsight, this was a no-brainer.
I partnered with Adthrive, the top ad network, to help publishers grow. In addition to increasing my ad revenue by over 300%, there was a benefit that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.
It freed up a lot of my time. New business calls to prospective advertisers. Gone! Evaluating the code sent for placement on my site. Gone! Follow up with advertisers after the campaign. Gone! I could spend all my time savings on preparing more and better content.
8.) “Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”
Steve Jobs was right. This is especially true in the online publishing business. Things are changing too quickly to be a master of all of the roles it takes to run a successful website.
Think of the challenges facing a modern website publisher. You need to know writing, art direction, programming, SEO, video production, analytics, advertising, etc. That’s a lot. You’re going to need help. Don’t be afraid to ask and reach out to others.
Even if you don’t have the resources to involve full-time employees or freelancers, you’re going to want to draw on the knowledge of those who have expertise in areas that complement yours. Buy a coffee for a friend and ask for help. Consult online resources. Take a class. There are lots of options to get smarter.
9.) Be yourself
If you talk to one hundred bloggers, you’ll likely notice some common themes, but no two stories are exactly alike.
One cooking website drives 90% of its traffic from Facebook and Pinterest. Another depends nearly entirely on YouTube videos for their home improvement site. One site’s revenue model depends mostly on sponsorships, while another depends nearly entirely on advertising revenue.
Another publisher has expanded its business by offering video classes on best practices for running a cooking website. And another has gone into the publishing business.
There’s no one magical recipe for success. Be yourself, and don’t be afraid to reveal yourself in your posts.
10.) The only constant is change (and learning)
Online publishing, as with many businesses that feature new technologies, is full of change. Trying to understand the Google algorithm alone is a lesson in managing change. The challenge is to stay on top of the changes and adapt. That’s where learning comes in.
If you’re committed to life-long learning, you’ve come to the right place. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.