How One Affiliate Went From $4k to $40k a Month (Despite the Penguin Update)

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I interviewed a U.S. super-affiliate client of ours who operates in a competitive niche in the finance industry. He agreed to take part in the interview and give us an insight into how the last 12 months have been for his website and his business on the basis that he remained anonymous so as to protect his website and his strategies from being reverse engineered by competitors.

Can you describe a little bit about your site? Basic premise, etc.?

In many ways, it is a “classic” affiliate website. I run a popular reviews website that rates popular brands in my sector and help my users make a decision about which to give their business to. My aim is to catch people as far down the conversion funnel as possible, find people who are ready to convert, but need help deciding which company to choose.

Can you paint the picture of the competitive landscape?

In one word: ugly. There are a small number of very big sites with extraordinarily deep pockets to spend on paid links, and seemingly a free pass from Google to do so. The big affiliate sites play distinctly dirty and get away with it.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have affiliates turning out “churn and burn” spam sites. Sites in the middle ground—real sites playing in the gray area—seem to be hardest hit this year.

What are the key challenges in your industry from an SEO perspective?

Competing against old, long-established websites. It’s a tough (perhaps impossible?) sector to operate in without an established website or a business model than involves churning and burning sites.

The low-end sites have no desire to create a brand so they can push the limits when it comes to link building, because if their site tanks, they’ll just move on to the next one. But at least they’ll be gone in a few months.

I estimate my biggest competitors spend high five figures per month on links, based on the volumes they are acquiring (and the fact they’ve inadvertently tried to buy links from other sites of mine).

How did Penguin/Panda affect your site and your business?

There has been a big shakedown for affiliates in my sector. Interestingly, it has been less of the churn and burn sites that have been hit. They don’t really seem to be faring any worse than they were before. But the mid-size sites who were going heavy on low-grade paid links and exact match anchors have been hit the hardest.

The sites that previously seemed to shrug off ranking drops, no matter how many footer/sidebar links they buy, have been hit the hardest. I can think of one big site that has been totally wiped out.

Penguin has been positive for my business. I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m immune, and I certainly don’t wish to tempt the fate of the Google gods, but the negative hits many competitors have taken have made room in the top of the SERPs for sites like mine. The rest of the sector was so knee deep in dirty links that my site, by comparison, looks clean.

Can you talk us through you overall linkbuilding strategy? (Are you distributing links fairly widely across the site?)

I build hundreds of links per month. My aim is to build a strong, authority site—not just build links to one or two pages.

“Content for links” strategies is the bulk of my linkbuilding. We’ve aimed to do it in a way that provides something of value.

Much of it is guest blogging with high-quality content, not spamming bloggers with template pitches for $1 outsourced articles. My goal is for the partner site’s audience to enjoy the content, and either share it on Facebook or Twitter, comment on it, or maybe even link to it.

Can you describe your anchor text strategy? Are you working to any particular ratios in terms of branded/noise/keyword?

Historically, affiliates in my sector have binged on obvious paid links and keyword anchor text. Since it worked, it became self-reinforcing in certain sectors.

This, plus a few other flags (sidebar links, links from busted link networks, WordPress “design by” links),-are the flags that get sites hit by Penguin when a few flags apply to one site.

Of course, some dirt is to be expected in competitive sectors, and for older sites, but I think that many webmasters provide a handy tick list for Google to decide that, on balance, yes, you are spamming.

Those who’ve followed this strategy the closest appear to have been hit the hardest, as you’d expect. One site I know of has lost 80 percent of its traffic as a result of building 100’s of exact match links on low-quality blog networks.

What’s your take on link relevance? Is it the site or the content itself that matters or both?

I don’t believe Google’s ability to determine the theme of a website is even close to as smart as people seem to think. Which is not to say that they won’t fix this—maybe next week, for all I know!

I’ve never seen data to suggest that Google is any better at theming sites than they were five years ago. There is stuff that works that I look at and think “if Google was so clever, this would/wouldn’t work.”

Knowing which links are going to shift the dial is getting harder and harder; it’s rarely the links I expect—on-topic links from established sites in related niches, for example.

I’d rather have a good link from a high-quality off-topic site than an on-topic site from a PR2 site in my niche.

There’s only a limited pool of sites that are 100 percent on topic, and a huge number have PageRank penalites. I’d rather have a quality link from a quality website in an unrelated niche but has the potential to bring in a relevant audience, than a link from a spammy finance autoblog.

Approximately, how much do you invest per month in link building?

Low five figures per month.

What kind of results have you seen in terms of rankings?

My main website is an authority site in my niche. It’s old (but by no means ancient) site, and has plenty of natural links.

When I started link building, a few dozen links made a clear difference in a few weeks. I’ve scaled up month by month.

I’ve seen very different results starting with fresh domains or even old domains without existing links. The results are far, far harder, more modest.

I have taken the #1 slot for lots of keywords I wanted to rank for, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to compete for given that the competition was so heavy.

I am top 3 for about 40 keywords that drive revenue. A year ago, I saw no serious traffic from any of these keywords.

I’ve taken the top spot for keywords where the first page of the SERPs consists of big time link buyers, and the remaining sites on page two and three are all just running comment spam campaigns.

Perhaps, the real reason it works is that my competitors are shooting themselves in the foot by running with tactics that worked 5 years ago. Times have changed, but their strategies haven’t.

I am trying to deploy a lower-volume but higher-quality strategy.

I don’t work at Google, of course, so only time will tell if I’ve got my link building strategy right, or if I am ultimately as vulnerable as my competitors.

How has this impacted on traffic?

It has been interesting to watch ranking improvements versus traffic. Working in a sector like mine where there are many AdWords ads (on a 13” laptop screen it isn’t uncommon to just see just one organic result, the rest being ads). So, in my experience, there is a huge drop off in traffic past the top two or three organic slots.

I have seen keywords where I was ranking No. 7 and seeing zero traffic or revenue and yet as soon as I took the third spot and eventually position one, the keyword was suddenly a big earner.

You are top three or nothing in my sector, in terms of making link building cost effective. It really is a zero sum game.

The traffic for a basket of my “money” keywords has almost tripled since this time last year.

Interestingly, the traffic volume for the site overall hasn’t increased dramatically. That is because my strategy has changed to target keywords that convert particularly well.

In a lot of ways, if the campaign were judged on traffic alone it would have been a failure (we’ve only increased organic traffic by a few percentage points), but I have seen a massively disproportionate increase in revenue.

The conversion aspect of keyword targeting has definitely been one of the more interesting lessons of the last year.

What’s interesting is that, even in the really competitive markets, that there are still clear opportunities in organic search for affiliates.

How has this impacted on your revenue?

Revenue in the last year has grown considerably. The site was earning $4k per month a year ago; it’s on track to earn $40k this month.

Again, I’m not arrogant enough to believe that nobody is untouchable. Time will tell how my strategy works in the long term, but for now I feel like we’ve got a good balance.

Could we get an indication of your ROI from your link building?

It’s hard to put an exact number on. It varies from keyword to keyword, but suffice to say that it’s clear each month that I’m seeing a return.

Rankings improve and revenue increases significantly each month.

What kind of timeframe are we talking about here?

The biggest surprise was that I started seeing results fast, just like those fitness infomercials on late night TV… My revenue was up noticeably after month one—that was close to a year ago.

I think the sweet spot to start a campaign like this is to have an existing website with a bedrock of links as a foundation, I suspect the results would not be even close for a new site.

What are your plans for the next 12 to 24 months? How do you see things playing out?

I am aiming to scale what I am already doing, mixing up my link building tactics as best I can and working to improve relevance. My goal is to future-proof what I am doing, as best I can.

I obviously don’t want to end up in the same position tomorrow as my competitors are today, where they’ve kept on and on at one technique and obliterated a natural link profile.

Interview conducted by James Agate, the founder of Skyrocket SEO, the agency known for robust, quality link building. Follow James on Twitter.

James Agate
James Agate is the founder of Skyrocket SEO, a UK based content-led SEO agency.
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  • Jesper

    It’s Nice to see that not everyone was hit by the penguine. I believe that if you have great content and no spammy links, you don’t have to worry about the updates from Google.

  • There is NO such thing as an affiliate that makes $40,000 a month. For the most part, affiliates make nothing! The highest paid affiliate on the world maybe makes $3,000 a month. If no one buys the products that are advertised, then you don’t get paid! Cost Per Click is where the money is at. People who know nothing about the internet and marketing use affiliate programs because they’re stupid! Thats is, put 5,000 ads all over your site, giving others free marketing and they pay you nothing when its all done and over with. Stupid!

    • I actually disagree…it’s quite easy to make $3000 a month or more without having to pay for PPC, link building or SEO services. I run a few small affiliate based websites and have seen a good increase in traffic to all my sites since Penguin and Panda updates, generating a minimum of $3000 a month, without spending a cent on paid services to promote the sites. I do on-page seo, regular blog posting and some link building myself, and thats all. So I can see that $40,000 would be achievable if you pay for services to boost rankings. On average 70 out of every 100 visitors make a sale, so I guess thats an ok ratio.

    • James Agate

      Thank you for your largely uniformed input here Daniel.

    • I have to disagree Daniel. I personally know a few affiliate marketers who earn as much as $60,000 per month. It just depends on the market and approach (they just don’t heavily rely on SEO – there are so many other ways to get leads and upsell affiliate products).

    • Surely Daniel is trolling? Don’t even know why I’m replying to him to be honest.

      Anyway, it’s nice to see someone (or an affiliate!) that’s still doing well even after all of these changes that Google have made lately.

  • Now i believe that really very low websites not hit by Penguin or panda , in starting my blog also hits by panda but now i recovered successfully and every time a panda or Penguin update increases my blog visitors and work like a Bodyguard of my blog…So don’t worry about the updates of Google and enjoy these updates they will find your mistakes and tells you what to do next…

  • What about traffic/revenue coming from the guest blogs you’re doing as referral traffic? Do you track this or is this pretty much nothing?

    • James Agate

      Hi Marc,

      I know this was tracked and in some cases this was pretty good because we pushed people towards pages on the site that were most relevant to them.

      To be completely honest with you of course, some guest posts drove pretty much no traffic but there are a handful of links each month which contribute to the overall visitor numbers for sure.

      Hopefully that answers your question 🙂

      Thanks for your comment


  • I totally agree with most of the comments and can confirm that whilst 40k per month is rare there are affiliate sites that get this . A big decision is whether to use a brand for repeat visitors or a site that gets a lot of long tail traffic and convert this traffic. The next decision is how to build good links that are not deemed spam and therefore not effected by any google updates.

  • Interesting stuff. My company is at a similar point whereby we find ouselves changing and re-lookign at lots of techniques. What’s funny is, the content led seo agency that conducted this piece would not work with us as our needs were too difficult :O ?

    Yet, i now have a single guy (start up agency) working on guest posting and he’s doing a great job.

  • Interesting. Somehow Penguin was expected to happen. Is totally unhealthy to link with the same anchor over and over again and expect to rank good in the long run. Is like you are eating only caviar every day and expect to be healthy.
    I guess a good Seo technique, in order to avoid being hit by Google updates is “a bit of everything”.
    For example, nowadays Social Bookmarking sites are trendy, but in the same time abused, by spammers. Is no secret that one can rank high for long tail keywords just by buying a domain name with keywords included in url and spam the social bookmarking sites, and guest blog commenting or forums and wikis. But just recently I’ve seen that technique ceasing to work , with Google pounding over 80% of those kind of websites. The rest of 20% are waiting to bait the dust every day now.
    So, I’ll say, good content, good marketing techniques, moderate link buying of high quality from old established domains , little link buying from lower ranking domains, some natural linking, no more than 3% anchor text with the desired keyword, internal linking, some social bookmarking, it might give a bit of assurance that you will not be the next in line to be hit by Google’s bad moods.
    Just an opinion.
    As regarding “The big affiliate sites play distinctly dirty and get away with it” I totally agree. I always suspected Google of taking sides, but I guess is because, those sites were strong by the time that Google was weak in detecting spammers and had a poorer filtering algorithm, so Google had acknowledged these sites “as strong” a long time ago, somehow similar to an .edu site. Google will not likely penalize a purchased link from a .edu site, because by definition an . edu site is “clean”. I’m not saying that is a general rule, but more likely to be so.
    So, in short “the big sites” are getting away with it, just like in the real life.
    Just recently, I’ve seen long established websites, in the travel industry(one of the most competitive) which were ranking high for high traffic keywords for the past 10 years, being downgraded on the second 3th or even 4th page in favor of the big brands, that are not occupying the first page; and be ware , they are not even relevant for the particular keywords, that the downgraded sites used to rank high.
    Thus is not coming as a surprise that now, even Google has its own travel search engine, in affiliation with those big brands. So much about manipulating the results !!! Just try a keyword such as “london hotels”.
    At the sponsored sign, one can read: “Based on your search query, we think you are trying to find a hotel. Clicking in this box will show you results from providers that can fulfill your request. Google may be compensated by some of these providers. Lol ??
    To me, this proves that Google admits the manipulation of results, and the favoritism for the big brands in return for cash.
    These are no more organic results.
    Just correct me if I’m wrong.

  • This was a very interesting article. I think the resounding thing I took from this was good quality content, on good quality sites. I think too many people try to put too much content and articles out there and eventually, this is going to come back and bite your in the bum.

    Some really good information I discovered recently is semantic anchor text, where you are placing your anchor text in your content closely to the keyword you want to rank for.

    There is good evidence to suggest, especially in light of the panda and penguin updates, that excessive anchor text use is dangerous, but having your ranking keyword near your anchor text, then the landing page having the main keyword in the title tags and heading tags is a sound strategy and still let’s google know this is the main keyword.

  • That was a great interview with lots of rich discussion. Although I couldn’t get a hold of so many things discussed I could understand that the natural link building has become one of the important things in SEO today. Purchasing 1000s of links within a day no longer works and therefore an only way out is to work hard at our business and not rely on some quick shortcuts. I also believe that relying on just one source of traffic by following a particular strategy is never safe for any website. In fact, by providing value to the customers and driving traffic from various other sources will eventually boost the SERPs rankings as now the search engines are more inclined towards finding out other indicators for proving genuineness of our website.