Planning Your Website
You've made up your mind and want to start a blog or website to earn some extra cash.
Good for you!
But make no mistake about it: it's not easy. However, it can be very satisfying and rewarding.
If you haven't already, check out our Quick Start Guide to get an overview of the entire process. If you have, then read on about how to plan your website.
Top Tip - If you prefer to read these materials in bite-size pieces, start here and select "Next" at the end of each post.
First Steps (the “Chicken and Egg” Problem)
Should you have some content first or should you go straight to setting up your website?
In my opinion and experience, you should at least have a handful of key posts ready (including at least one so-called cornerstone post) before you start forging ahead with your blog’s technical side.
For this reason, most people should first check out my Writing & Publishing Blog Content materials and then the Setting Up Your Blog materials. If your own situation justifies reversing that order, by all means do so.
As a general rule, once you can fill in this simple worksheet, I’d say you can start setting up your blog.
Choosing a Topic for Your Blog
In an ideal world you would blog about something that:
- you know a lot about
- has a lot of demand and
- has little to no competition
However, that ideal combination rarely exists.
Often, your personal interests are not monetizable. You may enjoy sculpting butter, but that’s a tough topic to turn into a money-maker.
Topics in big demand also usually mean there is already some stiff competition.
But the good news is that you don't need hundreds of thousands of visitors to make $1,000 to $5,000 a month from your website. There are plenty of niches and even sub-niches you can carve out your own little space and make some money in the process.
Write What You Know or Care About
As mentioned, subjects you know a lot about may not have a lot of potential profit-making demand (but you’d be surprised!).
While it is true that subjects with a lot of demand may already have a lot of competition, that doesn’t automatically translate into there being no opportunity for you.
The main topic of my primary website is product reviews of virtual private network (VPN) services. If you type “VPN reviews” in your favorite search engine, you’ll see just how competitive and crowded the field is!
But I was able to carve out enough space for myself to generate about $1k per month within the first 6 months and about $4k per month within 2 years. These days, the monthly figure is even higher still.
In my case, I turned a fiercely competitive field into a success story for my site. Sometimes even in a very competitive field there are enough visitors to go around, especially if you can exploit a niche within it.
OK, I’ll admit that I was also very lucky. My timing was good as the demand for VPNs really took off after the revelations of Edward Snowden. But that said, my materials on the separate topic of Usenet also do well in yet another competitive field.
Write What People Want to Know About (and Will Act On)
Even if you are not an “expert” in a particular topic, you could learn to be and become one.
But here’s a secret: the fact is, you don't need to be an expert. You just need to be ”better” than some of the existing websites covering the same topic. This does not always mean knowing the topic better. It can simply mean being able to explain it better or more clearly or with humour or from a different angle.
However, it is usually best to pursue a topic and approach that fits your interests and personality. If you are lousy with computers don't write about a programming language. If you are not funny, don’t try to be.
In my case, I had a general interest in online privacy and my approach was to be a lot less “hard sell” than my competitors. My posts explain things to readers in detail but also in an accessible way which seemed to win readers’ trust compared to my competitors who were ramming Buy this VPN Now! messages down their visitors’ throats.
Researching the Potential Interest in your Topic
Whatever topic(s) you are intending to blog about, a little research is in order.
Your research should inform you about the potential of your topic, your planned site as well as the overall level of competition.
1) Google Around
Put yourself in the shoes of a potential visitor to your site.
- What words or phrases would you search?
- Which sites come up?
- How would you rate the quality of the results?
- Could you do it better or make your materials stand out from the competition?
2) Check Google’s Suggested ‘Related Searches’
When doing the searches above, scroll to the bottom of the Google search engine results page (called SERP for short) and copy paste the "related searches" into an empty document. In fact, save this document as it may come in handy later.
Then use these related search terms to perform further Google searches. After a few rounds of this you should be quite informed about the landscape of your topic and will have learned about its sub-topics.
3) Research your Competitors and Keep Notes
If certain websites keep coming up in these results, make a note of them too. These are your competitors.
As you discover more sites you consider the competition (or even just sites to learn from), take note of them with your impressions, and save it as a living document. I recommend you call it ‘Competitor Analysis’.
Scroll a little further down in the Alexa results and you will see that it lists similar sites under the heading, ‘Similar Websites by Audience Overlap’. This is a neat feature which lets you find other competitors you may not even have been aware of.
For even more sources of information like this, you can use Google’s search for related sites parameter. As per Google’s help pages,
Put "related:" in front of a web address you already know. For example, related:time.com.
Google’s Similar Pages extension for the Chrome web browser can also help you find websites with content similar to yours.
How to Find Even More Competitors
You may think you know who your competitors are but best to always be on your guard. Plus, you may unearth some you were not aware of.
Go to Alexa's Find Similar Sites Tool, http://www.alexa.com/find-similar-sites, and enter your website.
Alexa will present a list of websites along with an 'overlap score'. Open a new tab and check these websites to see if they actually compete for the same audience as you. For those that do, add them to your Competitor Analysis research.
Next, use the same Alexa tool to find sites similar to those sites. After all, competitors of your competitors are probably competing with you too. Add any relevant discoveries to your Competitor Analysis research.
Then periodically keep an eye on these websites. See my other techniques about how to find out what keywords are driving traffic to these sites and try to divert some of those visitors to your site with my cherry-picking technique. 🙂
4) Check Amazon’s Best-Selling Books
This is another great way to gauge interest in a topic.
Go to Amazon’s book section and drill down into the categories most resembling your topic.
For the bestselling books you find, note the title. These can be a good influence on your future post titles.
Also, check out the tables of contents for each book for further ideas about potential content and for the structure of your website and menus.
Actually, using Amazon for research doesn't only apply to its books. Clues as to what people like and what is trending can be found in any Amazon category. For example, say suddenly lightsabre toys are all the rage, that’s your queue to draft a post about it on your Star Wars themed blog.
5) Google Trends
You always see Google Trends recommended for research but I think this is a bit overblown (and this is why I list it last here).
For example, a topic on my site which does well is Usenet. According to Google Trends interest in the topic of Usenet peaked more than 10 years ago. Anyone researching this topic in Google Trends would assume it’s not a worthwhile topic to blog about. Yet, this topic earns me a tidy sum per month on average.
In fact, tools like Google Trends can be counter-productive because if you focus only on the “big topics” or those going “viral” you will be competing head-to-head with much bigger players.
We have to always keep in mind that we are small (yet nimble): therefore, it’s all about the niches for time-starved bloggers like us.
Staying on Top of New Developments
One constant you will detect on this site is that it is not necessary to churn out posts daily. If you can, great, but it’s simply not possible for a time-starved blogger.
However, something you can do daily is read some news items, skim through a newsletter or pursue some other time-productive way to keep up with your website’s topic.
As you see elements of interest (e.g., items to share on social media or inspiration for future posts) you can make a quick note of it on your To Do Lists or Content Pipeline or save and tag the entire piece in archiving software such as Evernote.
Here are some good ways to stay up to speed in your topic.
Use Google News Alerts
Ever done a search in Google News about your topic? Sure you have. If not, you should.
In the displayed results you’ll see the prompt, “Stay up to date on results for …” (see screenshot).
Select Create alert, choose your preferences and you will automatically start to receive press clippings about your topic directly to your Inbox.
It is an easy thing to peruse these Google News Alerts, click on those of interest and then take whatever follow-up action may be appropriate.
For example, in two clicks you could share the story on your Facebook page, post it as a comment to one of your blog posts to keep it fresh and get a nice SEO boost, or capture it as a source of research for a future post.
Subscribe to Competitor Websites
I shouldn't have to tell you to keep an eye on the websites of your competitors, no matter how big or small they may be. I’ve already recommended you keep track of some basic information on your competitors, such as their Alexa rank and their top-ranking keywords.
If a competitor’s website has a subscribe option, sign up to receive updates.
Consider using a forwarding email service rather than your primary email address. It’s probably best that your competitors don't realize you are keeping tabs on them. This could just draw their attention and, if they are much bigger players, they could turn their sights on you, target your top posts and attempt to wrestle away some of your traffic. Plus, using an email forwarding service is a good way to keep your email address out of spam databases.
Subscribe to Related Feeds
Similar to Google News Alerts, a number of News Feed services exist. Usually through an app, they deliver news items or blog posts on topics you select much like receiving emails in an Inbox.
Regularly Update Your Competitor Analysis Research
Early in your preparations, I have already recommended that you note down the sites you come across in your research that strike you as your potential competitors and to keep this information in Google Docs or Google Sheets and keep track over time of their Alexa ranking and top 5 keywords (the ones you can see for free on Alexa).
This is a good, profit-oriented way of following competitive trends and developments. If a competitor website’s top keywords are attracting visitors, that’s something you want to know.
Why, you wonder?
Competitors with an Alexa rank similar to yours represent an excellent cherry-picking opportunity. Writing posts using the keywords of competitors that are ranked about the same as your website can be an effective way to redirect some of their traffic to your site.
But don’t be tempted to take on the big boys (or girls).
Treat your growth strategy like a marathon. Keep your eye on those just ahead of you and try to make gains. Once you pass them, then concentrate on the next one and keep making progress in this way.
Planning the Structure of your Website
It is deceptive to think the structure of your website will be rather straightforward and easy.
Without proper thought in advance, the structure will come about in an organic or even random way. This usually won’t be optimal.
Aim for a structure that is fairly straightforward and that will help you write the materials in the first place. In fact, it’s great to start with an outline of your website and then use the top level headings as your likely menu items.
Go back to the initial research you did for your topic. For example, your structure can be well informed from the Table of Contents of best-selling Amazon books on the same topic as your blog. The structure of your competitor’s sites should also be studied carefully.
Then think about how your materials would be organized in a book. Each chapter or part could be a main menu item. Each section or sub-section a key post (sometimes called cornerstone content).
Make use of the Outline feature in Word, PowerPoint, Google Docs or your favourite Mind Mapping tool to brainstorm the structure of your site until you are happy with it.
Spend some time on your site structure because it will have a big impact on your site going forward. If you get the structure “wrong” or even if it’s “off” it can be a real pain to fix in the future.
Nothing earth shattering here: just pay attention to structure early. Plan, think, revisit and then revise your plans before you start implementing menus.
Turn a Losing E-book into a Winning Blog
This section is for you if you have already written or maybe even published an e-book.
Rather than be disheartened by not having finished it or by its lack of sales, see if you can leverage and transform your existing e-book’s content into a winning website. That’s how I got started and it was almost by accident.
The good news about this approach is that your content is pretty much ready to go. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just a copy-and-paste job, because it isn't. Writing winning “copy” for a website is rather different than for an e-book, but you will have a great head start.
I had already published two e-books and started to write a third when a funny thing happened. My second e-book wasn't selling so well so I migrated some of its contents online and bingo!
Content that was not popular as an Amazon book was popular as blog posts. And money started to come in; more, much more than the predecessor e-books had been generating.
To continue the experiment, I migrated more book contents online and the same trend continued: the blog posts started to generate money, again far more than my previous e-book sales had for the same materials.
Researching Potential Income Sources: How Will You “Monetize” your Website?
Blogging and getting visitors is great but you want to make money doing it! Therefore, you have to do all of your planning, research and strategy with this in mind.
Always ask, "OK, how would I make money from this topic? Or a particular post?"
Keep notes of your ideas about the potential sources of income from your topic in general and from the individual posts you plan to write and publish.
Start with some general Googling around. For example, search “[insert your topic] affiliate program" or “[insert your topic] referral program".
In other words, your searches could look like:
- web hosting affiliate program
- luxury hotel affiliate program
- children’s toys referral program
Also, check out the potential your topic may have with Amazon Associates. Heck, even recommending books to read on your topic can generate commissions from Amazon.
Examining the websites of your competitors will also provide clues about possible sources of income. Ask yourself, “What products or services are they recommending and why?”
Major Affiliate Programs
There are also some big affiliate program markets. These are the major players who run affiliate programs for dozens, hundreds and even thousands of brands.
The advantage of these big players is that you sign up with one program but have at your disposal tons of potential products or services you can generate commissions promoting.
The already mentioned Amazon Associates is the most well-known but there are dozens.
The biggest affiliate programs include:
By going with a well-established affiliate program, this often means you will be choosing advertisers that already have lots of established partner sites. In other words, expect lots of competition.
However, there is usually plenty of space for good affiliates to attract visitors and generate money, unless the niche is extremely narrow or specific.
Making Sure the Advertiser is “Good”
To make sure you don't get burned, conduct some basic due diligence on potential affiliates. This doesn't have to be onerous or take a long time.
Once you have developed a short list of possible affiliates, Google around for any complaints or annoyances expressed about the advertiser. Big problems include not paying out commissions that were earned or under-reporting commissions (not giving you credit for all sales).
Also look at the advertiser’s own conditions. For example, do they pay out regularly (monthly) or do you have to expressly request a payment? Do they only pay once you hit a minimum threshold ($100)? How do they pay (PayPal)?
For example, I hate minimum thresholds, but they are a fact of life. I feel like too may affiliate programs rely on them as free money. Plus, this is a disadvantage to smaller affiliate marketers like us. So watch out for minimum thresholds that are too high. It hurts to see a significant commissions balance that you can’t cash out, especially if you have a few such balances.
Usually, monthly payments via PayPal are fine. Some affiliates will also offer payments by bank transfer, but often this is the case only when you start regularly earning $1,000+ per month with the affiliate.
Knowing whether you are actually getting credit for each and every sale is not always easy and is as much a gut feeling as anything else.
It also helps to know generally the conversion rate you can expect. Conversion rates can vary widely so getting a grasp of whether you are getting credit for all of your sales is also more art than science.
But rest assured that sophisticated affiliate partners do know how to check these things and if a program was ripping off its partners, there will be some evidence for you to find in forums, TrustPilot or by Googling around: “[affiliate program] complaints”, “[affiliate program] no good”, “[referral program] complaints”, etc.
If you are based outside the US, you will be treated as “overseas” or “foreign” by many affiliate partners and programs. This may raise other complications for you, such as withholding taxes or the program’s inability to send you bank transfer payments.
Affiliate Marketing the Easy Way?
If you just want to concentrate on writing (maybe especially at the start), you could use a free service like these that do all the affiliate “stuff” automatically and in the background.
Essentially, you install a plugin on your website and the service scans the content of your posts and adds affiliate links to appropriate products, brand names and keywords that it finds.
How easy is that?
But many affiliates – myself included – prefer to maintain control of which affiliate links to use and where to place them in content.
Then again, who knows? Maybe I would have made more money to date by using one of these services.
What about Running Ads on My Site? (Google Ad Sense)
Many would-be bloggers get the idea that they can make money from visitors clicking on ads on their website, Google AdSense being the most well-known ad serving platform. Well …
Once you realize that you would need 400,000 pageviews a month on your website to generate something in the order of $250 per month in Google AdSense revenue, you quickly see the challenges of that business model.
Unless you are getting paid for direct product placements on your website, affiliate income is usually the only realistic way to go.
Time Management: Managing Your Precious Time
This site is called “time-starved” for a reason. All my advice presupposes that, like me, the time you have for working on your website is scarce. This means you must be efficient.
If you look hard enough, there will be areas of your life where you can “find” time to devote to writing and publishing posts, and to promoting your site instead.
For example, stop habits like mindlessly swiping through time-wasting apps, browsing brain candy websites or flipping through online newspapers and magazines. I used to waste lots of time this way.
The truth is that these activities are just a distraction. In most cases, the information you glean or the relaxation you derive is lost soon afterwards and provides no real benefit in any event, especially if reading or watching "fluffy" materials.
Instead, I suggest better using that time to write, plan or even just to think about your website. It is better to think about your goals, how to pursue them, what's going well, what you could improve, etc.
As much as possible, write down these thoughts or at least your conclusions whether on your tablet or smart phone or even on a small pad of paper you carry around with you.
Even if you don't record these thoughts, your time is better spent dwelling on your website and how to further improve it rather than on cotton candy, pseudo-infotainment.
Productive but easy things you can do for your website include:
- check figures in Google Analytics, Google Search Console or the dashboards of your affiliate programs to identify any issues, opportunities or trends
- scroll through your Posts Master List and try filling in any easy missing steps such as optimizing an image or adding a better meta description
- search, find and add to Evernote articles that relate to an upcoming topic you want to write about
- check out some competitors and update your Competitor Analysis research
Your website could bring so many possibilities and a better future for you. No cat video will ever accomplish this (unless, of course, your website is about cat videos).
You will reach a stage, in fact many times, when you absolutely hate your website.
As a lone, time-starved blogger, doing everything solo can be especially tough because not only are you writing posts but you are publishing them, doing the business side, and trying to keep up with plugins, search engine optimization (SEO), Google Analytics, Google Search Console, optimizing content with Yoast and Screaming Frog, and other endless tasks to attract visitors to your website.
All I can tell you is be prepared to hate your website as it will happen, and it may happen often.
What worked for me was to just grind on: maintaining a list of things to do and just getting things done one at a time when I could as best I could. This worked for me even though it was sometimes through gritted teeth when I could not stand the project any longer.
Also, always keep in mind how great it is not to have a boss, managers, subordinates etc. Being a time-starved blogger is a lonely job, but it can also be extremely satisfying and independent.
Don't give up!
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Last modified: June 22, 2018