I've had this blog for about five years now and while the $200/year hasn't been particularly expensive, it has been a sunk cost and one that I wasn't inclined to address while my blog was undergoing significant changes in audience, content, and design. After all, the first step to blogging is to be honest about your purpose and authentic in your writing; so recouping operating costs weren't exactly high on my priority list.
Late in 2014, however, I figured that I stabilized enough to warrant giving serious consideration to monetization. So I set out to do a couple of easy things: (1) Set up an Amazon Affiliate account, (2) Improve my organic Search Engine Results, (3) Grow my RSS and Newsletter subscriptions, (4) Optimize my blog to promote monetization and retain readers, and (5) Build a community.
While many of the techniques described here can be used for any blog, the more technical mechanics will focus on how to do so with Squarespace, my webhost of choice for the last five years.
Audience history (Oct 15 - May 16)
Step One: Amazon Affiliation
This included researching what it meant to become affiliated with Amazon and the best practices on how to do it. This blog post from problogger.net, in particular, was extremely helpful in helping me jump start my Amazon Affiliation. In addition to learning from others' mistakes and lessons, I grabbed a book off the internet (Amazon of all places) and tried to incorporate as much of the best practices as I could.
It's worth noting that it is still valuable to link to free products on Amazon because the Amazon Affiliation program doesn't give you a stipend for items that you link to, but rather items purchased from your links. For example, if John clicks on your link for Levis, but decides to purchase Wranglers instead, you still receive a commission on that sale. Similarly, if Jill "purchases" a free book from Amazon and then continues shopping to purchase a waffle maker, then you get a commission on that waffle maker, and anything else Jill purchases during that shopping session. I highlight this distinction for two very important reasons:
- The purpose of your blog is not, nor should it be, to generate revenue. There's a reason monetizing a blog comes after the blog has been established for a while; content is the heart and soul of your website.
- Your affiliate links should be relevant to the topic and to your customer base. Linking to an amazon listing for "bullets" when your post is referring to bullet points (e.g. lists), or simply linking to the most expensive item that fits your post is incredibly dishonest.
Step Two: Improving my Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
While I had been playing with SEO since I found my topic, I hadn't really put a lot of effort into the confusing topic. So I looked at two different blog posts that taught me how improve my SEO (searchenginewatch and problogger). The main lessons learned here (for me) was to capitalize on "related searches" on Google to cut down on competition. For example, instead of tagging my post with "video game" I would use the related search of "computer video game." Essentially, specificity in categories and tags would improve organic search results and the amount of time each person spent on your site.
Another great post was this one from Backlinko that highlighted some of the more prevailing theories, about 200 of them, among SEO enthusiasts that seemed legitimate enough to put some effort into. Of those, I found several that seemed to fit my strategy:
- Content Length: Content with more words can cover a wider breadth and are likely preferred to shorter superficial articles.
- Image Optimization: Images on-page send search engines important relevancy signals through their file name, alt text, title, description and caption.
- Keyword Word Order: An exact match of a searcher’s keyword in a page’s content will generally rank better than the same keyword phrase in a different order. For example: consider a search for: “cat shaving techniques”. A page optimized for the phrase “cat shaving techniques” will rank better than a page optimized for “techniques for shaving a cat”. This is a good illustration of why keyword research is really, really important.
My article "Three Common Problems with Plex" is a good example of this in action, albeit by complete accident. Once I started focusing on keywords and their orders, I discovered a helpful tool: Google Trends.
It was here that I started researching my previous generic tags and finding related search queries and building up my tags to include a broader amount of search queries and soon things like "Hilary Clinton Scandal" included "Partisan Polarization" as related keyword tags. Once I got the technique down, I went back and modified every blog post I still had public.
- References and Sources: Citing references and sources, like research papers do, may be a sign of quality. The Google Quality Guidelines states that reviewers should keep an eye out for sources when looking at certain pages: “This is a topic where expertise and/or authoritative sources are important…”
- Bullets and Numbered Lists: Bullets and numbered lists help break up your content for readers, making them more user friendly. Google likely agrees and may prefer content with bullets and numbers.
- Domain Trust/TrustRank: Site trust — measured by how many links away your site is from highly-trusted seed sites — is a massively important ranking factor.
- Presence of Sitemap: A sitemap helps search engines index your pages easier and more thoroughly, improving visibility.
This is fairly easy to accomplish in Squarespace. It's automatically created with your account, but it isn't automatically linked to where a webcrawler can acquire it. To do this, you'll want to follow the steps outlined below.
Once the sitemap is created, you'll want to submit it and test it with Google's Webmaster tools.
You may get the error (This url is not allowed for a Sitemap at this location) for many of your images that have URL referencing squarespace.com; this is normal. It simply means that for those images, in my case 38 of 580 images, reference a domain other than the one I supplied (e.g. squarespace.com doesn't match danialhallock.com) and cannot be indexed.
- Terms of Service, Contact Me, and Privacy Pages: These pages help tell Google that a site is a trustworthy member of the internet. This was as easy as creating a new page and nesting it under a folder for aesthetic reasons.
Step three: Grow my RSS and newsletter subscriptions
There was no magic bullet for increasing newsletter subscriptions. I simply had to keep referencing my newsletter and offering minor perks for those who subscribed. The absolute biggest thing that helped me grow my newsletter subscription numbers was actually, you know, sending the damn thing out. Growing my RSS subscriptions was a little easier, relying heavily on two tools: Apple Syndication, and including an RSS/Index feed.
1. Apple News
Squarespace Help has a tutorial on how to set this up if you need a little more help, but the down and dirty is in the slideshow below. Sign up for an Apple News account here, and then link it to your Squarespace account by following the steps below.
2. Creating your Index and RSS Feed
Creating an index starts by creating a new page, like we did with the sitemap. Begin by adding a new field at the top for a search function, to help users who might click on this page to find a specific post or topic.
Then add your RSS link by adding a new field for RSS to give people a way to manually subscribe to your RSS feed, as well as enable search engines to locate the link within your site.
Below that, add your archive to give viewers the ability to quickly find content based on its chronological order, and another way for search engines to locate your content.
Step Four: Optimize my blog
There was a massive gap between steps three and four while I waited to see what results my first attempts would have. Once I was certain that things had more or less evened out, it was time to optimize.
1. Optimize Performance
This was a little overdue and, to be honest, a massive pain in the ass. It involved a lot of work with Google Development tools to try to optimize my blog for speed and user experience, mostly through using PageSpeed Insights and resolving the issues one-by-one until I got things up to an acceptable level.
2. Optimize SEO
It's not enough to just cram the SEO techniques into the blog; I needed to see how they were performing and, if necessary, adjust. Periodically checking your Google Search Console to see which keywords were working for you, and Google Trends to find which you needed to exploit, would be extremely important to enable you to transition from the graphic below, to something a little more helpful.
It also involved using the Google Search Console to highlight data to help Google make sense of it and improve my search results.
3. Optimize Imagery
This one was my least favorite; the main reason of which is because I have an embarrassingly large number of images that are simply named "1" or "Capture.PNG" due to my affinity for Window's Snipping Tool. This meant finding banner images for every post, recreating "fuzzy" images, renaming damn near everything, and creating captions where appropriate. One tool to help with this was Unspash, which sends out weekly digests of free public-use images, like this one:
Step Five: Build a Community
Finally, I wanted to build a community that went beyond sharing my blog posts to Google Plus, so I turned to Disqus and added them to my website. Disqus was a fantastic decision because not only does it create a transparent social network (e.g. Someone comments on my post from my website, it automatically shares their conversation thread to the Disqus' social media), but the Disqus social network is, in and of itself, SEO optimized.
This had the (albeit rare) benefit of snowballing a few conversations through people who didn't see my post seeing the comment of someone who had, and helped share my content through other avenues and, more importantly, creating a sense of community that was otherwise unobtainable.
I also started using trackback links embedded in Kinja (Lifehacker, Gizmodo, etc) comments and Goodreads' reviews, Squarespace forum posts, and basically any other place where I had a presence that I wasn't capitalizing on. Also, whenever I used a source that had a Disqus', or Google+ enabled comments section, I would include a link to the article I'd written about it, hoping to draw people to my website.
The number of referrals were fairly small, but given that I was only starting to establish my "brand" (ugh, I hate saying that), every little bit counted. In addition to this, I also started cross-posting a few of my guides and life "hack" type posts (like this one) to my kinja blog with a summary and a link to the original article hosted here on my website. The number of referrals from these were slightly higher than those of my trackbacks, but were still nothing particularly revolutionary.
Overwhelmingly, the main benefit to all of these trackback links, Disqus integration, and cross-posting to Kinja was increased relevancy in Search Engine Results without being shady or breaking any of Google's rules. So while I didn't notice a significant uptick in individual referrals, once I got to this stage of the monetization process, I had noticed an uptick in organic search results.
These results started around the middle of May (when I started this project), and I took fairly decent notes as I went along, grabbing the information for each month on the last day of the month. In the interest of full disclosure, I also started resharing old content directly to Google Plus as well. While I only strived to created a new blog post once a month, I would share a post once a week, therefore recycling old content and propping up my audience numbers a bit more.
This was a decision that I didn't make lightly, but the main point of having a blog is to have historic content, and every post kept should be used to try to build an audience, and it should be used more than once.
Audience History (Nov 16 - Nov 17)
It's readily apparent that November 2016 did not have a significantly different audience size than May 2016 (only a gain of about 42 people). This was more-or-less to be expected given that Steps One and Two took place at the beginning of May, whereas steps Three through Five took place at the beginning of November. It wouldn't be until December that I could begin to ascertain what affect, if any, my efforts would have on increasing my audience's size.
Earning's History (May 15 - May 16)
It stands to reason that earnings through advertisements and affiliate links would be proportional to my audience size, so as my audience size grew, so too did the earning; though not as fast as you might have wanted.
While "monetizing your blog" is something that countless bloggers espouse as being a fantastic way to generate some passive income, very few really show the slow grind that it takes to make the blog worth anything beyond the occasional cup of coffee. More importantly, while they're quick to begin their, usually superficial, posts with the idea that content should be at the heart of every blog, they never explain just how long their blog was purely content-based with no monetization efforts attempted.
With so little effort put into addressing the running totals and the realities of blog monetization, it's no wonder that there is still a need for posts like these. In the future, I'll address the monetary realities of releasing independently-published books (spoiler: It's not pretty), coupled with a monetized blog in an effort to really highlight the challenges facing independent authors in today's economic environment.
It's an entirely doable strategy, and a good way to pick up some extra scratch if you have a passion and knack for writing, but it takes a lot more work than I think most bloggers let-on. It takes more than exhaustive lists of 200 some-odd surface level ideas (e.g. Backlinko), but real strategies discussing the technical aspects of attacking those ideas and putting them to work for your blog. It requires an understanding of not just your message, but also:
- Data Science, and how search engines work
- Data Analysis, and how to understand the way your actions affect trends
- Marketing, and how to appeal to your readers
- Graphic Design, and how to build an appealing blog
- Web Design, and how to build a safe, secure, and attractive community
That list isn't even remotely all-inclusive; the real list is almost insurmountably large, and entirely sobering. The eighteen month journey I embarked one in mid-2015 made me realize that, perhaps, the reason I put-off monetizing my blog was not entirely to focus on my content, but also to put off the incredibly daunting, and far-less glamorous work of actually promoting it. After all, I have a passion for writing not promoting things, and it was a difficult task that laid ahead.
Ultimately though, monetization forced me to consider the value of my work and walked me to the realization that, if I don't value it - and promote it accordingly - then my work will suffer. Passion can only take a blog so far before the audience base stagnates.