You want to make money from your website? You need traffic.
You want to grow an email list? You need traffic.
You want to get more free stuff sent to you to review? You need traffic.
I got a lot of traffic in 2016: here’s how
I’m going to share with you exactly how a side-project website of mine crossed the 1,000,000 yearly pageview line in 2016.
Yes, that’s 1M+ pageviews year-to-date. I’m not talking about adding up pageviews I got in previous years. That would be mean.
Specifically I’m going to show you how I did this in a rather saturated space: Bible study.
I’ll go over:
- The individual tactics that got me all that traffic
- Things I could have done differently to get 1 million views earlier
- The timeline of how OverviewBible.com grew to that level of traffic
- Resources that I found helpful along the way
A few quick disclaimers:
I really, really hate coming into a “how to do an amazing thing” guide and then realizing that the person telling me how to do an amazing thing started way, way ahead of me. And I get really tired of people telling me how to get rich only to find out that they’re working in a super-niche, high-margin, hard-to-replicate space.
Context is everything. Here’s my context:
- The blog I’m talking about is OverviewBible.com. It’s about the Bible, and how to know it better.
- I started writing for this blog in 2013. I “launched” February 1, 2014.
- I had no real clout. Not an author. No loyal following. And no big organizations backing me.
- I had a professional marketing background before starting.
- I had no design experience.
- I had run a few (meh) WordPress sites before.
“Wait. This took three years?”
Yes and no. That’s three years of working in my spare time. This was happening on the sidelines while I was undertaking three full-time job transitions, two cross-country moves, and launching my own business. It also included putting the site on the back burner for a year. So this case study blends the short and the long game a bit.
The big takeaways for bloggers
I know most people reading this are thinking, “Save the grand narrative, Jeffrey. I’m here to see how you got all that traffic. SHOW ME.”
OK, here ya go.
1. Timeless content gets long-term results
As you’ll see in the story, I pretty much took a year off from OverviewBible. And traffic still grew tremendously.
Because the stuff I published in 2014 (and 2013) has a really long shelf life. I focused on writing the kinds of blog posts that answered timeless questions, like, “What’s the shortest book of the Bible?”
It’s not glamorous content. It rarely gets a lot of attention, and there’s not a lot of fanfare when it goes live. It’s not always controversial, so you don’t get a storm of social media buzz when you write this stuff. But as you can see, it really does bring in a good deal of traffic over time.
How do you write timeless content? Here’s what I did:
- Write down every question you find yourself Googling. And then do some research to see how many other people are Googling that question, too. (SEMrush is the tool I use to do this, and yes, that’s an affiliate link.) If it’s a question that people consistently ask month over month, consider writing an article that answers it.
- Ask you readers what they would want you to write about. I did this all the time in 2014, and I still ask for ideas here and there.
- Don’t get distracted by bandwagon conversations. Sure, you might be able to get a nice boost in social shares when you publish a scathing response to another popular post. But newshacking is a treadmill.
2. Promote your work
I was a nobody when I started OverviewBible. There was no reason any stranger should have taken my work seriously. So, I spent some time getting other reputable people to vouch for me.
How’d I do that? It came down to two basic things I had to do:
- Make content that important folks would want to refer people to
- Ask them to refer people to it
The first part wasn’t easy. Most of the material I was interested in writing wasn’t exactly fresh (remember, timeless stuff isn’t always hot, interesting stuff). So I forced myself to learn my way around Adobe Illustrator so I could make a few infographics. I figured if my material wasn’t new in concept, I could at least make it new in presentation.
The second part was easier that I expected it to be. I sent influencers emails about my material that followed a simple formula:
- I’d thank them for writing a piece of content similar to mine.
- I’d tell them that I’d just finished a piece of content that their readers might appreciate.
- I’d tell them why their readers would enjoy my content.
- I’d ask them to consider linking to it.
Here’s an example of an email I sent to pitch this infographic. (It was successful!)
This approach got me mentions on some notable sites in the Christian space (like Challies.com, The Gospel Coalition, the Blaze, OnFaith, and HuffPo).
When you get on these sites, you get a little spike in traffic, which is nice. What’s nicer is the domain authority you can gain by getting these links to your site—and besides, it feels good to say, “I’ve been featured on HuffPo.”
3. Your email list is your #1 asset
I started building my email list as soon as I launched. I offered some free ebooks and resource downloads to build it (but you can read about building an email list anywhere).
My email list is key to me because it guarantees an audience for every single thing I write. I used my list for so many things:
- Seeding every new blog post with traffic and social shares and comments.
- Asking for ideas for future content.
- Building relationships (I still reply to most emails I receive).
As far as tools go, I’ve used MailChimp4WordPress and SumoMe to add people to my email list from OverviewBible. There are a few pages on my site that have some pop-overs for capturing email, and almost every post has a call to join my email list.
But watch out: building a list can be a little expensive if you’re just blogging as a hobby. OverviewBible’s MailChimp costs me about $125 every month!
4. Want affiliate money? Don’t skimp on product reviews
In 2014, a company launched a new version of a product that could help my audience do better Bible study. I joined their affiliate program, and reviewed their new product.
No big deal.
Except I went all out on my product review. This post is thousands of words long, and digs into the ways that I use the product on OverviewBible. It was such a definitive review that other reviewers referenced it in their own reviews. I used all the SEO best practices and copywriting tactics I knew of. I wrote it as though I were writing it for a client of mine.
I figured I was writing a review that would get a few of my readers to buy the product. And if I could pick up some search engine traffic, that’d be nice, too.
But I ended up becoming the #1 affiliate for this company in terms of sales. That review (which I keep updated as they launch new versions of their product) brings in about $500 per month in affiliate revenue. Not too shabby for a post I’ve spent maybe 40 hours on (total) over the past two years.
5. Don’t get too distracted by an early book deal
In early 2015 a publisher approached me about a book deal. Obviously I was interested in having that conversation—I mean, who doesn’t want to be a published author, right?
But there were a few catches that made me think twice about writing a book:
- I was still a no-name author. I could tell I was a low-risk, low-reward prospect for the publisher. I wouldn’t be able to ask for much in the way of an advance. That meant that I would be working long and hard on a book that I’d get really little return on.
- I wasn’t going to be able to write the book I wanted. The publisher had a pretty distinct idea of what they wanted me to write, and it wasn’t something I was feeling at the time.
- Writing that book would have eaten up all the time I would have spent on blogging (and everything else) for a few months.
In the end, I figured I could get a better deal on writing a better book if I had a better audience. So I decided to focus on building up readership to the blog.
(LOL tho, because I ended up moving twice and changing jobs and starting a company, so I didn’t really execute on that plan.)
Stuff I wish I’d done differently
So I did some things right.
But I also think I’ve left a lot of opportunities on the table.
1. Neglecting audience engagement
For example, the whole year of 2015 I hardly posted anything. I was so focused on only posting long-form, SEO-driven posts that I neglected writing little posts here and there to keep my audience engaged in between. Now I have a big ol’ email list, but it’s not as engaged as I want it to be. (And they’ll probably unsubscribe when I turn up the email frequency.)
2. Neglecting Pinterest
This was a stupid, stupid move on my part. I invested a lot of time in creating visuals for my site. I’m not a great designer or artist, but hey, there’s a lot of mediocre, original stuff here.
And I didn’t really spend any time adding my articles to Pinterest and tagging them appropriately. Pinterest sends me a decent amount of traffic every month, and I imagine that if I’d actually tried to get more of my work on Pinterest, I would have reached that 1M pageview mark a lot earlier.
3. Neglecting relationship-building
I pitched some articles to influential bloggers in my space and got a lot of traffic. Whoop-de-do.
But there are very few bloggers in my space who have any idea who I am. I’m not commenting on their blog posts. I’m not engaging them on Twitter. I’m not subscribed to their email lists.
OverviewBible is a bit of an island. That’s really not what it should be long-term. Not if I want to really grow traffic and engage more people.
Whew. Man, I’m glad I got that off my chest.
A year-by-year summary
OK, now you know the big takeaways on my journey to 1 million yearly pageviews. If you want to tune out now, go right ahead.
If you want to see how they all fit together in the timeline, you’re in luck—’cuz that’s what I’m covering next.
Here’s the whole story.
2013: Building the foundation
- I wrote 80 timeless, evergreen articles
- I linked those articles together like crazy
- Very, very little promotion (just a few posts to my personal Facebook feed)
- Announced the blog after 7 months of toiling over the keyboard
- I got HubSpot certified (through my place of employment)
In 2013, I started a blog about the Bible. It was just a hobby project, really. I’d work on it during my spare time just for the fun of it.
I figured it would be a cool way to do two things: Help people understand a book that means the world to me, and give me a sandbox for practicing my inbound marketing skills.
Here’s the deal, though: the Christian blog space is saturated. There are many, many Christian bloggers out there. On top of that, there are millennia’s worth of books on the subject of the Bible. And more than a decade’s worth of YouTube sermons. And it’s a well-known enough topic for there to be a Wikipedia page on just about any Bible-related topic.
In other words, I had my work cut out for me if I wanted to get anyone besides my mom to read (let alone find) this blog.
So I knew I needed to start the blog in a way that would keep people coming back and set me up for a good SEO future.
I also knew a few things about SEO that could give me an advantage in this space:
Most of the other people blogging in this niche were writing one-off posts. The subject matter of one article would have little to do with the last. This meant that the other sites in this space weren’t going to have the most organized site structures. (The sites looked good enough for humans, but they weren’t easy for Google to index.)
I also knew that most people blogging about the Bible were blogging about timely issues (i.e., reactions to politics, entertainment, sports, and each other). That meant there wasn’t a lot of evergreen content being produced. Also, it seemed that most bloggers were writing in hopes of going viral, not building long-term traffic via search engines.
So I chose to do the opposite.
Rather than focus on timeliness, I focused on timelessness.
I wrote about 80 articles in the span of 7 months, and most of them were simple overviews of the various books of the Bible. I figured, “Hey, the issues are going to change from week to week. Odds are nobody’s going to restructure the canon anytime soon.”
I hardly did any promotion during this time. It was all just head-down writing. And all of those articles were linked together: I think each and every article linked to a minimum of four other articles, and had a minimum of four other articles linking to it. (Which I knew was an SEO win.)
By the time I finished this initial phase, I was getting about 1,500 pageviews per month. That’s about 50 pageviews per day, and a good deal of them were my friends and family.
2014: Ev’ry day I’m hustling
- I got a MailChimp account. For every new blog post, I included a call to action to join my email list.
- I started making infographics, and pitching them to influencers. (This got backlinks and a few spikes in referral traffic.)
- I turned on ads and began an affiliate relationship with a company that served my audience.
2014 was the year of hustle for OverviewBible.com. This is where I tried all kinds of stuff to see what would stick.
I tried a bunch of things that got some decent attention.
I made my first infographic. (And then I made a lot more.) I reached out to influencers to get backlinks and mentions. I pitched stories to the Blaze and Huffington Post (and landed them). I started growing an email list. I wrote a few ebooks and offered them for free.
The game for me was to make things that would be valuable to the kinds of people who thought the Bible was awesome. And I think I did an OK job at it. In fact, when I look at the top 10 traffic-driving posts of 2016, only one of them wasn’t written in 2014!
How did I come up with ideas for these posts?
Well, I paid attention to any time someone I knew asked a question about the Bible. I also tried to catch myself whenever I was curious about something. I figured if one person was curious, they couldn’t be the only one.
A real shortcut for this: asking my email list what they wanted to see me cover. For a while, I would end my email messages with a PS message encouraging people to hit “Reply” to give me an idea for a future post.
There’s one other thing I really need to mention here: Google’s algorithm updates.
Panda 4.1 in particular was really, really good to OverviewBible.com. This update came down hard on sites with thin content, keyword stuffing, and the like. That meant that a lot of less-helpful articles were shooed out of the top slots in Google results, and more in-depth content was invited to sit at the head of the table.
2014 earnings: This was the year I wrote that killer affiliate product review, which gave me a nice injection of about $1,500 in affiliate revenue. Beyond this, I made a little bit of change running a few ads on my site (via BeaconAds).
2015: Maintenance mode (other stuff happened)
- I barely did anything.
- Still doubled in traffic (thanks to writing timeless content).
- We set up weekly automated emails to drive traffic to some of our lower-traffic articles.
Some cool stuff happened in 2015, too. I was approached by a publisher about writing a book. (I ended up turning the offer down for now: I wanted to build enough of an audience for me to have more authority in conversations with any publisher I may work with in the future.)
2015 was the anti-2014 year. I moved … twice. Once from Colorado to Washington, and again to a new house in the same town. I took on two new jobs—one didn’t work out and the other job (my own marketing business) took off faster than I imagined it would.
That meant OverviewBible got the shaft. I seriously only produced about 9 posts that year. Most of them didn’t get much attention at all. The one exception was this infographic that gives a really (and I mean really) basic overview of a certain issue that a lot of Bible-readers were upset about at the time. And even that post was done by request.
However, there was one thing we did better in 2015: consistent email sends. We set up a 60+ email drip that sent one email per week to people who joined my list. This kept a portion of the people we attracted through SEO coming back.
Here’s the cool thing: even though this blog was not a priority in 2015, traffic still grew through social and SEO. By the end of the year, I was averaging above 60k views per month.
2015 earnings: I continued to pull in about $500/mo from that affiliate post, plus I made some more money via ads (just shy of $570.00). It’s not making a living, but an extra $6,500 in your pocket at the end of the year is pretty nice.
- We started tweaking and interlinking old articles.
- I began writing more (with an eye on SEO and audience engagement).
- I launched a Patreon account.
Not very much material was created in the first half of 2016, either. But we did change one important thing about how we handled the site: Laura started routinely going through old articles and doing some optimization. Most of this looked like tweaking title tags, adding more internal links, and sharing the tweaked post on social media once more.
Then halfway through the year, I started doing some writing again. More content to engage the email list, and some SEO-informed content, too.
The hero tool of this year: SEMrush. Laura and I use this tool every day for either our own blogs or our clients. It’s a fantastic way for us to see how we’re doing in SERP rankings, and identify pages that could be bringing in a lot more traffic.
Other news: this is when I launched my Patreon account, which has gained a little bit of traction. (Not much, but then, I’m not heavily promoting it.)
2016 earnings: I assume my Logos Bible Software affiliate post is still pumping in the sales for them, but I don’t find out how I’ve performed as an affiliate until the end of the quarter. So the final tally will come to about $6,000 for the year from affiliate revenue from Logos. I also got a little bit of Amazon affiliate payout of about $140.
Easy money, considering that most of that cash is coming from a post I wrote 2 years ago!
2017: What will I be doing?
In summary, there are a few tactics I want to try in 2017 on this blog:
Getting into a consistent content production schedule. It won’t be 2014 again. (I have far too much on my plate for another year like that so soon!) But I do want to give my readers some semblance of consistency. I’ll probably shoot for one “snackable” article per month and one “meaty” article per month as well.
- Seeking the right sponsorship/Patron/ad monetization mix. I don’t like peppering my site with ugly ads. I also want to have more of a “Everything on this site is recommended by Jeffrey” feel to it, which regular ads just can’t give me. I will probably explore offering one or two premium sponsorships to organizations that I believe can truly provide value to my audience.
- Building a publicity system. Once I scrub my email list, I’ll have about 8,000 really engaged people to reach out to. Several of them have blogs of their own, and have shared my material on them in the past. I should probably make it easier for these folks to know about work that I find particularly share-worthy (whether it’s mine or someone else’s).
Where can you learn how to do this?
One person asked me what sort of training I took to get to the 1M pageview mark. I’ve listed a few resources that were especially helpful to me:
For writing long-form, SEO-domination pieces, read about Brian Dean’s Skyscraper technique. In my opinion, this should be required reading for anyone who wants to get organic search traffic.
Take a good, long, hard look at this infographic from HubSpot. It’s called the “inbound marketing methodology,” and it’s a good framework for thinking through the process of getting people to engage with you.
Just focus on the polka dots. And if you don’t have a product (i.e., you’re just blogging for the fun of it), don’t worry about “customers.” The main thing to take away from this is that by publishing and promoting great content, you can attract strangers, capture their email addresses, and woo them into promoting your future posts.
Now, back in 2013 I went all the way and got HubSpot’s certification in inbound marketing. You can take their free certification course, but I do not recommend it. In my experience, it was more of a course that tells you how to talk about inbound marketing than it was about actually doing it.
Want me to clarify anything?
This “report” is getting so long that I doubt many bloggers will make it this far down. =) But if you made it here and you want me to clarify anything I’ve gone through, lemme know in the comments! I’m happy to add more info.