How to Make Money With Niche Websites, with Spencer Haws
Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.
In the past, I’ve been pretty tough on blogging as a side hustle, because I know how long it can take to make money. However, every once in a while a guest joins the show and reminds me that with some hard work, and perhaps a little luck, just about anyone can turn a website into a real business.
Spencer Haws can be found blogging and podcasting at NichePursuits.com where he shares what he learns about building niche sites, SEO, and much more. Spencer quit his corporate job in 2011 because his niche sites were making more money than his day job. He joins me this week to explain what exactly a niche site is, and how they make money.
A niche website focuses its content on a very specific subject. For the owner, the goal is for the site to become recognized as a subject matter expert by search engines like Google, by creating large volumes of high-quality content relevant to the topic.
Generally speaking, the two main income streams come from display ads and affiliate income, the idea being that the more traffic to the site, the higher the potential income. Spencer does a good job of breaking down how the different parts work together. If you’ve ever thought of starting your own blog or niche website, then this one’s for you!
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- What is a niche website anyway?
- The first step in building a niche website
- How to find keywords you can rank for
- The two main ways blogs make money
- Spencer details his two software development ventures
- The costs involved with starting a blog
In the past, I have been pretty tough on blogging as a side hustle because I know how long it can take to make money. Every once in a while, however, a guest joins the show and reminds me that with some hard work and perhaps a little luck, just about anyone can turn a website into a real business. Spencer Haws can be found blogging and podcasting at nichepersuits.com, where he shares what he learns about building niche sites, SEO, and much more. Spencer quit his corporate job in 2011 because his niche sites were making more money than his day job. He joins me this week to explain what exactly a “niche” site is and how they make money.
Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. This episode of the Maple Money Show is brought to you by Willful. Did you know that 57 percent of Canadian adults don’t have a will? Willful has made it more affordable, convenient, and easy for Canadians to create a legal will and power of attorney documents online from the comfort of home. In less than 20 minutes, and for a fraction of the price of visiting a lawyer, you can gain peace of mind knowing that you put a plan in place to protect your children, pets, and loved ones in the event of an emergency. Get started for free at maplemoney.com/willful and use the promo code Maple Money to save 15 percent. Now, let’s chat with Spencer…
Tom: Hi Spencer, welcome to Maple Money Show.
Spencer: Hey, Tom, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Tom: Regular listeners know there’s been a couple of times when we’ve talked about ways to make money where I’ve sometimes bashed blogging a little even though it’s what I do. I don’t always find it to be that easy of a side hustle for a regular person so I really like the way you present it. I think we can dive into this idea where maybe there’s something you can do that might help them. They don’t have to leave their job and become this huge blogger. They can use this as just some kind of side income. Can you explain what you consider this idea of a “niche” site to be?
Spencer: A niche site is kind of how it sounds. It’s a very laser-focused website on a very specific topic. I like to think about it as going after something that is not super competitive, but something you can almost become an expert in. I was actually just sharing a couple of examples of small niche sites I created a long time ago. They’re not in existence anymore but many, many years ago I created a website on worm farms. That’s it. Another one was just on the topic of Buffalo nickels. I saw another one just recently (I didn’t create) on pontoon boats. That’s it. I didn’t think you could actually make money doing that but, you can. I think by narrowing down the focus on just one particular topic, you certainly can make money. You also kind of become an expert. And even if you’re not an expert, you tend to cover a topic in more depth than a general boating website would, for example. A niche site just focuses on a very specific topic where you hope your articles rank on Google and you make money on affiliate income or display ads.
Tom: One of the things I often hear is, if you’re going to start a blog, it helps to sort of helps to have a passion for the topic to get you through all those months where you’re not going to make money. I assume worm farms and Buffalo nickels probably were not a huge passions? How do you get into this where you were just trying to find a place you fit in?
Spencer: They were really kind of experimental sites. It was a way to see if I could build a really small “niched” down site. It ranked relatively quickly back in the day. Again, we can’t do this today, but back in the day it was all about getting the exact match domains like buffalonicke.com or whatever. That actually gave you a little boost in Google. That’s how I got started, just experimenting on how I could rank quickly for really small topics in Google. That’s evolved over time, but the same core focus is still there; can you find little competition keywords to help you rank quickly on Google? Are there people actually buying or selling products? Or is there some way to monetize that niche? And the third aspect you mentioned, if you do have some passion on the topic, that’s just kind of like the trifecta. That’s perfect. But at least if you have the two, the ease to rank for keywords and there is money to be made there, it can be a business.
Tom: I had tried so many things thinking back to 1999 until 2009. I tried so many different sites and ideas, selling things on eBay, making my own little sites. It was just a decade of failure. Maybe that’s why I sometimes “hate” on this as an idea. Whereas, now my blog is something that feels like as much “accident” as hard work. It doesn’t seem like everything’s a winner. One thing I like that you do on your site, Niche Pursuits, is you cover these other little sites that you’ve been starting up. There are probably a lot of people out there that blog about blogging and that’s it. But you keep doing these little experiment sites and sharing the results. Can you kind of walk us through what that looks like? Basically what I’m asking is, if someone wanted to start a blog today, what’s that look like? What steps do they walk through?
Spencer: It begins with research phase. Step one, for me, is finding a market or finding a niche that you could kind of make your mark in. I talked about a couple of those things already, but it comes down to really in-depth keyword research for me. I try to see if I can find 15 or 20 keywords relatively quickly in one particular market, whether that’s RRV’s or dirt bikes or pontoon boats or fishing—whatever that niche is. Can I quickly find 15 or 20 low competition keywords? And if I can, then I feel like that’s probably a good niche to go into. I don’t know how much you want to dive into how to analyze if it’s a low competition keyword or not but the short answer is, as you look at the first page results in Google, try to determine if there’s either newer sites or sites without a lot of links that are already ranking for that particular keyword phrase. And if there are, that means probably a newer site or somebody without a lot of authority could also rank on the first page of Google. I try to find 15 or 20 keywords. And once I do that, I start thinking about how I monetize the site, what type of articles I will actually write on the site and start planning out some sort of content strategy from there.
Tom: So you do recommend research over just saying, “I really like golfing so I’m going to start a golf site?”
Spencer: Unfortunately, things the general population are passionate about is also what the rest of the general population is passionate about. So everybody has probably created a golf website, hiking website, et cetera. So it really does come down to the research. Let the numbers do the talking in terms of whether or not you can write an article and actually rank in Google.
Tom: How about the skill set needed? I assume if you’re really just starting out for the first time you kind of have to know everything. You have to be able to install a WordPress site and know how to buy a domain and all these steps just to get started.
Spencer: I suppose you’re right. I don’t even think about those things anymore. It’s just second nature to buy a domain and set up hosting. Yes, you’re right. If you’re just getting started out there are some things you’re going to have to learn but it’s not that difficult. I always tell people that it’s better to just get started—YouTube is your friend. If you don’t know how to do something, you can YouTube it and somebody is going to show you step-by-step. There are lots of little things setting up and optimizing WordPress. For me, again, it comes down to research. Can you find a subject or topics to write about that are feasible for you to rank for on Google? And can you produce content that pleases Google enough to allow them to rank you. If you just kind of keep that as the big picture, all the other things kind of fall into place.
Tom: I think the question I probably get asked most when I’m talking to people that don’t know about my site is, “Oh, you can make money from that?” What are some of the most obvious ways? Someone listening may not actually know how a blog makes money. I often say it’s kind of similar to a magazine model and they understand that better. But if you can walk through the most obvious ways?
Spencer: There’s probably two main ways. The first one is display ads. You go to a website and see a bunch of advertisements all over the site. That’s either Google AdSense or some variation of ads. People will see that pretty much on any large publication that they might go to. As a blogger you’ll make money if people click on those ads. Or just by impression—where people actually see that ad, then you also make a small amount. That’s the most common and easiest way to get started. The second one is affiliate links. A good example of that is Amazon associates. If we’re talking about bikes and I recommend a particular bike on my site and somebody clicks that link and goes to Amazon and buys that bike, I make a commission on that. There are thousands and thousands of different affiliate programs out there. There are all kinds of different products you can be recommending. Those are two of the most common ways. Another way is also by sponsored posts. A big brand might come and pay you because they know you’ve got traffic coming to your blog or you have a large social media following. They might pay you a couple hundred dollars to post something. That’s another way that bloggers or niche sites make money as well.
Tom: One of the things I often hear, again, is there’s skepticism from some people that are reading blogs about things like affiliate links and sponsored posts—can they trust what they’re reading? On the other hand, it almost comes across as this thought that you shouldn’t be making money from your blog which is something I don’t think people fully think through when they say it. If you’re spending maybe 40 hours on your blog every week, then, yes, you definitely should be and need to be making money. What are your thoughts on that where people have this idea they shouldn’t be making money? I get the idea of being skeptical of what you read. You’ve got to realize that you want to be able to put trust in that site.
Spencer: Yeah, that’s an interesting topic. I agree. Going in with eyes wide open and realizing what you’re reading may be biased for certain reasons. Certainly, if it’s a sponsored post, usually that needs to be tagged as “this is a paid sponsorship” or whatever so hopefully you see that. But even affiliate links. You and I go to blogs and know that’s probably an affiliate link. On my blog, nichepursuits.com, I do recommend tools but they are actually tools that I really do use so hopefully that comes across. When I do a review (of whatever the product is) I really am sharing screenshots of me using it, saying why I use it, and how I really do think it is a good idea. So there is that aspect of it. People have got to make money if they’re spending all that time on it. If you are truly going to provide in-depth content, there has to be some way to monetize that at the end of the day.
Tom: I think most people get it. It’s a small group, but I get that occasionally where they say, “How much are you making off this post?” As you grow a blog, you definitely want to have that trust if you’re going to monetize that way. You mentioned bias but you could say that about anything whether it’s monetization like this, anything political or anything else. There is always going to be something that should make you a little bit skeptical about what you’re reading.
Spencer: Yes, I think that’s probably just a good life skill. It’s to know what you’re reading, who you’re getting involved and what the money trail is.
Tom: I like this idea that we can make money from a blog. And the reason I mentioned the magazine comparison is because people who like looking at a magazine see ads in there. Some of them have an advertorial page which is a sponsored post that may be paid placements (which is like the affiliates). There’s a lot of similarity there that many people don’t realize where, yes, a blog can make money. Starting these niche sites isn’t the only thing you’ve done. You’ve also gone into software at least a couple of times. Do you have a background in that or is this something that you hire out? How did all that happen?
Spencer: I don’t have a background in software development at all. Business and finance is my background. It’s what I went to school for. As I was creating lots of these little niche sites and doing lots of keyword research, that’s where my first software idea came from. I created a tool called, LongTail Pro. I just hired a developer to build that for me. I ran LongTail Pro for five years and sold that business in 2016. So it’s been almost five years since I sold it now. Then I kind of repeated the process in terms of building another software tool called, Link Whisperer. The idea came from out of my own need. I was building lots of these sites, managing my blog and wanted to build internal links a lot faster and easier. I came up with this idea of a tool that kind of recommended internal links for me. It made it super-fast and easy to manage that whole process. Again, I hired a developer to build that for me. I’m just really the sales and marketing guy behind it.
Tom: I assume this is a similar process for you. It sounds like you’re finding a need. Was there research that went into that as well?
Spencer: It was sparked out of my own need. For Link Whisperer (in particular) I actually interviewed about 10 or 15 different potential customers. I believe it was in my private Facebook group that I sort of posted, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing something like this. I’d be interested in getting on a call with some of you and talking through how you do your internal linking?” This was the market research that I did. What are customers doing? What are their actual problems that they’re having? Does the idea I have sound like it might solve some of those problems? I did all of that research before I spent any money on development. And once I had a good idea—where people were building lots of these little niche sites and having the same problems as I was, I’d say, “Okay, let’s invest some money. Let’s actually build the tool and see if it works.”
Tom: You mentioned investing money. In most cases I assume hiring a developer isn’t going to be as simple as starting a blog. This is something that’s more of a big investment. Maybe your first tool wasn’t at first?
Spencer: I’m not sure the initial version was not crazy expensive. I think it was about $3,000 to get the first version. Link Whisperer was a little bit more than that just because I learned a lot from my first software experience in that, even though you can get a really cheap, fast, version out, doesn’t mean it’s a good version long-term. You kind of have to build it right from the get-go so I hired a really good developer. The thing with software is, even though it seems like you can build it once and sell it forever, that is really not the case at all. You get the first version out, but then WordPress updates something, you add a new feature or customers find a bug… It’s a never ending cycle of development. It’s a constant investment every month to keep the tool up to date, to make it better, faster, or to fix bugs. It really is a big decision to start a software company because there’s usually a little bit bigger investment upfront to get the first version done. And then there is a never-ending investment into improving the tool over time.
Tom: I like that you mentioned it as an investment because even at the low end of the $3,000 someone may think that’s a lot to start a business. But if you have solid research and a concept that should work, it is an investment. It could be the same as investing in the stock market but with the chance of a better return. There may be more risk as well but if you look at it as a real investment the numbers start to make a little more sense. To go back to the blogging side of this as an investment, basically, what would it cost someone to start a blog?
Spencer: To get started, all you need is a domain name for about $10 a year and hosting which you can get for something like $3 a month. And that’s pretty much it.
Tom: That’s all I had when I started it. Then I just kept reinvesting the money from there.
Spencer: Yeah. If you are going to write all the content—and there really are actually a lot of free tools you can do keyword research on. You don’t have to get all these paid fancy tools. If you’re putting in your own time, doing all your own writing and marketing, that’s pretty much it. I’m now at the point where I don’t do all the work on all of my sites. I hire writers and editors or other people. They’re going to help my site grow. So, when I look at an investment of a site now, I think more about how much am I going to be spending every month on new content, on maybe an employee that’s editing and doing some other tasks, pinning things on Pinterest or whatever. There is no exact right answer other than you can get started for almost nothing. Or, if you want to like build a site that has 500 articles as quickly as possible, you can spend many, many thousands of dollars. You have to just figure out what your plan is and what level of risk you’re willing to put into it.
Tom: Despite me complaining about blogging as a good way to make money, beyond the software and everything you’re doing, just within these niche sites, you can kind of keep layering on different ones. You don’t have to have that site become the “next big thing.” You can get it to a decent income and then move on and try something else and diversify there a little with different sites. You mentioned starting with a domain and hosting. That’s the only investment I’ve ever really made into my site. The rest has been new income that’s fueled everything else like hiring for all sorts of things. The only time I’ve ever put personal money into the business was one year of hosting and the one year domain. From there on…
Spencer: It’s paid for itself, right?
Tom: Yeah, exactly.
Spencer: You were just reinvesting the business earnings.
Tom: Yeah. You mentioned AdSense. The first money I ever made was 6 months in—accumulated across 6 months. I got the $100 AdSense check and immediately bought a premium theme for WordPress, meaning you can buy a better theme that looks nicer. Then it paid for a custom logo. So right from that first $100 I was reinvesting. Now there are lots of people that help out behind the scenes with the podcast and everything and an editor on the blog. Literally, my only personal investment was that one year hosting and one year domain.
Spencer: Part of me is sometimes a little bit jealous of people just getting started out. The reason for that is because I have a lot of different business interests now. We mentioned software and niche sites and I’ve got my main blog and a podcast. If I take on a new project, the amount of time and energy that I personally can put into it is very, very small. But somebody that’s just getting started out, they can put 100 percent of their focus on it. My mind is blown and sometimes I’m a little bit jealous when I see these bloggers or other people getting started that are in the media vine or tribe groups. They post—they’re just hustling. They’re taking pictures of their recipes, posting on Instagram and Pinterest. And they’re doing it all themselves, which I don’t do. But they have the ability to really focus and hone-in on what’s working. I think that hustle a lot of times can get you to a certain level. It can get to you to a couple of thousand bucks a month relatively quickly. If you that’s your only focus and you’re really hustling, that’s faster than I would get to $2,000 a month because I put in an hour a week and have outsourced help doing all the work. Just the thought that if you’re just getting started out, you can really focus on one niche site or one little blog. You have some advantages there and you can really gain traction if you just focus and put the effort in.
Tom: Well, thanks for going through this. I really like the idea that it can be started for cheap and people can kind of put their own physical time and energy into it from there to grow it. I definitely recommend that they get a domain. I’ve seen people who say they’re just going to post on WordPress.com. They don’t want to invest, but we’re only talking about $20 to $50 for the first year. And within the first year, I would think most people would probably make that back. Even in the worst case. It just depends on how much time they’re willing to put in from there. We’ve talked a lot about your software and stuff, but can you let people know anything else they need to know about it and where they can find you online?
Spencer: Yeah, absolutely. If there are people already out there building sites and getting to the point where they want to optimize on-page stuff, Link Whisperer is an internal linking WordPress tool. Again, it will offer link suggestions for places you can link to other articles on your site as you write your content. It’s just as easy as checking a few boxes and hitting “add links,” and those get added. It offers full reporting too. If you want to look across all the articles on your site and want to see how many internal links each article has, how many external links it has, and if there are any broken links, it provides that. There’s a lot of individual functions and features. But really, overall it’s an internal linking tool that customers seem to like a lot. People can check that out at linkwhisperer.com. And if they want to follow along with me, I’m at nichepursuits.com where I’m blogging about niche sites, SEO and what I’m learning along the way. I do have a podcast as well. It’s the Niche Pursuits podcast. So, if listeners want to check that out, they’re certainly more than welcome to do that.
Tom: I use Link Whisperer and I was on your podcast. For those that really want to go deeper into this concept, as someone with thousands of blog posts, it becomes an even more valuable tool to rein all that in. We’ll make sure in the show notes to link off to the podcast episode where I was on your show.
Tom: Thanks for being on the show.
Spencer: Thank you, Tom. It’s great being here. Appreciate it.
Thanks Spencer, for showing us how to make money with niche sites and for explaining some of the terminology. You can find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/136. Are you new to the Maple Money Show? If so, I want to thank you for listening. In case you weren’t aware, you can watch videos from many of our top episodes over on our YouTube channel. If you’re interested, head over to maplemoney.com/youtube. Make sure to like the video and hit the subscribe button. I’ve had some great feedback recently so I want to thank everyone that’s taken the time to email me or share their favorite episode in a tweet. It keeps me motivated to keep bringing new guests and great topics. See you back here next week.