The independent webmaster has taken a beating over the last couple of years. Risk has become harder to spread, labor costs have gone up, outreach has become more difficult and more expensive as Google's webspam team and the growing ranks of the Search Police spread the FUD far and wide.
The web is still a great place to be and still offers incredible opportunity that is largely unavailable, without much more capital intensive risk, in the offline world.
There's still plenty of success to be had in the web-based business model but like any strategy we have to refine it from time to time. I thought I'd share the core processes I go through when starting a new site.
Look for Signal, Look Past the Noise
Online marketers, celebrities, and brands pretty much power the Twittersphere and the 140 character limit invariably leads to statements full of bluster (and shallowness) like:
- Links are dead
- Forget links get social likes, +1's, RT's, and so on
- Guest posting is dead
- Infographics are dead
- SEO is dead
None of that is true but when folks try to become prognosticators they will just keep saying the same thing over and over, with some slight re-framing, until they finally get it right.
All you have to do is look at the really ridiculous statements over the years about how ranking "doesn't matter". These statements have gone back to at least 2006-ish, craziness.
Or look at the past couple years where we get "social shares are the new link" shoved down our throats despite the data that flies in the face of that statement, at least as it pertains to organic search growth.
Yet, years later both of these "industry trends" would have cost you significant amounts of revenue and search share. We don't have to debate the spam links vs non-spam links here either. No one here is advocating for you to build crappy links and you don't need to.
Establishing Your Portfolio
It's quite likely, as an independent webmaster, that you will have sites that serve different purposes. I have sites that:
- are actively being built into online brands (or trying at least :D )
- exist as pure, longer-standing SEO plays that are cash cows used to fund more sustainable long-term projects
- are built to initially live off of paid traffic, direct outreach, and/or social campaigns with organic search as a tertiary method of traffic acquisition
- exist solely to test new ideas or new products before building an actual site/brand
I also work a select type of client. One thing I found helpful was to set up a spreadsheet with some very basic information to help me keep track of things at a 10,000 foot view.
So I have a column for:
- Purpose Tag (one of the areas I described above)
- Net Monthly Revenue (multiple columns)
- Rolling 12 month Net Revenue
- Same monthly/rolling numbers for costs
From there, I do a quick chart to show what areas most of the revenue is coming from and where the investment is going. Over time, I try to make sure the online brand area (where we are getting traffic and revenue from a healthly mix of multiple sources) is outpacing the pure SEO plays in both areas and we try to shy away from making too many expensive pure SEO plays where no mid-long term "brandability" exists.
We also like to see growth in client areas as well, but only for the right kind of client. The wrong kind of client can have a really destructive effect on a small team.
Staying small, lean, and profitable are also big keys to this strategy. If you are up against it on debt and overhead you will probably be less likely to make the proper decisions for your long-term viability on the 'net.
Considerations When Starting a New Site
I think most small teams or individual publishers can probably handle 2-3 branded sites at a time (stipulating that a branded site is one where there are just about all elements of online marketing involved). The first step I take is to determine what bucket the site will go in.
A testing site is easy enough to decide on. I might have an idea for a new product so I'll just throw up a small Wordpress site, a landing page, and test it out via PPC. Part of the initial research here is to determine whether there is any existing "search" demand or if you'll be tasked with creating demand on your own.
You can certainly build an online product that will be driven, initially, mostly by offline demand if you have the right networking in place. For the most part we try to stick to stuff where there is some initial demand online as the offline networking component tends to involve, in my experience, a lot more initial work, more stakeholders, etc.
When we look at a "product" we consider the following as "stuff" we could sell:
- physical product
- digital products
Certainly a site can have any combination of those elements but generally those are the three basic types of things we'd consider selling. From there we would want to figure out:
- brand name and domain (I prefer one or two word domains here, keyword not required)
- search volume estimates and the length of the tail for each core keyword
- if conversations are taking place across the web for the broader topic or lateral topics where we can insert ourselves/product
- if our product can be a niche of an already successful, broader product offering
- does the product have a reasonable chance of success in the social media realm
- if we can make it better than what exists now
Example of a Product Idea
So one example, as I also dabble in real estate a bit, that I'll give is a CRM/PM solution for real estate investors. Most of the products out there aren't what I would consider "good". Many of the solutions are either just not very good or require some hook into a complex solution like Microsoft Dynamics CRM.
There's demand for the product on the web and there's a lot that could be done, more elegantly, with technologies that are available today to help connect all the things that go into an investment decision and investment management.
This is something I'm kicking around and it's a good example of our strategy of trying to find a successful, broad market where opportunity exists for niches to be served in a more direct, elegant manner.
We could do 2 of 3 product types here, but would likely start with just the online product itself and maybe hang training or courses off of it later.
You Need a Product
If you want to stick around online I believe you need at least 1 product and brand that can sustain the up and down nature of search cycles. You could argue that client work is your product and I'd buy that.
However, I think client work is still an area where you are more beholden to the decisions of others, in a more abrupt fashion (internal client spend decisions, taking things in-house, etc), than you are if you have your own product or service especially at the price points charged to clients.
I could also make the case that if you are selling direct to consumers you are beholden to them as well. Yet, I think the risk is better spread out over an SaaS model, subscription model, or direct product model than it is selling to either a handful of large clients or handfuls of large clients that require a large team of people and all that goes into the management of a team like that.
There still is a ton of opportunity on the web, there is no doubt about that. The practice of finding a broad market and picking a niche in there has worked out well for us in the last year or so.
In some areas we start off with no connections at all. So in areas where we are behind the 8 ball on relationships we will often hire writers from boards like ProBlogger.Net where will we specifically ask for folks who are in that industry with an existing site and active social following to write for us.
We will also ask them to promote what they write for us on their social channels and site while hooking their authorship profile into the posts they do for us. This helps us, in certain industries anyway, really grow an audience for short money and establish relationships with established, trusted people in the space.
Finding that balance between passion and monetary potential is difficult and there's often some level of tradeoff. If you use the items I listed earlier as a guide to determine how to move forward with an idea, or if moving forward even makes sense for the idea, then I think you'll be starting off in a solid position.
The last couple of years have been really turbulent but that also has created more opportunities in different areas and while it's nice to throw out the word "diversify" it's also good to take a more boots on the ground approach than a theoretical one.
The core hallmarks of a traditional SEO campaign are still largely the same but there's no reason why you can't stick around and take advantage of these opportunities, especially with all the experience you have in multiple areas of online marketing from being an independent webmaster in the golden age of SEO.
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