My previous life as a programmer/entrepreneur - Part 6: The shadier the SEO, the bigger the profit
This is part 6 of a series of articles. If you missed the previous articles, you should start at the beginning.
At this point, I had a pure gold SEO tactic. I used this to make some quick cash and promote various side projects that I eventually sold off. That was all well and good, but I thought it was time to try a slightly more bold moneymaking approach.
How do you know where the money is online? One easy way is to look at the ads you see. For example (and this might be a little behind the curve), weight loss products are very lucrative, like those acai berry scam ads. Companies are willing to pay you a lot of money if you can refer customers to them who will buy acai berry crap.
Back in early 2006, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of money in student loan consolidation services. I figured, if I can use my SEO skills to promote my own legitimate websites, why can't I do the same thing for a spammy site designed to attract people interested in student loan consolidations and funnel them to a company that offers that service?
So, based on this very arbitrary market selection, I bought consolidatestudentloansnow.org, added some general content, put up some Google AdSense ads, and started SEOing the fuck out of it. I put a link in the default template of every copy of Aardvark Topsites PHP, which created thousands of backlinks.
Soon, I had a little organic traffic. My site started to rank well when people typed "student loan consolidation" into Google. But I wasn't making very much money. It was some combination of my website being an ineffective funnel, and Google acting as a middleman through AdSense and keeping much of the ad revenue.
Then, in March 2006, I got an email from NextStudent, a student loan consolidation company. They had noticed my rankings in Google and wanted to advertise on my website. They even went as far as to offer to build me a whole new website to more effectively drive traffic to them. The deal was basically for $15 for every person I could get to fill out a form expressing interest in student loan consolidation, which was a lot more money than I was making previously.
Soon enough, I was making a several hundred dollars per month off of this arrangement, completely passively. NextStudent suggested some other Google keywords to target in addition to my original "student loan consolidation", "consolidate student loans" and "private student loans". This lead to even more traffic and even more profit. I was steadily making a couple thousand dollars per month from just this website. This was really the first time that I was making a serious amount of money from my web ventures.
My SEO on those target Google keywords actually worked too well, at least as far as NextStudent was concerned. Eventually I reached #1 for all those keywords, outranking NextStudent's own website, which they weren't too thrilled about. Their management (i.e. not the technical guys) wanted me to somehow drop my site in Google's rankings to right behind theirs. Of course, it's impossible to precisely do something like that because Google controls how things are ranked and their algorithms are largely proprietary. And if I did anything to lower my rankings, that would just lower my ad revenue and lower the total value of my website, so that would be an incredibly risky thing for me to attempt.
After some negotiations, we mutually decided that they should just buy my website from me. Then they could control its rankings in the search engines as best possible without having to argue with me about strategic decisions. I was actually quite happy with this outcome, as I knew my SEO tactic was not going to work forever. After all, Google employs people specifically to figure out the tricks that people use to try to game their rankings. And if they saw what I was doing, they could have easily killed all my traffic from Google, which represented almost all of my traffic in total. I expected this to happen very quickly. Little did I know that it would take quite some time for Google to kill my goose that was laying golden eggs, but that's for the next part of my story.
So I ended up signing a deal in February 2007 to sell consolidatestudentloansnow.org to NextStudent for $42,000, the equivalent of about two years of ad revenue if my traffic held constant, and of course I expected that my traffic was going to fall pretty soon. It seemed like a great deal to me.
What made the deal even better was that, once I no longer owned consolidatestudentloansnow.org, I figured I could probably focus my SEO efforts elsewhere and probably find another similarly lucrative source of revenue. In the following (and concluding) article in this series, I'll tell you how that went.