In 2013, I was unemployed, nearly broke and had too much free time. When I wasn’t taking care of my daughter, who was a baby at the time, I spent my mornings and evenings studying SEO and content marketing, and I accidentally started an online publishing business.
As I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, and it took a few years for my site to translate into earnings I could live off.
Now that I'm working on Become a Writer Today full-time, I've started several smaller websites in different niches to protect my income streams.
I create some content for these websites myself, but I also rely on a team of freelance writers who write articles based on specific search terms. I set a metric for how many articles I want to publish each month and page views for each website.
Building an online publishing business dependent on display advertising is a proven approach. Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed successful content publishers like Canadian Jon Dykstra, a former lawyer, now of Fat Stacks Blog.
Dykstra discovered online publishing in the early 2000s. His employer wanted him to attract more clients through blogging and content marketing. So, Dykstra began writing about legal topics that interested clients, based on their search queries. He told me:
“I loved writing about various things that we did with our law practice and just giving information to potential clients. It grew from there.”
Inspired by how content marketing helped grow the practice, Dykstra began building content websites on the side in niches like technology and health and fitness. When these niche sites began attracting website traffic and earning revenue, he found balancing a law career with an online one more challenging.
“Eventually you’re forced to choose. It’s hard to do both. I seemed to like the blogging side and the writing online more and opted to go that route,” Dykstra says.
He quit the practice, where he was a partner, in 2012 to focus on running his online publishing business full-time and hasn't looked back.
Today, Dykstra runs multiple profitable niche sites built on WordPress. He doesn’t disclose their URLs due to potential competition, but he shared Cycle Baron as an example of one of his sites. He also started several more niche and hyper-niche sites over the years. Some of these sites don’t make money yet, while others represent long-term bets. He says:
“Several of them are very small and don’t do anything. I call them my rainy day sites. I publish maybe one, two, three articles a month on them. I don’t expect them to do well, but I like to have some aged sites with some good content sitting there in case down the road I get some time and some more resources.”
1. Pick a Profitable Niche
British entrepreneur and magazine publisher Felix Dennis wrote in How to Make Money:
Gold rushes rarely happen in old mines. New or rapidly developing sectors often provide more opportunities to get rich. The reasons for this include: (1) availability of risk capital; (2) investor ignorance and greed; (3) the power of a rising tide.
The same principle applies to creating and building profitable niche websites. A niche site typically focuses on a single subject like sports, cars, food or drinks and attracts traffic through high-quality articles optimised for search. It's not a personal blog. And a hyper-niche site dives down into a topic even further.
Dykstra provided this example,
“Arguably a site that discusses automobiles is a niche site. A hyper-niche site would be something that focuses on Toyota minivans.”
Don't confuse a niche website with a personal blog or even a newsletter. It's not about you or what's going in your personal life. Instead, it focuses on a single area or niche that people want to learn more about.
Examples of popular niches include:
- Sports and fitness e.g. yoga, running
- Health e.g. organic food
- Food and drinks e.g. coffee, beer
- Personal development e.g. learning a language, habits
- Lifestyle e.g. jewellery, quilting
- Money e.g. personal finance, crypto
- Technology e.g. WordPress, gaming
- Hobbies e.g. photography, home audio
- Travel e.g. Las Vegas trips
- Outdoors e.g. paintballing
- Alternative e.g. CBD oils, marijuana
Some of these niches are more competitive and profitable than others. It's much harder to build a website reviewing WordPress themes as this niche is saturated.
Many online business owners recommend avoiding your-money-or-your life (YMAL) sites as they are much harder to rank in SERP. These cover topics about money, physical health and other areas best left to accredited experts. It's easier to rank niche sites about a hobby or interest like quilting, coffee, or organic food.
If you're knowledgeable about the niche, you can easily create content on a shoestring with your phone camera, laptop or computer. And you can easily ensure quality control when outsourcing to other writers, later on.
Typically, a website requires five to ten hours of work each week, unless you plan to go on a content creation blitz. The good news is you can run your site on the side of a day job or other ventures. It’s relatively easy to outsource many tasks, particularly content production, publishing and promotion.
2. Buy Your Domain Name
A good niche website domain name is specific to the audience and their needs. It also allows room for expanding the niche in question later on, if the website takes off. You can pick a domain name that’s:
- About a product e.g. paintballguns.com
- Specific to your audience e.g. my site https://becomeawritertoday.com
- Based on high-volume keywords e.g. bestofficechairs.com
- Brandable e.g. The Wire Cutter
As an example, I purchased a niche domain name a few years ago. After a few months, I decided this domain name was too restrictive, so I rebranded the website to a domain name that would enable me to create content about the topic as a whole. It takes a few hours to find good a dot-com domain name relevant to a niche as many are taken.
A newly registered domain name takes many months to gain rankings in search engine results pages (SERPS) unless you invest a lot of money or time in acquiring backlinks from high-quality sites.
Another more expensive approach involves buying an older domain name and rebuilding a WordPress site on it. Before handing over credit card details, investigate its backlink profile for spammy links using a tool like Ahrefs. Also, check if you can acquire the social media handles for the site in question. Whatever you decide, use the following resources for researching domain names and or acquiring expired domains:
Finding a good domain name is time-consuming, but don’t rush. It’s harder and riskier to change the domain name of an established site later on.
3. Build One Niche Website In WordPress
Once you have a domain name, start building your website on WordPress with a reliable web hosting company. Bluehost offers entry-level hosting for new niche website owners. Siteground is another good option.
Considering the potential return of a niche site, it’s tempting for an online publisher to build several niche sites in WordPress and hope for the best. Dykstra cautions against this approach unless you know what you're doing and have the money and time to back it up. He says:
“It’s very difficult to manage that many sites. Your costs go up exponentially. When you have one or two large sites, that’s very demanding, as much as you have to outsource and have a team in place.”
Start more than WordPress site and you'll have to create twice the amount of content. And that means investing more time and resources upfront, before earning a return.
Operating more than one site also presents additional technical challenges and issues. You'll have to pay for multi-site subscriptions for your WordPress plugins. Also, if WordPress plugins break on one site you’ll have to fix the same issues across multiple sites
It's less time-consuming to build up one site and then fold the profits from niche site one into niche site two, three and four. Think of your sites as like long-term investments that compound growth over time.
4. Research Relevant SEO Keywords
Dykstra looks for niche site keywords with low competitive scores and moderate to low search volume using content marketing tools like Ahrefs. This is also a strategy I employ.
This approach to keyword research has several advantages. Firstly, if you publish lots of content around these low volume keywords, you can grow search traffic quietly and monetise via display advertising. Secondly, bigger brands and authority websites take less of an interest in low-volume, uncompetitive keywords, meaning you face less competition. Thirdly, this content typically ranks for other relevant long-tail keywords over time.
To follow this approach, look for keywords with a competitive score of under 10 in in Ahrefs. They’re easier to find if you use keyword modifiers like:
- What is/are X made of
- What is the difference between X and Y
- How do you store…
- What are the ingredients for
- Why does…
Another popular approach to keyword research for a new site involves searching for commercial and competitive keywords for affiliate content. Then, publish relevant, high-quality content and building a backlink profile so that your content ranks. I’ve also tested this strategy. However, you need to invest either sweat or equity in acquiring backlinks.
To follow this approach, plug a competing site into AHREFS and analyze their top-performing content. Alternatively, use keyword modifiers like:
- XX review
- X product vs Y product
- Is X product worth it?
- Best X for Y
The Wire Cutter refined this approach to a fine art. It’s a profitable keyword strategy. However, many other affiliates and authority sites will reverse engineer your content or keyword ideas in an attempt to outrank you. As an example, I’ve published and updated a review for software I’m an affiliate for over a dozen times to take account of product updates and competitor content.
5. Invest in Content Creation
Dykstra grows his sites by publishing in-depth articles about specific topics, at scale. He relies on agencies and freelance writers to write much of this content, something that forms a significant chunk of his monthly overhead. He also hired a content strategist to manage creating content briefs for his team of writers.
He told me:
“I liken content to a widget. If you’re in manufacturing, you produce widgets. If you’re an online publisher, you produce content,” he says. “There are multiple workflows. I have a couple of in-house writers that I work with.”
Running a successful online publishing business means investing in quality content each month. More search-optimised content equals more traffic. That, in turn, translates into more revenue from display advertising.
The most successful content publishers I’ve talked to publish several hundred articles a month across several different WordPress niche websites, with the help of a team of writers, editors and assistants. These articles are:
- Informative or entertaining for the reader
- Optimised around specific search terms
- Based on what the reader expects from said content, i.e. If I'm searching for "best routers", don't explain why I need a router. Show me your list and explain how you tested each router.
- Accurate, concise and free of grammar errors
You also need to:
- Write and test quality headlines
- Include relevant imagery, statistics and figures
- Link appropriately internally and externally
- Format each article correctly, i.e. include relevant headings, avoid large blocks of text
- Evaluate what types of articles your site can rank for and then use that information to decide what to create more or less of
A virtual assistant and a content editor can take care of some of these tasks, provided they have a playbook or standard-operating procedures. If your niche site gains traction, branch out into other content creation channels. You could, for example, launch a podcast, start a YouTube channel or build a following on a newer social media network like TikTok.
6. Exercise Patience
It takes many months, if not years, of hard work before a new online publisher sees a return on a niche site project.
Ranking highly in Google search results requires a significant amount of quality articles or backlinks. Domain age and authority are important factors too. Changes to the Google search algorithm also present business risks.
“These things don’t happen in six months. The growth takes a long time unless you get very, very lucky, or you really know what you’re doing. I can’t make them happen in six months,” says Dykstra.
“You don’t want to pull the plug early, but at the same time, you don’t want to just keep throwing money at something that has absolutely no future.”
Dykstra runs a profitable online publishing business monetised via display advertising. His success isn’t unique, though.
The Wire Cutter is the most high-profile example of a successful niche site. It focused almost entirely on Amazon product reviews and the New York Times (also owned by Jeff Bezos) bought the site in 2016 for over $30 million. The New York Times combines affiliate product offers with a paywall and some advertising.
Although it can take a while to earn a significant amount of money from display advertising, subsequent niche sites won't take as long to rank. Effectively, you’re capitalizing on a shortened learning curve and increased financial resources to invest in commissioning content.
7. Apply for a Display Advertising Network
Once a niche website generates traffic, you can apply for display advertising using Google AdSense or another ad network like MediaVine, Ezoic or AdThrive.
Anyone can apply for Google AdSense. However, Mediavine, Ezoic and AdThrive all only accept sites at a certain traffic level, ranging from 30,000-100,000 page views per month depending on the network.
Typically, these ad networks pay revenue per 1000 visitors (RPM). Rates range anywhere from $.05-50 depending on the niche, quality of content and the traffic source. Usually, a quality site should generate an RPM of between $10 and $20.
So, if your specific niche site attracts tens of thousands of monthly page views, income from display advertising scales towards four and even five figures. That income excludes potential revenue from other proven sources like affiliate marketing, dropshipping and selling digital products.
8. Promote Relevant Affiliate Products
Many bloggers and authority site owners review and recommend products, services and courses to their audience. The Amazon Associates Network is the biggest and most easily accessible affiliate network for site operators.
You can easily buy several relevant products, review them and promote informational content. However, Amazon affiliate program consistently cuts its affiliate product commission rates, meaning website operators are earning less money from this revenue stream.
It’s a good idea to negotiate affiliate product deals directly with small companies and brands. Typically, you can lock in a better commission rate. Alternatively, join an affiliate network like Shareasale or Impact Radius and search for affiliate programs relevant to your specific niche. Then, promote these products by:
- Writing high-quality product reviews
- Publishing quality content about specific topics related to these products
- Writing and recording product tutorials
- Offering discounts and bonuses from affiliate programs
- Creating email funnels with additional offers for readers and subscribers
- Setting up exit-intent offers that capture the attention of readers about to leave your specific site
Some owners also promote relevant e-commerce offers or even come up with products of their own once they’ve an audience and sizeable traffic.
Niche Site Monetization Methods: Pros and Cons
Affiliate marketing is the most popular method of monetizing niche websites, thanks to the popularity of the Amazon affiliate program. However, this program doesn’t pay that well compared to affiliate networks, and you can be kicked out without much explanation.
Display advertising is it offers a relatively steady income stream compared to course launches or affiliate marketing. Even if several articles drop in SERP results, your site can continue to make money. That’s less likely for a content publisher solely dependent on affiliate income, as a competitor may outrank them for a commercial keyword.
However, a niche site owner dependent on display advertising is effectively selling eyeballs to an ad network. The network takes over a part of a site and serves up ads to readers in the sidebar, in-content and even as pop-ups and videos.
This monetization involves ceding control of some parts of a site to an ad network. If you want to build a personal brand, serving ads can reduce your ability to grow your email list. Some ads are arguably intrusive too. Although you can turn off or adjust the frequency of these ads, this will decrease your monthly RPM.
Many authority website owners shun display advertising as a way to make money. Having tested both affiliate offers and display advertising as monetization methods, I find this surprising. Advertising is usually more stable and less competitive than high-ticket affiliate offers.
It’s not quite passive income, but it’s less time-consuming than creating competitive affiliate content. You don’t have to update said content as often. You can also avoid investing significant money or time in outreach or building backlinks.
If you’ve a big audience, you can also create digital courses and products and sell them directly to your audience.
The Earning Potential of a Niche Website
One of Dykstra's sites earned six figures a month in display advertising in April 2021. Several newer sites in his portfolio earned between four and five figures in the same month.
A high-profile example is The Wire Cutter, which the New York Times bought for over $30 million in 2016.
You don't have to stick with a niche site for life either. Niche websites sell for a x32 or more multiple of their monthly profits. The beauty of this business model is the liquidity of quality content websites.
Any content or affiliate site is vulnerable to traffic fluctuations when Google adjusts their search algorithm. If you go after competitive or commercial keywords, competitors may outrank your most profitable pages if they have better domain authority or you don't update them regularly.
Finally, you can build up a niche content website to a certain level in terms of traffic and revenue and then flip it for a profitable multiple.
Building an online publishing business is a long-term monetisation strategy. It takes a year or longer for most websites to rank and earn a return for your online business. Even then it takes longer to earn a significant amount of income from display advertising.
It’s not passive income, but a profitable niche site can pay off handsomely both in terms of monthly earnings from display advertising and affiliate commissions. You can also flip a content website for a multiple, a strategy we’ll cover next.
How to Build a Niche Site Tips
- If you want to build a niche site and can't find high-quality competitors, that's a sign the niche is unviable.
- Dykstra recommends publishing lots of articles targeted at uncompetitive keywords. You’re less likely to be outranked by the competition and traffic from these articles adds up and contributes to a stable RPM.
- Ahrefs or SEMRush as your SEO keyword research tools
- Surfer or Clearscope for creating content briefs for writers
- Fat Stacks Blog, Jon’s newsletter for website publishers
- Google AdSense, the entry-level ad network
- Ezoic, an ad network for new and established websites
- Mediavine, an ad network for websites with traffic levels of over 50,000
- AdThrive, an ad network for websites with traffic levels over 100,000 (what Jon and I use)
Are niche sites still profitable?
Niche sites are more profitable than ever thanks to affiliate offers and display advertising. You can also sell a site for an x30 multiple of monthly profits. Finding a profitable niche is hard work, but it can pay off.
How do you find a niche?
Pick a niche that’s relevant to your interests and which has commercial intent. That way, you’ll enjoy the content creation process and your content will meet the needs of would-be shoppers and buyers. It’s also a good idea to spend several hours researching high-quality, relevant keywords and competitors before you launch a site.
What are the best strategies for building a niche website?
Some popular strategies include rebuilding a site on an expired domain name, creating and publishing high-quality content with little competition, and investing in link building. All of this is with the goal of monetizing via Google AdSense, affiliate marketing, e-commerce promotions and other offers.