Welcome to the first of a three-part series I’ll be doing this week reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work last year. Rather than doing one incredibly long post I decided to split this into three posts, the first focusing on Domain Development, the next on Domain Sales, and the last one on running a Domain Investing Business. 2011 was a record-breaking year from me across the board but that certainly doesn’t mean that everything I did worked, plenty of things failed and that’s what I learned the most from.
Now is the perfect time for all of you to review 2011 even if it was a stellar success, and try to look for ways to optimize your business in 2012. Since a majority of my income comes from my developed domains I thought this would be a great place to start. I ran lots of tests last year to take an already working strategy and make it even better. I am happy to say that I ended 2011 with a revenue growth of 120% y/y which exceeded my goals by 20%! Still, I want to double again in 2012 so this means taking a deeper dive into what I did last year, what worked and what didn’t so I can maximize where I put my energy in 2012. So here we go – let’s start with what worked!
Domain Development – What Worked In 2011
- Longtail Domains With The Year In The Domain Name. We did some interesting tests focusing on ranking well for domains with the year in the domain name itself. This test was spurred by a successful site in 2010 that gave me the idea to expand on. This does involve researching the niche you want to enter and determine if people do indeed search for the term with the year either before or after the keywords. One of the sites we built in November ended December with over $330 in revenue on top of over $100 in its first month. All of the domains we developed and tested here were hand-registered .COM’s.
- Tax-Related .US Domains. This has been a big part of our business since 2008 and not much has changed to be completely honest with you. I found something that works and I’ve been sticking with it. What I discovered in 2008 is that .US domains in the tax niche did quite well for me. Targeting lower-volume search terms (typically less than 5,000 exact-match searches) has kept the spaces less competitive and easier to rank in. If you think you can’t outrank a .gov site, think again, you absolutely can! As for the zen and art of .US I’ll have to save this for another post.
- Using WordPress For The First Phase Of Development. 2011 was the first year where we used WordPress as our initial launch platform. While most of our sites were migrated to our own HTML/CSS creations many of them started as WordPress sites. This really streamlined the business and made it much quicker and easier to get going. I still don’t think WordPress is a great mass development tool but it is a good way to get a domain up with some content and ads while allowing for some nice SEO tweaks and interactive features.
- TextBroker. I knew that Elliot had been using TextBroker for a while and he always spoke very highly of it. I had the chance to grab lunch with Elliot in NYC and asked him about it in-person and started using it the very next week. Since 2009 I’ve been using my own team of content writers which has been great but also challenging to manage and maintain quality. So far my experience with TextBroker has been fantastic with lightning-fast delivery times and just the quality level I need to get a site started. This isn’t where you’re going to find your next great passionate writer, but it’s perfect to get a site off the ground without spending too much.
- Facebook Fan Pages. This was one of the biggest contributors to the increased traffic we saw in 2011. Four of our top brands ended 2011 with over 1,000 Facebook Fans. In all cases we’ve found these fans are very interactive and provide nice targeted traffic to our sites. This has also been great for negotiating direct advertising deals as it shows the following that your brand has.
- Building Less Sites. My team built-out fewer properties in 2011 than in 2010, and were doing it again in 2012. Last year we averaged five sites/month and in 2012 we’ll be bringing it down to four sites/month. This is a pretty big cut down from ten sites/month previously. By building less sites we’ve been able to put more focus (and me more capital) into each.
- Leveraging WordPress Plugins. This ties-into my earlier comment about using WordPress in the first phase of development but still stands on its own. WordPress has a very rich plugin library and this has allowed us to add some pretty slick interactive features quickly and easily. We are also using plugins to tweak SEO, evaluate our content, and secure WordPress installations. I still think we’re only scratching the surface here so there’s lots of room for growth in 2012!
- Inbound Direct Ad Deals. This year I saw a very nice increase in the number of interested advertisers across a number of sites. I consider this similar to getting an offer for a domain name. When someone is contacting you then you have a lot more negotiating power. Most of the ad deals we closed in 2011 were inbound usually from the “Advertise” or “Contact” page on the site. If you build a strong brand that becomes well-known in a niche these deals absolutely will start coming-in and it’s a great sign that you’re on the right track!
- Fewer, higher-quality backlinks. We’ve been able to outrank people with 5x the number of backlinks as us with a handful of high-quality backlinks. By using tools like OpenSiteExplorer from SEOMoz allowed us to look at niches where dominant players may only have a few strong links. Remember, like most things in life, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.
- Coupon Sites. We made our first entry into the coupon space and will definitely be doing more in it this year, there is definitely a lot of opportunity in this niche.
Domain Development – What Didn’t Work In 2011
- Article Directory Backlinks. Many of the popular article directories got killed by Panda so these links became less valuable in many cases. Article Directories has always been a part of our backlink strategy so we had to change the balance. This doesn’t mean we don’t use article directories any more but we use only a select few and only in specific niches. The SEO world is constantly changing so it’s important to identify things that are working and things that aren’t so you can put your focus in the right place.
- Managing Five Independent Content Writers. Last year it became very challenging to manage so many content writers. One of my writers disappeared off the face of the planet for a couple of weeks in the middle of a project and another found they didn’t have the time to do it any more. Losing a writer (or two) means having to find new writers and adding more to my existing writers plates while I’m doing it. TextBroker really came to the rescue this year and has made this much more efficient.
- Commission Junction Affiliate Offers. I found that CJ performed the worst last year and created the least amount of value per visitor. I still can’t say that I’ve found one killer affiliate program that has knocked my socks off yet. I’ll be at Affiliate Summit next week and look forward to finding some better affiliate programs for 2012.
- Auto-Blogging. We did some tests with auto-blogging last year to see how a site with an auto-blogger installed fared against our standard build. It only took a couple of months to see that auto-blogging was not a comparable solution.
- Travel Sites. In general the travel niche has become very hard to rank well in thanks to Google Local and Google’s focus on brands combined. Most CityName + Hotel or CityName + Restaurant searches are completely dominated by Google local making it very hard to get a meaningful place on page one. With the exception of Civilized Travel, or travel blog that did kick some serious butt last year, all other travel sites were duds so we probably won’t be exploring this space much more in 2012. I’m not saying here that it’s impossible to make money in the travel space, but I am saying that you really have to build a full-scale brand to do it.
- Link Exchanges. I’ve known for a long time that one-way links are where it’s at but never has that been more true than now. We found almost no impact from two-way link exchanges we did last year. Our focus was one-way links but we still did some two-way links but after seeing little to no impact from these we’re going to completely focus on one-way links. Link exchanges are a great way to tell another site you like them and vice-versa, just don’t expect to get much link juice from it.
- Forum Profile Links. These used to work wonders but not any more so we’ve taken this out of our standard backlinks strategy. These links won’t hurt you but they sure don’t give as much juice as they used to.
- Directories. Last but certainly not least is directories. We launched a number of directory sites last year but were only able to make one successful. Making money with a directory site may sound easy, you get a bunch of companies listed in your directory, assume that 5%-10% will pay for listings, and bam, you’re in business. Not true at all, making money with a directory site is hard work. Getting the listings is only a small part of the battle, you really need to show value and that’s hard to do until you’re getting significant traffic. Companies pay to be in directories if they think they’ll have a good conversion rate, if you’re only getting a few hundred visitors/month it’s not likely you’ll provide much value. Like I said we did get one working but it took a lot more work than I expected and I definitely don’t have an easy, replicable model to run with yet.
Of course there are even more things that worked and didn’t work but this is a good high-level summary. Please feel free to share what worked and what didn’t work for you in your domain development adventures last year in the comment section below.
(Photo Credit: Frans Persoon on Flickr)