Posted in Case Studies By Sam Applegate
Look what I spotted the other day, high up on my shelf. Stuck between Borat and Hancock - an old backup DVD of my affiliate marketing websites from 2007.
I thought sharing some of these ancient websites on here might make for a good post.
But I then remembered that these sites weren't great, and my techniques were extremely spammy and exploitative. So before going any further, I'd just like to say that we all do stupid things when we're young, right? Whether it's going over the speed limit, having unprotected sex, or drinking a £1.99 bottle of wine. So let me apologise in advance for what you're about to witness. I was young and foolish.
2007 - Direct to Merchant PPC
My Internet marketing hobby started in 2007. I call it a hobby because I was still working full time as an Engineer. I started reading about affiliate marketing and PPC advertising and came up with a plan.
Any successful affiliate will tell you, the festive period is the time to make money. Internet shopping records continue to be broken every single year as more and more people do their Christmas shopping online. The great thing about Christmas, is that you can be promoting one specific item, but when the user arrives at the merchant (assuming the merchant is any good), they tend to do a load of their Christmas shopping all in one go. So you make great commission on their whole shopping cart.
My plan was simple. Build a huge Adwords PPC campaign involving every single Amazon or Firebox product I could find, insert my affiliate tracking code in the destination url on my ads, and send them straight to the merchant. It would then be a case of closely monitoring my 2000 odd keywords to see which products were selling best. I'd obviously keep the profitable keywords and pause (or reduce the bid) of the unprofitable keywords. This was a disgusting way to be an affiliate, I was adding no value to the user at all, but it worked and nobody seemed to complain, so I did it.
You can see I had one Test ad group which held around 2000 keywords for a range of products. Each keyword was set to have a unique destination url which held the affiliate tracking code.
If a keyword was performing well in the Test ad group, I would create a dedicated ad group for it. This would allow me to optimise the keyword further, with focused adverts and exact matching keywords.
It all worked out nicely. I didn't make millions (after deducting my PPC costs), but it was a healthy profit nevertheless.
Obviously it was only a matter of time before this short-term project came to an end. I was after all, technically breaking the Adwords terms and conditions. Only one advert was allowed per site, and my redirects meant the merchant had two adverts appearing, as they were often bidding on the keywords themselves. One by-the-book affiliate actually made a post, complaining about me.
I don't suppose the merchant minded, since I effectively doubled their PPC CTR and made £32,106.85 worth of sales for them in that month. They very conveniently only contacted me after the Christmas rush, asking nicely for me to stop the campaigns. Google never contacted me once. I'm still not sure if what I did was wrong or just opportunistic? There's no doubt that in the long term it could reflect bad on the merchant, but one little Christmas super month doesn't do any harm. :-)
2008 - Mini Price Comparison Sites
As I was asked to pause my direct-to-merchant campaigns, I now needed a new strategy. Google was just starting to introduce the quality score concept, so it was time to build a landing page. Cue the rise of the price comparison mini site.
These were certainly a huge step up from direct-to-merchant PPC. They added value to the user experience by providing a list of buying options, together with some reviews and photos. Google was OK with these in 2008, and they actually resulted in a higher conversion rate than direct-to-merchant, as the user was better informed to buy.
The disadvantage from an affiliate's point of view was that they took about 3 days to setup. I obviously couldn't use a scatter-gun approach like before, so had to research and hand pick my products carefully.
A quick digression - I found this process of choosing products fascinating. As sometimes I would decide to promote what seemed like the perfect item, only to find poor conversions and no profit (which got kind of frustrating after spending a couple of days setting it all up). Despite the product appearing in top 10 best seller lists, having a good keyword for bidding on and relatively low competition, it was baffling. I later honed my skills in this area and realised you really have to think about the target market. For example I had a site which promoted one of the Call of Duty games. This is a hardcore gamer's product. Most hardcore gamers are internet savvy, and will just order directly from Amazon, or wherever. They won't mess about with searching for this item in Google. The Sims on the other hand - is much more of a casual gamer's product. This site had a great conversion rate. So remember to really think about the target market when considering which product to promote.
I setup dozens of these mini price comparison sites over Christmas 2008, promoted again with Adwords, plus a bit of organic SEO (using exact match domains). I did pretty well.
2009 - Large Review Sites
It wasn't long before Google evolved and raised standards yet again. Mini price comparison sites were getting slapped around, affiliates needed to add yet more value to the user. For the first time affiliates were forced into providing useful content or risk being punished.
Of course I accepted the challenge, and built a larger, more useful review site, containing multiple products and plenty of original content.
This site, along with several others worked well. I was regularly updating them with original articles, and trying to provide as much value to the user as possible. But just before Christmas 2009 I got the dreaded email.
So over the course of 3 years, Google evolved to win the war on PPC spam. They successfully made a sequence of updates to slowly destroy the thousands of poor quality websites out there. It was an exciting time to be involved with affiliate marketing, constantly adjusting to the demands of Google. I learnt a lot in this period and today I can confidently say that PPC advertising is not as easy as it used to be.
The bottom line in 2012 is of course quality content. Forget all these junk affiliate marketing strategies I just shared with you, they no longer work. Today you do stuff for users, not Google. Do this and the rest should fall into place without too much effort.
It's exciting to look forward and try to predict what the future holds. I actually think Google PPC is becoming less important as there are now so many ways to get traffic to your site using social media, and plenty more opportunities will appear on the horizon. The trick now, is to be the first to react and spot an opening.
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