The affiliate marketing industry can be cut throat since the primary objective of affiliates is to make money whether that means copying your websites, ads, SEO tactics or other.
It’s simply becomes a ‘dog eat dog’ world where too many self-proclaimed gurus will sell you rehashed information with nothing but empty promises. We are glad to have Ian Mason featured this time to shed some light on how he’s been able to grow a profitable portfolio of over 50 websites that not only has survived Google’s algorithmic updates but also has surpassed over $3.1 million in affiliate commissions. He shares with us his best kept secrets on SEO, productivity, and how he plans to diversify into software and mobile.
How did you get started with websites and affiliate marketing?
I got started back in 2003 when I was a junior in high school; designing and sometimes building websites for clients. Most of those “clients” were web design firms that said my work was great, used it, and then never paid me. I did have a couple real long term jobs that paid a decent rate and it was nice to work with professionals who treated me respectfully as well. But I every now and then, I would come across clues that I wasn’t even scratching the surface of making money online.
By 2004, it was senior year and I had art for two hours in the morning, so I basically stayed in the computer room working. I had been learning more and more about how to make money online, and was trying so many things. I still remember it clearly; setting up a crappy website on Homestead using their site builder, and basically my idea of doing a “test” to see if something would work involved a white background littered with some banner ads from Commission Junction affiliate programs. Hahahah! Don’t laugh. We were all noobs once! ;)
You mention you had a few long term jobs. Do you think it helped you in anyway?
After that string of self-proclaimed “web design agencies” giving me no money, just compliments on my work, I managed to get a job with a real web design firm. The owner was a nice guy who understood a designer’s perspective and never gave me a hard time. He also paid on time, and to be honest, it was fun working for him. I was in high school, getting paid as a web designer. Good money for me back then. I still had more time available to work, so eventually I also began working for a currency trading brokerage as their web designer and web marketing consultant. I still have fond memories of my boss. He made me cry in front of my friends once because of a typo on the website. He would also call me saying he needed me in the online conference room IMMEDIATELY, and then start sketching pictures of dicks on the screen while telling me crazy stories. That guy was kinda crazy and hilarious and we are still friends to this day.
After trying a lot of different strategies, you hit the jackpot. Tell us about that!
I started advertising using Google Adwords PPC ads, and I lost a couple hundred bucks my first month, which meant a lot to me since back then I had about $2k in my checking account from the work I had been doing. Even though that felt bad, I kept working at it. Eventually, among many things I was testing, I started to see a couple things sell quite well, with a great profit margin after my ad expenses. I upped my bids more and more to get more traffic, and by April 2004, I had my first $2,200 day ever. It wasn’t a long build up to that, by the way but it was inconsistent. I’d make a few hundred a day, then I put in some hours scaling my campaigns a bit, and suddenly after I was at the pool all day, I came home to see over $2,200 revenue after I had spent less than $200 on my Adwords ads. Then, I got “slapped” for some reason or another, even back in 2004! …and it was only after having that successful campaign for a few weeks! It sucked… I didn’t know what to do so I got to work building my first big site, covering all topics related to the products I had been selling. About 6 months later, I was doing alright again. I thought I was in heaven making $10k-$20k/month at that point. Hahaha I still hadn’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible online. I do way more now, but you know what? I’ve only scratched the surface a tiny bit still. The rabbit hole goes a long way down. It’s all about putting in the time and mental effort when other people just wanna stay in their comfy bubble or procrastinate, etc.
Nothing lasts forever it seems when it comes to affiliate marketing. Why did you get penalized?
My campaigns were slapped. Slapped is a term marketers coined to refer to when Google kills your site or campaign. I don’t remember why, but back then I didn’t really know much. I created a new account under my friend’s mom’s name using her credit card and paid her 10% of my profit earned. She was soooooo thrilled to get those checks from me hahaha! Magic checks! While I was running that new account, I started working on my first big website, a weight loss community which sold weight loss supplements as an affiliate using product reviews. It was different from other sites though, because it was a real community with thousands of members, and I actively participated in it. So I didn’t just try to sell useless things – I joined affiliate programs for products I believed in, and I saw the results in the community with people posting success stories, not only from using the products, but also some who used nothing but the support of their friends in the community to help them lose weight. Respectable people.. It’s a tough journey.
Why sell your online community when you could of kept growing it?
I was tired of it eventually, but to be honest, I sold when I did because I needed to pay a tax bill. I spent what would have been some of my income tax money on trying new business ideas which failed. I was left without enough to pay the IRS, so I sold. Thankfully I was working with a good broker.
Most of your success now comes from a portfolio of websites getting traffic through SEO. How easy was it to make that transition?
I MUCH prefer SEO. I know of some successful PPC guys or other paid traffic guys who HATE doing SEO and never really could make it work. I guess I’m just in the minority then because I’m the opposite. My success in PPC basically ended back around 2004. I still do it but it accounts for just a tiny % of my profit, as the margin is very small. For me, SEO is where it’s at for sure. SEO was a whole new ball game, but if anything translated over to help me create success in SEO, I guess it was the concept of keyword targeting. So I’ve always used lots of content on my sites, each page targeted to a specific keyword phrase, such as “how to ______” or “______ side effects” or “where can I buy _____” and hundreds more.
How many sites are now in your portfolio?
I just checked my SEHabitat account and I am managing 53 websites and 324 backlink deals. This year was the first year I really trained a team to do everything including link building, and eliminated myself as the bottleneck in my business. I thought the bottleneck was money or Google. Nope it was me!!! Once I was out of the equation as a limiting factor, my earnings grew so fast. It’s been a very exciting year and I’m looking forward to 2014. With that said, don’t feel bad if one of your first sites remains your biggest earner. All of my other sites are still catching up with one of my early big sites from 2008. But that’s the point- they’re catching up. Take what works for you and replicate that success over and over again. It decreases your risk since your income is spread across so many sites as well. I know no site will last forever, no matter how big it is or how high the content quality is. Google can stomp you in a heartbeat. So my strategy is to always be making new sites. If one dies, I just switch its backlinks to point to one of my new sites instead.
The term ‘blackhat’ and ‘whitehat’ are thrown around a lot. What are your thoughts on that?
I used to be whitehat. Back when I had that diet community site, I believed all the Google propaganda. But you can only get killed in so many updates before you realize it’s time to just do whatever works the fastest. You’d think I must be blackhat then, if I’m talking that way. But I don’t think of it that way. When I think blackhat, I think of extremely low quality hacked parasite pages with broken English and a big buy-now button on big sites, with thousands of spam links pointing to them, ranking for prescription drug related searches. I guess I’m kinda grey hat because I build quality sites like a white hat would, but I know that it takes MUCH more than that to succeed; so I build quality links aggressively, and if I have one site succeeding, I simply make more similar sites and scale up my earnings.
Even though you’re clearing six figures a month, you still think you’re still scratching the surface. Why is that?
I felt that way because I am a constant learner. I love learning about anything cutting edge. While other people are watching Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, I’m learning something new or making something with my skills, because that’s very fun for me! So, as a result, I’m always coming across new ways of seeing something. New perspectives. New ideas and new ways of tackling problems. New niches, new ways of entering those niches. New ways of making money. New realizations of the potential that is out there. Personally, my future is in games. Not just mobile but also PC/Mac via Steam. I’m still working on my first small mobile game. In affiliate marketing, I’ve heard of guys making a few mil a year from their software products or paid memberships. I’ve heard of guys making $500k/month being at the top of some competitive niches. What I have NOT heard of is anyone clearing $50,000/day without turning out to be complete scammers who later get jailed by the Federal Trade Commission for doing horrible things to customers. Meanwhile in gaming, the top grossing apps in the iTunes app store make an average of $50,000 per day. Expectations are managed just fine. Users play a game. They want to progress faster. They buy lots of in-game currency, which they use to purchase items/powerups/weapons/new levels or whatever. They get what they paid for and they are happy.
Let’s talk strategy. Tell us your best tips for creating an affiliate marketing empire.
In regards to SEO, I have three for you. 1) Don’t buy stupid link spam packages from blackhat forums. 2) Don’t listen to anything Google tells you about what you should do to rank well. Do what works for you, and do it big. 3) Don’t be lazy – create high quality sites and content that converts well. Don’t make Google look stupid when you have several sites ranking in the top 10. Create a ton of pages focused on different longtail keyword phrases.
Just to be clear, longtail means a long, specific search phrase you might type in Google like “how can I do ____ with product name?” rather than short-tail which is just “product name”. Stay current on what everyone else seems to be doing, and what is being sold to all the noobs in the big marketplaces and forums. Then analyze your top competitors backlinks and you’ll probably notice they don’t use any of that stuff. Work to replicate and improve upon your competitors’ backlink profiles by getting links from the same sites they get links from. The best way to rank is to put in more effort in linkbuilding than other people do. Analyzing your competitors’ backlinks will sometimes show you new, unique sources of backlinks that you’ll never hear about. I even recently found one that shocked me, and I got my first big link from it yesterday at no cost. But I can’t tell any more about it here – that kind of thing needs to be kept private among a small group of people, so I can only share that with my mastermind group. ;)
Once you find something that works for you, stay very focused on growing/scaling that up. There are so many ways to make money online and in affiliate marketing. People will say “hey bro I know this guy earning $50k/day doing _____” and you’ll feel like dropping your current projects to pursue that. But in my experience it almost always turns out to be scams you would never want to be involved with. I don’t want to make a million in a month if it means stealing money from grandmothers. No thanks.
Anyway, my point is… Stay focused and consistent. Once I stopped letting myself be distracted by what all these other people were doing and talking about, I achieved intense focus on scaling what had worked for me since day one. You may wonder what exactly has worked for me since day one. I’ll tell you: I build websites with informative content to help people solve problems in a niche. I add product reviews which sell products I’m an affiliate for, if I believe in the product and the company stands behind it. With that said, since I have so much time on my hands, I have decided I want to start teaching people how to build a business like mine. My experience teaching friends and a couple of random consulting clients so far has been so fun and rewarding.
Besides taking action did you have any mentors that helped you along the way?
I’m going to be honest with you: I bought several online marketing courses over course of my noob days. They mostly taught me the world of guys like Frank Kern, Ryan Deiss, etc… a world where it’s mostly people learning how to create information products full of rehashed content that teaches you how to sell it to other people who are doing the same thing. It’s a weird world. I never did anything like that at all, but I think those courses did teach me more about things like email marketing, sales pages, conversion optimization, and more… But with that said, I don’t even do email marketing… I guess for now I’ll file it under the “good to know some about it” category. With all this said, I just bought a course to help me learn techniques and strategies to market my upcoming iOS game. :)
It seems you’ve had a lot of successes but what about your failures?
Over the years leading up to 2010, I also was lead around into many bad places by people who said “oh I know this guy doing $5mil/month doing blah blah, and after I had spent time and even sometimes money ($5k, $15k even) to try to get in on those things, I discovered those people only made that money by completely scamming customers; even just charging their cards for no reason for small amounts, thinking they won’t notice… Is that disgusting or what? So, I wasted a lot of time and money chasing what I thought was the big money. Eventually I realized I was being so stupid, and what I needed to do was ignore everything else except what has worked for me personally so far, as long as I knew it was scalable. So, since 2010 I started focusing only on scaling my portfolio of revenue generating websites using SEO. That’s why my life is different now. I’m way more confident in myself and my business choices; less stressed, much happier, and definitely wealthier than I was when I was chasing so many opportunities blindly.
You mentioned getting in the mobile apps business. Tell us about your work in progress…
Funny you ask, since I just told everyone to stay focused and be consistent; yet I’m branching off with a game app on iOS. Here’s the thing – I’ve got several creative outlets that I dream of putting to work. I’m a songwriter and play all the instruments in my songs/recordings, so I can make game music (FUN!). I enjoy art direction and working with my artist. I love creating sound effects for my game. Overall, I simply enjoy creating a great game experience, as it really allows me to do all the things I love doing, and I can potentially make players happy when they enjoy playing my game. So it’s win-win. With all that said, there’s still a business element to this. My game will be free to download and is monetized with in-app purchases like coin packs, powerups, character upgrades and more of the usual stuff you see in free to play games. It’s a proven formula. Nothing new. But it’s still very fun because the angle and game art/music are unique and high quality. Just in case you’re wondering: I hired a game design document writer to work with me to come up with a long, detailed game design document (commonly referred to as GDD). THEN I found my artist and had her make most of the art. THEN, finally, I hired a developer. I did it in this order because having my GDD and game art 99% finished before starting development has saved a lot of time and money. I wanted the developer to have an easy time building the game. So far I’m very happy with the results, and we’re about 1.5-2 months away from starting alpha testing.
You also are in the software as a service business with SEHabitat. Tell us about that too…
SEHabitat is the SEO software toolset my team and I use to track and grow my portfolio of moneymaking websites (haha “moneymaking websites” sounds so cheesy but that’s the simplest way to refer to them). It started out simple and has grown from there to automate rank tracking, reporting, link management, accounting and more. Earlier this year I added the ability to have staff/sub-accounts. These days I have a great VA (virtual assistant) who does outreach for linkbuilding, negotiates link deals with webmasters, adds them into SEHabitat to automatically keep track of recurring link costs and more. SEH also alerts us if the link is modified, changed to nofollow, is deleted, etc… so it saves me a lot of stress/mental energy and time I would have spent keeping track of that stuff manually. As SEHabitat evolves and improves, my business becomes more and more hands off, giving me time to have fun on new projects. By the time this story is published on Secret Entourage, I will be accepting a few “founding customers” into SEHabitat so I can keep in close contact and ensure they’re getting what they need from the software. If you’re reading this now and want to give SEHabitat a try, there’s a link at the bottom to try it for free for 14 days. I’ll email you personally to help you make the most of the tools.
With all your eggs in many different baskets, how do you plan to maintain and grow your SEO empire?
I’m definitely going to continue growing my little empire of websites. :) This year was a big leap forward, but I feel I’m just getting started in a way. This was the year I decided to look at my business as a system and find ways to automate or semi-automate as much of it as possible. As I said earlier and as you’ll read in Tim Ferriss’ book The 4 Hour Work Week, one of the best opportunities to grow your business lies in eliminating yourself as a bottleneck. Doing everything yourself is just a form of mental laziness and procrastination, in my opinion. Another benefit of eliminating yourself as a bottleneck is that you finally make it a business, rather than a job. My sites used to be a full time job. Now they stand together as a system; a business which, if I want to, I could easily sell to an investor who wants to buy a smooth-running moneymaking machine, not a new day job. But for now, I’m going to keep growing it. I only have a few team members, and I am preparing to have them train their own assistants to increase production.
You mention taking others under your wing and teaching them the ways of successful online marketing. Tell us your goal for that.
As you know, after I passed the $100k/month milestone earlier this year, I set a challenge for myself: I want to become a teacher. I’m going to teach students how to make more money online using my strategies; but there’s a catch – I must create a training program so good that by December 2014, I make more money from teaching than I do from my portfolio of websites. I figure if I really try to help people and I get my marketing right, I can do another $100k+ per month by selling online training products, live mastermind events, accounts on my upcoming SAAS (software as a service) SEHabitat, and possibly 1-on-1 monthly consulting. I was inspired by a great teacher of stock trading, Tim Sykes, to set the goal of guiding at least one student to become a millionaire using my teaching. I know I can do it – I’ve done it for myself. I’m starting by building a list and getting to know my subscribers. If you are interested in becoming my student and learning how to build moneymaking websites, please answer these 3 easy questions in this simple survey I set up. Once you complete this short survey, I have a couple cool surprises to give you a jump-start in this business, plus you’ll get to know me well enough to make up your mind about whether you want to become my student. I hope you do ;) I am in the process of custom-creating training based on the results of this 3-question survey. Once it’s been answered by a few hundred people (it will happen quickly), I’ll know exactly what I need to create for you.
Any closing thoughts?
Your business isn’t really its own entity until you’re no longer required for it to run properly. The more automation, the better. Just like an electric motor has a better chance of being reliable than a highly strung v12 engine, a business with fewer moving parts (especially human parts) is a better business, in my humble opinion. It also may be a more attractive business to potential investors since it is easier to buy and run, since the owner is not required to run it.Fun Fact: Out of the millions of dollars I’ve earned, exactly ZERO dollars have come from teaching people, doing consulting or selling information products. Since I passed the $100k/month mark, I finally accepted that I am the real deal and I feel 100% confident that I can genuinely help people make more money from their websites, and grow their online businesses significantly using my unique strategies and experience. So I’m really excited to announce here that as of today, I have decided to launch my new information business, selling teaching/consulting, training products, my SEO software-as-a-service and more. My challenge is to double my current income to over $200k per month by December 2014.