We had 534 organic monthly visitors to SolarFeeds.com in 2019 July when I first purchased the poorly run blog. But by 2020 October, we had 37,680 organic UV/mon. That’s a 69X growth in 15 months from blogging! And more astonishingly, we only spent around $18K on content creation.
So, how did we achieve that? In this post, I’ll tell you the whole story chronologically, then share the lessons I learned during the process.
Aug.-Dec. 2019: In-house content creation
From April to July 2019, we owned the domain SolarMetric.com (later sold to a friend) which had negligible traffic. I still worked part-time for a Toronto-based marketing agency at that time, so I spent my limited time on keyword research, blog topic planning, writing SEO guidelines, hiring part-time offshore writers from the Philippines and India.
My plan was to keep working on this as this side-project while finding a job in the solar industry. I wasn’t sure what product would we build or what problems we would try to solve, but I wanted to follow Joe Pulizzi’s “Content Inc. Model” and build an audience base first.
Old domain purchase: $6,000
But in July, out of dumb luck, I happened to know a legacy blogging site SolarFeeds.com was on sale.
It was shocking to find out that it has a Domain Authority (DA) of 52. I was immediately intrigued because websites with high DA scores not only tend to rank much better on Google, but also get indexed by Googlebot more quickly and frequently.
A high DA score is every SEO expert’s wet dream, because, in a nutshell, SEO is about two parts: authority and relevancy (more on this later). In another word, this would win half of the SEO battle! So I bought it for around $6,000 without hesitating.
Content creation spending: less than $12K.
SolarFeeds had a meager 534 organic uv/mon when I looked into its Google Analytics.
Well, who cares about that when you have 52 DA scores? If a top-notch SEO is Thor, then high DA would be the Mjölnir. I knew at this moment that I could build a serious business in this domain. That was when I decided to hire two of my writers full-time.
During this period, we published around 150 blog posts.
Jan. 2020: content creation budget ran out
We reached 8,000 organic unique visitors/mon in 2019 December.
But by 2020 early January, we ran out of marketing budget because we didn’t generate our projected revenue. I felt extremely guilty, but we had to lay off all contracting writers.
But wait, without hiring writers, what was fueling the growth afterwards? Well, two things:
- Delayed results of SEO: Even if we didn’t publish a single post/page from January to April, I would still expect the organic traffic to rise during that period. That’s because a lot of posts/pages won’t rank at the top of Google until 3-4 months after publishing.
- Guest authors: This was a surprising finding for me as well until I dug into the best-performing landing pages. These are authors who publish original articles on SolarFeeds and in return get high-quality backlinks.
Oct. 2020: thank you, guest authors
One day in April 2020, when looking into the best-performing landing pages, I was surprised to find that many top-performing blog posts were actually written by guest authors.
We were already receiving 1-2 pitches per day from guest authors mostly because we rank well on Google for keywords like “solar energy guest posting,” “solar write for us,” “renewable energy guest post,” and etc. Like any true believer of the “80/20 Rule”, I doubled down on what was working (more on how later).
In Oct. 2020, we reached 37K organic unique visitors/mon, after 10 months without any content creation budget.
Looking back: what made it possible?
Including buying the old domain, we’ve spent around $18K in total. But we still grew by 69X in 15 months. Our hyper organic growth with low costs was only made possible by these 4 factors:
- Offshore writers: Did I mention they typically cost $1,000 per month even if you hire them full-time?
- High DA score: An old domain with high Domain Authority (52)
- Long-form content: Our “ONE strategy” forces us to stick with long-form content
- Incoming guest posts: Guest posts were all we had during the 10 months without any content creation budget
Let me unpack each one, they are worth elaborating.
SEO Hack-1: managing offshore writers
I know, there are plenty of bad offshore writers out there that write in weird English. Worst of all, even if you find good writers, it doesn’t guarantee their articles can rank well on Google.
Here were three key things that we got right: 1) Hiring the right writers 2) Providing an easy-to-follow SEO guideline 3) Having a list of popular topics for them to choose from.
Main takeaways of our SEO guideline
- Know your buyer persona: Always ask “What buyer persona is this article targeting?” for each piece
- Not to sell, but to educate: You’re NOT writing an Advertorial. You’re actually trying to be sincerely helpful to answer searchers’ questions.
- Include keywords in headings casually and write naturally in paragraphs.
- Minimum word count: 2500+ words
- Write a summary at the end.
(Contact me on Twitter if you want our SEO guidelines).
SEO Hack-2: buy an old domain
If you want to buy expired domains, you would need these tools:
- Where to buy expired domains: expireddomains.net and NameBright
- Check Domain Authority score: Website SEO checker
- Check backlink profile: SEMrush, Moz (To be safe, you want to check its backlink profile before purchasing the domain.)
Note that I am fully aware of the pros and cons of using an old domain for a startup. For new startups, worry about branding. I would argue that you don’t have a brand yet until you have your first 10,000 users.
SEO Hack-3: long-form content
Have you heard of the Skyscraper Technique? It’s originally a link-building tactic that was devised by Brian Dean. In essence, it details a process to 1) Find a popular topic 2) Create far better content for a chosen topic 3) Promote your content to websites that already link to this topic.
From my experiences though, the third step isn’t that effective at all. It’s very time-consuming and you’d be happy if you get a 5% response rate. On the other hand, the first two steps totally align with Google’s objective:
to provide the best experience for users.
What does “far better content” mean and how long is “long-form”?
Well, “far better” can mean:
- More in-depth knowledge and insights
- More and better examples
- Including multimedia: More explanatory images, videos, or inforgraphics
- Better design just to make the content easier to understand
Using this approach, it almost always results in longer articles.
Do all articles need to be more than 2500 words? Not necessarily. It depends on the topic and competition. “Longer” is a means to an end. We use word count as a KPI because it’s easier for writers to follow.
The power of ONE
On the operational level, our team has a “ONE strategy” internally to get everyone on the same page: “One persona, one channel, one content type for one year”. It means:
- One persona: solar professionals/installers.
- One channel: search engine. We understand there are plenty of growth opportunities on social media, YouTube, or podcasting, but we will ONLY focus on search engines.
- One content type: long-form content tailored for search engines because SEO is about being informative and social media marketing is about virality.
- One year: to see the full potential of this approach, we need to do it for at ONE year.
SEO Hack-4: managing guest authors
We’ve been offering opportunities for guest authors since day 1. But never have I recognize its importance until looking into Google Analytics.
In an effort to get even better results, I rewrote our guest post guidelines, created a reply template in Gmail, listed topic ideas in a shareable Google Sheet, inserted “Write for us” banners on the website, and answered their requests more politely and patiently. Let’s face it, there are so many spammy inquiries in broken English that I still hate to reply.
Just like in-house writers, guest authors are writers too. Remember the “three key things” that we got right when managing writers? Well, it’s almost identical for managing guest authors: 1) Getting enough guest post requests 2) Providing an easy-to-follow SEO guideline 3) Having a list of popular topics for them to choose from.
These factors enabled us to grow our organic traffic for SolarFeeds.com by 69x in 15 months:
- Using offshore writers from the Philippines and India: We gave them SEO guidelines to follow.
- High domain authority score (52): Helps rank better for Google.
- Consistently writing long-form content: This helps provide users with the best experience.
- Using guest posts: They get high-quality backlinks in return for writing for us.
It was helpful to give offshore writers our SEO guidelines which included understanding the buyer persona and educating rather than selling.
Willie Jiang is the founder of SolarFeeds and SEO growth hacker. He currently resides in Toronto, Canada.