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Affiliate SEO Case Study – From 0 to 40,000 Traffic

An in-depth SEO case study of a new affiliate site going to 40,000 monthly visitors.

Join the 1,000+ brands that trust us for their link building.

In this case study, we’ll be covering the success of our ground-up project in a competitive niche.

Yes, that means starting with a site with absolutely no traffic or keywords and taking you through the process all the way until it had 40,000 unique visitors per month (according to Ahrefs – much higher in Google Analytics!).

We’ll begin with an overview of the project as a whole, and then cover things chronologically for the first 10 months which translated to just over $32k in monthly revenue at its peak.

Let’s get into it.

What’s Covered In This Case Study

  • Keyword Research
  • On-Page SEO
  • Off-Page SEO
  • Monetization
  • Link Building Strategy
  • Using Partial Match Domains
  • 301 Redirects

And more!

But…

This online version will only cover the off-page SEO aspect of our work (link building, 301 redirects, etc).

To get the full 50-page case study including all of the advanced tactics used including content, plugins, site structure, and much more, subscribe to our newsletter below (we usually send two emails per month).

Project Foundations And Overview

Competition In The SERPS

The competition in the SERPs for this niche is stiff. It’s a sub-niche within the “outdoors” niche.

You can see in the image below that for a broad keyword term that the homepage of the site was to be based on, the competition metrics are high according to Ahrefs.

The competition for the niche in Ahrefs.

It has a keyword difficulty score of 86 (super hard) for a little over 200k monthly traffic.

According to Ahrefs, I was going to need over 500RD to get onto the first page of a SERP.

The majority of sites that were (and still are) in top positions for the keyword are massive authority sites with a lot of history in the industry.

Below is an image of Ahrefs metrics for a handful of the sites ranking for that term:

More on the niches' top rankers via Ahrefs.

In order to be able to rank for keywords this competitive within a decent time frame, some unconventional techniques would need to be used.

Though the site would mainly be geared towards targeting national-based SERPs, 2 local areas would also be focused on in order to promote foot traffic to physical locations.

Domain Background

A quality aged domain was used as they can give you a massive shortcut and really shave off some time in the ranking process.

You can find aged domains for your projects through a trusted provider or by using tools like Register Compass or Spamzilla to hunt them (be aware this takes some know-how).

We found this domain while hunting ourselves.

At the tail end of 2016, domain hunting hadn’t yet become as competitive as it
is now and this site was purchased for a little over $500 on Godaddy Auctions.

Some things to note about the domain when it was found:

Partial Match Domain

This means that some (but not all) of the site’s main keyword was in the domain name.

It was related to a sub-category of the outdoors niche and was very brandable.

Whois

It had been registered since 2001 according to Whois.

History

Archive.org history showed it was a massive outdoors-niched e-com site for over a decade that generated a lot of press (and backlinks).

It used to compete with the massive sites that controlled the SERPs in the niche, and it still had a lot of indexed pages on Google (over 100).

Backlinks

It had 500+ referring domains from high-authority, very targeted domains in a very specific niche

The homepage received the majority of the links, but plenty of inner pages had great exposure too. This gave us a great place to start strategizing content (over 100 historical pages with some juice).

The backlink profile was made up of authority links from a bunch of major US news sites, .gov sites, and .edu sites.

It had a natural-looking anchor profile: lots of branded, naked, and generic anchors that would serve as proper pillowing. A good ratio of money anchors (15% or so) would help with the initial content strategy.

A Few More Things

It had a solid social media and brand search presence that could be traced back over a long period of time.

Given the current landscape of purchasing domains at auction, it wouldn’t be outlandish to consider paying upwards of five times the original price paid in 2016 in today’s market.

Ongoing Link Building

This section will cover the ongoing link building that was done throughout the process.

Month 1 (September)

The idea was to go extreme with link building in the first month.

Over 700 new referring domains to the money site would be built alongside an immense amount of content!

A small number of tiered links would also be built on top of that.

And remember that this is on top of the 500+ historical referring domains the original aged domain already had.

This may sound somewhat risky to the average SEO, but rest assured this money site was built with longevity in mind.

The startup plan would be to emulate a massive amount of press upfront and let that momentum push a large amount of content up in the SERPs.

Did we get the desired result? Absolutely.

By the end of this move, we were already beginning to gain the traction we were looking for, and that would set us up for optimal growth in the months after.

Backlinks Ordered

About 500 of the 700 links built in the first month came from another aged domain we 301 redirected to the site.

Looking at it from what naturally occurs in the SERPs, it made perfect sense for us to have over 1000 backlinks from the merger of two sites accompanied by around 200 links to emulate press about this merger.

Though we went incredibly aggressive with the number of links ordered, it’s important to note that nearly all of them went to the homepage with naked, branded, or generic anchors.

We were not attacking specific money keywords at this time, but rather building up the overall authority of the site.

We always recommend blending the authority values of the backlinks when doing a blast this large as that’s what typically occurs naturally when a site like this gets press.

A small group of authority or news sites begins to talk about something, and then countless smaller sites begin to piggyback off of that press.

A diverse link profile is one of the hardest things to properly mimic in SEO, but our intention was to do just that.

About The 301 Redirect

We decided to start everything off by 301 redirecting another aged domain to the site.

Some stats for the 301 redirect that was used.

Some quick stats:

  • Partial match domain (PMD)
  • About 500RD
  • Links were high-quality and niche-relevant
  • Registered since 1999
  • Over 50 pages still indexed on Google
  • Former e-com site in a sub-category of the niche
  • Cost: $1,200 at auction
  • Most of the inner pages with links became supporting content hub pages due to them not fitting any parent categories.

The 301 would provide us with a huge amount of niche-relevant referring domains and backlinks.

It would also give us the narrative needed to give Google for our first backlinks order:

“Powerful Company A purchases Powerful Company B and decides to 301 their domain to their main site. At the same time, more content is posted on the site, there is a lot of press about the merger, and the whole industry is talking about it on their blogs and social media.”

Conceptualizing this narrative made it much easier to decide on what links to build for the month.

The additional links built for the first month were as follows:

Guest Posts
  • 12 Guest Posts (mix of authority levels)
  • Lower Quality Guest Posts from other vendors (For Tiered Links)
  • All to homepage/hub pages
  • Naked, branded, generic anchors
Niche Edits
  • 2 Blade Packs (14 mid authority links)
  • 1 level 4 Pack (3 mid to high authority links)
  • 1 level 5 Pack (3 mid to high authority links)
  • 1 Barrage 15 Pack (15-20 low authority links)
  • 1 Barrage 30 Pack (For Tiered Links) (30-38 low authority links)
  • All to homepage/hub pages
  • Naked, branded, generic anchors
PBN
  • 5 PBN Links
  • All to homepage
  • Naked, branded, generic anchors
Pillow Links
  • Main Social Profiles (with IFTTT)
  • Press Release (related to the company buyout)
  • Blog Comments
  • Web 2.0 (unique content, no spammy stuff here)
  • Social Signals
  • Citations
  • A good amount of lower-quality backlinking I didn’t even catalog (yes, spammier stuff)
  • All to homepage
  • Naked, branded, generic anchors

Again, please note that this is a very aggressive approach concerning the number of links coming to the site at once. But at the same time, it’s conservative considering the anchors used and where the links were pointed.

You can still be aggressive up front all while mitigating risk and setting yourself up for long-term success by targeting the homepage with natural anchors rather than building links to inner pages with money anchors.

We even consider it safe enough to use high-quality PBN links at the very beginning if used sparingly and in this manner.

Also note that we diversified the anchors, link types, and power of the links we ordered.

Usually when a site gets press, many smaller blogs comment on the press released by larger sites. This is what we attempted to emulate.

Also, remember that this site was an aged domain with over 500 RD that had been sitting in the SERPs with content on it for around 3 years before doing any of this.

This compounded with the fact that we 301 redirected another very niched down and comparable site to it helped us start off on the right foot.

The barrage 30 and some lower-quality guest posts were used as tiered links to historic referring domains going to the original website and the 301 domain. The reason for this was to get more crawlability to powerful links that were many years old – sort of a refresher.

Note that we still like to diversify our tiered links as well as tier 1 links.

Something else worth mentioning is that we did not force-index any links! Natural indexation of these links makes the timeline stretch a bit further as it takes time for crawlers to crawl everything.

Some of these links may not index until months two or three, and some may not index at all (pillow links).

And that’s perfectly fine!

Using Low-Quality Links Strategically

A lot of SEOs shudder at the thought of tailoring what they consider “spammy” links into the mix.

Unfortunately for these folks, they’re thinking more like a human and less like a crawler.

Low-quality links have their place on the internet and can help diversify a well-rounded backlink profile. From a data standpoint, it just makes sense.

No, don’t go blasting your sites with these links expecting awesome results, but you can inject a little bit here and there. This seems to help with crawlability and diversification.

The way to do this is by emulating what massive amounts of press looks like naturally in the SERPs.

When analyzing content that’s gone viral, specifically the backlinks to that content, you’ll come to find that time and time again there is a diverse mix of links that hit that site all at once.

Inner page links, homepage links, contextual links, social media chatter, web 2.0’s, the list goes on.

The anchors from these links will also be incredibly diversified, and the majority are typically branded, naked, or somewhat random.

What you won’t typically see is a large percentage of money anchors coming from one type of link.

The quality of the links will also vary, as real press creates big waves that get picked up by random bots, etc. Learning what this looks like allows you to strategically inject some lower-quality stuff into the mix.

If you look at the backlinks of any major site in Ahrefs and sort by the lowest DR links, they all have some pretty low-quality stuff attached.

Example of a normal backlink profile.

Rapid growth from a diverse set of backlinks is hard to emulate, but if you study how it happens naturally, you can get away with high link velocities over short periods.

This is the exact reason we added some lower-quality links into the mix in month number one.

Traffic Results

We didn’t expect much growth in the first month, but a small boost in traffic was enough to feel secure with our movement.

Traffic results during the first month of building.

By being more conservative with our anchors, piggy-backing on 1,000+ RD from the original domain and the 301, adding a lot of pillow links, and ordering 30-40 authority links (guest posts and niche edits), we were able to create a very well-blended set of links without a footprint.

Using generic anchors to the homepage in an attempt to emulate some serious buzz was giving us the desired results and momentum for what was now a large site on its way to becoming an authority in the niche.

Months 2-3 (October through November) 800 to 4000+ traffic

For the next few months, the plan was to focus more heavily on authority backlinks alongside content.

We would still send most of the links to the homepage with branded, URL, and generic anchors as this is a practice we like to use to help insulate the site from a penalty while building overall authority.

Where a lot of newer SEOs want to get to using money anchors targeting inner pages quickly, we would stay the course and be patient with our tactics as the goal for this site would be long-term growth.

We wouldn’t send as many links as we did in month one, but we wouldn’t stop linking abruptly either (a mistake we see a lot of newer SEOs make).

The idea is to be continual with building links… and of course content, too!

The narrative for Google is that we already had our big news (the merger), and now we are getting some trailing press.

Consider it a “cool-off” phase from month one. Though it may still look pretty aggressive, it will look tame compared to the earlier orders.

By the end of this period, the site would grow exponentially, monetization would be achieved through affiliate partnerships, and a dropshipping partnership would be discussed.

Though the project would still not be profitable yet, it would be in great standing considering it was only 3 months old.

Backlinks Ordered

Again, for this period we were still going pretty hard, but compared to the first month would be substantially tapered.

Same as month number one, since this was still essentially the beginning of the project, we were still going to focus on links to the homepage with naked, branded, or random anchors.

Overall authority was still going to be the goal set for this project until we saw a hard spike in rankings, though we did send a small number of links to inner pages in month 3.

Also the same as before, a mix of authority levels would be used in order to diversify the information search bots would be crawling.

Note that one thing you’ll see us order every month is social signals. It’s rare to see a site get a lot of press while not getting any traction on social media, and it’s not something we think you can really overdo.

Guest Posts
  • 16 Guest Posts
  • Naked, branded, generic anchors
Niche Edits
  • 2 Level 4 Pack (6 mid to high authority links)
  • Level 6 Pack (3 high authority links)
  • Barrage 30 Pack (Tiered Links – 30-38 low authority links)
  • Barrage 15 pack (15-20 low authority links)
  • Naked, branded, generic anchors
PBN
  • 7 added through this period
  • Naked, branded, generic anchors
Pillow Links
  • Diversity Links (pack of 20 white hat pillow links)
  • Social Signals
  • Naked, branded, generic anchors

Like we said above, it wasn’t until month 3 that we started linking to inner pages. Even then, we linked to them sparingly and used URL, branded, and generic anchors for the most part.

A couple of long tail anchors snuck through on pages that were historically heavy with referring domains and gaining traction in the SERPs.

Still no direct money keywords.

One blast of “Barrage” niche edits would be used as tier-2 links for some of the previously built links and social profiles.

These would all be naked, branded, or include some long tail anchors.

This would be the last period we ordered pillow links to this site as we felt we had covered our bases on that end.

Here is what growth looked like at the end of this period:

Traffic Results

Traffic was on a big uptrend considering we had only been actively building links and working on the site for a total of 3 months.

Traffic results after the 3rd month of link building.

By the end of November, the website had gone from around 400 monthly visits to about 4,300 visitors according to Ahrefs, which resulted in a little more money in our pockets from Amazon Affiliate earnings.

Months 4-6 (December through February) 4000 to 6000+ Traffic

From month four onward, we would shift our budget towards content more than backlinks.

We didn’t stop building links or “generating press,” but we began a more steady-looking stream of links with higher authority values rather than a constant blast of random links.

Not to say the link profile was not going to be diversified, but that we’d mainly be using guest posts and niche edits rather than a huge mix of links.

The buzz (links) we created early on would help us push content up in the SERPs much easier now.

Since we had this advantage we also ended up trying out some new tricks with content that we honestly weren’t sure would work at first.

Backlinks Ordered

For this period, we would actually be starting to target some money anchors.

However, links would still predominantly go to the homepage with naked, branded, and generic anchors. While we were getting traction in the SERPs and were ready to use money anchors, we would do so sparingly.

Overall, the split would be roughly about 20% money anchors mixed into 80% generic anchors.

Thanks to the authority level of this site, content for some of the lower to medium competition terms would begin auto-ranking during this period.

This got us to stay the course and build the overall authority to this site versus getting aggressive to inner pages.

Again, as stated above, we wouldn’t really be doing any more pillowing to the site (unless you count social signals) and would be focused on higher authority links from here on out.

Guest Posts
  • 12 Guest Posts
  • Mainly higher authority values – DR 36 and up
  • The majority to the homepage with naked, branded, generic anchors – 10% money anchors to inner pages
Niche Edits
  • Level 3 Pack (3 mid authority links)
  • Level 4 Pack (3 mid to high authority links)
  • Level 6 Pack (3 high authority links)
  • The majority to the homepage with naked, branded, generic anchors – 10% money anchors to inner pages
Pillow Links
  • Social Signals

Even though we started using exact match anchors, we did obviously use them sparingly, and the majority of the links went to the homepage with naked, branded, generic anchors.

The way we would decide which inner pages we would target with money anchors was pretty simple: If they had traction in the SERPs and had no money anchors going to them, then that’s where we added them.

If a historical inner page already had a good amount of money anchors from historical referring domains, then we would diversify links to those pages using long-tail or generic anchors.

Though this was still a good amount of authority hitting the site in the form of backlinks, compared to the first few months things had definitely gotten tamer.

Again, we don’t ever just abruptly stop building links to a site, which is a good way to signal to search crawlers that press has essentially fallen off and no one is discussing your business anymore.

A big no-no.

Remember too, that we were not force-indexing any links to this site. This means that some of the previous orders may not have even been indexed yet, and would get crawled at a later time.

We opted out of using PBN links and tiered links for these months. This was most likely due to oversight as we most certainly would have felt comfortable adding a small number of them throughout the period.

Traffic Results

The plan definitely started coming together perfectly during this period.

Though not quite as significant a gain as the last period, this period still kept shooting us up in the SERPs.

Traffic results after 6 months of building links.

From December through February, we were able to 2x traffic, which also increased sales.

Months 7-8 (March through May) 6500 to 27000+ Traffic

At this point in time, it would appear our attempt to build an authority site had worked.

We were ripping through the SERPs; articles would rank quickly after posting, featured snippets were awarded to us, and traffic was turning into a return on investment.

Had this been exclusively an affiliate/e-commerce venture, I think it would have been in an excellent spot to be in given the traffic values to the website by the end of this period.

Nothing went wrong with the physical partnerships during this period, but we did begin spreading our focus thin here, which would eventually lead to issues down the line.

During this period we even began to manufacture a small set of products in our larger shop!

Regardless, as far as the website was concerned, the orders for it would be similar to the previous period.

We’d be focused on pumping a lot of content through the site while maintaining higher authority backlinks.

By doing so, we would hit exponential growth this period and do over 4x our previous monthly traffic according to Ahrefs.

Backlinks Ordered

As stated in the previous section, this would be a similar period in regards to what we ordered and how we did our link building.

The only thing that would be a little bit different is we would be ordering a set of links specifically for these new product pages we were planning on manufacturing goods for.

Due to this, about 40% of our link orders during this period ended up going to inner pages, and the order was slightly larger than the previous one.

Links to these new pages would be naked, branded, and generic since they were brand new pages with no historical links going to them.

As for the remainder of the pages, higher authority links would be used with a similar mix of money to natural anchors; about 20/80.

Though we were essentially trying to hit the ground running with this new campaign, we were still going to be pretty conservative with our link building tactics.

Guest Posts
  • 10 Guest Posts
  • Mainly higher authority values – DR 36 and up
  • Majority to the homepage with naked, branded, generic anchors – 10% money anchors to inner pages
Niche Edits
  • 3 Level 4 Packs (9 mid to high authority links)
  • 1 Barrage 15 (Tiered Links – 15-20 low authority links)
  • Majority to the homepage with naked, branded, generic anchors – 10% money anchors to inner pages
PBN
  • 2 Pro Level PBN Links
  • To the homepage
  • Branded and generic anchors
Pillow Links
  • Social Signals

Pretty much the same concept as the last period, no fancy stuff, but we did remember to add some tiered links and a couple of PBNs here.

Once the initial period of growth is over, sustaining seems kinda mundane, but it’s the job.

Similar to the last period we were focused on maintaining our link building more than doing a large amount. Higher authority values were used during this period, similar to the last.

Note that almost anytime we use a PBN, it’s with naked, branded, and generic anchors to the homepage.

To us, this is the most logical way to use a PBN in terms of what looks natural. Though there are many ways to use this tool, in our opinion it seems like the best way to boost authority without seeming like we’re trying to game the system.

It also helps insulate the PBN itself since there is a wider diversification of anchors to homepages vs. a heavier amount of money anchors linking out to inner pages.

After all, most homepage links come in the form of advertising space unless you’re fortunate enough to get news sites resonating about your brand in the form of homepage links (which is rare).

Traffic Results

Once you’ve built out an authority site that gets some favor in the SERPs, it’s beautiful to watch it continually push upward.

Add content and reap the rewards.

Traffic results after 8 months of link building.

This was the rip we’d been waiting for.

By the end of this period, this site was getting almost 30k monthly visits which was over 2x in traffic, but this time into exponential territory for the financial side of the business itself.

Months 9-10 (June through July) 27000 to 40000+ Traffic

As stated, the website itself was doing spectacularly when looking at the traffic increase. And also as stated, had it been a purely affiliate-style site with no real-world ties, this would have been a really great spot to be in.

We kept pushing with the site through this period even though the real-world side of the business was definitely struggling.

The plan for the website during this period was still to add a good amount of content tailored to specific SERPs using keyword research while maintaining a good amount of high-authority backlinks.

Backlinks Ordered

Similar to the budgeting for content, backlinks budgets were stripped down substantially during this period.

We tapered things down by focusing on the overall authority of the site. During this period we mainly built homepage links with branded, generic, or naked anchors.

Guest Posts
  • 6 Guest Posts
  • Mainly higher authority values – DR 36 and up
  • Homepage Links
  • Generic, naked, branded anchors
Niche Edits
  • 2 Level 3 Packs (6 low to mid authority links)
  • Homepage Links
  • Generic, naked, branded anchors
Pillow Links
  • Social Signals

It was unfortunate that we had to bring budgets down at a time the site was doing so incredibly well, but we hoped it would be enough to keep things moving forward in the SERPs.

Since we had less budget for linking this time around, the direction we took was to just go to the homepage with natural anchors using mid to high-authority value backlinks.

We really weren’t sure what the future would hold for the overall project but knew that the website had enough momentum to keep it moving along.

Due to this, the concept shifted from wanting to get more traction to inner pages to just keeping overall authority as the main focus.

Traffic Results

Another amazing traffic growth period had occurred. By the end of this period, the website had hit over 40,000 monthly visits according to Ahrefs.

Traffic results after 10 months of building backlinks.

Final Thoughts

Some of the main takeaways from this case study:

  • Try to conceptualize a narrative that makes sense in terms of building a website and it gaining traction in the SERPs
  • To try and keep things looking as natural as you can by analyzing what occurs to sites that rank in the SERPs and emulating that
  • Diversify your link profile using the “Holy Trinity” of link building
  • Work both on-page and off-page factors together consistently
  • Be cautious and rational with the moves you make and make sure to keep your budget allocated over a long period of time

But also…

Remember that this is a much-shortened version of the case study. Be sure to grab the full version by subscribing below!

Header image for Nicholas Altimore.Article by:
Nicholas Altimore

Hey I'm Nick, one of the guys behind SirLinksalot. I have a passion for building online businesses and taking websites to the next level with the help of my amazing link building team.

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