As I write this in June 2022, I’m sitting in a cafe in Bologna, Italy. My Airbnb costs less than I make per day in passive income from affiliate commissions.
About 50% of this passive income comes from just three articles I wrote between February and March of 2022.
My cappuccino will probably get paid for while I’m sitting here writing this.
(By the way, I’ve just learned that “cappuccino” is the singular of “cappuccini,” and that “panini” is the plural of “panino.” As English speakers we’ve been butchering the Italian on both of these.)
In between sips of my cappuccino (soon to be cappuccini), I’m browsing the Spanish equivalent of StreetEasy, and I see two-bedroom apartments in hip Barcelona neighborhoods for less than 800 euros per month.
Thanks to three articles, I have the option of moving to Europe and basically retiring.
And that $1000 per month is growing, because I’ve since written more than those three initial articles.
How did I develop this passive income stream?
The answer some douchebag marketing bro might tell you is that it all had to do with SEO, or search engine optimization.
But in reality, if it were that easy, then all these same annoying douchebags marketing bros wouldn’t need to cold-email you all the time trying to get you to sign up for their SEO service.
In reality, it required…
- Specific Industry Knowledge (in this case, in the health and wellness industry)
- Research and writing skills
- SEO knowledge
- A head start, in the form of an already established website.
And along the way, there were still tons of swings and misses. I spent the better part of two years trying things that didn’t work. Now I know what works, and I want you to avoid those same mistakes.
(I was going to save the pitch for the end, but to be completely honest, if you’re an established health and wellness content site or business, you should probably just hire me to do it for you, or to talk to your content team to teach them, or whatever.)
In this article, I’m going to take you through step-by-step my processes for how I did this.
I hope you see that by the end, there’s nothing magical or special about what I did. But, you won’t be able to just do it overnight either. And even if you could, the nature of SEO is a long-term game, and it’s going to take a few months for your articles to get on the first page of Google.
In case you don’t believe me, here are screenshots of my Refersion account from the morning of June 18th.
First, I Had a Head Start
In the Fall of 2019, when I moved to New York City, I began interning for John Romaniello.
John was the founder and owner of a popular health and fitness site, Roman Fitness Systems.
However, he had left the fitness industry long ago, and RFS had been rotting away without anybody touching it.
By March 2020, John gave me partial equity of RFS, and full reign to do whatever I wanted with it.
Even though the website’s traffic had tanked, its domain authority hadn’t. In SEO, websites with established credibility and authority are more likely to rank higher on search engines like Google.
This makes sense.
If I write something and The Atlantic writes something, Google is going to give The Atlantic the benefit of the doubt if the content is of equal quality and relevance for a certain keyword (much more on this later).
Roman Fitness Systems has a domain rating of 53 out of 100. This is very high. Or at least, high enough to quickly rank on Google for health and wellness topics.
In contrast, a brand new site has to spend tons of energy and resources building this authority using various strategies which I’ll bookmark for another day.
More authoritative site = easier to rank high on Google.
In other words, it was still a piece of valuable internet real estate, thanks to its domain authority. I was given a nice chunk of internet real estate, and with that came a big head start.
If you’re starting with a new site, then building your domain authority will have to be a bigger part of your SEO/Content strategy than mine.
I’m now going to skip the part where I tried a whole bunch of things for two years without much success. To sum this up, I knew that what worked for John and RFS in 2011 wouldn’t work for me in 2021.
The tactics and landscape of internet marketing rapidly change.
I had to figure out what works in 2022. This took a lot of time, research, and trial-and-error.
Let’s get to the part where I figured out what works.
This is the easy part.
There are subtleties of SEO that take practice and repetition, but the concepts you can learn and then apply right away.
If you’re unfamiliar with SEO, think of this part of the process as the topic selection.
We choose topics based on search keywords.
When I say “keyword,” I mean a Google search. Every keyword has certain stats, such as the number of searches and how hard it is to rank high on Google for that search.
We can examine keywords in various ways, but if we choose the wrong keywords, we either won’t rank high for them, or even if we do we won’t get much traffic, or even if we do rank high and get a lot of traffic, it won’t translate into something for the business, like email subscribers, or product purchases, or affiliate commissions.
I use a tool called Ahrefs to do what’s called “keyword research.” I pay $99 a month for it, but there are free or cheaper keyword research tools out there.
The keyword research tool on Ahrefs allows me to see the volume of a certain keyword (how many searches it gets per month, roughly), and how hard it is to rank for.
It also allows me to see the recent ranking history. It’s all information to help decide whether it’s worth writing an article to try and rank for that keyword.
Obviously, it’s better if keywords have higher volume and lower difficulty, but this is not enough.
The most important part of a keyword is what’s called the “search intent.”
Understanding Search Intent: Literally Just Like… Use Your Brain
SEO writers and marketers try to make this sound complicated so that their skills sound more impressive.
Search intent requires us to think about a few things:
- When somebody is searching for a term, what type of information are they looking for?
For example, if somebody searches “best coffee shops in bologna” the searcher is looking for coffee shop recommendations in Bologna. In comparison, “how to start a coffee shop in bologna” is a completely different search. They’re looking for different things, so the articles should be totally different even though they have a lot in common.
Yes, this is obvious once you give it some thought. Like I said, this is the easy part.
- Who would make this type of search?
Next, think about what kind of audience searches the term. For a fitness example, somebody searching “how to do a bulgarian split squat” is probably a relative beginner, and the article that you write to target that keyword should hold that in mind.
Like I said, it’s not that complicated, but you do have to spend some time thinking about it. More importantly, search intent should be at the forefront of your mind when you choose a keyword.
If you want to make money with SEO, you have to target keywords of people looking to buy stuff.
Again, this is common sense once you think about it.
If you’re a product-focused website, is somebody searching that term a potential customer for your product or service?
With one of my clients, a supplement company called Kaged, we’re updating an article targeted for “l citrulline vs citrulline malate.”
The keyword has high volume, low difficulty, and most importantly, many people searching that keyword are looking to buy a citrulline product. If we effectively write the article, we could convince them to buy Kaged’s citrulline products.
(It was also already getting traffic, so updating the article, in addition to increasing viewers, will turn more existing viewers into customers, but that’s also an SEO lesson for another day.)
In the case of RFS, I could go for a wide array of monetizable keywords, because I can review and compare products, and then send traffic to different companies’ products.
I make a percentage of the sale when people buy through my links, called ‘affiliate links.’
Basically, I get paid for referring sales to other companies. In this case, to supplement companies.
The three keywords that make me $1000/month in affiliate commissions are…
Best NMN supplement
Best glutathione supplement
Best berberine supplement
If you search these terms, my article is on the first page of Google.
What Do People Want When They Search This?
The word “best” implies a few things about the person searching these keywords and what they’re looking for.
First, it means they already know what the supplement is. I don’t need to write an article explaining all the details about it, nor do I need to sell them on it.
They want to see a list of the best products, and explanations of the differences. In other words, they’re already ready to buy, they just haven’t decided who to buy from yet.
I’m there to show them different products and their advantages, so they can make the best decision.
For example, here’s the keyword overview of ‘best glutathione supplement.’ It has high volume, low difficulty, and buyer-focused search intent.
That’s pretty much all you need to know on the SEO side of things. This helps ensure I’m on the right track in a few aspects.
- I know the keywords I want to write about I can realistically rank for.
- I know the search intent of the keyword, and therefore what kind of article I need to write, how to organize it, and what kinds of info I should include and omit.
Specific Industry Knowledge
As for how I came up with these keywords, and further, why I think they’re going to be even more valuable in the future, that comes from specific industry knowledge.
I’m probably not the best SEO writer for tech, software, or other fields I don’t know anything about. But I’m a great SEO writer for health and wellness companies because I know the industry.
All three of these terms I thought of because I was thinking about products that I’ve heard of that aren’t that popular yet, but that I think will get more popular.
If they’ve been popular for too long, bigger sites have already written about them, which makes it harder to rank for them.
For these keywords, I entered in at the sweet spot where they have decent volume, but there aren’t many good articles on them, so I though I could rank for them relatively quickly.
As for these specifically, I learned about NMN from Dr. David Sinclair’s book Lifespan, which sent me down a rabbit hole of research on longevity science. Across that research, I read more about glutathione, berberine, and others. Again, I knew to look them up because I know the industry.
I also think they’re going to be more popular because I believe in the preliminary research behind them. I’ve read a lot of studies on NMN, and I think it’s a legit supplement. Supplements that actually work are more likely to get more popular, and that means higher volume.
Since writing the article in February, the difficulty to rank for NMN has shot up to 25 (out of 100). This is often out of my range. Fortunately, I got in early, and have been able to stay there.
Why SEO is Like Investing, and Why I had an Information Advantage
I think of this a lot like investing. I study trends, stay on top of what’s new, and place bets on what I think is going to be popular.
Except, instead of betting money, I’m betting my time. At this point in my life, I’ll bet the time it takes to research and write an article. In this case, the bet has paid off.
In other instances, I tried to get in super early. For example, I think apigenin, which is the active ingredient in chamomile tea, will become more popular as a supplement.
Right now the search volume for “best apigenin supplement” is less than 100, so it’s not making much money yet (less than $20/month), but if the search volume increases, as I think it will, then I will look like a genius, and reap the financial rewards. Again, I’m betting on the early research.
If you’re hiring for SEO and the writer doesn’t know your industry, they won’t find these home runs.
The Writing Has To Be Good
Chase Jarvis said that “good content is the best SEO.”
But “good” is a lazy adjective, and what makes a good SEO article is different from what makes a good novel, poem, or sales page.
The first type of “good” is it has to match the search intent. Early on in SEO writing, I had the habit of writing long intros that weren’t relevant to the search. Always keep the search intent in mind, and get to what they came for quickly.
I could write the “best” piece about NMN on the planet, from a literary and journalistic perspective, and maybe The New Yorker would accept it, but for this keyword, the search intent is about comparing NMN products. The content has to reflect that search intent.
Beyond that, people who struggle with SEO-style writing fall into two categories.
Fault #1: Ignoring The Reality of Internet Writing
Often these are good writers. Maybe they have an academic background. I had a learning curve in this respect as well. These writers don’t think about what makes good internet writing.
You should have headings that answer the questions/intents of the search. You want to make it easy for them to find what they came for.
You should have shorter paragraphs. A lot of people search on their phones, and nobody likes staring at blocks of texts.
You should know how to sum up complex science into a short form that readers can understand.
Writing for the internet is NOT the same as writing for a scientific journal or a physical book.
Fault #2: You Just Suck at Writing
Then, there are the marketers who just don’t know how to make sentences that don’t sound like they came from a billboard or sales page for a boner pill.
If you’re writing sucks, nobody will read it.
A lot of articles of this sort also clearly don’t understand the research behind the ingredients, and make crazy, unproven claims. This is a problem that a lot of copywriters have, so it’s no surprise that it translates to SEO.
Not only do I want to make sure I give a realistic summary of the current research on these supplements because of my personal ethics, I also think readers can sniff through the overzealous claims.
I think they’re more likely to trust me because sometimes in articles like this I say something like, “While this mouse study showed xyz, because of abc, it might not translate to humans, and we don’t have any research to back up that it will.”
Additionally, while I can’t back this up with data, when you read my articles, even on these topics which, let’s be honest, aren’t that exciting to most of us, you can still tell it’s a person.
My articles, especially at the beginning when I’m trying to hook readers in, sound like a conversation. I like to think this builds trust, and ultimately helps me rank higher and make more affiliate commissions, although I have no data to back this up.
So please, if you hire a writer for your SEO projects, make sure they’re a writer who can actually write.
Where RFS Is Heading
We’re on our way to hit 2k in affiliate commissions for June, and I’ve finally taken the time to hire and train a writer to write similar articles.
I will blow my brains out if I have to spend all of my time writing about supplements, and since we have money coming in, I can pay someone to make a draft, then I can give it that writing spice that takes it from good to great.
Plus, I can always update it in a month or two once it’s ranking higher, but that part of SEO is a separate discussion.
This has had, and still has, many challenges for me that I’ll share once I’m out of the weeds and have consolidated the lessons.
But even with the flaws and challenges, it’s working.
My goal right now is to scale the writing process. If we do (or if I just hit a few more home runs), then I believe we’ll be on our way to a 10k/month business.
You Can Hire Me, If You Want
There are people who are better at a lot of the technical side of SEO than I am.
There are people with more experience.
But there are very few who have a combination of good SEO skills, great writing skills, and expertise in the health and wellness industry.
Whether you’re a product-focused business like my client Kaged or a content site like RFS, I can help you find those home runs, and help you make an article that brings you passive income long after you paid me for the article.
My rent is low now, but I’m eyeing an overpriced one-bedroom apartment in New York City for next fall.
But honestly you should ask soon because RFS will likely become a 10k/month business and then I definitely will not be spending time writing articles for other people.
Shoot me an IG DM if you’re interested.