An Unwelcome Reality Check
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve lived a rather charmed niche marketing life thus far. Part of it was good old fashioned luck, of course.
But a lot of my site’s success comes from trying to do things the “right way.” I don’t cut corners on content quality, I don’t try to trick Google with shady link building practices. I don’t shortcut SEO research. I have big goals for my site, and I expect it to take effort to reach them.
2021 Goal: Double niche site income within 12 months.
If I’d written this update in the middle of May, I’d have been jumping up and down with happiness. Now, though, I have a lot of good—and some pretty bad—happenings to share.
Before I dig into the results, though, here’s a quick look at the overall performance of my site.
This Month in a Nutshell
If you read April’s update, you know I went into my mid-month earnings check *absolutely sure* it’d be lower than March. When it wasn’t, I told myself that I’d get out of the prediction business.
When I checked in on May 15, though, I couldn’t help but jump to conclusions—really good ones.
If the site kept pace for the second half of the month, I could earn $6,800. That’s only $200 short of my double-income goal!
Ads and Amazon Affiliates income were both up month-over-month, and that was all due to strong traffic numbers. The site was getting ~4,000 visitors per day consistently. That had never happened before.
I felt even more confident about investing in my own courses, adding more resources to the Knowledge Directory, and paying to promote my own digital guides on Facebook.
And then, May 24 happened.
This Month: $6,646.85
In May, my site managed to earn over $6K for the third month in a row—and crossed $75K in lifetime earnings.
Compared to the same month a year ago, my site earnings were up 280%. Wow.
Go back another year to May 2019, and earnings didn’t even cross $800.
To put it in perspective, I need the site to earn $250/day in order to meet my 2x income goal for 2021. In May, I averaged at $214/day—up from $207/day in March.
So, before I get into everything that went wrong during the last week of May, I concede the site is still a wild success.
(Fun Fact: The site earned nearly 3x what I put into it this month. That’s a far better rate of return than my traditional financial investments.)
This Month: 109,628
As I mentioned above, May traffic was very high—and very steady— for the first three weeks. The site seemed to have recovered from a random 25% traffic dip in April, and I was feeling really good.
After all, compared to May 2020, traffic finished up 227%.
But then, everything hit the fan.
I logged into Google Analytics on May 24 and had a small heart attack. Traffic had dropped 25% in a single day.
Maybe it was a fluke, or someone had outranked one of my big articles. Surely it would bounce back like it had in April.
I tried to put it out of my mind and go about my day. The next morning, I checked again. This time I had a big heart attack. Traffic dropped another 1,000 visitors on May 25.
In 48 hours, 50% of my site traffic vanished. Poof, gone.
I’d heard similar horror stories before. The difference was that most of those traffic craters seemed to be due to Google punishing sites for black or grey hat link building, or the result of big algorithm updates.
I hadn’t broken any of the rules. I didn’t know of any updates that would’ve caused this. I was totally blindsided.
A catch phrase from Pod Save America kept replaying in my mind, “It’s not great, Dan.”
If this continued, my traffic could completely disappear in just four days. It was about this time that I started breathing into a brown paper bag.
What was happening?!
I sent up a (flaming) red flag to my developer and Doug. I asked my developer if any of the site speed ‘improvements’ (more on that later) we’d been making could have caused the drop. I asked Doug if he saw any clues in Google Analytics that might explain it. Neither could come up with a clear reason for such a massive decline.
At this point, I’d like to say I took some deep breaths, lit a lavender candle, unrolled my yoga mat, and down-dogged my way back to tranquility and acceptance.
Instead, I found myself entrenched in the early stages of grief:
- Grief: Say goodbye to your dreams. All my hard work was for nothing. No quitting your day job anytime soon. Heck, ever.
- Denial: OMG OMG OMG. This can’t be happening.
- Anger: I did everything right. I played by the rules. My content was good. And still, Google totally screwed me over in an instant.
Even in the moment, though, I knew that wasn’t particularly helpful. Feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to help figure out what happened—or fix it.
Another Dan Pfeiffer nugget of wisdom drifted through my mind, “Worry about everything. Panic about nothing.”
I had to dig in and figure out what to do next—if there was anything to be done. I headed back to Google and searched for any info about recent algorithm updates. This article popped up, and I immediately sent it to Doug. Ironically, he’d been about to send me the same link. An algorithm change was a possible explanation, but there was no way to confirm it was the cause—and nothing I could do about it if that was.
Every time my brain started to spiral into what-ifs and OMGs, I did my best to replace those thoughts with this statement:
This Month: $2,234.91
Meanwhile, I had some big investments hanging over my head. I didn’t mind dropping a thousand dollars on course development when earning $6K/month seemed like a ‘sure thing.’ If my traffic stayed where it was now, though, earnings would also drop in half.
It was too late to change my expenses for May, but I worried about throwing more money at a site that was suddenly shrinking instead of growing.
Here’s where my funds went in May:
- $1,200 | Web development 10-hour block (refilled after running out in April)
- $320 | Operations support (outreach, Knowledge Directory descriptions, MarketMuse optimization, etc.)
- $119 | Teachable platform subscription (monthly) for future online courses
- $225 | Upwork writer deposit for first module course content (remaining 3 coming in June)
- $75 | Nonprofit donations for diversity program contributors
- $70 | Facebook ads promoting my two digital guides
- $200.91 | Mailerlite annual subscription (upgraded to next tier)
- $25 | Thank you gift card for team member who secured top-tier contributor
As a reminder, I was willing to invest up to $15,000 this year to help reach my goal of doubling site income. I crossed $10,000 in May, which I’ll admit is faster than I expected to blow through 2/3 of my budget. Then again, I’m spending ahead to develop my own products and courses that I hope to promote and sell in the second half of the year.
Activities & Accomplishments
Speaking of big endeavors, here’s a recap of my overall plan for the year. The only item I haven’t started for the Spring/Summer is the homepage redesign. Given the traffic drop, and anticipated revenue drop in June, I’m going to put this off for a while. I don’t need to be buying expensive development time for a nice-to-have project if Google isn’t sending me the level of traffic it used to.
The other thing I anticipate is launching my first course closer in July vs. June. (More on that later, too.)
So, what did I end up focusing on most in May?
Focus Area: Site Speed
I hadn’t planned to do much with site speed in May, but Doug connected me with a new company focused on it. They kindly offered to audit and improve one of his student’s sites for free and “guaranteed green” Web Core Vitals. Given the couple articles I’d read about upcoming Google updates focusing on this measure of site health, I said sure!
My developer was their point of contact, and the company made a few code and plugin tweaks. Here’s a screenshot from the report I received:
They then recommended we use an image compression plugin, implement more lazy loading, and try a plugin for serving up webp images. I’d never heard of webp files, but a quick search online told me they were basically smaller versions of image files that could be displayed automatically when a visitor’s browser was compatible with them.
Since my site has a ton of photography, switching to webp images seemed smart.
I already had an image compression plugin (Smush) and manually optimized images using Optimizilla prior to upload. My developer turned on some additional lazy load options, though I had him make some changes based on my ad platform’s directions. (Sometimes lazy load can mess up ad serving code.)
After checking out the webp plugin the site speed company mentioned, I didn’t feel good about installing it. It wasn’t created by a big-name, and I worried about ongoing support and security. Instead, my developer saw that CloudFlare offered a similar service—and that’s a trusted platform I already used for my other business and my niche site.
Between lazy loading and webp images, I expected to see a noticeable improvement in site speed.
What happened instead, I still don’t fully understand. Because of the Google traffic drop, I’d been pretty distracted. It wasn’t until days later that I spent enough time on the site to realize a bunch of images were taking forever to load (30+ seconds). Many others never loaded at all.
I had no idea if the image issues were the cause, a contributing factor, or irrelevant to the site’s traffic plummet.
Mobile page speed had dropped into the low 20s (red)—down from around 50 (orange). Desktop page speed had decreased too, though nowhere near as dramatically.
It was time for another panicked email to my developer, but he didn’t think anything we’d done should’ve caused the issue. Regardless, I had him roll back the lazy loading changes the following day. No improvement. Next, he turned off the CloudFlare webp image service.
Within a few hours, images returned and my blood pressure (slightly) lowered.
The most frustrating thing is not knowing why traffic and images tanked simultaneously—all I could do was hope Google stopped hating my site and sent visitors my way again ASAP.
Rock bottom traffic turned out to be March 27, but daily visitors still haven’t returned to previous May numbers. The site is getting ~2,800 daily visitors now compared to 4,000+ beforehand—down 30%.
Focus Area: Knowledge Directory Promotion
When I launched a searchable directory featuring 30+ educational resources from other experts in my niche back in March, my imagination hoped for an immediate (and significant) revenue boost. The reality has been far less impressive.
I didn’t sell any affiliate courses in April, and May generated a whopping $14.69 from three Knowledge Directory sales.
That said, I did very little to promote the directory in April and much of May. I added a static sidebar graphic and mentioned it in a few existing drip emails.
In May, we sent social graphics to all the directory contributors so they could share that their courses were featured. We also created ten additional emails for our drip sequence. Each focused on a new topic and included relevant blog posts and courses from the directory.
I had big plans to add a ton of in-text and graphic “ads” for the directory within my blog posts. But that went by the wayside when traffic and image issues struck.
Focus Area: Manual Outreach
In May, we were able to secure an article from another top-tier influencer. He plans to share the post with his audience in early June, so I’m hoping to see a lift from that.
We also did a bunch of outreach for our diversity program, and the reception was really positive.
We had a steady stream of contributions (articles and photos), and I love seeing the diversity of my niche community on display across the site.
Side note: I got my first nastygram in May. A subscriber sent me this after receiving the drip email about our diversity efforts and highlighting contributors of color. I didn’t both responding because this clearly isn’t the type of person I want in our community anyway!
Focus Area: Online Course #1 and #2
I planned to have one of my Upwork writers start drafting content for my first course by mid-May. Meanwhile, I had my team working through the outline for a second course (since I picked the topic early).
I lost 2-3 weeks thinking a subject-matter expert I met at an event was going to trade course content development in exchange for me building her new website. After a bunch of back and forth (and typo-ridden emails), I finally gave up on the idea.
The Upwork writer is now working on it, but the course launch will likely be at least a month delayed. Sigh.
My fingers are still crossed that a different subject matter expert follows through on content for the second course. I created a new website for her business as a barter, so I’m crossing my fingers that the content I get in return is high quality.
- (Somewhat) Knowledge Directory: Even though I haven’t seen the sales/income I’d hoped for from this effort, I did make my first three directory course sales in May. All three were for inexpensive resources, so my commissions were pretty low. But, it does prove the model can work. I’m trying to balance disappointment with the belief that I can growth this income stream over time.
- Amazon and Ads: Both of my money makers are doing very well. Amazon and ad revenue are virtually equal each month (~$3,100 each for May). As long as I have strong traffic coming to the site, I can count on these sources to generate steady income. What used to be an anomaly—$100 ad days—even became the norm throughout most of May.
- (Somewhat) Digital Guides: I hoped the two paid digital guides I launched would lead to an avalanche of sales. Who wouldn’t?! Instead, I sold four copies in April and three in May for a total of ~$50. I issued my first refund this month, too, due to a technical glitch with Shopify. The customer reached out saying she couldn’t download the file after two attempts and to please refund her money. I processed her refund and attached the file directly to my email response with an apology for the hassle. I was pleased to get this reply…
- Email List Growth: In May, my Mailerlite subscriber count crossed 2,600. I have a Mailerlite popup that generates 200-300 new signups per month, and an automated drip email sequence delivers 10 messages. *If* traffic recovers next month, it’s possible I might be able to hit 3,000 subscribers in June!
What’s Not Working
- GOOGLE >:-( I’m still largely confused about why the site saw such a dramatic downturn in organic traffic. Doug assures me that algorithm changes are common, and traffic often rebounds after big shifts. I’m really hoping that’s true in my case.
- Site Speed Changes: Whether it’s entirely fair or not, I wish I’d never made any changes to things like lazy loading, image compression, or webp images. Since those issues coincided with the drop in traffic, trying to improve site speed left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. Even if it wasn’t the root cause of the traffic decline, I can’t imagine it helped either.
- Facebook Ads: On a whim, I decided to try running a Facebook ad promoting each of my paid digital guides. I capped spend at $35 for each ad, so it wasn’t a big risk. If I could sell even eight guides, I’d break even. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. I only sold three guides in May, and I had to refund one of them.
On the Horizon
Overall, May earnings remained strong and set a new high water mark. That’s only thanks to strong traffic prior to May 24, though. I certainly don’t have the same level of confidence and excitement now as I did at the end of April.
Experiencing an extreme traffic drop and major images glitch has left me pretty disillusioned.
I know I’ll mentally rally (especially if Google goes back to playing nice!), but I also want to be honest about the struggles—not just the triumphs—during this journey. May included a lot more struggles than I’m used to, and it’s hard to realize your hard work can be undone in a matter of hours if you make a technical mistake or get hit by a Google update outside your control.
Here’s what I’m focusing on in June to get back on track:
- Develop content for my first two online courses
- Promote and SEO-optimize the knowledge directory
- Promote and add one more paid digital guide
- Grow my email list with free lead magnets
- Monitor traffic and see if I can figure out how to avoid future drops
In case this update feels a bit gloomy and doomy, let me be clear: I don’t regret building my site. It’s generated more than $75,000 in 2.5 years, attracted more than a million visitors, and brought me so much joy and fulfillment.
There are tough times in every success story, and the last week of May turned out to be one of those times. But that doesn’t mean I give up.
Though I don’t know what went wrong, there’s a lot more things still going right. I owe it to myself to move forward, make strategic investments, make smart choices, follow good advice, and see what happens.