Niche Site Experiments: Lessons Learned from Building My Portfolio with Shawna Newman [EP. 53]

Niche Site Experiments: Lessons Learned from Building My Portfolio with Shawna Newman [EP. 53]

Sarah Nuttycombe September 15, 2021

Starting your first niche site is one thing – buying, growing, and flipping an empire of sites is another. So how do you scale and sell a portfolio of niche sites?

Shawna Newman is an SEO expert with nearly 20 years of experience acquiring and scaling niche sites. She is one of the most seasoned SEO professionals in the industry, known for her unique testing methods and extensive year-long case studies. She is also the founder of Skipblast, where she shares her key findings from her SEO and business research.

Shawna joined us on this episode to discuss her methods for building a niche site portfolio, what to look out for when buying and selling sites, how to scale newly acquired sites, and much, much more.

Listen to The Opportunity Podcast Episode #53

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  • Spotify Podcast

Topics Discussed in this episode:

  • How to build an SEO site portfolio from scratch 
  • How long it takes to make $1,000/month from a niche site
  • How to buy and sell sites as part of an SEO portfolio
  • How to diversify your revenue streams, grow your sites, and run an email list
  • When to monetize your site
  • How Shawna developed a successful system to acquire aged and expired domains
  • Shawna’s monthly growth and selling plan
  • How to bounce back from an algorithm update
  • The misconceptions about monetizing and “dripping out” your content
  • The future of building niche sites


Growing a Niche Site Empire

Shawna describes herself as a “senior citizen of the SEO industry”. She first got started creating niche sites and working with SEO back in 2003. Since then, her knowledge and experience have evolved from building AdSense sites, moving onto Amazon Associates sites, and arriving at the hybrid affiliate and display advertising sites she works on today.

Shawna’s portfolio could easily be described as an empire – she runs it for four to five hours a day, five days a week, enjoying all the luxuries of being her own boss and working remotely, and living off of the revenue from her sites. But she put in the work first.

Although she got her start in 2003, it wasn’t until 2008 that Shawna took her SEO game full time. And even then, she says it was another two years before she started seeing “real success”. So, what does Shawna’s empire look like today?

How to Build a Niche Site Portfolio

After years of experimenting with what does and doesn’t work to grow a site, Shawna’s built a broad portfolio with sites in a variety of niches, which includes:

  • Her oldest and most profitable site (making around $6K a month)
  • New sites that aren’t generating revenue
  • Eight test sites she uses for her experiments

In total, Shawna owns and operates 17 sites. For some of her sites, such as the test sites, Shawna says the goal isn’t to make money. Those are her experimental playgrounds and help to keep her at the top of her field.

Keeping all 17 sites performing requires a structured approach. Shawna has developed a method that allows her to keep all of her plates spinning:

“Whenever I start a new site, I’ll do a big content sprint and post 50 or so articles. Then, I’ll put it to one side, leave it to marinate, and work on the next one. I like to work on a quarterly basis. So, every quarter, I’ll focus on up to five established sites and start some new sites during that time too. Then the next quarter, I’ll rotate out five more established sites, and so on.”

She has a tip for producing a high volume of content in one go: stick to informational content.

For example, it’s far easier to write 50 pieces of informational content compared to 50 buying guides. Your pieces also don’t need to be as long to rank on search engines, and there isn’t as much competition as affiliate-focused content.

When it comes to seeing a return on her niche sites, Shawna says that she goes in open-minded. But generally, with most niches, she starts to see sites making around $1,000 a month after working on them in her quarterly rotation for 12-18 months.

Buying and Selling Sites: What to Look For

Shawna believes the best sites are undervalued; an undervalued site is one with two key qualities:

  1. It has a really good foundation but hasn’t taken off yet
  2. It’s selling for $5,000 or under

Her approach to selling her sites is far more flexible. She spends some time with each site evaluating its traffic, monetization options, and how much revenue potential it has, then she considers how much money she’d like to earn on the exit.

Whether she’s buying or selling, Shawna puts a big focus on links. She doesn’t buy sites with questionable links (aka, a “clean site”) and prefers sites with a range of diverse links. In fact, Shawna believes that the acceptance of certain link types is a characteristic of a shift we’re seeing in content site acquisitions.

“Links have always been a constant focus for buying and flipping sites, but over time, we’ve seen the type of links that are accepted in the marketplace evolve. I think we’re seeing a big evolution in terms of monetization insights and what buyers are looking for. There’s less of a focus on affiliate sites and more of a focus on diversity and display ads.”

More and more people are looking to buy sites with which they can monetize display ads rather than put all of their eggs in Amazon’s affiliate basket. But Shawna feels like not enough people in the industry are paying attention to this trend.

The Best Way to Monetize a Niche Site

If you’ve just started or acquired a new site, Shawna’s top tip is to explore all of the biggest sites within that niche to see how they’re being monetized. With this information, you can start a list of all the possible ways you can monetize your own site.

This list will give you a pool of ideas to draw from to diversify your income stream, reduce risk, and give you a better idea of your site’s true potential.

For Shawna, diversification is key. Getting stuck in a rut with income from just one revenue source, such as Amazon affiliate links, may mean that you end up leaving a lot of potential on the table. She suggests thinking about more ways you could make income from your sites or products you could offer, such as:

  • Ebooks
  • Online courses
  • Services

Another area Shawna believes people neglect is copywriting. Thinking about your site as a media company and producing more written content for it is one of her top tips for growing your niche site in today’s market.

How to Boost Your Revenue: Links vs. Content

Shawna is the queen of SEO testing, so we asked her what’s better for growing your niche site: pumping it with content or building backlinks?

While both are recommended ways to improve your SEO and direct more traffic to your site, it’s rare that you’ll have the time and energy to do both.

Shawna undertook a year-long case study with an established site (that she’d been sending links to and creating content for) and stopped link building completely. Instead, she focused solely on content.

When she focused on backlinks and content, she increased the site’s monthly revenue by $900 in 12 months. In the following 12 months, she invested $10,000 into content alone: the result?

The content boosted the site’s monthly revenue by an incredible $2,500! This increase in revenue resulted in a higher exit value for the site.

Shawna’s answer to the question of content vs. backlinks is: “Content all the way!”

Top Takeaways for Scaling a Niche Site

In her journey from buying to selling, Shawna uses many tactics to grow her sites. Here are some of her tried-and-tested methods:

  • Hit hard with content: if your site already has established links, focus on pumping more content into the site to increase its traffic levels and your ROI. Also, this method takes far less time than link building.
  • Start monetizing as soon as possible: one time, Google approved Shawna’s site to receive AdSense revenue when it had as few as 35 posts. Apply for AdSense early and add your affiliate links as and when opportunities arise.
  • Create an email list: capitalize on decent levels of traffic – at least 10,000 monthly sessions – by offering visitors a free download, such as a checklist, as a reward in exchange for email addresses to build your list.

Shawna uses these strategies to scale her niche sites as part of her quarterly rotation. She’ll do this until the sites are earning enough revenue whereby she can start to consider their sale price.

Previously, Shawna’s “sweet spot” was anywhere between $500-$1,500 in monthly income before she would consider flipping a site. The site could be earning this amount just 12 months after she acquired it.

However, in 2021, Shawna has been taking advantage of the rising multiples in the market. She’s been holding onto her sites for longer, growing their monthly income to $2,000-$5,000 for a higher exit price.

This is proof that if you scale each of your sites in your portfolio in the right way, you scale your entire empire.

To hear more from Shawna, including how to acquire aged and expired domains and her current plan for her portfolio, check out the full podcast episode. Press play on the player at the top of this page or find The Opportunity Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your usual podcast app.

If you feel it could be a good time to sell your site, or you’re just curious as to what it is worth, then try our free valuation tool now.

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