Stephen Hockman has over 15 years of experience in affiliate marketing.
He’s grown many affiliate sites, been through Google penalties, recently sold a niche site, written a book, and is currently building an SEO site in public – sharing all his strategies.
He’s full of practical advice on SEO, content creation, and link building that you can actually use and implement today. He shares tips on starting up a new site, internal linking, SEO, site structure, and a whole lot more.
This is quite a long interview that we did with him, but I encourage you to read every word of it. Stephen has a lot to share, and it’s all very valuable!
Who are you and what is your background?
I’m Stephen Hockman and I’ve been doing SEO and creating affiliate websites for about 15 years.
I’ve had a lot of success with Internet marketing and make a six-figure income with only a few sites. Today, I average about $18,000 per month from my affiliate sites as a solo operator.
In the past year, I decided to give back to the Internet marketing community by writing a book that reveals my best tips on how to write affiliate content that converts. It’s called Affiliate Content Secrets: Proven Affiliate Marketing Tips & Strategies You Can Use to Maximize Your Earnings (available on Amazon).
I also started a website that gives away free SEO advice: SEOChatter.com and there’s a YouTube channel to go along with it.
The goal of the book and the SEO site is to help other people who are new to affiliate marketing achieve faster success so they don’t have to spend over a decade to earn money online.
If you’re active on Twitter, you can follow my daily SEO tips and news at @seochatterblog.
How did you start making money online?
My journey with SEO and affiliate marketing began in 2008 when I stumbled across an online course called The 30 Day Challenge by Ed Dale. It was free video training that taught you how to set up and rank a website that could make you passive income online.
The goal of the course was to help you make your first dollar online within 30 days without spending any money to earn it. And it worked!
I had no prior experience in SEO or affiliate marketing before watching that course. But once I saw the first video, I got hooked on the idea of making passive income online and put everything Ed taught into practice.
I set up a site on a free blogging platform and wrote my first article about Bose headphones. I became an affiliate with Amazon’s Associate Program and added affiliate links to the content. And within just a few weeks, I had made my first sale and earned $2.18.
While that wasn’t a lot of money, I was still blown away by the fact that I could actually make money online. That experience made affiliate marketing instantly addictive and really fun at the same time. So I created more web pages on that site that reviewed other Bose headphone models as a way to capitalize on the strategies I had put into place to make that first sale.
Not too long after that, I decided to level up this business by signing up for a web hosting account, buying a few new domains, and creating various niche sites in the areas I was interested in. I then started writing roundup posts that targeted keywords like “best x for y” and reading everything I could find online about how to do SEO to get those pages to rank high in Google.
One niche, in particular, took off fast and started earning me several thousand dollars per month from those simple roundup posts. It was an amazing feeling to have such instant success online and to earn an income through affiliate marketing.
But then disaster struck – I got a manual penalty from Google.
Tell us about the Google penalty
It was during the days of Panda and Penguin updates, and all of my traffic and earnings dropped to zero overnight. Google slapped my best-performing site with a “thin content” penalty.
That’s because all of the posts were 1,000-words or less and include simple rewrites of Amazon descriptions. There was nothing unique about the content; however, it was ranking high on Google and earning me tons of money at the time.
That sudden drop in rankings and money was a devastating moment in my life. I was about to quit the entire affiliate marketing business. But I didn’t do it.
That’s because I knew that I was onto something big and giving up would be the wrong thing to do. I had figured out how to do SEO the right way to rank a site and stumbled upon a lucrative niche. So I would be throwing away a golden opportunity if I didn’t get back into the game.
After about 2 months of doing nothing, I decided to try again. But this time, I created a new site in the same niche with content that was much more in-depth. I gave more value to the reader rather than just rewriting Amazon descriptions and trying to be the middle-man to earn a click and a buck.
Within 6 months, that site started to rank again in Google. By the end of the first year, the site was ranking #1 for almost every “best x for y” keyword I targeted because of the SEO strategies I had put into place.
Today, that site continues to dominate the first page of Google for almost every keyword I write content for. And I’ve used the same site framework and strategies to build other successful affiliate sites. Some of which I keep and others that I’ve sold.
Why are you building SEO Chatter publicly?
After writing the Affiliate Content Secrets book in 2020, I discovered that many of my readers also needed help with good SEO practices.
I started the SEO Chatter website in February 2021 to give away free SEO advice that anyone could use to rank their sites higher in Google (affiliates and non-affiliates).
As an added benefit to my followers, I’m building the SEO Chatter website in public. So all of the search engine optimization strategies I teach on the site are also being used to optimize and rank the site on Google.
The purpose of building in public is to show others how to do SEO while also providing a live case study that the information I’m sharing does work.
Along the way, I’m also giving away free SEO tips and tricks on Twitter (@seochatterblog) and asking for feedback from my followers on various things I’m implementing on the site. For example, I’m trying to create a daily email newsletter and asking my followers to give me feedback on the opt-in form.
I am also sharing screenshots of my Google Analytics dashboard so people can see how fast the site is growing and how engaged my readers are with the content.
Building a site like this in public is a good way to teach others, inspire them to take action, and build a base of followers that I can engage with in the public sphere.
Tell us about your 6-figure affiliate website sale!
In 2020, I sold one of my affiliate sites through Empire Flippers.
It was easy and seamless. All I had to do was show proof of my monthly earnings and Empire Flippers took care of the rest. They found interested buyers for my site and it sold for more than $100,000 within a day of listing it.
Empire Flippers also handled the entire migration process, from transferring the site to the new owner’s hosting account, to switching out the affiliate links, and more. I literally sat back and did nothing once the listing went up for sale.
I started the site in July 2019 with the end goal of selling it. And for the first 8 months, it had very little traffic and made $0. But that didn’t scare me because I knew that was going to happen when I first began building it.
During those first 8 months, I wrote about 16 affiliate roundup posts for the top keywords in that market (i.e. best x for y). I then wrote an equal amount of information articles to support and internally link to those roundup posts.
As for backlink building, all I did was create 15 local citations and a handful of guest posts on specifically targeted sites that were in the same niche.
After 8 months, the site traffic exploded. And practically every page jumped to the top 3 spots in Google for every keyword I targeted. It went from earning $0 to $4,000 per month by the time I sold it 6 months later.
The monetization methods were Amazon Associates Program and Mediavine display advertising. And I sold the site for 30X the monthly revenue.
What has worked for you to grow your websites?
There are several strategies I have learned over the years that have helped me to grow my affiliate sites. And all I do is rinse and repeat these tactics to grow my sites to higher earnings.
The first thing is to keep your site simple.
A basic WordPress installation is all you need to start ranking your content. The site I sold last year had two categories for blog posts: buying guides and informational guides.
All of the talk you hear online about creating intricate silo structures and crazy ways to set up the taxonomy of your site can be ignored. It’s unnecessary to get higher rankings. Just set up a new WordPress site and start publishing blog posts. That’s really all it takes to rank.
The second thing is to focus hard on on-page SEO.
Once you get your on-page optimization down, it makes ranking so much easier. You don’t need as many backlinks as people lead you to believe (or try to sell to you).
There are around 20 spots on an HTML document where you can put your keyword, and it’s important to maximize the SEO ranking power of those spots.
I follow a specific on-page SEO plan for every page I publish and it works.
Also, ignore what people say about keyword density and exact match keywords on the page not working anymore. In my experience that is false. I’ve literally increased the number of times a keyword is mentioned on a page and boosted my rankings without any over-optimization penalty.
Third, copy what’s already ranking in Google and then make it better.
If you do a keyword search for the phrase you’re targeting, Google will show you what type of content it wants to rank for that keyword.
Just open up each of those ranking pages in a new browser tab, take note of the layouts, the H2s and H3s, how long the content is, etc. Then use that as your roadmap on how to write your content.
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Combine all of the similar things you see on each of those top-ranking pages (there’s always a pattern) and then add in something unique so your content is not just an exact copy of the current top-performers.
Your “something unique” could include more statistics, a comparison table, more images, a video, quotes from industry experts, etc.
Fourth, internal linking is an extremely powerful, yet underrated, SEO tactic.
I use Spencer’s plugin Link Whisper to help me with this process but the secret is to use the target keywords you want a page to rank for within those internal linking anchors.
But don’t just use one keyword and the exact match phrase for every internal anchor text. Instead, pick 3-4 keywords you want the page to rank for and rotate through them with your internal anchors from other relevant pages on your site.
Also, add some filler words into those anchor texts so you don’t repeat the same 3-4 keywords over and over again exactly.
For example, if you targeted the keyword, “best widget”, your internal anchors could be, “best widget”, “this best widget”, “my best widget review”, “guide on the best widget”, etc. Adding in other filler words can help reduce internal over-optimization but still keep that exact match keyword inside the anchor text.
A final growth strategy is to reach out to the brands you’re promoting on your site for links.
It amazes me that more people are not doing this. All you have to do is publish a roundup buying guide or individual review for a product and then email the company or send them a message on social media that says something like this:
Hi, I just wanted to let you know that your brand made it on our top 10 [best x for y] for 2021 list!
We’re actively running Facebook ads to this post to get more exposure for your [widget] and the guide. Would this be something that you could also link to in the news section on your site and/or social media so we can drive more traffic to your brand?
A message like that is powerful because most brands want to highlight when they’re mentioned on other sites. It boosts their credibility. Plus, once those companies hear that you’re actively promoting their product as well, they’re more inclined to reciprocate with a link.
I’ve used this exact outreach tactic to gain powerful backlinks from some of the top brands in my niches.
What other tips do you have for building affiliate sites?
An important strategy I’ve discovered is the method of templating affiliate content.
What I mean by this is every affiliate roundup post should be laid out the same way. Similarly, every individual product review should have the same sections that give a good overview of the item.
On top of that, it’s good to use the same format for meta titles because this HTML field is one of the most powerful on-page SEO ranking factors.
When you template your content like this, you can start doing on-page SEO tests and conversion rate optimization experiments by making small tweaks on a few pages while monitoring the results. And once you discover a change that makes a positive impact on those pages, you can then roll out that change to every similar page on the site.
An example of doing this on my own sites is the inclusion of a comparison table.
In the past, I never had a table like this on my pages because I didn’t like them personally. But one day, I decided to test the inclusion of a comparison table on my top three traffic pages. And this simple table boosted my conversion rates and earnings. So I then deployed a comparison table on every affiliate roundup post on my site and increased earnings across the entire site.
Another good lesson learned is the power of good copywriting.
Most affiliate marketers never learn this skill and it leaves a ton of money on the table. There are small changes you can make in the way you write that can convince people to act now and buy something after landing on your affiliate page. I explain all about those tactics in my book, Affiliate Content Secrets, so you can get higher conversion rates and earnings.
Something else that has helped me tremendously in my business is to narrow my focus to one or two tasks and ignore everything else. And while it can seem like you’re not making progress at first, over the long-term it will usually work out well for you.
A good example of this is how I batch produce content.
For two months straight, all I did was write new affiliate roundup posts and publish them on one particular affiliate site. I did nothing else. In the end, I had 16 new buying guides to earn me money for years to come.
Another example is when I did an internal SEO site audit.
I literally spent three months going page-by-page and comparing my content that wasn’t ranking in the top 5 spots on Google to the competitors. I took note of the information I was missing that they had, improved the on-page SEO, and focused on strategic internal linking for each page until I moved onto the next one.
That was a painstaking process, but it was laser-focused. And in the end, I was able to increase the rankings across the entire site because everything was better optimized and met the search intent for the users.
Something else that has worked well for me is starting a YouTube channel for my affiliate sites.
And all I do is turn the blog posts into short 3 minute videos.
The process is simple too. I write a 350-word script that talks about the top three products in the roundup post, then hire a spokesperson on Fiverr to read the script on camera, and add links to the products in the YouTube description.
That strategy has helped me earn revenue from YouTube display ads and affiliate income from Amazon and my direct affiliate partnerships.
What platform and plugins do you use?
I use WordPress for all of my sites.
I also use Link Whisper to find internal linking opportunities.
A few other essential plugins for me are:
- Shortcoder – to insert affiliate links and offer blocks into info posts
- All In One SEO – for meta SEO
- Broken Link Checker – to find internal and external broken links
- Autoptimize – for speed
- WP Super Cache – for speed
- Easy Table of Contents – for inserting a table of contents on each page
- TablePress – for creating roundup review tables
What is your strategy for growing your business?
My strategy is to try and rank as many pages on a new site as high as you can without building backlinks.
Here is the process I follow:
- Step one is to write around 15-20 roundup buying guides to publish on the site. That way those pages can have time to age and establish rankings.
- Step two is to start writing as many informational pieces of content as I can to support those buying guides.
I’ll write 5 informational posts that can internally link with target anchor text to at least 3 of the buying guides. I then rinse and repeat this process so that every roundup buying guide has at least 5 informational articles linking to it.
- Step three is to repeat the process in step two with another batch of 5 articles internally linking to 3 buying guides.
In the end, I’ll have 10 informational articles at a minimum pointing to each buying guide on the site. Often, that’s enough for my buying guides to start ranking well in Google.
- The next piece of the puzzle is to send local citations to the homepage of the site to build easy backlinks and add some authority. I do about 15-20.
- And finally, if pages are not ranking on page one of Google after 30 days of building those local citations, I’ll then start doing outreach to get niche-relevant backlinks to specific pages on the site to help power them up.
- After all of that is complete, the site goes on auto-pilot and I can just maintain it as necessary. If I see any keyword positions slipping, I assess what’s going on and try to fix it.
I also try to publish 1 or 2 new informational articles or new roundup buying guides per week to keep the site growing.
What keeps you going when things are tough?
What keeps me going is thinking about my previous successes.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve experienced many setbacks, but I remind myself that the things I’m doing actually do work and I just have to be patient for the results.
Patience is a key discipline you have to master to be successful in SEO or affiliate marketing. It’s very rare that you have overnight success, especially when you’re creating a new site.
But small incremental steps and changes you make to your site are what reward you over the long-term. So I try to remind myself of that even when I’m not immediately getting the results I want.
I’ve also found comfort in talking with other affiliate marketers and SEOs. The challenges I face are not new and many other people are experiencing the same things. So it’s a good reminder to stay calm and keep pushing ahead because that’s how you continue to win in this business. Minor setbacks are temporary.
Advice for other online entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
My top advice for anyone who wants to get started with SEO or affiliate marketing is to just get started. Jump in and learn as you go. Set up a blog and start writing.
Ignore the traffic and sales metrics for the first 6 to 12 months.
If you focus on good on-page SEO, internal linking, and creating high-quality content, then your site will take off eventually.
Ignore the noise and hype about having to build (and pay) for tons of backlinks. In my experience, a lot of that is not necessary unless you’re in a super-competitive niche, and you’ll often get burned in the long run if you’re not careful.
Also, build up a brand for your site. Don’t create something generic. Choose a brandable name and invest in a high-quality logo. Or put your face on it if you can. People love to connect with real people online.
Finally, start learning as much as you can about SEO and conversion rate optimization (CRO). Watch YouTube videos and read blogs about these topics.
You don’t want to have a high-ranking page on Google that converts poorly. So learning how to convince people to buy something after landing on your page is essential to growing your earnings. I can’t stress the power of CRO enough and it’s a topic I covered specifically for affiliate marketers in my book, Affiliate Content Secrets on Amazon.