Over the last few years I've tried a lot of different side hustles, from mining bitcoin, to importing products from China to sell on Amazon, and now with running affiliate websites.
But the side hustle that has the best potential and requires the least work (kinda sorta passive income) is starting an affiliate website.
In this guide I'll take you through all the steps you need to get an idea for a website all the way through getting it up and running, finding your first 100 articles to write, and making money within 1-2 months. Let's go.
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What Is an Affiliate Site?
An affiliate site is any website that makes money by getting website visitors to click on a link and purchase something form the site they're referred to.
A good example of this would be the Wirecutter. They have all sorts of review articles like this one titled Best Laptops for Students. They review a bunch of different laptops, pick the best one, and include a link to Amazon.
How Do Affiliate Sites Make Money?
If someone clicks on that link to Amazon and buys anything from Amazon in the next 24 hours, the Wirecutter will get a commission of 2-5% of the total order value.
If you ever click on a link to Amazon on a website and look at the URL in your browser, you'll probably see a code like this that ends with "-20"; that means it's an affiliate links. Here's an example from the laptop article I referenced above.
The nice thing about Amazon's affiliate program is that you earn a commission on anything the person buys within the next 24 hours.
In the last month I've had someone click on article of mine from Google, click a link to Amazon to buy a $7 item, then they ended up buying a laptop for $1,699 that earned me a $50 commission.
But Amazon isn't the only game in town. There are a ton of other affiliate sites out there like Clickbank and ShareASale that have offers from all sorts of websites and niches. For instance, if you wanted to make an affiliate site in the weight loss niche, you'd probably be better off with an affiliate that sells informational products (like guides or meal plans) so Amazon wouldn't make sense as an affiliate.
Buyer Intent Search
Think about what happens when you're shopping for something new that's worth a decent amount of money. I like backpacking so I'll think about when I'm shopping for a tent.
The first step is to do general research. I'd probably go to Google and search for these types of things:
- what is a lightweight tent
- 1 person tent vs 2 person tent
- Kelty tents vs Big Agnes tents
After some initial research I might narrow my selection down. Now I know that I want to buy the Big Agnes HV UL 2 (this is my actual backpacking tent). So then I'll go to Google and search more specifically for terms like:
- Big Agnes HV UL 2 review
- Big Agnes HV UL 2 price
- Big Agnes HV UL 2 for sale
These keywords are called buyer intent keywords. They're things people search for when they're in the last phase of their research and they're ready to click "buy" when they land on a website with the product they want.
If you get 10k people per month to read an article about "what is a tent", you might make $10. If you get 10k people per month to read an article called "Big Agnes HV UL 2 Review" you'll probably be making $500-$1,500 per month.
Buyer intent is super important and it's what will make up the majority of your earnings on affiliate site.
Examples of Successful Amazon Affiliate Sites
Just to give you an idea of what some really successful (like millions of dollars per year level of success) look like, here's a post with a bunch of examples and I'm going to highlight 3 of them here.
The Wire Cutter
The Wirecutter is one of the most famous affiliate sites out there. It was purchased by the New York Times for $30,000,000 and it makes millions of dollars per year in commissions from Amazon.
They built their brand around providing real, honest reviews that go super in depth with hands on testing.
I've modeled some of my affiliate sites after The Wirecutter. I've shamelessly copied the "Why You Should Trust Me" section to give a little blurb about myself and why I'm qualified to give advice on the product. It works well and builds confidence in your site.
Outdoor Gear Lab
I love to go backpacking and OutdoorGearLab.com is my go to source when I'm trying to research a piece of gear I'm thinking about buying.
They have a similar setup to the Wirecutter where they do hands on reviews. They usually compare 5-10 items at once and choose the best one. They don't spend as much time on doing individual product reviews but their format works and if I had to guess, I'd say they are making north of $100k per month easily.
This Is Why I'm Broke
Thisiswhyimbroke.com is a unique kind of affiliate site. Instead of writing a ton of content and doing in depth reviews, they just find cool stuff online and write 1-2 sentences about it. Here's what the homepage looks like:
This site was one of the first of its kind and it's had a billion copy cats since then. But don't let that stop you. There are still variations of this that would work today. Curating unique products for people will always be in demand and it makes life a lot easier when you don't have to write 2,000 word articles for every product you cover.
The hard part here is getting the brand recognition high enough that people come to your site by name. You won't get a lot of search traffic because there isn't a lot of content on the site so you'll have to get creative and find visitors through other methods like social media.
Why Should You Start an Amazon Affiliate Site?
The Amazon affiliate program is one of the most popular affiliate programs in the world and for good reason. Let's run through some of the pros and cons of using the Amazon affiliate program.
Pros of Using the Amazon Affiliate Program
You can buy just about anything on Amazon so no matter what your website is about, you can usually find something on Amazon that your audience would want to buy. This makes it easy to monetize any niche.
Higher Conversion Rate
After people click on your link to buy the product, they'll be redirected to the Amazon product page. People know Amazon and trust them. Nobody hesitates when they purchase something from Amazon.
Compare that to some of the products for sale on sites like Clickbank. Usually the landing page is some sketchy looking long form sales page that takes an hour to scroll through and read. The conversion rate on these pages is substantially lower than Amazon.
For products I sell on Amazon through their fulfillment by Amazon program, I usually get about a 10% conversion rate; so out of 100 people to visit my page, 10 will buy. Non-Amazon websites are usually in the 1-3% range so you'll be getting 3x-10x as many purchases by directing people to Amazon. This can make up for the low commission percentage.
Commission from All Items Purchased
Most affiliate programs focus on 1 item. You refer a person to a website to buy that item and if they buy it, you get a commission. If they buy something else, you don't get anything.
Amazon's affiliate program will give you a commission for ANYTHING the person buys within 24 hours. So all you need to do is get people to click through to Amazon, then if they have items in their cart and happen to check out and buy them, you'll still get a commission on those items even if they have nothing to do with your website.
Cons of Using the Amazon Affiliate Program
Amazon's commissions depend on the category the product is selling in. Some categories like TVs have much lower commissions. Here's what the fee schedule looks like as of August 2018.
Amazon's commissions are much lower than other websites like Clickbank. It's not unusual to find products offering a 50-75% commission on those sites. Contrast that with Amazon where it caps out at 10% and most items are in the 5% range.
This commission structure also means that the niche you choose will have a huge impact on how much money your site can earn. Here's a real example.
If you have a website that reviews video games, you're going to make 1% of any purchase people make. Most video games cost $60 so every time you get a sale you'll make 60 cents.
Contrast that with home improvement or lawn and garden. If you have a lawnmower review site you'll be making 8% commission and the products usually cost around $300 so every sale will earn you $24.
Take the example I just gave of a lawnmower review site. How excited would you be to write 100 articles about lawnmower reviews or creating informational articles about "how to change the oil on your lawnmower"?
This is one of the reasons affiliate websites fail. People get bored of writing this kind of content and give up. The people who can find a niche they're interested in and can create content with a unique angle will last the longest and will see the rewards.
This isn't something unique to Amazon affiliate sites. Any niche can be boring but just be aware that the niche you choose might box you in to something that you end up hating after writing 500,000 words for your website.
Takes a Long Time to See Results
This is another con that isn't really specific to Amazon, but starting an affiliate website can take a long time to see results.
Most affiliate websites rely on organic search traffic from Google. Google doesn't like new sites because they don't know if you can be trusted or not. It usually takes at least 3-6 months for a website to get enough authority in Google's eyes for it to start ranking on the first page of search results.
Until you can show up in the first page, and really the top 3 search results, you aren't going to make much money from an affiliate site.
There are other methods of getting traffic like Pinterest and Facebook but usually the traffic from those sites doesn't convert as well as Google.
Someone browsing Facebook is much less likely to buy something compared to someone searching Google for "where to buy a french press".
How to Choose Your Niche
Choosing a niche for your website is the first step and one of the most important. If you choose the wrong niche your website will fail and have no chance of making money. Ever.
If you choose the right niche you'll be able to quickly rank in Google and start making money right away. You'll have a competitive edge over existing websites and you'll see your site make money effortlessly.
Grab a pen and paper (or the digital equivalent) and brainstorm some niches using these guiding principles. I've come up with these from my last few years of experience and when I stuck to these rules, I ended up with a successful product/website.
Passion vs Profit
There's always debate in the affiliate world about whether you should choose a niche that you're passionate about or one that you don't care about but could be very profitable.
My advice is to always go for the niche that you have a passion for.
Affiliate websites are a long term play. You'll be working on this website for at least 2 years and if it goes well, much longer than that. If you choose a niche you don't care about, you'll get burnt out and give up.
You'll be writing the content for your affiliate site for at least the first 2 years. If you don't care about the topic, it's going to be really hard to keep writing about it.
If you want a successful site you should aim for at least 3 articles per week, with the average article being 1,500 words long. That's 4,500 words per week times 52 weeks per year which is 234,000 words per year.
If you stick to that schedule for two years you'll have written over a half million words. The average novel is 50k-100k words long so you'll be writing 5 to 10 full length books on this topic. Better make it something you like.
Relatively High Price Point
Going back to the Amazon commission structure, you'll only be getting about 5% of the sale price, depending on what category you choose.
If you decide on a niche where everything is really cheap, like a pencil review site, you're going to need a TON of traffic to make any money.
You should choose a niche where the average item I'll review for my website has a sale price over $100 but the higher the better.
If you can't find a niche you're passionate about with an average price of $100 it doesn't mean you can't make it work. Just know that you'll need more traffic and more content to make the same amount as someone who sells a higher end product.
Competition Doesn't Matter
A lot of people who talk about starting affiliate websites recommend looking at your competition and trying to find a low competition niche. There's two problems with this approach.
- It's 2018 so pretty much everything has been covered. You aren't going to find some mystical niche that doesn't exist and has no websites created around it. If you do, it's probably because nobody is searching for it. If there's no demand from people searching then there's not going to be any supply of websites writing about it.
- Even in a niche dominated by high quality websites you can still make good money (at least $5-10k per month). I'll get into this more later with my keyword research strategy, but my affiliate site I started from scratch is in a super competitive niche and I've been able to find more keywords than I'll be able to cover in the next 6 months. The articles I've already written are ranking on the first page of Google and bringing in money.
If you want to see your competition just go to Google and do a search for your niche or a review on items that are sold in your niche. Check out the sites ranking on the first page and you'll probably notice several of them as being really established brands. Don't sweat it. These guys are huge and are mostly going for huge search terms that get millions of visitors per month. We're going to start by going after lower competition keywords so we can start ranking quickly and we'll expand into more competitive areas of our niche later on when we've built some links and gained some trust from Google.
How to Get Your Affiliate Site Up and Running
Hopefully you've settled on a niche and you're ready to register your website.
Choosing a Domain Name
The first step is to choose a domain name. This is going to be your brand and what everyone will know you as. It's really important that you choose a domain name that you like. This is a matter of personal opinion so you'll just have to do some thinking and try to brainstorm some ideas.
Once you've got some ideas run them by friends and family to see what they think. It's a massive pain to change your domain name later and rebrand your website so try to find something you can live with from the get go.
One piece of specific advice I'd give is to not choose something too specific. For example if you wanted to make an affiliate site about speakers, I would stay away from domain names like www.bestspeakerreview.com and go for something more general like www.AudioFreaks.com.
Don't feel bad if this step takes a while. A lot of domain names have been taken so you might not get your first choice. Here are some of the sites I'd use to plug in your ideas and get some ideas of domain name variations:
After you've decided on a domain name it's time to register it. The specific company you use doesn't matter too much as long as you avoid GoDaddy. Just Google Godaddy horror stories and you'll know why you should stay away.
If you're new to affiliate websites, I'd recommend using BlueHost. They're cheap and have good support.
Once you land on their site, just click the big green button that says Get Started and follow the steps. The first thing they'll ask is if you are registering a new domain or using an existing one. Just choose New and go through the rest of the checkout process.
After you get the domain name chosen you'll have to decide if you want to host your website with the same site that sold you the domain.
Hosting Your Website
If you're new to affiliate sites, you should keep your hosting and domain name together with the same company. This will save you hours of technical headaches. The only people who should separate hosting from their domain name registrar would be someone who has ran websites before and is comfortable changing the nameservers around. If you don't know what that means then don't mess with it. Keep your domain and hosting together.
When you're first starting out, you need to keep your costs down. You don't need some fancy hosting solution that costs $100 per month. What you want is something cheap and easy to use.
Whenever I start a new site I just throw it on Bluehost. Hosting costs something like $4 per month and their site is really easy to use and manage your account. A lot of people complain about Bluehost because it's slow and that's true when your site gets larger. But in the early days you'll be lucky to see 50 people a day on your site and Bluehost can handle that easily. If you do see your site taking off and growing quickly you can also upgrade to faster hosting plans with Bluehost, it just takes 1 click.
If you're looking for higher end hosting that will be faster than Bluehost, I'd recommend WPXhosting. I've moved my larger sites over to WPX and I really like it. They'll even do the migration for you for free. You just give them your login details to your website and they'll transfer everything over for free. It's amazing.
WPX is definitely more expensive than Bluehost. I think I pay about $40 per month for my hosting package but it lets me host up to 10 sites on it so this gets the per site cost down to $4-$8 per month depending on how many sites I've got over there.
No matter what host you choose, almost all of them will have a 1-click install for WordPress. I've never used Wix, Weebly, Squarespace or any other site builders out there and I wouldn't recommend you try them either. WordPress runs 1/3 of the websites on the internet because it's super flexible and entirely free.
When you install WordPress it will ask you where you want it installed. The default is to install it on www.yourwebsite.com/wordpress or something like that. You want to change it to install on www.yourwebsite.com. If you mess this part up just delete your WordPress install and try it again. If you need help, ask your hosting company and they can do it for you too.
Choose a Theme
The next step is to choose a theme. Your website's theme will determine the look and feel of your site. You can always change your theme but it can kind of be a pain. Don't worry about choosing the perfect theme and don't pay for a theme yet. I 100% guarantee you will change your theme, probably within the first 3 months.
There are free themes available right in WordPress and paid themes available on sites like ThemeForest. After WordPress is installed you can log in by going to www.yourwebsite.com/wp-admin. On the left side of the screen choose Appearance > Themes > Add New.
This will take you to the WordPress theme search engine where you can browse for themes you like. Once you find one that fits your style just click Install then Activate and boom, it's alive!
The main reason everybody uses WordPress is because it's so easy to customize. By using plugins you can add all sorts of functionality to your site like additional security to stop hackers, adding pop up boxes to get email subscribers or price comparison tables which are super helpful for affiliate sites.
Here's a list of 4 plugins I install right away on every site I build:
The EasyAzon plugin is a paid plugin that lets you easily import images from Amazon. One of the hard parts about building an affiliate site is finding pictures you can use. You can't just take pictures from other sites out there without getting sued.
But Amazon makes their photos available as long as you use their API. This basically means you can't just take screenshots of Amazon's pictures and upload them as your own. Amazon listings can change and they don't want you using old photos so the only legit way to do it is through a plugin like EasyAzon.
Here's an example of what EasyAzon looks like after you search for a product.
It will pull up all of the different images on the listing and you can choose what size you want to use. It's WAY faster and easier to use than going through Amazon's affiliate page to get the links every time.
The other Amazon related plugin I use is called AAWP. It stands for Amazon Affiliate WordPress or something like that. Not a great name but the plugin is FANTASTIC. It has 2 awesome features I use on almost every article, here's what they look like.
The first is being able to create custom tables and insert custom attributes or pull directly from Amazon. They look gorgeous.
One of the stickiest parts of being an Amazon affiliate is you aren't allowed to show the price of a product unless it's pulled via API and updated every 24 hours. So you'll see affiliate sites that just list the price as "$$$$" for expensive products and "$" for cheap products. I think it looks bad and I much prefer to have the real price shown.
The other feature I use is called a product box. All you have to do is type where the numbers/letters in the quotation are the ASIN of the Amazon product and AAWP will automatically build a beautiful box that looks like this:
You can customize every single part of this box too. You can change the title, bullet points, even the star rating. I had a product yesterday I was reviewing on my affiliate site that had 1 review on Amazon and it was only 3 stars for a really dumb reason. I know this product is way higher quality and I'd personally rate it as 5 stars. So all I had to do was add "rating="5"" to my AAWP code and boom, 5 star rating.
If you want to see another use of AAWP, look at my sidebar (or the bottom of the page on mobile). You can put links to any products on Amazon in your sidebar and they look good and can generate some commissions from Amazon with almost no effort.
This plugin is free and it helps you optimize your on page SEO. Yoast can check to make sure you've got your keyword in the title, H1 headings, first paragraph, etc so you can make sure you've got everything optimized.
Yoast is free and can be found through the WordPress plugins section of your site, similar to how you'd find free themes.
Yoast has a tendency to over-optimize so don't worry too much if it gives you a red or yellow light meaning your page isn't optimized. It's a good starting point when you don't know anything about SEO and it will help you learn the ropes.
W3 Total Cache
This is another free plugin that builds a cache of your website. I won't claim to know all the technical details of how cache plugins work but basically they make your website load faster. Page load time is something that Google uses as a ranking factor in their search results so it's important that your site loads fast.
Cache plugins are easy to use and can speed your site up so there's no reason not to use them.
Keyword Research and Content Creation
After your site is up and running with a good theme and at least those 4 essential plugins installed, it's time to start creating content.
But before you start writing articles for your affiliate site you need to do some keyword research.
Keyword research is a way to figure out what topics you should write about. I gave examples earlier about finding keywords that show buyer intent and targeting those, but there's more to it. If you try to write articles about "how to lose weight" or "vizio TV review" you'll never get any traffic. The sites that are ranking on the first page of Google for these keywords have thousands of backlinks which is the #1 signal that Google uses to figure out if your website is trustworthy.
To get started you need to target keywords with lower competition. These are keywords that big sites aren't going after or don't have any links built to them so it's much easier to rank on the first page.
There are a lot of different methods to find these keywords but most of them involve paid tools. The keyword method I've been using with a lot of success lately is totally free and finds FANTASTIC low competition keywords. It's called KGR and stands for the Keyword Golden Ratio. Doug Cunnington from Niche Site Project came up with it and it's genius. Here's a video that explains it:
The KGR is just the number of search results that have the entire phrase in their title (find this using allintitle: before the search term) divided by the monthly search volume from the plugin Keywords Everywhere. If this number is less than .25, then it's a good keyword to target.
So an example would be if you find a keyword that has 100 monthly searches in Keywords Everywhere, then you want to see fewer than 25 articles that are targeting the exact search phrase in their title.
This method takes a little bit of practice and grit to do. There's no shortcut and no software that will do it for you. You just have to put in the time.
I spent about 45 minutes doing this method and I was able to find 30 articles I could write. You'll also find some keywords that have even better ratios than .25. Here's my spreadsheet tracking these keywords. You can see some with really low ratios like 0.1 where I only found a few articles targeting the keyword. This means you'll rank higher more quickly and start getting traffic.
For these keywords I'm obviously targeting search terms with a really high buyer intent. People looking for the best X under $200 are probably pretty close to pulling the trigger. They've narrowed down their selection and price range and they just need a final recommendation before making the purchase.
You don't have to target buyer intent keywords with the KGR. You can use it for any type of keyword like informational articles or "how to" guides. It's just a method to find keywords that are easy to rank for. Keywords that aren't focused on buyer intent are usually easier to rank for because most sites are looking to make money, not just get traffic.
One final piece of advice on the KGR method; if you see a keyword with search volume of 0, don't rule it out. This might seem counter intuitive. If something is getting 0 searches, then why would you try to get visitors from that keyword?
The truth is none of these keyword tools are all that accurate. In fact, one of my best articles shows a monthly volume of 0 searches. I actually get about 5 visitors per day which is 150 people per month and I don't even rank #1.
Types of Content to Write
There are 2 broad types of content. Informational and affiliate. Informational content is usually a guide or a list type post that's fun to read and has no monetization. Maybe you put a few ads on it but you don't have any affiliate links or obvious ways to make money on the page. These types of pages are really good for getting search traffic and ranking in Google. You can also use them to get links from other websites much easier since it's not just a money grab article.
For the affiliate articles that you are going to link over to Amazon, there are a couple different formats I like to use to vary things and target some longer tail keywords.
X vs Y
This is one of my favorite types of affiliate articles to write. The competition for these keywords is usually pretty low and the buyer intent is really high. They're also easy to create since most products don't have many differences between them.
As an example, lets say you run a photography website. There are a million different kinds of cameras out there and for every possible camera, it could be compared against another one. That means you'll have thousands of possible topics to write about.
I like to use Keywords Everywhere to just search for X vs Y topics and see what other suggestions pop up. Look for X vs Y searches that fit the KGR criteria (protip, almost all of them will) and add them to your list of topics to cover.
Best X for Y
Similar to X vs Y, the Best X for Y article usually recommends a specific product for a certain activity/person/field. Sticking with the camera example, here are some sample keywords that would fit this pattern and be possible topics depending on if they fit the KGR criteria:
- Best digital camera for kids
- Best DSLR camera under $300
- Best camera for photographing sports
You get the idea.
Top 10 X
It doesn't have to be 10, but doing the top 5 or top 10 of a specific item is a nice way to cover a lot of different products. When people read a top 10 article they aren't looking for a mega in depth review. They just want to know some of the pros and cons to each choice and some basic facts about the item. These types of posts are easy to put together and have catchy titles that can get people to click when they see it in the search results or on social media.
This is your standard bread and butter review article. Sticking with cameras again, this would be something like "Nikon D3400 Review". You'll end up writing a ton of these articles on your site. It's best if you can actually get your hands on the physical product since your review will look much more authentic but in the early stages that's not possible.
The best way to write a review on a product you haven't actually used is to do a ton of research. Read every review you can find on Reddit, see what the reviews on Amazon say and try to spend a few hours sucking up every bit of information you can find.
Once you've done that you'll know more about the product than 99.99% of the population and you'll be in a pretty good place to write a review that will help people figure out if the product is a good fit for them.
Remember to always be honest. If every review you write has a 5 star rating and you're always telling people to buy, buy buy, they'll lose faith in you. The Wirecutter has done so well because they're trustworthy. If something sucks, they tell you. Just look at their Kuerig review :).
Take action. Nothing happens without putting in the time and effort. Practice just in time learning which means you take action and do as much as you can until you hit a roadblock. Then go do some reading/watching Youtube videos and figure out how to solve that problem, then get back to work. Don't try to learn 100% of the process or you'll never actually get started.
Get this Free e-book with my 7 favorite side hustles.
This guide is short and actionable with 7 side hustles people are using right now to make life changing amounts of money.
This isn't some B.S. fluff guide. These are real side hustles that I've tested and used to make over $50,000 in the last 2 years.