Lessons in Building a Website Business (While They’re Still Fresh)

I used to dream about becoming an editor, but I’ve never really been one to keep my finger on the pulse of pop culture and politics enough to supervise opinion pieces. However, finding several niche topics and connecting them for my own understanding has always been my strength.

As I started my career I always feared the complexity of business and advertising, but kept succeeding in the workplace with high-quality content and my ability to keep producing it at that level.

“You’re like the organization’s brain,” my videographer co-worker told me. “You learn everything about each client’s business, internalize it, and then write about it as if you know it like they do.”

I didn’t think much of it at the time. Then I took one client’s organic search traffic from under 1,000 visits per month to over 50,000 visits per month, and I realized I might have something here.

That’s when I began to think about owning my own website. If I could grow client’s websites more or less on my own, then why not for myself?

I’m just as jazzed to get there as the day I first thought about it, but I wish I’d taken this advice seriously before starting.

 

Year 1 Feels Like a Hamster Wheel

“It’s going to be rough for a year or two, and that’s if you put in two hours per day.”

I heard this from Mark Webster and Gael Breton on the Authority Hacker podcast and felt a sinking feeling in my gut. That’s a long time to work on something without a payoff, right? Then I thought, “but I bet most people can’t write content like I can.” True, but that was naive.

After spending a year on my first real hobby website, I can verify that it definitely takes longer to build traffic than I thought it would.

It sounds negative and dreary but I’ve come to learn that it’s just the truth about starting a website—especially one that relies on organic search for traffic. Google favours fresh content but it doesn’t trust fresh websites. It wants to see new stuff from established publications with powerful trust signals.

That’s great, but it can bury even the best content in obscurity unless you really work to promote it. Many companies don’t even have a budget for that.

It felt like a hamster wheel, constantly going over things with a new coat of paint:

  • Refining the cornerstone content with better research.
  • Adding visuals that your pages sorely needed.
  • Redoing website structure because your vision changed.
  • Constantly figuring out what to write next, even after doing the keyword research.

Every time I start a website content project I’m reminded that, just like other marketing, it’s like a flywheel: each turn of the wheel adds power and speed, eventually driving your marketing engine at full power. But it takes a while to get there. My dramatic SEO case study took 8-9 months to see serious results, and the traffic didn’t start to level out until about the 18-month mark.

 

 

I’m not sure what I was expecting… 20,000 monthly visits by month 6? I received a much-needed reality check.

Lesson learned? Patience isn’t just a virtue with SEO. It underpins a website owner’s ability to stay focused, motivated, and confident.

 

Just Get Started With Content. Now.

I spent months trying to figure out what the site would be about and what niche it would follow. I spent weeks looking for designers and waiting on them. I spent months working on just three pages.

For all of that cautious planning it was the ground-level content that enabled my website to gain real traction. It wasn’t the theme and it wasn’t the colour palette. It wasn’t even the cornerstone pages I’d spent entire weekends researching and writing.

It was the consistent creation of blog content that brought early success.

 

 

The proof is in the pudding. My content was the driving force behind the traffic in every conceivable way–not product pages, not “about” pages, and not even category pages. Just the posts themselves. I spent so much time worrying about the perfect website architecture that I missed out on a considerable amount of traffic—ironically, exactly what I had been trying to avoid by over-thinking the website project’s details.

To this day I wonder how much faster I could have launched my website and attained my traffic goals if I had just started sooner.

 

You Won’t Make Any Money for a While

I’ve heard all kinds of philosophies on monetizing websites. Some say you should build up traffic for a while before diverting your attention to money, while others say you only need a few thousand visitors to get started making money.

I was afraid that the first was true and hopeful that I could achieve the second.

It had been suggested that I turn part of the website into a paid ebook, so I did it. Once I hit 5,000 sessions per month I stopped creating content and set out to bring a paid ebook into the world. After chasing several designers, experimenting with three separate ecommerce platforms, and restructuring the website to accommodate an actual product, I finally launched it.

I sold 1 ebook in my first month—just $30.

 

 

It was a harsh reminder for a few lessons:

  1. Selling a specific product means real marketing and building a tribe.
  2. You need an audience to buy from you, and it should be a fairly big sample size to experiment.
  3. Don’t fall in love with what you’re selling. Anything could succeed or fail.

That’s when I realized I hadn’t built out the website enough to start monetizing. Mark and Gael over at Authority Hackers were right: the first year or two are a lot rougher than I expected.

All that time is spent figuring things out and taking care of everything directly, from hosting to design to content and everything in between. Diverting my own attention to monetization before hitting my stride in content production only put production on hold, which did nothing for my site’s trust signals with the big G. I lost the “fresh” factor. Google also dropped its Core Web Vitals update at the same time—and while I had prepared for that ahead of time, all of my site improvements were sitting in a staging server while I waited on designers to finish the ebook I’d commissioned.

 

Be Ready to Abandon Your Favourite Tools

I’m a content writer, not a developer. That means I need to pick my tools carefully while working in a field with strong technical demands, like digital marketing.

I’ve chosen my hosting provider with care. I’ve chosen a content management system with ubiquitous support, too. But how to create visually striking websites without paying designers and developers?

I found Divi for that, and I’ve spent several years becoming adept at it. I love it. It lets me do almost anything I can imagine on a web page.

… but there’s a problem. It’s bloated. It’s slow–so slow, in fact, that my early traffic was nearly cut by 25% over several months after Google introduced its Core Web Vitals update. Divi’s creators had been talking about making performance updates for a while but have yet to produce them, as of writing.

 

 

I adapted. I found ways to make my site as fast as possible, even achieving near-perfect scores for website speed and Core Web Vitals metrics (even for mobile pages), but Google still wasn’t entirely convinced.

 

 

That’s when I realized that I might need to abandon the Divi platform. My current content website project is running on it, so it might not make sense to rebuild the entire website right now. But what about my other projects? What about the next content sites I want to build, or client projects?

It taught me that I can’t get too attached to any single tool in digital marketing. The entire industry is in motion, and the tools we use—while vital to our success—can also entrench us and trick us into being left behind the curve.

Case in point: My next website, probably in personal finance, will run on a different theme. Either WordPress’ 2021, or maybe Astra. It’ll be a new learning curve but no content website will thrive if it’s starving for organic traffic.

 

At the end of the day, I love doing this. I’m a content writer at heart who loves learning new industries. This is something I’m meant to do. But it’s also a long journey, even just to start a single website. At least my honourary Master’s in Delayed Gratification will help me persevere. 😉

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Andrew is a content writer and SEO specialist working out of Guelph and Waterloo, Ontario. Since graduating with his Master's in history, he now runs the Employed Historian blog in his spare time and is known to help out companies to build traffic through his freelance brand, Webb Content.

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