Written By: Tom Ogg, Co-Owner – Travel Professional NEWS
In the search to building revenue streams during the COVID-19 pandemic we continue exploring the opportunity that affiliate marketing offer travel professionals. This month we will explore the nuts and bolts of building successful affiliate websites.
Building a Travel Affiliate Website
I founded and operated several cruise related affiliate websites that generated a low to mid six figure income 100% from affiliate revenue. The sites are still around so you can see what they have become. CruiseReviews.com, PortReviews.com and their various subsites like AlaskaPortReviews.com, HawaiiPortReviews.com, CaribbeanPortReviews.com and so on. The sites generated between 10 to 13 thousand dollars a month from Google AdSense alone just to give you an idea of their productivity. I sold the entire complex of sites for 7-figures based solely on their affiliate revenue.
Much of the information contained in this article is quite subjective, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some web guru or other Internet expert finds this information not consistent with their beliefs. In the final analysis, any new information that you receive will just be one more resource to help you along the way. I certainly do not have all the answers, nor does someone that will disagree with what I am about to share with you. All I can tell you is these tactics worked for me, and I believe that they are one direction to lead to the path of success.
If I sound a little over sensitive on this subject, I am. I had a webpreneur that kept calling me week after week tapping me for information on how to make money as a travel affiliate. Based on my personal success, I shared many concepts with her. However, she was more specific action-oriented and didn’t seem to grasp the larger picture of evolving winning websites. The conversation finally came to a halt when, after a long discussion, she pointed to something that I had shared with her as being incorrect. While that may have been the case for her specific application, building a winning website results from understanding the overview and then experimenting, revising and refining until you discover what proves most effective for you. There is no cut and dry method that is the end-all for travel affiliate websites.
With that said, here are suggestions that I can offer that have worked for me in the past and are ideas that I use when planning and building a new web project. The bottom line is to build websites with the focus of making money as a travel affiliate and no other reason. Succeeding will require you to test new ideas, evaluate them and continually work to improve the performance of your sites.
Design Your Site For Affiliate Advertising
This is the number one rule when you create a new website. Nothing is worse than adding affiliate ads after the fact. Trying to find where to place them on a page and in what size and configuration will lead to a disastrous result. Designing web pages that allocate the appropriate space for the placement of advertisements makes sense. Think about how magazines are laid out. The ads are placed in the prime locations first, and the content wraps around the ads. Your eyes are drawn to the ads, and the content keeps you flipping pages. This is how your web pages should work.
Decades ago Joanie and I ran weekly 20-column inch newspaper ads for our Hawaii tour company in the Sunday travel section of the San Diego Union. We quickly discovered there was a correlation between where the ad was placed and the amount of engagement it created. We found that above-the-fold placement outperformed below the fold every-time. When the ad received placement on the right-hand corner above the fold, the results were even better. Finally, when our ad had the dominant typestyle and size and gained the aforementioned coveted position, it outperformed every other position in the travel section. Ads that appeared below the fold on pages where the primary ad was a 2/3 page giant page-killer and resided in the lower left column achieved the worse results.
“Above the fold” in web-design terms means ads that are visible on the web page as it is opened in a browser. Clearly, ads that appear “below the fold” or require a visitor to scroll down for them to be seen are not as likely to stimulate a click through. When planning your web page, place all of your “above the fold” ads first and then worry about adding the content.
“Below the fold” ads are best used for specific purposes that appear to be logical conclusions to either one of the segments of the page or the entire page itself. “Closing ads” may offer the visitor the opportunity to further research the topic of the page by following related links (ads) and can be very effective. By designing your advertising space first and then the content, you can insure that you will not sacrifice your click-through rate due to poor ad delivery and/or location. If you are using a web designer for the initial design of your website(s), make sure they give you the advertising layout before they start to work on the content and navigation elements of the design.
Forget Flash, Framesets, MySQL, PHP and ASP: This is really a very basic concept. Web designers love the latest technology. They love Flash intros and using frames to make sites really cool. They love database driven sites, such as PHP and ASP. In short, there is a wealth of technology available to really dazzle visitors. But, what do visitors really want? They want content, and they want it fast. If you deliver the content to them quickly, they will love your site. It is as simple as that. You will make money if visitors come to your site and then click on affiliate ads that appear there.
The way to deliver the most relevant affiliate ads is to have your web page optimized for the keywords that the content is about. Search engines love it when they can come to your site and immediately find your keywords, validate them and give your site a high relevancy ranking for the keywords. They do this by following the procedures as outlined earlier in this book. Adding anything that stands in the search engine’s way of accomplishing this task is only going to be detrimental. My advice is to use basic HTML in either a tables laid out format or simple CSS. Using tables has the advantage of making sure that your ads will be delivered in a constant display, even though the content may change each time it is delivered based on computer resolution, screen size and format and the browser the viewer is using. CSS will give you complete control over the way the ads and content appear to the viewer, but may result in pages too large to be seen by viewers using lower resolutions or too small for a viewer using higher resolutions or wide screen monitors that are so popular with the Gamer Generation. Your website must be totally responsive for desktop computers, notebooks, tablets and smart phones for maximum clicks.
The winning platform for building affiliate sites is WordPress and Yoast SEO. This combination is used by most affiliate sites and search engines love the platform and completely understand it. Yoast SEO will allow you professional quality SEO on each one of your web pages. It makes the process super easy. Here are some ideas on how to optimize your site.
Use Textual Links: This is also very elementary. First of all, web designers want to dazzle you with great java rollover effects or graphical heat maps. Unfortunately, search engines can’t see these, and you are losing a key opportunity to reinforce your keywords to a visiting search engine and/or ad server. By using textual keyword hyperlinks, you are reinforcing your keywords (both in the text itself and in the link) to gain a higher relevancy ranking. Textual links load faster than any java, Flash or graphical link and visitors don’t really care as long as the content is there.
More importantly, you do not want your visitor to differentiate between a textual navigational link and a textual affiliate marketing link. Think about it for a minute. If you are using a third party referral to drive business to an affiliate link, why make the link appear different than your navigational link? Clearly, textual affiliate links that mirror navigational links have the highest click through rate.
Use Descriptive Keyword Page Links: This is another basic concept. While we have already discussed it briefly, laying out your website requires evolving different keywords for each page of content in your website. The keyword textual link that you use should be named the specific search string keywords for which the page is optimized and should also appear in your H1 textual page title. Using database driven page links make it impossible for search engines to determine what the page is about.
Use Alt Tags on Your Graphics: Be sure to use your keyword search string on no more than four of your .gifs, .pngs and .jpegs to reinforce the keywords to search engines. Since search engines cannot see graphics they eagerly look for the graphic’s alt tag to find out what the graphic is all about. By using your keywords here, the search engine will pick up the information as part of its relevance ranking. However, be careful not to use the same keyword search string more than four times as the search engines may think you are trying to spam them, and it would have a disastrous effect on your relevance ranking.
Building Your Website(s)
While this article is about travel affiliate marketing and not a discussion of building websites, I am including some direction for those that are looking to acquire or enhance their web development skills. The time has long past when one needed to be trained in arcane code to develop a website. Today, anyone with even a minimal understanding of personal computers can create highly professional websites themselves. The only time one would need to go beyond what follows is if a highly technical website is being built, however that can be done relatively cost-effectively. Therefore, I have also included some suggestions on how to do that for a nominal amount of money in this chapter.
Adobe Creative Cloud: For a nominal monthly fee you can subscribe to Adobe’s creative cloud which contains absolutely everything you would need to create and manage professional level web creation. Here are just some of the application that are included.
Adobe Dreamweaver: Considered the standard for professional web designers, Dreamweaver has become easier to use with each new release. Dreamweaver will allow you to lay webs out in both tables and in CSS and is an excellent choice if you do not want to go with the suggested WordPress / Yoast SEO platform.
Adobe Photoshop: One of the most wonderful opportunities that exist for travel affiliates is to evolve web content using digital cameras and Photoshop. While digital cameras have evolved to 20 megapixels (and more), the subsequent sizes of the photos are huge. With Photoshop you can not only improve the quality of the photo making it look like a professional photograph, but you can also dramatically reduce the size of the photo by using Photoshop’s compression tool. This will compress the photo into the smallest possible size so that it will load quickly on your site. It is quite possible to take an original photo that might be several megabytes and reduce it down to less than 10 kilobytes without losing any of the quality. This is a huge benefit for content that depends upon .jpegs for images. Remember, the key to your success is content that that is delivered fast.
Adobe Fireworks: The only function of Fireworks is to create web graphics. Textual effects, static and animated banners, buttons, navigational structure and graphics are easy to create with Fireworks. This product should be in every travel affiliate’s tool box.
Adobe InDesign: InDesign is the professional layout tool for both digital and print flyers, brochures, newsletters, magazines and anything else that you would want to create with a professional layout.
Adobe Acrobat: If you are going to deliver .pdf content from your website, you will need to obtain Acrobat to distill the various files into .pdf format. While there are now a number of .pdf distillers on the market, Acrobat is going to give you the best of the best.
Using Web Templates
Web templates are pre-designed websites that one can purchase online from aggregators of web templates made by hundreds of designers.
Sites like www.TemplatMonster.com, www.ThemeForest.com and www.Pixelmill.com offer thousands of complete websites ready for you to load your content. For an unlimited source of web templates, just enter the keywords “Web Templates” or “Travel Web Templates” unto Google.
They sell from anywhere between free to about $79.00 and can be simple one page designs to very complex 60-page websites. There are a good number of pre-designed travel templates to choose from and more are being evolved every day. The main advantage of using templates is that you can be up-and-running just as quickly as you would like. Templates are sold online and are usually available for immediate download and use. At this point all WordPress templates and themes are highly responsive which means that they accommodate desktop computers, notebooks, tablets and smart phones.
The one disadvantage of using templates is that they may have been sold to hundreds of other people for use on their websites. Many of the designers will modify an existing template to personalize it for your needs. Also, having a custom template designed and built for you is not out-of-the-question in terms of price.
Even though a template may only come with a fixed amount of pages, you can easily duplicate a page by saving it as another page. One trick that I use is to create an “A” page for each folder of a web site. An “A” page is simply a blank page that is ready for content and is optimized for the folder it resides within.
Finally, be sure that the template that you purchase can accept affiliate code and banners. If you are going to run AdSense above the fold, then you should be sure that the template could accept and display it. Of course, make sure that the template is also search engine friendly. Avoid Flash introductions, framed templates and other items that might intrude upon the website’s ability to make search engines happy.
Working with Web Designers and Developers
While my advice would be to stick with WordPress templates or simply designing your own websites, sometimes you may need to use a web designer/developer to create a website for you. This would normally be the case if your site was going to be an e-commerce site, use databases, ASP or PHP or some other complex coding. Finding an honest and hard-working web developer can be a difficult undertaking. I actually had a developer quote me a price of over $10,000.00 to build a PHP site that I eventually had built, tested and loaded for $350. I had another person quote me $8,500.00 plus a mandatory prepaid support package of 20 hours of support for another $1,500.00 to build a social networking site that I discovered was going to simply use phpFox. As you may or may not know, SocialEngine is a social networking software solution in a box that costs $300.00 (www.socialengine.com)
The bottom line is that you need to do your homework before you commission any web developer to start on a project. Many times, there are existing scripts and code available that will accomplish exactly what you want. Once you are aware of the script, you can discuss the script modification costs rather than get fooled into thinking that the web developer is actually evolving the code him or herself.
Given my natural curiosity about technology, I started hanging out in PHP discussion groups and studying sites such as PHPBuddy.com, php.net and DevShed.com. I became more familiar with the capabilities of PHP and the realities of evolving PHP driven websites. That is when I stumbled across a world that I never knew existed. I discovered there are numerous programmers in countries all over the world that are looking for work and capable of doing a top-notch job for not a heck of a lot of money. But, how could I contact these developers and communicate with them?
Enter UpWork.com. I found several websites that connect website developers worldwide with those that want to have websites built. While UpWork.com is the site that I used, other sites that do pretty much the same thing are GetaFreeLancer.com, IfreeLance.com, RentaCoder.com and Elance.com. You will find that there are many more.
Armed with a little knowledge of PHP and a very descriptive outline of what I wanted built, I signed up with UpWork.com and posted my job for bid. Within 12 hours, I had received over 20 bids from all over the world. One man in India bid a total of $350.00 to do the job and sent me a private e-mail with links to projects that he had done that used the exact technology that mine required. I was blown away by both his price and the quality of the work he had performed. I awarded the job to him. UpWork.com worked so well that I have developed a couple of other webs in the same fashion and with the same results.
Based on both my successes and failures in this process, I thought I would share some helpful tips I learned should you desire to have a website developed. While I was looking specifically for a PHP expert, bids can be made on all variations of websites and the cost is minimal. As an example, submitting a job for bid to UpWork.com is completely free.
Know What You Want Before Bidding the Job: This is critical. You need to submit specific details of every aspect and component of the website that you want built. Include links to sites that are comparable in ways to how you want your site to look and function. Anticipate and include everything possible in your original description. Learn basic technology nomenclature so that your job description reads as if you are knowledgeable and expect a fair and honest price for quality work. Be aware that a poorly written job description will lead to problems down the road, so make sure to attend to this portion of the process thoroughly and with careful thought.
Understand that English is Likely the Web Developer’s Second Language: Never use anything but correct business English. Many of the people bidding on your job live in countries where English is a second language and may be using a web translator to decipher your request. Never use slang, and avoid any use of words that might not be understood by the person with whom you are communicating.
Beware the Cheapest Bid: In an environment where labor is available for pennies on the dollar compared to having websites built within the U.S., always look towards reputation and past performance more than price alone.
Never Award Your Job to a Developer that is Not Established with the Bid Service you are Using: UpWork.com allows buyers to rate their experience with the web developer. This is one way to insure that you will receive quality work on time. There are always newcomers that will bid on your job, but you are much better off awarding it to a developer that has dozens of satisfied customers that have posted their testimonials.
Always Use the Bid Service’s Escrow Service: While shopping for coders globally is a fantastically wonderful evolution in global trade, be aware that there are people out there that will take your money and run. One of the things that I personally like about UpWork.com is their free escrow service. Here is how it works. You first deposit funds into your account When a job is awarded, the developer starts on the job. To prove that you are serious, you might deposit a small amount into the escrow account for the job. As the job progresses, you might deposit a little more. Once the job is finished, the developer will want you to deposit the full job amount into the escrow account before the job is delivered. At this point, you cannot reverse the deposit into escrow and the developer cannot access it. Once the job is delivered and you are happy with the results, you then release the money in escrow to the developer.