Case Study – How List Sites Are Making ALOT of Money With Simple Content

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This article is a guest post from my buddy Nate Tsang who has a blog over at SEOFlipper. Nate has been buying, ranking and flipping sites for a number of years now and he has found a formula that has worked time and time again.

In this guide, Nate will teach you his exact formula and how you can replicate his success. It is an absolute monster and one that I know you're going to love.

Note: AuthorityMetrics is no longer operational, however, there are tools such as Ahrefs and SEMRush that will allow you to find keywords and their difficulty.

Take it away Nate.


Over the past couple years, I’ve built and sold several sites that use list articles (aka “listicles”) as the primary content format, and its still a format I use profitably to this day.

While I can’t disclose the actual URLs of the sites I sold out of respect for the buyers, the sites were similar to this one publicly listed on Flippa.

Smashinglists.com was doing $3k a month and sold for $40,000 – likely underpriced due to the seller having their Adsense account banned.

List sites are fun to build and the model for building an “infotainment” list site is very different than the traditional niche site model you might be used to seeing.

Instead of targeting low volume but highly commercial keywords with buyer intent, you’ll be targeting high volume, non-commercial keywords that other SEOs aren’t really going after.

Instead of building a site as an SEO-Affiliate Marketer, we’ll be building a site as an SEO-Publisher.

Even if you don’t end up building an infotainment list site like the one we’ll see below, I hope you’ll find some valuable takeaways that will help you build better sites!

This Is Not The Traditional Niche Site Model

The infotainment site model looks very different than the traditional niche site strategy which usually involves:

  1. Finding a small set of commercial keywords w/ low competition
  2. Buying a partial match domain name
  3. Building a handful of 500-1000 word articles around related longtails.

While those sites can certainly be very profitable, they’re basically an arbitrage play between Google and Adsense/Affiliate offers. Its the classic SEO-Affiliate Marketer approach to building websites which is under constant attack from Google.

On the other hand, the SEO-Publisher approach (or SEO-Publisher-Affiliate Marketer) is a long-term model that can not only survive in today’s SEO environment but still has the potential to thrive going forward.

List sites are an easy way to start building sites from an SEO-publisher perspective, which requires a mindset change if you’re used to building traditional niche sites.

Because of my personal fascination with SEO, the list site model I’m sharing with you today still relies heavily on Google.

However, by taking the SEO-Publisher approach, you do have the opportunity to use other channels like social media to gain traction and grow your list site – something that’s virtually impossible with the traditional SEO-Affiliate Marketer approach.

What You Will Learn In This Guide

  • Step by step processes to find low competition keywords for your list articles
  • How I got over 100,000 Facebook likes on a $30 list article
  • How to do perfect on-page optimization for your list articles, while still keeping your articles engaging for the reader
  • How to structure your list site
  • My easy to follow linkbuilding strategy for ranking list sites

Our Strategy

Before we dive into the tactical details, let’s take a quick look at what we’re trying to accomplish.

This guide will show you how to build a list site with a broad range of informative, yet entertaining articles – think a mini Listverse.com.

Ultimately, we want this site to:

1) Drive a ton of SEO traffic

2) Earn revenue via Google Adsense

3) Encourage social sharing

Our traffic generation strategy will lean heavily on SEO. The key to our SEO strategy will be laser targeted keyword research focusing on high volume, low competition informational keywords. We will make sure these are supported by lots of closely related long tail keywords.

Our on-page SEO will be extremely well optimized, but not at the expense of readability. We will carefully choose our titles to incorporate the right keywords.

We’ll mix in a lot of relevant long tails within the content to ensure we get traffic – even if we don’t rank for our primary keywords.

Our content will consist 100% of list articles. List articles have some inherent advantages over your typical SEO article. I discuss some of these benefits in this SEO content creation guide.

For off-page SEO, you can choose your preferred method of grayhat/whitehat linkbuilding – whether it’s via PBNs, guest posting, outreach – or a combination of all of the above.

What About Social Media?

Some of the fastest growing list sites on the internet rely heavily on their social media dominance.

Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Distractify etc. all make frequent use of the list article (alongside other “viral-bait”) to drive hundreds of millions of page views per month.

Cracked.com is an old-school player that is exceptional for creating interesting, hilarious list articles that get a ton of social shares.

But this guide isn’t about creating articles that are engineered to go viral, or creating exceptionally funny or compelling content. We’re creating list-style articles optimized primarily for SEO.

They will get social shares as a side effect, but that’s not our main goal.

Of course, there’s also tremendous value in pursuing social media as its own traffic channel independent from Google, but we’re not going to touch on that in this guide.

Niche Selection & Keyword Research

What Kind Of Keywords Are We Looking For?

We want keywords that can be easily targeted with interesting, list style articles that would appeal to the average web browser who is just looking to kill some time.

They also need to be high volume keywords with low to moderate competition and lots of related long tails. The stiffer the competition, the higher volume and more long tails we need to make it worth targeting.

For each set of keywords, we generally want 1-2 primary keywords, and between 2-5 long tail keywords.

So how do we find these keywords?

Reverse Engineering Top List Sites For Keywords

Most people start their keyword research in the Google Keyword Planner, but in this case, starting here actually illustrates a common problem with this approach to keyword research.

How do you even begin to generate ideas for great list articles in the Google Keyword Planner? Where would you even start?

Fortunately, there’s a better approach. We’re simply going to find successful list sites that dominate search rankings and we’re going to:

1) Find out what keywords they’re ranking for

2) Analyze the difficulty of those keywords

3) Find out which of those keywords we can rank for

4) Use those keywords as the blueprint to kickstart our own list site

The more sites in your market you can run through the process we described above, the more low competition, but potentially profitable keyword groups you’ll find.

Here are 5 list sites I was able to find with a cursory Google search.

  • listverse.com
  • list25.com
  • ranker.com
  • oddee.com
  • toptenz.net

In this walkthrough, we’re only going to analyze the first 2 of the 5 big list sites we’ve identified.

If you wanted to build your own list site, just analyzing 2 big sites in your niche should be enough to get started,

However, the bigger you can make your plot of pay dirt, the more likely you are to find the golden nuggets.

The Process

When I originally built-out my list sites, I used a combination of SEMrush (with a coupon code)+ another keyword tools that could bulk analyze keyword difficulty.

This let me pull in keywords that big sites were ranking for and also bulk analyze difficulty.

A lot of popular keyword tools (dating back to the old Market Samurai days) do a great job of giving you data to analyze a SERP individually, but without bulk keyword difficulty data, how can you quickly analyze a large batch of 1000s of keywords to figure out which ones are the low hanging fruit?

Getting the data to build out my sites was a pretty painful process. There was a lot of merging spreadsheets, importing and exporting, and then recalculating metrics.

To solve that pain point, myself and my partner Han built a keyword tool that will let you type in any competing website and not only pull up the keywords they’re ranking for, but also find out how competitive the SERP is for each keyword.

We can take a couple of the big list sites, run them through the tool, and see if there are any keywords with healthy search volumes and low competition we can target.

With one click of a button, we pulled 3,889 keywords that our 2 list sites are already ranking for, along with all of the metrics we need to quickly sift for golden nuggets.

Filtering For Golden Nuggets

If you’re mining for gold, you want to sift through as much paydirt as you can. Even if most of what you sift through is just rocks and bottle caps, the more you have to work with, the more likely you are to find gold.

As SEOs, this means using automated processes to collect data on as many relevant keywords as possible.

Now that we a large list of keywords that are driving traffic to 2 of the top list sites on the web, we need to filter through our keyword list to find the nuggets that we can rank for.

Because AuthorityMetrics has retrieved a Difficulty Score for every keyword (calculated by analyzing Moz metrics and on-page relevance for the top 10 for each keyword), we can simply use the filters in AuthorityMetrics to identify potential nuggets i.e. keywords that have a good balance of high volume/low competition.

After applying our filters, we’ve identified nearly 800 keywords we can potentially use to kickstart our list site. You can see a dozen of those keywords in the screenshot above.

Out of this list of a dozen keywords, let’s take a quick look at the keywords and see if there are any nuggets.

Selecting Our Keywords

The next step of the process is to identify keywords we can add to our “shortlist”.

Once we have a nice shortlist of keywords, we can dive deeper into each individual keyword to find related longtails and decide which groups of keywords we want to include in our initial launch.

But first, we’ll take a closer look at some of the keywords we’ve identified.

1. No Trespassing Signs

Volume: 6,600 Difficulty: 3.51

This keyword has decent search volume and high buyer intent, but this buyer intent actually means that the searcher is looking for a website that sells signs.

A little search in Google shows us that this keyword got caught up in our net because of an article called 25 Brutally Honest No Trespassing Signs on List 25.com. While List25.com isn’t in the top 10 here, it is in the top 20.

We could potentially target keywords that have higher buyer intent and count on the searcher clicking on an Adsense ad to find what they’re looking for.

But when I’m launching a new list site I like to make sure the searcher’s intent is as aligned with the content I’m providing as possible.

Also, it looks like Google heavily favors e-commerce sites in this SERP, so it might be harder to rank with a list article than it appears at first glance.

2. Plastic Surgery Gone Wrong

Volume 22,000 Difficulty: 4.29

This keyword is perfect for an interesting list article.

A list article showing different cases of plastic surgery gone wrong is exactly what the searcher is looking for.

Even though most searchers won’t have buying intent, you could get higher than usual rPMs from Adsense since plastic surgery is such a lucrative niche.

The keyword has very high volume, which we like. But while the difficulty score of 4.29 is still under our threshold, this SERP is filled with authority sites that are also highly relevant to our query.

While the keyword isn’t something we’ll rank for quickly with a new site, there are likely a ton of relevant longtails we can identify in the next step, and it’s a perfect shareable topic for the type of site we’re building, so we can go ahead and add it to our short list.

It’s worth noting that if you have a decent volume keyword with moderate difficulty (let’s say 8000+ search volume, difficulty score between 4.5-5.5), you’re very unlikely to rank for it with a young site using the list site model.

However, it can still be worth creating an article targeting that keyword, if you have other lower competition long tails related to that keyword you could rank for.

You don’t have to rank for every primary keyword you target, at least not right away.

As you’ll see when we go over our linkbuilding strategy, we’ll be building a “flywheel” of authority we can use to rank for increasingly competitive keywords.

The fact that this keyword gets so many searches means its interesting to a lot of people, and you should still be able to drive traffic to the list through long tails, internal click-throughs, and social media.

Added to the shortlist.

3. How To Become Famous

Volume: 22,000 Difficulty 3.95

This keyword’s difficulty score seems to be skewed downwards by some of the lower competition results in the bottom half of the page, but the competition at the top means this keyword isn’t really the type of low hanging fruit we’re looking for early on.

I will add it to the shortlist, just so we can see if it brings up any interesting long tails.

4. Private Security Contractors

Volume: 1,600 Difficulty: 3.85

This keyword is pretty low volume, and the top two positions here will be difficult for us to outrank early on. Pass for now.

5. Cockroach Facts

Volume: 3,600 Difficulty: 4.13

This is another SERP where the difficulty score is skewed by positions 5-10, while the top few results could be very difficult to beat for a young, non-niche relevant site.

These “facts” keywords are also generally more competitive than they first appear. If we were a pest control site with a partial match domain we might be able to get in here with lower authority, but we’re not.

This isn’t the low hanging fruit we’re looking to launch a new list site.

6. 90s Shoes

Volume: 14800 Difficulty: 3.17

Looks good, there are some nice volume, low competition and an obvious angle for a list article.

The keyword volume here might actually be skewed a bit high because some 90s shoe related quiz/list went viral at some point, but it should still be worth targeting.

The actual Buzzfeed list that’s ranking doesn’t use our keyword in the title at all. If it did, I’m confident it would be ranking in position #1 quite easily.

Added to our shortlist.

7. Green Boots

Volume: 3,600 Difficulty: 3.84

A quick glance shows this isn’t really going to make a for a great list article.

Most searchers are probably looking to buy green boots, but this keyword got caught up in our net because of a famous frozen body on Mt. Everest.

Pass.

8. Cost of Mail Order Brides

Volume: 1,900 Difficulty: 2.88

Going to pass on this keyword because, well frankly, I’m not sure I want to go down this rabbit hole.

But it does have very low competition and there are some interesting angles to explore if anyone wants to dive into the research.

9. Coolest Car In The World

Volume: 1,600 Difficulty: 3.82

This keyword has relatively low volume, but there will likely be a ton of long tails we can target. The keyword itself is tailor-made for a list article.

It also has fairly low competition – there are some strong domains here and the page in position 3 has strong domain authority, lots of links, and a relevant article – but our article will be a lot better optimized for the keyword.

We’ll have the exact keyword match in the title tags, the article title, within the content, and lots of closely related long tails.

10. Car Facts

Volume: 5,400 Difficulty: 4.03

Similar to the cockroach facts keyword, we can definitely target a keyword like this in the future but it’s not really the type of low hanging fruit we’re after right now.

11. Expensive Jewelry

Volume: 1,300 Difficulty: 3.65

We’re not going to unseat Tiffany’s for this term, but this seems like a very interesting premise for a list article where we could rank for a bunch of long tails.

When we dive into this keyword to find related long tails, there will probably a be a bunch of “most expensive jewelry in the world” / “most expensive ring in the world” type keywords we can really hone in on for an interesting list article.

Added to the shortlist.

12. Cool Fish Tanks

Volume: 3,600 Difficulty: 3.36

Another keyword that would make an entertaining list article with fairly low competition.

Added to the shortlist.

Creating A Shortlist Of Target Keywords

From these first dozen keywords, I’ve identified 6 keywords we can potentially work with.

If we kept digging, we would undoubtedly find even better keyword targets with a nice mix of – healthy search volume, low competition, and is ideal for an interesting list article.

For the purpose of this guide, I’m going to go ahead and add the 6 potential keywords we identified to our short list so we can dive into them further.

If I were building a live site, I would continue going through the keywords we generated to find more keywords to move to my short list. I’d want at least 30-40 keywords on my short list.

Gathering Related Long Tail Keywords

Now we’re going to use the “get autocomplete” and “get Adwords” suggestion buttons to dive in deeper for more related keywords and long tails.

Once that’s done, I’ll do a quick filter to exclude all the keywords with high difficulty as well as the ones with low search volume.

Now I’ll go back through and remove the irrelevant keywords, and I’m left with 7 keyword groups I can transform into list articles.

I’m going to take 1 group of keywords at random – the one we built from the seed keyword “coolest car in the world”, so we can walk through the process of going from a handful of keywords to a highly optimized article.

Creating The Content

So we now have a keyword group that we can use to craft a great list article.

Not only can we build an interesting list article around this set of keywords, but we know that we will stand a good chance of ranking for at least some of these keywords once we start link building.

But what is our list article going to look like?

Let’s borrow some ideas from the SERPs.

Headline Ideas

Our goal is to write a headline for readers as well as Google, so we want to include a keyword (or multiple keywords if possible) in the title.

Examples:

It’s a nice list by Road and Track, but it’s not especially well-optimized on-page. It uses the slideshow format to sell more ads (page impressions), but it’s not great user experience.

If you’re taking the “skyscraper” approach, this is the piece of content you want to beat. You want to create an epic list that’s bigger than any other list out there.

Or you could just go with a standard top 10 type list.

Anatomy Of Our List Article

  1. There will be a title of N list items – E.g. 10 Coolest Cars In The World, or 100 Coolest Cars In The World.
  2. The article starts with a short 1-3 paragraph intro.
  3. There will be a subheader for each list item.
  4. Below each list item, there will be a full-width picture.
  5. I also like to make sure the images are cropped so they have the same dimensions, but this step is optional.
  6. I usually aim for about 75-150 words per list item, but this isn’t a hard rule. You can do more or less.
  7. Generally, the big list sites count down the items from 10 to 1, which encourages the reader to read to the end to find out what’s #1.
  8. As a general rule, paragraphs in these articles should be extremely short – 1 to 3 sentences at the most. You don’t want big blocks of text.

On-Page Optimization

List articles themselves are super Google friendly. They’re filled with relevant content and they generally have high engagement from readers – even bored readers will scroll down to see what the list items are.

They also have over-optimization protection built-in – even though each list item is going to be relevant to the original keyword, it’s not going to simply be a variation of the keyword.

Because the articles are highly skimmable and shareable, they also tend to attract natural social shares.

List articles may come with a bunch of natural on-page SEO benefits, but we have a few more tricks up our sleeve.

Title Tags vs Headline

Instead of just optimizing the headline, I like to throw another exact match keyword into the title tags as well. This is the title in your HTML <title></title> tags that Google usually shows in the search results.

By default, WordPress uses your article headline in your title tags, but you can use Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin to customize your title tags.

For example, if we go with “10 Coolest Cars In The World” as the headline, then the title tags might be:

10 Coolest Cars In The World – The Coolest Cars Ever

This lets us include an extra 1600 search volume keyword in the title tags, without making the headline look spammy.

With the extra keyword in our title tags, we’ve now got 3 exact match keywords from our list in our <title></title> tags and 2 in our actual article title.

Long Tail Keywords

You should always be looking to weave long tail keywords naturally into your content.

I try to make sure the writer include the primary keyword in the intro section of the article, along with 1 other long tail.

In our “10 Coolest Cars In The World” list article, some of our long tails we identified include the keywords “rarest car in the world” and “celebrity cars”.

Think about how you could get your writers to work these keywords into the article naturally – they’re a hint as to what we need to include within the list.

I usually just give the writers a list of the long tail keywords to sprinkle into the article as they see fit.

I’m not worried about ensuring a certain % of keyword density – this is 2015 after all, not 2005. As long as each keyword can be mentioned naturally at least once within the article, I’m happy.

Launching Our Site

Eventually, we want our list site to grow to 100+ articles.

To start, we want to launch with about 20-30 articles. This means we need to use the process above to create 20-30 keyword groups, article ideas, and pieces of content to post on our WordPress blog.

WordPress Theme

You want your theme to show big pictures and titles in the sidebar while having a nice block of “related posts” links at the bottom of your article.

If you take a look at our example sites, listverse.com and list25.com, you’ll see they both have this in common.

ThriveThemes.com’s Performag theme is a great theme for this style of list site.

Thrive theme club comes with Thrive Content Builder and Thrive Leads, which allows you to implement a lot of conversion-focused elements down the road.

More importantly for our list site, it encourages click-through to other articles through the sidebar and below the article.

You also want nice big share buttons, which you can get out of the box with Performag.

I know Lewis uses and recommends Thrive Themes as well, so if you decide to purchase considering doing it through his affiliate link and supporting the blog.

Linkbuilding

So now we’re targeting the right keywords, we have great on-site optimization, and we’re carefully managing the content creation process. But our SEO recipe is still missing a key ingredient – linkbuilding.

The goal of our link building is to get a flywheel going so that over time we will be able to:

  • Rank for higher difficulty keywords
  • Rank for more longtails
  • Drive more internal traffic within our site
  • Build up natural social signals
  • Make it easier to gain quick traction on future list articles we publish
  • And yes, even start attracting natural links from high authority sites.

With the list site model, I’ve had writers from sites like Buzzfeed, HuffingtonPost, The Guardian, Boredpanda.com and many more link to articles on my list sites – completely unsolicited.

On a tactical level, my link building strategy is really simple:

  1. Build on an expired domain w/ existing links.

This was a really useful hack a couple years ago, but it does seem to have lost some of its effectiveness. If you do go this route, you need to make sure it was a freshly dropped domain to really get the benefit of an expired domain, otherwise, the age/authority will be reset.

  1. Use a well-built, private PBN to link to the top performing articles.

If you already have a PBN, this part is fairly self-explanatory.

In terms of anchor text, I try to avoid having any exact keyword match anchors in my PBN links. If I do include the keyword, it’ll be wrapped in a phrase or simply placed next to the link (co-occurrence).

Example:

< a href>according to natestop10lists.com</a>, Mr. Bean drives one of the top 10 coolest cars in the world.

OR

…according to natestop10lists.com, <a href>Mr. Bean drives one of the top 10 coolest cars in the world</a>.

  1. Get guest posts on real sites

If you’ve tried to use guest posts for linkbuilding with a traditional niche site, you probably didn’t get many links from sites that had serious editorial processes.

With the list site model, editors and bloggers usually don’t mind linking back since your site doesn’t look overly commercial.

I try to include my exact match anchor text in guest posts (though it’s not always possible) since anchored links from niche relevant articles on high authority sites can give you a big rankings boost.

Because your anchor text profile has been diluted by the existing links from your expired domain (if you went this route) as well as your PBN links, you don’t have to worry too much about anchor text over-optimization.

You don’t need a ton of these guest post links, but these highly trusted domains will help solidify your site’s backlink profile and also give extra juice to the pages that need a bump to get into the top 3.

Track Everything & Double Down On What’s Working

Once you start link building, your attention to detail in terms of on-page optimization, keyword research, and targeting long tail keyword targeting will gradually start to pay off.

I use my PBN to give every new article a base of about 3-5 links, then I monitor the rankings to see which keywords gain traction in the SERPs.

I also monitor Google Analytics to see where the traffic is coming from. Keeping an eye on Google Analytics gives you the full picture – you can correlate your ranking improvements with traffic gains.

Once I see a few pages pop into the top 100, I build more PBN links to the pages that are gaining traction, and I supplement them with guest posts on real, high-quality sites – NOT spammy guest posting networks.

That’s it. Pretty simple right?

You can experiment and supplement this with whatever tactics you want, but at the end of the day, the basic idea is to take a formula that works and simply apply it until you get results.

As a general rule, you’ll often find that 20% of the keywords you target end up driving 80% of the traffic and revenue.

You’ll inevitably pick up traction on keywords you didn’t expect to be able to rank for, and you’ll probably struggle on some keywords you thought were a sure bet. You’ll also pick up more and more longtail traffic over time.

Lifed.com is a great example of how just a few big wins can make or break this type of site – Lifed.com only had 2 articles that really picked up serious traction, but the owner parlayed those 2 posts into a site sale worth $205,000.

Monetization

Ultimately the infotainment list site model is a publishing play.

Once you have traffic, you work to optimize your RPMs as much as possible, but this model is never going to bring amazing visitor values. Your goal is volume.

While each individual article won’t be super profitable, as you continuously add well-optimized articles to your site and steadily link build, you’ll have a stream of traffic and steadily growing profits.

The basic monetization strategy is to insert AdSense blocks within the content. This is key to achieving a respectable RPM.

I use the quick Adsense plugin to insert Adsense ads within the content, in paragraph 2, paragraph 5, and paragraph 8. I then have Taboola ad units at the bottom.

This will get you to about $4-5 RPMs for an infotainment list article site, though some keywords will naturally attract higher RPMs because they’re in industries with more advertisers.

Tip – I highly recommend linking your Adsense account to Google Analytics so you can see a page by page breakdown of your RPMs.

The goal is to drive a ton of traffic, convert a certain % of that traffic into repeat visitors via email and social media opt-ins, increase your RPMs as much as possible and leverage the flywheel you’ve built to continually grow traffic by publishing highly optimized content.

As your traffic grows, you can experiment with other ad units to increase RPMs (e.g. taboola.com, buysellads.com etc.). You can also leverage your domain authority to rank list articles targeting higher value commercial keywords that contain affiliate links e.g. 10 Best Tablets Under $300 For 2015.

You can also take the same principles and apply them to markets with higher visitor values.

There are lots of opportunities to use list-style content in high-value verticals like health, finance, or tech.

Wrapping It Up

Many affiliate marketing/SEO blogs will tell you to only target highly commercial keywords when you’re building out a site.

It’s not necessarily bad advice – targeting low competition keywords with extremely high visitor values makes a lot of sense from a short term ROI perspective.

But building an infotainment list site and approaching your SEO strategy like a publisher lets you build a “mini-brand” that you can either flip for a healthy multiple once it starts earning in the low 4 figures a month, or scale up into a massive evergreen site that generates millions of PageViews a month and 5+ figures a month.

Its a relatively easy way to start building sites that don’t just arbitrage Google traffic.

Instead of always taking the affiliate mindset of targeting buying keywords with highly profitable affiliate offers, with an infotainment list site you start to think like a publisher.

I hope you enjoyed this guide to building an infotainment list site.

Do you have plans to build your own infotainment list site? Ask Nate your questions in the comments below!