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Two readers recently contacted me with two separate but related comments about how I make money online. The first came in the form of an e-mail:

I really like your tutorial on how to make money blogging except I am sort of confused. Can I make a site or host a domain about any subject really and make money or does it have to be about money in particular? Like your credit card site and your other sites seem to do with just particularly money or money related. I that the general theme for making the money, or can it be about say CD reviews or something like that? Any direction will be greatly appreciated.

The second came in the form of a comment to a blog post about how to earn extra income:

Hi DR,

I love your site and was wondering if you had completed the post on how you make $2500 monthly yet? I desperately would like to create a passive income stream, but have not been able to decide which path to take, so I would really like to see what works for you. Besides blogging?

Thanks for your help and input. I also liked your posts on the 4HWW (DR Note: 4 Hour Work Week). I also read the book and enjoyed it, but have yet to try anything. Once I decide what might work best for me though, I’m sure I will.

Thanks again.

Let me start with the second comment, which was to a blog post I wrote back in June 2007. At that time I noted that I was making $1,500 a month online (now I make that in under a week). I also promised to write further posts describing how I do it. The starting point of an online adventure, whether you want to start a blog or more traditional website, is to set up a well designed and optimized site. I’ve written several detailed articles describing how to do this. If you’ve missed them, you can check out these articles here:

With that foundation in place, we now turn to the question of blog topics. Whether you are just starting out or are an experienced blogger looking to start another site, the question is the same: how do we go about picking the subject of a blog that can allow us to generate a steady cash flow online.

You can make money online in a thousand different ways with content on just about any subject. I write a lot about personal finance, investing and money management because that’s what I enjoy writing about. But people make a lot of money online writing about paintball guns, golf clubs, bicycles, politics, and anything else you can think of, including CD reviews. Here’s the fundamental truth about making money online; if you can drive the right kind of traffic to your site, you can make money.

That being said, picking the topic(s) that is right for you is a simple 3-step process.

Step 1: Follow your interests

As a starting point, I look for topics that I have an interest in and experience with. When I started blogging in May 2007, I wrote about personal finance and investing. I enjoy studying these topics, I read and analyze financial statements for a living, and it’s a lot of fun for me to write about these subjects. But there is something more fundamental at play here.

When you write about a topic you have some experience with, it shows. The writing flows much more naturally, and the content of your articles reflects a depth that only experience with the subject can produce. When you read a personal finance blogger discussing investing, you can tell quickly if they know what they are talking about, even if you do not agree with everything they say. For example, when you read Pinyo’s posts on investing on his blog, Moolanomy, you know he speaks from experience. The same is true with blogs about making money online. When you read my articles on setting up an optimized blog, while you may disagree with some of my approaches, I think you would agree that the articles reflect some level of experience with the subject.

You can blog about a topic you know little about. But the amount of work to produce the content will be greater (unless you pay for the content). My advice, however, is to stick with what you know.

Step 2: Decide how you will monetize the site

It is absolutely critical to determine how you will monetize your site during the process of picking a topic. As I’ve written before, there are countless ways to make money blogging. Generally speaking, however, making money online falls into two categories: (1) Adsense, and (2) affiliate sales. Yes, you can make money selling text links or banners, and there are ad networks that pay per impressions. But most sites stick with Adsense and affiliate sales.

On this site, I use both. Adsense represents a relatively small portion of my income. Last month I made about $1,500 in Adsense, and that was an unusually good month. More typical is $800 to $1,000. For me, most of my income comes from a variety of affiliate sales.

If you decide to monetize using Adsense, the analysis is quite simple. You simply have to determine how much potential traffic your topic can generate and the value of that traffic for an Adsense publisher (Step 3 below covers this research). If you are looking to monetize your site with affiliate sales, you should identify affiliate programs that offer products and services relevant to your site.

To use the music CD example referred to in the email above, there are several affiliate programs that would enable you to market and sell music.

Amazon: Amazon sells just about everything. From books, to music, to movies, to table saws. Commission rates begin at 4% of the purchase price, quickly go to 6%, and can go as high as 15% for top sellers. You can check out the details and apply for the program on the Amazon Associates Website.

eBay: Through the eBay Partner Network, you can display eBay ads on any product for sale on eBay. If a reader clicks through and buys the product, you get a commission from eBay. Commissions start at 50% of the revenue eBay generates from the sale and goes up to 75% for top sellers. You can also receive a commission if a user clicks through your site to eBay and signs up as a registered user. For a music CD site, you’d obviously have a lot to promote from eBay.

And now you start to think outside the box. For example, you can promote online music downloading sites like Apple’s iTunes and Napster. Both have affiliate programs through Commission Junction.

Maybe you think about selling iPods and other MP3 players. You’ve already got the iPods covered through the Apple affiliate program. There are numerous affiliate programs that cover electronics, in addition to Amazon and eBay. Sony, HP, and Dell, for example, all have affiliate programs through Commission Junction.

Maybe you decide to branch out into DVDs. Not only can you promote DVDs through the affiliates listed above, but you can also promote Netflix and Blockbuster (yep, through Commission Junction). By now you get the idea. Your biggest limitation will be your own imagination. If you are looking for ideas, look at other blogs and see what they market.

Step 3: Research, Research, Research

No matter what topic you pick or how you plan to monetize the site, research is absolutely critical. So what exactly are we researching, and how do we go about doing it? At a minimum, we need to answer the following three questions:

1. What are the primary keywords that are relevant to the site;
2. How competitive are those keywords (i.e., how many other sights are working hard to rank for those keywords); and
3. How much are those keywords worth from Adsense.

So let’s do this analysis for a music CD site.

1. What are the primary keywords that are relevant to the site?

There are many online keyword research tools. Many are free, some require a monthly subscription. I’ve used both. But as a starting point, I always go to Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool. The tool is free and provides information not found with other keyword tools.

Let’s start by entering “CD” in the keyword box. Once I get the results, I typically click on the “Approx Avg Search Volume” column to order the list by search volume, from highest to lowest. Here’s what it looks like for the keyword “cd” (click on the image to enlarge):


Before diving into the results, there are a few options you should understand:

Choose column to display
: In the upper right hand corner you will see a drop down box that allows you to display or hide various columns. We will come back to that in a moment, but recognize that the tool can provide more information than what is initially displayed.

Match type: Just below the drop down to select what information to display, you will see another drop down box for the match type. It is critical that you understand how this works. The tool offers four match types: broad, phrase, exact, and negative. Here’s what each means:

  • Broad match: Includes searches for a keyword phrase in which the words appear in any order and in combination with other keywords. May also include searches with similar keywords. For example, broad match search data for the keyword music CD includes searches for CD music, CD with music, and my personal favorite, the music rocks that I put on my CD last night, dude.” I know, I’m so 1970s. Setting the match type to broad will result in the largest search volume total.
  • Phrase match: With phrase match, the search volume data includes searches using the keyword phrase in the order listed, but possibly including other words. For example, phrase match search data for the keyword music CD includes searches for rock music CD, music CD labels, but not CD music.
  • Exact match: Here, search volume includes only those searches for the listed keyword exactly as is with no additional words added in the search. For music CD, it gives you search volume for music CD only.
  • Negative match: This match type is not all that important to us now, but it allows you to exclude certain keywords from the data.

So with this information, let’s check out the results for CD. With the match type set to broad, the keyword CD produces more than 20 million searches a month on Google alone. Now the question everybody asks is how to determine the number of search engine visitors a site would receive if it ranked #1 for a given search term. As a very broad estimate, I expect to get about 50% of the estimated traffic using the exact match type. For CD using the exact match type, Google estimates 165,000 searches a month. So the #1 spot would produce about 82,500 search visitors a month.

Now let’s head back to reality. The keyword CD is much too broad and competitive to target as a keyword for a new site. Just search Google for CD and check out the first page results. So let’s focus on a more obvious choice, music CD, and rerun the keyword tool with that keyword.

The results show that with the exact match, only music cd and music cds get any descent monthly traffic. After that, the results fall significantly. While these may be keywords worth targeting, focusing on the keyword music cd may not be the best approach. So let’s try music reviews.

The results show 12,100 searches using the exact match type. And here’s where you realize that the greater the search volume, the more competitive the keyword. 12,100 searches is not a big number, but the keyword music reviews describes quite well the site we are thinking of starting. You can continue to use this tool to research many other related keywords, but you get the idea.

And this brings me to step two of the research, our competition.

2. How competitive are the keywords we’ve chosen?

To assess the competition, the first thing I do is look at the top 10 search results for the keyword. A search of “music reviews” reveals some interesting data. First note that, at least as of this writing, the search returned 49,900,000 results. You will see the search result totals toward the upper right hand section of the Google search results page. I think small numbers tell you more than the big ones. Any search result with less than 1,000,000 results is small. Fifty million is big, but not necessarily indicative of how competitive the keyword is.

Next I look at the page rank of the top 10 results. There are several ways to get at this data, but the easiest is to use the SEO for Firefox plugin. This is a great tool that provides a wealth of information, including the page rank for websites listed in the search results. For music reviews, we see that the page rank for the first 10 sites ranges from 4 to 7. That alone tells me the keyword is very competitive. Certainly a new site has no chance of ranking in the top ten, but with enough time, quality content and backlinks, its possible. Certainly achieving a PR of 4 is not extremely difficult.

Another tool you can use to assess the competition for a keyword is the Keyword Difficulty tool available on SEOmoz.org. If you are not familiar with the site, you should be. It has both free content and premium content that requires a monthly membership. Unfortunately, the Keyword Difficulty tool and many of the sites other tools are available only with a paid membership. But since I’ve paid my dues, so to speak, let me run “music reviews” through the tool and see what we get. Hold on, I’ll be right back.

The tool produces a difficulty score of 71% (out of 100%), which indicates that this is a tough nut to crack. SEOMoz describes the keyword as “highly competitive.” In addition, it estimates that the term was searched over 35,000 times yesterday. A big difference from what the Google adwords tool showed, which underscores that search estimates are just that, estimates. Now does all of this mean we should give up on the site or this keyword? No!

I would do more research for additional keywords to target. You could look to longer tail keywords. For example, in addition to music reviews, how about jazz music reviews. You could focus on keywords related to specific artists, genres, recording labels, and so on. With something as broad as music, you could find plenty of topics/keywords to focus on.

Before we move to step 3, there are two additional points to keep in mind. First, it’s a good idea to look at the top 10 search results for a keyword you are targeting. For example, the #1 result for “music reviews” is Metacritic, a site run by CNET Networks. Metacritic is a professional run site, as are several others in the top 10 search results. This will give you an idea about your competition, including how they monetize their sites. Metacritic, for example, uses banners to eBay and, of all things, Discover credit cards.

Second, you can look to see what keywords these top sites target. Looking at the title bar in your browser while viewing MetaCritic, you will see “Music Reviews, CD Reviews – Metacritic.com.” That tells you the site is targeting music reviews and cd reviews. Some sites use meta keywords that you can see by selecting the view–>page source on your browser. Billboard Music Reviews, for example, which currently ranks #3 for “music reviews,” uses the following keywords on its homepage: Music Reviews, Business News Magazine, Music Executives, music trivia, and Music games.

3. How much are those keywords worth from Adsense?

Finally, if you intend to monetize your site with Adsense, it is important to understand how much you can make per click. As a starting point, go back to the Adwords keyword tool and type in “music reviews.” When the results appear, go to the “Choose columns to display” drop down box and select “show estimated avg cpc.” This will show you an estimate of what an advertiser would have to pay each time somebody clicked on their ad. There is more to it than that, but the key is that this shows what Google would charge the advertiser, not what you would make on your site per click. As a general rule of thumb, however, take about 25% of the listed amount and that’s roughly what you would make.

I should ad here that many, many factors go into how much a publisher makes on any given adsense click. But this will give you a rough idea. For music reviews, the listed cost is $.87. Multiply that by 25% and you are not left with much. By comparison, see what an ad would cost for the keyword “payday loans.” I’m showing $8.17. No try “Mesothelioma.” I get $23.65. The point here is simply that not all keywords or blog topics are created equal. Do your research and you’ll begin to get a good idea of what pays what.


Yes, there’s homework. Whether you are new to blogging or not, research a blog topic that interests you with the goal of selecting a keyword to target (whether it is for the homepage, category page, or an individual post). You should be able to answer the following questions about the keyword:

  1. An estimate of the number of times the keyword is searched each month
  2. An understanding of the top 10 competitors who rank on the first page of Google for the keyword. Things to look for with these competitors include: (a) page rank; (b) age of site; (c) backlinks; (d) and whether the result is to the site’s homepage, category page, or individual article
  3. How you plan to monetize your site/page
  4. The value of the keyword for Adsense.

I’ll be following these steps for my Energy Saving Gadgets site. Until next Saturday, happy blogging.

Article comments

TCT says:

If you like personal finance, I think the possibility are countless.

You need a lot of motivation, time and energy. You can learn the rest on blogs and forums 😉

I used to sell links through companies like Text Link Ads but I realized that it wasn’t so tough to sell my links by myself. Once it is started (that you have advertisers on your site), the others follow like sheep 😉

I believe that you can make a lot of money through affiliate programs but it requires time to try different thing before succeeding in this business.

DR says:

TCT, it does take a lot of time. I decided a long time ago not to buy or sell text links. Google will penalize sites for doing so, and there are better and more profitable ways (IMO) to make money. But of course, we each have to follow our own path.

Studenomist says:

Coming from a new blogger, you must honestly love the topic you blog about and be willing to write about the topic for free. I can not even imagine how amazing it would feel to actually make a profit off my blog.. For the moment I am just enjoying sharing my ideas with other people on the internet facing the same issues..

Andy says:

Great article and a very informative read even though I have been blogging for a few months now.

DR says:

Andy, glad you found it helpful. I’m turning the topic into a series and plan to post the next edition this weekend.

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Ron Osborne says:

There are indeed lots of ways earning at the convience
of our own home
. We make money with the things we love to do
and the good thing is that we don’t need to have a BOSS
and no rushing time for deadlines. Would you agree with me?

Thanks for the post and tell us what you think or discover.
In such a way posting here simply help us in different ways.
SO let me tell some comments, The topic is indeed great and eye catching
to the viewers.

Keep up the Good work!


mike says:

What kind of mutual funds do you like right now to be putting long term stuff in?
tell me Saurday.

satrap says:

Thanks for the post, i enjoyed reading it. blogging is not as easy as many think it is, it’s hardwork. any how thanks.