Jul 132014

In the last few years, as the economy cooled off and especially after the last big real estate market collapse, there has been a proliferation of sites that have popped up offering to help you make a fortune working from home (always a tip-off for a potential scam) by running your own web store. Best of all, they say, you don’t have to know anything about programming or setting up a website, handle any products or come up with a lot of money up front (usually). Some even offer to set you up for $1.95 (such a deal). What you often don’t find out very quickly, though, is that they are just setting up what is called an “astore” as an Amazon Affiliate for you, creating an Amazon Affiliate account in your name (which is, by-the-way, a violation of the Operating Agreement at Amazon) and then giving you a masked link that takes you to the Amazon Affiliate site, often under the guise of being a “back office” to your “store”.

But I didn’t spend much up front…

It’s in what happens next that you start losing money (money that you will have no hope of recovering). First, they charge an average of $30 a month for hosting your “site”. That’s a gross overcharge for what would cost you $4-$10 elsewhere. Also, a true hosting account would let you store a near unlimited number of pages, set up self-hosted WordPress and other applications and pretty much do what you want on your site. Instead, you end up with a one-to-five page site that you can’t easily change or add to. In itself, that might not be so bad, except the template they use is one that they have installed thousands of times already. Between the duplicate content on the pages and the lack of additional content you might create, you end up with a site that Google will never send any search traffic to visit. With no traffic, you can’t make any sales and have no chance of getting advertising revenue, either (not that Adsense would approve any site without more content than an astore).

The next step, though, is where your losses can go from the tens and hundreds into the thousands (the worst one I’ve talked to lost over $20K). Once you are hooked, they start calling and emailing you to offer additional services to help your “store” get started: training, consulting, development and even “traffic” (which is often either spiderbots “clicking” your links or third world children clicking for pennies), often claiming to be from different (but related) companies (all of which turn out to be registered to the same mailbox store and share a phone room). Paid traffic hasn’t worked on the internet for many, many years; Google and other search engines are now the only game in town and they will only index your site if you have original content (so, copying from other sites is also a bad way to get started – even if you aren’t caught and possibly prosecuted & fined for copyright violations, which can cost you hundreds of thousands in fines). It’s true that you can pay for advertising on Google’s search engine (Adwords), but that isn’t the same as the traffic that these companies are selling (and as an affiliate, your chances of even breaking even with Adwords is close to zero unless you are willing to invest thousands and really know what you are doing).

Over on the Amazon Affiliate discussion forum, we often see people that have lost substantial amounts of money, without any sales and often with the end result that they get their Amazon Affiliate accounts closed for lack of sales or lack of content on their sites. Most of them have been sold sites by companies that are based out of Arizona (there are legit companies in that state, as well, but the shadier characters seem to congregate there) and they are quite careful to stay just inside the line that defines fraud (and are quite careful in any written promises and advertising). They don’t guarantee results and are selling a “service” (a vastly overpriced one, of course, but overpaying isn’t a crime). Many of them do claim to be associated in some way with Amazon, which is pretty much guaranteed to be a lie. One that they are certain few will try to verify (there’s a Feedback link on the Amazon Affiliate site, which anyone can use).

I already bought an store site… what should I do?

If you’ve already fallen in with one of these companies, try to get your money back. Often they will refund most (although not all) of what you’ve paid, so long as you jump thru any hoops they’ve specified on their website. In the meantime, though, try contacting your bank and/or credit card company. They may not be able to get all payments reversed, but can at least help you in stopping future billing (which may require having a new CC number or bank account ID). For those in non-US countries, you may have to threaten to contact your government/Interpol/etc, if large amounts are involved.

How should I get started?

So, once you’ve figured out that there is no overnight, no-effort method to get rich with an “internet store”, how do you get started?

Joining the Amazon Affiliate program is free and anyone that has their own site (get this first) can apply. Only do so at the official Amazon site (it has .amazon.com as part of the URL). Make sure you use an email address YOU control. It can be on gmail, outlook, yahoo or any of the free email sites, but you will have to have access to it in order to make changes to your account, set up payment info, etc. If you change ISP’s or anticipate you might in the future, do NOT use an email that you get with your internet access. If you lose access to that email address, you’ll be locked out of your affiliate account at Amazon (along with who knows what else you set up with that email address) and Amazon is very picky about letting you change the email address without a confirmation from the main contact address.

If you don’t yet have any content (your own words – these can be reviews, your thoughts, what you do during the day, recipes or pretty much anything that someone else might want to read), consider getting started for free at WordPress.com or Blogger.com. Both allow some limited advertising, but neither will let you set up pages that only have ads on them. Blogger is a bit more flexible, but may be more limiting in the long run, as you can’t move your content to your own hosting site without moving to something like WordPress (an involved process and which will require learning how to post all over again). Start writing and try to post something once or twice a week (Google likes fresh content and people want to know there is a good chance of a new post when they check back).

What about putting in ads and store links?

Don’t worry about trying to monetize your content, at first – until you have a fair number of views per day, your time is better spent creating content. You may discover you want to change the topic you are writing about and go back and edit (or delete) some earlier posts. You may also decide that blogging or writing articles just isn’t for you; that’s fine too and it’s best you find out without spending a lot of cash up front.

After you have regular visitors, you can apply for some affiliate programs that work with your content (including Amazon, which works for most sites). Add a few links here and there – a text link to a product you mention, for example. A banner ad here or there is easy to add, but also easily ignored by most readers (and stripped out by many browser’s adblock functions).

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Mar 072014

Whether or not you’ve been blogging for a while or are just starting out, at some point you may start to think about “monetizing” your blog: turning your posts into some spare change to pay for hosting costs, the occasional book or coffee out or even a full-time income stream.

Regardless of which goal you are shooting for, there are some hard facts you need to consider first, the primary one being that few people make more than pocket change from their blogs and websites. There are a lot of predatory companies out there selling the work-from-home dream to people and many of them specialize in selling affiliate marketing “stores” to people, which are often no more than a single page with an Amazon astore widget installed on it, then overcharging for monthly hosting fees. The only people that make anything on these deals, though, are the ones selling hosting (and, if you’ll go for it, training, development, traffic and anything else you are willing to pay for). Many of these will claim to be a marketing branch of Amazon (or imply such), but they are not in any way associated with Amazon. Amazon and other legitimate affiliate forums abound with tales of those taken for amounts from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars and, so far, I don’t think I’ve read of one who actually made anything from this type of site.

So, these are the steps I recommend for those who are serious about getting started with affiliate marketing or monetizing an existing site or blog:

Step 1: Choose a Platform and Hosting Site

There are two main considerations when first getting started: where will you host your site and what software will you use to create it. Although the focus of this post is on blogging, the same considerations are there for a non-blog oriented website. There are free sites that you can use, but many of those either limit or ban most types of advertising or affiliate links on sites that they host. Others, like Squidoo, allow some affiliate links, including shared revenue links, but also greatly restrict both what you post and how it looks (and can simply remove your content, without any notice and without allowing you to back it up). For blogging, the two most popular platforms are probably WordPress and Blogger.

Blogger, run by Google, is entirely free and will allow both affiliate links and other advertising to be used. You can get your own domain name (if you don’t, don’t do so thru Blogger, but thru a site such as Namecheap, to ensure you control the name) and there are built-in facilities to backup your content (which I recommend doing daily or at least after adding new content) and add all kinds of widgets and banners to your site. You can pretty much write about anything (but be sure to declare if your site is adult-only; you can get banned for violating that rule), but you are also at Blogger’s mercy. Many people with affiliate links have reported having their sites closed down with no warning by Blogger; Google runs a spam-detecting bot on a regular basis that flags sites as spammy and you must appeal manually, with no guarantee that your site will be restored. Thus, my recommendation that you backup regularly. Many people are still on Blogger and with affiliate links, ads and banners, so don’t immediately discount it as a choice.

WordPress comes in two flavors – the free version at WordPress.com, which bans most ads and affiliate links, other than text and image only links (no iframes or javascript) and the also-free, but requires hosting (which isn’t free) version at wordpress.org. If you choose the latter, you can put anything you want on your site (assuming you don’t violate various laws or your hosting site’s rules), but you are also on you own for installing, updating and maintaining the site (the hosting service generally maintains the servers, though). Starting out, almost any of the baby plans offered by Namecheap or Hostgator will work and their cost tends to be about the same, from under $4/month (if pre-paid) to under $10/month (paid month-to-month). I’ve had both Hostgator and Namecheap hosting accounts and did find the reporting a bit better with Namecheap (but also have had a few more outages there, as they have battled various DDoS attacks recently).

You can always start with a free account at Blogger or WordPress, then move to a hosted account later. The learning curve will be a bit less if staying on WordPress the entire time, but you are also more limited there and there are tools to move from Blogger (if you decide to do so). In any case, definitely use a custom domain name, no matter where you start, that you control, so you can move your content and not lose any readers when you do.

What about the other choices out there? Most of the others out there seem to either ban or limit monetization or have interfaces that make it difficult to edit iframes or javascript content on pages. Others are set up so that you can add content (a Youtube channel or Pinterest), but either limit or outright ban direct monetization (after all, they host it all, so all the ads generally go to support them). You can incorporate these into an overall presence on the web (Pinterest pins of your content, youtube videos of your reviews, linked and/or embedded in your posts), but I would not recommend trying to rely on them on their own. You will, though, want to try to set up your Pinterest and Twitter accounts with the same name as your new domain name (and a Facebook fan page, although you may to be able to name it, until you get a minimum number of Likes).

Step 2: Create content

There is no shortcut here, you have to write content that is engaging and that people want to read or view. It can be cute puppy pictures, recipes, stories about your kids or work (but watch for any liable laws), reviews on books or equipment you’ve personally tried out (not a rehash of someone else’s reviews that you read online; these are obvious to spot and you won’t get returning readers or much search engine traffic). Don’t worry overmuch about making the site pay, at this point, as you need pages for search engines to find, so they will send you real readers (no the fake ‘traffic’ sold by some hosting companies).

As you can guess, this step will take you some time. Some sites may be able to add a post a day, while others only one or two a week (or less). It’s more important that the content be of high quality (and spelling and grammar both count, in whatever language is targeted – don’t rely on a language translator) than that you have a massive quantity of content.

Step 3: Promotion

Next, you need to let people know that your site exists. What you don’t want, though, is to spam your links all over the web in forums and on other people’s sites that are unrelated to yours and where you are not contributing to their content. Everyone likes to get comments on their posts and articles, but not if the person obviously did so just to try to get a backlink to their own site. So, if you can honestly engage in a discussion or answer a question, do so. Where permitted, include a link back to your website/blog in your signature. That doesn’t mean to leave an answer such as “I discussed this HERE” and linking to your site and you’ll need to check each forum you are on, to see if any links are allowed (most Amazon forums ban them, for example). Feel free to email your friends and family to let them know about your site (just don’t be surprised if few of them them come by to read often). Done correctly, you will gradually build up a readership from those who are curious and from search engine traffic. As you can guess, this and Step 1, Building Content, are not one-time activities, but are on-going projects that you have to keep up with.

Step 4: Affiliate Marketing

Now that you have some content, you can think about adding links for various affiliate programs, of which Amazon is both one of the most popular and one of the easiest to get started with. Once you’ve filled out Amazon’s application, you can add links. Although they now don’t check your site for compliance and acceptance until your first sale, it will be to your advantage to read thru the entire Operating Agreement, to make sure you are not violating any of their rules. Amazon (and most other programs) is unforgiving of violations and once they’ve banned your site for a violation, they won’t let you back in the program in the future (and that usually include any family or associates of yours, so it’s a pretty severe death sentence to any affiliate marketing dreams at Amazon). There are other affiliate programs out there, with most of them being run by networks such as Commission Junction (cj.com) or Linkshare (linkshare.com). ITunes now runs their own (not easy to get into, so you might not want it as your first attempt), almost all of which require you to be accepted by the individual program before you can create links.

With Amazon, you can create banners and image ads using various widgets, but you’ll no doubt find that text links in articles convert the best (as pretty much all Amazon affiliates have confirmed in their forums). Be sure you don’t, though, send out links via email or any of the other banned uses (again, read the Operating Agreement). Although you can use links on Twitter and Facebook, they don’t convert well, and Pinterest strips affiliate tags from links entirely. Instead, use social media to drive traffic back to your main site/blog (or just to interact with others) and use affiliate links only there. Be sure to check out any forum that the affiliate program has, such as this one for Amazon affiliates; most are actually full of helpful people (if no actual staff) and just lurking and reading can often help you avoid common pitfalls for that program.

Step 5: Adsense

I have left Adsense for last, as you generally only get one try to get accepted to the Adsense program (not to be confused with Adwords, where you pay to run your own ads, which I strongly discourage you from doing). If you don’t have a lot of good content, your site is just a lot of links to stores or in any way violates any of the Adsense guidelines, you’ll be turned down and won’t be given another chance to be accepted. You also need a steady stream of readers before Adsense ads will pay off, as well and there isn’t a lot of point in trying to earn a few cents a month with Adsense. Every ad on your site slows it down and some people don’t like sites with ads (and they won’t see them in your RSS feeds, anyway), plus many people run adblockers in their browsers by default. All of which means that unless you have a large readership, there isn’t any real point in adding Adsense. Once you’ve grown to a few hundred readers a day, then consider applying for Adsense. Be prepared to spend a bit of time fine-tuning their ads and blocking any categories that don’t work for your site (gambling, dating, adult, etc).

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Feb 102014

If you are seeing this message, then everything has successfully moved to the new hosting site. Hopefully the errors from the old site are a thing of the past.

If you made it over here, leave me a comment, please. Did you encounter errors trying to get to the site in the last couple of weeks? Is the speed decent over here? (Note: You may bounce between the new and old server and see transient errors for a day or two, I’m told, as the DNS changes propagate; I’ll leave this message up for a couple of days, just to make people aware – if you see an error, try clearing your browser cache and then refreshing the page).

Also, I made a few minor changes, moving some of the info that was on the right sidebar to individual pages. You can access these via the menu at the top, under “Ebook and Ereader Deals” (at least, for now, I may move a few to a new menu item).

What do you think of the new pages?

Update: I see some people have been having problems commenting. I suspect it’s because the browser is getting confused on which site is which – I had the old site in one browser and the new in another at one point this morning. I do appreciate those of you that are able to comment and hopefully all will be better in a day or so, as the changes filter around to everyone’s DNS servers.

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 Posted by on February 10, 2014 at 3:08 AM
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