Would you believe me if I told you that I made over $100,000 in passive income from Google AdSense with a website I built in 6 weeks, in the evenings, while I was still a student? Well, I did and if you want to find out how, continue reading.
I am going to tell you how I built a website that has had over 50 million visitors since its launch, and at its peak it had 100,000 daily visits. To make sure I've covered everything, this story will have four parts:
1) How I got the idea
2) How I made the website
3) How I SEO optimized the website
4) What you can learn from my story.
Before we start, let me give you a few notes. Firstly, even though the website I've built is unique, the methodology that I used is really the important part. Believe me, that’s teachable. I know that because I've taught it to my friend Nikola who has made over 100K himself from Google AdSense. There is going to be a separate post about his story as well. Stay tuned!
Secondly, I can’t stress enough that this is not an online course or a get-rich-quick story, because even though I did build a money-generating website in six weeks, keep in mind that before that, I had spent years building a website after website trying out best passive income ideas that were failing.
And finally, it's important for you to know that in the first 2,5 years of making websites, I made a few hundred dollars, so it certainly wasn’t easy. But when I got better at programming, I got better at SEO, and I found my formula. Then the money started rolling in on the road to financial freedom. In this post, I’ll try to save you much of the agony of my first two years, and teach you the lessons that I learned.
Let's get going!
Chapter 1: How I got the idea
The story starts in 2008 when a guy named Linus Stockelberg came to our college campus and put up an ad saying he needed a PHP developer to help him with his website. I had already been doing PHP by myself because I was already on “the quest” of making websites that would generate me a passive income.
On the ad that Linus had put up, it said: "compensation 400/SEK hour". To put things into perspective, that's 40 euros per hour when you’re a student. He might as well have said 1,000 euros per hour. I told him: "You don’t have to put that up, I’ll help you."
And so it began. His website was synonymer.se. If you’re from Sweden you must have heard of it, because today, that website has 300,000 visitors every day in Sweden. It's the simplest of services - you enter a word, and it spits out the synonyms for it.
Why am I telling you this story? Because it's then and there that I learned one crucial lesson. I asked Linus how much of his traffic was organic, and how much was direct. Just a quick note: organic means that the traffic comes primarily through a Google search, direct means that you write the URL directly into the browser URL field: syonymer.se and come to the website like that.
Here's what he said: "It’s almost all organic, and we have a long tail."
I thought to myself: "What is a long-tail?"
Some googling later, I found out. If you go to Google and write “site:synonymer.se”, you wil get hundreds of thousands of results. All the results you see are subpages on this specific website. This means that synonymer.se consists of a landing page, and hundreds of thousands of subpages, each one essentially being the result page for one specific word. Being that there are many words in the language, naturally, you get many subpages, or what they call in SEO, a long tail.
This means that if somebody searches “synonyms for hello“, they rank first, if you search “synonyms for goodbye”, they rank first, and that’s true basically for every single word in the dictionary. What does that mean? Well, if you have hundreds of thousands of words indexed by Google and if each of them is visited just once a year, that’s hundreds of thousands of visitors every year!
It was a mind-blowing realization, and I knew that I had to create something similar. But the question was what! To create something like this, you need a database like they had with their lexicon.
How could I get my hands on something like that? There is no standard answer for this, but I’ll tell you what I did, and maybe that will trigger some new ideas for you as well.
I started with what I knew and I knew that there wasn’t a service in Sweden where you could enter a word and get examples for how to use that word in a sentence. I also knew that it could be useful for anybody doing any kind of writing. Then I remembered that, when my family came to Sweden as refugees in '93, as it is the case with kids, my brother and I picked up the language much faster than our parents did. My dad would always ask: "What’s that word?" and then he would say: "Give me an example in a sentence." I knew that he couldn’t be alone in wanting it presented like this to him.
Chapter 2: building the website
OK, the idea was there. So the next question was: "How do I build this?" I sure as hell wasn’t going to write millions of sentences in a database myself, so this was my solution.
I downloaded hundreds of Swedish books in .epub format. Then I converted them to .txt files with software I downloaded.
Then I created a PHP script that took those .txt files and split the content in them by the dots, each of those I then saved in a database. In it I had a connection between each word and all the sentences that contained that word. And there you have it - the database.
Then I just had to create a website in PHP where you could search my database and find sentences for each word.
And I did just that.
I created a simple website where you can enter a word, and for that word, you would get example sentences. You can see the results on exempelmeningar.se. The next step was to SEO optimize the website.
Chapter 3: Search engine optimization of the website
SEO optimization was like adding steroids to the website. I would have probably gotten traffic without focusing on that as well, but it would have been stupid not to do it, as I had great insight into. If you don’t know anything about SEO, there is going to be a post about it called: “12 years of SEO experience in under 5 minutes”, so don't miss it.
Anyways, let's get back to the story. There were two types of SEO to do, on-site SEO, and off-site SEO. Off site SEO is primarily about getting other websites to link to your website, and that is ALWAYS the hardest part of SEO. I’ll get to how I did that, but we’ll start with on-site SEO first, which is what I did on the actual website.
First I bought a URL called exemplemeningar.se, which literally translates to "example sentences", so my URL is both descriptive of the service and it uses some of the keywords that I’m trying to rank for. Google likes that.
From there on, it was pretty simple. I asked myself: "How would people search to find my website? Well, they would either type the word followed by 'example sentences' or they would search the word, followed by 'in a sentence'."
So to be able to rank for both of those variants, I used one variant in my title tag, and other variants in my H1 and H2 tags. Those tags are the most important ones when it comes to where you keywords should be visible.
Then I did a lot to optimize the speed of the website, but more about that in one of my next posts.
The next step was the hard one - how to get links. This is where I’m really proud of my strategy.
So I thought: "Who links to websites that are some sort of a dictionary?" I knew that synonymer.se, my old client, and tyda.se were the two most popular dictionaries in Sweden at that point. I needed to find out who was linking to them.
You can do that by using one of several SEO tools. I used Ahrefs.com, where you can enter a website and find all the websites that are linking to that specific website. I used it to find out who was linking to the two websites mentioned above, and I exported the list of those websites to a CSV file.
Then I imported all those websites into a database, because I knew I had to reach out to many of them. And I created a small application listing all of them, with a checkbox next to each of them which was the decider if I should send out an email to them.
The last thing I wanted to do was to spam random people, so I would first open their website and see what it was about and if it was relevant to us. If the answer was "yes", I would tick the checkbox, and then I would alter our template email, so that it’s personalized to that website owner. I would try to find their name somewhere and then make sure that I address them personally in the email. These may seem like small things, but they are extremely important, trust me.
Then I would send my email in which I explained that my tool could be useful to students. I also shared with them the story that I shared with you, of how it would have been helpful for my parents when we first moved to Sweden.
Keep in mind that the refugee point was very relevant at this point in Sweden, as Sweden was opening up the borders for hundreds of thousands of Syrians and other refugees, and they needed to be integrated into society.
People responded extremely well to the email, and I got a ton of links. Even strong brands, like my own college website linked to me.
As I said, I am very proud of my strategy, but I have to say that this strategy will only work if you’re genuine and if your service solves a real problem.
That was it. After that I didn’t do too much on the website, and I could watch the traffic increasing week by week. It peaked at about 6,000 - 7,000 visitors per day.
I was ecstatic that it was a hit, and this was only the beginning!
There is a famous entrepreneurial book called “Nail It Then Scale It”. I needed to take this concept to the bigger markets, essentially the big languages, English, German, Spanish etc.
So I did, I created foboko.com, the exact same concept, but for bigger languages.
This website took me to the next level. At its peak, it had over 100,000 daily visitors. I put up regular google ads on the website, and started receiving checks month by month. In my best months, I was making over 5,000 dollars.
Since I started this Google AdSense journey, I’ve made over $200,000, and over $100,000 dollars with just this website.
And the beauty in it is that I’m still making money. In October 2020 I made 1,400 euros, in November I made 1,700 euros in passive income. Mind you, it’s been completely passive since 2016, when Nikola and I started ZenDev, our current software development consultancy that’s been our focus ever since so I didn’t have much time to do further development.
Chapter 4: What you can learn from this
The first thing you need to realize is that even though the website I built is unique, the concept of a long tail website with genuinely good, valuable content on every page is what you need to take from this story.
When I figured this out, I taught the concept to my friend and now business partner Nikola who took the concept and applied it in a similar way. He’s made over $100,000 dollars from his website. He's actually showed me his AdSense account recently, he’s making $200 per day, completely passively.
You will have the opportunity to hear about his story as well, in one of my next posts.
In conclusion, here is what you need to take from this story:
1) Build websites based on a database that lets you make a quality long tail
2) You need to either make a database by scraping the internet, books like I did
Buy a few different databases that in synergy create a new value.
I’ll give you an idea right here, and whoever wants to take this idea can run with it. I’m giving it to inspire you.
Step one: Get all the street addresses in a country. I’m sure that you can find those lists online for many countries.
Step two: Use Google APIs to find all the restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs within a kilometer radius from that street address. Based on that, create a “Street Rank”.
The street rank is a score for every address in that country based on how much “entertainment” there is within a kilometer radius.
Step three: Index every single address in Google, and I think you’ll be surprised by how often people google addresses. That’s where you should be ranking.
Perhaps you can even can sell it as a service for real estate agents or construction companies? Just a thought!
This is just one of many ideas that have been running around in my head for a long time.
Always think of BIG databases, their synergies, and the long tail.
Thank you so much for reading this! Let me know in the comment section below what you think of my approach. I hope you liked the story and that you already have some ideas of your own. If you have any questions, reach out to me. I promise to get back to everybody who does. Good luck!