If there’s one thing L.E. McArthur knows how to do well, it’s how to adapt and pivot. She did that when she changed careers, from professional dancer to web designer to affiliate marketing guru, and she’s done that over the last 20 years in the affiliate marketing space.
L.E. got in the game back in 2003, and as the industry has evolved over the last two decades, so have her skills and strategies. She has a vast wealth of knowledge about everything from entity-based SEO and topic clusters to CRO and “linkability,” and she shares much of it here.
Keep reading to find out:
- How she got into affiliate marketing
- What her portfolio of sites looks like
- Her favorite marketing strategies
- Her views on SEO
- Her thoughts on link building
- How she’s growing her email lists
- The exact process she follows to create content
- How she does keyword research
- The resources she recommends
- The tools she can’t live without
- Her biggest challenge
- Her greatest accomplishment
- Her main mistake
- The advice she’d give to other entrepreneurs
Meet L.E. McArthur
My name is L.E. and I’ve been running my affiliate marketing business for over 20 years.
When I was young, I trained as a classical dancer which became my first career. However, after a couple of years, I returned to school to earn a better income. I was already building websites as a hobby by then, so I entered a post-graduate program where I learned how to properly design, structure, and code websites, as well as video production and project management.
I started a web design business while still in school and spent the first year working primarily with clients in the music industry. It was still early days for the internet, and there was no WordPress. I coded sites with Dreamweaver and Flash and specialized in online video production.
I loved having my own business and working creatively, but I didn’t enjoy the constraints and demands of working with clients. I also wasn’t making enough money. In 2003 I stumbled across affiliate marketing and was instantly intrigued.
How She Created Her Portfolio of Sites
I spent three months full-time on my first affiliate project, a review site—building and creating content, and joining and linking affiliate programs. I was growing even more broke during this time but was committed to building towards future returns. I believed in affiliate marketing before I’d even made a cent.
I was lucky when I started out because I already knew how to build professional websites. But I needed to learn the marketing side of things and how to build and track paid advertising campaigns.
I didn’t pay much attention to SEO back then as I was more interested in achieving massive traffic volume quickly and scaling my business as much as possible. I started with Yahoo Ads, then Google Ads, a bunch of ad networks few would remember, and also bought directly from related websites selling ad space. I made $300 profit the first week of promoting my site and was encouraged.
A couple of years later, I started building a lot of what would now be considered microsites, to attract and convert very niche audiences. I sometimes paired these with white label affiliate programs so I could market my own brands and convert on traffic that didn’t include my affiliate ID. I bought ads for most of these sites too, and soon I was spending close to a million dollars a year on advertising.
As I approached my first ten years of affiliate marketing, I launched seven niche blogs simultaneously. This was shortly after I began renting an office and hired a full-time developer. I saw that content was the future, so with the help of freelance writers and a part-time editor, I let those seven blogs grow with little interference while I worked on my existing campaigns.
Those seven content sites all turned ten this year. While they’re all live and earning, only three continue to publish, and one in particular accounts for almost half of my current affiliate earnings. Having these content sites established and ready for optimization was vital as I transitioned from paid advertising to SEO over the last five years.
In addition to all these sites, I own over 600 exact-match domains I’ve been buying over the last twenty years. They are divided into groups based on niche and monetized with affiliate offers using a high-converting template. They are basically one-page websites earning passively from type-in and organic search traffic.
How Much L.E. is Earning
My website portfolio is currently pulling in about $60k/month.
The income from the entire portfolio is 100% affiliate commissions. While the type of income is not very diversified, the websites I use to achieve this income are.
Money not used for expenses goes into the corporate investment account. So that ends up earning as well.
The following screenshot shows earnings for some of my affiliate sites over the last month.
Her Top Marketing Strategy
My marketing strategy has changed dramatically over the years as the internet landscape has changed and evolved.
Currently, my dominant strategy is to convert affiliate offers through content marketing, where most of the traffic comes from organic search.
Her Content Strategy
My organic content strategy isn’t particularly unique, but some elements set my affiliate content sites apart from others.
I no longer use display ads on any of my sites. When I create content higher up in the sales funnel, such as “informational content,” rather than monetize it with display ads, I do my best to move those users toward the related money page instead. I optimize for affiliate conversions at every opportunity rather than using ads that take my hard-won visitors away.
Due to years of working with paid traffic, my marketing is also very data-driven. Tracking at the click level is such an essential part of my success that I try to avoid affiliate programs that don’t work with server-to-server postbacks for third-party tracking, such as Amazon.
I recently did a requested audit on a very large affiliate site and discovered they weren’t tracking conversions at the page level, let alone the click level. It was shocking to see a site with that amount of traffic and earnings, but no clear way of knowing which content was driving conversions and no way to properly test or optimize. They were doing well, but I imagine they could double their profits with the ability to perform data-driven CRO.
The Importance of SEO
SEO has been essential to my business since I stopped doing paid advertising last year. My entire business is essentially in Google’s hands.
My overall SEO strategy for content-based affiliate sites is to establish them as authorities in their niche through topical coverage. Once Google sees a site as an authority for a given entity, it is much easier to rank pages and increase traffic.
I achieve this by carefully researching and planning my content strategy. I am looking to create linked clusters of content that represent the most important and valuable topics related to my primary entity. Some might refer to my strategy as “entity-based SEO.”
I also pay a lot of attention to technical concerns and consider website performance an integral part of SEO. My dev and I build sites that are lightning-fast, which not only pleases Google but also improves user experience, and thus conversions.
Using these strategies I’ve been able to double organic traffic to my primary site over the last year:
Her Thoughts on Link Building
I do not do any link building. I put full effort into my own properties and focus on strategies I have more control over.
I’m not saying backlinks aren’t important as a ranking factor, just that “building backlinks” is not part of my strategy and never has been.
My websites have earned backlinks over time as a result of publishing and promoting content.
That said, there are types of content that are more likely to be linked to and shared by others, so I make sure to have pages that offer higher-than-average value to readers within my niche. These can be pages with epic lists, collections of important resources, or in-depth guides on topics that haven’t been well-addressed elsewhere.
To attract backlinks naturally, I’m also careful of how I brand a website. An affiliate site needs to look and present as a trusted source that people feel comfortable recommending to others.
Many people will avoid linking to websites that provide a poor user experience, even if the content is good. I strive for a high-quality experience by not overcrowding my content with third-party ads and pop-ups, prioritizing site speed and user flow. This improves both “linkability” and conversions.
I’d also like to note that the exposure my sites gained from Google Ads over the years was likely an important factor in gaining inbound links naturally. The more people see your site, the more chances you’ll gain backlinks.
Her Email List
I used to be very aggressive about list building (and had some questionable methods of collecting emails from customers).
I was mailing huge numbers of people, but I was lazy about email marketing. I had big lists full of cold contacts and sent them generic email templates pulling content from my sites. I was building these lists because I could, but it was a low priority.
Today I have a completely different outlook. I now understand that a quality list of highly-engaged and topically-focused users is the goal. Those old subscriber lists got pared down or dumped completely.
I currently have active email lists for my two largest content sites and one that is just getting underway for a new project.
As far as growing my email lists, I’m pretty passive about it. In the footer or sidebar I’ll have a CTA and link to a page with a form. That’s it. No lead magnets, just a promise to keep them updated with what’s new on the site.
On-page, my first goal is always to convert traffic to sales by getting them to click an affiliate link or moving them down a funnel toward a page with affiliate links. Email subscription is secondary to that, at least for now.
Email marketing is one of the last pieces of the puzzle for me. It’s something I’d like to learn more about and eventually be tracking additional income from. All in good time.
L.E.’s Content Creation Process
My content strategy depends on the particular site I’m working on, but in general, it looks something like this:
- Identify business goals: what offers do I want to sell to my audience?
- Brainstorm topics and types of content to promote those offers effectively.
- Know the primary entity that pertains to the site or content cluster I’m working on.
- Identify all important related and sub-entities of the primary entity.
- Create a hierarchical map of these entities to visualize and plan topic clusters.
- Attack one cluster at a time. Create a list of key topics based on my own knowledge and keyword research.
- Whittle this list down to the precise topics for which I plan to publish articles.
- Ensure clusters contain both informational and transactional content. I want less than 20% of my pages to include affiliate links.
- Once published, ensure content within a cluster is interlinked and info content funnels users toward “money pages” within the cluster.
The actual creation of content is one of my biggest challenges. It’s not so much that I’m terrible at it (I’ve been honing these skills for 20 years), but I don’t enjoy writing as much as I enjoy all the other parts of being an affiliate.
I simply don’t have it in me to write every day, even though it’s a persistent goal, so I pay people to do it for me. I have a small group of freelance writers and an editor who acts as their point of contact and uploads the work into WordPress.
So once I have a list of the topics I want to cover within a cluster, the process of content creation for any given article goes like this:
- Do keyword research to identify the topic’s primary keywords and specific wording.
- Use SERP analysis to ensure the article will target what Google considers to be the correct user intent for those keywords.
- Create a detailed outline for the article, including a title and all headings. Add further notes for the author if needed.
- My editor passes a batch of these article outlines to the authors every two weeks.
- Completed articles are edited for readability and scheduled in WordPress by the editor.
- I do a final “SEO edit” for each article, including adding images, internal and external linking, and minor tweaks to the content.
- The articles are then published on a regular schedule.
My new site, Affiliate Savant, will only be written by me. So in its case, all the steps are the same, but there likely won’t be a regular publishing schedule. My focus will be more on quality than quantity.
Her Keyword Research Process
For a long time, I didn’t use an advanced keyword tool at all, and that was because my traffic came from paid advertising. Google Ads was the ultimate keyword tool because I could see actual earnings for specific keywords within the ad account. I was led by conversion rates more than volume or metrics like “keyword difficulty.”
Moving into SEO, I was able to mine my Google Ads account for the keywords that were proven money-makers in my niches. I simply created focused content around the same keywords I’d been bidding on for years. But eventually, I wanted to branch out beyond the topics and niches I’d targeted with advertising.
Now I use Ahrefs as my keyword tool and love it. I haven’t defined a step-by-step process, but here are some of my favorite methods and tips regarding keyword research.
Start with Entities
Google is looking at content in terms of entities, topics, and intent, rather than keywords, so you should too! Use keywords to clarify and support your content, not as a starting point. It’s a shift in process that will help you see the bigger picture and more efficiently plan your content.
Don’t Sacrifice Topical Coverage
People often restrict themselves to targeting “low difficulty” or low volume keywords to avoid competition and have a better chance of ranking. This keyword strategy can work very well but shouldn’t be exclusive.
It’s okay if they don’t rank for now, as you can always offer the content to existing visitors through internal linking.
Use Keywords That Convert
When your site is monetized with affiliate offers, the most important keywords to target are those that lead to conversions. High volume and low-difficulty are nice, but those metrics say little about the likelihood of a sale. Some keyword tools provide a column that shows the average CPC for keywords, which is a decent starting point as it represents how valuable the keyword is to advertisers.
A good strategy is to go for keywords where the user’s problem is clearly evident. An example of this is any keyword phrase containing “how to” or similar. In this case, I know what the user wants, and all I have to do is provide a well-matched solution that involves a product or service I’m promoting.
Other popular keywords that convert contain words like “buy,” “best,” and “review(s).” I occasionally create “best of” lists, but I never write reviews anymore. The last thing I need is to have my site under Google’s review policy microscope.
See What’s Already Working
Google Search Console is amazing for keyword ideas if you’ve already got traffic coming into your site. Not only can you see how you’re ranking for keywords you’ve targeted, but you’ll also find keywords that could benefit from a new, dedicated article.
I often look closely at the keywords ranking on page two and beyond. I then optimize the existing article to bring those keywords to the first page of search results. But in many cases, it’s clear that a new article can better accomplish that goal.
Mine Your Competitor’s Keywords
If you use a keyword tool that includes competitor metrics, you can quickly see what keywords and topics are proving successful for other websites in your niche. This is a great way to get inspiration when you’re feeling tapped out creatively.
All this said, there are so many keyword tools available today and a plethora of keyword research methods being shared. There is no one correct way, so experiment and find the process that works for you.
Achieving Her Current Revenue Level
My business started earning affiliate commissions in 2003, and by 2007 had its first year of a million dollars in profit.
Earnings have fluctuated over the years. The affiliate business can be quite volatile with the number of moving parts, most of which are entirely out of our control. I am grateful, and at times in disbelief, that I’ve managed to keep it all running for so long.
L.E.’s Favorite Resources
I’ve been pretty insular in my affiliate journey because there were very few resources when I started out. After the initial ebook I read, I gained insights primarily through testing my own campaigns. I constantly brainstormed, trying to develop new ideas that would take me to the next level.
That level of self-reliance has persisted to this day, but it means I’ve probably missed out on many excellent resources or methods. I don’t watch anything on YouTube related to my business or listen to podcasts at all. But I do read a ton of articles online.
Within the realm of niche site building and affiliate marketing, there are so many different things a person will need to learn and apply, from arranging hosting and building their website to copywriting and funnels, to analytics and conversion rate optimization.
For each step along the way, you often need to consult a variety of expert information and opinions. There might be single resources or courses that bring all of this together, but I don’t know of them.
I do recommend joining free online communities of like-minded people who are also working on affiliate websites (like the Niche Pursuits Facebook group). Read everything you can on topics of interest, and put specific questions to the community when you can’t find answers.
For the last decade, I pondered creating a resource site of my own for affiliate marketers. But affiliates are notoriously tight-lipped, and being no different I figured it would be best to wait until I was nearing the end of my career before sharing any “secrets.”
At twenty years in, I don’t seem any closer to leaving this business, so the time has come for me to spill what I know and hopefully help others who want to succeed with affiliate marketing.
Last year I started with a Twitter account @AffiliateSavant and built Affiliate Savant. My goal is to use the Affiliate Savant site, which will become an affiliate site itself, to guide people all the way from website building to earning affiliate commissions. I’ll also build a second site in public this year to use as an example for my affiliate teachings.
The Affiliate Savant project stalled last summer as my existing projects and some personal challenges took precedence, but I’m happy to report that things are back on track. This year will see the completion of my free Affiliate Marketing Guide for Beginners and additional resources at my website. Anyone interested in following along can sign up there.
There are so many great tools for those working in web publishing and the affiliate business, but I keep my toolkit simple. These are my top three affiliate tools that I can’t work without:
Building content clusters and monetizing them is only the first step to earning. Big money comes when these funnels and “money pages” are continually optimized. Tracking and testing enable me to include the highest earning offers, in the right order, with the best calls-to-action, which send users to the highest converting landing pages.
I can only achieve this level of optimization by analyzing data with tracking software and working with affiliate programs that support third-party tracking and reporting.
I slept on keyword tools for a long time because I got most of the keyword data I needed from my paid advertising accounts. Now that I’m building authority sites and vying for organic traffic, having a keyword tool is essential. It allows me to determine potential traffic levels and learn the language of my audience.
I’m sometimes disappointed that keyword tools aren’t more accurate, but they’re still a must-have. I use Ahrefs and open it up almost every day.
Google provides many of the tools that I use daily. I won’t go into detail on each of these, but Google Search Console, Google Analytics, Google Docs, and Google Search itself are all important to my affiliate research and workflow.
Her Greatest Challenge
Besides my procrastination, the biggest challenge has always been dealing with Google. Specifically, running large Google Ad campaigns while receiving little feedback and support from their teams.
Another big challenge, which is related, has been diversification. It’s a constant battle between trying to diversify traffic and revenue sources while trying to follow the money and scale what’s already working.
For example, I quit advertising with Bing because the traffic volume wasn’t worth the time and effort that I could better spend on Google campaigns. This improved overall earnings but decreased diversification.
Somehow I’ve managed to survive these challenges and pivot when I had to. That’s due to one of the key benefits of running a small business – the ability to make decisions quickly and change direction on the fly.
L.E.’s Greatest Accomplishment
The accomplishment I’m most proud of as an entrepreneur has been managing my affiliate business as professionally as possible. Some suggest an affiliate business isn’t a “real business,” but it depends on how you approach it.
Today my affiliate business is a registered corporation with its own credit cards, bank accounts, investment accounts, employees, and professional accounting. It has made it easier to track spending and earnings. And since corporate tax rates are lower, I leave most of my money in the business, which is essentially my future retirement fund.
I’m proud that I’ve been able to keep my full-time developer, editor, and part-time writers employed through thick and thin and pay them generous wages and bonuses. Everyone who works for me lives in the same city and is either a friend or a friend of a friend.
What She Wishes She Knew When She Started
Much of what I know now about running affiliate sites wasn’t applicable when I started 20 years ago. Building sites was more difficult, but affiliate marketing was a lot easier in many ways – there was much less regulation and competition. You could get away with building “thin” sites heavy on affiliate links, and the focus was always on traffic, which was cheaper and easier to come by.
Early on, I figured I’d be lucky if I could keep my affiliate business going for five years. I thought my business model was at risk of being wiped out at some point due to the immense power that third parties play and a lack of diversification.
Due to all this, I didn’t think about the value of a website beyond what it could earn from one day to the next. I usually built sites for the short term and had no thoughts about their long-term value as an asset or how they would mature over time.
I’d also talk my younger self into building at least one site on a topic I’m passionate about, instead of only following the money. I’m finally doing that now after 20 years with a site that features my knowledge of dance training.
If you are just starting out, I dare you to take a longer-term view and imagine what a website you start now could become in ten years. Forget “churn and burn,” and imagine building something incredible that you can be proud of.
Her Biggest Mistake
As an entrepreneur, I’ve always been very ambitious and viewed the earning potential of affiliate marketing as limitless. Wherever I found success with an affiliate program or traffic source, I would try to maximize that success by scaling up whatever was working.
In practice, this meant that each time I had a new concept for a website, we would actually end up creating and publishing ten or more sites at once. Their core structure would be the same, but the content would be unique.
Another thing that inspired me to create such an extensive portfolio was seeing how much better the affiliate conversions were when the niche was obscure or under-represented. I wanted websites and domain names to match exactly what searchers had in their minds. This meant creating sites for many different sub-niches, even if the offer was essentially the same.
I failed to consider the additional effort required when you build everything in multiples. My mistake was thinking I could maintain 50+ sites at the level needed to keep them all performing at their best, long-term.
I’m not sure if this was a mistake at the time because the playing field was different then. But it has become a real difficulty for me as I struggle to manage so many affiliate sites successfully. (Perhaps the true mistake has been my aversion to growing my business in terms of employees.)
These days I am working to rectify my mistakes. I am cleaning up old sites, merging sites, and for the first time, preparing sites I’d like to sell. I dream of having only two or three primary sites to focus on one day.
New affiliate marketers should focus on quality over quantity. Unless you have a team to manage your sites for you, start with one website and give it all your attention and resources. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
Her Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
To anyone building their own affiliate business, I’ll offer these five tips:
- Choose Your Niche Wisely
You’ll want to choose an affiliate niche with profit potential but also one where it will be possible for you to become a trusted expert. Passion, interest, and expertise in your topic will shine through to your readers (and Google) and make content creation less of a slog.
Don’t build a site without first knowing what you’re going to sell. However, your niche shouldn’t be a product, but a lifestyle or topic encompassing multiple products and possible vendors.
- Do the Work Yourself
Do everything yourself as much as possible in the beginning. It’s fine to outsource later on, but for complete control and understanding of your business, you should be able to do everything yourself, at least at a basic level. This will help you assess the work of your future freelancers, and to know exactly what you need and what to ask for.
- Learn and Apply CRO From the Beginning
Affiliate marketing is more than sprinkling affiliate links into existing content. Conversion rate optimization is essential as it helps you to squeeze maximum profit from any campaign or piece of content.
While CRO can be applied at any stage, it works best when built into the content strategy and customer flow.
- Know Your Worth
There are thousands of affiliate programs. Don’t accept poor commission rates, bad terms, or bad behavior.
If an affiliate program isn’t communicative, supportive, or reliable, just walk away. If you aren’t getting paid for sales you’ve already made, remove their links, cut your losses, and move on.
Bonus Tip: Develop Relationships
If possible, meet your affiliate managers and people running the businesses you promote the most. You can do this by arranging a meeting at an upcoming affiliate conference or planning a trip to their headquarters. If that’s not possible, at least arrange a phone call.
Having a good relationship with your affiliate manager can take your affiliate business to the next level. It unlocks insider insights, commission increases, event invitations, and new business opportunities.