DISCLAIMER: This content is intended to tell a story for educational purposes and it doesn’t contain trade secrets or proprietary knowledge.
The purpose is to give you an interesting story of ups and downs of building an authority media brand in a very competitive space.
The data is taken from public sources like Ahrefs, Wayback archive etc.
SleepAdvisor.org started as a side project between two friends in 2017.
It quickly became our only focus for the next 5 years.
It grew from a simple mattress niche site into one of the most influential authority websites in the sleep industry.
In the first 5 years, it served over 40 million users and during its peak it attracted over 1M visitors/month and ranking for most of the main affiliate keywords.
Rob and I met in Chiang Mai at the #CMSEO Conference in 2016.
By then, my team and I had built hundreds of small niche sites, and Rob had his first 6-figure exit.
Both of us had extensive SEO knowledge and I had a 30 people team at my agency.
We both agreed it’s time to build something greater.
A proper authority site.
We sat down for a few weeks and discussed what niche to pick.
The criteria for our niche selection were:
We narrowed it down to two niches:
Rob already had a mattress review site that was doing well at that time.
At first, we thought competing with his website would be a conflict of interest.
But, we decided to go after the broader topic of sleep.
We both agreed on the vision.
It will be the #1 resource for people to improve sleep and find quality sleep related products.
It would start slowly as more affiliate centered website to start re-investing.
Then we’d expand heavily into sleep related topics.
From there, we’d go into video content, social media and create our own products.
Above all, we wanted an amazing team and culture.
Let’s dig in.
Back in the day, news sites were oblivious to affiliate marketing.
They were happy to charge $1.99, so you can read an entire article.
There were a few competitors with decent sites, but one stood out.
That was our aim.
We wanted to be better than Sleepopolis.
By the standards of that time, it was a good-looking site.
But, I knew we can do much better.
I talked to my design team and they started working on some draft designs.
In that time, we looked for a suitable domain.
We wanted to do outreach and content marketing from day one.
So the domain name needed the “authority feel.”
The hypothesis was that having the word “sleep” in the domain name instead of “mattress” would attract more natural links.
And it did (I will get to that soon).
Having narrowed down to a few choices we both liked Sleep Advisor.
But, the .com extension was taken.
Another hypothesis was that .org might attract even more links if perceived as a non-profit and coupled with a really good web design and content.
We were 100% right.
We registered that and started writing content.
The goal for website content was to be above and beyond the regular affiliate site content.
Long term, we knew we had to get in-house writers, but for launch, we just needed to get something written fast.
For info content, we tried several popular content writing agencies at that time, but the quality needed to be more consistent.
So we decided to create firm guidelines on how the writers should create content.
It improved the quality, and with some editing on our end, it was good enough for launch.
We wrote the content for the most important “best” pages ourselves.
We were obsessed with on-page optimization, and for the important pages, it took weeks to write and optimize them.
This was a basic checklist we used for on-page optimization.
We launched with about 50 articles.
This is how one of the first versions looked:
Then we got our social accounts up and running.
The goal was to create sort of like a startup buzz about the brand so we did the following:
Social and referral traffic is a good way to bypass the Google Sandbox period, and if you look at the Ahrefs chart, we didn’t that that “sandbox” period for more than a few months.
There was no way to continue using content agencies and writing content ourselves if we wanted to scale.
It was time to systematize and automate the whole process and hire in-house writers.
This is how the publishing system workflow looked:
Based on that, we created a Google Sheets document and later automated it to go from one phase to another automatically.
You would be amazed at how much time this saves in a big team.
The sheet had 7 tabs:
Changing the first column to checked automatically sends it down the publishing funnel to the next team.
Here is the example of the writer’s checklist tab I recreated for you.
Writer’s checklist tab:
Note: It seems pretty complicated but now I have automated it in Airtable and it’s much better than Google Sheets.
We started with a few native-speaker writers and soon promoted them to management positions as they onboarded and trained new writers.
Our director of content, Suzanne did a wonderful job on the hiring funnel, and this is how it looked.
That hiring process meant that we always had quality writers if we needed more.
In the first year, we didn’t build many links.
It was mostly light guest posting.
Things really started to pick up after we onboarded Mike.
He was a beast with systems and automation and was able to build a really effective workflow for outreach and building relationships with bloggers and site owners.
He had a dedicated team of 6-8 people working only on Sleep Advisor.
This Ahrefs screenshots shows referring domain increase since he started.
The problem with guest posting was that we started getting diminishing returns and it was not moving the needle anymore.
We needed high DR backlinks ASAP.
For that, we looked into content marketing.
We briefly worked with content marketing agencies.
It was expensive, and they knew what they were doing.
The problem for us was that for the speed we needed, it would eat our whole budget fast.
So we moved everything in-house.
In just a few months we replicated the entire system from research to creating, developing, and distributing amazing content.
Here’s Ahrefs best by links report.
So 6 of the best URLs by referring domains are from content marketing campaigns.
This resulted in 200+ links from DR80 websites:
Think how much you’d pay to PR agencies for those links.
This was by far the highest ROI activity per link acquired considering the DR.
For Sleep Advisor to become a real authority website we needed video reviews.
I found and hired our first video reviewer, Stuart.
Soon, Emma and Mark joined.
Here’s how the channel looks now:
It’s was not most successful channel on Youtube.
And it certainly didn’t move the revenue needle as much as we hoped.
But we were proud of it and it supplemented our written content well.
Social was the most neglected part of Sleep Advisor.
We tried to grow the profiles on several occasions.
Even hired an agency.
But it didn’t move the needle, and it took up valuable headspace.
We decided not to put too much energy into it.
CRO played a big part in our growth.
It’s one of the most overlooked optimization aspects on the site.
We started our first campaigns with Convertica.org 9 months after launch.
Our initial compare tables looked like this:
After two years of testing and countless iterations this is what we ended up with:
On a website that’s doing 1M+ visitors per month, any small positive change means a lot.
With traffic pouring in and Click-Through rate going up with every test the only thing left was to improve monetization.
In the early days, most of the links pointed to Amazon.
As soon as we started ranking for more competitive terms we switched to higher paying affiliate networks (Impact etc) and got an increase compared to Amazon.
Just be mindful that if you are sending traffic to an advertiser’s site directly they are the ones who have to convert the traffic.
In some cases their conversion rate sucks compared to Amazon and you will be earning less (lower EPC) even though the commission % might be higher.
Some brands excel at retargeting, so if your cookie window is 60 days and they retarget within those 60 days you still get the sale attributed to you.
Some brands will wait for your cookie to expire if it’s a shorter window (<30 days) and then retarget.
It’s a sneaky move, but most affiliates are oblivious to this.
For most minor products it wasn’t such a big difference and Amazon converted much better.
Only after Amazon slashed commissions by 60%, we decided to switch whatever we could.
At first, we approached this with a standard affiliate marketer mindset.
“If someone pays better > you give them more exposure = you earn more”
We also considered other models like adding sponsored products at the top like some big brands do.
Ultimately, we decided to delegate these decisions to our editorial team mostly.
The logic was that in the long run, they would pick the best products for the user and it will result in better satisfaction, less returns, less complaints and the advertisers would see value in that.
We included and heavily emphasized the company itself in the review process, not just the product.
The company review process included: (not an exhaustive list)
A good example of a bad company was when one affiliate manager sent a first ever email to our editorial team saying that their product deserved a rightful #1 spot on a specific page and threatened us unless we complied.
They never even bothered sending a product or replying to our emails; it was their first interaction.
If a company allows such behavior you can’t expect that they treat customers better.
Straight to sh*t list.
In a later stage of the business, my job was building relationships.
I flew and met with the founders of companies we promoted.
I wanted to learn about their vision, process, how they build products and their team.
We discussed how they could improve conversions which would ultimately improve our EPC.
In the end, I’d share our vision for Sleep Advisor.
They all loved how much we reinvested into our team, constantly improving our existing content and goals for scaling video content.
Almost all of them willingly increased commission rates to be closer to more aggressive publishers that twisted their arms with ultimatums.
Some build bridges and some burn them.
I knew in which camp I was.
To this day, I’m friends with these founders.
Our team culture was one of my proudest achievements.
We worked hard on creating this culture as much as we worked on content.
Here’s an excerpt from our team culture book.
One of the controversial things was that we didn’t want a traditional hierarchical structure.
More like a flat structure where everyone is a leader and a follower.
How effective that structure was is debatable.
After about 20 people in the team, you need more structure.
That’s why we started using EOS – https://www.eosworldwide.com/
I still use it for my holding company, and it’s a game-changer.
The team loved it too.
It gives structure to those who crave a more organized team.
And it doesn’t allow anyone to stray too much off the core focus.
Or to chase shiny objects. (more about that below).
I wanted to add this so you understand our journey wasn’t all roses.
In 2020, we held most “best mattress” keywords firmly in #1-3 place.
Our next logical step is to create products.
“Why not create our own mattress and promote it on the site?”
It turned out it was a legal nightmare to do so.
That idea went to the bin.
This was the most logical next option.
It turned into a disaster.
We noticed that there are only a few sleep courses out there.
With more than 1 million visitors/month, we definitely had the distribution.
And we had the team and knowledge to create the content.
We decided that with our team and marketing knowledge, we would crush this easily.
We decided to niche down to Baby Sleep since many of our team members were parents.
We decided there was no need to:
And we went straight into:
Turns out there is a big reason why there are only a few courses on sleep.
People don’t want to buy them.
And if they do, they buy from mom bloggers and consultants rather than a big team.
We wasted 6 figures in salaries building this product and it’s one of the biggest mistakes we made on this business.
We scrapped the whole idea and moved back to writing awesome reviews and info content.
Pro Tip: Don’t compete with mom bloggers.
I won’t go into too much detail here due to NDA.
Long story short, we decided it was time to move on.
We both became parents during those 5 years and wanted to travel and spend time with kids.
We sold to an amazing holding company.
I learned a lot about scaling media businesses by studying their model, which I’ll share on LinkedIn and in my newsletter.
They started at the same time as we did and built a much bigger company, mostly through acquisitions.
I’m happy that Sleep Advisor lives on and that it’s still helping millions of people improve sleep every year.
It grew into one of the most significant sites in one of the most competitive SEO niches.
It’s humbling to realize that over 40 million people saw something you created with a laptop.
Five amazing years spent with incredible people.
It taught me important business, partnerships, leadership, hiring and management lessons.
Armed with that experience and knowledge, we go to a new chapter.
I am now building a diversified holding company called Two Futures.
A fitting name for a new chapter of an entrepreneurial career.
P.S. Let’s connect.
Send me a DM on LinkedIn anytime.
I will expand on all these topics but I wanted you to have the full case study in one place.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.