Detailed case study: Our fashion affiliate site is stuck
TLDR: We created a fashion site (The Nines) that identifies the clothing worn by celebrities and provides more affordable versions of the same outfits. The site is (almost) a pure SEO play as there is significant search volume for people looking for info on celebrity outfits. After over two years and almost 1,500 posts, the site attracts a very modest 4 K users per month from organic search and has earned little revenue.
After having some success with a niche affiliate site, my partner and I decided to think a bit bigger. After looking into multiple different ideas, we settled on celebrity clothing identification for three reasons.
• There was significant search volume up for grabs. The industry leader (Steal Her Style) has over 600 K users per month despite an extremely dated look and user experience.
• The database style of the site was well suited to an outsourced content creation process. We were able to find a high-quality stylist at a reasonable price who is able to identify the clothing worn by the celebrities and determine where the outfits can be purchased.
• We believed that our idea to identify budget versions of each outfit would allow us to differentiate ourselves from other sites that post celebrity looks.
We worked with a designer to create a modern and fresh site and then hired a developer to code the site in a way that would allow us to create search-optimized posts as quickly as possible.
On November 03, <year>, we launched our first post.
The revenue plan
We believed that once we had enough traffic, we would be able to earn revenue through three avenues:
• Display ads – We currently have Adsense on the site and were hoping to upgrade to a better provider like AdThrive but we are not even close to the required traffic. To date, the site has earned $146 through display ads.
• Affiliate commissions – Most of the links to purchase the clothing items are affiliate links. Again, we don't have the traffic for this strategy to work at a scale that matters. To date, the site has earned $750 through affiliate commissions.
• Brand partnerships – We have not even thought about this since launching the site since we don't have remotely enough traffic to make this interesting for a brand.
The SEO plan
Our SEO plan was two fold: create high-quality content that is optimized for search and build the necessary links to compete in a competitive market.
1. Site structure and content
Every post on our site uses high-quality images and is structured in such a way that it is easy to navigate and find the information you're looking for.
Furthermore, each post is sliced and diced into a number of categories/tags to help Google understand the site and create additional opportunities to rank for keywords beyond those associated with the individual celebrity outfit posts.
• As an example, this Olivia Rodrigo outfit post has the following related pages:
• Style: Red Carpet
• Stylist: Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo
• Hair: Clayton Hawkins
• Makeup: Molly Greenwald
• Celebrity: Olivia Rodrigo (see all of her outfits)
• Designer: Saint Laurent (all of the clothing items that Olivia is wearing are featured on the individual designer pages)
• Type of clothing: Mini dress (most clothing items are tagged by type and automatically added to these blog post-like pages that we have featured on the Trends page)
2. Link building
The fashion space is extremely competitive so we knew that link building would be essential. Unfortunately, this is where most of our efforts have failed.
Here is what we have tried and the results.
• Help A Reporter Out (HARO) – This has been our most successful link building tactic to date. Unfortunately, responding to fashion-related queries is not a great method for obtaining links at the scale required to move the needle.
• The Closet Report – We surveyed 1,000 American women about the contents of their closet and created what I thought was a high-quality report. We pitched this to literally every fashion publication we could find and obtained zero links. I know that content marketing can be a challenge but I was still surprised by how badly this failed. We did receive a couple of positive comments from people but nobody wanted to write about it.
• Custom posts for small bloggers – We created an extensive list of small fashion bloggers and reached out to them with an offer of getting one of their outfits featured on our site in exchange for them linking back to our site. We obtained 6-8 links through this process but all of them were from small sites with limited domain authority.
• Fashion stats – When you search for "fashion stats", the number one result is this awful post and the rest of the results are not any better. We created this much higher-quality post and marketed it in two ways.
• We pitched it to people who had cited the awful post and told them that some of their data was either wrong or out-of-date. This led to zero links.
• We ran Google Ads for the term "fashion stats" and some of its variations. This led to a lot of traffic but only a single link after spending around $800.
Organic search traffic breakdown
• About 50% of our traffic comes from the regular search results and the other 50% comes from Google Images
• 15% of our traffic is directed to the pages for the celebrity stylists, makeup and hair people. For the smaller stylists, we tend to rank quite well but at the same time, there are not many people searching for them.
• The remaining 85% goes to a seemingly random mix of individual celebrity outfits, celebrity pages (a list of all their outfits – example) and trends (example). There is no obvious reason why we rank well enough for the few keywords that drive traffic whereas the vast majority of them are buried on page 2 or lower.
• Improve the site speed. I don't believe this is a significant factor that is holding us back but it could be improved, especially on mobile.
• On mobile, the celebrity outfit posts are shared in an Instagram-like carousel. I don't believe this affects Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as the content is the same but it's worth pointing out.
• Build more links. We are pretty convinced that this is the only solution to competing in this market and ranking for more keywords but unfortunately, we are very much out of ideas. If anyone has any thoughts on a link building campaign that either a) uses the data on our site or b) would require original research/content creation, I would love to hear it.
• Evolve the site content. To be honest, we're not really sure where to go from here. We want the site to continue to evolve (some of the items mentioned above were not on the site when we launched) but it is hard to put in the time and effort when we're stuck on link building because it seems unlikely that we're going to get more traffic until that problem is solved.
Maybe just sell the site and move onto the next project – not being defeatest but I think 2 years is enough time to gauge whether it's viable or not?
Sometimes search volume can be Fool's Gold…
Sounds like you either need to forget about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and build a legit following on social… Maybe even be a pure play Instagram brand… Or maybe try selling the site to an Instagrammer / insta brand who could bolt this onto their offering.
Alternatively create a service for brands and startups where you launch these kinds of content sites for them… God knows I'd be interested in someone who can do this kind of quality work for my clients!
• "Maybe just sell the site and move onto the next project – not being defeatest but I think 2 years is enough time to gauge whether it's viable or not?"
• I completely agree with you. I'm just about ready to move on. This is a last ditch effort.
• "Sounds like you either need to forget about SEO and build a legit following on social… Maybe even be a pure play Instagram brand."
• We definitely tried. I have no understanding of Instagram and it showed. We got up to 1,500 followers but it took a ton of effort and there was limited engagement. Then Instagram randomly shut down our account. Long story.
• "Alternatively create a service for brands and startups where you launch these kinds of content sites for them… God knows I'd be interested in someone who can do this kind of quality work for my clients!"
• This piqued my curiosity. When you say "these kinds of content sites", what do you mean?
Well… (and I mean no disrespect by this, quite the opposite) you don't seem to be passionate about fashion… Yet you've created a website that's got well thought-out branding and appears really legitimate, with good quality content.
Plenty of decent sized brands would pay you to do something like this for them and would be chuffed at getting 4k visits a month to something they own, but you operate.
I'm basically describing a "content agency" set up, I guess.
Just an initial 2 cents… Obvs not as easy as I'm making it out lol
You are correct that I have no interest in fashion. I probably also wouldn't want to do this for other brands. It's way too tedious :)
I've worked a bit in the beauty niche building links, you could buy a LOT of them real fast if you did some competition analysis and reached out that way. Getting natural links is super tough as you've found, it may just be that you need to try other angles with your content until something works.
Another thing I'm a bit confused about, what keyword are you targeting for instance here "https://theninesfashion.com/outfit/olivia-culpo-night-marlina-sweater-lovers-and-friends/"
If you like at what Stealherstyle did, they put all the outfits on one page which may be giving Google a better idea of what keywords to place on the page. Maybe it's considered thin content? No idea honestly, just throwing out some ideas.
I would say that your Ahrefs Domain Rating (DR) is super low, you could get it up to 30-40 within a matter of 2-3 months if you have the budget for it. I understand if you want to take it the natural route, I would recommend hiring a Public Relations (PR) agency for that if that's your goal.
– When you talk about buying links, are you suggesting we look at our competitors' backlink profiles and buy the same links? We've definitely looked at them and there is no evidence that anything is purchased. For example, Steal Her Style has pages that identify celeb tattoos and almost all of their high Domain Authority (DA) links are naturally directed to those pages. A lot of our other competitors are large fashion brands with a ton of natural links.
– Our individual outfit posts tend to show up in search results when someone sees the outfit on another platform (typically Instagram or Pinterest) and then searches for an item in the outfit to see where they can buy it. In your example, we might want to rank for "olivia culpo black sweater". We also have a page for each celeb (example) like Steal Her Style.
– We've contacted Public Relations (PR) agencies and nobody has any idea what to do with this site. Literally everyone has tried to pitch services around growing our IG profile even when we carefully explain why we don't want to do that and why link building is important. If you know of an agency that could take this one, I am open to hearing suggestions.
Improve the site speed. I don't believe this is a significant factor that is holding us back but it could be improved, especially on mobile.
I've seen a site tank when we introduced a bug that put our sites at around the lighthouse score I got when running a test on your frontpage. So I would not discard this one.
Interesting. I appreciate the feedback. We're working on it.
So a quick glance for desktop:
You are showing 14 megabytes worth of data to people, but you're showing all of 2 pictures above the fold. Alone getting those images lazy loaded properly will probably have a good impact. You are also for some odd reason bypassing WordPress built in srcsets that would make them scale properly.
And you are probably render blocking on 1 of 3 fonts as you forgot the &swap.
This doesn't even feel like it missing optimization, it feels like whoever did you design has no education on best practices and shouldn't be doing websites in <year>.
I am aware. He was cheap but this type of site was way out of his depth. We're in the process of getting everything fixed.
The content on your site is minimal, besides images. When I look at it, It screams "this is only here for affiliate links". Establish a focus keyword for pages, include more written content that can answer a couple of co-existing queries revolving around the FOKW. I'm not a fashionista persay, but I'm not sure how this site would be useful to me if I were. IG growth via organic and ads may be more up the target audiences alley.
Another piece of advice, if multiple agencies are telling you something, and you're stuck on getting them to try to understand link building… try listening to them. If only to humor them, even. Building relationships is key for backlinking anyways. Good luck!
This is what fashion sites look like (a lot of images/not a lot of text) though I agree we could benefit from more text on certain pages.
Right, but if you're not getting high authority links, you'll need to up content on the site to compete with those sites that are.
I think that links are not your problem, the content is. You said you have 1500 posts, yet you have over 2500 indexed pages. Those extra 1000 pages are probably super thin.
Another thing – you're talking about a fashion site but you created an ecommerce site.
Our of curiosity how do you go about using images that are not your own (such as celeb images). Always wondered how non big player fashion websites are allowed to use these images or if they come under fair use?
How does Google distinguish the Search Results for Different Multi-Disciplines?