Fat Stacks quote from Breaking Bad by Jesse Pinkman

Sniper vs. Shotgun Niche Blog Types – What’s Best?

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Boston, Massachusetts, USA skyline with Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market at dusk

Boston, Massachusetts, USA skyline with Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market at dusk.

3 days ago I read yet another blogger saying that monetizing with AdSense is the worst thing you could do.

Guess what niche he’s in?

You guessed it.  Another “how to make money/save money” finance blogger.

Of course, AdSense is terrible for that niche.

AdSense is often terrible for many niches that can make money with affiliate offers or by selling solutions to solution-seeking audience.

For many other niches, AdSense (i.e. display ads) is the only option.  And that’s fine.  You can make a great living with display ads.

Major publications earn millions.

This same blogger backs up his “AdSense is terrible” statement by saying AdSense only earns $1.28 per 1,000 page views (RPM) while his make and save money blog has posts earning $88 per 1,000 views.

Unfortunately, that’s a terrible misrepresentation.

If you get traffic from the US and use a half-decent ad network and aren’t afraid to put an ad above the fold, you’re very likely going to earn more than $1.28 RPM.

Why am I telling you this?

Because incorrect advice cost me a ton of money for the first several years I was online.

I wish I’d jumped on the display ad bandwagon right away.

I wouldn’t have had to write all that boring affiliate content.

I could have had more fun writing on cool topics I cared about and made money doing so.  I probably wouldn’t have done all the spammy link building I did pre-Penguin penalty, which could have spared me some big penalties.

How does this relate to sniper vs. shotgun niche sites?

Let’s get into that.

Sniper vs. Shotgun Niche Sites (defined)

Let’s define the two.

Sniper site

If you’ve been online for many years, you may recall a super popular course called Google Sniper.  I bought it.  It taught how to create mini-sites targeting keywords.  This is NOT my view definition of sniper sites in today’s blogging environment.  Maybe the new sniper concept should be “Sniper 2.0”.

Example: Backlinko

Attributes:

  • Publish fewer articles
  • Fewer keywords to go after
  • Target higher search volume keywords
  • Must do a lot of promotion (euphemism for link building and begging for mentions)
  • Usually monetized with affiliate stuff, lead gen and/or selling something.

Benefits of sniper sites:

  • Easier to promote extensively.  Because there’s less content, it’s easier to promote each article.
  • Easier to continually improve:  I like updating content because it’s effective.  However, this is not so easy when a site has 5,000 articles.  Where do you start?  You can’t possibly update everything.  Sniper sites, on the other hand, with 100 articles, make picking and choosing content for updating much easier.
  • Email:  Sniper sites, because they cater to a select audience, are good for email marketing, which can be very lucrative.  Shotgun sites, on the other hand, have a broad audience which makes effective email marketing more difficult.  It’s possible with segmenting, but let’s face it, most people on the Huffington Post email list (if they have one) aren’t jumping all over some course or fitness regimen.  It’s way too random.

Shotgun site

Example: Searchenginejournal.com

Attributes:

  • Publish far more content monthly.
  • Far more keywords to go after (this is a very important distinction)
  • Covers all kinds of topics within the niche.
  • Most of the content isn’t promotional.  Instead, it’s informational and/or entertaining.
  • Targets longer tail keywords mostly (but also goes after some big dawgs).
  • News sites fall into this category which is interesting because if you’re a sniper type of niche, you can hybrid it with a news section.

Benefits of shotgun sites:

  • Lots of easy traffic opportunities:  With thousands of keywords, there are many that rank pretty easily if the content is decent.
  • Less risk of getting knocked out of the SERPs by the competition:  The lower the traffic for specific keywords, the less likely another site will go after specific keywords trying to oust you from top rankings.  Moreover, when you rank for tens of thousands of keywords, losing some rankings won’t kill your site.  Sniper sites, on the other, must defend constantly by continual promotion and updating.  Dropping down 4 spots for a 30,000 per month search volume keyword hurts big time.

Is a sniper or shotgun site better?

That’s the wrong question.

Similarly, asking whether display ads or affiliate marketing is better is also a wrong question.

The right questions are:

  • What tasks do you like doing?  
  • What type of site do you want to run?
  • What niche is the best fit for you?

All approaches are a lot of work and take time.

What’s the main difference between Sniper and Shotgun sites?

There isn’t a singular difference.  It’s an approach.

When I started putting this post together, I suggested the niche dictates whether a site would be a sniper or shotgun model.  However, there are too many exceptions.

One notable exception is Backlinko vs. SearchEngineJournal.com.  Both sites are in the SEO niche, yet Backlinko is a pure sniper site while SEJ is a pure shotgun site.

Interestingly, Ahrefs reports 200K monthly visits for Backlinko and 500K monthly visits for SEJ.

Backlinko monetizes with affiliate links and selling a course.

SEJ monetized with ads (and probably affiliate stuff and sponsored posts).

Both sites are very successful, yet very different in the same niche.

Which site do I visit more often?

I visit SEJ two to three times per week because I like checking out new SEO content regularly.  They publish timely information which is what I want.  I seldom go to Backlinko because it’s not very often updated… but that’s not to say I won’t return to Backlinko.  I will when Brian publishes another post.

IMPORTANT: 

Because sniper sites are more promotional in nature, they are narrower in scope focusing on fewer keywords.  Because there are fewer relevant keywords, all sites in the niche go after them making it very competitive.

Shotgun sites typically work for broader niches with literally tens of thousands of relevant keywords.  Yes, there are huge search volume keyword opportunities, but there are so many other keywords that the potential amount of content is mindboggling.  This means more low competition keywords which are not terribly lucrative other than more ad revenue opportunities.

Below I elaborate on the tasks and processes involved for each type of niche.

Sniper Site Process

Carefully select the perfect keywords and topics

You’re going to put a lot into each article so you need to make it count.  You’ll choose some duds along the way, but generally, you need to swing for the fences.

Research like a maniac

You’re going up against some serious authority and content quality so you need to bring your A-game. Your article must be impeccably researched and loaded with fantastic information.

Write a masterpiece

If you outsource, you need to hire an expert and pay expert prices.  It will cost you.  Otherwise, you will need to pen a masterpiece.  It should be filled with personal experience, anecdotes, maybe humor and of course your research.

Add media

If you’re going all in, go all in.  Get some great images.  Commission originals such as illustrations if you can.  Create some charts, graphs, etc. (my course has a module that shows you how to create charts quickly on almost any topic).

Publish it. Now the work really starts

Once you publish that sucker, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.  Research and writing was the easy part.

Now you need to promote which means a social media and email blast.  That’s easy.

Don’t forget to contact every site related to your site in any way asking for a link or some mention or something that sends signals and/or traffic.

You might grease up the guest posting machine and build a bunch of those links too.  Or you can open your wallet and drop $1,000 on guest posts.

Comb through HARO emails looking for opportunities to provide a quote (in exchange for a link).

Spend some time on Quora answering questions related to the article.  Drop a link somewhere if it works.

Hustle, hustle and more hustle.  You need to promote this piece as if your life depended on it.

Capture emails

Most sniper style sites capture emails because the site revolves around affiliate marketing to a specific audience and/or sells stuff.

The email capture system should be already set up so that’s easy.

However, you might add some custom email sign up incentive specific to the article such as bonus related to the article.  This is pretty smart and works well.

Final step

Cross your finger and hit refresh every five minutes in your keyword ranking software.

Rinse and repeat.

Shotgun site process

This isn’t easier than the sniper model.  It’s just different. Moreover, you can definitely incorporate some sniper efforts into a shotgun site.

The shotgun site is usually in a larger, broader niche and publishes all kinds of articles.  Short, long, lots of media, little media, etc.

It’s an online magazine.

While you can and should swing for the fences going after big keywords, your site doesn’t depend on it because you mostly target longer tail stuff with less competition.

You make up for the low search volume keywords with high publishing volume.

You can cover topics that don’t promote anything because the site monetizes with display ads.

Here’s the shotgun site process

Keyword research

Find 100 low competition keywords in your niche with some search volume.  Low is fine.

Write like a maniac

Start writing like a maniac or hire it out.  I use this content outfit which also formats everything on my site for me which is such a huge time-saver.

You want to publish a lot of content regularly.  Because you’re going after lower competition keywords, you don’t have to put all your time into promoting.

Should you promote your shotgun site articles?

You can.  I don’t bother much, but I have done some guest posts for one of my new sites.  I’ve done some outreach too.  Otherwise, I just publish as much as I can as fast as I can.

Promotion is good.  Don’t get me wrong about that.  I know it’s good; I just don’t like doing it.  If you like and want a shotgun site, promote your heart out, especially wholesome outreach.  Avoid spammy link building. This is about minimizing risk.

Will mediocre content work?

Not really.  Even though you’re going after lower competition keywords, the content needs to be good.  At least better than the other stuff online.

But, it doesn’t usually need to be a monster, epic piece of content that you would publish if going after some ludicrously valuable keyword like “Best hosting”.

It may be short or long.  Be sure to write it long enough so that it thoroughly covers the topic.  I have 2,500 word articles that target fairly low-competition keywords.  Much of it ranks pretty well.

What’s the key difference?

Think of it as McDonald’s (shotgun) vs. Fine Dining (sniper).  Both businesses can work. Both serve their audience.  While both serve food, they go about it totally differently.

McDonald’s focuses on volume.  Fine Dining focuses on higher profits per guest.

I know this may sound like going the shotgun approach means publishing garbage.  That’s not true.

If McDonald’s food started tasting terrible or they stopped cleaning their stores, their business would go down in flames.

McDonald’s does what it does very well and that’s why it works.

Likewise, if a fine dining restaurant doesn’t deliver for guests, they won’t succeed.  Just because it looks nice or it’s billed as fine dining doesn’t a fine dining restaurant make.

The restaurant analogy is fitting because a big part of McDonalds’ value is in the real estate it owns, which it pays for from Happy Meal profits.

Likewise, while monthly cash is awesome, there’s the total value of your site that grows as your monthly profit grows.

The Semi-Automatic Sniper Rifle (a hybrid model CASE STUDY)

After I sent this post out as an email newsletter to Fatstacks subscribers, one reader replied and suggested a third type, which he coined “the Semi-Automatic Niche Site”..

It’s fitting.  It’s a hybrid of the sniper and shotgun approaches.  He tells me it works really well for him.  Here’s what he emailed me:

I publish 2-10 posts per month. Not 1 a month or 1 a day. Everything is 3,000-7,5000 words but minimal outreach. I get fantastic Google love though.

He earns from both display ads and affiliate promotions.

I replied and asked him to clarify his promotional efforts.  Here’s what he said:

So here’s my experience with promotion. Brian Dean teaches it and pushes it hard, but in my experience, the bang for the buck isn’t there (at least for my topic and my blog). I can spend hours trying to build a single link and it’s hard to justify that the time is well spent vs working on a new post.

I’ve done a few big pieces and tried to promote them by finding linkreators (Brian’s term in his SEO That Works course) and reaching out to them. I’ve also tried guest posting.

If I make sure that my content is the best out there on that topic, odds are I can rank because Google trusts my site and I stay on topic. Google ranks me really well for [X niche] content.

Also, if your content is good and highly informational, then links get created naturally. My link profile is always growing naturally.

I try to do everything else as well as I can, great on page seo, huge content, social promotion, email blasts but no link building for me at the moment. Maybe someday.

His focus is publishing epic content and letting it rank naturally.

I followed up again asking how much traffic and how many articles he published.  Here’s his response:

I run a X niche site, so it’s very seasonal. I get about 100,000 monthly pageviews (70,000) sessions during the [off season] and about 700,000 monthly pageviews (500,000 sessions) during [on season].

It’s great income in the [on-season] and survivable in the [off season].

I’m working on growing 3 other sites, but they are all in growth mode between 10,000 and 30,000 sessions [per month]. Gotta have some non seasonal sites (assets).

My main site has 200 published articles. But there’s an asterisk there.

I started the site in 2013… But it made no money.

[In] 2016 I got serious about seo and monetization and grew the site 250% from 2016-17 and 300% from 17-18. Currently, [I’m] at over 300% growth from last year as well. Hoping to hit one million visitors in a month this year. We’ll see.

Long story short, less than 100 of those articles drive all the traffic. Almost no posts from 2013-16 get any traffic.

There you have it.  100 articles drive millions of annual visits and provides a full-time income (I didn’t ask for income figures, but I know the niche and I suspect the site earns very well annually).

Intrigued as usual given this exceptional success, I followed up with a question about where he gets his content from.  I asked whether he outsources and if so, where.  Here’s his response:

I actually have used Textbroker a few times in the past, but I’m not using them anymore. I’ve found in my niche I’ve been unable to get writing services to create high enough quality content for me.

I actually found 2 writers back in 2016 through ads and FB and started both at $30 per 1,000 words. I’ve given them a $10 / 1,000 word raise every year. They are currently making $60 / 1,000 and to say they are awesome would be an understatement. They are writing 3,000 – 7,000 word pieces that I don’t have to touch a thing in other than just add affiliate links and hit publish. They have become great with their keywords and seo over time as well. And they are more than happy with their pay rate.

Also, last fall I had my wife drop a couple messages in some stay at home mom groups on FB to hire stay at home moms for writing. This has been a great move. Most of these women are educated and thrilled to make an extra $400 – $600 a month. I have had nothing but great success doing this and now have 5 writers each doing between $200 – $1,000 a month in content creation.

When I’ve tried hiring freelance writers, they want way more money, they are no better at writing than any of the moms I’ve hired (often times they seem to write worse and their content feels rushed because they are writing 2-5 pieces a day) and honestly, I’ve had way more problems hiring freelancers from Craigslist, Upwork and other job boards.

And I do write myself to, but what I really love is the planning and strategy. I’ll write 1-2 posts a month, plan out all the content, do the publishing and some other tasks.

Content in [ ] was edited by me to protect his niche details.  He needs more competition about as much as he needs a kick in the teeth.

Most sites are a combination… to some degree

There are few pure sniper sites and few pure shotgun sites.  While I have friends who are 100% shotgun style and he gets mountains of traffic, most sites are a mix with an emphasis on one or the other.

While I mostly go after low competition keywords, I do target some high search volume topics.  For those, I go the extra mile so I have a shot at ranking.

On the flip side, you can focus on higher search volume keywords, but do little or no promotion.  This frees you up to publish more volume than a pure sniper site.  Many sites do this as well.

At the end of the day, your niche will determine your content strategy.

Isn’t this a far too simplistic analysis?

Yes, this is a very simplistic analysis intended to make a point.  Most niche blogs are not purely either or.  It’s a matter of degrees.

The point is there are DIFFERENT PATHS TO A SUCCESSFUL SITE.

Don’t let anyone persuade you one way is better than the other

Most people who publish blogs that are about how to publish blogs too often fail to understand non-sniper models can be a very good business (unless they actually have sites in other niches).

Most internet marketing blogs lean toward the sniper model, which works for many of those bloggers, but that doesn’t mean other models don’t work.

The problem is aspiring bloggers in all kinds of niches read the advice from the “how to blog” crowd whose experience is based on their one-and-only website which is the one you read for information on how to blog.

For years I operated in niches that function best as a shotgun but followed bad advice by people who advocated the sniper model.  That was a huge mistake on my part.

I don’t mind people having a preference because it works for them, but to say another approach doesn’t work because they don’t do it is the worst advice you could read. 

Naysaying advice deeply influences people just getting started. The “how to blog” folks strive to help, even with naysaying advice, but ironically it does harm.

About my featured image selections

I realize many of my featured images for posts make no sense to the topic.  The Boston skyline above is definitely irrelevant to this post.  I could have found some gun photos, but I like nature and city skylines so that’s what I use.  Images don’t enhance the information so I choose to use images I like.


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