Episode
16

Ash Read

Building and Selling Living Cozy, Navigating Affiliate Programs, and Google’s E-E-A-T

September 20, 2023

Join Nate Matherson as he sits down with Ash Read for the sixteenth episode of the Optimize podcast. Ash has spent more than a decade building audiences for startups through content and SEO. He was previously head of content at Buffer and an early marketing hire Wayflyer. Now, he’s building a portfolio of niche media brands (including Living Cozy which was just acquired) and occasionally consulting to help businesses scale content and connect with customers.

In this episode, Ash and Nate explore the world of affiliate channels, building and exiting niche websites, and creating a great user experience. Ash reveals the tactical tips he’s discovered through developing his niche sites into traffic magnets (with Living Cozy garnering 350k monthly page views!).

Throughout the episode, Ash shares his opinions on the value of human vs. AI content, guest posts, and backlink strategies. Closing out the episode is our popular lightning round of questions!

What to Listen For

02:15 Ash’s background

04:24 Living Cozy’s journey from founding to exit

09:14 What makes a content site for sale “low quality”?

10:57 Monetizing Living Cozy with Affiliate Partnerships

15:53 What should you do after an algorithm update?

20:31 Building Living Cozy’s content channel with freelancers and agencies

22:34 Easy ways to implement Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines on your website

25:34 What are good user experience (UX) metrics for a website?

29:51 White Hat podcast, Grey Hat tactics

31:54 Creating great UX and UI at Living Cozy

34:07 Ash’s thoughts on Google's new SGE experience

37:51 Does AI-generated content perform at scale? As a content creation strategy?

39:46 Lightning question round

Episode Transcript

Ash Read (Speaking)

00:00

Everyone would know it if they saw it, I think. For me, the things I look for is just branding, you know, probably, like, a URL that's 60 characters long, or it's, I don't know, mytravelblog2023.com — like, those kind of signals. I think too many ads and, like, interstitials, or whatever they're called, between pages, pop-ups, low-quality content. I think when you're reading it, you can just tell it doesn't flow. It's purely written for search. There's tons of stock images. Yeah, those are kind of the key signals, but I think it's just when you start actually trying to consume the content, is this answering what I wanted? Like, am I learning from this? Is it doing what it promised it would — in a way that's a nice experience for me where I'm not dodging pop-ups, I'm not having to hide ads to read the next paragraph. That's the thing that I look for.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

00:42

Hi, and welcome to the Optimize Podcast. My name is Nate Matherson, and I am your host. On this weekly podcast, we sit down with some of the smartest minds in content marketing and SEO. Our goal is to give you perspective and insights on what's moving the needle in organic search. Today I'm thrilled to sit down with Ash Read. Ash is a co-founder of NineThreeSeven, a growing portfolio of owned and operated media brands, including Interior Insider and IndoorPlants.com, and, up until very recently, Living Cozy. In our episode today, I'm excited to learn more about Ash's experience building a portfolio of brands with a clear focus on content and SEO. And before NineThreeSeven, Ash led content at Buffer during an incredibly important time in that company. And I'd love to learn more about that, too. And as you might've seen on Ash's LinkedIn recently, he sold Living Cozy, and I'd love to learn more about that acquisition process and what comes next for him with his portfolio of brands. 

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This episode of the Optimize Podcast is brought to you by Positional. At Positional, we're building tools for content marketing and SEO teams. We've got a great selection of tools for everything from content optimization to keyword research and technical SEO. And you can visit our website at positional.com. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Ash, thanks so much for coming on the episode today.

Ash Read (Speaking)

02:15

Thanks for having me, Nate. I'm really looking forward to chatting with you today.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

02:18

Yeah, so you and I have chatted a few times over the last couple of months, and I've always really enjoyed our conversations. It's always great to connect with other SEOs in the weeds of building their own properties. And the first question I always ask our guests is, how did you get into the world of content and SEO? And how did this become, like, your career path?

Ash Read (Speaking)

02:35

Yeah, so I've always kind of had like, an interest in content on the web. Like, my first job was actually, like, running comms and like product management for fantasy football games. And that kind of forced me to, like, start writing emails, learning a little bit about web copy. And, yeah, from there, kind of transitioned to social media, like, went freelance. Actually, kind of got turned down twice for my dream job at Adidas as social media manager for football. And that kind of pushed me to, like, go freelance and get more experience in the spaces they said I was lacking. And, yeah, then from that freelance, it was just kind of, like, snowballed into writing more online, getting paid for the first time to write online, realizing that's a job that I could do. And yeah, I wrote for a bunch of different startups. And then that eventually led me to Buffer. I spent six years at Buffer, like, scaling the content. So we hit, like, at the peak over 1.5 million page views a month on the blog, over 25,000 downloads a month on the podcast. Then left Buffer, and spent 12 months as head of content at Wayflyer, which is an Irish tech unicorn focused on e-commerce funding and finance through e-commerce brands. Yeah, and then, like, for the past three years, so since, like, April 2020, I've been building Living Cozy and then the additional kind of brands in Indoor Plants and InteriorInsider.com, which both have yet to really take off. Like, they're still very much in the seed stage as I was fully focused on building Living Cozy. But yeah, Living Cozy started out as a side project. And then November 2022, went full-time. And, yeah, as of, like, August 2023, that site's been acquired.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

04:14

Yeah. And for all of our listeners who haven't been to Living Cozy before, what is Living Cozy? What is that website and brand that you created over the last few years?

Ash Read (Speaking)

04:24

Yeah. So, like, I founded it to be, like, the best place to discover — or a place to discover the internet's best home and furniture brands. So I moved house in late, like, 2019, and I'd done some work with, like, a few DTC brands in the home space, and I knew there were tons of really interesting brands out there, but the only way I was discovering them was when they would advertise to me on Instagram or Facebook. So I initially started Living Cozy as a directory, just where you could browse all of the home brands that have kind of launched recently. And then, like, it got a good reception in the first couple of weeks: like, a few people tweeted about it, had some good feedback. And I just decided to kind of lean on my experience in content and SEO to scale it. And, yeah, at the peak, it hit, like, 350,000 monthly page views.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

05:10

What led you to the decision to ultimately sell it? Were you actively selling it or did someone approach you and say, “I want to buy it”?

Ash Read (Speaking)

05:18

Yeah, like, we'd had a few people reach out over the years or I'd had a few people reach out over the years about acquiring Living Cozy, but, like, it never quite felt right. Like, also I feel like there's a lot of people that just kick the tires and reach out. But to be honest, for the, probably the past 18 months, it had been in the back of my mind, like, you know, it's making good revenue; I could sell this on. And for me, like, I just, you know, wanted to take some chips off the table, to be honest. That was kind of the main motivation behind it. Like, I think there's a lot of growth ahead for the site. You know, it feels like it's still kind of in its infancy and there's tons of growth ahead for it. But for me personally, it was just, like, you know, I've spent three years on this. I'm proud of what I've done. I'm proud of how far it's come. And, you know, I would, I'd like a new challenge, but also, you know, the chance to take a few chips off the table and kind of figure out what I want to do next was, like, really exciting. And yeah, something that I didn't really want to turn down.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

06:10


Yeah. How does a buyer value a website like Living Cozy, which was, if I'm not mistaken, like, largely, like, an affiliate marketing site, like, you earned revenue by linking your readers over to products that they could buy. And so for that buyer of the site, how did they ultimately value the property? Or, like, what was their methodology there into understanding what they could pay for it?

Ash Read (Speaking)

06:33

Yeah. So, I mean, like, the real simple kind of breakdown is people tend to look at monthly profit that the sites make over the last, say, like, 12 to 18 months, and then multiply that by a figure. It can be, you know, like, anything from, like, 15 to 40X, like, monthly revenue, you know, depending on how the revenue is trending, how traffic is trending, what the market's like. There's, you know, a million different factors that can come into what multiple you land on. But, yeah, the main way I've seen these kind of content sites valued is by, yeah, a multiple of monthly profit over the last 12 months. Yeah, I think, like, for me, that was something that I really focused on from quite early in the journey. So from, like, when I said that, you know, the idea of selling had crossed my mind, I had a spreadsheet where I had, like, a constant, you know, a breakdown of the last 12 months’ revenue, different multiples that that could be used to kind of value the site at. And, yeah, that kind of helped me to figure out, like, OK, like, when is a good time to sell on or to try and sell this business? 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

07:30


Yeah. And I always find it interesting that, like, website sellers in, like, the SEO content space, value their properties in multiples of monthly profit. I'm not sure why it's monthly profit. It seems like everywhere else in the entire world, it's, like, annual, like, EBITDA multiples. And so in, like, the SEO content space, people always say, like, 20 or 30 times or whatever it might be, like, monthly profit, when really that's just, like, 2X to 3X. Annual profit — I don't know; that's something that always confuses me. But I guess the question, like, I have is timing. Like, how long did it ultimately take, like, from start to finish once you had identified the buyer to ultimately closing that sale and getting paid for the property?

Ash Read (Speaking)

08:11

Yeah. So I think, like, we, or I, was quite lucky in this, in that, like, it didn't drag out too long. It probably took, like, five months from listing the site for sale to actually, like, closing the deal. And I think within, like, eight, nine weeks of listing it, like, we had LOIs from people — and, yeah, like, managed to get the deal closed fairly quick. But, yeah, obviously, like, you know, a lot of ups and downs and things to figure out during that period. But, yeah, from what I've heard, like, it was quite a speedy process, which I think also kind of, like, speaks to the quality of Living Cozy. Like, you know, I think when you're buying websites online or buying content sites, like, it is at times looking for, like, a diamond in the rough. Like, there's a lot of bad sites up for sale, but also, yeah, I think the fact that, like, buyers were keen to move quickly as well was just, like, a testament to the quality of the site that I built.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

09:05

You mentioned that there are a lot of, like SEO content sites for sale that are maybe low quality or not as high quality. What makes, like, a low-quality content site for sale?

Ash Read (Speaking)

09:14

Everyone would know it if they saw it, I think. But for me, like, the things I look for is just, like, bad branding, you know, probably, like, a URL that's, like, 60 characters long, or it's, like, I don't know, mytravelblog2023e.com, like, those kind of signals. I think, like, loads of ad, like, too many ads, and, like, interstitials, or whatever they're called between pages, like, pop-ups, like, low-quality content. Like, I think when you're reading it, like, you can just tell it doesn't flow. It's purely written for search. There's, like, tons of stock images. Yeah, those are kind of the key signals, but I think, like, it's just when you start actually trying to consume the content, you're just like, “Is this answering what I wanted? Like, am I learning from this? Is it doing what it promised it would — in a way that's, like, a nice experience for me where I'm not dodging pop-ups, I'm not having to, like, hide ads to read the next paragraph.” Like, that's the things that I look for.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

10:05

Yeah, it sounds like the quality of content was pretty important in both, like, driving traffic — you mentioned you grew it to, like, 350,000 readers per month — and I know that you created quite a bit of content. How much content did you actually create on the site? Like, how many pages existed?

Ash Read (Speaking)

10:20

So there's probably about 400 pages in total, maybe more. There's probably about 500 pages because there's, like, 200 brands listed. So there's just, like, a directory of brands, and each brand has its own profile page. And I think we got up to about 50 product reviews, maybe, like,150, 200 blog posts. Okay, I should probably know the exact number, but yeah, between, like, 400, 500 pieces of content,
I would say.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

10:44

And as far as, like, monetizing the site goes, was it, like, difficult to find, like, those affiliate partners or brands that were willing to pay you? Or was it, like, as easy as just signing up to be, like, an affiliate partner on their site?

Ash Read (Speaking)

10:57

Yeah, so it got easier over time. I think — I actually started out using Skimlinks. And the way Skimlinks works is you install, like, one line of code on your website, and then it turns every link into an affiliate link. So, like, if the brand has an affiliate program on, say, like Impact or ShareASale or Pepperjam, and they work with Skimlinks, and you link to that brand, Skimlinks will just turn it into an affiliate link for you. They take a percentage of the revenue generated from that link, but, like, it's an easy way to essentially get into, like, every affiliate program when you're just starting out. And, you know, you don't have a direct relationship with the brand, but it kind of helps to just get the ball rolling. And it was that really that kind of helped me to refine the strategy. Because I saw within probably the first, like, eight, nine weeks of the site, we'd made a couple of sales. The first one was £9.37, which is, yeah, like, why the company is called NineThreeSeven. And the second one was actually for a sofa. And that's what made me, like, really focus in on sofas and high-average-order-value products. Like, it sounds so obvious when you say it in retrospect, but yeah, when I saw, like, what the commission of, like, 8 to 12% of a sofa was, I was like, “I need to go all in on creating content around these products.” And yeah, from Skimlinks, you could kind of see, like, which brands are driving revenue. Then I would, like, get set up on each of the individual platforms, reach out to the brands individually, and start building those relationships. But it helps, you know, when you're trying to build a relationship with a brand, when you can say, like, you have data to send and say, like, “Hey, like ,we've generated like this many clicks, this many sales worth this much revenue for you in the past, like, three months. We want to work with you directly.” Like, it's just so much easier than, like, you know, “I'm Ash, I have a blog, and I'd like to work with you.” So yeah, I think, like, those numbers and being armed with that data, like, really helps to build solid relationships.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

12:45

Yeah, in my career, I’ve found that, like, going direct to the partner will yield typically, like, two to three times in some cases, like, the amount of commission or revenue or whatever the model is that's compensating you. Is that something you found, like, by going direct to them, you were often able to negotiate, like better payouts or structures to those deals as well? 

Ash Read (Speaking)

13:04

Yeah, definitely. I think, like, it's a competitive space. Like, everyone who runs an affiliate program, like, they're trying to generate the most revenue possible. And I think, like, when you go to them directly, they're often keen to see, like, okay, how can we do more together? How can you drive more revenue for us? And sometimes that means an extra couple of percent in, you know, like revenue share or, you know, CPAs. Sometimes it means, like, sending product for reviews. Sometimes it's, like, direct paid placements and brand deals. But yeah, like, I think as soon as you have the relationship with the brand directly, then it really kind of opens up a ton of opportunity and different ways that you can work together to drive them more revenue, but also get more revenue for your own business.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

13:47

Did you get any free couches as part of this process?

Ash Read (Speaking)

13:50

So the biggest downside of being in the UK was that I didn't get any free stuff, but I think we've probably shipped about 25 couches to writers across the U.S. There was one point in, I think it was like 2021. So we got hit a little bit by the December 2020 Core update and lost a little bit of traffic. And my reaction to that was, like, “Well, I need to do a lot more first-hand reviews.” It's something we'd done like one or two of at the time. And yeah, it was kind of my mission to, like, review as many sofas as possible. And I think at one point in early 2021, we had, like, 10 to 15 sofas, like, making their way around the U.S. to different writers for reviews. And yeah, like, that formed a huge part of the strategy — was kind of getting those first-hand reviews because once you've got those published, you can then, like, repurpose those across multiple pages. Like, wherever you mentioned that brand or wherever you mentioned that product, you can include, like, an image that one of the writers has sent you. You can include a quote about, like, their experience with the product. And yeah, when it comes to, like, Google's kind of E-E-A-T, that's, like, incredibly valuable. So yeah, I think, like, there's a nice lesson in there about, like, yeah, Core updates. Like, it sucks to get hit, but, you know, sometimes it is for the right reasons, and it will make you refigure your strategy and grow more in the long run.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

15:06

Well, in the future, once, like, your non-compete that I'm sure exists is up, and you're reviewing sofas, again, I will review one for free. So you can just mail one to me here in Charleston, South Carolina. And I know Zachary from our team is also probably game. So yeah, feel free to let us know about that in the future. And I do want to unpack a couple of things that you said. I often get asked about algorithm updates and what we should do and, like, how do we recover? And it's often, like, a difficult conversation for me because, like, I can throw, like, a lot of best practices at you, but it's not like a silver bullet. Like, you're not going to get, like, 30% of your traffic back tomorrow. And so for all of my customers that ask me, like, what we should do after an algorithm update, like, what is that process that you kind of go through in terms of, you know, figuring out what happened and what we might be able to improve on going forward?

Ash Read (Speaking)


15:53

Yeah, so, you know, I'd love to say that I have it all figured out. You know, honestly, like, the first few days, once, if a traffic — if you get hit and it starts going down, I am the worst for refreshing Google Analytics every hour on the hour, getting mad that the traffic's down week on week, trying to figure out, like, you know, how bad it could potentially be. And, you know, yeah, there's like a few days of that where it's just, like, I wish this hadn't happened. Like, what's going on? What am I doing wrong? And then I think it's really just like, you know, there's nothing in my opinion — like, I don't think there's anything you can do in the moment, like, while the update's rolling out. Like, you can't really change anything. Like, I — maybe other people have seen this, but, like, I've always seen that, like, if the first two or three days of an update are really good or really bad, that's kind of where you're going to end up at the end of the update. So yeah, I tend to just kind of spend, like, a couple of weeks just, like, seeing how it plays out, and then it's just really thinking, like, “Okay, what has gone wrong? Have we cut any corners? Is there anything that, like, we could do to improve? Like, could we get better images? Could we do better internal linking to certain pages? You know, are some posts a bit old? You know, are there some topics that we're missing and clusters that we can boost things — that we can use to, like, boost our overall, like, expertise on a subject?” Those are kind of all the things that I go through. And, like, also I think sometimes Google just, like, gets it wrong. Like, Google just says certain things about how they want the algorithm to work. And then they prioritize, you know, other things, like, you know, Living Cozy got hit early this year in, like, 2023. And I think, like, actually, the August 2023 update just reversed most of the stuff that went on there. And, like, with that update, I was, you know, scratching my head for ages. I was like, “You know, Google says it wants first-hand reviews. It wants, like, real images. It wants, like, real perspective and experience with products. You know, I've done all of those things.” And then all of a sudden Insider.com has jumped above me just because they've picked out eight sofas and randomly put them in a list. Like, that's annoying. But, you know, from my perspective, I'm like, “Yeah, I can refresh the content. I can, like, make it a little bit better, but, like, I can't reverse that decision. Like, you just kind of need to have faith that, like, yeah, you know, if Google is serious about what it says it is, like, it's going to reverse that eventually. I know it's a lot easier to say that, you know, with hindsight, and it's a lot easier to kind of say it outside of the moment, because in the moment, it feels like everything's crumbling down. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

18:16

Yeah, and it's very uncomfortable to say to one of our customers, like, “Looks like you're doing a really good job, just hold tight. Like, just, you know, things will reverse.” But it does happen, like you've said. And I've been on, myself, on, like, the positive and negatives of algorithm updates. Sometimes the stars align and there's like a really positive algorithm update right before, like, a very seasonal event in your business, which is just, like, incredible. And I've also found, like — I've seen algorithm updates to my specific categories or at least big shifts in rankings tend to happen before, like, seasonal events. Did you see any sort of, like, big changes or spikes or drops in the traffic around different, like, seasonal events or times of the year where someone might be buying a couch?

Ash Read (Speaking)

19:00

Yeah, like, seasonality was huge. Like, obviously, like, anyone selling products, you know, like, consumer products, Q4 is huge. There's, you know, so many holidays around that, pretty much from, like, Labor Day onwards, like, there's a lot going on. And yeah, like, sometimes we have seen, you know, like, this August update just gone. It was updating over Labor Day, but I feel like now things are pretty set through Q4. And, you know, the sites that got a boost, like, they're gonna be getting a lot more traffic, driving a lot more sales, doing a lot more revenue. And you know, if you got a negative impact, then, yeah, it's like switch things up, or if you're confident, hold tight, and I'm sure it'll correct itself at some point. But yeah, like, seasonality was big, you know, in furniture, like, there's a lot of sales throughout the year. There's, you know, seasonal stuff with, like, outdoor furniture is obviously very popular through summer. And, like, from kind of Labor Day, like, brands are trying to shift out old inventory, ready for, like, the spring's new inventory. Yeah, like, knowing those kinds of seasonalities, like, it does help you with content planning. And also just, like, yeah, knowing when you're gonna see, like, traffic spikes. Because sometimes, like, you know, being in the U.K., like, there's different national holidays, and I'd have a Monday that looked like it was up, like, 100% on last week. And then I'd realize it's, like, yeah, it's a holiday day in the U.S. and everyone's shopping.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

20:17

And you've talked a little bit about, like, your writing team, the people actually creating this content on the site. Was that mostly, like, a freelance team, like, freelance writers, freelance editors, or did you actually have anyone in-house also creating content, too?

Ash Read (Speaking)

20:31

Yeah, so, like, all freelance. Like, a lot of my — I'd say like my philosophy on business is just, like, I wanna alleviate as much stress as possible for myself. And for me, like, working with freelancers over in-house people and working with agencies over in-house, like, helps that. And, you know, I think, like, sometimes you will pay a premium for it, like, especially with agencies. But yeah, it was worth it to me. Yeah, I think, like, working with freelancers, it's really important because, like, it gets a ton of different voices on your site. And, you know, I was able to get freelancers that had really good bylines at, like, other big publications in the home space, even, like, you know, big national titles like the New York Times and sites like that. So I think, like, that really helped with the authority of building Living Cozy. And also, like, you know, I managed to build a fairly big roster. Like, there was kind of four to five freelancers we worked with every month or every couple of months. But then I had others that I would reach out to when product reviews came up. Because when you're reviewing, like, big household items, like, someone might only be able to review one sofa, like, then their house is full. Like, you can't send them a new sofa every month. So, yeah, there was kind of logistical challenges like that to get over, too.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

21:41

Yeah, I'm actually a big believer in, like, the importance of author bylines, generally just in terms of having them on your site, which is something that still a lot of sites don't do — but also, like, the expertise and brand and authority of that byline. Like, if you Google that person's name, like, seeing very clearly that they're a credible author. And something that I've done in my career, like, knowing that this piece of content was going to be very expensive and knowing that we might only get one or two pieces created from this person, I've actually gone out and tried to bring some of these, like, highly credible bylines onto my site, even if it was, like, only one or two pieces of content, as a way to, like, show Google that, okay, this site is legitimate, they have experienced authors. I might be overthinking it, and, like, E-E-A-T does kind of become, like, a black box. Like, we don't really know. Like, we can do our best. But what are, like, you know, two or three of those like E-E-A-T type factors that you do think are important when building a site?

Ash Read (Speaking)

22:34

Yeah, I agree 100% with bylines. Like, having experienced authors is key. The other thing, like, I baked in, like, pretty much from the start, which is, like, everything we publish has to have expert perspective. Like, a lot of the early content was written just by me. I'm not an interior designer. You know, to be honest, I know no one cares what my opinions are on sofas or interior design. So it was really key to just get experts, whether that's from, like, the furniture brands that we worked with or interior design pros, to share their, like, thoughts, opinions, you know, feedback, ideas for every post and to make sure that we quoted them. And then, like, everyone that we quoted on the website, we also made, like, a contributor page so you could, like, click through to their profile, read a bio about them, links to their website, see all of the content that they've contributed to. So for me, like, a lot of the work was just, like, making sure that Google knew we had real experts on the site. One of the approaches that I kind of built for Living Cozy — I essentially called it just, like, layering content. So the first thing was just, like, get the piece of content out there — like, nothing's ever going to be perfect, so just, like, publish something when it's, like, nearly done. And then once it was live, like, if I couldn't get expert quotes when I just started out, I would then, like, revisit in a few months, try and get some expert thoughts and opinions to put into the article. Then, you know, like, some original images to remove, like, anything I got off, like, Shutterstock or Unsplash or just, like, a brand website. And then, you know, like, that layer was kind of complete with the expert layer. And then it's like, okay, what more can I do? Like, can I get a video created for this page to, you know, show that we know what we're talking about, to, like, increase the time on page, to show Google, like, people are spending a good amount of time on this content and, like, reading it and consuming it? Can we do, like, first-hand reviews of the products that we talk about? So yeah, it was constantly just, like, adding another layer to the content because, like, you'd never publish if you tried to get all of that done at the start. You know, like, even as I sold the site, like, we were reviewing products and updating, like, articles that I published two years ago. So it's kind of like just always adding fresh layers to content is — yeah, a really, really key thing, I think, for, like, the E-E-A-T signals.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

24:39

It's critically important. I would say that, like, at my first company, like, we spent, like, half of our team's editorial time, like, going back to existing content and updating it and improving it. And I know, like, you were probably dealing with, like, prices and features and new products, like I was actively dealing with, like, interest rates and product terms and signup bonuses and all of these other things that would change on a monthly basis. And if you weren't updating certain pages really every month, like, they were going to be outdated. And so I'm a huge believer in going back and updating existing pieces, especially if you've got content stuck on, like, page two or page three and it's ranking, like, moderately well, but not yet hit the first page. So I totally agree with you there. And as far as, like, those metrics that you would track, you mentioned, like, I think, like, time on page, were there any other, like, user experience metrics that you looked at to judge if, like, a user was having a good experience on a piece of content?

Ash Read (Speaking)

25:34

Yes, so time on page was one, but, like, the main things I focused on were just, like, revenue metrics. So the things I kind of cared about on a monthly basis were, you know, like, traffic, like, sessions and page views, are they going the right direction? But then how many clicks did we send to brands? So, like, how many people read one of our pieces of content, click through to a brand page. And then just, like, the number of sales and the revenue generated by those sales, because, like, the main success metric was, like, clicks to brands — like, how many people are discovering Living Cozy and then clicking through to one of the brands that we work with. ’Cause that's how we made  like  most of our money. And, you know, not every piece of content was affiliate content. Like, I think it's important to cover other topics to kind of build the reputation and the authority in the space. But yeah, I didn't really, like, pay too much attention to things like scroll depth. I didn't even have the, like, technology to track that installed. But yeah, also, like, the bounce rates and stuff can be, like, really deceiving on affiliate sites because it's, like, the whole point is people come to your site to leave your website. Like, if you're doing your job right and, like, they're looking for a review of a certain sofa, and you review it, they should be leaving your site to click through to that website. Time on page was something that I would look at just, like, on the guides, to be like, are people spending enough time? Like, you know, they aren't looking for, like, two seconds and hitting back because we're not delivering what we promised to in the SERPs. So yeah, those are kind of, like, the key things that I would, like, to look at.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)


27:08

Yeah, scroll depth is like notoriously hard to set up. Like, Google Analytics gives it to you at, like, a 90% event, but that's not particularly that helpful. I think, like, very rarely would someone actually read, like, 90% of a piece of content if you've maybe done a good job. And I do think, like, personally, SEO has gotten a lot more competitive over, like, the last 10 years. You've got, you know, the Business Insiders and the Insiders of the world who are, you know, truly creating terrible content and ranking, like, quite well in search. Sorry, Business Insider, but it's true. How do they do it? Like, what allows, like, a site like Business Insider with a much lower-quality piece of content actually to perform so well in the SERPs?

Ash Read (Speaking)

27:51

Yeah, I feel like it just comes down to, like, authority. I know, like, you know, the main authority is largely a madeup metric that Google tells you they don't really pay attention to. But I just think, like, yeah, those kind of mammoth sites, like, they do rank just purely because of, like, the amount of links they have, the amount of authority they have. I do kind of feel a bit sorry for Google in that respect. I think, like, it is hard to tell, like, how genuinely authoritative a site is on a certain topic because there's so many ways to, like, game the system now. And I think, like, yeah, Insider and those sites, they, you know, succeed just because of their scale. And, you know, if they talk about a topic, Google thinks, “Yeah, like, they must be trusted because of all of the links they have, all of the authority, like, the brand name they have.” Like, they probably get a ton of brand searches. And it's hard, it's like sometimes, like, the best content might be on a site that's only got like five backlinks and might be fairly new. And yeah, I think it's challenging because everyone in SEO knows, like, how to game certain parts of the system. And there's a lot of black hat stuff people won't do, but I think there's a lot of, like, gray hat stuff that people do do, and will continue to do. Because I think Google will often say certain things are against their rules, certain things are outlawed, but then they won't punish it. And I think, like, the biggest example of that is, like, you know, the Insider things, where, like, you have to have first-hand reviews, you have to have, like, true authority in a space — and then all of a sudden, like, all the brands in that niche get, like, bumped down for a generic, like, publisher that just covers every topic. And yeah, it's hard. I can understand it's very, very hard to stop for Google. But yeah, it's something they need to figure out.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

29:32

Yeah, I'm optimistic that there will be, like, a Business Insider update here, hopefully soon. We've been calling for it for, like, three years, but it hasn't happened. And you mentioned, like, gray hat tactics. This is largely like a white hat podcast, but what are, like, two or three of those gray hat tactics that are still working pretty well here in 2023?

Ash Read (Speaking)

29:51

Yeah, so I just think, like, the whole buying backlinks, there's — you know, you're not meant to do it, but there are so many agencies that will do, like, guest post backlinks. It's something I've done a bit of, like, when I started out. I actually kind of moved more towards, like, digital PR and, like, earned links after Living Cozy, like, after I had the budget to, like, hire an agency to work on that. But yeah, I just think, like, the whole guest posting backlink space, it's so murky still. And, you know, I know, like, Google's tried to do away with, like, PBNs and, like, people don't use them anymore. But yeah, I think there's just, like, a lot of backlink stuff that is kind of in that, like, gray area where it's like you probably shouldn't do it, but, like, everyone does, and everyone gets away with it. And, you know, it works, it, like, helps sites to grow.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

30:39

Yeah, I agree with you that earned media is the best way to build backlinks. And it's also the most scalable in my experience. And for all of our listeners, a PBN is a private blog network. This was, like, a very popular way to build backlinks into the early and late and mid-2010s. And then here in 2023, like, Ash, do PBNs, like, still work? Are companies still using them? Even large companies I've seen in the past. 

Ash Read (Speaking)

31:10

Yeah, I mean, like, I've not ever tried any, but, like, I'm sure they're still out there and people are still using them. Yeah, I'm sure Google's got a little bit better at detecting certain things, but, yeah, I don't really trust that they can, like, detect every single thing about every single link and how it was earned yet.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

31:28

Right, yeah, it's always funny when you used to go to some of the PBN sites, and they were trying to, like, mask who they were linking to by, like, also linking to Business Insider. And I don't know, maybe Business Insider is buying those links, who knows. All right, so my next question is on UX and UI. I think you did a really awesome job with UX and UI at Living Cozy. Was that something that you really prioritized as being important for the site ranking well on search?

Ash Read (Speaking)

31:54

Yeah, so it's, like, really important to me. Like, I like nice design anyway. And I just think that, like, if you're trying to get people to read your content and buy products, whether it's, like, your own products or affiliate deals — like, whatever it is — you need to have a good experience, right? Like, I kind of think about it like, you know, if I was walking into a furniture store to buy a sofa, I wouldn't want loads of people jumping out at me as I'm walking through, trying to distract me, trying to, like, tell me about different products, different brands. I just want to kind of go in, look around, and see what I like. And I think, like, the web should be the same. Like, in some respects, like, display ads help pay the bills. So they're nice, but, like, I didn't have any display ads on affiliate content, and the pages that made money, it was a real focus for me to just, like, make it a nice experience to let people come in distraction-free, scroll down the page, read the content. If they want to click through to, like, check out one of the brands that we talk about or one of the products we talk about, like, they can do that. And, like, yeah, that was a big focus. Like, you know, I feel like I'm probably one of the minority of people that, like, focuses on, like, page speed and experience and things like that. ’Cause I feel like Google always says they matter and then, like, never actually prioritizes it in algorithm updates. And yeah, I know they said, like, a while back that they were deprioritizing some of the, like, page-metric stuff in updates. But yeah, I just think for, like, a user experience, even if there's no benefit in Google, like, it's good to have a site that loads as soon as you click on it, that isn't filled with pop-ups and distraction and kind of focuses on, like, getting the job done that you need it to do.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

33:31

Yeah, regardless of it, if Google cares, like, it is helpful for conversion, right? And actually getting, like, that reader to become a customer. And at our first company, we obsessed over page speed, given that we saw it just had a very direct impact on conversion rate. And as far as, like, search changing, like, I get asked about Google's new SGE experience basically every day. And sometimes I feel a little crazy that I'm starting a company that's building tools for SEOs in 2023, but I guess I'm going to ask you, like, what do you make of, like, Google's new SGE experience? Is SEO dead here in 2023, 2024?

Ash Read (Speaking)

34:07

Yes, I feel like SEO and email just, like, take it in turns, dying, like, every couple of years. And they always kind of come through. And, you know, I feel like the SGE update — like, being based in the U.K., I haven't been able to, like, test it first-hand, which is kind of annoying. But, you know, from what I've seen and read, it feels like they are kind of moving in the right direction, in that, like, they're now adding links to results, they're kind of giving more credit and attribution to the people that create the content. Because I think, like, at the end of the day, like, Google needs creators to serve answers. And if they aren't sending traffic to sites, then, like, they're just gonna get cut out of that cycle. And then, like, everyone loses in that situation. Like, I think publishers lose because there aren't as many people coming to their site, but Google loses because it hasn't got good up-to-date references to create AI answers from. You know, it makes sense for everyone to send people to websites. You know, like, Google also still makes a ton of money from the display ads it serves. And, you know, if they're not sending as many people to websites, like, they're also cutting off some of their revenue. So I think they will always send people through to sites. I definitely don't think SEO is dying. I think it changes. Like, I think the methods to get featured in maybe, like, the SGE answers will be different to what it takes to get, like, one of the top five organic spots in Google. But I also think, like, in an AI world, human content matters even more, especially in, like, certain niches, like, you know, interior design, for example. Like, if I'm Googling “living room design inspiration” or “mid-century living room design,” like, SGE can generate an answer, but I want to see examples of that. I want to see what interior designers say about that. Like, if I'm buying a product, if I'm looking for, like, the best running socks, like, SGE can make some recommendations, but I'm going to click through and read what an actual person who's used that product talks about. And yeah, I just think, like, also, you know, I've played around with, like, GPT and, like, Claude enough to know, like, you shouldn't trust what an AI generates 100% right now. So SEO is definitely gonna change, but, yeah, I don't think it's gonna die.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

36:18

I have a couple of follow-ups. So my initial follow-up is, like, a statement. It kind of comes back to everything that you were saying about, like, the work you did on the E-E-A-T side of things — like bringing in actual expert quotes, like, real interior designers who are well known. Like, I think searchers want to hear from those people and those experiences, and they might crave, like, an answer or response that is more in-depth than, like, an instant answer at the top of search. And so I'm kind of of the perspective that it probably depends on the industry you're in. Like, if you're building, like ,a website that is, you know, a time zone site, and they tell you what time it is in Los Angeles, like Google's already, like, displaced that. Whereas, like, if you're actually creating, like, in-depth content on a more technical or more in-the-weeds subject, like, a user has to want to go and get more. They can't be served with a very quick answer. And my second statement is an observation. I actually was talking to a friend, like ,recently — I don't want to call them like a private equity group, but they're essentially, like, an owner of large media brands. And they had built some really cool internal tooling to try to start optimizing for these SGE placements by trying to, like, reverse-engineer what goes into an SGE placement. So I kind of have this prediction over the next six to 12 months, we're going to see more tools, maybe even one from us that, like, helps teams try to dissect what is a good SGE placement and how we can fit our content into that. But then my next quick follow-up question is, have you seen, like, AI-generated content work well at scale as, like, a content creation strategy?

Ash Read (Speaking)

37:51

I've seen, like, screenshots of people saying that it works well, but, yeah, like, my opinion is right now, like, AI content isn't good enough to publish, especially if, like, you want to rank and focus on, like, the E-E-A-T stuff we've spoken about today. Where I think, like, AI content is really helpful now is just, like, getting past that blank page. Like, I've used it where, you know, I've put together a content brief, and I've just uploaded it and kind of said, like, “Make a first draft of this” or “What's missing from this article, what could I improve in this article?” I think it's, like, really good for that, but I haven't — I mean, I'm sure there are examples where people have scaled sites to huge traffic numbers using purely AI content, but I feel like they also eventually, like, Google catches up with them and, like, that drops back down to zero pretty quickly. AI content is still a while off being, like, good enough, but you know, you can do certain things like I've played around with, like, Claude and GPT and, like, given them a prompt and an expert quote and just said, like, “Turn this into a paragraph, like, paraphrase the quote, like, include elements of the quote in what you're writing.” And, like, it has succeeded and been really helpful with that — to, like, help me get past, like, a blank page. But yeah, I also kind of find the idea of a web where, like, everything is created by an AI and then ranked by algorithms and put in front of humans, like, thoroughly, like, sad and depressing. And yeah, I hope we don't reach that stage.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

39:16


Me neither. I always say to our customers that, like, if SEO fundamentally changes, I think there will always be, like, a mechanism for people who are looking for fantastic content to find it. Like, maybe the distribution channel does change, but there's always gonna be a place for fantastic content written by actual experts. There's going to be somewhere to put that. That's kind of my long-term perspective on it. But this has been, like, such an awesome conversation. If it's okay with you, I have, like, five questions I'd really like to ask you in our rapid fire round. 

Lightning Question Round:

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

39:46

So you've just sold Living Cozy, what's next? Like, are you going to build another website? Are you going to triple down on, like, your two existing properties that you've been working on? What's right in front of you?

Ash Read (Speaking)

39:58

Yeah. So building — like, planning to build a couple of new properties, like, in different spaces. Actually, like, one local news business around where I live, one in, like, a completely different niche, but one that I'm, like, really interested and excited about. And then, yeah, also just planning to do, like, maybe one day a week just, like, helping out different companies — like, freelancing, consulting, just to kind of keep sharp. I've been out of, like, B2B for, like, nearly a year now, and as great as building sites on your own is, it gets kind of lonely sometimes.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

40:29

And my next question was actually, what vertical has you most excited right now? And it seems like there's, like, a personal favorite. Can you tell us what it is?

Ash Read (Speaking)

40:37

I will try and build something in, like, health and fitness. Like, after selling Living Cozy, I was kind of, like, sitting and trying to think like, what do I actually like? And it's just, like, you know, the first thing I do most days before I start working is I go for a run. Like, when I've got spare time, I'll, like, play football or soccer or basketball. Like, those are the things that interest me. And, like, yeah, I'd like to try and build something in that space.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

41:00

And Living Cozy, do you miss it? I know it's only been, like, three weeks.

Ash Read (Speaking)

41:04

Partly, yeah. I think it's hard to, like, see something go. But yeah, I feel like it was a good time to let go. But yeah, it feels a bit like a breakup where it's kind of, like, yeah, I hope it does well, but, like, I, you know, I’m going to probably not pay too much attention to it now.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

41:20

Are you still going to look at it in the SERPs?

Ash Read (Speaking)

41:23

Probably not. Like, I probably won't. You know, like, I can't build — you know,  won't build in that space again for a while. So, like, yeah, I don't need to be in those SERPs, and yeah, I'm definitely not going to continue stalking the site on, like, Ahrefs or anything like that.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

41:37

For what it's worth, I do. Like, whenever we've sold a site, like, I check in on it like once a month at least.

Ash Read (Speaking)

41:44

Yeah, I'm saying, like, yeah, you know, that's the best case scenario. Like, I'll have a weak moment every now and then where I'll, like, check in.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

41:51

Yeah, you've got to be curious. Like, I feel like you'd be somewhat curious, at least I am. We've talked a little bit about monetization. I've always found that, like, you know, it's one of those, like, 80-20 rules where it's like 20% of pages drive 80% of monetization. Is that what you saw? Or did you see that monetization was a bit more spread across the site?

Ash Read (Speaking)

42:10

Yeah, it was, like, definitely, like, the top pages generated a lot of the revenue. I would say, like, those top pages also, like, couldn't exist without a bunch of the other pages supporting them. So yeah, I'd agree, like, yeah, 80-20: like, the other top 20% of pages probably did 80% of revenue, maybe more, but the other 80% of pages had to exist for those pages to be thriving. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

My last question is, in five years from now, are backlinks going to be more or less important than they are today? 

Ash Read (Speaking)

So I feel like more important. I don’t know, like, I just think, like, as a signal that something's authoritative, I feel like backlinks are still, like, a really good way to show that. I think, like, there's gonna be evolutions — like, Google's gonna get smarter at figuring out, like, which sites are just selling guest posts, like, which sites only exist to sell guest posts, which links are, like, actually earned, which links matter. Like, I think it will evolve, but yeah, I think, like, it will continue because, like, without that, like, yeah, there's not so much to go on.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

43:10

All right, well, this has been so fun. Thank you for doing this, Ash. This has been an awesome episode. And we will definitely give you a backlink in the show notes, as well as link over to your LinkedIn so that all of our listeners can find you. And is there anything else you'd like to say to our listeners?

Ash Read (Speaking)

43:25


Yeah, just, like, again, thank you to you to having me, and, like, yeah, for any of the listeners, like, if you want to reach out, like, yeah, feel free to ping me on, like, LinkedIn or Twitter, and thanks for listening.

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43:33

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More Ways to Listen

Optimize Episode 016: Ash Read on Building and Selling Living Cozy, Navigating Affiliate Programs, and Google’s E-E-A-T

Sep 20, 2023

Join Nate Matherson as he sits down with Ash Read for the sixteenth episode of the Optimize podcast. Ash has spent more than a decade building audiences for startups through content and SEO. He was previously head of content at Buffer and an early marketing hire Wayflyer. Now, he’s building a portfolio of niche media brands (including Living Cozy which was just acquired) and occasionally consulting to help businesses scale content and connect with customers.

In this episode, Ash and Nate explore the world of affiliate channels, building and exiting niche websites, and creating a great user experience. Ash reveals the tactical tips he’s discovered through developing his niche sites into traffic magnets (with Living Cozy garnering 350k monthly page views!).

Throughout the episode, Ash shares his opinions on the value of human vs. AI content, guest posts, and backlink strategies. Closing out the episode is our popular lightning round of questions!

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The first time we used Positional's toolset was to revamp an older but important piece of content. We used Optimize for optimization, and Internals for internal linking suggestions. We went from position #6 to #1 with the changes and increased our organic search traffic to the page by 400%. Today, Positional is an integral part of our blogging strategy, from topic generation to blog renovation.

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