How to Become a Brand Part I: The Look

It’s not news that Google(‘s algorithm) hates you and your middle-man affiliate site.

The question is: what are you doing about it?

I wrote in a recent newsletter (which you should subscribe to, if you haven’t already) about the big push to elevate sites from obvious affiliate money grabs to actual brands that mean something. And to be 100% clear: no judgement from me. I’ve created and exited several affiliate sites in the past, and it was a great way to build and hone some skills and create some cash from nothing. My cynicism is a reflection of how Google treats these sites.

Just so you understand my position.

Out of all the things I’ve ever written, this topic got more replies than any other. It’s clear that a lot of site owners and operators have this issue on their mind, and the future of work in the affiliate site game is going to likely consist of turning review sites into a brand.

But there are two immediate questions that follow from this:

  1. What is a brand?
  2. How does one turn an affiliate site into a big, beautiful brand?

Well, I’m going to attempt to answer the second question in this post, because I think best when I’m writing, and I’m inviting you along on the journey. This is part one of a series that will look at what it takes to build the kind of authority site that every Google update rewards with more top 3 rankings.

That Affiliate Site Look

Then God Affiliate Marketers said, “Let Us make man affiliate sites in Our the same exact image, after Our Astra and Generate Press likeness templates, to rule over review the fish of the sea tank accessories and the ALLbirds of the air (shoes) over and the livestock feed, and over all review the earth itself and every creature that crawls upon it.

– this little book called THE BIBLE

You know what I mean.

Just look at the template libraries for Generate Press and Astra themes and you’ll see the foundation of like 80% of affiliate sites:



The one thing these templates all have in common is a GIANT HERO IMAGE.

That’s so very 2018.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with GIANT HERO IMAGE as function of your site, but if we’re going to learn from the sites that rule the SERPs (and yes, I know it’s mostly about that DR 90 backlink profile, but I can’t help you with that shit right now), you’re not going to find a lot of sites like this in the Red Ventures/DotDash/Merideth portfolio.

The Homepage Vibe

I pulled a bunch of sites from the portfolio of these giant digital media companies so I could compare them and see how they represent their content on the homepage.

Do they have a GIANT HEADER IMAGE?


Is the homepage just the default WordPress blog page?

Also no.

Here’s an image that captures several at once, so you can check the general vibe:

Here are the sites represented in this image:

  • (6.1m monthly visitors)
  • (25.9m monthly visitors)
  • (73.6m monthly visitors)
  • (5m monthly visitors)
  • (94.5m monthly visitors)
  • (4.3m monthly visitors)
  • (69.5m monthly visitors)
  • (20.6m monthly visitors)
  • (2.9m monthly visitors)
  • (275.7m monthly visitors)
  • (15.9m monthly visitors)
  • (3.2m monthly visitors)
  • (13.3m monthly visitors)
  • (117k monthly visitors)
  • (1.2m monthly visitors)
  • (28.1m monthly visitors)
  • (8.5m monthly visitors)
  • (64.6m monthly visitors)
  • (625.9k monthly visitors)
  • (1.3m monthly visitors)

Are all of these sites affiliate site? No. That’s not the point.

But also, that IS the point.

All of these sites are solid brands that do very well in the SERPs.

So what are the main takeaways?

1. Magazine Layouts FTW

Personally, I think “magazine layout” looks like ass: too cluttered and so much going on. What do you click on? Who knows?

But I bet they’re GREAT for engagement. Click on this, click on that, look there’s another thing to click on! I guess people love clicking on things, and the magazine layout puts a lot of different content in front of people, giving the site a lot of chances to engage someone with an intriguing article that speaks to them.

One thing I’m sure of despite not having proof because I don’t work at any of those digital publishers (that’s called FAITH, baby. Bible reference. Call back to earlier in this post!):

DotDash and Red Ventures and etc. have spent a shitload of money testing and thinking about how the layout of a site engages readers.

So, look at your site. Does it have GIANT HERO IMAGE?

Does it look like an Astra or Generate Press template from the site library?

Here’s two more examples from sites you’ve heard of, in a slightly different category, but with the same kind of layout (I assume, because it works!)

2. Custom Images Make the Brand

One thing Siege Media gets right with the work they deliver (and I can speak to this with experience, as I worked there for like… a month) is they have an in house graphic design team that creates custom images in a distinct style and with a distinct color pallet for their clients.

If you visit the sites I put in that image above (and then listed out below the image), you’ll see that they mostly use custom illustrations that match a specific style and the colors of their brand on their home page–though there is the occasional stock photo attached to an article.

Just look at home slick and integrated the brand style and colors are at Healthline:

and also:


PsychCentral Does This So Well

Just look at this quick and dirty copy/paste I did of screenshots of their front page:

The backgrounds of (stock? custom?) photos incorporate the logo colors, there are illustrations behind real photos with the colors popped in, and obviously, the colors are very prominent in the custom illustrations

10 out of 10 here, this is executed perfectly.

Just so we’re clear here: yes, doing stuff like this isn’t cheap. But that’s kind of the point. There are different games to play when it comes to affiliate marketing, but you one of the games you gotta play if you want to win is the LONG game. Having custom illustrations and a cohesive look is definitely part of that.

Quick Anecdote About This:

This is something I did last year for one of my affiliate sites when times were good: custom illustration in a particular style for each blog post.

Sure, it was a GIANT HERO IMAGE but it was also the featured image, so I’ll let it slide. I also had some custom images in the same style on the home page. This really helped my site. As the year went on, I stopped working with the company doing these custom images because I was trying to Michael down my Vincents and push up the income while pushing down expenses. A.K.A. playing the super short game like a dummy, and I got burned HARD for it in December.

Lesson learned!

So hire a freelancer or a company like Design Pickle, and settle on a style and a color pallet, and have them go nuts on custom homepage and sidebar illustrations.

I think this can be done without breaking the bank. You don’t have to have Healthline-caliber illustrations on the site–just like with link building (make it LOOK natural) you just need to make it LOOK like you’re doing something like what Healthline is doing with illustrations (or, you know, whatever site you’re being inspired by). Fake it till you make it, then do it right.

3. Social Proof Like a Boss

Especially the DotDash sites did something I really really like.

Each site has a sexy SOCIAL PROOF section at the top of each site.

This goes beyond “As Seen On” which is pretty played out at this point (but, you know, you play the cards you’re dealt). Even if you don’t have many things to put here, find SOMEthing to put.

The Spruce talks about how many products they’ve tested, and how many photos they have.

Find something to put there that’ll speak to your audience and give them a sense that you are real people running a real site and you’re different from every site SOMEHOW.

Fake it till you make iiiiiiiiiit f’real.

4. The Logo is The Word

Hopefully by now it’s clear that not every one of these points applies to every single site I’m talking about, or every single site owned by a big digital media publisher because

That’s not the point.

The point is to notice the trends and apply them in some say to your site.

Yeah, we’re keeping it SUPER SUPERFICIAL in part one.

I wasn’t even going to write about this, but I just kept noticing it.

The logo, on all of these sites, is a stylized word. Scroll back up and look at healthline and the spruce and blah blah blah. You’ll see whatever I mean!

Also, on other big publisher sites:

It’s just a word.

Food for thought. Your logo is cute with the Vacuum on the logo where the “V” goes but it just screams SOMEONE ON FIVERR MADE THIS LOGO.

Instead, go to 99designs, buy the middle package, and tell them you want to see a stylized version of the name of your site, no icons please!

(Except for me, I’m a god damned icon)

Boom. Now your site looks less like an affiliate site you bought on Flippa and more like a brand someone is building.

Wrapping up Part I of Building an Actual Brand

So, here we are, the end of part one.

What did we learn?

Your affiliate site looks like an affiliate site and Google hates that about you.

So start looking at some of the biggest, highest trafficked blogs on the planet and emulate them, NOT that site you bought off of Facebook from that guy you barely know. Here’s the takeaways from this post:

  1. Get rid of the big stupid GIANT HERO IMAGE on the home page that looks like all the affiliate site library of templates.
  2. Find a way to use custom images to make your site stand out, and to reinforce your brand’s color pallet.
  3. Use social proof–differentiate your site from your competitors somehow. Figure it out.
  4. Consider getting rid of your Fiverr logo with an icon in exchange for a stylized word logo.

That’s a start, but that’ll take plenty of effort to make some progress on. So get to work, make your site look like an authority, and send me 10% of future profits.

Or, at least, sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t yet:

Thank you and goodnight.