With freelance writing, your income is directly tied to ongoing effort. New projects. Meeting client deadlines. Marketing to keep new clients coming in. But wouldn’t it be great to earn some passive income on the side, even when you need to take a break from the usual grind?
I can hear it now:
“But Jenn, passive income is a scam. It isn’t real. It’s just something that fills my email spam folder.”
Passive income opportunities aren’t always easy to come by. It is true that plenty of scammers will try to pull people into schemes with promises of lots of money for no real effort. But writers are in a better position than many to earn real passive income.
Don’t worry. I’ll explain.
You see, there’s an aspect of my business I very rarely talk about. You might have seen me mention it in passing over at All Freelance Writing over the years, but nothing much beyond that.
It came up recently in an email exchange with a fellow writer, and that got me thinking maybe it was time to share a little more information about one of my lesser-known project types:
But before we get into what these sites are, why I call them that, and how they work, let’s briefly explore what passive income really is and how this kind of site generates primarily passive revenue whereas traditional blogs do not.
What is Passive Income?
Think about investments. Ideally you purchase stock or other assets and those assets earn you money over time as their value increases. You don’t have to do anything else.
That’s passive income.
It’s when something you own generates income or revenue for you without you having to continually work for it.
Why Most Blogs are Not Passive Income Streams
Pretty much since the start of blogging, blogs have been touted as good sources of passive income. But the truth is, most blogs do not generate much passive income, if any.
When you launch a blog with the intent to make money, it isn’t typically a “set it and forget it” project. You’ll continue to work on that blog on a regular basis. For example, bloggers:
- write, edit, and publish fresh content;
- promote new blog posts on social media and elsewhere;
- market the blog more generally, such as publishing external guest posts;
- review search engine rankings regularly and better optimize content;
- create new revenue streams (products, services, memberships, etc.);
- manage existing revenue streams (such as updating affiliate links or private ads);
- regularly review analytics reports and use them to improve the blog;
- moderate comments;
- manage your email list tied to the blog;
- run updates related to the content management system (like WordPress).
That sounds rather active to me.
While I love blogging, I learned early on to diversify my web publishing income. One way I did that, and continue to, is by setting up “quiet sites.”
What are Quiet Sites?
Quiet sites are something I never share much info about but occasionally mention in passing. That’s ultimately why I call them that.
When you launch a blog (specifically to earn money), you’ll generally put your name on that site – in bylines, author bios, the About page, and maybe even the sidebar sitewide. It’s as much about recognition and building your own visibility as it is about earning revenue.
How are Quiet Sites Different from Blogs?
Quiet sites can be built using your favorite blogging platform. But they’re different from blogs. They’re like ghosts. For example, when I build them, I:
- don’t put my name anywhere on them;
- don’t talk about them, tell colleagues or other readers about them, or share them on my usual social media accounts;
- never seek any kind of personal credit or authority status from them;
- don’t generally register the domains or host them with my other sites (so they can’t be found via things like reverse IP look-ups).*
* This has been true with most past quiet sites I’ve run, but I’ve been slowly transitioning to ones more in line with my usual niches and subject matter expertise. Over time, I won’t keep them quite so separate (their own group IPs, yes, but they’ll be maintained on the same server).
I also don’t work on them regularly. I build them, create the initial content, and monetize them. But I do very little maintenance on them – less than 15 minutes a month. And that time is only because I use a content management system to build them and it needs me to trigger certain updates.
If I went back to using strict HTML sites (which is something I hope to do for some future ones), I wouldn’t even have to worry about that.
One of the biggest differences between quiet sites and typical blogs however is that you’ll want them to focus in on a very narrow niche. Think of it in terms of your blog’s category structure. A quiet site might be built entirely around a specific second-level sub-category or tag.
How Long Does It Take to Build a Niche Quiet Site?
These sites usually take me around three days to build and launch, including content writing and optimization for 10-20 pages max. You could go even smaller than this.
This small size is why you want to focus on a very narrow niche. Every page should work together to thoroughly cover that one highly-specific topic.
Building one of these sites might take you two weekends if you want to build one outside of normal working hours. Or they can be fun projects if you have a slow stretch and need more time.
How Much Money do Quiet Sites Make?
These sites aren’t huge money-makers. They aren’t meant to be. They work best as part of a network of sorts.
For example, you might only make $100 per month when traffic starts coming in. Eventually you might make $500 per month or so. Maybe even $1000. But no individual quiet site is likely to bring in a full-time income.
But because these sites are quick to build, you can create several. And remember, that income can continue to come in for months or years. $500 per month certainly isn’t bad for the small amount of time you sink into them.
Now imagine having five or even ten of these sites. That’s when you start getting into full-time income territory.
It’s important to understand, however, that your first attempt at building this kind of site might not be successful, especially if you aren’t well-versed in different income streams or SEO and competitive research. But you’ll learn, and successes accumulate.
It’s also important to remember it takes time to see that initial return because you won’t be actively marketing the site. This isn’t a project for the impatient. But it can pay off handsomely if you let it.
How to Earn Passive Income from Quiet Sites
With quiet sites being fairly small, quick to set up, and not needing much maintenance, how exactly can you earn passive income from them?
The trick is to focus on revenue streams that don’t require a lot of oversight. Some income streams that have worked well for me in the past include:
- contextual ad networks (like Google’s Adsense);
- affiliate programs;
- product sales.
Let’s look at each in more detail.
Contextual Advertising Networks
First, an important note.
There are countless bloggers out there who will tell you not to use ad networks like Adsense. They’ll tell you there’s not much money to be made. They’ll tell you you’re better off with just about any other income stream available.
- They’re wrong.
- Don’t let their ignorance, or their past failure in this area, discourage you because…
- Again, they’re wrong.
Can you earn more with other income streams? Sure. But that depends on several things. For example:
- What niche are you operating in?
- What are typical PPC (pay-per-click) rates in that niche?
- How competitive is that niche for contextual ads?
- How much time do you want to spend building and maintaining those other streams?
The last is the most important in this case. If you’re looking at building quiet sites, you aren’t looking to do the regular work required to maintain monthly membership sites. You don’t want to constantly create and push new products.
You want passive income. And this is perhaps the most passive source of all.
How does it work?
You put the ad code on your site. And ads related to your content will appear on each page where that code is placed. As ad inventory changes, ads on your site change.
It’s not perfect. And we’ll talk about the importance of choosing the right niche(s) shortly so you don’t get stuck with a dud.
When I talk about using affiliate programs on a quiet site for passive revenue, I’m not talking about loading the site up with affiliate banner ads.
There’s nothing really passive about that because you’ll need to monitor them regularly and swap out ads based on changing offers.
Instead, I’m talking about choosing one (or maybe two) worthwhile affiliate programs, and building evergreen content related to them (but not necessarily about them).
Ideally you’ll want to focus on an affiliate program:
- with relatively high payouts;
- with an established history;
- that features evergreen promotional material.
Remember, these aren’t big general sites you’re building and expecting to see a lot of traffic to. So you need to make every conversion count. No piddly payouts. And affiliate programs that offer recurring income can be particularly good fits (ones where you get paid every month a customer you refer keeps paying the company for a service).
This revenue stream is ideal in the sense that you aren’t reliant on any third party. But there’s also a potential time trap.
Products take time to create. So you’ll want to rein yourself in from any overachieving tendencies here.
Don’t write a 200-page authoritative e-book on all things related to your niche.
Write a 20-page .pdf e-book, report, or guide about a highly-specific and actionable topic related to it.
Don’t create some weeks-long course using an LMS (learning management system – like LearnDash for WordPress). You’ll have to manage things like user accounts and technical issues and system upgrades.
Instead, create a downloadable course with .pdf and/or video content.
The most important thing if you want your passive income site to revolve around your own products is to keep things simple.
3 Keys to Building Successful Quiet Sites
Now that you have some idea of how you can earn passive income let’s explore some of the most important things you need to know and do to make your quiet sites successful.
These are things I’ve learned largely through experience. I’ve owned over 200 sites of my own in the past 15 years. And I’ve helped manage numerous client sites on top of that.
Because of that, I’m all too familiar with the fact no blogging or online marketing advice is true for all sites or niches.
I’ve learned how to gain visibility in highly-competitive niches while also learning how to monetize very small ones most web developers and SEOs don’t bother to target.
And I’ve learned how to build successful sites across a wide variety of niches using techniques that insulate you from algorithm-chasing (something far too many SEOs and online marketers are guilty of rather than building truly valuable resources).
Having learned from those experiences, here are the top three keys I can share with you about building successful quiet sites.
1. You must know your niche.
By this, I don’t mean you need to be an expert in the niche your site falls within. What I mean is you need to understand the competitive nature of that niche.
For example, you’ll want to:
- conduct keyword research to find out how competitive related keywords are in search;
- identify low-competition keywords you can focus on with every page of your site;
- have an idea of PPC ad payouts for related keyword phrases;
- know who the biggest competitors are (for eyes and rankings) and whether or not you can outdo them on very narrow subject matter (even if their site is broader);
- get a feel for who links to those competing sites (using a tool like Ahrefs) and the quality of those backlinks.
If you have no idea how to create a small site that can compete, quiet sites will never work for you. The trick is to minimize competition while maximizing passive income potential.
Some Quiet Site Niche Examples
While I don’t ever share my current quiet sites, I’ll give you some examples of website niches that did well for me in the past (and some that didn’t).
First, I was already writing about business at the time, so maybe 12-13 years ago when I started building these smaller sites I set two up on the topics of:
- business finance;
- green business.
I also used to do a lot of personal finance ghostwriting for a large credit card site, so I used that experience to create a small consumer-focused site related to credit cards (not promoting sign-up offers or making recommendations).
I had decent keyword-rich domain names (almost exact match which was important then, though not something to aim for now). They had professionally-written content. They were well-optimized.
Those sites were in areas that could bring in decent contextual advertising income, but they were also highly-competitive.
That was a mistake.
I went much too broad in high-competition niches. You don’t want to do that.
In those cases it worked out well for me even though they didn’t succeed as ad-supported quiet sites.
Instead I ended up flipping them. They were great starter sites for webmasters looking to keep building in those niches. And one even hired me to create more content for the site he bought.
Niches that did better?
They’re probably not the kinds of things you’d ever expect me to write (another reason I don’t put my name on them – I don’t want them misleading potential freelance clients about niches I’ll cover for them).
Here are some examples along with how I monetized each:
- tooth whitening procedures (affiliate marketing)
- real estate touring (affiliate marketing)
- home staging (affiliate marketing)
- natural housekeeping recipes (product sales)
- easy egg recipes (product sales)
- self-employed health insurance options (contextual ads)
- building outdoor kitchens (affiliate marketing)
- choosing extended-stay hotels (contextual ads)
I’m currently out of all those niches after letting a couple die naturally and selling off others. These days I do try to keep newer quiet sites within my specialty areas simply because I enjoy creating them more and it lets me build them in an interconnected way.
That’s something I highly recommend. Choose very narrow niches. But keep them interconnected if possible.
- You can cross-link content in a natural way.
- You can use older quiet sites to help launch newer ones.
- If you later decide you’d rather run one larger site with your byline and ongoing effort, you’ll have related base content that can be merged to get you started.
Remember, you don’t have to be an expert in these niches. You’re not putting yourself out there as an authority. But you have to be able to conduct research well enough to create truly high-quality content.
That, and you need to understand the competitive landscape. Don’t make my early mistakes.
2. The site must be well-optimized.
When you launch a quiet site for passive income, you want it to truly be as passive as possible. That means no ongoing marketing.
Because of this, the primary focus for driving traffic will be SEO (search engine optimization). You’re going to rely heavily, especially at first, on getting Google to send visitors to your site.
What kind of optimization will you want to do?
- Keyword research
- On-site SEO (keywords, title tags, meta descriptions, schema, etc.)
- Optimizing your content for featured snippets
- A bit of initial link building
Here’s an SEO Checklist from Backlinko that explains these things and more in more detail if you’re not that familiar with search engine optimization.
Because search engine traffic is so important, it’s vital you choose low-competition keyword phrases. Then focus every page or article on your site around one or two of them.
When doing keyword research, you not only want to make sure you can compete, but you also need to find keywords that get enough search traffic to be worthwhile.
For this kind of site, I generally look for keyword phrases that get several hundred to several thousand searches per month.
In my experience, it takes me about one or two weeks to get this kind of site in the first page of Google results for most target keyword phrases as long as you handled your research and optimization effectively.
3. Your content must be highly “shareable.”
This might be the most important thing to keep in mind because it will determine the future traffic and passive income potential of your quiet site.
Your content must be shareable.
What does this mean?
Every article should be so good, or so important, or so unique that readers who find it via search engines can’t help but share it and spread the word.
When others share your content because it’s just that good, you:
- earn organic backlinks without any extra effort on your part;
- get social media traffic;
- build trust (especially important when selling products or promoting affiliate programs where you want people to buy something).
This isn’t a quick process. Quiet sites don’t start earning income overnight. It takes time for links to grow and word to spread. But when it’s all organic you not only avoid regular marketing effort, but you won’t get stuck chasing algorithms for rankings because you’re creating resources for actual readers – things they love, link to, and keep sharing.
Is Passive Income Publishing Right for You?
As I just mentioned, quiet sites aren’t going to bring in income immediately. If that’s what you’re looking for, these aren’t the right move for you.
They’re not meant to be high-income sites or high traffic sites on an individual basis.
They’re meant, instead, to be fairly low-effort projects that don’t require much, if any, ongoing time commitment, and that bring in passive income on a recurring and cumulative basis.
Quiet sites aren’t something you’ll want to build just one of either.
They’re more effective when you have multiple related sites working together.
So if your hope is to build one site, hit a five-figure monthly income, and gain visibility or recognition in the niche, build a normal website. Update it frequently. Compete for more competitive keywords. Combine income streams. And maintain and market it regularly.
But if you’re looking for projects when you have a bit of downtime that don’t require much ongoing effort, you’d like those time investments to bring in passive income down the road, and still potentially see thousands per month in revenue after a handful of these projects are completed, quiet sites might suit you.
One option involves running an all-out publication. Another is akin to creating a smaller freely-available resource tied to a revenue stream.
There’s nothing wrong with either option.
Personally, I build both types of sites and have been involved in professional web publishing overall for around 15 years. But those quiet sites over the years, they’ve helped support fledgling blogs and other projects.
And if you’ve never built your own site, these smaller sites can be a good way to learn some of the basics before you dive into something bigger. And on the off-chance you screw up along the way (goodness knows I have, plenty of times), it’s not publicly attached to you or your freelance writing work.
Plus, you always have the option of growing these sites into something much bigger later depending on their performance. Think of them as “proof of concept” sites before you start building a much more complex site in a new niche.
Your Quiet Sites and Passive Income Questions
If you have any questions about what I call “quiet sites” or how they can be used to generate truly passive income, ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to help. Or if you’re thinking about building one and you have a general niche in mind and aren’t sure where to go next, leave a comment about it and I’ll offer some feedback or tips how I might approach it (narrowing the niche, potential income streams, etc.).
While not all blogging results in passive income, there are actual opportunities to earn it.
That can come in handy during a slow period in your freelance writing, a period when you need time off for health reasons or even recreation, or if you’re thinking about winding down and want to earn more on your own terms instead of clients’ (something I’ve heard from a few different freelance colleagues in recent weeks).
I hope the next time you’re looking to start a new side project or are looking to test a new niche, you at least consider the possibility of building a few quiet sites and see if you can earn some passive income in the process.