How to Create Passive Income with Profitable (Yet Honest) Reviews

When I did my post on how to make money via blogging, I’d mentioned doing product reviews within it as one of my favorite ways to generate passive income with a blog.

To me, there’s no better recipe for monetization than taking a product I love, walking you through it, showing you what you can do with it and making a commission if you find that the product might help you enough to actually purchase it via my affiliate link.

(Not quite understanding how product reviews can earn money – AKA new to affiliate marketing? See my post on what affiliate marketing is.)

But I’m also a big believer in doing targeted product or service reviews.

Detailed reviews.

And most importantly? HONEST reviews.

Actually Tested

It can be tempting for a blogger to review everything possible on the net – spew out five paragraphs that merely reword the content readily available on the product site, use screenshots taken directly from the product site and recommend a product that they’ve never even actually used – much less spent their hard earned cash to purchase. AKA to flood the web with bullshit reviews. I’m against that mentality.

But I’m all for real reviews – done right.

Below, I’m going to walk you through how to find products or services that will fit your audience, how to craft a real review of that product or service, how to make it a review worth sharing and show you the results of an average review post I’ve done here on Sugarrae.

Edit – Note – Before you start reading…

Joost de Valk brought up an important point. I don’t JUST post reviews on Sugarrae. I spend time building traffic, a following – a brand – for various reasons. These reviews are able to take advantage of the strength of my site – I don’t want to imply that it’s as simple as start a blog, slap up reviews, make money. It’s more like start a blog, build a blog, work hard and then you’ll be able to monetize with some reviews. This is no “4 hour work week” bull. Don’t get me wrong – some weeks I work less than 4 hours – and some weeks I work 80. I’m able to work when I want to. But I busted my ass for over a decade to get to that point. You can read my whole rant on this topic if you’d like. ;-)

Finding products or services to review

Before you go writing up reviews, you need to make sure those reviews are relevant to your audience. For instance, I love the Perfect Meatloaf Pan (seriously, that thing rocks), but I wouldn’t post a review about it here on Sugarrae. Why? Because my audience isn’t here to learn about new cooking products. They’re here for information about SEO, affiliate marketing, online marketing in general and learning how to make money online.

So the reviews here on Sugarrae relate to products and services surrounding that. WordPress themes like Genesis, plugins that cloak affiliate links or guides to getting started in affiliate marketing – those are all relevant products to my target audience.

On the work at home mom site that I own with Missy Ward, I’ve reviewed products like baby monitors and Care.com – because those are things that work at home moms might be interested in.

Whatever topic your audience comes to you for, products and services that fill a need that is directly on those topics – or can be indirectly related to those topics and easily tied in – are what you should be reviewing. (Know now the products or services you’d love to do a review for but don’t know how to find the affiliate program? Check out this post.)

Creating the review

Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to reviews

If you take nothing else away from this post, please let it be this – always, always be honest in your reviews. I always say (and always will) that it is never worth selling out the trust your readers have in you for an affiliate commission. If you review a product and later your opinion changes? Tell people so. New products can always been found – trust is hard (if not impossible) to replace.

I always pay for the product if I recommend it

I know, I know. If you have a popular blog, then you’re likely getting offered freebies of products or free memberships to services to review them. But, I have a general personal rule about paying for any product I recommend. If it’s not a product or service I’d spend my money on, then what business do I have recommending it to my readers?

I’m not saying you can never take a free product or free access to something to check it out – especially if it’s offered. I’m simply saying that if you love the product or service (and believe it’s worth your readers spending their hard earned money on) you should then pay for it before publishing a review on it – or expressly state on the review that you didn’t.

Example – I’ve taken several paid plugins for free to check them out at the plugin owner’s request. If I love the plugin and want to recommend it, I buy it after the fact, before I publish the review. If I don’t like the plugin, I don’t. But I also sure as hell don’t make a post recommending it. Some might call that dumb or altruistic. But, that’s how I personally roll.

Use images that make it obvious you actually USE the product

In 96% of my reviews – be it a product or service – I use images that make it very obvious I have actually used the product myself. It takes minutes (or less) to take a picture or a screenshot and upload it. I feel that the difference pictures obviously showing my Crazy Egg tests vs. the generic images I could pull off the official product or service site make a world of difference. (Now if only Crazy Egg had an affiliate program.)

Always show both the pros and cons of a product

This also falls under the “being honest” section above, but it also serves another purpose. No product is perfect. It may work perfect. It may fill a huge need in your business or life. But, there is likely something you either don’t like or would add to almost any product.

Being upfront about what those negatives are is not only honest, but it helps earn the trust of those reading said review. If you’re telling them the truth about the negatives or “wish it also did [this]” then general logic would serve to assume that you’re also being honest about the positives of the product or service.

I own a lot of review sites in various niches and I can tell you that I sell plenty – plenty – of products that don’t have a 100% or even 60% rave review. People typically understand that no product is perfect. Their real question is will this product serve their particular need or solve their particular problem.

Making the review worth sharing

Getting detailed with it (to the tune of “Getting Jiggy with it” – nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah – nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah)

Doing a detailed review takes a lot of effort. Depending on the product or service and how many features or aspects there are to it, I can spend anywhere from a few hours to an entire day doing a review post. But, I feel like it shows.

When you read the “BS review” mentioned in the intro and have the same visitor come across your much more detailed and thorough review, I personally feels that it not only ups your “trust score” with the reader, but they also are more likely to feel you’ve “earned” any commission generated through their purchase if they understand the concept of affiliate marketing.

Show them how to solve a problem or fill a need with the product or service

In my Crazy Egg review, I showed people how I used the data Crazy Egg collected on my site to make more money. In my review on Eclipse, I explained to people WHY I cloaked my affiliate links with Eclipse – I identified a (real) problem they may not even know had existed and gave them a solution for it. In my Care.com review, I shared tips on finding and interviewing a nanny (that I found out through a lot of experience with the process).

In my Raven Tools review I explained how I used the service to organize my (as anyone who builds links can tell you, what can be very messy) link development efforts. In my (since partially retracted) PopUp Domination review I showed people how I used it and the actual results of using it.

I believe that people share my reviews more for what I teach them they can do with the product than the actual standard product review itself.

After the review goes “live”

Allow your readers to comment honestly

Honestly, I’ve been asked more than once if I delete negative reviews or comments about a service I affiliate for. The answer is HELL. NO. First, there’s actual data that shows people are more likely to seek out a product or service to review it if the review is negative. People expect to see negative reviews or comments. I as a reader often immediately suspect any review of a product that does NOT have at least a negative review or two.

Secondly, if people have a negative experience with a product or service I review, especially as a personal blogger on a site like Sugarrae, then I want to know about it. If the overwhelming experience is negative, then I need to look into why – and if I find it to be a trend – it may be time to change my stance on recommending the product or service.

Staying legal

The FTC recently came out with new guidelines (and then last week, even newer ones) that require bloggers and website owners to make disclosure if they were compensated in any way (so affiliate, sponsored posts, company sent you a free item for review, etc) for any kind of endorsement they make.

If you do product reviews that include affiliate links, you fall into that category, so you’ll need to ensure your blog features a disclosure page or notice. I wouldn’t use mine as an example (no, seriously, don’t go my route LOL), but my friend Missy has a very well done one on her site.

Review Case Study

I took an average review off the Sugarrae site. Meaning, it wasn’t in the company of my highest earning reviews, but wasn’t one of my lowest earning either. So, let’s take a look at my review of Raven Tools, which I wrote in mid 2010 – approximately 2 and a 1/2 years ago. It’s only been mildly promoted – meaning I didn’t do as much to get it a strong ranking as I did with other reviews.

I rated Raven 4.5 stars. I love the service and we whitelabel it for PushFire as well as use the Raven API to create our own tools built in house. I included various tutorial videos in the review (this is one of those places it’s hard to use personal screenshots as I recommended above due to not wanting to share personal information).

At the time of this writing, I rank around #6 for “raven tools review” in Google and #4 for the same phrase in Bing (though I don’t know what SEO inclined individual – Raven’s target market – uses Bing – sorry Bing).

These are the traffic stats on that page since the day I wrote the review. Caveat 1 – I had a different URL structure for a while so results 1 and 2 refer to the same post. Caveat 2 – also included is the blog post I did regarding the auction of the one year of Raven Tools service that Raven donated to support my Stroke Walk. I linked directly to them in that post vs. affiliate. But, I did do an extra post that promoted their services due to their generosity I wanted to be upfront about (it included one affiliate link and 4 non affiliate links to their site). See below (click to enlarge):

Raven post analytics

So a little over 7900+ to the specific review page. To date I’ve had 5,389 people click on my affiliate link, which has resulted in 486 sales for Raven. The post took me about four hours to write. To date, I’ve made $3,882.34 in affiliate commissions.

Affiliate Earnings

About 70% of them came from my review (I also advertise Raven on my sidebar on some site pages – and not others – and have a link here or there to them within posts, etc). So the review resulted in approximately $2700 in commissions. $2700 / 4 is about $675 per hour. That’s how much I’ve earned per hour so far for the time invested in writing that post. And that review is not done earning passive income yet. And it was done honestly and ethically.

I tend to focus more on my various other review sites than on adding reviews to Sugarrae, but it all adds up and some reviews and/or product types are much more popular than others. Some reviews make less than the above. Some have made *significantly* more.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Sugarrae runs on the Genesis Framework

Genesis Framework

If you’re someone who doesn’t understand a lot of PHP, Genesis will give a ton of functionality that you wouldn’t be able to obtain otherwise with a simple control panel instead of having to alter code. For the advanced, Genesis has incredible customization possibilities via Genesis hooks.

The theme is not only highly customizable, but it has allowed me to run Sugarrae more professionally, with a much more targeted focus on monetization than it ever has been able to achieve before.

You can find out more about Genesis below:

Comments

  1. He Rae,
    I have read this post with a lot of interest as is really one of the ways I make money with my blog. I like the details you have laid out.

    Thanks for mentioning Raven. Looks interesting and I’m taking a closer look

  2. Great post as always. I have a few questions.

    Do you track conversions from source ie are they regular returning direct visitors or are they coming from google? Do you have any metric, or guess, as to the ratio of clicks or conversions? I have tracked clicks in analytics but I have not gone as far as using javascript to encode the source into a custom tracking code passed to my affiliate network.

    One thing we are going to try, and I’m wondering if you have done something similar, is for a larger review where you might be reviewing many items, either in one category (ex soccer shoes) or in a sweeping review (ex “everything you need to play soccer”), is doing an iterated review, where you start with the minimal amount of content to be useful, authoritative, and get conversions, and then improve the article through iteration to attract more traffic and more conversion opportunities.

    • I haven’t take the time to track regular visitors vs. engine visitors as far as conversions – but typically, by the time a post is ten days old, most of the traffic that comes into it on the regular is from SE visitors, so I assume the same ratio to sales after 10 days.

      I’ve done several posts like that – for instance, here on Sugarrae I did the Top Online Organizational Tools for your business in 2012 a while back. It ranks for “business organization tools” etc and several of the services on there are only linked to from that post – which let’s me know, yes, those kind of posts do indeed make sales. :)

  3. Hey Rae (kinda has a ring to it, doesn’t it?)

    I must admit when reading product reviews i do keep a ‘keen’ eye out for ‘proof’ that the person writing the review actually used the product!

    Your use of pictures you’ve taken (with your own camera or otherwise) and not the same old graphics on the product website certainly helps ‘authenticate’ the review!

    Even some negative points about the product indicates ‘hands on’ experience and compels me to read further!

    Appreciate the way you dissected the approach to doing these reviews and I absolutely agree, the more ‘honest’ your claims, the more effective the review!

    Thanks for offering your insights and suggestions!

    TJ

    • You’re welcome TJ… the thing with negatives is, no product is perfect – no one expects it to be… I just give my honest overall review – if a negative is enough of a negative for someone that it steers someone away from buying it, then I wouldn’t WANT them buying the product because they’d likely be unhappy with it.

  4. I find it interesting that we as business owners are always on the look-out for the latest and greatest products, yet when someone publishes a review of one, no matter how great, honest, detailed it is, we put on a “oh, she’s just trying to sell us on something” front.

    Is it just me or do your readers do that as well, Rae?

    • I don’t have as much of an issue with that. I did a reader survey a while back and one of the questions on it was “On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, if I write a review, how much do you trust the information?” Not a single reader who answered the survey answered below a 5 and over 81% said they trusted my reviews at an 8 or more, with 41.7% of them saying they trusted the information at a 10. To me, that’s a reflection in the honesty I’ve always tried to share in my reviews. However, some people will always feel the way you mentioned – par for the course and you can’t please everyone. :)

  5. Great overview of producing useful reviews that people will want to read! I don’t buy anything without reading at least a dozen reviews, and I’m quick to scroll past fakes.

    This is going on my to-share list for our audience at Flippa — many of our users are trying to boost their affiliate sites with reviews, and they’re not always doing it as well as they could. Thanks for this post.

    • Thanks Ophelie. :) Yeah, I see a lot of BS reviews on the regular. Once I even saw a guy claiming all other reviews on a new product launch were “fake” because they were posted the morning the product launched and there was no way someone had “time to write a review” – what he didn’t know was many of the bloggers had preview beta access to write up their reviews and were embargoed on publishing them until the official launch. The funny part was though, then the guy did his review below and it was obvious to me as someone who’d scoured the product as a beta tester that he did little more than glance at the new release. :)

  6. I love your blog, Rae. It is very, very helpful for this newbie. I would love to do reviews and don’t want to BS (never been good at it anyway). Any suggestions on how to get products at super discounts or some way of not spending a small fortune on products (for me they would be coffee roasters, cappuccino machines, etc).
    Thanks for any suggestions.

    Kevin

    • Kevin – glad you like the blog. :)

      You can ask merchants (especially smaller ones) for a “review product” that you would then be required to send back after the review, BUT, hard to do before you have an audience.

      A friend of mine has a cooking blog and asked friends and family to use various cooking products they owned for a day to start off his reviews as he started building his traffic.

  7. Kevin,

    Just email and tell them you have a website with a lot of visitors and your planning to do a review of the product, then you ask if you can try the product. Works 50% of the times.

  8. Some good advice indeed. Will keep me from just wasting my time on creating fluff.
    Good Job!

  9. Great piece Rae, I agree 100 % that your own pics make a review more authoritative. Ana does make a good point as well, I have friends that do some great reviews and there are always comments. “Oh just trying to sell us something” Of course someone is, its called their job. Do you work for free ?

    Thanks again for another great article.

    • Ha! You can see my reply to Ana re my own audiences reaction to my reviews. I think another important thing is spacing… I try not to post reviews back to back and instead scatter them in between posts that are merely “giving” in nature.

  10. Great article Rae, right on the nail I think most internet users are tied of all the BS I remember when I first started online I always searched for product reviews now im wiser i very rarely do!

    • I still search for reviews on any product before I buy it – I’m just wiser now on who’s actually used the product and who’s just trying to make a quick buck. :-)

  11. I also think that being honest is a number one thing you have to do in order to be successful and happy. But I think that you shouldn’t buy products you recommend to your visitors because you could lose money. What if you buy a product for $100 and earn $0 by recommending it?

    • As I said in the review – if the product wasn’t worth $100 to me with no “kickback” why would I recommend my readers spend $100 of their cash on it? My general rule of thumb – I never recommend a product I wouldn’t buy or recommend if I wasn’t earning money on it. :)

  12. Thank you for such a great and informative post. I really admire the fact that you purchase what you review. I respect that a lot. I will take you wonderful advice into consideration as I strive to have a better blog! Sincerely, Krista.

  13. First off, Great Post and easy to read and your blog is very clean, I like that. My question to you is about writing a Review. If you are just starting in Affiliate marketing and you pick a Niche, actually using the product sometime is not always possible.

    For example. My niche is gardening, because I have done the research and see that customers are buying in that market. However, I live in an apartment and never been a gardener in my life. How do write a “legit” review for that.

    So, back to the question at hand, Do you have to use the product to be able to right a good review?

    Thanks in advance,
    Business Leads R Us

    • IMHO, yes, you need to use the product to not only write a legit review, but also a good and helpful one. If you’ve never tasted Coca Cola, how can you possibly tell others how it tastes? So my advice is you either pick a niche where you CAN get involved or if gardening really is a passion, then you find a way to practice what you’re preaching.

  14. Hey Rae, was going to comment directly on your Eclipse review post, but comments appear to be off – is that a tactic you employ on your review posts?

    Anyway, questions is, are you aware of any benefits in using Eclipse over Pretty Link. Pretty link has both paid and free versions, but even the free version appears to do everything (?) Eclipse does.

    Cheers!

    • No, I don’t turn off comments on review posts – not sure why the comments were off on that post, but they’re back on now – I assume it somehow happened when I did my last migration.

      Re Pretty Links, no, haven’t tried it yet though I’m suddenly getting asked about it a lot in comments on multiple posts…

      The free version doesn’t allow you to change the base URL (after glancing at the feature comparison chart), which is important to me – but the paid version looks pretty slick. I’ll have to give it a whirl soon. :)

  15. Hi Rae, I really liked your tips in the article. Would you be interested in writing a guest post on LiveChat’s blog about affiliate marketing tactics?

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