Book Summary Sites: How CliffsNotes Profits From Lazy Students
In this niche report, I analyze a site that ranks for almost 2 million keywords (August 2018) with over 280,000 backlinks.
This brand seems like it's been around forever.
In fact, when I was in high school their products were hot, illicit commodities.
Traded in the shadows of the school locker room. Squirreled away deep in our Jansport backpacks.
What's the site?
Back in the '90s, these black and yellow paperback pamphlets would condense a 500 page novel into a 25 page summary.
Apparently they had the foresight to shift their operations online and capitalize on some amazing SEO opportunities.
Because, just like when I was in high school- there are legions of internet-savvy students looking for a way to cut corners and ace a test without reading the actual material.
You can see their impressive Domain Rating, Backlinks, Organic Keywords, Organic Traffic and Traffic Value, according to Ahrefs in August 2018:
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CliffNotes was launched in 1958 in Nebraska.
Their student study guides surged in popularity throughout the 1960s. After a couple changes of hands, they were acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012 (Source).
Which is why the "Buy" options on the site for the actual book they're summarizing all seem to direct to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as of this writing, as opposed to a more logical affiliate partner like Amazon.
They say on their About page that "CliffsNotes study guides are written by real teachers and professors, so no matter what you're studying, CliffsNotes can ease your homework headaches and help you score high on exams."
Below is a list of their 1,000 top keywords, as of August 2018.
As you can see they have some amazing rankings for really low competition terms.
There's a really longgg tail in this niche. Think of all the books you can write summaries for!
For those of you who just don't have the time or ambition to read Joseph Conrad's classic, and relatively short, novel, Heart Of Darkness, you can see that they rank #1 for "heart of darkness summary".
And, check out how detailed this information is- CliffsNotes provides a ton of information about the book, breaking down all the characters and providing critical analysis of themes.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness retells the story of Marlow’s job as an ivory transporter down the Congo. Through his journey, Marlow develops an intense inte
Good Search Volume
This is another weird niche where there's tons of search volume and some good display/affiliate/e-commerce opportunities.
Imagine how many books there are out there, particularly those assigned in middle school, high school and college, that people need summaries for. (Just filter through my keyword research table above.)
Even outside of academics, there's a bunch of sites like Summary.com that provide high-level summaries of business/entrepreneur books.
If you're an entrepreneur or businessperson, you might not have the time to wade through hundreds of pages.
Oftentimes you can get the bulk of the book's value just by digesting an articulate summary of its key concepts.
The takeaway here is that it's another low competition niche where you can do some interesting things to make money.
You can obviously use Ads to monetize your plot summaries.
You can link to Amazon for affiliate commissions, though don't expect to make a lot of money on low-cost books.
However, you can even sell your own products- maybe you print your own CliffNotes-style pamphlet and sell that.
Amazon even has a self-publishing arm- you can use that to get started.
I'd think long and hard about choosing a sub-category of books to summarize. You can do them all- but that might feel overwhelming. You might want to choose Science or Marketing- check out Amazon's books page for inspiration.
Traffic Source Opportunities
You could also do some interesting things in video/audio formats and get traffic that way.
For instance, look at this YouTube video SparkNotes did for Othello:
Production doesn't even have to be that amazing- just use a video editor to record the audio and then add in some images to keep viewers engaged.
OpenShot is a free video editor that I've been using. You could even start a podcast- imagine having hundreds of episodes dedicated to college-course material.
It would be an invaluable resource for students- especially in this Age of Audio.
CliffsNotes is the original (and most widely imitated) study guide. CliffsNotes study guides are written by real teachers and professors, so no matter what you’re studying, CliffsNotes can ease your homework headaches and help you score high on exams. Founded in 1958 by Clifton Keith Hillegass, CliffsNotes is the original company that produced study guides and book summaries ranging from Shakespeare to Algebra and the SAT!
How It Makes Money
As you can see below, on the Joseph Conrad page, there are Display Ads and also a "Buy" button which directs to a purchase option on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which owns CliffsNotes.
As with all sites, the 3 primary monetization strategies are Display Ads, Affiliate Marketing, and eCommerce.
The Display ads portion is pretty cut and dry. For eCommerce, they sell Test Prep materials as a monthly subscription:
I don't see any affiliate marketing on the site- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt probably doesn't want to promote competitors.
Honestly, I wish I owned this website.
It's such a great, known brand that the term CliffsNotes has become eponymous for 'study guides'.
And I think they could do a lot more with the site- particularly when it comes to eCommerce.
From what I can find at the moment in August 2018, there's very limited course content.
If I were them, I'd be pumping out high-quality, premium study content as well as certification content.
There's tons of different professions that have certfication and credentialing requirements that can be satisfied by online-learning solutions.
That's an amazing b2b/b2c space to play in- especially leveraging the powerful CliffsNotes brand.
Other Book Summary Sites
FourMinuteBooks.com: Like the domain says, this site promises a book summary that's a 4-minute read. Interestingly, if you head over to this book summary, and you click on the "Read Full Summary On Blinkist" button, that's an affiliate link. You can check out the Blinkist affiliate program if you're into this niche.
DeconstructingExcellence: This book summary site's mission is to study "world-class performers in order to learn what makes them exceptional". I like the clean design and detailed analysis- the Amazon calls to action are also nicely done.
Why I Like This Niche
It's a great SEO opportunity. Plus if you produce high-quality book summaries, you're providing value. That's something I've come to appreciate more and more in my internet-marketing journey.
It's all well and good to cash in ranking and banking product reviews. But, at a certain point, that gets boring.
At least for me, I'm progressively drawn towards providing value.
Now, if you know me at all, you'll know I'm not one of those squishy internet marketing gurus spouting off about my 'life mission'.
I remember several years ago, before I had had any sort of sizable internet marketing success, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasters.
And he was going on and on about providing value and somewhat diminishing the pursuit of profits. At the time, it annoyed me. "Easy for him to say," I thought.
But, now that I've acheived a decent level of success, I definitely appreciate his perspective more.
I think once you've tasted some Make Money Online (MMO) success, your ambitions shift towards grander horizons than ranking for "best portable toilets".
But, I digress.
This is a cool niche and there's a ton of room in it for a smart infopreneur.
Why I Don't Like This Niche
There's not much to dislike about this niche. I think content costs could be somewhat expensive.
Plus, if you're really doing legit book summaries, you'll probably want someone who has read the book.
Or, maybe you get by just re-writing existing summaries of books.
If you don't write a thorough and unique book summary, you won't have much success in organic search.
Some of these book summary sites build up a lot of brand awareness and don't have to rely on SEO as much.
But if you're aiming to get organic traffic, I'd try to push it to 1,500 words just to be safe.
As I already mentioned- be careful when niching down here. Going too broad might be overwhelming and fail to distinguish your site from some of the big players.
Going too niche, or in a category without significant search volume, you might be disappointed with the traffic potential.
This is another interesting niche- lots of search traffic. Cost of entry is a bit higher than some of the other niches I've examined.
The content might have to be a bit better quality, but if you actually enjoy reading books and writing up summaries, this could be a great niche for you.
Though, if you want to scale, you'll need to hire writers to do these summaries for you.