How to make money without really trying

Business 2.0 Magazine looks at scrappy entrepreneurs who are squeezing big money out of websites that tap into the latest news, trends, and search fads.

Paul Sloan, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- When word of a whites-only scholarship at Boston University hit the media last fall--drawing coverage from bloggers and biggies like ABC alike--Daniel Kovach smelled opportunity. His goal: to boost traffic to the website he runs, Scholarships Around the US.

So he paid a writer to crank out "The White Man's Guide to Getting a Minority Scholarship," which reveals that some schools do offer scholarships to "nonblack" students--and added it to the mix. Then Kovach planted a link to the article on recommendation site Digg, where it jumped to the coveted front page.

That, in turn, led other sites to link to the article. And Kovach landed a top search ranking on Google (Charts) for phrases like "white man scholarship."

Such timely strategies have helped Kovach turn his year-old site into a $10,000-per-month cash cow (see correction below). Not bad for a 26-year-old who works about an hour a day out of his townhouse in Raleigh, N.C.

Media outlets have, of course, always exploited offbeat events and stories to drive traffic. But today it's easier than ever to profit from a surge of interest in a particular topic. Some people simply aim for 15 minutes of Web fame and make a few hundred bucks by setting up a site around a topic, loading it with Google pay-per-click ads, and working social sites to link to it.

But others, like Kovach, are making bigger money by tapping the cultural zeitgeist to draw more people to an existing site.

Kovach's windfall is more surprising given that he started with a terrible domain name: http://www.scholarships-ar-us.org/. It's difficult to remember, and no one would ever type it directly into a browser. The domain's appeal--and the reason Kovach paid $1,000 for it--was that residual links pushed it up high in Google search results.

And that was better than starting from scratch. For $900, Kovach hired a designer to give the site a simple and authoritative look. He found freelancers on the Web to write items on topics from essay writing to sports scholarships. He mapped out what categories the site should include.

Each step of the way, Kovach milks trends big and small. He says he spends about 15 minutes a day culling education-related articles from Google News, scanning the headlines in search of anything that might help him stoke traffic.

"You have to sift through it all," he says. "No one is going to hand you pieces of trend gold." And he uses Google's Keyword Tool and Wordtracker--services that show what phrases people are searching--to figure out which parts of his site to beef up.

When Kovach discovered that people regularly search for scholarships for "twins," "tall people," and "left-handed people," he added a section about each. "There are hardly any real scholarships," Kovach explains, "but we'll give the searcher any information they want."

Sometimes all it takes is one smart move. Darren Barefoot, annoyed by a swell of media coverage about the virtual world Second Life, created a parody of it-- getafirstlife.com. (The subhead: "Your world. Sorry about that.")

Barefoot launched his site in January, submitted it to recommendation sites, and sent it to a few bloggers; it worked its way up Digg. Soon he was enjoying his own little windfall: 350,000 visitors in 30 days, and roughly $1,000 from Google ads--ironically enough, ads for the myriad businesses and services that cater to Second Life users.

"This was a fire-and-forget project," says Barefoot, a public relations exec in Vancouver, British Columbia. "But I've made enough money to make it worth my time."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of money that Kovach's website, Scholarships Around the US, pulls in. It is $10,000 per month, not per year.

Editor-at-large Paul Sloan covers the ever-changing Internet landscape on his blog, The Key.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.