Income School Are Lying To You. The Display Ads Content Site Model Is Dead.

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Written By Jamie I.F.
Founder of increasing.com, and here to give you the info you need to either start your making money online journey, grow and improve your niche sites, and build the most meaningful and fulfilling life for you.

TLDR: Project 24 claims that within 24 months you can attain financial freedom from blogging. I ran the data, and found that the average website using their theme gets just 238 monthly search traffic according to Semrush. The average site using their Acabado theme has lost over 95% in traffic since March 2022.


Edit: Ricky posted a video earlier today (April 30th 2024) saying Google isn’t as good a source of traffic and admits the content sites have been decimated. So there does seem to be some acknowledgment now from him. That’s a start, I guess.


I recently saw a video by Ricky, the founder and CEO of Income School, the most well-known and popular course teaching blogging and SEO content sites content, discussing whether “niche” sites still work in 2024.

Now, as many of us have experienced first-hand, Google has made some pretty drastic changes to the algorithm since September, targeting sites who’s primary offer is content, rather than having a “real” business offer to them, such as e-commerce, SaaS, or a local service.

To my surprise, rather than commiserate with his audience, and collaborate with them to try to find a solution to the Google traffic hits, he accused those who don’t succeed of being “lazy”. 

Ricky could have been open-minded and humble, empathised with his audience around how the content site business model has been decimated, and helped bring clarity to his audience, who are hurting right now.

I was supposed to debate Ricky live, but that fell through. So, I’ve made this data study to show the real data behind the performance of those who purchased Income School, so you can make the right decision for your sites and SEO future. 

It is important to be open-minded. So I sought to find out more. Does Income School deliver on their promise of a full-time income within 24 months?

Also, a note: this is not a personal attack on Ricky. I used to make all my new writers watch their featured snippet video as part of their onboarding process a few years ago, as it was an excellent piece of content. This is simply a data study on how in 2024, that these methods do not work anymore, and that Income School needs to be honest about this.

I wanted to understand better if I was wrong in calling out Ricky for this, as I may be in my own echo chamber. Was I wrong? And that the content site model, monetised by display ads, works better than ever? 

Methodology

This is a data study on the organic search performance of the 2,061 sites ran by Income School students, using their WordPress theme, Acabado, using traffic data from Semrush, a well-known SEO tool.

There are more sites using this theme that we could not find, as we used the seller.json file to find the sites using the theme we were able to locate, as well as data from Niche Site Metrics, a database of 49,000+ sites monetised by one of the major display ad networks. 

We also used some search operators to find more sites, but this only found a limited few extras websites using the Acabado theme. 

This means there are many more unmonetized sites that are not featured in this study, simply because we were not able to find the means to scrape these other sites. So, I accept that this data is not the full dataset, but we were unable to find the rest. I have included a link to the full dataset in this article, so you are free to look at it – as is Ricky. If Ricky feels we have manipulated the data, you are free to use this same data however you wish in a response.

Or, even better, if Ricky is willing to share data on ALL the sites including the ones we don’t have, or even any of the successful ones we have missed, then I am open to re-running the data at my own expense.

There are unique CSS and JS identifiers in the Acabado theme code, so there may be more technical ways of finding thousands more of these sites via these identifiers. I believe Ahrefs are releasing a tool which would have made this possible, but it has unfortunately not released yet.

But since the Income School course focuses on display ads, and the sites we were able to locate were those that are monetized with one of the major display networks including:

  • Raptive
  • Ezoic
  • Mediavine
  • And several others

I am confident enough that this is a cohesive enough dataset to make confident assumptions about the content site market, as well as the average performance of Income School students – and whether their course still represents good value for money. 

In fact, if we were to find a way to scrape the other sites, the average traffic per site using the Income School WordPress theme would most likely be lower – so this data flatters Income School. 

This is because the sites included in this dataset, on average, are more successful, as they actually grew enough to be monetized with one of the major ad networks. Most never achieved this, and so never had a trackable seller.json file on their sites for us to discover them. There are allegedly 10,000+ total sites with the theme, so interpret that however you wish for what happened to the rest of them…

We then ran each of these 2,061 sites through Semrush, logged the organic traffic over time, and collated the data to find the average traffic per site, as well as how this has trended over time. 

We also divided the current traffic of the sites into tranches, with what % received under 10 organic traffic, under 100, under 1000, and under 10,000, and over 10,000 monthly organic traffic, according to Semrush.

We also scraped the themes of all the almost 15,000 sites on Mediavine and Raptive, to find what % of sites on these two ad networks, associated with higher earnings and traffic, had the Income School theme.

Here’s the main findings:

Finding 1: Only 8 Income School sites get over 10K organic traffic per month

According to Semrush, as of April 24th 2024, only 8 of the 2,061 sites received more than 10,000 monthly traffic, or 0.39% of Income School sites.

More than 75% of the sites using the theme receive under 10 organic visits per month, and only 10.38% of sites receive over 100 organic traffic per month.

Traffic Range (April 2024)Number of WebsitesPercentage of Total Sites (%)
Under 10 traffic157976.58%
11-100 traffic25712.46%
101-1000 traffic1607.76%
1001-10000 traffic462.23%
More than 10000 traffic80.39%

Finding 2: The average traffic of Income School sites is just 238 monthly traffic in April 2024

The Income School theme sites, in April 2024, currently average 238 organic traffic.

In early 2022, this average was actually quite good, at slightly over 6,000 organic traffic per month. But, has steadily fallen since mid-2022, and plummeted after the Sep 2023 Helpful Content Update that Google released, which hurt a lot of content site owners.

This does suggest Income School students were not immune from these algorithm updates, and that the strategies are no longer as effective as they were in 2022.

If we estimate that Semrush underreports total traffic by around 2.5x, and a generous $30 RPM for earnings, then the average Income School student’s site currently earns around $17.85 per month.

While this could be a nice bit of beer money, when you take into account hosting costs, the time and money to create the content, and the $500/year cost of the Income School course and theme, this suggests that it is not currently profitable to create a site using the Income school model.

Finding 3: 0.73% of sites on Mediavine and Raptive use the Income School theme

The Abacado theme was found on 81 of the current sites on Mediavine, from a total 9,894 Mediavine sites analysed.

For Raptive (CafeMedia/AdThrive), the Abacado theme was found on 32 of 5,521 sites analysed.

So in total, 113 Income School student sites made it to these premium ad networks of a total 15,415 sites on these networks. However, most of these 113 no longer meet the traffic requirements to apply for these ad networks.

(Our theme data below shows 109 as there was 4 duplicates for sites that were on both Mediavine and Raptive at some point and therefore had both seller.json files.)

Conclusion: The Income School Model Does Not Work Anymore. And DRASTIC CHANGES ARE REQUIRED.

This is going to veer off into my personal philosophy, and you are free to stop reading here – the data-driven portion of this study delivered what I wanted to show.

In my opinion, to sell anything for any price, you have to deliver value. And not just “decent” value, either, but over deliver spectacularly. The only response you should aim for with your customers is sheer DELIGHT, and I truly believe that you should never sell anything that does not get as close to this delight as possible.

I believe that in 2021-22, Income School strategies, such as focusing on writing for long-tail keywords based on keyword research, writing for featured snippets, and taking a general content-first, avoiding link-building strategy…. COULD work back then.

(Interestingly, the 8 sites still receiving over 10,000 monthly traffic from Semrush have done significantly more linkbuilding than the average site in the dataset.)

But in April 2024 as I write this, Google does NOT want to rank sites that sell information. You can see this in the SERPs every day, as well as in the data I have provided.

If Income School come out and say that this model doesn’t work, and they’re working on ensuring their paying students still receive great value with new content that shows how to make money blogging online in 2024 and beyond, then that’s completely fair – and I’d love to see that.

But to double down, victim blame, in the face of such strong data, is wrong. And if you aren’t willing to pivot, and you aren’t creating delight and massive value for your customers, then you should not operate. 

I believe that Ricky should pause enrollment of Income School, refund the signups that have been made since September 2023, and work towards winding down operations. And, I believe he should be honest with his community on the strategies so they have clarity and save the time they’d otherwise spend trying to recover sites that are simply extremely unlikely to recover. 

This is not even an indictment on Income School personally. It’s an indictment on the traditional content site model, where if you “just write good content, you’ll get traffic and money.” In the age of generative AI, Google has most of the information you’re writing for, and honestly most of the content you’re writing that you think is excellent… isn’t that good.

In response to mass AI content that can contain false information and halucinate, and Google’s unwillingness to spend the enormous amounts of money it would require to use modern LLMs/ML models to better understand quality (over cheaper methods like domain link authority that don’t even require reading every page), Google has understandably become far more risk-averse and prioritised huge brands that are less likely to release false content – and thus put massive weight on the links a domain has.

Topical coverage has never been easier with AI – it’s quality that’s difficult. But if Google isn’t focusing on quality of the page, but instead the domain the page comes from, then this is going to negatively affect content sites that focus on creating high-quality experiences, but do not build huge link profiles and brands.

This is not solely Income School’s fault (though they should have foreseen this, especially their anti-linkbuilding approach). And it’s not only their sites that have been hit – it’s an industry-wide, category attack from Google. They have moved many affiliate keyword intents to e-commerce, and want to rank “real” businesses such as manufacturers and e-commerce sellers for informational terms (or just serve the answer themselves via SGE).

Previously, a common attack on Ricky was that he had never built a successful site himself – only Jim had. And that was a valid criticism. But there was also a somewhat valid counterpoint: that he’s a good teacher, and that his teachings did work.

Now that neither do his teachings work, nor does he have any examples of publicly successful sites, it’s time to stop.

Some counter-responses to this data, and my message, will likely be:

  1. Ricky has been talking about building a brand, and alternate traffic sources, for a while now.

The last public Pinterest video on the Income School YouTube channel was 4 years ago. 

They do not focus on affiliate marketing (I know the sites Ricky has started, and they’re some of the worst examples of affiliate marketing I’ve ever seen in my life), and while they do have a YouTube section you can purchase, this is not what Income School blogging members join for en masse.

The landing page on the website still pushes blogging as the way to financial freedom.

TLDR: It’s simply not evidenced in the Income School strategy – it’s lip service, and that’s all.

  1. You also sell access to a paid community, so aren’t you a hypocrite? You’re leeching off another larger course seller and using them for marketing.

That’s a fair point to make. We launched conversions.so because this IS time to pivot, and we’re in the process of pivoting ourselves. I am 100% open and honest about that.

Some of my content sites have been badly hit. One has gone from 90,000 Ahrefs organic traffic for some of the most competitive affiliate keywords in the niche, to under 1,000. That’s absolute destruction! A 5-figure per month loss just on that one project! 

Fortunately – and I do not intend this to have any “I told you so” undertone to it – we pivoted and focused on non-Google traffic fairly early, as we felt this could happen with Google. We also always had more Bing traffic than Google traffic, and so even on these sites that have been destroyed in Google, we have lost less than half our total traffic.

We understand the ways of old do not work in 2024. And we’re not launching “content” sites anymore, we’re launching e-commerce, local, and lead gen projects, because those are the sites that Google wants to rank for the same affiliate keywords they took from us from September onwards. 

These are the things we’re talking about in the community. We admit what we used to do doesn’t work – our community is a group of people discussing how to continue to be profitable after the content site apocalypse. 

The worst thing anyone can do is be blind to the truth. I pride myself on seeking it out, even if the truth is not what I want to hear. That is the difference between Income School’s course, and our private forum of people testing what DOES work in 2024.

We also don’t believe we’re the arbiters of truth, or always correct. We invite disagreement and debate. This helps us all grow. This is how we become the best versions of ourselves.

You can choose not to believe me, and choose to believe this entire campaign was self-promotion because I also sell a product. But I promise you, this was not my main motivation. I HATE the idea of selling dreams to people, who are often spending their last $500 in the hopes of financial freedom, for tactics that do not work. We were all beginners – the “little guy” – once, and it is our duty, as humans, to protect them.

And I accept that while it’s not always comfortable, or kind, to go about it the way I did, I genuinely believe that this information needs to be out there, so that people have the knowledge they need to choose whether to spend a large amount of money on the course Ricky sells.

  1. It’s not Ricky’s fault this has happened, and he’s under considerable stress trying to make this work, and you’re just attacking him. What about the other people selling the same courses?

Also fair points. And my sympathies are with Ricky if this causing him any stress – but it does not change my data that clearly shows his course doesn’t work. I feel for Ricky, and identify with the reply Niche Site Lady replied to my original call-out with.

As for why I mentioned Ricky and Income School: they’re the largest seller of beginner-friendly courses, and the introduction many had into SEO and blogging. Most more experienced SEOs know not to buy the course because they see it for what it is, but the brand-new little guy doesn’t. That is who I am trying to protect by calling out Ricky here.

Many of the others have either closed up their courses, or pivoted away and advise high-level strategy on alternative traffic sources like Facebook and Pinterest. This is excellent content. Income School continues to double down, sell a course, and refuse to admit they are wrong.

This is why some replies to Niche Site Lady’s original reply, have sentiments like this. Which I honestly understand:

  1. Jamie, we agree with your sentiments, but the way you went about it (calling out Ricky in the way I did) was unprofessional. 

100% true, and fair. I regret this a lot. The backlash was deserved – and I’ve apologised to Ricky, and also learned a lot from the ordeal.

Even just on the PR side, the young “arrogant” kid accusing the religious, well-mannered family man of maliciously misleading their community, is one of the worst PR moves ever. Honestly. Some of the YT comments on the WP Eagle video calling me a chav and a yob were a bit too far though — you don’t know me, or what I stand for.

And it’s my fault that Ricky dropped out of the original debate last week because of my lack of professionalism. I should have been polite at all times, and I fell far short of that. It’s 100% my fault, and I take full accountability for that.

Many people have said that while they agree with my sentiments, Ricky is a genuinely honest man, and my perceptions were based on extremely limited knowledge. I should never have made personal attacks on someone I have not met and spent time with in real life. And for that I again apologise.

But, I am STILL yet to hear a single counterpoint for the issues I raised with Income School’s tactics, from Ricky himself.

I also left out a lot I could have spoken about with Income School in this article, including their dodgy relationships and unethical / misleading promotions of:

  1. Ezoic (what study was that, showing them to have the highest RPMs, again?! I believe they have since deleted the video…)
  2. Bluehost (IYKYK, was all about extracting money from their customers with zero regard to hosting quality)

Basically, to end this, I just want to say that I wish the tactics still worked, and that things were as they once were. My life would be a lot easier too if they were!

But this is not the case. The game has changed. Entirely. Just as it has a thousand times before, and will again a thousand times again before we are nothing more than memories to our past generations.

We have to be open-minded, and if selling a product people rely on and spend money and invest time in, we have to do right by them. I hope Ricky reads this and makes the right decision.

Photo of author
Jamie I.F.
Founder of increasing.com, and here to give you the info you need to either start your making money online journey, grow and improve your niche sites, and build the most meaningful and fulfilling life for you.

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