We've been travel blogging for over ten years now, and although we don't quite know where the time has gone this makes us some of the older kids on the block in the blogging world.
As the years go by the question we end up getting more and more has nothing to do with our blog's niche, but is simply this: how do you start a travel blog?
This is somewhat of a loaded question because our most popular response goes on a long and winding tangent about how our blogs were a decade in the making, required a lot of trial and error, and also a bit of luck thrown in along the way.
But when I stopped to think of it there is a point that I always seem up emphasizing over and over again, which is: blogging is a lot of work.
In fact, we've spent the last three years sharing all of this work in our Grow Your Blog series on this site, and this guide is the culmination of all of those articles focusing on the topic of how to start a travel blog.
But we're not going to talk about the basics of registering a domain and server at Bluehost, installing WordPress and a custom theme, loading up on a few plug-ins, and setting you off with no direction. That is the easy part (don't worry, we cover it). In this one going to really dive into the weeds on how to make your blog the absolute best it can be, because, yes, blogging is indeed a lot of work!
Before we get started, we have a quick note- this guide is tailored to travel bloggers; however, the overall themes of owning your niche, establishing best practices, and monetize can fit in many fields. If you are not a travel blogger you should still find value in a significant portion of this guide.
Table of Contents
As this guide is long, we've broken it up into six sections. They are the following (click the links below to jump to a specific chapter):
- Chapter 1: Qualifications and Finding Your Niche
- Chapter 2: Make Upfront Purchases to Get Started
- Chapter 3: Learn Blogging Best Practices
- Chapter 4: Establish Yourself as The Expert / Audience Building
- Chapter 5: Monetize Your Blog
- Chapter 6: Never Stop Optimizing and Final Notes
At the end of each chapter further reading links will be featured as well as links to read more chapters within this guide.
Why We Are Discussing How to Start a Travel Blog
Before we dive into the weeds, we want to talk a bit about why we are jumping into this topic of how to start a travel blog.
There are a lot of things we could share to get into why we're publishing this guide, but the three most important points we want to share (other than the fact that we've been doing this for a decade) are the following:
- We currently operate two successful blogs that receive a combined 200,000+ monthly page views.
- We currently earn, on average, $6,500 a month from our blogs- the vast mostly through passive income streams.
- Finally, while we have two blogs that are quite successful, we had at least six others that failed.
The last point is probably the most interesting in regards to this guide, as it highlights the significance of what happens when you blog without direction. You can try, try, and try some more, but you will ultimately be spinning your wheels for weeks, months, or years until you feel compelled to give up. Your idea could have great potential, but without the right direction and execution you are almost certain to get lost along the way.
This is especially challenging in travel blogging because if you are looking to blog as a way to monetize a trip, if you don't do it right at the start you may run out of travel funds before your blog goes anywhere at all!
This guide is our way to try and help provide the direction new bloggers need in order to set off on the right foot. Many of the steps below are the ones we've personally taken to get our existing blogs to grow and succeed, and would be the exact steps we take if (or rather when) we launch a new blog in the future.
The above traffic and income is accurate as of September 2018. Our one-year goal is to double our traffic and our income. (Yes, a calendar year is a short-term timeline in blogging!) Track our progress at our monthly blog income and traffic report if you are interested in following along.
Ready to get started? Good.
Pour a glass of something delicious, grab a notepad, and lets do it. But before you start, bookmark this page just in case you want to stop and return later as this one is fairly long.
Before Doing Anything, Find the Right Niche
If you're looking to make a blog be anything remotely professional, you cannot jump into it head first and expect it to go anywhere.
By most accounts there are more than a billion blogs out there, and the sad truth is that most of them suck. Take the best 1% of all blogs, and statistically speaking, nearly all of them will be terrible. Take the best 1% of those, and you may just start finding some quality blogs. Take the best 10% of those, and you will get a selection of some of the finest blogs out there.
If you're following my math here, that's just 10,000 blogs out of a billion.
While it doesn't take much to stand apart from the pack and be a professional blog in its own right (jumping inside that 0.01%), you have to do a fair bit of work to stand apart from other professional bloggers (and get inside that 0.001%). What it takes to make that leap is what we want to cover in this guide.
From our perspective, there are two reasons most professional blogs do not get into this top tier category. They are that the blogs do not have:
- A clear and well defined niche (or purpose) people want to read.
- A voice as the expert in the above niche that people trust as an authority.
Standing out in the blogging world depends on having both of these.
The problem is that it is easy to have a defined niche (#1) and it is easy to be a perceived expert in your field (#2), but the hard part is putting it all together to become the expert in your niche above all others.
To put this into a real life example, we started Living the Dream to be a leading global travel blog. We had a well defined niche within the overall field but we had several other experts that we were going up against within that same niche. What made us more qualified to be the expert over any of those bloggers who were all doing the same exact thing? As it turns out, not much.
No matter what we excelled at there were others who did it better, we failed our test above, and our growth stagnated despite being ranked in the Top 100 for our field for quite some time (I think we're now in the Top 300 depending on the organizer).
As the years rolled on more and more people jumped into the field, making it harder and harder to become the expert, and again, our growth stagnated further (we later changed our niche altogether once we recognized this).
Enter our hyper local Pittsburgh blog, Discover the Burgh. We started the site with a nearly identical model as Living the Dream, but with a drastically more focused niche tied to a geographical location. We worked tirelessly to set ourselves apart as the expert on things to do in Pittsburgh, and as our competition was almost non-existent we think we achieved this one quite well. Copycats can come along to try and challenge our foothold, but we have a comfortable head start from them all with our expertise.
If you're going to start a blog with the hopes of going professional at some point in time, this is what we mean by having a clear and well defined niche and also becoming the expert above all others.
We're going to keep emphasizing the fact that you have to become the expert because if there is anything you should take away from this section, it is that your niche should be one where you can become the absolute best blogger without exception.
It can be a smaller subset of a larger and more competitive niches (hyper local travel within travel blogging, for example), but when taking your ideal focus of [your niche here] there should be no ambiguity that you are the person for the topic. Otherwise you'll be one in a sea of many, and you'll face an uphill battle that most of us know all too well.
So before you do anything, you have to do your research.
Things you should research before getting started on anything having to do with your blog include the following:
- Find out how many other blogs and websites exist within your intended niche.
- Look at their primary focus, traffic figures, and if your intended niche is different in any way. Can you become the expert or someone else already it? Do they do a good job at it? What do you have to do in order to be better? How long would it take for you to do so?
- Define your audience, who they are, what they like, where they live. This will come in handy for advertising later on.
- Determine if your content is time sensitive and if it will be relevant six months, a year, or two years from now.
- In the vast majority of cases, content that is always relevant will do better in search results whereas content that is time sensitive may not get indexed by the time it becomes irrelevant. In the latter case, having a large and highly engaged social media following is key for this style content.
- Another angle for the concept of “time sensitive content” is whether or not your niche has an intended goal in mind (e.g. completion of a project, taking a one-year trip, doing everything in a region, etc.). What will you do if you complete your goal before achieving suitable growth? Will your blog be able to adapt? Or will it be a failure and have to close? Keeping things open-ended helps a lot for longevity.
- Research popular keywords and determine how much traffic is out there in search engines.
- Then Google those keywords and see if the competition is something you could potentially beat after a few years. You won't beat Wikipedia, but could you outrank a small blogger or independent media company? Certainly.
- Figure out how much content you could produce. Break it down into what would be needed to illustrate that you are the expert versus the absolute max you can get out of your niche.
- If either is too high or two low you may be looking at your niche wrong.
- We like to think a good baseline for becoming the expert in any given niche is 100 posts or less (~1 year of blogging). If you can write 5,000 posts on your topic and need 1,000 to become the expert, you're probably too broad. If you run out of topics at 100 when you become the expert, you're probably too narrow in your focus. Generally speaking, most professional bloggers write anywhere from one to five articles a week within their niche, although some do significantly more. We average two to three per blog.
- Develop a realistic figure for the max traffic a blog like yours can receive, keeping in mind that your competition may already be at a peak themselves. If you're coming up with numbers in the millions a month, you're either being too generous or are perhaps looking at a niche that is too broad to become the expert in.
- Finally, answer this simple question: will you still be interested in your niche in a year, three years, five years, or ten years? Will your audience still care? Determine your end game.
If you're writing as a hobby blogger the above points do not matter much. But if you're looking at going at it as a professional blogger all of the above are essential in understanding how your blog fits within your niche, what you need to do to become the expert, the ultimate potential of your site, and get a modest understanding on what is needed to get there.
If you're still interested in proceeding, it is time to get started on your blogging journey.
Make Upfront Blog Purchases to Get Started
Once you have your niche established it is time to set your blog up. This process is pretty straightforward as you have to do the following steps no matter your niche:
- Register a domain and server space on BlueHost. You can register a domain name with Bluehost directly, but we like to keep ours separate from our host to avoid any potential issues later on if you change services.
- Install WordPress on your server to have the blog platform available (don't even entertain other options- WordPress is the industry leader).
- Install a theme onto your WordPress account (we like the premium themes from Elegant Themes for reasons we'll get into later on).
- For a visual how to install WordPress and a theme, check out the screenshot selection at the end of this guide! (Click here to jump to the end)
When it is all said and done, the above steps will cost anywhere from $150 to $200 at a minimum and depending on the tutorials you read will take you a few hours to figure out at a minimum.
There is not much we can add to these steps that isn't already available via a quick Google search, but we have to admit that the true difficulty lies in the customization. This is the step of the process where you take what comes out of the box and customize it to be your own.
It is not discussed very much, but the demos that most theme producers have online are not what you get out of the box and are in fact optimized a fair bit via CSS- the underlying code that makes your site look pretty. This is true with Elegant Themes (our preferred theme provider noted above) just as much as it is with others.
The demos are great for what your site could look like, but very rarely are what your site will look like immediately after installing. CSS knowledge is key here as it is the programming language that allows you to customize your sites aesthetics.
Most themes should have a custom CSS box within their theme settings, and this will allow you to make changes without altering the hard code of your site (something we generally recommend avoiding as it has the potential to break your site). On Elegant Themes templates this is typically found under Appearance => [Theme] Theme Options => Custom CSS.
This box lets you input CSS code to override the existing code, and does take a bit of a trial and error approach to make work as you learn the programming language. (Sadly, we do view this as essential so put your learning cap on.)
One thing we do love about CSS coding is that most web browsers have a preview mode where you can make test modifications and see what they'll look like without overriding any code. You can pull this screen up by right clicking on a page on your browser, clicking “Inspect” or “Inspect Element” on or near the area you want to modify.
There are several screens that pop up once you do this, and admittedly will take quite a bit of time to get used to such that reading further tutorials is helpful. Do not get discourage as we think utilizing this feature is essential for customizing your blog (and as a bonus, since it is just a preview mode you can't really break anything by making changes).
Once you learn all of the different screens you should then find the code of any particular section, see the CSS for the visual aesthetics of that section, and modify the code right there. Any changes you make to this code will be visible on your screen automatically as a preview. It only does this locally and if you mess up you can simply refresh your page and start over as the changes are not saved anywhere whatsoever.
If you find code that works you can copy and paste the CSS segment into your custom code box, save it, and have it be reflected site wide. If it messes something up simply remove that exact same code, resave, and it will go back to what code was present before (the perks of not overriding your hard code!).
This is a pretty simplistic walk-through of how to make modifications to your CSS code, and is something we definitely recommend learning more of as you go.
No matter how much you dive down into this one, we do want to reiterate the fact that the aesthetics of your blog go a long way in helping further your reputation as the expert. The look your site doesn't help strengthen your knowledge, but it does give you a curb-side appeal that helps readers stick around longer.
Sometimes an ugly blog is enough to turn off a potential fan.
Learn Everything About Blogging Best Practices
Opening a blog, making it look nice, writing, and publishing content is only part of the battle. In fact, it is a fairly small part.
In the next few sections of this guide we're going to go into some of the most important things to keep in mind when starting your blog, but one of the most important of all is mastering what blogging is to begin with.
When it comes to running an effective blog you're going to do a lot of things, including the following:
- Being an expert writer, photographer (and editor in Lightroom!), and promoter.
- Being an expert in WordPress, plug-ins, and common blogging techniques.
- Being an expert in search engine optimization (SEO).
- Being an expert in social media management.
- Being an expert in advertising.
- Being an expert in HTML and CSS coding.
- Being an expert in marketing.
- Being the expert in your niche.
- …and understand when you're not the expert in the above and need to hire someone who is.
Each of the above categories could warrant posts just as long as this guide, and we recommend checking out some of our resources on these topics in our Further Reading section below for more details on the ones we don't dive into here. If you have a bit of an extra budget early on, enrolling in a course like Super Star Blogging could also help bring you up to speed with a lot of the above too (with other courses being available targeted to your niche in particular).
But for now, we want to dive a bit more into one topic that we believe is the most important to discuss here: search engine optimization.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a broad topic/industry that boils down one thing in particular- how you operate your site in order to get ranked in search engines. Each search engine has their own algorithm that helps rank sites, and ranking in Google is the most sought after for their insanely large number of monthly users.
Google's algorithm is said to have over 200 ranking factors, most of which are not officially published anywhere, and some of the most important we've run into in recent years are listed below:
SEO Item #1 – Keyword Usage
If you want to rank (and be seen), you have to use a keywords people are actually searching for. Beautiful, flowing titles and insightful meta descriptions are worth nothing if no one ever sees it, so adjusting your style to include popular keywords is critical.
Keyword search volumes and how competitive they are can be looked up on many services, including Google Adwords (free) or Keysearch (premium), with varying degrees of accuracy but are a good place to start to see if a term gets 100 searches a month vs 100,000.
There are a number of ways to alert search engines for the keywords you want to rank for, and common best practices for these include:
- Using your article's keyword (and variations) in higher value places such as the title and meta description as well as within a few of the following: first paragraph, sub-headers with the h2 and h3 tag, and image alt and title tags.
- We don't necessarily use all of these in every post, as that could be viewed as keyword stuffing, but it is good to mix it up as you write naturally.
- Internal linking from other relevant articles on your site, with the linked words being the same keywords you are trying to target. So instead of linking “click here,” link your target keyword for a minor SEO boost.
- Again, it is all about subtly alerting search engines that the words are of value to that specific article.
- Conversely, when we link to third parties we do not want to pass authority onto we either add the rel=”nofollow” tag into the link or simply link generic terms like “click here”.
Any given article could rank for multiple keywords, but we only like associate a specific keyword with one article to avoid any confusion in the algorithms. Your mileage may vary on this one, especially for less competitive keywords.
In addition, we like to recommend new bloggers target long-tail keywords (generally 4+ words in a string) with low competition. The search volume will be much smaller, but you can rank easier as well. Only target highly competitive keywords later on once you have been getting good rank in search and have grown your authority. A small site targeting competitive terms is just spinning their wheels!
SEO Item #2 – Site Authority
When it comes to actually ranking for the above keywords, becoming an authority in the eyes of search algorithms is key. Therein lies a problem for new bloggers because odds are good you won't be seen unless you rank, but you won't rank unless you're seen. So how do you get deemed an authority?
Two of the most popular ways to get around this starting out include becoming popular on social networks and going out of your way to get dofollow links from other websites that are already deemed authorities in search engines (other blogs, news sites, etc).
Generate popular content on social media, get linked by others as a relevant resource, work on guest posts/freelancing for authoritative sites, and do whatever else you can to get your name out there to help out with this one. Backlinks are great, but traffic and social share counts can be just as good if leveraged right. We truly believe that search engines consider it all!
We do have to issue a word of warning here: do not engage in shady link building techniques (black hat SEO) by any means to shortcut this one.
Many tricks were used years ago to game the system (too many to list here, sadly), and most are common knowledge such that algorithms can find and penalize you if you engage in them. If it feels like you're taking a shortcut, odds are good it is one and should be avoided. Even though this is common knowledge, many bloggers still use these tactics for an easy out despite the long-term damage that is all but guaranteed.
So how do you know if you're gaining authority? Well, Google stopped publishing scores (known as Page Rank) for individual sites many years ago as it created a market for black hat SEO in the form of link buying (getting authoritative links in exchange for money); however, other sites like Moz publish a Moz rank score that updates once or twice a year. While these are arbitrary metrics, they do try to approximate your site's authority in the eyes of search engines and is widely used as an industry benchmark.
SEO Item #3 – Site Performance
Speed, structure, and aesthetics all contribute to your ranking as search engines also want to feature easy-to-use sites over clunky ones.
Be sure to optimize your blog to be fast loading and having an easy to use interface at a minimum. Compress your images before uploading, and do not add too many plug-ins to your site (especially when on a budget server) as well. All of these will be a burden that will slow your site down, and is compounded further with traffic spikes.
As we grew (once we hit about 50,000 monthly page views), we upgraded to the managed WordPress hosting service Performance Foundry to give us a boost here (not to mention the added bonus of hiring experts for an area of blogging we don't understand). A month of hosting costs as much as a year on Bluehost, but the performance gain has been significant for our growth both from an SEO aspect due to improved speed but also from being able to add more plug-ins to push our site harder.
Popular services to check site speed and other back-end performance details include WebpageTest, GTMetrix, Dareboost, Page Speed Insights, and more. Some of these may ding you on things that are not 100% relevant but are good to look at starting out, with overall page speed (in seconds) being the most important. If you can get under 10 seconds, great. If you can get under 5 seconds, even better. But at some point, especially starting out, you could easily get into the weeds here.
Likewise, as you grow and make changes be sure to stay on top of any broken links that may develop over time with the Broken Link Checker plug-in (high server load- turn off when not using) or the desktop app Xenu Link Sleuth.
All of the above go into some of the back end site metrics that are used in search results and are all things that should be considered early on.
We could keep going on, but a few more SEO items we want to briefly touch on include the following:
- Website age – Your domain age is moderately important in SEO as the longer you've been around, the longer you'll likely be around. Search engines keep this in mind to avoid ranking sites that may go bust sooner rather than later. Do not be surprised if it takes at least a year to start seeing any traffic from Google whatsoever.
- Post quality – Longer articles (1,000+ words) do better than shorter articles as readers want content they can dive into for whatever they're searching for. Google also dings articles that they deem shallow content, which includes many factors like being too short, including plagiarism (text and image use!), rewrites of existing content (don't paraphrase Wikipedia, please), and so much more. If you're not writing quality articles save yourself the trouble and quit while you're ahead. Again, the algorithms are smarter than you think.
- Mobile friendly – More and more users are using mobile to search, and a responsive site is a must have these days. Search engines have been known to give better rank to sites that are optimized for mobile, and many premium themes have mobile responsiveness built in to their templates (but minor CSS modifications are still necessary).
- We like to evaluate our sites using Screenfly to check this one out when making changes.
We could continue to list all the known ranking factors, but want to keep it to the above as some of the ones that we think are most important (especially for those just starting out). No matter your views on SEO, we recommend reading this 3rd party guide which takes a stab at highlighting the 200 or so metrics that Google may use in ranking.
Some may be weighted heavily, others may not be used at all, but odds are good that most contribute to your site's ranking and, to be honest, keeping up with it all is easier said than done. Don't worry about checking every box, but go for the big ones we mentioned above as well as other low hanging fruit you spot along the way to get started. You can always revise your approach later, but getting some of the big points right from the beginning will save many headaches later on- trust us on this one.
At the end of the day, a search engine's algorithm boils down to one specific thing- an attempt to find the best content for users performing a keyword search.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of back-end things you can work on to improve your site overall to be deemed an authority, but the most important thing to consider when starting out is actually using keywords people are searching for!
You can't rank for terms you don't use, and more often than not this is something bloggers ignore outright and later wonder why their search traffic is horrible. Do your keyword research first and foremost!
For more best practices in blogging, check out the further reading section below. In addition, we dive into social media management a bit more our Build Your Audience section later on in this guide.
One final note before we move on- just about every aspect of blogging requires you to become an expert in order to succeed. But odds are good you cannot reliably become an expert on all of them. In those cases, do not feel bad about outsourcing the work to those who are. We do, others do, and it is worth every penny to fill in the gaps!
Work on Establishing Yourself as the Expert
So far in this guide we've tried to beat in the idea of what becoming the expert really means. But we're going to reiterate it one more time: you cannot succeed in blogging being an expert among many, you must be the best (and if you want an easier course, the best among a few).
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all model for what it takes to become the expert as that varies wildly based on your niche, the other sites out there, and how you are going to build your blog.
In most cases; however, a clear path exists in the form of publishing content on your blog and social media to either achieve a goal, establish a presence, or be more comprehensive than anyone else out there in your field.
Now is the time to do that.
This is the part in most guides where the author flips it over to you and would pick if up after you've established yourself- thus glossing over what we believe is truly the hardest part.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming the expert, and that is part of the problem. Can you design a site with 10 articles, a few new social media profiles, and be considered the expert? Perhaps with a very focused niche. But as you go broader and broader, as would be the case for pretty much everyone, doing so in any relatively fast period of time is difficult.
In many cases it will take hundreds of blog posts, hundreds of social media updates on each network, and a consistent publishing schedule to simply get your name out there. Then there is other side of the spectrum that people also have to respond to what you are putting out to help validate your authority.
So sit down and figure out what you have to do within your niche to be the person above all others. You do not have to be the absolute best to start publishing and begin sharing your content, but this very much a fake it until you make it situation. At some point, be that 10 articles, 100, 200, or more, you'll go from posturing yourself as the expert to actually being it.
Here, consistency is key.
Start to establish a posting schedule on your blog and social media profiles. Perhaps one new update per network per day and two blog posts a week. Or perhaps you have a lot of content ready to go and can publish dozens of articles right away. Do everything you can to gather more content to strengthen your expertise, and increase your sharing frequency accordingly.
When in doubt, always ask yourself the same questions: is this content helping establish me as the expert in my niche? Why am I sharing this? Will people care? What can I do to get it seen more in social or search engines? Can I change the content and keywords to hit target SEO keywords? What am I missing to fill in the gaps with regards to expertise and my niche?
You need to work as hard as you can to provide enough content such that people see your brand name, immediately recognize it (even if they're not die hard fans), and know that whatever you have published will be the very best they can find. Just don't be surprised if this is on the order of years, not months.
Build Your Audience
Establishing yourself as the expert is only half of the problem, as you're not really providing a value if no one is reading what you have to say. So while you work on the steps above to build your brand and credibility, you also have to be building your audience.
Some people call this marketing, and others call it hustling. But no matter what you call it you have to go out and find your audience rather than sit back and hope they come to you.
This can take on a number of activities, all of which we think are quite important:
- Advertise on social networks to bring in new fans (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, etc).
- Spend a dollar a day testing on each you want to target, and double down when you find something that works.
- Advertise on social networks to get new content seen (all of the above).
- Spend a dollar a day testing on each you want to target, and double down when you find something that works.
- Send articles to brands featured and relevant tourist boards or other businesses for potential shares.
- Follow other influencers, people, and businesses of note within your niche on social networks.
- Like, comment, and engage with the people noted above.
- Start acquiring emails for a mailing list on day one- even if won't sent out a newsletter for a while.
- Test all kinds of content to see what works, doesn't work, or has potential for future use.
- A good viral share can bring in hundreds if not thousands of fans out of nowhere. If you're the expert in your niche, ask yourself if anything has the potential to go viral? You may be surprised here.
- Keep in mind content that doesn't work now may work later, and what may work now may not be kosher with search engines or social media sites later. We've seen both many times over.
- Participate in Twitter chats, Pinterest group boards, and Facebook groups for your niche.
- Attend events, conferences, and meet-ups within your field.
- Reshare old content if your niche allows for such things.
- On our local blog we share articles every 3-6 months, and images roughly once a year now that we have 500+ unique features.
- Share, share, share to get your content in front of those who need to see it- but don't spam!
- Oh, and continually optimize for SEO, too.
Notice one thing that is not included in the above list? Waiting for organic traffic.
The reason for this is because organic traffic for blogs is a bit of a myth. Just because you publish an article does not mean anyone will see it- on social, search, or otherwise. You have to make it happen. This is as true for new bloggers as it is for established ones, although established blogs do get an initial boost as they may already be considered an authority in the eyes of the algorithms.
We are firm believers that all things are connected, especially in the algorithm world, and that popularity on social media can translate into a boost in search engines if your SEO ducks are in order. But if you have no popularity to begin with, why would search engines care what you have to say even if you are optimized for SEO?
This is where most blogs fail because bloggers have this outdated belief that their content should be seen just because it exists and is optimized for a few known factors. But I'm going to tell you a universal truth in business: no one owes you anything when you're new.
It is your job to go out there, get your content in front of those who would enjoy it, command their attention, and grow through tried and true hustling. Only then will you get readers and fans. Only then will you grow. And only then will search engines and other algorithm based services start to pay attention- not the other way around.
Focus on becoming the expert, provide content that people actually want to read, and hustle like mad to get them to read it all at the same time.
Monetizing Your Blog is a Later Concern
This guide is several thousand words up to this point, has recommended you spend hundreds of dollars to get started, hundreds of dollars more per month to advertise, and until now has made absolutely no mention of monetizing your blog.
This is by design, because you have to do all of the above to even be close to making anything resembling a profit with a blog online. The reason for this is simple, and is because even the most optimized of blogs makes just pennies per click.
Yes, you read that right. Our two blogs receive well over 200,000 monthly page views, make over $75,000 per year, and all this boils down to roughly $0.02-$0.04 per page view depending on the month.
That's it, and the vast majority of successful blogs are not much different than ours. To put it simply, you're likely not going to get rich blogging in any relatively quick period of time.
When it comes down to it there are really three ways you can monetize your blog on the site itself:
- Through cost-per-mille (CPM) display advertising.
- Through affiliate sales.
- Through sponsored content.
We're going to go down this list and touch on each individually to highlight how you can make money from the three, how reliable they are, and tips we've learned along the way.
First, we want to start with display advertising– what we believe to be the most reliable income earner for blogs. In this category there are two distinct thresholds we like to discuss as the unique monthly visitors (UMV) you receive can drastically alter your earnings.
- < 25,000 UMV: Your ad options are going to be quite limited due to your low traffic.
- Typically the only networks available are Adsense and other lesser known ad networks for CPM ads. Individually, Adsense may pay just $1.00-$2.00 per 1,000 page views across all ads (and that is if you're completely optimized). So say you have 10,000 UMV with 15,000 total page views, you may make around $15-$30 per month on Adsense.
- You can optimize an ad waterfall with a second CPM network cascading down into Adsense and optimize your ad rates to around $3.00-$4.00 per 1,000 page views. Say you have that same 15,000 total page views, you may make around $45-$60 per month in this setup. Note that ad waterfalls increase the load on your server, and some basic services may not be powerful enough to support this setup without detracting from the user experience.
- > 25,000 UMV: If you are higher than 25,000 UMV, you can join private ad networks like Mediavine (our current network) that pay upwards of 10x-20x what Adsense does.
- Ad networks generally show more ads than Adsense which contributes to a much higher rate; however, individual ads often pay 5x-10x more than Adsense on their own as well.
- We've had optimized rates from $15 to $30 per 1,000 page views on our sites which swings based on the time of year (with December holiday ads being some of the best and January being the worst). So say you have 50,000 UMV with 75,000 total page views, you can potentially make around $1,125-$2,250 per month on Mediavine- a huge jump!
After this category your ability to earn income swings wildly, so it is best to come to terms with accepting ads on your site as a means to make money as it is the most reliable income stream out there.
The second most popular way to make money is through affiliate sales, and success here is all about putting yourself at the right place on the sales funnel. Most blogs fail in affiliate marketing because their content is too early in the sales process.
In travel blogging, for example, most bloggers write articles to help inspire people to visit a destination. But those articles are generally read weeks, months, or even years before someone makes a purchase that results in a commission.
When affiliate networks offer tracking cookies that are anywhere from 0-30 days in duration, the odds of you capturing a sale are slim to none even if you had a hand in influencing a purchase. You are simply too early in the sales funnel to register.
Fashion bloggers are a good example of those on the other side of the sales funnel, if only because they are in an impulse buy market. Someone can read an article with a piece of clothing in it, go to a webpage, pull out a credit card, and buy right away. See the difference?
Bloggers in the earlier end of the sales funnel typically do not get sales by saturating their blog with prompts to buy, but instead find luck by shifting their content styles towards those who are closer to the point of purchase. If they are an authoritative site, those articles then get indexed in Google and are seen by shoppers who are actively looking to make a purchase right now. But as this is variable based on your niche, it is up to you to take a good hard look and see what you need to do in order to shift some of your content to this end of the funnel.
The amount of money you can make from this process swings wildly as blogs with just a few thousand page views a month can make incredible money if the right content is popular with the right audience, while others with huge page views make pennies simply because their content isn't delivered at the right phase of the sales funnel.
I'm going to assume that your niche is not in an impulse buy field and I'm going to share some numbers you need to hear when it comes to affiliate marketing.
In the travel blogging field, as an example, the biggest affiliate earners (those earning $2,000+ per month on affiliate sales), generally have 200,000 monthly page views, generate 10,000+ outbound clicks to affiliate links each month, and benefit from the volume game above all others (if only because travel affiliates pay well under a dollar per sale in most instances). That's a lot of clicks, and that is after optimizing around the sales funnel!
So if you want to make money in affiliate marketing, you have two options:
- Generate a large number of conversions to low earners.
- Generate a small number of conversions to high earners.
But while this is a good rule of thumb for how you can earn money, at the end of the day you need to posture your content in such a way that it is at the right part of the sales funnel- otherwise all your other efforts will be moot.
Write for those who are looking to buy, work on getting those articles indexed for keywords targeted used by those looking to buy, and watch your affiliate game improve substantially.
- Note: If you feature affiliate links within your posts the FTC requires disclosure at the beginning of the article. We have a blanket notation at the start of our articles via the Ad Inserter plug-in to achieve this.
- Affiliate networks we are part of include: Amazon Associates, CJ, Awin, Raukten Marketing's Linkshare, Shareasale, Groupon, Performance Horizon, AvantLink, Impact Radius, Booking.com, HotelsCombined, credit card referrals for points (only available for cards we actually hold), and more one-off networks for individual products. More often than not searching for “[brand name] affiliate program” will take you to the network they are apart of (if they have one to begin with), but sometimes you have to do some digging to find it. Keep in mind many of these require minimum monthly page views and/or consistent referrals to retain membership, so we don't recommend joining these until you are more established and have a chance at making sales.
Finally, we come to earning money from sponsored content.
Sponsored content as a whole will bring a shiver down the spine of any seasoned blogger out there. This is because sponsored content and link buying have become synonymous over the years.
If you receive an email of someone asking for a sponsored post, odds are good they simply want a link, and that is frowned upon by search engines, social networks, and well, just about everyone.
There is an important distinction here because link buying is the act of getting a dofollow backlink to get a gain on search results (remember the comment about black hat SEO above?). Sponsored content is a dedicated ad in the form of native content (e.g. a blog post, social media update, etc) with the goal of getting impressions, clicks, or sales.
There are many rules and regulations out there regarding both and there are many guides that outline them in detail (click here for more on why link buying is bad, and click here for more details on sponsored content from the FTC) such that we can't dive into all the details here.
In general, the following holds true:
- Link buying is primarily oriented to get dofollow backlinks to help improve ranking in search via black hat SEO. Search engines frown on this as it is seen as a way to game the system. It was hugely popular until about 2013 and has faded away over time as Google has begun de-indexing sites they believe sell links. The practice of link buying is still rampant and is recommended to be avoided unless you want to risk the wrath of Google.
- Sponsored content must follow all FTC rules and regulations, namely noting at the beginning of an article and all social shares that the content is sponsored/advertising (on posts we also use Ad Inserter for this to only display on a custom Advertisement category). Generally all outbound links are to include the rel=”nofollow” tag to prevent any SEO benefit as well as again, it is a paid placement and could be misconstrued as link buying. In this case you're selling impressions, clicks, and potential conversions, and not SEO benefits- so your content needs to be oriented as such!
We have a standard rate sheet we send when getting inquiries, that includes requirements for advertising notations, nofollow link tags, and other relevant details to highlight that we only host sponsored content per FTC rules.
In 99% of the cases we are emailed, the person argues over these stipulations, requires a dofollow backlink, and tries to reason that it is “just a link.” These are all hallmark signs that the person in question is not looking for a sponsored ad, but is rather wanting to go into link buying.
Bloggers who get into the higher end of page view range (typically 100,000 monthly page views or more) can command some pretty good rates for true sponsored content, often over $1,000 per post and social shares (or more) depending on niche and their partner's budgets; however, consistency is always an issue.
This is why we rank this one at the bottom of the three income earners for earning income directly from your blog as if you are charging decent rates for true sponsored content, partners may be few and far between. But when it comes to hosting ads on your brand, this is how it should be to keep quality high.
- Many sponsored content networks exist; however, we cannot recommend any of them at this time. More often than not what happens is a sponsored content network comes onto the scene, will email you a really good rate for a new client (we've seen upwards of $500 from these), and then it is a race to the bottom for $20 posts (or worse, they get into black hat link buying and require dofollow links in a sale). Others may also try to sweet talk you into signing up in order to pad their database numbers to get new clients, while giving you no work in the process. Going further, Google has been known to go after bloggers who are featured on services that link buy, and we think it is best to avoid these altogether even if they are apparently reputable. You never know when that may change.
Final Note on Income Generation: There are many other ways to leverage your brand to find external work like freelance writing, photography sales, services, products, being a VA, working for brands, etc. We are not including them in this section as they are mostly external ways to earn money. This section was designed to only focus on ways that you can earn money solely through your blog.
Never Stop Working on Expertise and Growth
When it comes down to it, running a blog is like performing many jobs in one role. You're a content producer, marketer, SEO guru, salesperson, researcher, and so much more as we outlined above. You also have to go out and actually do things to generate content, too!
Large websites and businesses typically have an expert dedicated for each of these roles, but for independent blogs it is all you- and you need to get at the top of your game for each category to compete with those big sites (or pay your way out and hire someone who is).
But at the end of the day all of these are a moot point if you are not the expert in your chosen field, and you should always strive to work to be viewed as that expert first and foremost while also performing all of the above tasks to grow.
Take everything published in this guide, implement it from the start, revisit each topic a few times per year to optimize around new best practices, and always focus on your expertise and growth above all others.
It is a long and winding road to the top in blogging, and getting there is certainly much harder than a year ago, two years ago, and certainly ten years ago right around when we first started. But if you put a concentrated effort into your work, strive to become the expert in your niche, and master all of the ancillary skills that go along with it you'll be leaps and bounds ahead of most bloggers out there.
So what are you waiting for? Get started!
Still Want to Start a Blog? Here's What You'll Need
If we haven't scared you off in wanting to start a blog yet, we think you are now ready to go. If you've done your research and are ready to commit to your blog, the following are things you may want to consider picking up (and are things we've mentioned throughout this article):
- Grab a domain and server space at BlueHost.
- Purchase a premium license for a theme at ElegantThemes.
- Install WordPress onto your server (a walkthrough from BlueHost is available here), and upload your theme (a walkthrough from ElegantThemes is available here).
- Begin customizing your theme by modifying your CSS (tutorial here), installing plug-ins (our favorites can be found here), and developing your sidebar and footer.
- Consider taking a premium blogging course like those at Super Star Blogging.
- Implement your writing and social media plan as discussed above.
When it comes down to it, blogging professionally is not an easy task. We do not sugar coat it in saying that you have to be in the best 1% of the best 1% to gain traction with your blog (and maybe even be in the best 10% of those to make a real income from it).
But you do have one advantage on your side and that is that the vast majority of people do not follow the tips outlined above.
Our goal for this guide was to give a different kind of perspective for what we think the absolutely critical steps are for launching a blog- mostly around the ideas of establishing yourself as the expert in your niche and building an audience first, and going after search traffic and monetization second (even if it should be on your mind from the very beginning).
In our opinion these are the two steps that most bloggers gloss over in their quest for growth, and are the two most common reasons new blogs fail.
So do yourself some favors, become the expert in your niche, go out and command your audience's attention, and enjoy your blogging journey!
A Few Final Notes on Why We Wrote This Guide
This guide is the the culmination of our roughly ten years blogging and is our attempt to highlight a bit on how the industry has evolved and how new bloggers can jump into a fairly saturated marketplace- namely by being unique (or as we call it, the expert) and following best practices (or at least, best practices as we see them).
If you've got through to this point, then you probably have thought of something that we haven't quite said outright but alluded to often in this guide: succeeding in blogging was much easier years ago.
Ten years ago ranking in search engines was often as simple as using a keyword and waiting to be indexed. Those who got a few back-links accelerated this process significantly (hence the black hat link buying we discussed often in this guide that still plagues the industry), and those who didn't often did quite well despite not knowing anything about SEO, site design, social media, or any of the key issues we featured in this guide.
But they also didn't have any guides to go on, either.
In the early days there was often a lot more luck involved in “figuring it out” than you might think. In fact, that is the danger with guides like these in that they are often published by bloggers like us who go by gut feel and not hard and true data. We tried to avoid that in this guide as much as possible.
In any case, in blogging the old saying of “the best time to do it was yesterday, the second best time is today” is true. Just as blogging got significantly more competitive in the last ten years, it will be even more competitive over the next ten years.
This is why we place such strong emphasis on getting things right the first time; because while we benefited from the last ten years of trial and error, new bloggers do not have that luxury. To be quite honest, going from a hobby blogger to professional doesn't just happen to the vast majority of us like it once did- you have to go out and make it happen.
In many cases, simply doing things right through SEO, having an optimized blog design, and focusing on a unique topic sometimes still isn't enough to trigger growth. It is up to you to go out and hustle your content in front of those who would be interested in reading it, and in the world of blogging (and when all else fails), we mean advertising.
If you are able to spend $200 to launch a blog, more on the back end to upgrade plug-ins or take premium courses to polish your craft, then you should have no excuse to be able to throw $50 to $100 a month into testing advertising in order to jump start your blog- be it for getting existing content seen by strangers or generating a following on social networks who will routinely see future shares.
Time and time again we see bloggers scratch their heads and wonder why growth isn't happening, despite doing best practices, and it is simply because they're doing little (if anything) to get their content actually seen.
Start at a dollar-a-day on networks you want to focus on, and double down on what works (we had luck on Facebook due to their geography targeting while others thrive on Adwords, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest depending on their niche and goals). Worst case you're out a couple bucks and no further off than those who do nothing at all.
But if you have followed this guide, are the expert we've harped on time and time again, and really understand who you want to reach, I suspect that it won't take you long at all to get results.
In many cases success in blogging hinges a lot on being popular to begin with, and this is one avenue to get to that starting threshold that we think is absolutely critical. There is a reason we've repeated it twice in this guide!
Finally, the road to the top is a long and stressful journey at times. But despite all this you also have to remember to keep having fun. Enjoying it is what keeps most of us going, hitting it hard day after day, and striving for success.
We love the niches we work in, but we also love coding, marketing, writing, photography, and all those other fields we think you need to be experts in to succeed. It keeps us up at night, gets us up in the morning, and consumes us at all other parts of the day.
Sure, we do hire people in the fields we don't like, but when it all comes down to it we love blogging, and if you want to get into blogging professionally, we think you should fall in love with it too.
The best always do.
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