How To Start A Travel Blog – the No Bullshit Version
Ok, there’s an absolute shitload of these ‘how to start a blog’ pages out there – that’s because web hosting companies offer really good affiliate commissions, so a well-performing ‘how to start a blog’ page can provide a very healthy income stream to a high traffic blog.
So why read mine? Because it’s straight-up no bullshit and totally free of sugar coating. Yes, I’m also partially writing it in the hope I’ll get some nice affiliate commissions, no doubt about that, but I’m absolutely not going to sell you a dream or make it sound easy just so you’ll be more likely to use my affiliate links; my other motivation for writing this page is to help those who read it, and to help people avoid potentially getting themselves into a tricky spot by thinking it’s easier than it is (as I did over the last few years). I’m not really sure how good I think my blog is, or whether I like my own writing much, but one thing I can say with absolute conviction about this blog is that every last word on here (nearly half a million of them by now) is bullshit free. So here’s an important truth for starters: making an income from travel blogging is not easy. In fact it’s really, really fucking hard – don’t let affiliate sales talk convince you otherwise.
What I’m talking about is all the “I quit my 9-5 and sold all my belongings and now I fly around the world on a unicorn, and so can you!” stuff you’ve probably already read out there. Some established bloggers have ‘how to start a blog’ pages that tell you it’s realistic to live off your blogging income after a year of blogging. Don’t buy it – while not strictly impossible, that is extremely unlikely indeed. Don’t buy dreams; keep your expectations realistic, especially with regards how long things may take.
For more on just how hard I’ve found it, see my post here; it’s a fairly long & depressing read written while also lovesick, but that broken heart was very much tied in with living as a digital nomad travel blogger and it’s an accurate snapshot of how I felt at the time. The tl;dr version is that after 2.5 years of blogging I found myself still well short of the traffic levels required to make a decent income from this blog, having poured every available minute (at the expense of my health and most of my hobbies & social life) into my online business endeavours (with this blog being by far the most time-consuming) for years while going heavily into (further) debt and realising I’d seriously fucked up. Snow Guide Korea had been a success by then, but only a minor one – a good little niche site but not enough to live by. My love life also being a disaster obviously didn’t help – but it’s important to note that the all-consuming blogging and the disastrous love life are cause and effect. Many long-term bloggers have written about physical & mental health struggles and disastrous love lives resulting from their lifestyle, and that’s even bloggers who were killing it and making plenty of money.
So yeah, read that post, and really think carefully about whether you want to go for it. This warning mostly concerns those who’re thinking about starting a blog as a way of making a living or travelling forever; if you’re just wanting to do it as a hobby, or as a way of keeping the folk back home updated on your upcoming trip, and maybe generating a little bonus income if possible while you’re at it, then I say go for it. But if you’re looking at it as a serious business venture, understand it’s going to be really tough, tougher than you think; if you still do want to do it, good luck to you and I’ll help you as best I can here. Either way, I’m writing this page to try and give you the best advice I can to set it up for a good start; so instead of just doing a step-by-step for how to register the domain and sort your hosting (and then bailing once I have the commission on your signup fee), I’m also going to give you a list of stuff you need to learn about and try to get right from the start (it can be a massive job to rectify things later on if you’ve done them wrong initially), and provide all the reading resources I used back when I started.
So first of all, the good news is you don’t have to learn any code to get started (in fact it’s perfectly possible to blog without ever learning any code at all, though most bloggers probably will eventually learn at least a little html). This is thanks to content management systems such as WordPress; there are various others out there, but WordPress is by far the most popular CMS on the internet and the majority of useful blogging information you’ll find online relates to WordPress so just go with that.
There are two ways of using WordPress – one is on WordPress.com, where you can set up a blog with a simple interface to write & publish posts completely free of charge. If you’re just casually starting a travel blog to update people back home, this may be fine for you and you shouldn’t need much help to set it up. Just head to WordPress.com and sign up. When you do it this way, basically your blog will be hosted on WordPress’ own servers and you don’t have to really think about hosting, domain registration and all that jazz (this is often referred to as hosted WordPress, as opposed to self-hosted). However, be aware of the limitations – you don’t have full control over everything on the backend, and you can’t monetise a blog hosted on WordPress.com. If you do start out this way and eventually come to feel you’ve outgrown it and want to go self-hosted, then you can still do so – you’ll just need to set up your own web hosting as described below and then transfer your existing blog to them according to their instructions. Those who’ve done this all say it was a massive pain in the ass though, so really it’s only advisable to use WordPress.com if you only ever intend to do it as a journal – if you want to customise & monetise it, or think you might do eventually, it’s best to do it self-hosted from the start.
Self-hosting is the more serious option, meaning you take care of the domain registration and web hosting yourself using the services of one of the many hosting companies out there; once you have your domain & hosting sorted, you then install the WordPress CMS on your site to use as the interface for creating the actual blog that will exist on that domain. (For a longer explanation of the difference between WordPress .com and .org, see here)
So those are the essential steps – register your domain & sign up with a web host, then download WordPress to your site.
Then you’re good to go! Then you have to do a bunch of other crap like social media accounts and learning about SEO and how to actually use WordPress.
Taking those steps in order:
How to Register Your Domain
Actually, before you can register your domain name you’ll first have to choose one! I spent absolutely ages trying to settle on one I liked – I read various posts about choosing a good name, and tried to follow all the advice there. The general principles are to try and come up with a name which is: memorable, doesn’t include numbers or hyphens, sounds like a travel blog, makes reference to your niche, avoids overused cliches like Nomadic XYZ, and isn’t too similar to something already in use. It’s quite hard to tick all those boxes!
As I’d decided my main focus should be overland travel, I was trying to think of a domain name with ‘overland’ worked into it somehow, but all the good ones I could think of were already taken. So I brainstormed out a long list of alternative names and let them bounce around until a couple seemed to stand out, and then eventually I realised I was already calling my as yet non-existent blog 4corners7seas in my head, so I went ahead with that as my domain name. Including the numbers 4 & 7 goes against one of the above principles, but as ‘the 4 corners of the world’ and ‘the 7 seas’ are such well-known phrases in the English language it isn’t usually hard to explain to people – depending on their English level, anyway. For non-native speakers I do often have to spell it out for them, but overall I’m happy with the name I chose.
Anyway, you can use this tool to check if a domain name is available:
I did my domain registration with the same company I chose for web hosting; this is the usual & easiest way to do it when you first start, though they don’t actually have to be with the same company. I recently moved this blog to a more premium hosting service, one that doesn’t handle domain registrations, so now my domain registrar is still the first hosting company I used (InMotion), while the actual hosting is with WP Engine. But don’t worry about this for now – whichever entry-level hosting you choose from those discussed below, you can also register your domain with them at the same time during the signup process and kill two birds with one stone. If you do this with Bluehost or InMotion they register your domain for free for the first year; Siteground don’t offer this though, so you have to pay an additional 15 USD for the domain with them (or do it separately with another registrar).
So how do you choose your web hosting?
Well, looking back I have to say I spent a ridiculous amount of time on this (completely unnecessarily) reading around loads & loads of webmaster forums and blogging blogs etc to try and make an informed decision. To save you doing the same, here’s what I basically learned about it all:
There are loads of web hosting companies out there, with a range of types of hosting. All you need to get started is a basic shared hosting plan. Shared hosting means your site is hosted on a server with a whole bunch of other random sites, each requiring just a small slice of the server’s capacity. The more you pay, the more of that capacity you get; generally you can just start with the cheapest and should you outgrow it your hosting provider will make you upgrade when the time comes.
There are also dedicated private servers available and VPS (virtual private server) options, but you definitely don’t need these to start with and for the vast majority of travel blogs you never will. But what you might want to eventually progress to is ‘managed WordPress hosting’ like WP Engine; this is basically a fancy version of shared hosting, where every site they host is exclusively WordPress meaning they can optimise their servers specifically for the best possible WordPress performance (it’s significantly more expensive, but you get what you pay for – it’s loads faster, and better regarding security & backups etc)
But anyway for starters you just need a basic shared hosting plan. There are many providers out there to choose from, though most of the famous ones like Bluehost and Hostgator are actually owned by the same parent company, EIG.
When I was researching the best hosting providers, I read a bunch of webmaster forums where you see a lot of professional webmasters bitching about EIG, and it put me off using Bluehost or Hostgator; I decided I’d rather go with one of the companies still free of EIG. In hindsight this was totally unnecessary, but should you feel the same the best options seem to be InMotion and Siteground.
Siteground were basically brilliant. Great performance, and we were more than happy with their support. With InMotion I’m perfectly happy with the performance, but when I was first starting I found their support to be not very supportive for a complete newbie – felt like I got a lot of unhelpful responses resulting from me not asking quite the right question with the exact specific jargon. If you’re tech-minded and fine with jargon and working stuff out for yourself, I can definitely recommend InMotion for their technical performance. And I can happily recommend Siteground if you’re fine with the slightly higher price, though these aren’t the cheapest options.
That would be Bluehost. As stated above I wanted to avoid them because I wanted to avoid EIG’s monopolistic network; but really, it isn’t necessary. Bluehost is cheap, and along with a handful of others it’s the go-to for most new blogs; they’re also well used to dealing with clueless non-techie newbies asking elementary questions so are a safe bet if you anticipate needing a bit of hand-holding to start with, and were I to do it all again from scratch I’d just take the easy route and use Bluehost.
So, if you’re happy with that, follow this link and sign up for Bluehost hosting & domain registration; or if you want to pay a little more for a slightly higher spec service or just want to avoid EIG, consider Siteground or InMotion. When your blog gets bigger, either upgrade your existing package or move your site to a managed WordPress host like WP Engine.
Once you’ve set up your domain & hosting, you need to install WordPress on your site. The specific steps vary by host, so simply follow their instructions. Most hosting providers use something called cpanel, as in control panel; basically this is where you control your account at a deeper level than the WordPress dashboard, for example you can use cpanel to get your host to make a server-level backup of your entire account with them, and it’s where you can set up additional domains, email accounts, and so on. When you first set your hosting up, you’ll log in on cpanel (or their equivalent); then from there you can install WordPress on the domain, after which you’ll usually log in to your WordPress dashboard when working on your blog. But as already noted, cpanel isn’t universal so just follow the instructions given by your hosting provider for installing WordPress (Bluehost, InMotion, and Siteground all use cpanel, whereas WP Engine has its own in-house system).
Once you’ve installed WordPress and set up your username and password, you’re good to go!
… except actually, you’re probably not. You’re probably thinking what the fuck do I do next? How do I actually start making the blog now that it exists?
Most ‘how to start a blog’ guides stop at this point; they’ve already hopefully got the commission from you signing up with a host via their links, and there’s no monetisation in helping you further without trying to write entire dedicated blogs on how to use WordPress (which already exist, and very thoroughly).
But I’m not just going to leave you there to work it all out as I once had to; it took an absolute fucking age and I can at least point you in the right direction(s) to get you started.
So thing 1 is you need to work out how to use WordPress. See here & here for comprehensive sites about just that. Don’t try to read them all, you’ll be reading forever! Instead, just login at www.yourdomain/wp-admin with the username & password you set up during the WordPress installation process and have a crack at writing your first post – WordPress is quite intuitive, and you can search sites like wpbeginner when you need help with something. The following should also help you get things set up initially:
One thing to sketch out in your head before producing all your content is site structure; a well-structured site is easier to navigate, both improving the user experience and making your site more attractive in the eyes of Google (which is all-important). Learn the difference between posts & pages (see here and here); taking my site as an example, you can see that all my overland country guides are arranged in the top menu. Those are pages, as are my hiking reports and ski resort reviews; essentially, all the static, chiefly informational content. The rest of the content – travel tales, stuff about culture, architecture etc etc is in the form of posts, which you access in the sidebar via the ‘recent posts’ and ‘categories’ widgets. Decide how your site should be structured before you start publishing your content. I’m not sure if I got it perfect initially – for example I wonder if it might’ve been better to do the hiking & skiing stuff as posts rather than pages (so that they’d have categories) – but more important than getting the structure absolutely perfect is just to actually have a clear structure. So read this & this, decide on a structure, and stick with it.
What the fuck are widgets?
Sorry, I just used the word widget without explaining it. Look at the sidebar on the right. Each box in that sidebar is created using a widget. Depending on your theme, widgets can be placed in various positions, but I’ve only got them in the sidebar. There are various types, so for example the ‘recent posts’ box is simply a ‘recent posts’ widget, I just tell it how far back to display posts; and the ads are done by pasting my Google Adsense code into text widgets.
And what the fuck is a theme?
The theme is essentially the design of your blog; if you’re not a web designer with the skills to make a website look pretty, you use a theme. Themes also usually have some functionality built in to them, potentially saving you from requiring plugins for said functions. Basic themes are freely available for download through your WordPress dashboard (tutorial here), though of course the functionality is limited; eventually you’ll want to pay for a premium theme, but when you’re first starting and learning how to use WordPress it’s easier to go with a basic free theme so just do that for now.
And what the fuck are plugins and which ones should you use on a travel blog?
Plugins are made by developers to enable you to add functionality to your site that you don’t already get from WordPress or your theme. For example, the contact page in my top menu is done using a plugin. It’s perfectly possible to code your own contact page that looks like that, if you know how to code a page – I don’t, so using that plugin is an easy workaround.
There are so many plugins out there, covering pretty much anything you might need your site to do. Another common example is the ‘related post’ plugins which automatically put suggestions of similar content at the ends of posts (though personally I prefer to decide for myself what content to suggest at the end of each post, and just manually write & link it into the body of the post). One thing to be aware of with plugins is that they can bloat your site and slow it down – I keep things very lean in the plugin department, and am presently only using the following 8 plugins on this blog:
Akismet (anti-spam): essential. Fuck spam and every cybertwat who makes it a thing. What happens to your site if you don’t use Akismet? Presumably you get inundated with spam, but everyone swears by Akismet and it certainly seems to work.
Contact Form 7: as explained above, this just makes a nice little basic contact form on your blog, which emails you directly without giving your email address itself out to internet randoms.
iThemes Security: this plugin helps you keep your site secure through various methods such as hiding your wp-admin login page on a custom url of your choosing (because hackerbots trawl the internet trying aiming for the default wp-admin login pages of websites and then trying to guess the password), being able to check the logs easily and ban any assholes trying to guess your password or log in as ‘admin’, and so on. There are plenty more security plugin options (see the list here), but I’ve only ever used iThemes. See below for more on security.
Yoast SEO: ah… good old search engine optimisation. The bane of my fucking existence – I want to burn that 3-letter combination to the ground and urinate on the ashes. But you simply have to get to grips with it if you’re going to make a successful blog (unless you have a massive budget to pay someone to do that crap for you). The easiest way of dealing with the SEO for your posts & pages is this Yoast plugin; their blog is also an excellent resource, and you might want to see this post for beginners about how to actually use the plugin. See below for more on SEO.
Yoast Comment Hacks: another plugin from Yoast, this one just gives you a few tricks to improve your comment game. To illustrate how useful this is, when I was running Snow Guide Korea during the Winter Olympics I actually randomly met someone on a shuttle bus at the Olympics in Pyeongchang who’d used my site to help plan his trip. He mentioned that he’d left a comment on my site about driving from a specific hotel to a specific ski resort, and I clearly remembered it – I’d spent a while researching & writing an answer including the likely taxi fare & driving time etc. But he’d never read my reply, because he never went back to the site to look for it, and I hadn’t discovered this handy little plugin yet. Using this plugin, these days I can easily send a default email to everyone who comments on my blog with a link back to the post so they can check the reply. This improves the user experience, and of course it brings them to your site again which improves your visitor stats – and ultimately they’re also more likely to use your affiliate links if you’ve helped them out with personalised advice. The plugin also has an option to redirect 1st-time commenters to a specified page, so you can make a ‘thank you for commenting’ page with an embedded email signup form to hopefully convert commenters into email subscribers (your email list is an important part of promoting your blog, see the Email section below).
Updraft Plus: one of the main backup plugins (for a comparison of the most popular options see here). Basic shared hosting packages will usually mean your hosting provider makes a backup every 24 hours, but they only keep the most recent on file. So, if you accidentally break your site, they can restore it from the last backup. But if you realise you got hacked last week you’re basically fucked unless you’ve been making & storing your own backups because the only version your host has on file was made since the hack and thus includes whatever the hackers screwed up. Updraft Plus is a nice easy way to make your own backups from your WordPress dashboard, which you can download to your hard disk and/or send to remote storage e.g. Dropbox. You might want to plan a weekly backup schedule for example, and it’s a good idea to also do full account backups from cpanel (or equivalent) say once a month. (Backups is one area in which you get what you pay for with more expensive hosting – WP Engine make daily backups of this site which they keep on file for 60 days, which is massively better than for my other sites with InMotion/Siteground. However I still use Updraft to manually make a backup once a month, just in case)
Social Warfare: the social sharing buttons you can see above and below the content on most of my posts & pages are done using this plugin. There’s a free version (which I’m using) and a premium version with extra features.
jQuery Pin It Button: if you hover over any of the images on this site, you should see the Pinterest button in the corner (so that readers who also use Pinterest can easily pin your stuff). This plugin does that.
I don’t need to use caching anymore for this blog, but you should probably also download a caching plugin:
W3 Total Cache: I don’t use this one any more on 4corners7seas since moving my hosting to WP Engine. That’s because WP Engine has their own in-house solution for caching so they block caching plugins on sites they host. Caching is essentially a way to make your site faster, so if you’re using cheap shared hosting you’ll want to do whatever you can to boost your site speed a bit; I still use W3 on my other two sites hosted with InMotion. It’s a little confusing to set up the first time, so see here for help.
And another that some people might find useful:
Media File Renamer: SEO isn’t only about what you write about and how you write it. It’s also important to do SEO for your images, including making sure they have relevant filenames. I don’t use this plugin anymore, but when I was doing everything on just my iPad I needed a way to rename image files and this plugin allows you to easily rename them from within the media library after you’ve uploaded them to your site. Also one time after an update there was a minor bug, I contacted the developer who immediately rectified it (always a good sign). Again, see below for more on SEO and see here for help with image SEO.
There are loads more plugins to consider for a new travel blog; as noted above related content plugins are very popular, and often when you’re trying to work out how to get your blog to do something new the solution will already exist in the form of a plugin.
A couple more useful tools: these aren’t plugins, but have been handy for certain tasks. I used Scribblemaps to make the maps on this site, they’re not slick & sexy like a lot of bloggers have but that’s what happens when you’re blogging on a shoestring. Scribblemaps is free and it works well enough. Also check out Canva, especially useful for Pinterest – it’s a free graphic design app with preset templates for making your Pinterest pins (plus Instagram & Twitter posts etc if you want to jazz those up a little too).
Search Engine Optimisation
I hate it. But you have to do it. SEO basically means how to get Google to like your site and send you traffic. In a hyper-competitive field like travel blogging it’s essential to pay attention to SEO from the word go. Read up on it and follow best SEO practices from the start of your blogging life. SEO includes ‘on page’ SEO (e.g. making sure to include your keywords at least a certain number of times – though also not too many), image SEO (e.g. making sure every image has a relevant file name), meta stuff like the descriptive snippet you tell Google to display in search results (to hopefully entice people to click through), and less directly stuff like what you actually choose to write about, in other words your niche. This makes a huge difference – for example, my site Snow Guide Korea provides solid information in English about something that was previously lacking a good English-language source of information. This meant it very quickly climbed to the top page of Google rankings and despite being only 10% the size of 4corners7seas gets just as much traffic (more in winter, less in summer) and generates far more income from that amount of traffic. Having a good niche with low competition but high traffic is the most effective SEO trick there is. It’s not easy to think of anything new as a niche for a travel blog – chances are it’s already been done, and done well. But if you write about a specific scene in a specific destination, it’ll be much easier to rank highly on Google; conversely, if the niche is very narrow there’s less traffic actually out there for you to hoover up and monetise. But basically, a general travel blog is lost in a sea of general travel blogs, so try to find your own angle to give your blog an edge and a chance.
You also need to learn about Domain Authority and the importance of backlinks to your site. To learn more about all this shit see the Yoast blog, Yoast’s post on SEO for images, Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income, Neil Patel, and Moz.
One more thing I should note here – even if you get your SEO perfect, it still takes Google a long time to rank your content if you don’t already have a well-established authority site. You could write the single best piece of content on the internet about a given subject, but if there are already hundreds or thousands of decent to good pieces of content out there dealing with that subject it will still take months or years for Google to work out that your piece is better than the others because it requires tons of user data to do so. Google may have an alarming amount of data about all of us, but it isn’t smart enough (yet) to rank content by actually reading and understanding it.
As noted above, you can and should use a security plugin from the start to make sure your site isn’t an easy target. Don’t wait until you’ve been hacked to take security seriously. I use the iThemes plugin; see here for a more in-depth look at security.
So how do you make money from blogs? Well, haha, to answer flippantly I’d say ‘with great difficulty and a lot of hard work’. To answer more constructively, that’s a big question with a big answer, and lots of answers – the main things to think about using on your blog are:
Display adverts: start with Google Adsense (see here for help with that), and when you get up to 25k visits per month you can join Mediavine and make a lot more money from it. Just so you understand how little Adsense actually makes, if I have 10k visitors in a month I’d expect perhaps 15 USD from Adsense. I don’t have enough traffic to join Mediavine yet, but my understanding is that starting at 25k visitors per month you can make around 250 USD from Mediavine. Big difference.
Affiliate links: this is by far the main monetisation method throughout my 3 sites. Basically this refers to all the links you see to various companies & services throughout this site, especially easy to see in action on this page with the hosting links. If someone clicks on one of those links and then makes a purchase (usually within 30 days of the click, though the window varies) then I get a commission (usually in the 5% region for travel tickets etc, though again it varies and some are much higher). I only recommend stuff I actually use and know is good, so I don’t just think of shit to write about so I can stick affiliate links in and try to sell said shit; my approach is that I write about what I want to write about, because it’s interesting or it’s useful information for readers, and then if it’s possible to monetise that with affiliate links then I do so. If not, so be it, I’ll still write the content if it’s useful for my readers. For example, see my Korea-Japan ferry page here which makes loads of commissions on ferry ticket sales via Direct Ferries, and my China-Taiwan ferry page here which doesn’t make any income because so far there’s no way to actually do affiliate links for those particular ferry companies (they’re not on Direct Ferries). But I still wrote the content because it’s about my main niche of overland travel in Asia, it’s something I know about through personal experience, and it’s a useful page for readers on my blog. Should it become possible to monetise it at some point – and I hope it does! – that page would be a good earner as it does well in terms of SEO i.e. good Google rankings and traffic.
If you’re wondering about when the best time is to start adding affiliate links, personally I’d say it’s better to add them in to your site as you go rather than wait until you feel you have enough traffic. This is mainly because it’s very time-consuming to go back through all your existing content to add new affiliate links – though this will be unavoidable in some cases, as some affiliate programs won’t accept you until you have enough traffic anyway. Obviously when your traffic’s still small, sales will be few and far between, but as your traffic grows you’ll see your sales grow accordingly.
Freelance writing: your blog showcases your writing skills. Many bloggers leverage that to pitch articles to other websites/publications on a freelance basis. If you write up a storm you may even be approached with offers. I’ve never gone pitching and never considered doing so, but if someone were to approach me then of course I would consider their proposal.
Sponsored content: when someone pays you to write about their product, destination, etc. I don’t do this, and I think it’s lame. But if it’s a good fit for your niche then fair play I suppose, if you have good traffic you can definitely make money (or score freebies) this way. It’d be a terrible fit for my blogs though.
Press trips: essentially a form of sponsored content, you go on a free trip with a bunch of other bloggers, probably funded by some country or town’s tourism board, and then give them loads of glowing coverage on your site. I’m yet to be offered a free press trip, and I make it clear on the blog that I’d almost certainly turn them down. Again, it’s a terrible fit for my blog. But, that said, if someone wants to send me up into space in a rocket ship then I’ll sell out for sure… I mean, every man has his price.
Instagram bullshit: so yeah if you’re good at Instagram BS and can get a massive following, you can make money through sponsored posts on IG. I hate social media and absolutely suck at it, so fuck that. But if you can do it, fair play. Fact is if some snowboard company said hey man here’s ten grand if you post an IG pic or 2 of yourself riding one of our snowboards in Japan or Korea (something I do regularly anyway), I’d have a very hard time saying no to that. In fact I wouldn’t say no, I’d bite their hand off. As long as it doesn’t involve any fake BS like e.g. pushing vegan products when you’re not really vegan, fair play.
Make & sell your own stuff (e.g. ebooks, some sort of ‘how to’ webinar course, etc): if you have a decent idea for a product, or maybe a destination guide ebook you could knock together, you could use your blog to sell it. I haven’t tried this yet and hesitate due to the massive time investment of making an ebook, but I do have a couple of ideas for ebooks I think could be somewhat useful or popular; I may give it a crack if I ever feel in a sound enough financial position to spend ages writing something that might not make any money. Which, in all honestly, is what I’ve just done with this blog over the last 2.5 years, and I’m still not feeling too fantastic about that decision…
Which brings me to traffic:
How much traffic do you need?
The key benchmark figure often given in the blogging world for those aiming to make a living from it is around 100k visitors per month. I’m still a long way short of that on 4corners7seas after 2.5 years. On the other hand, I actually could live (modestly) off the income generated by Snow Guide Korea – but only if it made money year-round, which it doesn’t (just the 4 months of the ski season). So, how fast can you realistically expect to get there?
Lauren of Never Ending Footsteps notes on her blog that after 3 years she hit 80k visitors per month – this would surely be enough to live very well off in Thailand, or modestly in say London.
Alex of Alex In Wanderland put a nice timeline on her 5 year ‘blogaversary’ (ridiculous word) post here (towards the end of the post), showing various traffic milestones. After 6 months of self-hosted blogging (following a couple of years of running a more casual WordPress.com hosted blog) she hit 10k; after 3 years she hit 100k, and then 200k after 4 years. I’d be over the moon with that!
Greg of Tokyo Cheapo (in this interesting interview) states that it took them 3 years to crack 100k; after 8 years they’re getting over 700k per month across their network of sites (having since also created Hong Kong and London sister sites). Note that Tokyo Cheapo isn’t a travel blog and is run by a team of people, so it’s not comparing like for like; but it’s a good illustration of the effect of having a clear, useful niche and producing a steady stream of strong content in that niche – and, also importantly, producing content which isn’t merely interesting but which solves the questions of those who find it after searching for information on Google. This is a good strategy to try and incorporate into your own blogging.
And my stats? Well, I’m approaching 2.5 years and I’m only in the low 5 figures per month, well short of the sites listed above at similar points in their existence… as noted earlier in the post, I recently moved my blog to WP Engine – given how little income it generates, this was an expensive hosting package to move to and perhaps done a bit prematurely. My hope is that the more reliable hosting & faster site speed will help my blog to break through to the next level… in other words I’m throwing a bigger budget at it to try and make it take off.
So have a look around my blog, at the travel I’ve done and what I’ve written & posted about it, and ask yourself – from the point you’re at, do you think you can make a better blog within 3 years? Look at the sites linked above, and the other big travel blogs like Nomadic Matt and so on; can you do better, or at least make something of a similar standard?
If you think yes, then maybe you can build a decent income from it over a few years if you work your ass off on it, and good luck to you (but don’t be absolutely counting on it); if no, or you’re not sure, then consider very carefully before deciding whether you want to go for it… chances are you’ll be looking at several years of seriously hard work just to start generating even a small income, and perhaps several more years to really make it a success (if ever). For sure there’s a bunch of successful travel bloggers out there killing it, earning 5 figures per month in the most impressive cases and telling you you can do it too; you can, perhaps, but don’t underestimate how long it takes and how hard it is. For every blogger reporting 5-figure earnings per month there are far more who failed to get there and invested a huge amount of time with little payoff. Again, read my post here about how hard my first couple of years were. Don’t plan on getting rich quick from travel blogging!
Check out this list of the top 1200-odd travel blogs in the world. It’s certainly not 100% comprehensive or accurate (as it’s done according to certain SEO metrics, rather than traffic, and also probably missing quite a lot of blogs as you have to request inclusion if you’re not already on it – you can see me down in the 900s), but anyway it’s useful as a rough guide at least. Look at all the top ones, and note how old the domain ages are. Aside from a single outlier at just over 2 years, every domain in that top 100 is at least 5 years old and the top 50 are almost all 7 to 20 years old.
I wish someone had shown me shit like that 3 years ago – to be honest, had they done so, I wouldn’t have tried to do a travel blog as a serious income stream. I’d still have written up all my best travel stories and made a personal blog to share them & all my pictures, but all the detailed posts & pages I’ve written on overland travel, ski resort reviews, hiking reports, how to do this & that; I wouldn’t have bothered. I wouldn’t have poured these years into
being trying to be a digital nomad, and maybe I’d have got the girl instead of fucking it up… but I digress. Point is, it takes time. Don’t underestimate how long it will take you to start making decent money from blogging – you should be thinking in terms of at least 2 to 3 years if you do it well.
Google Analytics & Webmaster Tools
If you’re wondering how you keep track of your traffic stats & user behaviour, the answer is Google Analytics. See here for how to set it up; basically you can either use a plugin to make it easy (also some themes have this functionality built in), or work out how to put the Analytics tracking code into your website’s code yourself by editing your theme’s header template. You’ll also want to set up Google Search Console (aka Webmaster Tools) to get feedback on how your blog’s performing in Google search results, see here for how to do that (assuming you’re using the Yoast SEO plugin, which you probably should).
As I mentioned above when talking about SEO, it’s important to do SEO for your images too. But that’s not the only thing to make sure you’re doing with images – it’s also crucial to compress them before uploading them to your site. Failing to do this can seriously slow your site down, and rectifying this mistake after you’ve already made it would be a mammoth task if you have a lot of pictures already uploaded. Get your image workflow right from the very beginning – see here (another killer SEO blog post from Yoast) for a good explanation of how to do so. For compression I personally use TinyPNG because it’s free (for the basic version, which is fine for me for now) and easy to use.
I may already have mentioned that I hate social media, but just in case it wasn’t clear – I really fucking hate social media. Spending hours a day trying to get my blog’s social media pages to gain traction was driving me mental, so I sort of gave up on it after a while (I still kept plugging away, but not for nearly enough time day in day out). This is
probably definitely one reason why my blog hasn’t achieved the traffic I was hoping for by this stage, but honestly I just want Facebook to fuck off and die. I ain’t giving those tossers any of my money, even if it would help me get more blog traffic, the wankers are fucking up societies around the world and I genuinely hope their shitty main platform collapses.
But venting aside, you have to tackle the social media side too. If you love social media and are good at it, then good for you – put that to use to promote your blog. If not, well, you’re in the same boat as me. Set up your blog’s Facebook page* and invite your friends to like it then share your content to it, get a Twitter account to share your content and network with other bloggers, set up an Instagram account for your blog and if you’re a busty blond go take some pics of you rolling around in a bikini on some beaches and watch the followers roll in.
If you’re not a beach babe with a pro photographer in tow who’s going to kill it on Instagram, you’re just going to have to plug away at social. But the fact is that since 2015, Facebook has been throttling organic reach on posts – from 2010 to 2015 they basically provided a free marketing platform where you could set up a page, share your content, and Facebook would show it to loads of people for you. But then once they had a dominant position in the market, they started reducing the organic reach and making people pay for continuing to have the Facebook reach they’d come to rely on. A shitty strategy, but a smart one (see the first two graphs here for a visual illustration of this).
So if you’re just getting started now, you probably aren’t going to get much joy from a Facebook page without having the knack for digital marketing and spending a ton of time (or money) on it. I recently decided to delete the Facebook page for Snow Guide Korea, and am considering doing so for 4corners7seas. The best way of using Facebook (if you don’t already have a page with lots of followers) is to join a bunch of relevant groups where you can share your posts – search for travel & destination groups for the countries you write about most, reply with useful answers to comments & questions in the group, and then share your posts there when you publish.
*update: actually if I was starting out now, I wouldn’t even make a FB page at all. Don’t reckon you should either. Just share your blog posts to your personal FB page for friends & family to (maybe) see, and join some relevant & active groups.
As for Twitter, I’ve got nowhere on there in terms of amassing followers (I hardly have any) and generating blog traffic, but it has sometimes been good for engaging with the odd reader and for interacting with other bloggers. If you follow the right people it can also be a good source of latest information in your niche.
With both Facebook and Twitter, I’ve come to absolutely hate ever looking at the Facebook news feed and I try to keep my Twitter scrolling to a minimum. One very useful tool you could take advantage of is Hootsuite (or one of its competitors), which is a social media scheduling tool; you can use it to schedule a whole bunch of posts without having to actually visit FB or Twitter, which is both better for your sanity and also far more efficient as you can set aside an hour once a week in which to preschedule all your social posts for the week ahead. There are paid versions, but the entry level service is free and just for the basic task of prescheduling your FB and Twitter posts the free version is just fine.
As for Instagram… Jesus, what a load of fucking bollocks there is on there. If you’re able to grow a massive following then you can charge money for sponsored posts, use it to score yourself free press trips, etc etc. If not, it doesn’t really do anything – you get very little blog traffic from Instagram. I’ve pretty much given up on using it to promote my blog as a) I can’t stand using it for the necessary amounts of time and b) I have no interest in free press trips. Now I just use it to post pics of whatever I’m up to, or random old travel pics, and do occasionally get some genuine engagement with readers. But it’s not a priority for me at all. One thing you get with Instagram is dickheads doing this follow/unfollow game – basically they follow you in the hope you’ll follow them back out of politeness, but then once you do so they unfollow you anyway. If you notice you can unfollow them back, but this crap works because a certain percentage of the people they follow/unfollow don’t notice what they’re up to so over time they can rack up loads of followers without racking up an equally larger number they’re following (so it makes them look like real ‘influencers’). It’s bullshit, and unfortunately the Instagram app itself doesn’t make it quick & easy to check who unfollowed you – the easiest way to just quickly check and unfollow anyone pulling that crap is to use a third party app simply called Followers (search for it in the app store). The entry level free version autoplays you a gaming ad every time you open it, but apart from that minor annoyance it does the job perfectly (the paid pro version has various other features I have’t tried).
Another thing going on with Instagram is follow/like pods. These are Facebook groups where the members can all post an Instagram pic at certain specified times, and then they all go through the list liking everyone else’s pics or following everyone else. The same thing is done with comments, and there are also pods doing the same thing for blog comments and Twitter & Facebook posts. It’s a way for bloggers to band together and try to beat (or game) the social media algorithms, and can help make your blog look active and busy. However, it’s staged engagement and it’s pretty obvious when you look at blogs which do this – I’m unsure how well it actually works in terms of fooling Google, though it very likely does help you do better on social media. I briefly joined an Instagram pod and absolutely hated it – it felt fake but the writing throughout my blog is all about being straight-up no bullshit, and it also required spending far more time on social media than I would ever want to. Yeah, I had a few Instagram posts that got like 200 likes instead of 30, but honestly who gives a flying fuck? I also joined a Twitter group but quit immediately when I realised I’d have to retweet a hundred random-ass tweets about where to take kids to eat in Barcelona or whatever, and tried a blog comment one but quit after the first post I submitted because it just felt fake. So after briefly dabbling with these pods/groups I stopped – again, this has probably cost me a bunch of traffic over the time since and contributed to my blog growing too slowly and me getting into a bit of a hole. But I’m just not willing to do it, even for money.
And also there’s Pinterest – everyone in blogging always bangs on about how much traffic you can get from Pinterest, though I was never able to get anywhere with it and couldn’t understand why it even exists. Seriously, what the fuck is Pinterest and why does anyone use it? Do people actually use it for fun? Serious question, as I think I’d rather eat sand – scrolling through the Pinterest app itself feels to me like scrolling through a steaming pile of trite bullshit.
But then I started using Tailwind – every blogger out there blogging about social media tells you to use this, but I didn’t because it’s 10 dollars a month and I was trying to do everything on the minimum possible budget. However I have to say, if you’re going to spend a little extra on top of your essential costs (i.e. domain & hosting) the next things to spend it on are Tailwind and your email list (see below). Tailwind has a free trial which gives you 100 pins (enough for roughly a month), after which you pay the 10 dollars a month to continue – it’s totally worth it. You just need to follow the in-app tutorials about how to schedule pins (it calculates the perfect times for your pins to get maximum engagement) and especially how to use their ‘tribes’ system. My Pinterest started taking off pretty much as soon as I started using Tailwind, and while it’s still nowhere near getting me the traffic levels I see other bloggers mentioning it’s growing steadily and has the potential. I should note that traffic from Pinterest is pretty weak in terms of bounce rate, number of pages viewed, average time on page, and all the other stuff Google measures to rate your site, and you’re not likely to get so many Pinterest visitors converting to sales – but getting your Pinterest going early is a good idea for getting your traffic up to Mediavine levels ASAP, which is a key strategy for getting your blog generating a regular income ASAP (see ‘Monetisation’ above for more on Mediavine). And again (like with Hootsuite), using Tailwind saves you from constantly having to actually use Pinterest itself – using the Tailwind browser extension you can just visit Pinterest once a week for an hour, schedule all your pins for the week, and that’s all you need to do in addition to using tribes. Well, actually you can do a lot more to boost traffic even further if you have the time and don’t hate using Pinterest, but I hate using Pinterest so screw that – I still can’t quite fathom why anyone uses it as a regular user (i.e. not just for pushing their own blog or business) and still have no idea why it exists! But at time of writing it really is the key one to focus on in terms of generating social traffic.
Anyway yeah, obviously I’m not the best person to be advising you on how to actually do well on social media! For that, see these guys (though their tips largely do involve doing the engagement pod stuff I’ve slagged off above). If you just want to get some social traffic without warping your mind by being on social media constantly, make use of Hootsuite and Tailwind to make it bearable and more efficient – I wish I’d done so far earlier than I did. Update: just want to note here that I’m not using Hootsuite much anymore, but that’s only because I’m hardly using Facebook anymore. I’m still using Twitter, but I’m on there often enough anyway so I just post manually as & when; I’m just basically not posting that much at the moment on social media. Hootsuite is still a useful tool if you want to post a lot though.
In addition to social media, you should also be promoting your blog via email. This is the other big way in which I dropped the ball, by not doing this from the start. Collect visitors’ email addresses and send out a regular newsletter; for people wanting to follow your blog and read your posts as & when you publish them (without having to just keep checking back to the site), an email list is far more reliable than following your Facebook page. You click send, it gets sent; whereas with Facebook, you click share but your followers may or may not see it as per Facebook’s cursed algorithm. Email is something I neglected for far too long, and surely missed out on a fair bit of traffic as a result. Do it from the start. I’ve just recently finally got round to doing this, and decided to go with Mailchimp because it’s free until your list reaches 2500 contacts – if you sign up through this link we’ll both get a 30-dollar credit as & when you ever upgrade to a paid account. The other main options (Aweber and ConvertKit) are paid services from the start, but with more advanced options for automated email chains.
Note that due to anti-spam laws you need to provide a legit physical address when using these email services, and said address will be visible on emails you send out. You probably won’t want to use your home address for obvious reasons, but don’t let that deter you from starting your list – even if you have to pay for a registered mail box, virtual office with physical mail sorting service, or whatever, work out a solution and crack on with starting your list.
To collect subscribers you can put a signup form in your sidebar (as I have), at the ends of your posts, or have a popup form (I’ve resisted so far because I fucking hate them, but apparently they do actually massively increase your signup rate). Another good idea is to invite 1st-time commenters to sign up to your email list – given that they’re taking the time to leave a comment, they’re already engaging with you so it’s a good time to invite a reader to sign up. You can do this with the Yoast Comment Hacks plugin (described in the plugin section above) which has an option to redirect 1st-time commenters to a specified page – make a ‘thank you for commenting’ page with an embedded email signup form. If you’re not sure what I mean, try leaving a comment below and you’ll see how it works.
So there you go – how to register your domain, sign up for hosting, install WordPress, and stuff your brain full of exciting new information about SEO etc. That’s how you start your own travel blog.
Any questions? Leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
All those links again
How to install a theme (wpbeginner)
SEO: Yoast blog, SEO for images, beginner’s guide to Yoast SEO. Also check out Moz, Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income, and Neil Patel for SEO/marketing tips. Read on Moz about Domain Authority and the importance of backlinks
Social media: don’t look at me! See Slaying Social
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