All the leasons I learned after 1 year of travel blogging. This post contains useful tips, tricks, hints and a chance to look behind the scenes.
I can hardly believe I have already been travel blogging for one full year. 12 months of writing posts, editing images and running social media. A couple of days ago I had to renew my hosting plan and domain registration fee (I am with bluehost). To be quite truthful with you, I never thought I’d ever get this far. When I started out, I did not have a business case or any plan for the future (and actually I still don’t). It all began on a whim. I always loved writing, traveling and something in me always loved sharing a good story.
It has been quite a journey, one that taught me a lot of lessons. I made some mistakes, invested time in things that ultimately didn’t pay off, and tried out a myriad of plugins, plans, and marketing strategies. Apparently, I ended up doing some things the right way. Since I know that a lot of fellow bloggers are right in the process of starting their online presence, I felt like giving something back for all the guides and tutorials I read.
To my regular readers: You may skip this post because it focuses solely on travel blogging and blogging tips. Plus it is going to be quite the extensive post and I really don’t want to bore you! If you feel like you could start your own blog, surely read one! I’d be more than happy to assist you.
A few notes in advance
I am working full time and travel blogging is a hobby. That being said, the time I am able (and willing) to invest is limited. I am quite sure a lot of other bloggers were more successful in their first year. The more you spend the more you reap. On average I spent 10 hours a week on my blog.
I did not join any online course because frankly, I think 98% of them are crap and offer little value to anyone who knows how to google correctly. It seems to be some kind of new trend among bloggers and bossy business ladies (*rolls eyes*). I also did not join any travel bloggers association nor had any external help whatsoever. I have to admit, though, that I am a professional & certified product manager and have been working for major websites for the past 15 years. Yet, I had to learn the hard way that things working for a 7 to 8 figure website, really won’t work for a new blog.
If you want to know how I started this travel blog: Do read this posts I wrote after 3 months of travel blogging (quite lovely insights making me chuckle reading them now!)
1. My blog in numbers
My blog started out pretty weak – and that is exaggerating it a lot. In the first few months of travel blogging, I had an average of maybe 10 visitors a day. 9 of them were probably bots. It took me quite some time to find an audience. I optimized every article for search engines, built a social media followings and slowly learned what worked and what doesn’t work (more on the details later). In hindsight, it’s hard to comprehend why I didn’t give up.
Yet I remember being quite enthusiastic when I was able to tell my partner: “I reached a new milestone: 10 people a day are interested in what I am writing, isn’t that awesome?”. Actually, I really have to stress that even 1 real person reading what I have to say is awesome. So thank you, whoever you are! (do comment so I get to know you :P)
It was not until October (so after 9 months !) that I regularly scored more than 100 visitors a day. It was probably the first time that I started to believe all those guides telling me the ‘travel blogging start will be slow’ until there comes this one point where figures will suddenly lift off.
Now, 12 months into the game, I hit a monthly 14.000 page impressions (on 10.100 unique users) with an average time on site of 1 minute and 17 secs. I even got a small percentage of returning visitors. I know the numbers aren’t spectacular. But they are not bad either, especially considering that I really did not spend a lot of time on this blog (again: only 10 hours a week).
2. Income Report
This subitem is kind of moot, but for the sake of consistency, I want to list it anyway. A lot of travel bloggers publish these, with limited value. Personally, I really did not focus on monetizing my blog (but my goal isn’t paying my bills through full-time travel blogging).
I am working on a solid full-time job here in Munich that will pay me more (with better social benefits) than any full-time-travel-blogger I ever heard about. That’s a fact (by the way: Check out my about page to learn more). I guess it also allows me to visit all those beautiful luxury hotels instead of seeing the world one hostel at a time. (my favorite hotel probably was the Titilaka Luxury Lodge this year. Read about it here.)
Still. I wanted to toy around a bit with monetization in order to get a first feeling for what works and what doesn’t. So I had two ad units integrated into my sidebars almost from the very start. After 12 months of blogging, I made 20 Euros with them. Since the payout threshold is 50 Euros, I never saw a single cent. Not exactly breath-taking. I could be more aggressive with integrating ad units. I decided against it because I want this to be fun. 50 Euros more or less are hardly a motivation or me.
I also did some hotel reviews and inserted affiliate links. Much to my surprise people actually started to follow my recommendations. As off now I did not see a single cent either (but payments around 35 euros are currently due). Since I am personally always booking my hotels through booking.com and always pay for the stays myself, I really saw no problem with adding a link. In fact, it might explain why people are actually clicking on them. They are, after all, genuine recommendations of stays I really enjoyed.
I did not go on any sponsored trips and did not pitch anyone. I do, however, get free opera tickets in exchange for reviews. I would not have gotten this chance, without this travel blog – even though it is only remotely related. They pitched me and that amounted to tickets worth more than a thousand Euros. I am not getting paid for these reviews, though.
Bottom line for you: Your blog might be the starting point for something unrelated, even if you are not looking out for it. If you are working full time on your blog, I am sure my first 12 months could be the first 3 months to you.
3. Money invested into my travel blog
The income side of my travel blog looks rather bleak, but I did not invest a lot either. Here are the details:
I decided for hosting my blog through bluehost. They are a dedicated WordPress host and handled everything for me. They provided me with the hosting, domain registration, domain privacy protection and a professional backup-service. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a tech-newbie, but I am equally far away from running my own servers. I read a lot of good and bad reviews about bluehost. All I can say is: They worked out for me. I once installed a bad plugin and they were able to help me within minutes. I am still using them (just renewed my hosting plan) and so, of course, I should recommend them. Check it out here.
Total costs: 135.38 Euro
Photoshop and Lightroom
Travel blogging without pretty pictures won’t work and pretty pictures won’t work without editing. Photoshop and Lightroom cost me 11.89 Euro per month. They are the industry’s standard products.
Total costs: 142.69 Euro
I did invest into a new camera. I am really a big fan of Sony and in my opinion, their mirrorless technology is the future of photography. If anything is lacking, then it’s my skills with a camera. I am slowly but steadily learning. I now love The Sony A77-II and the Sony A7-II (but have been using their predecessor models ever since I can remember).
Total costs: 1.240 Euro
4. Important lessons I learned
Travel blogging for more than 12 months (luckily) meant learning a lot. Through my day-job, I am faced with the many changes of the internet each day. Frankly, there has probably not passed a single day I have not read or heard about new strategies. Here are my most important takeaways for you:
Do never ever switch off your common sense. Strategies that worked for others don’t necessarily have to work for you. Try out your own stuff as well. Look at the time stamp of each and every bit of information (anything older than 6 months can be discarded. If it’s not outdated yet, it will be in mere weeks). Don’t pay for information, but invest time thinking about a given problem. Evaluate different points of views from different sources. Do not only read travel blogging guides but look across the pond and get inspired. And last but not least: do not believe user recommendations under an e-course. They are meant to guide you into buying them ;-)
Search engine optimization really is overrated! Uh? Yes, you heard that right. All my posts are optimized for SEO. Meaning they have the right content structure, meta tags, alt tags, etc. Of course, I am using the YOAST-SEO-Plugin for WordPress. BUT: As a new travel blogger, you can only rank for the most exotic keywords.
Let me elaborate: For example, I am among the top spot for “Tipon Peru” with my article on the water gardens of the Incas, yet most travelers to Peru will only want to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu (wrote about Cusco here, and Machu Picchu here). It is simply not viable to limit your blog posts to these rarefied few places you will have a chance to rank for (meaning top 10 on Google organic search) as a new travel blogger.
Why is it not viable (in my opinion)? Because you have to visit these remote, undocumented places in the first place and then spent tons of times building backlinks and stuff like that. Your blog posts aren’t created out of thin air but based on genuine experiences. Also above all, you have to engage an audience (and not google).
What I mean is: I wrote an article on the Dark Side of Machu Picchu. With my blog being new as it is, I will never have a chance to rank for the keyword “Machu Picchu”. LonelyPlanet, TripAdvisor and other big names share that cake. Yet this very blogpost generated roughly 5.000 readers in the past month. Why? Because it was (arguably) an interesting read and I was able to share it via social media and my existing readers.
The bottom line for you: Google is just one of the many traffic sources. Get to handle the basics and fine points, but don’t invest all your time on it. Try to produce great content and traffic will come one way or another. There is no need to lay all your eggs in one basket.
I really learned that investing any time into Facebook is not worth my time. A lot of (travel) bloggers are getting excellent returns, but they have been long in the game, with a huge following. Building a following on Facebook from scratch is almost impossible without big funds. I am mostly ignoring Facebook these days and only post something once very while.
Oh and before you ask: Facebook groups are dead. I recently read entertaining posts about them on Moz.com but I just can’t seem to see any value in terms of time invested.
The bottom line for you: If you already got a lot of friends on Facebook before you start your travel blog, you might give Facebook a chance. Otherwise, you will spend more time and money for a true follower than on any other social media channel.
Twitter has been a big success for me (here is the link to my twitter account. Why not Follow me along?). I am not getting a lot of referrals via Twitter. Ultimately I don’t think it is possible (except you have hundred thousands of followers). I came to love it as a means of getting in touch with other travel bloggers and finding relevant information.
For a time I have been following and unfollowing users like a mad-man. Ultimately this really had no effect at all (other than inflating numbers). Realize that for every 1.000 people that follow back this way, maybe 1 will see your tweet. It’s just not worth it. I am treating it as a true social media channel = building relationships. I do use the free version of Buffer to schedule some of my content, though.
Ah…the things I could tell you about Pinterest. Pinterest is my favorite search engine ever. Yes, you heard that right. Search. Engine. Stop treating it like social media, stop following people and stop listening to all those Pinterest e-courses out there. Most of them are either outdated or wrong as far as I am concerned.
Several of my blog posts went (more or less) viral on Pinterest (Here is the link to my Pinterest profile; follow me to stay in touch!). Each of the blog posts has more than a thousand repins and extremely high click-through-rates. On average I spent about 15 minutes on Pinterest each day, though I spent quite a lot of time on creating that perfect pin (use Canva – a wonderful free tool; though I stick to Adobe Illustrator).
Pinterest has become my most important traffic source (more than Google in fact). And I really wish I had known these simple 3 tips when I started out.
- Get a business profile for the analytics, validate your website and make your profile pretty & add relevant keywords (you’ll find tons of guides on how to do that)
- Update your board names, descriptions and covers with relevant keywords (not hashtags; keep it simple)
- A good pin (= that will show up on Pinterest search & smart feed) consists of:
- spectacular image (a good linear perspective means the biggest engagement)
- an easy to understands & short text (no text = no clicks)
- A description with relevant keywords
- An image title with relevant keywords! (often neglected)
- A decent amount of repins (10ish is enough to get the ball started)
Here are a couple of things I am not doing on Pinterest, I read on a lot of other blogs/forums.
- I am not pining regularly or using any scheduling tools. They are not quite that effective. Pinterest filters out most stuff from the smart feed – especially if the same account pins the same source twice (applies to group boards as well).
- I am not spamming my account with pins but only pin stuff I am genuinely interested (using it to plan my travels in fact)
- I am only active in 3 group boards. They are the only ones that worked out for me and they help to get the snowball starting
- I am not deleting old pins. If you got a lot of pins with bad URLs and duplicates you should consider it. Pinterest does not factor in the timestamp of a pin. (officially confirmed). Some bloggers see effects, but they are definitely not related to the timestamp.
As of now, 55 Percent of my total traffic comes via Pinterest. I only have 600 followers there.
The bottom line for you: Treat it as a visual search engine, and the love will come towards you.
5. Problems I encountered
It was not all peaches and cream, though. I did encounter a lot of problems in my first year of travel blogging. Here is the list.
Testing without numbers
Everything you do when starting out with travel blogging should be tested. I might be telling you that Facebook is dead, but maybe Facebook will work out for you after all. So try it, test it, use it, and discard it as you go. Most important: Do that with every bit of information you find on the internet for free/or paid. The big problem is: You have to be quite patient because testing means significant results and significant results means high numbers. So you will have to stick to doing potentially useless things for quite some time. It took me 6 months until I was finally able to say for sure that twitter and Pinterest would yield the most bang for the buck.
Just because your follower numbers (or whatever another metric) don’t skyrocket in the first month, doesn’t mean a strategy isn’t working. It might just need more time.
Bottom line: Test everything, the internet is continuously changing. But only react to significant results. Sometimes you will have to work in the dark.
When I started out with this blog, I did not want to tell my friends and colleagues about it. Mainly because I was afraid they would judge my professional work after the, presumably, a bad job I did in private. Obviously, it made getting my first precious readers all the harder.
A blog is a bit like an avalanche – you need that snowball to get it going. But where do you get the snowball from? In the beginning, I had to be very aggressive (quite contrary to my nature) to get those very first users to follow me. Google won’t index a new domain as readily, no1 cares for a social media account with no followers, etc.
Bottom line: These days it might be better to start out solely on social media (secure that domain, though) and build a following first.
Proper analytics are important (if you haven’t yet, set up Google Analytics! NOW!). Without numbers, you will never know what is working and what is not. For a self-hosted blog, there really is no way around Google Analytics (GA). Since it is so easy to set up, you really shouldn’t hesitate.
The problem: There is something called referral spam. If you filter your GA report by source (Acquisition -> Source), you will be able to see where your readers are coming from. Websites like free-share-buttons.com will target your website to create false readings (often with zero time on site). They found a way to exploit Google Analytics. These are not real human beings visiting and interacting with your website. They are bots and they only want the attention of the admin for some sort of scam. They will, however, inflate your numbers. False readings mean false assumptions.
It took me ages to figure out how to get to rid of all the referral spam. I probably read a hundred guides and none of it worked. My GA reports still showed wrong numbers, to a point where I was not even sure that my real visitors would show up any longer. So I aborted all the filtering crap and countered with logic. These bots are randomly targeting GA properties (meaning the key you insert into your website). They don’t even know your website exists. So all I did was change my GA-properties. My new GA-Property is now ending with 2 (so UA-XXXXXX-2). Et voila – no more referral spam.
Why? Because their bots are randomly testing out numbers according to the schema UA-XXX-1
Bottom line: If you are experiencing referral spam, do change your GA-property. It might screw up your history, but with a new website, it’s not very painful.
Time management & scheduling
There is probably a thousand blog post on how important a proper publishing schedule is. Readers will come to expect new posts every week (or every day/hour) and thus come back to the bookmarked link to your blog. Working full-time this is easier said than done. There were just times when I came home after a long day at work where I really couldn’t couldn’t sit down to write a blog post.
But then I realized that this blog is nothing but a hobby and if I don’t meet those imaginary deadlines nothing of consequence will happen. So these days I am basically writing whenever I feel like it (though I try to have a new post each Sunday or Monday).
For a non-travel blogger, it might be hard to understand just how much time writing one of these posts takes. The writing and editing will probably take an average of 4 hours. 2 more hours will be swept away by editing pictures. Another 2 hours goes into social media marketing and an average of 16 hours goes into research & documentation (meaning preparing an itinerary, traveling, documenting, researching facts). That’s an awful lot of time. I could write shorter articles with fewer pictures and less information, but that just wouldn’t be me.
The bottom line for you: Try to keep your blog as fun as possible. If you hate doing the major part of your work, stop right there or at least slow down. You will have to continue doing this for a long time, and it will probably not make you rich. So enjoy it.
English is not my native tongue
I have been reading and writing English fluently ever since I was a teenager. In fact, I cannot remember reading a single German book in the past 20 years (and I devour at least 3 books per month). Still English is not my native tongue, so writing blog posts take longer. I do have to look up idioms, spellings, grammar etc. and that takes time. Also, any mistake will automatically seem unprofessional.
In a way, I regret not writing this blog in German. The market is just not as saturated and my audience would probably have been way larger by now. BUT: English really has become a universal language for all travelers. It felt wrong to write (presumably) timeless pieces of information in a language only a tiny portion of this world will be able to understand.
6. Final thoughts on my first year of travel blogging
In the past 12 months, this blog has become like family to me. Each morning I check out my stats (Google Analytics mainly) and reply to social media mentions and comments. I really enjoy it. Also, it really helps me to process past experiences. I think that is something we too easily neglect. Our brain needs some time to settle those memories and this blog helped me with it.
Despite a lot of travel experience, I do plan my travels differently now. The way I travel changed a bit. I am not quite sure if I like it. No matter where I am, I will scan the area for pretty blog pictures and search for unique places to write about it. I’ve always been overplanning, so I guess I really shouldn’t factor this in too much. Still, the way I am traveling changed forever.
But I also learned a lot about (social media) marketing, SEO and writing in general. I also believe I improved my photography skills a bit (I know how to set shutter speed now, yay!). So even if I really did not make any money, I gained knowledge worth a lot. Had I to learn all this with (e-) courses I’d probably have to spend thousands of Euros for the same insights – without practical application. So I guess there is a big thank due to this blog and all the people that helped me along.
Outlook on 2016
For the next 12 months, I will be trying to be more active on social media. I will continue to focus on Pinterest, but I will also try to invest some time on Instagram. I will work on the design of my blog. Currently, I am using the Schema WordPress Theme. I liked it, it is optimized for SEO and very fast. It was a good way to start this blog. Now that I’ve written 79 posts, it is time to try out something a bit bolder. I also upgraded my hosting plan at Bluehost and now got more power and my own IP-address (supposedly good for SEO).
I might also invest some time into video production. I already got a little youtube channel, but really had no time to produce videos. I got tons of materials: Like me swimming with turtles and sea lions on Galapagos ( was that a fun time!), but also videos documenting private geisha parties and other very rare scenes. Let’s see if I can find the time!
Last but not least I will continue traveling the world. Current plans are for central Asia, Rome, Venice, and London. Let’s see if I can beat the stellar experience I had last year (read about my personal travel highlights 2015 here). Hope you guys will follow me along!
Oh, my! This post got very long. I hope I was able to give you some valuable insights into my first year of travel blogging. Share this post to help others along their way!
This post contains a couple of affiliate links to the products I use on a daily basis. I’ve been toying around with them lately as a way of monetization. By buying services through these links you can help me pay the bills for this blog.