Want to be a successful travel blogger?
Maybe travel the world for free?
Swim in passive online income like some kind of Scrooge McDuck?
Well… I’d hate to break it to you, but it’s not as easy as you may think. Yes, it’s possible to live the dream (I am!) and travel blogging can be enormously rewarding even as a hobby — but you can’t create an audience just by snapping your fingers.
Sadly, many people start a travel blog expecting quick and easy results, but then give up just a few months later.
Building a successful travel blog, like so many other things, takes time and effort! But the good news is that once the ball is rolling, it becomes a lot easier to maintain that momentum.
Here, I’ll share with you some of the methods that I used to get Indie Traveller to where it is today. Back in 2013, I got this blog from zero visitors at launch to 15,000 unique visitors a month in just 8 months. This audience grew steadily every year. Now, in 2020, my site gets about 250,000 unique visitors per month.
Setting up your blog
Before I talk about building an audience, you need to check if the foundation of your blog is right. Most blogs use WordPress, but there are actually two versions of it. Make sure you have your own self-hosted version of WordPress with your own webhosting. Without it, it’ll be much harder to make progress.
(Don’t use Squarespace or other such platforms, as they are known to be bad for SEO.)
Managing your expectations
With so many bloggers often sharing impressive income reports or showing off high-profile influencer campaigns, it may seem easy to just quit your job and become a travel blogger. But the reality is that you’ll have to persevere if you want to grow an audience.
Looking back, gaining traffic was definitely the most mentally and emotionally taxing aspect of starting a new blog for me.
You should expect to have almost no audience at all during your first couple of months at least.
This can be utterly crushing: I would often spend hours on a single post only to have it read by a literal handful of people. It makes you feel like a nobody, a nothing, not even a tiny blip on anyone’s radar. It sucks.
Building up your blog’s foundations and gaining an audience requires a significant time and energy investment that’s not going to pay off for another 6 months at least. You really have to be a little obsessive in the beginning.
Trying to get Indie Traveller started often felt like trying to create a fire by rubbing some damp moss between some wet sticks… in 100 km/hr winds. You just keep hoping for a post to catch on but you only ever get these useless taunting little sparks (if at all).
But you just have to keep going.
Eventually, if you do things right, your blog will catch on. Once the fire is finally lit you can just make it bigger and bigger by throwing more fuel on.
Keep in mind that traffic can eventually increase exponentially. Gaining 10 visitors in your first month will seem like you have to move mountains; gaining 10 more visitors in your sixth month can feel comically easier.
Make sure you install Google Analytics on your blog if you haven’t already and read some tutorials on how to use it. It gives you absolutely critical information for developing your blog. It tells you how many people are visiting, what they’re reading, and many other essential (anonymized) stats. But… in the first few months, you should resist looking at it every day. Numbers will be so low that they will simply depress you, and traffic increases will look extremely marginal day-to-day.
Try maybe looking at it once a month at most, so you keep your eye on the big picture. (I didn’t, and nearly lost my sanity.)
10 growth strategies (bad and good) I used
While getting that initial foothold on the interwebs is difficult, it does get easier. The key is to try many different approaches. Eventually, the best way is to get ranked in Google, but other approaches can be more effective at first.
Here are the methods I used to gain more traffic and my experiences with each of them:
After launching my blog, I invited people I knew from my previous travels to follow my page on Facebook — that was an easy win. I think it definitely helps to invite people you know or meet while traveling (or in tour groups) to follow you on Facebook or on Instagram. They can be some of your earliest supporters.
Facebook was a much bigger deal with I started in 2013; while it’s not as relevant today, I still think it’s a decent social platform as it at least allows linking back to your blog. Insta can maybe lead to more fame and adoration, but it has fewer opportunities to promote your own site (outside of the bio link).
As an experiment, I also purchased some Likes via Facebook ads during the early days. I do not recommend this. The likes you get this way are very low-quality and not really worth it. Unless you have a specific product to sell, you’ll be throwing money away by buying likes. If you buy likes through illegitimate channels (like shady ‘buy 1000 likes for $20!’ sites) you also risk hurting your ratio and it won’t help you gain real followers.
On social media, photos and personal posts do best. How-to posts or destination guides don’t get as many clicks or likes, in my experience. Try to build a connection with your audience through images, asking them questions, and linking to interesting posts that aren’t just your own. I recommend not spending too much time on social media in the first year, however. It can be a huge time drain when you need to be making content!
Not as many people come to blogs through social media as you might imagine. For my site, it’s just 2%. When I ask fellow bloggers, it’s rarely more than 5-6% or so (at least, ones who are focused mainly on building a site vs being primarily a social media influencer who gets sponsored).
Nevertheless, the direct interaction you have with your followers can be of great help.
Pinterest was not such a big thing yet when I started Indie Traveller. At the time, I used a site called Stumbleupon that was a little bit like it, though these days it doesn’t exist anymore.
I started using Pinterest in 2018 and I now think that it’s a great promotional channel for travel blogs, especially early on. Ranking on search engines takes ages, but you can see results more quickly on Pinterest.
I’ve heard bloggers say something in the order of half their visits come from Pinterest, though these are usually very early-stage blogs. It’s usually a much smaller slice of the pie for more developed blogs.
Still, Pinterest is worth investing in. A great thing about Pinterest is that your pins still hang around for a long time; it’s much less ephemeral than other platforms. It helps to think of Pinterest basically as a kind of search engine. The effort you put in will keep paying dividends as time goes by.
First, it’s important to make beautiful vertical images that people can save easily to Pinterest. Secondly, subscribe to the third-party Tailwind app. I resisted getting this app for a long time as it does cost some money, but then everyone told me to use it and I took the plunge. Then I went “ooooooh, I get it now”. Suddenly I had way more success on Pinterest. Definitely get Tailwind. It’s kind of the secret element to this.
Tailwind is like a marketplace where you can exchange tit-for-tat promotion. You can submit your pins to tribes (groups around topics). The members can share yours and you can share theirs. The more a pin gets shared the more the algorithm will notice.
Some of the biggest tribes are Dream.Pin.Go and _Travel_. I recommend also submitting to smaller tribes that fit your niche. I get way more shares for my pins in Wanderlust Travel – Asia for my Asia content, for instance.
Commenting on other blogs is not going to be a real source of traffic, but it does get your name out there.
The handfuls of visitors you’ll get from blog comments won’t make your heart beat faster, but they might just be from other influential travel bloggers or devoted travel blog readers, who in turn may share or comment on your posts.
It’s all part of participating in the blogging ecosystem. Don’t be spammy, as no one likes that. But try to be a part of the conversation and different opportunities may come to you.
Although I’ve never done it myself, some bloggers use Facebook groups to comment on each other’s articles in a coordinated way. I don’t know if that kind of astroturfing is something you should do consistently, but it might look nice to have a few real comments to begin with.
Adwords are the text advertisements that run alongside Google search results. Google regularly gives out free Adword credit for new customers; search around for promotions and I am sure you will find it. I used a 75 GBP coupon (over $100) to run some ads for Indie Traveller. The traffic influx wasn’t great, but I thought every little bit might help.
What I learned is that Adwords is a bit useless to get general traffic with. It’s just too expensive – and you’ll blow through $100 very quickly. Try to connect Adwords traffic to something concrete, like a mailinglist sign-up or something you are offering. Adwords works best for specific action-focused traffic, and is not cost-effective for getting general interest traffic which you can grow organically.
I posted some of my own articles to /r/travel or /r/backpacking on Reddit with some success. Keep in mind that too much self-promotion is frowned upon and your submissions will be blocked if you go totally balls-out with Reddit promotion. Try being a regular active participant so that you won’t be flagged, and only post the occasional truly worthwhile link to your site. The rule of thumb is for every post you make linking to your own site, you need to make 6 other posts that are not self-promotional. /r/travel can be extremely strict in enforcing its rules, while /r/backpacking is a bit more welcoming to content creators (though it is also a smaller subreddit).
At first I didn’t know about the restrictions Reddit puts in place, so I wasted valuable promotional opportunities on non-important posts. Try to keep your powder dry. Wait with posting on Reddit until you have that super amazing post you know is going to do well.
Reddit can get you a lot of traffic for a day or two. One time I got 10k visitors on a single day, another time 6k from a Reddit post. If your post does well, you will probably continue to see a trickle of maybe 100 visitors a day for a while (mainly people using the ‘Top’ tab on the subreddit) until it finally peters out.
One thing I regret about using Reddit is that I used it too early. I posted my Top Cheapest Destinations post to /r/travel on my blog’s launch day and it went stupendously viral to the point where it reached Reddit’s front page – and major sites like Hostelworld even linked to it from their blogs or social media accounts. It was nuts. Sadly my site was not at all set up to capitalize on this massive influx of visitors: I didn’t have a proper mailinglist signup, no other content of interest, etc. So my site was just a huge siff, and I gained very little from that early boost. The bounce rate was 95%, whereas later promotion of other posts had a bounce rate of around 75% (i.e. people actually checked out other pages on the site and not just the one that was linked).
I should mention that Reddit moderators have cracked down a lot on self-promotion, even when it’s original content. I wouldn’t recommend just promoting random blog posts on Reddit today. However, the preceding can be a lesson in how to create (and benefit from) viral exposure. Perhaps there is some kind of viral post or stunt you can think of that you know will be shared widely on other platforms.
6. Real-world marketing
I thought that since I travel long-term and meet other travelers all the time it’d be easy to promote my site to other travelers. At a print shop in Mexico I even printed out some cards with my blog address on it.
I’m glad it only cost a couple of dollars as I had to throw them away eventually. Turns out it’s super socially awkward to give someone what seems like a formal business card when they’re traveling. Geez, what was I thinking? Not good.
I do recommend typing in your blog URL on people’s phones however, or sending them the URL if you’ve added them to Facebook. A great way to get people you’ve met to share one of your posts is if it’s a story that involves them (e.g. maybe a tour you went on together).
Getting traffic to your site is one thing, but retaining visitors is another. Having a mailinglist is a great way to get people to come back to your site. Make sure you have a mailinglist from the very start. Email is one of the last channels that you can 100% fully own. There are no algorithms that will mess with you and no demonetization drama. It’s a true 1-to-1 relationship with your audience that you fully control.
Try to have something to offer to new subscribers. I had a generic sign-up box at first which did OK, but when I added an offer of a free chapter for my book and a list of ‘7 backpacking mistakes’ sign-ups went up by 400%. I typically send out an update to subscribers once a month.
Nowadays I use some self-hosted software to run my mailinglist, but I recommend MailChimp when you’re starting out. It’s super user-friendly and free up to 2000 subscribers.
8. Social sharing
9. Guest posting
This, in my experience, is really the best way to get your blog established.
A guest post is something you’ll write for another blog for free, in exchange for getting a link back to your site within the article. You will usually get a trickle of traffic through this link, but this is not primarily why you should be guest posting! The main point is to get more inbound links to your site (especially from sites that are themselves well-established) as this will result in Google ranking you higher in its results.
At first, I searched for travel sites that openly invite guest posts, but this was not a very productive strategy. A lot of these sites soliciting guest posts are dormant or no longer actually accept them. Many travel blogs that do actively take guest posts don’t openly advertise this, as a lot of guest post requests come from SEO marketers (rather than legitimate bloggers) and are very low-quality and spammy.
A better method is to read and follow some travel blogs that you like. You might notice some of them have posts that are not by the main author; contact them and see if you can guest write for them. Convince them your guest post will be of high quality. Most bloggers are frustrated with all the garbage that spam marketers are trying to get them to post and would love to post something that is at least as good as what you’d post on your own blog.
Shortly after launching my blog, GoBackpacking and eTramping graciously accepted some of my guest posts, which gave me a foot in the door. I tried to link the guest posts to relevant posts on my own site. For GoBackpacking I wrote about travelling in Burma, and hooked this up to my Burma destination guide. I did the same for a post about Cuba. I believe this helped boost the Google page authority for these guides.
A huge benefit of guest posting is that it connects you with other bloggers. eTramping later invited me to participate in several collaborative posts. I later met some of the bloggers I guest posted for in the beginning, making some valuable connections. (By the way, eTramping still accepts external contributions.)
Guest posts can seem like a bit of a time sink as you are also trying to get great content on your own blog, but they do pay off massively.
I quite enjoy participating in collaborative posts as they require less writing (usually about 100-300 words instead of 500-800) and are easier to do (as I don’t have to think so much about an introduction or conclusion). For an example of a collaborative post (one that I contributed to) check out 35 Coolest Hostels From Around The World at eTramping. To participate in collaborative posts you need to develop relationships with other bloggers. It can take a while to end up on people’s mailinglists for contribution requests, so you might just have to write only full-length guest posts at first.
Finally, as your blog gains momentum, you may be invited for interviews. I just recently got asked for an interview with a travel magazine. This is sort of like a reverse guest post, which boosts not only your rankings but also your authority as a writer. These kinds of opportunities, of course, can take a little while to emerge. Be sure to have a good contact form on your site so that people can reach you easily.
10. Search engine optimization
A final traffic strategy to use, which would take a whole other post to dive into properly, is optimising your content for search engines. Learning to use Google Analytics and understanding the basics of SEO can do crazy things for your traffic… eventually. The problem with SEO is that it can take many months, even more than a year, for any changes to pay off. So it’s more of a long game method that won’t be quite as relevant in the very early days.
The most important thing to know about SEO is this: at first, it doesn’t matter, because you are not going to rank anyway.
Google has probably already seen your brand new blog, but it’s not going to list you any time soon, no matter what you try. You are still stuck in what the SEO exports call the ‘sandbox’. Google simply doesn’t trust your site yet; it’s checking to see if you’re still going to be around later, or if maybe you suddenly turn into a spam site. How do you gain its trust, you ask? You just post good content. And you wait.
Something that can speed up the process is to get quality back-links to your site. That’s actually something you can start with right away, for instance by doing guest posts. Don’t worry too much about technical SEO or keyword research at first, though. You don’t want to get into the mindset of writing posts just for search engines anyway, when in the beginning it’s important to show your personality first. Once you’ve been blogging for a while (e.g. maybe 6 – 12 months), you can start learning more about SEO and applying it to your site.
One general thing though: it really helps to focus on blog topics that are quite specific (or even obscure) where you stand a chance to rank due to less competition. If all your posts are generic and high level (something like ‘top places to travel in Thailand’), you won’t yet stand a chance to rank in search.
Blogging tools & resources
- Google Analytics – be sure to have this installed from the start!
- Start a blog with Bluehost – good and very affordable web hosting (only $3.99 a month if you click the link here), so you can set up self-hosted WordPress. See also: how to start a travel blog in 10 minutes.
- Tailwind – essential tool to succeed on Pinterest
- Mailchimp – easiest way to start a mailinglist
- Getsitecontrol – widgets for your site which let you easily capture e-mails, promote products, conduct surveys, etc. My site uses about 6 of these in various places, and they’re now key to my growth success. (And it’s much cheaper than services like Unbounce etc.!)
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