(Update January 2016: Indie Traveller now gets over 170,000 unique visitors a month and has made it into the Top 30 of travel blogs by traffic. While I’ve learned many new things since I originally wrote this post in 2014, most of the tips here still apply!)
Updating IndieTraveller from a hostel in Salta, Argentina.
I have so far resisted going meta (i.e. blogging about blogging), though lately several bloggers asked me about how I got Indie Traveller off the ground, so I thought it be a good time to share some of my experiences.
It’s only been 8 months since I launched this blog, and by far the biggest challenge during this time has been gaining an audience foothold. I’m happy to say I have gotten through the worst part: I managed to get my traffic up from zero to 15,000 unique visitors a month. That’s not a whole lot yet, but it’s a perfect launching-off point. It feels like the blog has finally gained momentum and further traffic increases will be easier to achieve from here on out.
See Also: How To Start A Travel Blog In 10 Minutes
Managing your expectations
For me, gaining traffic has been the most mentally and emotionally taxing aspect of starting a new blog. You should expect to have almost no audience at all during your first couple of months. 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 IndieTraveller 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 your blog will catch on, and 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. 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.)
There is one post by Nomadic Samuel “How To Create A Succesful Travel Blog In Your First Year Of Blogging” that I highly recommend reading. It’s the best description of the initial growth stages of a travel blog that I’ve seen, and it’s both sobering and hopeful.
The 10 traffic strategies I used
While getting that initial foothold on the interwebs is very very difficult, the good news it does get easier after a while. The key is to try many different approaches to getting the word about your site out there. Here are the methods I used to gain more traffic and my experiences with each of them:
At launch I invited people I knew from my previous travels to follow me on Facebook—that was an easy win. As an experiment I also purchased some Likes via FB ads, but I do not recommend this. The Likes you get this way are utter garbage. This video explains extremely well why buying Facebook Likes is a bad idea. I have yet to implement a full social media strategy but it’s clear to me that posts with photos in them work amazingly well, and posts about travel experiences get a lot of likes. How-to posts or destination guides barely make a blip. On social media it’s all about the human element.
(Update Jan 2016: I now schedule social media posts on Facebook and Twitter using Hootsuite. Facebook gets the strongest response, probably because you can more easily include photos, which for a travel blog is huge. I’ve heard a lot of success stories about Instagram, which is a platform I really need to get onto. 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! You can ratchet up your social media involvement once you hit 1000 or so followers.)
I started by following other travel bloggers I thought were interesting. I further boosted my following by searching for potentially interested users using an app called TweetAdder. I searched for travel or backpacking related keywords, and then selectively followed users in the hopes they would follow me back. It’s a bit spammy, but sometimes you gotta hustle. This added 500 followers to my feed, though I am now growing my following through organic means only. I use the Buffer app to post to Facebook and Twitter on a regular schedule. The amount of clickthroughs you get from tweets can be disappointing, but sometimes a tweet catches fire and gets retweeted a lot. Check in Buffer what your best performing tweets were and repeat those from time to time.
Commenting on other blogs is not going to be a major 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 go 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. Look on google for blogs that have CommentLuv installed – it’s a WordPress plugin that lets commenters include a link to their last blog post.
4. Adwords (freebie)
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 IndieTraveller. The traffic influx wasn’t great, but every little bit helps. 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 7 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).
(Edit: Stumbleupon has now gone the way of the dodo.)
This works best for very ‘viral’ (and dare I say, fluffy) posts. Things like ’10 Amazing Travel Photos You Won’t Believe OMFG!’ will do well here, but more substantial posts won’t. Stumbleupon is mainly used by bored people to ‘channel surf’ the internet . As a result, usually 95% or more of visitors coming from there will leave your site after viewing only the landing page. I wasted a lot of time trying to submit stuff to Stumbleupon. One post that went bananas on Reddit I put in for paid promotion on Stumbleupon (minimum cost $10) and it got me pretty much nothing in return. In my experience Stumbleupon only works if it’s on a “cute cat pictures” level of virality and even then it’s questionable if you are building a real audience through this.
7. Real-world marketing
I thought that since I travel long-term and meet other travellers all the time it’d be easy to promote my site to other travellers. At a print shop in Mexico I even printed out some cards with my URL 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 business card when they’re travelling. 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 actually retaining visitors is another. Having a mailinglist is a great way to get people to come back to your site. 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. I use MailChimp for managing my mailinglist.
9. Social sharing
10. Guest posting
This, in my experience, is really the best way to get your blog established, especially in the beginning.
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 met Dave of GoBackpacking in person in Colombia and was able to pick his brain a bit about how he runs his blog—and I hope to write for him again in the future.
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.
A few travel sites also have a photo of the day/week feature where all it takes to get linked is sending in an amazing photo along with a description. These opportunities are rare, but obviously more time efficient than writing an entire guest post.
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.
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 months, sometimes even 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 of starting a blog.
Getting quality back-links is key for SEO, which is something that guest posting can help with a lot in the beginning. Once your blog is up and running, and you’ve been working on it for maybe 6 months or so, it’s a good time to start learning about SEO.
Note (Jan 2016): I’ve learned a ton about SEO since I originally wrote this post, and I’d say that it’s clearly traffic building method no 1. Once other sites start linking to you, your blog will rise in the search engine rankings. Tweaking keywords and titles can also have a huge impact on how many people visit your site through Google. SEO is something you should look into if you’re serious about longer-term traffic building!
Tools & resources I’ve used
- Fizzle.co – excellent learning program and community for bloggers and ‘solopreneurs’
- The Moz blog – your starting point if you want to learn about SEO
- Getsitecontrol – affordable 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. (It’s only $9 a month, which is way cheaper than the $50/m or so you have to pay for services like Unbounce etc.!)
- Bluehost – affordable web hosting which I’ve used for 8 years. I’ve since moved to a Linode VPS to deal with my high traffic volume, but Bluehost is way cheaper and a lot easier if you’re starting out. See also: how to start a travel blog in 10 minutes.