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… it’s certainly possible to “live the dream”. But there’s one tiny thing keeping you from achieving instantaneous success: you just can’t create an audience by snapping your fingers.
Sadly, many people start a blog expecting quick and easy results, giving up just a few months later.
But getting people to visit your blog takes a lot of hard work and determination. That said, the good news is that once the ball is rolling, it also becomes a lot easier to maintain that momentum.
Here, I’ll share with you some of the methods that I used to grow Indie Traveller into a successful travel blog. Back in 2013, I went from zero visitors at launch to 15,000 unique visitors a month in just 8 months. Now, in 2020, my travel blog gets about 250,000 unique visitors per month.
Note: I originally posted this article in 2014 after my first year of blogging. I updated it in 2020, though keep in mind that blogging and the techniques to use are always changing. The main point of this post is to try every growth method available and focus on the ones that work. It’s also a reminder that growing your blog takes time and that you shouldn’t be too discouraged when results don’t come immediately.
Table of Contents
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 not as versatile and known to be pretty bad for SEO (ranking on search engines).
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 and believe it’s all going to work out.
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 if you haven’t already and read some tutorials on how to use it. Google Analytics 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 your statistics 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 (good and bad) 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 effective as well, particularly in the early days.
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. If you’re travel blogging, 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 followers.
Note: Facebook was a much bigger deal with I started blogging in 2013. It also gave you a lot more reach (for free) when posting links. Its value today depends hugely on how you use it. Don’t waste time doing a lot of social media promotion if it’s not relevant to your particular blog, nor if the social media platform doesn’t let you easily link to your own blog.
As an experiment, I also purchased some clicks via Facebook ads during the early days. I do not recommend this. The clicks 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 clicks.
On social media, photos and personal posts tend to do best. How-to posts or destination guides don’t get nearly as many clicks or likes. 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 building a content site and not primarily a social media influencer).
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. Instead of talking about ye olde Stumbleupon, let me share here what I did with Pinterest a bit later on.
I started using Pinterest in 2018 and I think it can be a great promotional channel for blogs in certain niches (DIY, fashion, etc.). For travel blogs, it can be a good channel as well, depending on your overall style and topic.
Ranking on Google can take ages, but you can see results a lot more quickly on Pinterest.
I’ve heard bloggers say something like 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 can be 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 some time as it’s another subscription to pay for, but when I finally took the plunge I went “ooooooh, I get it now”. Suddenly I had way more success on Pinterest.
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, nor does it help in any way with search engine ranking, but it does get your name out there.
The visitors you’ll get from blog comments you can probably count on one hand. It won’t make your heart beat faster. But… these visitors might just be 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, but it might look nice to have at least a bunch of comments on your blog if it’s still very new.
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. You can’t get a lot of clicks this way, 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.
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.
Reddit can get you a lot of traffic… for a short while. 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 went viral too early on. 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. Promoting random blog posts on Reddit may not work as well as it once did for me.
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.
If I were starting out today, TikTok is perhaps where I’d go to look first. I follow a blogger in the finance niche who does some amazing explainers on TikTok (some of which went viral) and all of them reference his blog for further information. It’s obvious that this is a very successful marketing channel for him, though of course videos do take a lot more work than just sharing a URL.
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 kind of 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, or sending them the URL if you’ve added them on social. Every little bit counts in the beginning.
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%.
Nowadays I use some self-hosted software to run my mailinglist, but I recommend MailerLite when you’re starting out.
8. Social sharing
I can be really brief about this one: install something like AddThis or Getsitecontrol so that people can easily follow you on social media or share your posts. Or make sure your blog template has this already.
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 accepted a few guest posts from me, 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 person, creating 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 1000+) 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, check out 35 Coolest Hostels From Around The World at eTramping that I contributed to.
To participate in collaborative posts you need to develop relationships with other bloggers. It can take a while to end up on people’s mailing lists for contribution requests, so you might just have to write only full-length guest posts at first. Though there are several Facebook groups where people post open invitations for collabs.
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. Always ask interviewers to link back to your blog.
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.
In the early days, it’s good to know at least a little bit about SEO best practices. But it’s important to realize this: in your first few months, SEO isn’t going to matter a huge deal, because you are not going to rank anyway.
Even if your blog is brand new, chances are that Google has already seen it. But it won’t list you anytime 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 backlinks to your site. Doing guest posts will help with this a lot. Don’t worry too much about technical SEO or keyword research at first, though. In my opinion that is putting the cart in front of the horse a bit. It’s better to just start writing content. 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.
That said, 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.
If you focus on creating good content, include some content that is not already trying to compete with the biggest sites out there, and if you are persistent, then eventually you can start to see an audience grow around your blog.
And if you stick with it longer, you may even see your blog grow from a hobby to a hobby-with-benefits and even to a full-time career.