(Not) Making Money: Travel Blogs

Right, apologies once again for a chasmic gap between posts… the reason being that I’ve been busy trying to make money.

Whilst some travel writers might be blissfully content slumming their way through third world countries with only a hammock and a lucky charm to their name, I’m definitely of the variety who likes to be able pay rent on a flat, eat a meal that costs more than 5 euros occasionally and fly to the places I’d like to visit (rather than hitchhike). I do admire the hardcore travellers mind you. I’m just not one of them. Which brings me of course to the sadly considerably less than 64 million dollar question… how do you make enough money, not just to survive, but earn a living as a travel writer?

Yes it’s hardly an original question, and many column inches have been written in answer to the topic already. Most of those inches have focused on the rich potential of travel blogging (shortly before trying to flog you an expensive book on how to realise that potential). The emergence of a handful of ‘celebrity travel bloggers’, the prime example being Nomadic Matt, have got people thinking that it’s actually possible to survive by dossing around India and occasionally getting to an Internet cafe to scribble up your latest adventures… personally I don’t buy it. Some of what follows is conjecture, as naturally I’m not privvy to the vast majority of travel bloggers’ accounts sheets, however I have dipped my toes in most of the travel writing revenue streams – and in my experience blogging is arguably the toughest way to grind out anything near a living.

So in answer to the thousands of posts about how to make money as a travel blogger, packed with encouraging comments about how ‘with a little luck and a lot of hard work you can do it too’, here are a few reasons why you can’t…

1) Who are you?

That’s not a philosophical question, but a football crowd style taunt by the way. No one’s heard of you. And the chances are no one but your Mum cares what you had for breakfast in Bali.

2) What can you bring to the already overcrowded table?

There are a billion travel bloggers out there. 99.9% of them aren’t making any money, 90% of them aren’t any good. But they are all standing in your way. Have you really got something that they haven’t? Apart from that venereal disease you contracted in Cuba.

3) How much savings do you have?

In the unlikely event that you are one of the world’s best travel writers (who has been cruelly overlooked by the well-paying travel press/newspapers/guidebook publishers) and you have the discipline to update your blog at the very least once a week (minimum!) and are able to slowly build a gathering of followers (I’m taking it for granted you’re an expert in social media and relentless comment spammer) then your dream still isn’t going to materialise over night. Google won’t even rank your pages for the first six months after you launch your site, and even posting two or three times a week your blog will still be relatively tiny and worthless for two maybe three years… meanwhile you’ll be haemorrhaging cash as you gallivant around here there and everywhere, probably not adding any new insight to what’s already been written about those places. In short don’t expect to make any cash for your first year, more than a few hundred dollars in your second and no where close to a (meagre) living before your third. Yep the life of the travel blogger is the preserve of someone with a large savings account to get started.

4) What do you know about SEO?

I’m guessing there’s a decent chance you don’t even know what SEO is… no shame in that, but it does pretty much put the nails in the coffin of your travel blogging career at its embryonic stage. Search Engine Optimisation is what (successful) bloggers apply to every page on their blog to give it the best possible chance to appear in search engines (ie. Google) for any given search terms. In truth it’s not overly complicated, but it’s absolutely vital to be much better than average at it in a very competitive market. Clever vs. rubbish construction of URLs, page titles, meta tags, descriptions, key words in your texts are the difference between actually getting a trickle of traffic and sinking without a trace. Good link building (from external sites) and internal linking are also vital.

5) Traffic does not equal cash

Even if you do get a tonne of traffic, how are you going to convert that into cash? Your followers might love your witty blog about your life as an Entomologist in Cambodia, but apart from the odd insect repellent manufacturer who is going to advertise with you? What’s your sales strategy? Google Ads bring in pennies not pounds.

This post isn’t supposed to discourage anyone from travel writing. It’s just supposed to put paid to the idea that fortunes are waiting everyone who kickstarts a travel blog. Let’s go back to Nomadic Matt’s website (even if that means giving him another free link! Oh well I’m sure he’s a nice guy). It doesn’t look like a website that’s raking in the cash to me… and here’s why:

1) His front page has a Google page rank of 3. Google ranks every page between 0-10. Pretty much only Google has 10, maybe Facebook and Twitter have 9, BBC front page 8, a big newspaper 7 etc etc. PR3 isn’t exactly embarrassing but I’d be surprised if he’s getting much traffic directly from Google… to put into perspective my friend’s local bike rental company has a PR3. (To put it into even more perspective I have two sites with PR4 and I’m still very far from rich! Even this little blog you’re reading now has a PR2, with all of its 14 odd posts!).

2) Looking again at his front page, the main products he sells are books which tell you about how to make money as a travel writer. What does that tell you? That he makes more money from writing books about making money as a travel writer, than he actually does as a travel writer. (I’m not saying his books are bullshit by the way, but there’s a difference between making some money as a travel writer, which is no doubt what he promises, and making an actual living).

3) He advertises, quite heavily, the fact that he offers advertising. Always a sign that you could do with some more advertisers!

4) He offers a consulting service. Similar to number 2) this. If you check out this site you’ll see he’s obviously developed a healthy sideline in SEO consulting and other blog-related fun stuff. Why? Well in my experience people only develop a sideline when the mainline (?) doesn’t pay the bills!

Overall you have to think that Matt is a guy who’s making some valuable cash from travel writing (he’s sold a few links – see bottom of home page, got a few banners on his travel guides, etc etc.); but at the same time one who has either been forced, or chosen (because of better profits), to branch out his operations, into book-writing and consulting, in order to make real money. That’s obviously completely speculative, but I’ll let you make up your own minds as to whether what I’m saying makes any sense.

This certainly isn’t a post about “dissing” another blogger (us writers are far too mild mannered for that), and I’d definitely say fair play to him – he’s definitely doing all right for himself! On the other hand (and I’m thinking now from the perspective of a would-be newbie travel blogger) this is the guy who’s often wheeled out as the top example of a successful travel blogger. His traffic stats – if true as quoted – are certainly fantastic (120,000 visitors a month. About four times my sites.) and yet I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not making as much money from travel writing alone as a sub-editor at a lowly inflight travel magazine. In fact I’d be really surprised if he was making more. Plus he won’t get any paid holidays, pension, sick leave etc for his efforts. (And trust me that adds up to a lot of cash!).

So there you have it. Not a definitive, packed full of hard evidence, case that travel blogging = poverty, but some tough realities to consider if you’re thinking about going down that route. But what about other routes…

… well despite me arguing that there’s no almost money to be made in travel blogging, there’s the accompanying paradox that the online travel industry is VAST – and still growing. In fact there are thousands of people making small fortunes from writing online about travel. (And normally by writing really badly I should add!). How they do it, and – perhaps more pertinently – how I’m going about doing it (very slowly), is the subject of another post however…

Stay tuned kids:)

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