Here’s What I’ve Learned About How to Grow a Blog and Make Money Online

Doctor of Credit offered to read any new blogs out there about miles, points, travel and deals.

I actually read every new frequent travel blog that I come across. I add most of them to my RSS feed (I follow blogs with Newsblur largely because it was the closest to Google Reader which shut down in mid-2013).

I also try to link to smaller blogs as well as bigger ones that have something that strikes me as interesting on a given day. Sometimes that means I get an idea for a post from them, and give them a ‘hat tip’ and other times it means including them in a list of links of things I found interesting on other sites (which is arguably better for their traffic, but either helps their SEO).

So I’ll make the same offer, if you have a blog that I should be reading please leave it in the comments. You might actually be surprised that I’m already reading it, but I might also have something to learn.

Along those lines, at one point or another every blogger offers navel gazing advice for other bloggers. I’ve largely avoided posts meant for bloggers since that’s not the audience for this site. But I’m also pretty regularly asked for advice, I’ve thought about it a great deal, and it would be great to be able to respond with a link to this post anyway (!).

How and Why I Started This Blog

I started blogging one weekend day in May 2002 on a lark. I had several friends with blogs back then, and I thought I’d try my hand at it. Only I didn’t have anything useful to contribute solely on politics and current events, which were the only blogs I knew about at the time. So I decided to write about travel and miles and points along with an eclectic amalgamation of offbeat news.


My Original Blog

My interest in stories like poop falling from the sky stems from my ‘quirky’ sense of humor, and dates back to the beginning — although my very first post was about credit card mileage-earning.

In the beginning I’d get 30 visits a day. The very first link to this site came from legal blog The Volokh Conspiracy. Within a year I was getting 500 a day, although there were exciting spikes along the way — Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit would link to me regularly, especially for my regular coverage of the TSA and the early bumper stickers I created to Impeach Norm Mineta as Secretary of Transportation (the TSA had been part of DOT before it was moved to the super German-sounding Department of Homeland Security). The tagline for the stickers was “Liberty & Security Not Bureaucracy.”

I don’t think I was getting 2000 visits a day regularly until I was about 4 years in. One thing that helped me jump to even that level were links from my boss’s blog and an opportunity to guest blog for him.

When I look back at my posts even from those first few years I’m not super proud of them. It took me a long time to find my ‘voice’.

But it was fun. I’m not naturally a great writer, but I still love the creative outlet and opportunity to express myself. I got to interact with and even to know many people who share my interests. In 2005 I even declared what I wanted for Christmas and a reader sent it to me.

Back then blogs interacted with each other more than they do today. Blogging was a conversational medium. You linked to someone’s post and shared why you agreed or disagreed with them. That’s how traffic was built. That formative experience for me has a lot to do with why I credit where I find things, and why I try to send traffic to blogs (by including them in lists of links) when I feel like they deserve greater attention.

How to Grow Your Blog

Even though my blog traffic is, by some measures, ‘impressive’ I may be one of the worst people to offer advice on building a blog. I don’t do very many of the Things. You’re. Supposed. To. Do. and it also took me a Very. Long. Time. to build a readership.

Nonetheless, I hope my experiences will be useful to some who are blogging or considering it.

And when I talk about quality content, I mean it on my own terms. You don’t have to like this blog, or like every post, and I respect your opinion. I only use ‘quality’ in terms of producing the kind of content that I’m trying to produce.

  • The most important thing is to be patient. Success doesn’t happen quickly, or at a minimum the lack of quick success doesn’t mean you won’t be successful.

    There are some blogs that do take off (relatively) fast. I think that Million Mile Secrets was built very intentionally, with a business plan, offering something to readers that didn’t exist at the time. The site was founded by a brand management professional, and it took off quickly.

    My experience though is the opposite. Here’s what my traffic looks like over the past 7 years:

  • Be patient and persistent. Just keep at it. It takes time to build your voice. It takes time to build enough content so that people will find you through Google when performing searches. Post regularly, and post often. All things equal the more I post, the more traffic my site gets.

    You don’t need to post every day to be successful. Nomadic Matt is arguably the most-trafficked travel blog, and he doesn’t post daily but he does on a very regular schedule.

  • Network with other bloggers, and share your knowledge on other sites. Certainly if you want me to see one of your posts, email me or tweet me. I may not link to it, but I’ll notice it. Bloggers are always looking for content, remember that the more I post the more traffic the blog gets, so pitching a post is consistent with the self-interest of the person you’re pitching — as long as you don’t pitch a fit when they don’t link to you.

    Post to frequent flyer communities, or to reddit. Don’t pitch your posts, just develop a reputation for being helpful, if a forum lets you include your blog in your post signature the more content you provide the more traffic you’ll get. And if your content is helpful you’ll be respected, and people will have confidence sharing your posts. You’ll grow organically.

  • SEO matters, but not as much as you think. Don’t write for Google. The most important thing for getting traffic from Google is having useful content, and having lots of it. That way you’ll wind up in more search results. And if you want Google to highlight your content, get others to link to your content. I’m fortunate that this blog has something like 400,000 inbound links (or so I’m told). That takes time. Focus on content first, and then tweaking content so that Google can find it. Don’t put Google first.

  • Have something to say. Why should people read you? Why is your content different? You can do ‘the same as what seems to be successful’ and that’s fine as far as it goes, but at a minimum you likely want to have a unique twist on it. You’re probably not going to be as good at traveling the world in different premium cabins and reporting on the varied experiences near every day as One Mile at a Time. You’re probably not going to cover the best and cheapest ways to get to Tel Aviv better than Dan’s Deals. But if you have a unique perspective, perhaps because of your training or day job experience, try offering that — with abandon or (pleasant) attitude.

  • Develop a thick skin. If I couldn’t handle criticism — and even a couple of death threats (really) — I’d have given up a long time ago. This is the internet, and people who are incredibly kind in person get really nasty online. Here’s one of my favorite cartoons. Plus I make mistakes, and I learn from the experiences of readers. So I welcome feedback, in whatever form it comes.

How to Make Money Blogging

Making money from your blog comes last. I don’t have any advice on how to turn your blog into a standalone business or do so quickly.

I write all my own posts. This isn’t even my full time job and I don’t have anyone working for me. I’ve only hosted a handful of guest posts, even, and that’s been because I was interested in the specialized experiences that the guest authors had to offer — a friend who had booked a Delta business class award on Saudia to fly home to Pakistan, an attorney who offered their perspective on the legal issues surrounding the Supreme Court’s miles and points case Northwest v. Ginsberg.

Everything I know or believe about the theory of the firm? I do the opposite.

Here’s what I do know: content comes first, then readership, then revenue. There are any number of strategies for earning money off of a blog, but none of them matter without readership.

  • There are all kinds of affiliate links, for booking hotels or buying Amazon products or signing up for credit cards. When you use one of my credit card links, I’ll earn a referral credit (and I appreciate that very much).

  • You can sell courses, or e-books, or consulting services (these days my award booking service is hardly alone in the space).

  • Advertising is much easier to put up on your site than it used to be when I started.

You aren’t going to make very much money with any of these strategies if you have 500 readers or 1000 readers or even 2000 readers. Earning a living on the internet is fundamentally about scale, which means offering enough content that people want to read so that they come back regularly and you grow your audience.

If you have a lot of readers, almost any strategy will earn money. If you have very few readers there’s almost no strategy that will.

And then it all comes back to patience and time. Blogs that start because they think they’re going to make money almost always fail, because the author gets frustrated — they may come out of the gate quickly, but they burn out just as fast when other life priorities get in the way and they realize that six months or a year in there’s no real revenue from their efforts.

If you’re getting into blogging to make money, you’re doing it wrong. You have to love it. You have to write because you want to write. And if you don’t you’re unlikely to succeed.

This blog started without any ads at all. GoogleAds didn’t even exist when I began. After a month or so Glenn Reynolds paid to take down the ad placed there by my first site host, Blogspot. After 7 months Randy Petersen offered to host my blog. But it wasn’t until 2004 that I had an ad up. “BlogAds” were selling on my site for $40 per week, and I told Randy he could keep it all to defer hosting costs and the technical help his team had given me to get things set up.

After more than five years of blogging I was making $250 a month from the site. It wasn’t long after that I was making $750 a month. Things really took off with the launch of an award booking business in 2009, and getting coverage for it in the New York Times, USA Today, and being named as one of Conde’ Nast Traveler‘s “World’s Top Travel Specialists” starting in 2010. But that was 7 years in. Granted I didn’t do much of anything to ‘monetize’ the site before that, so I could have made more than $250 or $750, but not that much more because it’s fundamentally about math — a function of the number of people reading what you write.

Have a Blog… or a Question? Hit the Comments

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] Here’s What I’ve Learned About How to Grow a Blog and Make Money Online by View From The Wing. There are a few people that I consider pivotal to this blog’s success (George from Travel Blogger Buzz another & Chuck of course) and Gary is one of them. He was probably the first big blog to consistently link to me and that meant other big blogs starting to be aware of the site. People can say what they like about Gary, but he is always somebody I’ll respect because of things like this. […]

Comments

  1. Terrific post, Gary—many thanks, as it addresses a number of questions I’ve had recently. I started a website and blog about 2-3 months ago and am currently trying to build readership by offering quality content not available elsewhere. FWIW, I’m linking to you (not because your content is related to mine, but because of your status as a gourmand). If you have time to take a look, I’d greatly value your feedback.

  2. Really great post, Gary.
    I started blogging a few years ago with the mindset of using my blog as a digital scrapbook so I could look back on past trips and etc. Now, I post trip reports and occasional posts like Why I got a Charles Schwab debit card and purchasing a Tumi luggage during Black Friday.

    Unfortunately for me, I don’t blog full time because I have a day job so readership is low but I am hoping for it to improve over time 🙂

  3. As the beneficiary of at least one Garylanche, I can speak to your commitment to link to smaller blogs. Frankly, my little blog serves as a travelogue and a place to send my points & miles novice friends to when the ask what it’s all about. Check my sidebar, I say. The guys I link to there (Gary, Lucky, and Greg the Frequent Miler) are the ones who are constantly blogging about something interesting. Thanks for encouraging one of the positive uses of the internet, Gary.

  4. I love your blog, Gary and read if faithfully. I’m not a blogger and have no desire to be. But… I looked through the comments for a blog on something I’m interested in learning about to expand my travel experience and didn’t see any.

    Do any of your readers write about time shares on the secondary market? I’m retired now and live in the cold Northeast. I’m wondering if a “cheap” time share is the way to be a snowbird for a few weeks each winter.

  5. Dee, I don’t write about time shares but do live in South Florida, so may be able to off er you some insights. There are any number of people who regularly rent out condos to tourists or “snow birds.” Those rentals have become harder to come by, due to a host of economic factors that are preventing people from wintering in Florida. If you’re retired or otherwise independent and can spend 2-3 months here, you’ll find that rents are highly negotiable—without burdening you with the ongoing problems of a time share.

  6. Gary, thanks for this post. I’ve been blogging for a little over 4 years and finally making real progress to boost readership. It’s been a real blessing to join BA in May 2016. Wish I would have been able to talk with you (ok, had the courage to come up to you is more like it) at BACON. Thanks for being willing to read my blog posts and the occasional link! BaldThoughts.com – Travel More. Spend Less. Live Better.

  7. With a friend we started milesopedia (http://milesopedia.com) last year. It’s a blog and a community for french-speaking Canadian about FPPs in Canada (Aéroplan, SPG, British Airways , etc.)

    Thanks for this honest feedback. It helps a lot for people like us who just start the same adventure and are anxious sometimes about growing their audience , etc. It takes times 🙂

    One question: obviously you are great blogger but do you think it can be replicate today? I mean we often read that the golden age of blogging is over. There are other platforms now but I think that the long form that is blogging is still the best way to communicate (and somehow educate) about the subtleties (to put it nicely) of the airlines programs. Do you agree?

  8. I started my miles and points earning blog in July 2016. I used to give advise to my friends and family about how to earn and keep the frequent flyer miles. Some time they used to ask me to send the mail again, so I decided to start a blog write about my experience of miles and point collecting. You can check out my blog at http://www.pointsgate.com Thank You Sat

  9. First off… Thanks for all of your great content over the years, I’ve learned a lot from you!

    My site isn’t necessarily a blog, but I’ve started a website made specifically for sharing referral links. It’s only a couple weeks old, but I’ve got it to a functioning site. The site is http://www.reftrain.com. Comments and suggestions are definitely welcome.

    Thanks!

  10. Thank you, Gary. I’d be honored to have you read my blog: http://www.brianmcadam.com

    My aim is to help my readers have more time and money for what matters most. I cover miles, points, travel, and deals in that context.

    I began the blog in November of 2016 and have posted consistently — about twice per week — since then.

  11. Thanks for the post, Gary. I’d say you should follow my nascent blog (yourtwocentsblog.com), but I find myself struggling to get started, post on a regular basis, and produce quality, insightful, non-duplicative pieces! How do you manage to blog so regularly on top of a real job? What I particularly enjoy about your blog is the thoughtful analysis and tying seemingly disparate news items into a larger, more meaningful narrative. I’m certainly less attuned to the travel industry, so I appreciate and enjoy the insight! –Dillon

  12. Hi, I’ve learned quite a bit from your blog over the past year or so. Thanks. I write (inconsistently) about family travel FROM Hawaii to the US mainland, Canada, South America, and Europe. I do trip reports and some Disney parks updates, too.

  13. Thanks for the informative post. On my blog, I publish regularly and try to focus on quality content. I’d love it, if you checked It out: msmaetravels.com
    I’ve been at it seriously for about a year. I focus on travel and my other interest, knitting. I visit yarn shops wherever I travel but the site is primarily travel.

  14. Thanks so much for writing this and for your kind offer to read everyone’s blogs! Your tips for growing one’s blog are very helpful. I’ve been writing for years but recently launched a new project, so I appreciate your insights very much.

    My new endeavor is aimed at military families who want to travel. You can find it at https://www.milfamtravel.com.

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