When we launched our blog, TheSmokies.com, in April 2020 we had no idea what we were doing.
A month later, we made our first $6.
I remember jumping up and down in the living room that morning like it was the most important $6 of my life.
Fast forward to today, $6 has grown into $156,258 in revenue. With $144,520 of that revenue having been produced just in the last nine months of 2021. And a behemoth of a site that’s on its way to hit 5 million page views by the end of the year.
Editor’s Note: I will update this article again with actual year-to-date totals. So keep it bookmarked and check back in a few months to see how we did.
Is starting a blog worth it?
Is it worth it starting a blog in 2021? The short answer is, yes, it is “worth it” to start a blog! But it’s going to take a lot of work, so be sure you’re ready to make a long-term commitment.
In this article, I will reveal the steps we took from conception to execution to super-charging our growth and income in the last few months.
But before we dive in, I want to provide a bit of background about myself and my team.
About me and my team
Our team consists of three primary partners, myself, my sister and my husband.
And while we had virtually no blogging experience before we launched our first site, we had tremendous experience in related fields.
My sister and I are self-employed full-time graphic design freelancers by trade and my husband is a self-employed software developer.
My sister and I are also both experienced writers who spent a good portion of our professional careers working for various newspapers and publications.
Some of my articles about freelancing have even been featured in Business Insider.
My husband and I also have experience working in high-pressure sales environments at home shopping networks. And even worked as an on-air show host for a couple of years.
So while we didn’t have experience specifically with blogging, you could certainly say that our interesting assortment of skill sets (design, technology, freelance, business, software, writing and sales) certainly lent themselves to helping us figure it out.
Is blogging easy? How can a beginner get started?
No, blogging is not easy. But it’s also not hard, per se.
It’s just like anything else in life worth having, it requires work.
Before you panic and think to yourself: “But I’m not a software developer, or a graphic designer, or a writer, how am I supposed to start a blog?” I want to offer some words of wisdom.
Sure, it will be helpful to be technically inclined or have some writing experience before setting out on this journey. But if you don’t, just learn as you go. Or hire help if you can afford to do so.
In both my freelance and blogging businesses, I’ve found there’s one character trait that truly separates those who are successful from those who are not. And it has nothing to do with skill or money.
It’s the scrappiness of the individual.
There’s a reason why I’ve been able to launch more than one successful 6-figure business – I can tackle what I don’t know head-on like my life depends on it.
I find that too many people get wrapped in the “one day” trap. “One day, I’ll learn how to write.” “One day, I’ll learn WordPress.”
The best piece of advice I can give you, and this goes for anything you want to do even beyond blogging – quit waiting on “one day” to get here.
It doesn’t have to be perfect and you will make mistakes along the way.
The best way to learn is by doing.
And with so many free resources online you can use to learn the skills required to start a blog like writing and web design, all anyone needs is a computer and a reliable internet connection to make their dreams come true.
Now that’s out of the way, I’ll get off my soapbox and talk about how we created our 6-figure blog in hopes that you might follow in our footsteps.
1. We identified a popular niche
Learning how to identify the right audience is key for every business, blogs included.
Creating an audience for a hyper niche topic is always much more difficult than tapping into an existing one.
Even the best blogger on earth can only generate a limited number of eyeballs if they pick a topic with a limited audience.
If you want to make money blogging, you’ll want to write about an already popular topic. Preferably a popular topic that you are already familiar with and/or passionate about.
A few examples of popular (and generally profitable) blog niches include:
- Personal Finance
- Beauty, Lifestyle and Fashion
- Family and Parenting
- Crafts, DIY and Decor
- Health and Wellness
- Travel (our niche)
For help identifying other popular topics, I would turn to Facebook or Google Trends.
Look for large Facebook Groups with high levels of engagement. Look at Google Trends for breakout topics and far-reaching appeal.
2. We found a great domain name
Every great blog needs a great, easy-to-remember domain name.
A domain name is the URL or address of your site.
For example, the domain name of this site is MorganOverholt.com.
Prices on domains can vary drastically depending on a variety of factors.
Never-before-used domains can go for as little as $1.99 plus annual registration fees.
You can also purchase previously owned domains at a premium from resellers.
Generally speaking, when deciding on a great domain name, you’ll want to strike a balance between brevity, and budget. But try to aim for a domain name between 6-14 characters long for best results.
You can search research availability, and purchase domain names straight from your web host.
This brings us to the next topic …
3. We secured a fast web host with a managed WordPress service
A web host is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a service that hosts your website.
Websites are really just a collection of files and images. Just like you have to store files on your personal computer or on your phone, you’ll need someone to help you “store” or “host” your website.
Think of your web host like an off-site supercomputer.
And I highly recommend looking for a web host that offers managed WordPress services. A managed service that the web host will manage some of the more technical aspects of your site such as installation, maintenance, security and backups.
WordPress is essentially software that, once installed, creates an easy-to-use interface and content management system for your website.
Your web host can install it directly onto your account if you went with the managed account option.
Think of WordPress like a frame of a house. All you have to do is add some drywall, floors and finishing touches versus starting a house build completely from scratch.
Without content management systems like WordPress, we’d all have to become expert coders to manage even the simplest website.
While there are a lot of different platforms out there that can be used to build an effective blog, WordPress is considered to be the industry standard.
And if you truly want to build a website that will grow into a 6-figure business, you’ll want to pick a platform that can scale with you.
Plus, there are a ton of freelancers and web designers who are already familiar with WordPress.
So if you need to hire help to build your site, or make tweaks to your site in the future, it’s much easier to find professional help.
And, it’s fairly easy to learn. For beginners, I recommend using WordPress’s free tutorials.
The importance of speed
I also recommend picking a web host that offers excellent speeds.
In 2021, Google made an update to their algorithm that gave preference to lightweight sites with lightning-fast load times.
And in the blog world, search traffic (or traffic from SEO) is king.
Sure, all traffic is good traffic. But search traffic is where you’ll really make your money as a blogger in the long run.
SEO traffic tends to produce longer session durations (aka more money when you’re monetized) and requires less work than constantly trying to knock out less evergreen content like social media clickbait.
This is why you’ll need both a lightning-fast website host and a super speedy WordPress theme.
Editor’s Note: The best way to test site speed is by using the Google PageSpeed Insights tool. For boosted search rank, you’ll want to be at least in the high-80s, preferably in the high 90s. Usually, the top four things that impact site speed are web host, site theme, cache and plugins. Generally speaking, the fewer plugins you run, the faster your site will be.
Servebolt vs BigScoots
We wanted to experiment with the two services to see which was better. And the truth is, they are about the same.
BigScoots is a little cheaper and I find, a bit more user-friendly. At the time of this writing, BigScoots’ shared hosting packages start at $5.95 and their managed WordPress packages start at $34.95 per month.
Servebolt is a little more expensive, but also seems to be a bit faster. Servebolt also tends to cater to bigger sites. At the time of this writing, their entry-level package starts at $99 per month.
You’ll probably need to be pulling in some serious traffic each month before you can justify hosting a site with Servebolt. We were at the 500k page views per month mark when we made the switch
And both Servebolt and BigScoots offer incredible same-day, responsive customer service.
If budget is an issue, you can always start with one of the smaller shared packages at BigScoots and upgrade later.
For a super-economical option, you may want to take a look at BlueHost. BlueHost offers shared hosting packages for as little as $2.95 per month. They won’t offer nearly the same speeds as the other guys but it’s a cheap way just to get your blog off the ground.
4. We chose a lightweight WordPress theme
Next, you’ll want to choose a lightweight theme that is built for speed.
Our go-to theme for speed and ease of use is GeneratePress.
If WordPress is the frame of the house, the theme is basically the paint and the drywall. It’s the skin of your site.
GeneratePress requires virtually no coding as it mostly relies on a “drag and drop” editor (Gutenburg).
Plus, GeneratePress seems to be one of the more popular themes among bloggers. It’s well supported, with plenty of documentation.
And there’s an entire community of people out there who are already using it. Have an issue with GeneratePress? Just Google it. You’ll find a solution in no time. Or ask GeneratePress’s premium support team.
And here’s the best part, there’s also a free version.
That’s right, GeneratePress ranges in price from free to $59 for a premium multi-site annual subscription to $249 for a multi-site lifetime subscription.
We started with the free version and eventually upgraded.
5. We created pretty keyword-rich permalinks
This is a quick and important tip that will save you a ton of time and headache down the road.
We, unfortunately, didn’t understand the importance of having pretty permalinks when we initially launched our blog and ended up having to pay to have them redone and redirected.
Don’t make that same mistake.
Before you launch your site, or at least very early on in the process, simply go into your WordPress permalink settings and changing the URL structure to “post name”.
By default, your WordPress permalinks will look something like this:
And you really want something pretty like this:
This setting can be found on the left-hand sidebar of your WordPress dashboard. Select “Settings” and then “Permalinks”.
Why are pretty permalinks important?
Over the lifetime of your site, you’ll want to continuously update and optimize your articles. And the last thing you want is to feel limited in your ability to do so by trapping yourself into a date format.
Also, search engines prefer simple URL structures with targeted keyphrases in the slug rather than long-winded or cryptic paths.
If you’ve had your site for a while, and wish to switch from one of the other structures to “post name”, I suggest hiring a service like iMark Interactive to set up redirects in the database, which will help preserve backlinks that might still contain the old post format.
Plus, iMark Interactive is affordable. We only paid about $100 for several hundred redirects.
While results may vary, most bloggers report a small initial dip in traffic after making the switch, and an uptick in the months that follow.
6. We subscribed to Semrush
I always advise people to only spend money they can afford to lose when starting any new business venture. Nothing in life is certain, and success is never guaranteed.
But if it is within your budget, I highly recommend subscribing to Semrush.
We discovered Semrush after networking with other successful bloggers.
We were dubious at first, especially after seeing the price tag of $119 per month (eek). But it ended up being a game-changer for our business.
Semrush is an SEO and marketing tool that will scan your website and your competitor’s websites to show exactly what you need to do to improve your rankings, and eventually blow the other guys out of the water.
Semrush also offers keyword research tools which we use daily when coming up with ideas for new articles.
If I had to credit a single tool for teaching us how to become excellent bloggers, the credit goes to Semrush.
It turns out, you don’t need a course to become an SEO expert after all.
Terms like “keyword research” and “backlinks” were all Greek to me before being introduced to Semrush.
Not sure if the investment in Semrush is worth it? Just take their 7-day trial for a spin.
I know we wouldn’t have had nearly the levels of success we have today if it hadn’t been for this powerful tool.
7. We publish consistently, on a schedule
Sure, the more you write, and the more you can publish, the better off you’ll be. But velocity isn’t everything. It’s consistency that is key.
We try to publish or update something on our big blog almost every day. But that’s an unrealistic goal for new bloggers, especially if you have a day job or don’t have help.
On my newer, smaller blogger, I tend to publish once a week.
And I know many successful bloggers who tend to publish once or twice a month.
Whatever sort of content schedule you land on, just strive to make it as consistent as possible.
8. We learned how to properly format a post
One of the biggest lessons we learned over the past year is how to format a blog post for SEO.
I used to think that good SEO was just about making sure you were sprinkling in a healthy amount of keywords.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We spent our first year in business carefully examining the habits of other already successful bloggers. And it turns out, there are certain patterns that almost all top bloggers employ when formatting a post for SEO.
- Making sure every post is at least 700 words long.
- Keeping your titles less than 70 characters in length.
- Using low competition key phrases in your titles and subheads.
- Using plenty of pictures with detailed alt tags and captions.
- Including a video (and other mixed media like infographics) whenever possible.
- Using the Yoast WordPress plugin and striving for green readability.
- Using targeted keyphrase in your URL.
Again, if you are ever unsure about how to make these tweaks to your website, just hire a freelance professional to help out.
9. We maintain a stock-site subscription
This is a touchy subject for many.
As a freelance graphic designer by day, I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had with clients, other freelancers and fellow bloggers about copyright infringement.
While I’m no lawyer, I understand more about this subject than most.
So let’s get a few frequently asked questions out of the way before we talk about why it’s important to just pay for a stock photography subscription:
Can I legally use Google Images?
No, you cannot legally use anything you happen to find on Google Images.
Google Images is just a random collection of images on the internet, and most are copyrighted.
I personally know a guy who was sued for taking pictures off of Google Images. The suit cost his company $10,000, and he ultimately lost his job as a result.
Unless you’ve obtained written permission from the originator, it’s theft.
Is Wikipedia public domain or fair use?
Technically, images uploaded to Wikipedia are supposed to be public domain and free of copyright restrictions as written in Wikipedia’s terms of service.
But, and this is a big but, there’s no way of knowing whether or not the person who uploaded the pic had the right to do so in the first place or was the original copyright owner.
So if you take something from Wikipedia and claim it as public domain, and the real author happens to see it on your site, they could still sue you.
It’s just not a risk you should take.
What is public domain and fair use?
The rules around public domain and fair use are confusing, to say the least.
These terms are commonly used in reference to a creation that is not or is no longer protected by copyright law.
If you want to get into the weeds about this subject I suggest you take a look at Cornell University’s detailed explanation of public domain or Stanford University’s article on fair use. As you can see in both articles these topics are far more complicated than what most people make them out to be. And I more often see people incorrectly claim fair use and public domain than not.
With those FAQs out of the way, it’s important for you, the new blogger, to know that it’s always better to be safe rather than sorry when working with images that do not belong to you.
And blogs are sitting ducks for predatory law firms.
We’ve been threatened before
Even as careful as we are, every few months or so we receive a threatening email from a photographer making accusations about copyright infringement.
And every time it happens, we simply show them our license information alongside proof of purchase, and they immediately back down.
Maintaining a small stock site subscription from a reputable company is, to us, a nominal expense that helps us sleep better at night rather than trying to save a couple of bucks and play loosey-goosey with intellectual property law
Even better, whenever possible, just use your own photos.
Both Google and social media tend to prefer unique content anyway.
10. We built a strategic presence on social media
Speaking of social media, you’ll want to develop a strong social media presence for your blog early in the process.
While SEO traffic is the name of the game, it takes months to develop real traction on Google.
In the early days, we relied heavily on social media to get our traffic numbers up and generate a small stream of affiliate income.
I recommend focusing heavily on traffic-generating social media, like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Instagram and TikTok are great, but they aren’t built to convert eyeballs into traffic beyond a simple “link in bio”.
We post at least once a day on our Facebook Page, Facebook Group and Twitter. We post multiple times a week on Pinterest.
11. We monetized
There are a variety of ways for bloggers to make money.
Main sources of income usually include:
- Programmatic ads
- Affiliate sales
- Digital downloads
- Online courses
Our biggest income streams are currently affiliate marketing and ads.
Affiliate marketing is the process of selling an item or service for a commission.
You try out a product or service, write about it on your blog and recommend it to your readers. If your reader purchases that product or service based on your recommendation, you receive a small kickback.
Editor’s Note: Only promote items you actually use and love. Dishonest product recommendations and affiliate marketing will break your audience’s trust.
There are plenty of affiliate programs out there that are a breeze to get into, have no minimum traffic requirements, and maintain decent commission payouts like Amazon and Commission Junction.
To find specific affiliate programs in your niche, think about the types of services and products you would naturally promote, Google “company name, affiliate program” and apply if it exists.
Sure, you might get a few “nos” in the beginning. But you only need a few “yeses” to start generating a small, steady stream of cash flow.
After a few months, if your blog is bringing in a steady stream of traffic, you’ll be able to apply to ad networks where you’ll get the chance to make some real passive income – my favorite!
An ad network is a service that acts as a broker between publishers and advertisers. The ad network works with potential advertisers to decide what kind of ads will work best for both parties and then works with you, the publisher, on how to best display them on your site.
Look, I get it, ads are annoying. They make an otherwise pretty blog ugly.
But ya know what makes it less annoying? Money in my bank account.
The first month we installed programmatic ads on our blog we made almost $1,500. In our best month, (so far) we pulled in $34,000 in ad revenue alone.
Popular ad networks include:
- Google Adsense
Mediavine vs AdThrive
Mediavine and AdThrive are both titans in the ad industry.
We’ve used both services and to tell you the truth it’s hard to say which one is “better”.
Mediavine is an easier program to get into with a 50,000 session per month minimum.
AdThrive is considered to be a more exclusive program – working with fewer than 3,000 blogs in the entire world – at a 100,000 session minimum per month.
We found both Mediavine and AdThrive to be excellent partners with hyper-responsive customer service and a dedicated team of professionals who are constantly churning out new tools for bloggers to boost their earnings.
We did ultimately end up making more money with AdThrive – but truthfully, it’s hard to know if that’s because they offered higher RPMs or our traffic started taking off around the time of our switch.
At the end of the day, it’s safe to say that you’ll be in great hands with either program.
Editor’s Note: As a bonus benefit, both companies offer exclusive member-only Facebook Groups featuring other successful bloggers. We’ve learned a great deal about blogging by just being a part of these supportive and successful communities.
12. We hired freelancers to scale
If you’re making your way through this article and thinking to yourself – there’s no way I can do all of this by myself. You’re probably right.
Blogging, at the end of the day, is a business just like any other. And you will likely need help if you want to scale it into a 6-figure business.
I strongly recommend using freelancers to make it happen.
Tapping into freelance talent is an amazing way to scale as needed without making the financial commitment to onboard a regular part-time or full-time employee.
It also infinitely expands your talent pool.
It can, at times, be difficult to find specific niche skills in your own backyard.
Start by outsourcing the simpler tasks like social media management, post uploading or even writing.
Hopefully, by the time you consider hiring freelancers, the business will already be paying for itself and then some.
13. We started utilizing video content
Once you’ve been accepted into an ad program, you’re going to want to utilize video ads as soon as possible.
Video ads produce the highest RPMs and currently comprise about 25%-30% of our monthly revenue.
Plus, you can repurpose the content to create a YouTube channel – which might qualify for additional monetization after the first 1,000 subscribers. Double cha-ching!
If you’re a current AdThrive or Mediavine subscriber and haven’t been including video ads on every page, contact your customer service representative today to get started. You won’t regret it.
14. We continuously update and optimize
Last, but not least, we recommend updating and optimizing your articles over time.
We are constantly updating old articles to ensure they remain relevant with an excellent SEO rank.
And we are always looking for new ways to improve our content with unique, keyword-rich content and mixed media.
Not to mention, it’s also easier to just update an article sometimes rather than write something fresh every day.
Our weekly to-do lists usually contain a healthy mix of both new and updated content, just to keep the site as relevant as it can be.
Products mentioned in this article
To recap, below you will find the entire list of products and services mentioned in this article.
Recommended web hosts:
Recommended WordPress theme:
Recommended WordPress IT professionals:
Recommended SEO subscription:
Recommended stock photography sites:
Recommended push and e-mail blast plugins:
Recommended freelance marketplaces:
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