What I Wish I’d Known: 30 Tips For Starting A Blog After A Decade Of Blogging
Starting a blog is both super exciting and quite daunting…and somehow it’s been over 5 years since I launched One Girl, Whole World. It’s been amazing to see the big picture of growth over that time, from a tiny trickle of visitors for the first year or two, to more than 25,000 a month today.
And it’s led me to look back and reflect on key decisions and learnings along the way that have helped with (or hindered) my growth. So I wanted to share some helpful tips for starting a blog…things I’ve learned in the past six years of travel blogging, as well as 10+ years running other blogs.
These are things I’ve often learned the hard way, and I want to share this so YOU don’t have to. And they apply to any kind of blog, not only the travel category.
Rather than the hundreds of “how to start a travel blog” posts out there that are walking you through specific steps (and are great), this is more about avoiding common mistakes or starting out on the right foot—saving you time and improving your blog’s success in the long run.
Don’t rush through the setup
I definitely learned this the hard way, because it’s tempting to want to just get to POSTING. But there are several absolutely critical decisions you make right at the outset that many newer bloggers rush through…and then regret later.
My biggest piece of advice for how to start a blog is to take a little extra time in the beginning to think through key decisions. Here are some things you need to consider…
Realize that starting a blog or website isn’t “free”
Even though you can do it fairly cheaply, starting a blog isn’t free. Generally you’re looking at $100-250 at a minimum to get up and running (for domain name, hosting, and possibly a theme or website builder), and then there will be ongoing costs from there (essential plugins and ongoing maintenance, for instance).
And if you’re only starting a blog as a personal diary and not for anyone to see it, you may be able to get away with that. But if your goal is growing traffic over time, getting a following in various channels, and possibly monetizing in some way, that takes more time, effort, and (yes) money. Which takes us to the next point…
Balance immediate and future needs
When you’re starting out, obviously you have zero traffic, your site isn’t taking up any space on a server, and most people don’t want to spend a ton of money upfront. And so you don’t need the “Mercedes package” blogging setup right away.
However, you should compare different pricing and scaling options (whether for hosting, domain, specific plug-ins or technology, etc.) to understand what future costs would look like. And that may mean choosing a different and slightly more expensive host company (and maybe paying for a year or more ahead of time) to keep future expenses more manageable. I would not go with the free WordPress-hosted setup.
If you’re going to spend money, I’d do it more on the server/host side first, find a free website theme that is fast and light, and then consider either spending some money on blogging education tools, or a couple of plugins or tools that are worth paying for (whether that’s Tailwind, Photoshop, decent camera equipment, storage space on Google Drive for backing up your site, etc).
Your host and server MATTER
Related to the previous tip, you should do a bit of research on your host before committing. Again, it’s tempting to find the cheapest you can, but that won’t always be a great long-term option.
I started with Bluehost and while I found their customer service good, the server speed was slow and my site started going down frequently (due to the shared server it was on, someone else’s site was causing it).
A few years ago I switched to SiteGround and have been pretty happy with them. I think the quality of customer service has decreased a bit recently (harder to talk to a real person, and they’re not quite as knowledgeable or helpful), but I’m still pretty happy and I don’t need customer service often (which is a selling point in and of itself).
Some others I’ve had recommended by my blogging community are WPX, Cloudways, Lyrical Host, and A2 (all have varying degrees of packages and cost levels, so worth checking out.
Some key considerations for choosing will be security, “up time”, customer service options (stay away from companies that only offer forum/FAQ vs. real people), whether they provide SSL, and costs (over time, as well as when scaling up).
Take time to think about your site structure before launching
I talk about this in my in-depth SEO guide as well, but the structure and hierarchy of your site is really important, as are the categories you choose and what you name everything. While these elements can be changed later on, it’s quite a hassle to do so, raises the risk of error, and can have long-term SEO implications.
One thing that’s considered a best practice is just having your post URLs directly follow your domain name (e.g. onegirlwholeworld/post-link/) rather than having a primary category (e.g. /onegirlwholeworld/category/post-link/). This simplifies things when you want to change up your categories later (though is not, as you can see, what I’ve done).
Think ahead about what key post categories you think your posts would fall into. For me, after a lot of deliberation I went with continent as the primary parent categories, with countries under that. I also have a number of categories based on experiences (e.g. boat trips, adventure, luxury) or specific needs (like reviews or detailed itineraries).
Don’t make too many sub-categories, though, as URLs with too many “levels” don’t have as good of SEO. And I definitely recommend that you have the URL structure based on categories, rather than the default to post date.
Make sure you understand canonical URLs
And set them up from the get-go. Unless you set up your post URLs to directly follow the domain name (as discussed above), then you’ll likely be choosing multiple categories for a post and if you’re also using category within your URL structure then you need to ensure you’re setting a “canonical URL” (primary category). I think most SEO plugins like Yoast and SEOPress let you do it.
A canonical URL basically tells search engines what the “official” post is, which content is the primary they should look at. Additionally, if you are doing multiple posts that are very similar and going after the same keyword, it’s also good to set a canonical URL for that content because having duplicate content can mean that none of the posts are able to rank or gain traction in organic search.
Choose a site theme well…make a list, check it twice.
Some people care a lot about how their website looks aesthetically, and others not so much. I definitely care about the look, but don’t want it to be at the expense of either user experience or site speed, and so it’s important to think ahead of time about what you’re looking for.
Make a detailed list of all your site them requirements and “wishlist” qualities, and then decide which are your dealbreaker requirements. Make sure to read through ratings for the themes and who created it, and go with a well-known developer if possible. Here are some things that are always on my list:
- A great experience on mobile, fully functional; make sure to preview/demo all themes on your phone!
- Fast load time (absolutely critical, choosing a slow theme WILL hold you back)
- Theme support and updates (and if you run into issues, can you get help from the developer?)
- How customizable it is (e.g. fonts, colors, layouts), what plugins and widgets it comes with
- Ability to integrate with ad or affiliate platforms (depending on your plans)
Ultimately, keep it simple for your first one, and go for something light and speedy. This is something many people focus too much on when figuring out how to start a travel blog, but the reality is that changing themes later is totally doable.
Consider getting rid of Jetpack right away
For WordPress sites, Jetpack tends to come auto-installed. And there are definitely some benefits to it, but in my experience Jetpack also tends to slow down/weigh down sites. So it’s worth researching ahead and figuring out what elements you will need, and find alternatives instead so that it never gets published/installed on your site.
For instance, you can get Akismet to manage comment spam, your own forms plugin, a good site backup option (I’m a huge Updraft fan), a security plugin (I love Wordfence), a plugin for managing social media buttons (I strongly recommend finding your own anyway, Smash Balloon is good), etc.
While having an “all-in-one” plugin sounds great, and can simplify things early on, it’s much harder to replace it later and you can run into issues when doing so (I definitely did).
Think about plug-in needs upfront and don’t go overboard
In that same vein, it’s tempting to pile on plug-ins to fill all sorts of gaps, or just because they’re cool. But every plug-in you add can slow down you site, and also can cause issues if the plug-in has issues, gets hacked, etc. Look for ones that show compatibility with your CMS (often WordPress), are updated frequently, and have good reviews and customer service. Here are some starter ideas.
- An SEO tool – SEOPress or Yoast Premium are both good
- Site protection – A good cloud-based site backup option (I love Updraft Backup), Akismet Anti-Spam, Wordfence for login security & firewalls,
- Something for social distribution – I’ve used both Grow Social by Mediavine and Social Pug; Facebook Pixel
- An image compression tool (more on that below) – Smush and Shortpixel are both good options
Set up Google Analytics and learn a bit about it
It is really easy to learn the basics of Google Analytics, and it’s critical that you set up your own analytics profiles rather than just relying on your native WordPress or whatever “counters”. That doesn’t mean you need to become an expert, but you should grasp the basics. There are SO many tutorials on YouTube and deep blog posts walking you through setup and providing a good overview.
The easiest way to implement the code on your blog will likely be using a plugin, whether a dedicated Google Analytics one, or (my current approach) your SEO plugin (SEOPress allows me to easily implement both current Google Analytics and the new GA4 code. Make sure everything is working correctly, and then you’ll be able to monitor things like bounce rate (people who leave from the page they landed on), time spent, where your traffic is coming from, highest traffic posts (to see what’s “popping”), and more.
Now the tricky thing here is that Google has announced that the new GA4 analytics will be fully replacing what we’ve used as Google Analytics for like 15+ years. For me, I’m running both concurrently right now, but if you’re just getting started I’d just learn all about GA4 and start with only that.
Research whether you should get a CDN
Honestly I’m still a little confused about CDNs and how it all works, and all the pros and cons. If you have an image-heavy site (which I definitely do), it’s generally going to be a good idea. So do your research and figure out what makes the most sense for your site (here’s an article to get you started).
Get your “basics” pages done early on
You don’t need to recreate the wheel, it’s pretty standard language so copy and paste (you’re welcome to use mine) and tailor as needed. If you’re doing any tracking on your site, like cookies for advertising, you’ll want to read up on GDPR and CCPA to make sure you understand your responsibilities. Same for if you’re doing affiliate marketing or partnering with brands, read on FCC disclosures.
And then there are the About and Contact pages…you don’t have to make them amazing, but do make sure you have one!
Make time and plan for site maintenance!
One of the things that most people don’t realize is how incredibly time-consuming (and often tedious) blogging can be. Even if it’s just a passion project rather than your main job, it takes a lot of time to keep things running smoothly.
Beyond actual content creation, you need to think about regularly checking your analytics, backing up the site, updating plugins, troubleshooting problems (sooo many, and so random), security, checking for broken links, researching new technology platforms when needed, and much more.
Create a great publishing process at the outset
Resize, rename, & compress your images!
This is so key! One of my most important tips for starting a blog is getting a handle on your images. Cameras (and phones) today produce insane file sizes, and you’ll use up your server’s disk space in an instant if you don’t take this step.
And that ends up being a costly mistake that’s difficult and time-consuming to fix. It also massively slows down your site, which prevents it from being successful.
You can use a simple free photo editing tool like Photopea to resize images prior to uploading. I recommend looking at the max width of your website, then add a little padding. For me, I use 1200 pixel width as my resizing anchor, then export as a 90% quality JPEG file. This takes most images from 2-4MB+ to about 300KB.
Then manually, or using a bulk renaming tool (you can find one for free), rename all of them. I usually just add a few words on the front-end of the file, like “douro_winery_tours_”, and this helps with SEO over time as well. Finally, it’s good to use an image compression plugin like ShortPixel or Smush to optimize the size as it’s uploaded.
Have a “checklist” before you hit Publish
You’ve spent all this time writing a great blog post and you just want to get it out in the world! But the fact is, there are a number of steps you’ll want to take before you set it live, to make sure it shines—and to prevent having to try and fix things later, when it’s much harder.
Check that you’ve got the URL name the way you want it, that you’ve set your canonical URL, included your target keywords naturally for good SEO, you’ve included a featured image, that the formatting previews correctly, you’ve written an SEO title and meta description, included alt image text, included good internal linking, and more. That isn’t everything, but should get you started.
EDIT. EDIT. EDIT.
Nothing screams “amateur” (or “not legit”) like a poorly-edited blog post. Spelling mistakes, poor grammar, run-on sentences, and the like do not make you look professional or believable, and can keep people from following you.
I usually write in “stream of consciousness” mode to get my thoughts down, but then go back through and move things around for flow, clarify, refine, and streamline. Or realize I left out a word. Don’t be in such a rush to publish that you forget to go through and read your post to make sure it’s good.
Don’t try to do everything at once—you’ll burn out
It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and—in particular on the technical front—try to do too much. While all of this info can feel overwhelming, I’m sharing all of this to help you know what needs to be in your consideration set, so you can make decisions on your priorities early on. Remember that there’s a big learning curve here, and you need to be patient.
For instance, you may look at your content and areas of expertise, and decide that while you’ll start an email list, creating a “content magnet” isn’t the highest priority. Or that you’ll grab your social channels immediately, but early on you’ll put minimal effort into all but one of them (e.g. YouTube if video is your focus, Pinterest if long-form posts, etc).
The good thing is that if you set things up technically at first, you won’t have to do as much maintenance or troubleshooting, and that will save you time.
Have a plan for getting seen
If you’re working through how to start a blog, you have to remember that visibility is key—blogging is definitely not a case of “if you build it they will come”. You have to work HARD to make sure people actually see the content you’re pouring your heart and soul (and time and energy) into.
Make sure you understand SEO
SEO is a massive topic and you don’t need to be an expert to be successful. You *do* need to understand the principles though. SEO efforts fall into two main areas—technical and content. You can’t ignore either.
I have a detailed guide to SEO for first-timers that can definitely get you started on the most important areas and how to approach them. It covers everything from the super basics (mobile responsiveness, page load time) to keyword research, internal and external linking, image naming and resizing, Google Search Console, and much more.
It’s a lot harder to go back and try and fix a lot of stuff, so if you can begin with good SEO habits from the start you’ll be more successful. Just know it takes time…in year 1 of this blog less than 1% of my <1,000 monthly visitors came from organic search. Year 2 was 15% out of 6K monthly visitors, and today it’s almost 50% out of almost 30K monthly visitors. It really does add up!
Determine your primary methods of content distribution
Take a bit of time to think about who would find the type of content you’re producing useful. What are they looking for? What types of people are they? Are there similarities in geography, age, behaviors, or some other characteristic that you can keep in mind? And then where would do they look for stuff?
Based on that, how would your content fit in those places? Different search and social platforms have various strengths. Think about how you approach things yourself…if you’re looking for some inspiration you might browse PInterest or scroll Instagram. If you’re wanting an in-depth review, you’ll maybe search Google or Pinterest, go on TripAdvisor, or watch a YouTube video. Your audience is just the same.
And one last thing on content distribution…similar to having a checklist for before you publish a post, the work doesn’t stop when you publish. You should have a checklist for afterward that makes sure you are getting your content distributed to the best of your ability (here’s one for inspiration).
Go ahead and grab all your social channels
Depending on what you decided about content distribution, you may not see social as a big focus, and that’s totally okay. But even if so, you should go ahead and get your social handles secured and set up. Yes, you’ll have focus platforms but I’d still recommend locking down the handles/accounts on all major platforms and setting up a basic presence.
For instance, you may decide that Facebook and Instagram aren’t major platforms for you, and you’ll focus instead on YouTube and Pinterest. That’s great and helps you spend your time efficiently. But you should still set up accounts on Facebook and Instagram so that 1) no one else can take your name, and 2) if someone looks for you there, you can capture and direct them to your primary channels. Many consumers go to social as a first step in learning about a creator or business.
Start your email list right away!
This is one I really kick myself for, and is one of my top tips for starting a blog. It took me years to start an email list, and longer than that to do anything with it. But people who sign up for your emails are literally asking for you to talk to them and provide value! And in return, they’re often a more engaged audience for products or brands you want to promote.
You’ll need to choose an email provider, and I definitely recommend going simple to start. I use Mailerlite, and they’re free up to 1,000 subscribers. I find their interface very easy to use. One thing to consider right away is making a content “magnet”, which is basically just something you provide for free if someone signs up…like a downloadable packing list, your top 10 recipes in a PDF, etc.
Don’t ignore Pinterest
For certain categories such as travel, lifestyle, food, and fashion, Pinterest can be a critical distribution platform. It’s much harder than it used to be to gain traction organically (as with all social platforms), but I still get several thousand visits a month (and that’s with travel just now recovering from COVID).
What’s great about Pinterest is that it’s “sticky”…meaning content on there lives forever. Where an Instagram post is there for maybe a day and then basically never seen again, pins will show up years later if someone’s searching. It really straddles the line between social and search, and Pinterest users are often more primed for taking action (e.g. actively planning a trip). And it’s visual!
Set yourself up for success
It’s common for new bloggers to be really excited and jump right in, write and post as much and as often as possible. But they burn out quickly because it’s a lot of work and they start putting artificial pressure on themselves to deliver.
You should figure out a rough publishing cadence that works for you and your life—based on other life commitments (work, family, travel), your energy level and focus, free time, etc. For me, I have a demanding job and so I try and find time to work on new posts in the evenings and occasionally early morning. But I get the bulk of my writing and publishing done on the weekends.
I also balance and alternate getting out really deep, time-consuming posts by sprinkling in shorter “snack” posts…e.g. if I’m working on a really deep itinerary article, I’ll also throw in a “where to find the best donuts in Chicago” post as well, which doesn’t take too long and lets me get something new out weekly.
Plan ahead and consider seasonality too. For travel, that means thinking about travel patterns, so if you know a destination will be very popular in the summer, consider writing about it in the early spring, so it has time to gain SEO traction when people are planning—and then re-post it on your social channels occasionally as summer approaches.
Think about the breadth and depth of your content at a high level
As you’re figuring out how to start a travel blog, I’ve found that a balance of in-depth posts and shorter focused ones works best. This isn’t only to help me manage my time, however.
What I’ve found is that the different types of posts serve different purposes and succeed in different areas. So I always strive for a blend of specificity (the best Lisbon rooftop bar), in-depth (7-day Argentina itinerary), reviews (very popular and useful), and some miscellaneous, fun things. And have found that what does well in Google organic search is different from what pops in Pinterest.
For instance, historically my top organic search posts (traffic-wise) are a super deep 7-day Turkey itinerary, a shorter “sunrise at Bryce Canyon”, and an in-depth resort review from Cancun. On Pinterest over the same two-year period, my top posts were a waterfall hike in Oregon, an Asheville “things to do” post, and a Portland “things to do” post. Anecdotally I’ve found my super in-depth multi-day itinerary posts do really well in organic search, while more focused posts often have traction for longer on Pinterest.
Keep a running list of topic ideas or just set up new drafts for new post ideas. Many people find an actual content or editorial calendar useful as well…I don’t because my “day job” also includes content calendars so it makes blogging (which is a hobby) feel like work. But it also means I have the experience to mentally content plan, so if you’re new to this I’d recommend trying a simple content calendar. There are many free tools, or just use Excel.
Quality beats quantity
There’s a temptation to feel like you have to churn out tons of posts, but the quality and depth of your content is much more important than frequency. Pushing out daily—or even weekly—posts isn’t necessary if you’re creating quality content, and if Google believes your content isn’t useful or that it feels spammy/hacky, they will keep your site from ranking high in search results.
Being consistent and writing rich content is what’s critical. Over time it’s also important to keep your content up-to-date so it’s evergreen and continuously useful (that doesn’t mean you can’t do posts that are more timely or “in the moment”, just that those likely won’t be a long-term SEO benefit.
And don’t get caught up in the “guest post” game, giving away your good content to other sites just to get a backlink back to yours. Guest posts can play a role in your SEO and visibility strategy long-term, but it shouldn’t be the first thing you focus on when starting your blog.
Find your voice!
I sometimes struggle with this, and my blog writing is a really good creative exercise for me…I have a journalism, academic, and business writing background, and I have to work harder to bring my “human” voice and personality to my writing.
But unless you’re writing a dry encyclopedia entry, you’ll want to figure out what makes your content feel like…YOU. Try talking out loud as you type/write without a filter, then go back and edit for clarity, grammar, and punctuation.
Images are critical to user experience
For most (though not all) types of content, including some visuals within your blog posts is important to keep users engaged. You’ll want to break up blocks of text every so often with related images, charts, or graphics to make it easier to read and more appealing (this, for instance, is probably my most text-heavy post ever). Having at least one image also helps when a post is shared on social, improving shareability and attention.
And because of that, understanding how images impact SEO is important. This simple guide to image SEO can help point you in the right directions…and one of the first things to remember is what I shared above about resizing and compressing your images.
Video is a huge opportunity
And I’ll be the first to admit it’s not really my strength or something I enjoy as much, so I don’t leverage this nearly as often as I should. But I’m trying! It was actually one of my travel intentions for 2022, and I’ve pushed myself to capture more video clips while traveling, and have started playing around with rudimentary YouTube videos and IG Reels more.
Social platforms and even (to some extent) search results are giving more preference to video in their algorithms, so using video can really improve your blog’s overall visibility over time. You can start small and find free or cheap video editing software, or focus solely on native social platforms’ video editing options (e.g. IG Reels, I assume TikTok has a similar capability) to start.
Consider how you want to approach affiliate income
One of the biggest tips for starting a blog that you don’t always see mentioned is that you can get started with affiliate income right away. I was really late to the game here, and only started implementing affiliate links in the past few years. But you absolutely should think about it early on, at least within your first few months, and then you can begin earning what is called “passive” income.
Now let me be clear, that DOESN’T mean going nuts with affiliate links and ads from the beginning. This can make your blog look cheap and spammy to search engines.
Instead, think ahead about your content, the value you’re providing to your readers, and then what types of affiliate links may be the most natural fit. For a travel blog like mine, Amazon is the easy first choice. You don’t make as much, but it’s massive and easy to do.
Then from there I’ve expanded into Booking.com (a great program) and some of the aggregators (e.g. FlexOffers, ShareASale, etc). I’ve also recently started adding Viator and GetYourGuide for tours and excursions. I’m super sad that Airbnb killed their affiliate program, because it was amazing.
For me, trust is really important. I don’t recommend or include affiliate links to products or services that I haven’t tried. My rule is, if I wouldn’t recommend to a friend, I don’t recommend it on my blog. BUT I also am not desperately trying to make my blogs a money-making venture. I have a (more than) full-time job that does well, and this is a passion project, which gives me the freedom to choose slow healthy growth over fast money.
Other bloggers take a different approach, and it’s not wrong necessarily as long as you make sure you’re being honest and not transparent about the relationship. Disclosure is also critical—both for trust and to stay within the law (read more on that here and here).
This post is a deep-dive on affiliate marketing that can help get you started if you want to learn more.
Consider formatting and readability
Exactly what works for your blog will vary depending on the type of content you’re publishing, in which industry/topic, who your readership is (demographics, mobile vs. desktop), and other factors. But in general there are a few best practices that can help
It’s best to avoid really long paragraphs, and instead break them up into smaller chunks. Consider formatting such as lists, bullets or numbering, different levels of headings, and bolding, underlining, or changing the color of some pieces of text to draw a reader’s attention to something particularly important. These are elements of professional/business writing that many bloggers do not apply to their personal writing nearly as often as they should.
And then there’s the overall formatting and readability of your site, which also includes your theme and various plugins you may have incorporated. This is one of the reasons I don’t have any traditional ads (banners) implemented on my site—as a reader, I tend to hate them. And that’s not because I hate ads, but because they’re usually super intrusive, formatted weird, and keep me from getting the info I need, especially on mobile.
But it’s not only ads that can cause readability issues on your blog. Social plugins, newsletter sign-up pop-ups or overlays, and more can really mess with your site and cause a poor reader experience. Make sure you actually visit your site as a regular person (and have friends do the same) to make sure the experience is good. Don’t sacrifice user experience (UX) for a gimmick.
Don’t get upset by negative comments
I’ll leave you with this thought on how to start a blog…listen, haters gonna hate. And this is really hard for me sometimes, but you just have to realize that people on the internet will always find something negative to say. And they have no issue saying in a much more terrible way to a stranger online than they’d ever have the guts to say in person.
To be in the blogging world and succeed, you MUST develop a thick skin. I sometimes have to force myself to laugh out loud and roll my eyes when I get a particularly negative comment…there’s actual science to this, because the physical act of both the laughing and rolling my eyes signals to my brain that it doesn’t need to stress about this.
And when it comes to comments (whether on your blog or on social), you have to determine what you will and won’t respond to, and how. Remember that other people don’t own you and YOU control what goes on your blog. Don’t feel obligated to approve every comment, or respond to everyone.
So I know this has been a LOT, but hopefully this helps provide a realistic picture of what starting and growing a successful blog looks like, and lots of advice for avoiding issues. Please don’t hesitate to leave questions or additional tips in the comments—I want this to be as useful as possible to others who are early in their blogging journey!
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