One of the most common questions I get asked is “How did you become a full-time blogger?”. So I thought I’d write an article to answer it. And then I thought, why not back up, tell the whole story, and probably give you more background info on me than you ever wanted?
How I first became a part-time blogger
I actually didn’t start out blogging. In 1996, I started teaching myself web design and affiliate marketing. Life was very different in these olden times. Google didn’t exist. “Social media” wasn’t even a thing. Neither was WordPress. Nobody much had heard of Amazon. In fact, there was hardly any shopping on the web, and absolutely no self-respecting company had a website! Telephones were tied to walls, and you couldn’t even pause a TV show!
Back then, the only ways to make money on the web were affiliate marketing or selling your own product. You bought a domain, you found a host for it, you hand coded every single page, and uploaded them through FTP software. This gave me a good technical understanding of website code, which bloggers today don’t need so much, but you’d be surprised how much it can help.
The arrival of Google
By the early 2000’s, Google had exploded onto the scene and quickly become the only way anybody could find your site. If you weren’t in the top three on Google, no one knew you existed. (Every time I’m tempted to complain about Facebook’s algorithm, I just think back to those days.)
Then Google stole an idea from an old search engine called Goto, and that idea evolved into AdSense. Now suddenly, there was a third way to make money on the web: selling ad space. Webmasters came out of the woodwork to start websites. Google’s algorithms were relatively unsophisticated back then, and these webmasters figured it how to game them. All you had to do was take a high-paying phrase from AdSense and pepper it all through the text of the site, whether it made the slightest sense or not. Seriously, you’d have websites that took a few paragraphs about whatever, and then just tossed a phrase like “monkey wrench” into the middle of sentences.
And so spam was born. My pride would never let me make a spam site, so I left a lot of money on the table. Some people were seriously raking it in.
The obsession with spam
And so began Google’s eternal crusade to kill spam. They banned and penalized sites. They closed AdSense accounts without warning, and there was nothing you could do – absolutely no way to contact them, back then. But the spammers kept upping their game, too. Google got more and more aggressive, targeting affiliate links, text links they imagined might have been bought (they had no way of knowing, so there were lots of false positives), sponsored posts, sites that put ads too close to text… Oh, the list went on forever, and everyone got increasingly paranoid. Some people, in private forums I can’t link to, have speculated that paranoia was Google’s actual goal. They called it “Google FUD.”
The worst part: Google would not tell us what they were banning or penalizing. Even if you were building websites the right way – with a focus on visitors, not to game Google’s algorithm – you could still suddenly drop to the third page of Google and have no idea what sin you had committed. SEOs made full-time work out of trying to figure out what Google was after.
This is when I decided I needed more than one website, in case Google banned or penalized any of them.
The arrival of WordPress
In about 2003, a blogging platform called B2 forked into something called WordPress. Back then, blogging was supposed to be personal. Anyone who put an ad on a blog was considered a hideous, corrupt greed monster. Remember, at this point, major stores, banks and restaurants didn’t even own domains. Many people wanted the web to stay free of commerce. But on the other hand, unemployed folks were still recovering from the Dot-Com Crash of 2000, and Adsense was a great way to earn some income.
I was running several affiliate marketing websites, and I also had a passion topic I wanted to blog about. So I did two things everyone thought was crazy: I started a blog with ads, and I converted some of my affiliate marketing websites to WordPress even though I wasn’t formatting them like blogs. It was a lot easier than hand coding pages, and once I taught myself enough PHP, it was easy to make a WordPress site look just about any way you wanted. Note that we didn’t have paid themes that did the coding for you back then. Because I had to do it all myself, to this day I can troubleshoot a theme that isn’t doing what I want it to do, without paying a designer and wondering if their work was solid.
At this point, webmasters didn’t take bloggers seriously, and the idea of being a full-time blogger seemed impossible. I called myself a “webmaster” to avoid the stigma.
What I learned
By now I knew HTML, CSS and just enough PHP to be dangerous. I had also been studying marketing and testing ad networks other than AdSense. My sites adhered not to “what works on Adsense”, but proven, tested marketing methods that would still work even if Google disappeared. I had no interest in relying solely on Google and AdSense, or any other “all your eggs in one basket” solution. I couldn’t afford Photoshop, but I’d found GIMP, a very powerful free alternative, and taught myself enough graphic design to do passable logos and site graphics. Of course, back then you wanted to keep graphics to a minimum because many people were still using dial-up modems and every image slowed down page loads. So I learned a lot about optimizing images and eliminating “code bloat”– unnecessary code that slows down your website for no good reason.
I also learned from some mistakes. Ad networks would disappear in the night, owing me money I never recovered. Bad hosts did the same thing, or let my sites get hacked by Russians (yes, Russian hackers have been hacking every website they could since the 90s). I remember this one host that looked very professional and provided really good support. Then suddenly one day in August, my website was gone, and so was the host’s site. Turned out the host was a 14-year-old kid who’d been charging hosting to his mom’s credit card and then reselling it piece by piece to his customers. Until his mom noticed the charges and disputed them.
How I lived until my sites made money
Throughout this time, I worked full-time jobs (except for one thrilling bout of unemployment peppered with temp gigs and part-time jobs). I owned a laptop instead of a desktop, and I bought it with me to my jobs. I worked during lunch, and on evenings and weekends. My normal workweek was, in total, 60-80 hours for about 10 years.
And then everything changed again
Somewhere between 2008 and 2012, we started seeing a new kind of blogger: the so-called “mommy blogger”. This condescending term was later changed to the more fitting and accurate “lifestyle bloggers.” To those of us who’d honed our skills fighting the Google empire, these lifestyle blogs broke all the rules, and we couldn’t believe they got away with it. They’d post multiple enormous, un-optimized photos in their entries, which took ages to download, even on broadband. They talked about their lives instead of carefully sticking to a niche that was popular with ad networks or affiliate product lines. They weren’t at all worried about Google penalties – probably weren’t even aware of them, I realize now – so they put up affiliate links without nofollow tags, paid reviews, paid text links and sponsored posts all over the place.
And they got away with it! These were all actions Google had formally announced they would penalize, so I had always carefully avoided them. But here was this group of bloggers getting away with it. Either Google wasn’t penalizing them, or they were getting traffic from somewhere else. And there finally seemed to be such a thing as a full-time blogger. What was I missing?
Ah, blessed social media
At the beginning of 2009, I posted an article and someone put it on Digg, which back then was a powerhouse. It worked like Reddit, and my post made it to the front page. I got 300,000 visitors a day for the next several days. It crashed my crappy host. But now I understood that social media could send you as much traffic as Google, if you wrote stuff that really appealed to human beings, not algorithms. Since then, I’ve studied social media with zeal. It’s one of the best tools out there for growing your traffic from a lot of different directions so you’re never relying on just one traffic stream.
How I became a full-time blogger
In 2014, I finally felt like I had enough steady income from the blogs to quit my job and be a full-time blogger. I also had enough savings to scrape by frugally for almost a year. About a month after I quit, my main ad network flaked out on me, and my income dropped to dangerously low levels. Fortunately, I had that savings to live on. I scrambled a new ad setup together, and the income slowly improved. Then I found AdThrive, and they were able to raise my income considerably. I’m earning about 4 times what I earned before I started with them.
So much drama
This was my journey to becoming a full-time blogger. Yours will be different, but it will probably include some of the same pitfalls. But if you can hang in there, and have the discipline to keep it going, it’s so rewarding.