What if your passion project could transform into a full-time income source in just a few short years?
Turning a blog into a lucrative business takes time, effort, and know-how. But by consistently publishing high-quality content, building backlinks, and monetizing through ads and affiliate offers, you can tap into income streams in your niche.
That’s exactly what Shelley Marmor did when she started her travel blog on a whim. The former corporate worker and travel magazine editor turned her websites, Travel Mexico Solo and Travel Blogging 101, into a thriving online businesses.
Today, Shelley’s ventures generate over $50k monthly in revenue. She now manages a team to handle the day-to-day operations of the sites.
Tune in to episode 573 of The Side Hustle Show to learn:
- Step-by-step process for building authority and ranking your content
- How to monetize through affiliate links, ads, email marketing, and digital products
- Tips for outsourcing writing and editing tasks to scale the business
- Why you should niche down and “cut the line” with micro-sites
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Starting a Travel Blog
It was the spring of 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shelly found herself at a career crossroads after 15 years working in corporate America. Like many people, she felt “chewed up and spit out” by the corporate world and she knew she had to figure out a new path.
Her first foray into online business was dropshipping dresses with pockets through a store called Pockets on My Dress. But when the pandemic hit, dress sales dried up as people stayed home. Shelly wondered, “What am I going to do with myself?”
Around that time, Shelly had been traveling solo in Mexico for about a year. She joined some Facebook groups for travel bloggers, noticing that some were still earning good money with affiliate marketing during the pandemic—getting paid commissions by Airbnb when readers booked long pandemic getaway stays.
Shelly thought, “If they can do it, I can.” She registered the domain in March 2020 and launched the site a month later.
How Did You Get Your Initial Traction?
Initially, Shelly wrote posts about her own travels in Mexico. But she soon realized, “Nobody cares about me traveling around Mexico. They care about how I can help them travel Mexico.”
On advice from other successful bloggers, Shelly invested in blogging courses to learn SEO and how to please “the Google gods.”
Unlike general travel blogs, Shelly niched down to just Mexico. She said, “I can’t compete with 15-year-old sites like Nomadic Matt’s. But in a niche, I can cut to the front of the line and find ‘unicorn’ keywords with high search volume but low competition.”
Shelly focused on questions and keywords travelers search for when planning Mexico trips—where to stay, what to do, is it safe, and packing tips. She didn’t earn money in 2020 but started seeing profits in 2021.
Within 3 years, Shelly grew her site into a business consistently earning $50,000+ per month.
What is driving the traffic and sales?
Shelly didn’t rely on ad revenue as her main source of income. She focused first on affiliate marketing commissions.
By leveraging multiple ad networks, Shelley benefits from competition between the platforms and diversification. If one network’s RPMs decrease or they lose major advertisers, she has a backup flow of ad revenue.
Shelley uses Affilimate, an affiliate management plugin for WordPress, to track links and affiliate earnings. One helpful feature is a heatmap showing where readers are clicking, so Shelley can optimize placement.
Shelly said, “I started making money before I had much traffic. The income came first, then traffic grew over time.” She never had a viral “traffic explosion” moment. Instead, it was many small wins that compounded.
In that first unprofitable year, Shelly persevered thanks to her “why” – never having to ask a boss for time off again. She knew she couldn’t be happy without control of her own time.
Seeing mediocre 10-year-old YouTube channels succeed also motivated Shelly. She realized that sticking it out for years leads to success. Quarantine left her with time to focus on the site.
For keyword research, Shelly uses KeySearch for $14/month. For new sites, she suggests filtering for competition levels below 30. “I don’t care if it’s a 10 monthly search volume.”
If monetizing with affiliates, Shelly will optimize for buyer keywords even if it only has 10 searches per month. She ranks quickly for high-ticket tours that pay $500 commissions.
Shelley has written 180 posts, focusing on topic clusters such as “things to do in Cozumel with kids / at night / when it rains.”
She says you have to “crawl before you walk.” Ranking #1 for any keyword builds momentum faster than waiting for big keywords. Traffic and income grow through small, compounding wins.
When Airbnb shut down its program, Shelly had to pivot. She bows to Google’s algorithm changes, adapting her content accordingly.
Growing Her Team
After about a year and a half, Shelly started hiring writers to help create content. She now has a team of 4 writers, an editor, and a blog manager.
Shelly focuses on writing content herself for Travel Blogging 101, where she shares firsthand experiences and reviews products she uses.
Travel Mexico Solo is now 3 years and 3 months old. It has about 180 published articles and gets 300K monthly pageviews.
Shelly estimates that’s about 1 article per week on average over 3 years. She advises starting with what you can sustainably write yourself without burning out.
Do just one quality post every two weeks if that’s your limit because the articles compound over time.
Shelly explained that you can optimize content for specific audiences even within a broad topic. For example, “Hotels in New York City” may get 100,000 searches, but pet owners only care about pet-friendly options. Parents want hotels that allow kids. Balconies or free breakfast might be deal-breakers for some.
So even if “pet-friendly hotels in New York” is a smaller slice, it perfectly matches what those searchers want. Shelly says you don’t have to convince them if you put that exact content in front of them. Whereas a general “best hotels in New York” article makes them dig through options.
By creating content tailored to specific audiences, you can recommend affiliate hotels that perfectly match their needs. As Shelly says, “The riches are in the niches.”
Top Affiliate Opportunities in the Travel Space
Here are the top affiliate opportunities in the travel space:
- Travel tours
- Travel Insurance
- Physical products
- Car rentals
But it depends on your niche – hiking bloggers may focus more on gear.
To get accepted into Mediavine’s ad network, you need 50,000 monthly sessions (individual people visiting the site).
Link Building Strategies
Early on, Shelly did lots of guest posts to build backlinks, even though many avoid it because it seems like extra work for little payoff.
Backlinks signal authority and trust to search engines like Google. The more reputable sites linking back to you, the higher you’ll rank.
Writing guest posts got her backlinks from established sites essentially “voting” for her site.
Now Shelly gets organic backlinks as her content ranks well. HuffPost and Time Magazine have reached out for quotes and info from her site. But she first had to work hard on backlinks to reach this point.
Shelly hosted a podcast called Dream to Destination podcast in 2020 but stopped because blogging took priority. Podcasting is a full-time job itself. As a new business without profit, she couldn’t split focus. “You only get to do one thing.”
Leveraging AI Tools
When asked if she uses AI content, Shelley mentioned that she has not yet ventured into using AI-generated content for her websites, but thinks she should try it as the technology keeps rapidly improving.
She saw a competing site using ChatGPT before that jumped between topics incoherently.
“I looked at one of their articles once and it just was, like, jumping around from talking about Mexico. There was even some mention of some desert oasis in Iraq.”
She believes that the AI landscape is constantly evolving, and she wants to ensure that any AI content she incorporates is of high quality and relevance to her audience.
Why You Should Have an Email List
While she initially created an ebook as a part of her email marketing campaigns, she admits that it did not perform as well as she expected.
She believes that ebooks are outdated and that alternative products like video courses may resonate better with her audience.
For email marketing, Shelly has about 8,000 subscribers total across her sites. Her travel blogging list of 1,500 subscribers is more monetized than her Mexico travel list so far.
Shelly has multiple opt-in offers tied to specific guides and content topics. A generic opt-in hasn’t generated as much success for a vast region like Mexico. Opt-ins designed for specific niches deliver better conversion rates.
Shelley has seen tremendous success through her weekly email campaigns. She structures her emails with a 50/50 split – delivering free, helpful tips to readers as well as promoting relevant products.
This balanced approach keeps her community engaged while also driving revenue (She recently generated $3,500 in sales from a single product launch to her list).
The travel niche tends to be “one and done” visitors from Google. But email subscribers engage ongoingly regardless of algorithm changes.
- Google rolls out hundreds of updates per year. If your website gets caught in one, your organic search traffic could vanish even if you did everything right. You may never know exactly why.
- Facebook adjusted its algorithm years back. Facebook pages went from reaching all followers to only reaching a fraction without paying.
- Pinterest updated its algorithm, and bloggers lost massive amounts of traffic literally from one day to the next. These weren’t spammers or low-quality sites; Pinterest simply deprioritized their content.
While social and search algorithms are out of your control, Shelley emphasized email marketing as the most direct audience connection.
Collecting emails from website visitors allows ongoing communication regardless of future algorithm changes.
Suddenly losing social traffic overnight has happened to her multiple times over the years. “The email list is the closest thing to a guarantee.”
Niching Down to Rank Up: Destination-Specific Sites
Shelly started additional niche sites on specific Mexican destinations because she knew competitors would make those sites anyway. A site solely about Tulum or Oaxaca can outrank a broader Mexico site for those specific topics.
Shelley has created several niche sites focused on specific destinations within Mexico:
- Travel To Merida – This site covers the Yucatan city of Merida. Shelley actually started this site while she was living in Merida. She got it into Mediavine’s ad network in just 4 months, scaling 25x faster than her main Mexico site. One reason niche sites can rank faster is laser targeting of keywords. This site is doing $5,000/month in affiliate revenue because of its hyper-focused niche.
- Travel To Oaxaca – Oaxaca is an increasingly popular destination in southern Mexico known for its archeological sites, colonial architecture, and crafts. With its own site just for Oaxaca, Shelley doesn’t have to compete against broader Mexico sites for rankings. The niche allows her to “cut the line” with SEO.
- Tulum Travel Secrets – On Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Tulum has exploded in popularity in recent years. Shelley knew other sites would pop up focused solely on Tulum, so she claimed this niche first.
When asked if she would start a micro-niche solo city or state site today, or go broad first like she did before, Shelley said it depends on the country’s size.
For instance, in a very small country like Luxembourg, starting hyper-specific may not work since there’s low search volume. The niche has to have enough tourist interest and volume to be viable.
Not every site will be a 7-figure business. But you can be happy with a 6-figure site, then replicate it. This means multiple 6-figure sites can equal a 7-figure business.
What’s Next for Shelley?
With her growing team, Shelley focuses on quality control and providing photos, spending around 20 hours a month depending on the article.
The blog manager handles a lot of the day-to-day operations and keyword research. The writers tackle creating content based on the keyword research and upcoming publishing calendar.
Shelley likes to work in content clusters, building out a destination with related articles each month. Her time is now spent more on her Travel Blogging 101 site, creating courses and working one-on-one with students wanting to learn how she scaled her sites so quickly.
Shelley’s #1 Tip for Side Hustle Nation
“No one starts perfect. But no one who’s successful didn’t start.”
3 Key Takeaways
- Take what’s being given to you – Leverage your existing authority and topic clusters that you’ve built up in Google’s eyes. Double down on those toeholds.
- Invest in education – Shortcut the learning curve by paying attention to those who’ve gone before you. Courses and mentors can accelerate your progress.
- Niche down – Get very specific with topics and keywords. Even if low search volume, highly targeted content can still convert at high rates for affiliates.
Links and Resources
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