Blogging for bucks: Year 1 report, mistakes made, lessons learned

Today I’m going to talk about my blogs and how they did this year. Since this is the first post in what I hope will become an annual (or even more regular) series, I’m going to share a long-winded history of my blogs, too, so that you can learn what I did and what my first year of blogging was like.

Just to set expectations, I didn’t make a mint in 2014. I made around $3500 this year off Amazon Affiliate and Google Adsense combined. Nearly half of that amount was made in the last three months of the year. To put the amount in perspective, we spent about that same amount on food in 2014 (for two adults). Or, it’s 10 payments on a car leased for $350 a month. Hey, I’ll take it! I know there are SEO wizards making enough to buy a new Lamborghini every day with their blogs, and that’s awesome, but that didn’t happen to me (yet :D).

However, everything I did is 100% doable by you if you’d like to try out blogging for a little side income!


I’ve been putting content online since about 1997. My early efforts were what you’d expect from a 13 year old: a Tamagotchi fan site on Tripod, an AOL site dedicated to my dog, my Sailor Moon fan art. It was so rewarding to share stuff I cared about and find (small) audiences for it! I even made some really good friends through my sites and artwork.

Monetizing the content I made, however, never really occurred to me. I suppose I might have said, “Who would pay me for this? The Internet is full of free stuff!”

Sharing stuff online became nearly everyone’s hobby as the Internet’s popularity exploded and sharing stuff became easier and easier (and this is awesome – no matter how obscure a thing is, 99.9% of the time I can Google it and find someone talking about it).

Nonetheless, in 2013 I found inspiration in the works of bloggers like Young House Love (now retired?) and Smart Passive Income (written by a smart guy who makes a lot of money online by telling others how to make money online).

The formula couldn’t be simpler: build a site on a profitable topic, get traffic, earn money through affiliate sales. Sounds good to me!

First Blogs

April 2011: House Blog

A few years ago I bought a house that needed a lot of work done. I thought it would be fun to write about it and document the projects. (It was.) I bought a domain and put a WordPress blog on it.

House Blog was all over the place in terms of content, and it certainly wasn’t set up to make money. No ads or affiliate links. I was giving my posts “clever” titles, not SEO-friendly titles. And I certainly wasn’t writing with revenue in mind.

House Blog just sat there, getting a new post whenever I felt like it (maybe once a month) but it had a nice little trickle of 20-30 visitors a day.

The blog was 2 years old when I got interested in “passive income” from blogging. I discovered the Amazon Affiliate program through a couple other blogs I followed. I wanted to see if it would work for me, so I re-wrote a couple of my older House Blog articles (and wrote a few new ones) to include Amazon Affiliate links to appropriate products.

Within a week, I had my first sale! :O

I made about 30 cents off it (lol). But that was enough to convince me the formula worked and I could scale it from here.

I decided to start a new blog (and keep House Blog, of course). This one would be more focused. Rather than try to be an all-over-the-place home renovation blog (which was seriously hard to generate content for: how often do you replace a toilet?), I’d choose fewer topics and discuss them in excruciating detail (which I enjoy).

July 2013: Craft Blog

Actually, what happened was I started a whole bunch of blogs, all centered around different topics. (Sigh)

Craft Blog is the only one of that batch that has made any money to this day, so I’ll just talk about it. (Lesson: don’t run out and buy 5 domains the second you have a few ideas.)

Craft Blog’s domain was purchased in the first week of July 2013. I put some lorem ipsum content up while I enthusiastically spent an entire weekend customizing the theme (another mistake: it’s not necessary to spend hours – or days – customizing the theme until you have steady traffic). On the bright side, I learned a lot about WordPress and CSS during those early days of obsessing over the site’s design.

Setting up a new WordPress site, customizing it, and planning its articles gave me a much-needed creative outlet. I wasn’t challenged in my day job, so having this site to look forward to at the end of the day was very exciting and motivating.

A few days later, a visitor came to the site! Oh no! I had spent all my time customizing the site’s design. The only content on the site was placeholder junk!

I loved working on Craft Blog, so banging out a few pages of content that fit the site’s niche was easy and fun. For my “monetization” articles, I reviewed stuff I either owned or had used, and I made recommendations based on my own personal wishlist and research. (If there’s one thing I love more than buying new toys, it’s researching those new toys for weeks prior.) I added Amazon links to help visitors find the stuff I was talking about.

Of course, I had lots of ideas for articles that weren’t Amazon-oriented, and I wrote those, too. I love writing tutorials, so I also put some nice Photoshop and Etsy tutorials on the site. End result: the site looked better for the 1-2 visitors it was getting a day.

By August, I had 12 good articles. Some were long (1500 words), some shorter (500 words), but all were nice original content I wrote myself. There was very little traffic at this time, maybe 25 visitors the whole month.

I did a Pinterest blitz around this time, hoping to “go viral” there, but that never happened. I don’t enjoy Pinterest, so I was pretty quick to let that part of my blog marketing slide. In fact, I let most of my marketing efforts slide. I might be allergic to self-promotion. I found it too difficult to do a lot of the stuff the experts say you should do to market your blog, and I was content, at least for now, to just write useful content and post it on the site.

By September 2013, I was up to 22 articles on Craft Blog. I only had 147 visitors total that month (about 3 months into the site’s life), and no sales, but I was enjoying the project so much I just kept going through October when I decided to start a new site and let Craft Blog coast for a while.

October 2013: Disney Ride Blog

In September 2013 I went to Disneyland. It was great! I caught a bad cold when I returned home, though, and had nothing to do but lay in bed and think about how much fun I had at Disneyland. I decided to start a blog about my favorite Disney ride. It would just be a nice place to collect all the history, legends, and secrets of the ride in one place. I bought a domain and wrote a couple short articles about the ride and what I knew about it.

Within a few days, the site was getting traffic.

Whoa, what?!

In its first 30 days, Disney Ride Blog got more traffic than Craft Blog had had in its entire 4-month life. This inspired an obsession with the site, which I worked on regularly for the next two months. By January 2014, the site had its first 100 visitor day!

The site was a traffic monster, but it was making almost no money (literally pennies a day, if anything).

I think the site stood out because of a lack of competition. Lesson: if no one else is in a niche, maybe that’s because there’s no money in it? :D

Unfortunately, while Disney Ride Blog was my strongest traffic site almost until the end of 2014, it has barely made a dollar. I love the site and it’s easily one of my favorite hobbies, but it just eats up bandwidth and brings in nothing. I’ve experimented with ad placement, Affiliate links, etc, but it’s stubbornly unprofitable.

Fortunately, Craft Blog got a few clicks and sales before the end of 2013, which gave me some ideas as to what to do next for making a “money” blog.

2013 blog income: $17.16

Yup, $17.16 for three sites over the whole year. Rollin’ in it.

2014 in Review

January 2014: Gizmo Blog

Six months into this “blogging for bucks” endeavor I had been writing content for three blogs fairly regularly and seen traffic grow accordingly, but between Adsense and Amazon Affiliate I had made a grand total of about $17 for the entire year. I think a lot of people would have called it quits at this point, because that’s a pretty embarrassing return on investment.

Not me! Haha, I bought a new domain in January, this one for a particular category of “smart home” gadgets I was very interested in.

Gizmo Blog would be the culmination of all my learning thus far: niche topic that not many people were covering in great detail yet with a focus on customers on the verge of making a purchase (and Amazon Affiliate links to guide them to the product’s Amazon page).

With one comparison article (including a comparison chart and about 1500 words of original written content), the site had its first visitors from Google and its first Amazon link click within 7 days (!!!).

January 2014 blog income: $8.66

Hey, that’s nearly half of what I made over half of last year!

I added a few more articles to Gizmo Blog cover the basics and then decided to let it sit. In the meantime, I did some footwork: I went to hardware stores and even an open house to see the products in person, since it would be impractical for me to install all of them into my own home. This helped me write smarter “hands on” reviews. It helps that I genuinely find the technology interesting – I can’t imagine writing a site like this without loving the thing you’re writing about.

February 2014: Double digit earnings!

February went better: as traffic grew (1660 visitors across all sites!), so did clicks to Amazon. I had my first double-digit earnings month. I didn’t do anything special or get any links, I just added a few new (long) articles to each site. From humble beginnings…

February 2014 blog income: $35.63

May 2014: First $100 month

Three important things happened between February and May 2014:

Thing 1: One of the manufacturers of a product I reviewed on Gizmo Blog tweeted a link to the review! This brought in a surge of traffic (58 in a day, woohoo!) and seemed to legitimize the site a bit in the eyes of Google because from this point on, traffic kept climbing – sometimes doubling with each passing month.

Thing 2: In May 2014, someone linked to one of my reviews on a forum, which is like a gift that just keeps giving because it not only sends regular traffic, it counts as a quality backlink in Google’s ranking algorithm.

Thing 3: I quit my day job and focused all my time on blogging and growing my web developer skills.

May 2014 blog income: $115.15

During the spring I also made a better effort at marketing the blogs. I created a Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+ presence for all of them and re-tweeted / re-posted content to them regularly (1-2 times a week) for a while.

I don’t know how to make something “go viral” and I don’t enjoy spending a lot of time on social media doing what feels like an elaborate “look at me” routine, so again, I let marketing efforts fade out after a while.

Traffic grew steadily across all sites, which was great. Disney Ride Blog remained by far my strongest traffic-puller, but my weakest earner.

June 2014: My host complains

My long-time web host (Lunarpages, since 2005!) served me with a ticket and a complaint that my sites were consuming too many resources. This started my mad scramble to optimize my sites. Ultimately, I added W3 Total Cache to my sites which took a load off the servers (for a while – see December 2014). Without caching, each of my sites was re-loading all of its resources every time users navigated around the site.

At the time, I was surprised that WordPress didn’t come with optimizations built-in. It’s up to the user to add things like caching, lazy loading of images, minification of CSS and JS, automatic backups, and security measures like limits to login attempts.

Lesson: optimization becomes very important once your site(s) are bringing in around 50+ visitors a day.

October 2014: Holiday season begins

The summer was very good by my beginner standards: about $140 a month on average for June, July, August, and September. At least, until October raised the bar.

I added zero content between July and September, thanks to attending the full time Code Fellows Dev Accelerator and having negative free time for blogging.

Yet traffic continued to grow! The best part was, for the first time, my blogs were truly earning “passively” since I had done absolutely nothing on them. October really turned things around – nearly $600 in earnings, plus I’d done nothing on the sites in months.

October 2014 blog income: $594.19!

This sudden uptick in earnings inspired me to put those new web dev skills to use and optimize all the sites for mobile, which may explain at least some of the traffic increase that I saw in November and December. Disney Ride Blog and Gizmo Blog had been virtually unusable on mobile, now they work great on phones and tablets.

December 2014: Shopping season ends, host complains again

If October was great, then November was spectacular: $870 in earnings! I’ve read from other bloggers that the last three months of the year are the best for Amazon Affiliates and ecommerce sites, and I believe it. What a great way to end the year!

rue Color Image

However, I expect the earnings to fall back to their summer levels (if not lower) as soon as Christmas comes and goes.

Alas, my host complained again in December. They don’t have a problem with my bandwidth usage (that’s “unlimited”!) but they do have a problem with CPU resources being used, some of which are used every time someone visits one of my sites. With average daily visitors now around 3,000 for my sites combined, I was hitting it too hard for them.

Unfortunately, traffic peaked at the same time some bot network attacked many of my sites (or maybe the bots were always there, but weren’t causing any trouble until traffic reached a certain point). From the logs, it looks like at least one bot was trying to get in through wp-admin, and another seemed to be hitting the comments functionality of several of my sites.

I played wack-a-mole for 5 days trying to solve or at lease reduce the effect of the various attacks across my many sites. I banned IPs, tweaked cache settings on my WordPress sites, added login attempt limiting plugins, turned off plugins, turned on and off themes… no one thing was causing the high CPU usage. Lunarpages doesn’t offer great tools for debugging and the update time is slow – as much as a day before I can see if what I did had any effect.

It was time for something drastic.

I moved Gizmo Blog off Lunarpages and onto DigitalOcean, a scalable VPS that is probably more appropriate for a site that continues to grow in traffic every month.


I’ve been with DigitalOcean less than a week and while the process of moving the site over and locking it down security-wise took some time, the end result seems to be an immediate reduction in traffic to my stressed-out primary host. You can see the drop in traffic on December 16th- that’s the day Gizmo Blog left Lunarpages for greener pastures.


It was probably inevitable, because this is how Gizmo Blog’s traffic is trending:


To Lunarpages‘s credit, they did not kick me out or shut down my blogs in response to my unintentionally high CPU use. In researching this CPU problem over the past week, I’ve found many bloggers who did get shut down by their hosts for this sort of problem.

To address my WordPress CPU usage problems, I used a combination of:

  • W3 Total Cache and WP Super Cache (I think I like Super Cache better so far)
  • BJ Lazy Load so image-heavy posts load images on an as-needed basis
  • WP for negligible image optimization (I already use save for web on all images, your mileage may vary)
  • Simple Firewall for better login security and other firewall features
  • WP Clone for moving Gizmo Blog to a new host with minimal pain
  • WP Optimize for clearing unused revisions out of the database
  • Disable Comments an emergency measure I deployed to help reduce the load on the server
  • WP Maintenance Mode another emergency measure I used to shut down Disney Ride Blog while I experiencing CPU overages (unprofitable sites are the first to go in times of need :P)
  • GTMetrix and its WordPress plugin for monitoring site load time and performance
  • CloudFlare free version on my highest traffic sites (how CloudFlare works)

It’s too soon to say if this is the end of the CPU overages saga, and I suspect it’s not. I’m currently using three hosts for my sites (Lunarpages, BlueHost, and DigitalOcean), all of which have been satisfactory in terms of what I expect from them (in other words, I don’t expect world class speed and performance out of a host charging me $5/month for shared hosting). Craft Blog will most likely be moving onto its own VPS in the near future and I may try someone other than DigitalOcean and see how they compare.

What’s next?

I don’t think I’ll start any new blogs this year. Maintaining individual blogs has become time consuming. Every update to WordPress has to be deployed individually to each site, and problems like CPU overages and hacker attacks often have to be debugged on all sites.

As for the ones I have, I plan to add content, continue to optimize the sites, move them to more suitable hosts, and just keep ’em growing. I’m eager to see where earnings fall to in the first months of the year, and whether traffic can continue to grow on its own during times where I don’t add content regularly.

If you (TILCode reader!) have enjoyed this break from coding talk, let me know in the comments and I’ll share blog updates more regularly. I’m not sure the web needs yet another site on how to blog for bucks, but I could be wrong. :) Hope you enjoyed this massive first installment!

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