Here’s how the ‘million-dollar blogger’ makes his money

Here’s how the ‘million-dollar blogger’ makes his money

I recently wrote a piece for CNN about travel blogger Johnny Ward, a 32-year-old Irishman who has spent 10 years visiting every country in the world.

More impressively, he earned $1 million in three years blogging about it, and continues to earn five figures (US$) every month from ‘blogging’.

The question I’ve been asked most frequently since that post went up is: how did/does he earn his money?

This post will answer that question, though you might want to catch up on the background and context by reading the CNN piece here.

You can also read a bit more about his journey from the man himself, on his blog post “How I made $1 million in three years blogging”.

By the way, anyone involved in SEO and content marketing won’t learn much here. This is old news if you follow that industry, but I found this enlightening and many others will too.

What is travel blogging?

At the heart of this question is what we mean by blogging. You’ll notice I put the word in single quote marks above.

Ward has been called a ‘blogger’ in all the media headlines to have featured him and he calls himself a blogger. And yes, he does blog on his Onestep4ward website.

But while a headline like “The million-dollar blogger” does a good job of injecting an image of a job-free, happy-go-lucky guy traveling the world and writing about it on a single blog (and somehow making loads of money), in Ward’s not case it’s not quite accurate. Or at least, it only tells a small part of the money-making story.

Ward started out as exactly that – a guy writing about his travels on a single blog. But he quickly became something else. When he saw the opportunity that was hanging out there, he immediately took the chance to scale up. One blog became several, the writing of posts and selling of ads was outsourced, the strategy was honed to focus on the most lucrative part of the operation.

Not one, but 250

Ward has earned $1 million plus in the last three to four years because he owns and runs 250 or more websites, not a single travel blog, and he leverages this scale to offer ‘content marketing opportunities’ to other websites.

The usual CPC revenue drivers like Google Ads represent a tiny fraction of his earnings, he says.

Onestep4ward blog
Ward’s Onestep4ward blog – the key traffic driver in his business.

While content marketing covers all sorts of things, including banner ads and affiliate advertising, Ward’s focus is on SEO services. Specifically, he sells hyperlinks.

“I just worked out the most lucrative way that SEO works, and I focus on that. There are a million different variables when SEOing for Google, but the most effective is link building. So that’s what I focus on,” he told me.

Google’s algorithm for determining the ranking of a web page (and how likely it is to be presented to a searcher high up the results) is determined by up to 200 different factors, but the most important is how many high quality third-party (non-related) web pages link back to that webpage.

Often, bloggers do this on a tit-for-tat basis – you link to my story and I’ll link to one of yours. Ward offers this backlinking service for a fee.

A client will approach him, or he will approach what he calls “warm leads” – people or organisations that somewhere have expressed an interest in purchasing these services – or a ‘broker’ (often another blogger) will approach him with deals ready to go, and Ward will sell backlinks to them. The client will provide the url they want linked to, and Ward will then hyperlink to this url in blog posts he is publishing on his stable of 250 blogs.

This is old school selling, getting on the phone to clients and pitching them an opportunity.

I didn’t get into the minutiae of exactly how many and how much, but as proof of his million-dollar status I asked to see his bank account records, and I saw numerous transactions from clients for amounts varying from US$20 to US$1,100.

So I assume that it works on a scale – buy x links for $X, y links for $Y, z links for $Z and so on, or something similar.

Question of quality

Ward is cautious when explaining his business model to me, because, as you might expect, Google does not look favorably on this kind of activity. I reached out to him to explain further questions I had and he refused to tell me more.

Many others in the same game are critical.

The terms “link farms” or “content farms” have been coined to describe websites that operate only to promote and profit from third-party content.

Ward was willing to show me one website that he used for these backlinking purposes, and I wouldn’t call it a high quality site. A new piece of content appears to go up once or twice a week, and they’re all written by the same guy. Or at least bylined with the same name.

The articles themselves are not totally devoid of value, but they are very much amateur blog posts that could be cranked out in a few hours rather than highly researched, brilliantly written pieces of journalism.

And I expect most if not all of his 250 sites (excepting Onestep4ward) are run the same way. Ward does not write the posts himself, he pays a team of writers located around Asia to write them, these writers are cheap, the standard of ‘journalism’ within the posts is low and many people consider the content that results fairly worthless.

Incidentally, half of his websites would be categorized as travel sites, but also include subjects as varied as home decor, lifestyle magazines and more.

Does it matter?

Do these criticisms matter? They don’t matter to Ward. It’s not illegal and as far as he’s concerned he’s simply scaling up his business.

The defense is that this content does provide value, even if it’s not massive, and what’s the harm in adding a few helpful links to related products or content that may also provide value, even if it is paid for?

Google dependency

Though he makes a lot of money – after costs he takes home about 80% of the revenue his operation earns – it’s not like he’s laughing his way through every day. He admits to being worried about how dependent on Google his business is.

When Google changed their algorithm a couple of years ago, his revenue halved.

If something similar were to happen again, he says his contingency plan is to take over the lead sales role on Onestep4ward. He claims to get 6 million visitors a year there, which obviously should offer a serious opportunity.

How much money can you earn blogging?

In a blog post from 2012 Ward published a chart, showing the money you can make according to different levels of page views and PageRank. But his only description of how to make that money is “through ads etc”. Does he mean backlinking? Or does he mean traditional banner ads?

Again, when I posed these questions he refused to divulge more.

That post dates back to September 2012 so is very out of date and possibly it pre-dates the Google algorithm change that halved his revenue too. When I asked how accurate that post was today, he would only say “Pagerank has since died, it’s all about trust flow now, but yes the concept is still, in essence, the same.”

So, sorry to end this post with questions rather than answers, unfortunately my knowledge of the murky world of SEO backlinking is far from extensive, but I wanted to give what info I had about this particular blogger’s business model.

If anyone reading this has more light to shed on this topic I’d love to read it in the comments.

Next up I’ll be writing about an entirely different way to earn money from travel blogging, from a female blogger who gave up a career in investment banking to chase that dream.

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5 thoughts on “Here’s how the ‘million-dollar blogger’ makes his money

  1. I’ve got two travel blogs and have partnered with seo companies that are hired for travel related companies. But I’ve always made more from my freelance work, despite trying as hard as possible to get my blogs to rank. But if he has over 250 sites then that makes sense. Most travel bloggers have one or two and are waiting around for sponsored posts. If they get them ( big IF) they can pay well, but like you mentioned, it makes one become super dependent on Google. I prefer to use my main travel blog as a way to market my services as a writer and digital strategist, and to help me establish my niche and brand.

    1. Yep. People also look down on this kind of thing. Backlinking, link-spamming and all related backlink stuff is seen by some as a somewhat corrupt activity. I think it works short-term, but probably ain’t gonna sustain you into retirement (unless you make a couple million quickly, as JW seems to be doing).

  2. Hey James,

    Great piece here. I’ve heard before on other interviews he’s had 100+ websites. Nothing complicated here, he basically runs a PBN, a private blog network. Google will penalize his sites and thus seriously hurt his business if they find out he’s doing this.

    PBN’s were what SEO’s were using to build links to sites and thus rank websites for competitive terms. BUT they don’t really work anymore and any links from a PBN will have YOUR site penalized, so I can understand why Johnny does not want Google or anyone else for that matter to know what sites he owns as it would be a total disaster for him and anyone who has paid for spammy links from him.

    1. Thanks David – yes it’s a risk to be so reliant on one source isn’t it. He’s not a dummy, so I’m sure he has a Plan B built in just in case an algorithm change hits him again.

      All the advice about SEO these days seems to boil down to ‘just create great content’ – so he may get hit there too.

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