This is an interview with Nele van Hout of The Navigatio.
Hey, Nele. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
Hey! My name is Nele van Hout, a 28-year-old travel blogger. I was born in the Netherlands and moved to the UK when I was 18 to study English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University – during my second year, I started my blog The Navigatio.
Now, seven years and countless changes to the website later, I run it as a full-time business making over $10K a month.
What’s your background and how did everything lead to starting a blog?
I moved to Manchester, UK when I was 18 years old to study English and Creative Writing. I knew I wanted to do something with the English language, but at the time, it seemed that all you could do with it in the Netherlands was become a teacher – and that wasn’t something I was interested in.
During university, I mainly focused on prose and scriptwriting. However, in my second year, I also had the option to take on an additional language. That’s when I decided to start studying Japanese.
I have had an interest in Japan for as long as I can remember, and learning the language had been a dream of mine. After university, I was finally able to visit Japan for the first time and it surpassed all my expectations!
My second year at university was also the year I launched The Navigatio. I started countless online blogs over the years, the oldest one probably dating back to when I was 12 years old. They were all hobby blogs and since I was getting nearer the end of university, I wanted to create something a bit more substantial. Something I could show potential employees once I graduated.
What was your blog originally about and did you plan to turn it into a business from day 1?
The Navigatio started as a lifestyle and travel website. A bit of everything I was interested in… living abroad, sustainable living, studying Japanese and short essays on trips I had made in the past.
It was never the plan to turn it into a business. It did help me land my first full-time job after university, where I worked for six months as a copywriter and digital marketing assistant (mainly working on the company’s blog and social media accounts), which was already more than I could’ve hoped for.
During this time, The Navigatio was starting to attract more and more readers with the help of SEO and digital marketing skills I was picking up along the way. It made sense to niche down the website to cover just travel, as I enjoyed writing about that the most. Doing this also helped structure the website better and made it easier to grow.
A couple of years later, I realised that niching it even further down to focus heavily on my favourite destination made even more sense. And that’s when I rebranded it to a Japan travel blog.
Read also: 50 Lucrative Blog Niche Ideas to Consider
When and how did it turn into a Japan travel blog?
I have had a huge interest in Japan for as long as I can remember. It probably started by watching way too much Pokemon as a child.
As a child, I dreamed about visiting Japan one day. During university, I worked multiple hospitality jobs to fund my education, but I also saved most of my tips in a separate jar to pay for a trip to Japan after graduation.
I was a little bit worried that the expectations I had set for Japan were way too high. It was over 10 years of daydreaming, watching YouTube vloggers in Japan and reading everything I could find about the country – how was the real deal going to live up to that?
Well, my first Japan trip surpassed all my expectations. It was truly incredible, and writing about it afterwards turned into one of my favourite things to do. When I returned to Japan a couple of years later, it only made sense to keep writing about it – and turning my website into a hub for everything “Japan”.
I do think my interest and passion for travelling to Japan help with creating the best content I can. I hope that my enthusiasm and research shine through in my articles – it’s hard to write well about topics you don’t care about.
That being said, there is still so much I don’t know about Japan and I’m always learning. Having hired two writers who live in Japan has helped me massively in making sure the content is the best it can be.
How long after that did your content start getting a lot of traffic from Google?
When I started The Navigatio in 2017, I had never heard of SEO. Of course, I used Google to find information but it had never occurred to me that you could rank your website on there to attract readers.
I mainly focused on sharing it on Twitter and Facebook with friends and family. When a random article (I believe it was about me getting a rook piercing, with some info about costs and how much it hurt) started to bring in a lot of traffic from Google, it caught my attention.
Even though I had no idea how it ranked, why it ranked or how I could replicate the success, I knew it was time to step it up. I started learning more and more about SEO and step by step, my organic traffic started to grow.
But honestly, it took focusing on just travel (and later on just Japan) for it to start bringing in an interesting amount of traffic! It took me a good few years to get to that point, especially since I learned SEO from scratch.
What SEO strategies did you implement once you learned more about increasing your blog traffic?
Building authority and focusing on a more niche topic. While general blogs can have success, it’s much easier to build authority on one topic. Once Google starts to recognise you as THE person/website for this, ranking will take way less effort.
How did the pandemic impact your Japan travel blog, and what did you do about it?
At the start of the pandemic, I had just quit my full-time job to give my Japan travel blog a chance. I was still focusing on travel as a whole, with Japan and European city breaks at the website’s heart.
Obviously, with the pandemic and travel restrictions, the website suffered a lot. I lost most of my income from it overnight – even though it wasn’t a lot of income at the time, it was very hard to see it go up in smoke. Especially since I didn’t have a full-time job to fall back onto!
When I realised this pandemic was going to take longer than a couple of weeks, I was able to pick up freelance work as a copywriter and SEO editor. Looking back, I’m really happy this is the way things turned out.
Working as an SEO writer and editor for other websites has taught me so much about how to run a niche website profitably. I don’t know if The Navigatio would be where it is today without that experience.
On top of the freelance work, I kept working on The Navigatio. I continued to write and update articles and grow the website’s authority as much as I could. I also invested in blogging, SEO and affiliate marketing courses during the pandemic – it felt like a “now or never” point for me. I was going to give it my ALL and if it didn’t work out, at least I tried.
What happened after the pandemic? How did your approach to content, marketing and SEO change?
After taking some courses and speaking with a blogging coach over the pandemic, I realised that Japan is where my passion lays. Most of the articles on my website were already about Japan, my newsletter was entirely focused on Japan and I was growing a Facebook Community about (you guessed it) Japan.
It made 100% sense to shift the focus from general travel to just Japan, so that’s what I did. I just needed someone to tell me.
It took Japan a bit longer to open compared to other countries near the end of the pandemic. It wasn’t until October 2022 that Japanese borders finally opened for tourism again – my fiance and I were on one of the first flights out there and spent three weeks there in November 2022.
As it took Japan so long to reopen, the world had been waiting to go back to Japan for over two years. This meant that a lot of people were just as eager as me to return – and internet searches for Japan itineraries, travel tips and advice skyrocketed. And so did my website!
I do think diversifying is important in any kind of business, so that’s a big focus for me moving forward. I can’t just rely on SEO, so while it remains a big part of my business plan, I’m looking into other ways to increase traffic too in 2024.
How do you decide what new topics to cover?
I have a pretty good idea of what topics, destinations and experiences still need to be covered on my Japan travel blog. Some content gaps need to be filled, but luckily, I have two writers based in Japan who help me with this. And I’ll be returning to Japan for three months in February for a content trip.
It’s important to keep up to date with the latest news in the travel industry, especially in Japan. There are prefectures, cities and towns pushing for more media attention, especially since Tokyo and Kyoto struggle with over-tourism. It makes me excited to explore more of the lesser-known side of Japan and put it in front of people.
Do you optimize every blog post?
Yes, every post is optimised. I also update every single post regularly to make sure all the information is as up-to-date as it can be.
There are a lot of people who follow the itineraries we create to the T, so it’s important to make sure everything we recommend is still available and accurate. A trip to Japan isn’t cheap, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for many travellers, so we have to make sure our guides help people make the absolute most of their time there.
How did you earn your first money as a blogger?
The first paycheck I received blogging was for a sponsored post on my website about some cosmetic product. This was back in the days when I covered lifestyle and travel, and I couldn’t believe someone would pay me $100 to write about something!
Even though I don’t accept sponsored posts any my site anymore, it did open my eyes to the positibilies of earning money with the website.
How much are you currently earning from The Navigatio and in what ways?
In the last few months, I’ve averaged around $10,000 per month in revenue. I have some expenses too, including paying my freelance writers but the majority of it is profit, which still blows my mind.
The income is split between advertising income, affiliate income and brand collaborations.
Which of these income streams are passive, and do they require any work?
Advertising and affiliate income are pretty passive – in a way that, if I take some time off, these streams will continue to bring in money.
However, to ensure the website reaches enough visitors and helps them make sales through the affiliate links, I am constantly updating articles and adding new ones to the site. On top of that, I run a Facebook Group about Japan with over 110.000 members, which takes a couple of hours per day to run.
So while it’s passive in some respect, it does take constant work to make sure it keeps earning.
What ad network are you using, and is it the one you recommend to every blogger?
The Navigatio is currently with Mediavine and has been for over a year now. Before that, I used Monumetric, which was a great alternative before I hit the Mediavine requirements, but I’m very happy with Mediavine.
Their support has been perfect and the earnings are very good too.
What would you say are the key things you did to reach $10K in monthly revenue?
Growing the number of readers has been the main thing. The more people read your guides, the more ad revenue you earn and the more affiliate sales you can make. It’s all a numbers game.
But doing so hasn’t been easy. Especially in the digital landscape, things are constantly changing. And you have to change with it, as has your strategy. It helps that I am very passionate about SEO and digital marketing, so it’s relatively easy for me to stay on top of it.
But since you can never know what to expect, it’s important to make the most of what we’ve got today – one bad Google update can cause huge issues for the business.
How do you plan to sustain your blog revenue?
I’m hoping to keep growing the site with a similar strategy in terms of SEO, but I’m also planning to diversify a lot in 2024. Diversifying where the traffic comes from and where my income comes from – it’s never good to have all your eggs in one basket so I’m looking forward to spreading the risk a bit more.
At what point did you stop freelancing and became a full-time Japan travel blogger? And how do you feel about it?
At the start of 2023, I cut most of my freelance clients, apart from one. I kept editing articles for them the majority of my workweek.
It wasn’t until the start of 2024 that I went full-time with The Navigatio. I probably could’ve stopped working with my last freelance client a lot sooner, but I really loved working with the team.
Plus, taking the plunge to solely rely on your own business for income is quite scary! That being said, I feel very excited about the year ahead and I have so many plans for my Japan travel blog that I finally have time for.
How many hours per week do you currently work on the blog?
Before going full-time, I would work between 10 and 15 hours per week on the blog. Now I don’t have to finish freelance work anymore, I try to fill my 35-40 weekly hours with my Japan travel blog.
I’m going to Japan for three months in February, so it’ll be interesting to see how much I’ll be able to work on the site itself while exploring and creating new content. But I’m sure I’ll find a good balance.
Other than organic traffic, where else do you get blog traffic from? How have you grown these channels?
SEO makes up the majority of our traffic at the moment, but I’m trying to diversify it moving forward. Our Facebook Group has been a way of diversifying our traffic, with over 110.000 members, it’s become a fantastic place to speak with our readers and guide them to our website.
Pinterest and other social media platforms will be another focus moving forward.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced on your blogging journey?
The pandemic was surely the biggest challenge in my blogging journey. Especially since it took Japan so long to reopen to tourists, I’d considered giving up and applying for a full-time job again more times than you can count.
I am very fortunate to have very supportive people in my life who gave me a lot of confidence during these tough times. On top of that, the steady freelance work I did also took off a lot of financial pressure.
What’s your best advice for aspiring bloggers?
Stick to it! It takes time to build a successful blog, but as long as you don’t give up, keep publishing and keep learning, you won’t fail.
Taking on some SEO freelance writing or editing gigs can also help massively. It’s a great way to learn and perfect your skills that you can then transfer to your own website.
What’s next for you and The Navigatio? Anything you’re excited about in the new year?
I’m heading back to Japan for three months at the end of February to create a ton of new content for my Japan travel blog. I can’t wait! On top of that, I’m working on a few digital products and services which I can hopefully release later this year.
It’s been incredible to see the growth in 2023, so I am very excited to see where 2024 will take us!