This is an interview with Katie of Katie Caf Travel.
Hey, Katie. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
Hello! My name is Katie, and I’m so happy to be invited for this interview. I started my travel blog, KatieCafTravel.com, in Fall 2021 after the world opened back up post-COVID lockdown.
Originally, I planned to take an adult gap year and document it on my blog. Then, I was planning on leveraging the blog to showcase my travels to employers when I got back to the “real world” to explain my resume gap.
Through a kismet encounter on a Women in Blogging Facebook Group, I met a travel blogger who was already living the dream and running her blog as a business.
In Spring 2022, I started taking a blogging course that set me on the right track for success.
This inspired me to pursue the possibility of running my website as a business as well, and I was lucky enough to see that dream come true around a year later in March 2023 when my blog was signed with Mediavine ad agency.
What was your life like before traveling?
After I graduated from college at the Rhode Island School of Design I was working a corporate job in Manhattan, and living what many people would describe as their dream life. I was young, and I had my own apartment and a steady career in one of the best cities in the world.
All of this was changed when the Coronavirus Pandemic hit in 2020, when just like for so many others, my life was completely turned upside down. The pandemic, and being in quarantine for a year, forced me to truly evaluate my goals for the first time.
When and how did you get hooked on travel?
I never left North America until I was 21 and I was blessed to receive the opportunity to study abroad in Rome, Italy my junior year of college. In Italy, I truly fell in love with exploring new countries and cultures.
Growing up in the New York area, I was raised in a bit of a concrete jungle. It wasn’t until I started traveling that I got to experience real, wild, and rugged nature. A later trip to the Scottish Isles in 2017 cemented my love for the great outdoors, and now I can’t live without nature!
What inspired you to consider travel blogging? How much content were you creating in the first months?
I had read just about all the free advice that exists on starting a travel blog on the internet before I set out to do it myself. Most of the old-school bloggers that have been around for a while have at least one article on blogging. What I found was that they all said the same thing, “run your blog as a business from day 1”.
Unfortunately, I fundamentally misunderstood that advice – I believed “run your blog as a business” just meant to work really hard at it.
This had me spinning in circles for around 6 months, trying to get at least one article out every day.
By the time I finally gave up and joined a blogging course, I had over 100 articles and none of them ranked in search engines.
It turns out that working hard is an essential part of making it in blogging, but working correctly is far more important.
What actions led to skyrocketing your blog traffic?
I 100% owe my blogging success to the SEO course I took, called Scale Your Travel Blog, run by Laura Peters Abalos.
SEO means “Search Engine Optimization”, which is another way of saying how to get articles ranking on Google.
The course is a 101 on all things blogging and how to get Google to love your site; from site speed to keyword research, and formatting.
I credit it solely with taking me from 1,000 to 100,000 monthly sessions in less than a year from joining.
Laura runs a monthly free webinar for potential new students that also offers some valuable SEO info for free, which I highly recommend to anyone considering starting a blog. 👉 Check out SYTB’s free blogging class
How did the ‘hustle phase’ of growing your blog look like?
I still feel like I’m in the hustle stage of my blog haha – It’s hard to estimate because tasks get faster the more you do them, and you also can perform better as time goes on.
I believe I work normal work hours, around 8-9 hours a day, the hard part is when you work for yourself there’s no “weekend”. It’s easy to just keep on with it 7 days a week unless you have a reason to stop.
Do you optimize every single blog post?
I used to only write a blog post on topics I believed I could rank for, this means low competition keywords. Now, in light of the recent Google Updates which are rumored to encourage more holistic websites, I’m writing more articles that are just general travel guides than optimized for keywords.
I’m still writing articles with a clear topic but focusing more on the quality of writing, photos, and content in general over SEO optimization.
Read also: How Nele Earns $10K/Month from Her Japan Travel Blog
What’s your take on updating old content so it can rank higher in search engines?
Updating my old content has never worked as well for me personally as writing new pieces. I think that’s because my site is relatively young, and the articles I was publishing when I first started out are far lower quality than what I’m putting out today.
It’s easier for me to set everything up for success, including the formatting, writing, outline, photos, and keyword research, from the beginning, rather than try to reshape something that wasn’t done correctly from the start.
As time has gone on, it’s gotten easier and easier for me to write quality articles, to the point where it’s more difficult and time-consuming for me to edit an older piece.
Most of the articles from when I first started out I actually unpublished from my site for these reasons.
What kind of blog posts do you write any time you visit a new destination?
Since my site is a global travel blog, it can get a bit messy with all the different countries. I recently started a new technique that I believe adds a bit more structure to it.
When I visit a new destination I write a blog post for each of the activities I do, and then a comprehensive travel guide to the location, or hub, where I did all those activities in.
If I travel in the area extensively enough, eventually I’ll have enough info to write a guide to the country as a whole. So far, I haven’t traveled anywhere enough to have enough expertise to write a huge guide like that yet, but I’m getting close with my travels in Bali and Indonesia’s outer islands.
How long after starting the travel blog did you monetize it?
My blog made its first dollar pretty early on, but it was a fluke with someone spending a ton on Amazon after clicking on one of my affiliate links.
I didn’t start making money consistently until my blog was around a year old. I was making around $500-$800 per month from affiliates 1 year to 1.5 years in when I was signed with Mediavine, and then it grew into a wage I could live off of.
Read also: How to Make Money Blogging for Beginners: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Monetizing a Blog
In what other ways do you earn from your blog?
So far, no other ways – Just ads and affiliates. I know this isn’t a good practice, especially in light of the Google Search Updates which have wreaked havoc on search this year.
I do want to get to a place with my site where I feel proud of it, and that it’s a certain level of completion, before I start a new project.
Ways I’m considering branching out and diversifying are making deliverables. If I made and sold an e-book for Bali travel, I think that could add a lot of value for readers. But, I have a lot on my plate still to do with the blog.
I always wanted a YouTube channel, because I think you can do more with it than a blog, but it’s a totally new career to start and learn.
Where did you find guidance and support on your blogging journey?
I simply could not have succeeded without community. Facebook groups have proven an invaluable resource.
The original blogging Facebook groups I joined were mostly newbies like myself, but after I joined SYTB blogging course, I was able to level up and get into groups with more expert bloggers sharing more valuable knowledge.
There’s a lot of bad advice out there, and while having a community is always good, I was wasting a lot of time doing things like comment swaps (where everyone comments on everyone else’s blog posts to artificially boost activity) before I wisened up.
After I was accepted into Mediavine, I was also able to join their FB Group discourse as well.
There’s a mastermind group for people with over 800K monthly sessions I also hope to be a part of one day!
What would you say is the travel content you specialize in and why?
The travel content I specialize in at the moment is probably transportation guides. It’s something every traveler needs the minute they arrive in a new location, and every country does car rentals, ride-hailing apps, taxis, and public transportation, differently.
Just in Indonesia, where I have been living, alone there’s so much variance in the type of transportation available per island. For example, in Bali, you can rent a scooter to get around or use the Grab taxi app, but in Sulawesi, we had to take these funny little front-loading tuk-tuks. In the Gili Islands, you can only take horses and carriages. That’s important information for people traveling to know.
In the future, I’m hoping to transition to some more general travel guides, since there are only so many transportation guides I can write before going mad!
How do you deal with a drop in blog traffic and new Google algorithm updates?
The Fall 2023 Google Search updates, including the HCU, Core, and Reviews Updates, which have affected me and so many of my peers in the travel blogging world are my single #1 biggest problem as a blogger right now.
It’s getting harder and harder to “prove” you’re an expert on something to Google. It’s made me sit down and think, what does “travel expert” really mean? I travel a lot, but when I visit a new place I’m just as ignorant of the people, customs, and location as any other tourist.
I’m focusing more on writing about what I’m a travel expert in, which right now is SE Asia travel, as I’ve been here 2 years and counting.
Before, if I went somewhere I would write a post about it, but only the ones I could rank for on Google.
For example, I’m not a Disney World expert but after I went to Be Our Guest and Space 220 Restaurants with my family, I wrote reviews for them on my blog.
I was ranking #1 for reviews for those restaurants for a long time, but should I have been? Really? I’m not an expert on Disney World.
Now, I’m being outranked by blogs that are 100% dedicated to Disney travel.
It’s a hard pill to swallow because traffic = money, so obviously I want Google to think I’m an expert in everything, but I’m hoping these new algorithm updates will lead to a better search experience for everyone in the long run.
Read also: 16 Things to Do When Your Blog Traffic is Low
When did you start your email list and how has it grown since then?
I haven’t started an email list yet! I know, bad. I have been so focused on creating quality blog content, learning, growing, and traveling that I haven’t started one yet.
What are your other traffic sources aside from organic traffic?
I rely 100% on organic traffic from Google Search and Google Discover. I’ve been told this isn’t a best practice, but while I do have a travel Instagram and I’m creating a TikTok, I believe search engines are the best way to get my type of content connected with engaged readers.
It’s difficult if you’re focused on writing informative travel articles to connect with readers through social platforms. Unless someone is already planning a trip to the destination I’m writing about, it’s highly unlikely they would be interested in reading about my transportation guides, best restaurants, or best things to do articles.
Social media is mostly used by people seeking entertainment, at least, that’s how I use it.
Do you use Pinterest to drive traffic to your blog?
I used Pinterest briefly when I first started blogging, but I’m a big supporter of focusing on one thing at a time, so I quickly dropped Pinterest when I started to see results from SEO and Google Search.
I invested a fair amount of money and time into my original Pinterest strategy. I bought an annual subscription to Canva, a design software I used to make beautiful pins, and TailWind for uploading them on a schedule.
When my efforts on Pinterest were being superseded by SEO, I abandoned it for what was working better.
There might be a better Pinterest strategy for other types of bloggers, but for travel, I feel like most users are inclined to use Google over Pinterest.
A beautiful Pin might capture someone’s eye during the exploratory portion of trip planning when a traveler is thinking of destinations they might want to visit, but I feel like my in-depth travel guides are better for those who have already decided on their plans.
In light of the recent Google Search Updates, I’m giving Pinterest another go as a way to diversify traffic. It helps that Pinterest pins are pretty enjoyable to make and share!
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced on your blogging journey?
By far the largest challenge I have faced during my two-year blogging career is the one I am currently in right now, in addition to being my first real setback in this career. Before this, it was just growth, growth, growth.
As I’m writing this, we’re 4 months post Google’s Helpful Content Update that shuffled Google search results across the board, notably promoting forums like Reddit and Quora over blogs.
I had a moment when I went home to New York for the holidays when I seriously considered this career and lifestyle to be too volatile. Not to say I was going to give up, because the blog will always be there, but it was hard to see a future in something that could be so unpredictable.
Instead, I decided to give it one more year, since I had already come this far.
As every month passes, we’re able to get a clearer picture of what Google wants from its new algorithm, and I’m expecting it will be a few months more still for everything to settle.
I’m lucky because I had already experienced success with blogging before all of this happened. I was getting 8,000 readers per month on an article I wrote without any keyword research, but rather just because I went somewhere cool and wanted to write an article about it.
I know if I can do it once I can do it again, and my new focus is going to be on creating amazing travel guides that I myself would want to read, with original photography, above anything else.
What are your travel plans for 2024? And what’s next for Katie Caf Travel?
So, right now as of January 2024, we’re still in the trenches of the dreaded Google Updates. No one knows what Google wants from us, but I think the days of writing random articles for easy-to-rank-for-keywords are over.
I’m taking next month to backpack Laos on the cheap using the income from my blog, and then I’m settling up with an apartment (and lots of coffee) for four months to just bang out content.
I have a content calendar with lots and lots of articles to write from my travels in India, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Until everything gets sorted, the new focus is making amazing human-centered content that an AI bot couldn’t attempt to replicate.