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A Beginner’s Guide to Making Money Online

This beginner's guide takes the mystery out of making money online through blogging. I'll show you the steps to getting started and the details on how to make money online.

I recently published an article describing how my wife and I paid off more than $200,000 in debt in five years. The post covered what you’d expect from an article on debt, including the importance of an emergency fund and avoiding credit card debt.

But the secret weapon that really propelled us out of debt was earning extra income from blogging. And it was that aspect of the article that garnered the most comments. Here’s an example from one reader:

The article was picked up by the MSN Smart Spending blog (thanks, Karen!) where the comments really get fun:

And my personal favorite:

I took these comments to heart (both the good and the bad) and decided to write this Beginner’s Guide to Making Money Online. There is no way I can cover everything I’ve learned about blogging or how to make money at it in a single article. But this article will be a good start, and there will certainly be more to follow. So let’s get started.

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How to Make Money Online – My Blogging Story

I started the Dough Roller in May 2007. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about building a blog. I had no idea how blogs made money, and I didn’t know any bloggers. With the help of Google, I researched everything about blogging, from how to set up a blog and publish my first post to how to get traffic to my blog.

For more than two years, I was up at 5 am seven days a week to work on the Dough Roller for two hours. During the week I worked on the site on the subway into work; I worked on the site at lunch; I worked on the site on the subway ride back home. And I’d work on the site after the family went to bed. With the help of others, I’ve now been able to slow down the craziness, but the Dough Roller is still a daily labor of love.

Today, Dough Roller receives over a million visitors a year (maybe over 2 million this year), is syndicated by the likes of U.S. News and MSN Money, and provides a full-time income. In fact, I now make more money online than I do practicing law (I’m still a full-time lawyer as well as a blogger). The chart below compares my income from practicing law to my income blogging, with a very conservative estimate for 2011:

And of course, making money is only part of the blogging experience. I’ve met a lot of great bloggers, attended blogging conferences, learned a ton about the technology behind blogs and search engines, and expanded my knowledge of personal finance and investing. It’s been great fun.

How do bloggers make money?

Before you can even begin to think about earning some extra income from a blog, it’s critical to understand how blogs make money. And it’s the most frequent question I hear when folks learn that I make money online. Below I’ll cover the three high-level ways bloggers make money, but first, there is one extremely important thing to keep in mind. No matter how you monetize a blog or website, the key to making money is traffic. And the most profitable traffic comes from search engines. Building traffic will be the topic of an entirely different article, but it’s important to keep in mind.

So how do blogs make money? Bloggers make money in one of three ways:

  • Contextual Advertising: Contextual ads, like Google’s Adsense, present ads that are relevant to the content on the page. These types of ads are easy to add to a blog and present products and services that are relevant to your readers. Bloggers typically receive a small fee each time a reader clicks on an ad. The fee can range from just a few cents to $20 or more. While you may hear that not much money can be made from Adsense, don’t believe it. I’ve had months where Adsense revenue has more than paid my mortgage, and I know bloggers who make 5 figures a month with contextual ads. Besides Adsense, other contextual ad networks include Chitika, Kontera, and BidVertiser.
  • Selling products of other companies: Also known as affiliate marketing, selling the products of other companies is how many bloggers make big money. The concept is simple – companies with products or services to sell will pay blogs and websites that refer it traffic that results in a sale. For example, if you have a blog about cell phones, you can join many cell phone affiliate programs (e.g., Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Amazon Wireless). When a reader clicks a link say to Amazon Wireless in a review you’ve written about a cell phone, you get paid if your blog visitor buys the phone. Depending on what you’re selling, the fee can be less than a dollar (e.g., a $10 book from Amazon will net you $0.40 to $.60 typically) to more than $50 (e.g., a cell phone from Amazon Wireless). Now just imagine you have a targeted site with great content that gets 10,000 visitors a day. Easy to do? No. But if you succeed, the biggest problem you’ll have is what to do with all of your cash.
  • Selling your own products or services: Some bloggers also make money selling their own products. Some write eBooks that help people solve a problem. Other bloggers build iPhone apps for sale. This is an approach I’ve given a lot of thought but never pursued. If executed well, however, selling your own products can be lucrative.

How to get started

So we know money can be made online. And we know how bloggers make money. So now what? Getting started is the hardest part. I think we mix in a fear of the unknown (how do I build a blog? Where do I get a domain? What do I write about? Will anybody come to my site?) with a healthy fear of failure. And the result is often inaction.

The fact is that building a profitable blog is simple. Note that I said simple, not easy. There is a difference. Profitable blogging requires “just” three things:

  • Picking the right topic for your blog.
  • Creating the right content for your blog.
  • Marketing your blog.

Picking the right topic

A lot has been written about picking a blog topic. Some tell you to follow your passion. Some say to create a niche site that targets a single term that people frequently search for on Google. This approach often leads to ridiculous domain choices like

I do think it’s helpful to blog about something that piques your interest. If nothing else, you’re likely to know more about the subject. But beyond your interest, you’ll want to understand the revenue potential of the site and how competitive the vertical is. As a general rule, the more profitable a niche the more crowded the competition.

Some time ago I wrote an article on this subject – How to Pick a Lucrative Online Money Making Topic. In addition, here are other articles worth perusing:

As you think about possible topics for your blog, ask yourself this question–What can I teach that others desperately want to learn? If you can answer that question and execute, you’ll have a blog with a passionate (and hopefully profitable) following.

Creating the right content

Content is the lifeblood of any blog. Some say that content is king. While great content alone is not sufficient to build a successful blog, it is absolutely necessary. Of course, the type of content will vary based on your own writing ability, personality, and the subject matter of your site.

As the sole blogger at Dough Roller when I started, it took me a lot of time to build a solid foundation of content. At my most productive, I was publishing about 15 posts a week. Considering that some personal finance blogs have thousands of pages of content, you can appreciate how slow the process can be. But as a friend often reminds me, slow and steady wins the race.

There are some sites and articles that provide useful information on writing great content. Here are a few I recommend:


So you’ve picked a topic, built your site, and are on your way to creating compelling content. Now what?

The first thing to understand is that your site will likely receive very little traffic in its early days. Marketing a website takes time–time to get to know other webmasters, time for others to hear about your site and appreciate your work, and so on. At a minimum, you should expect to put in six months of hard work on a daily basis before seeing results. And even then it’s still a process that evolves over years of running a site.

Second, it is a big mistake to equate marketing with search engine optimization (SEO for short). SEO is the process of getting a website to rank well in search engines. While SEO is an extremely important part of marketing a website, it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. Eric Ward, who is a recognized expert at getting backlinks (links from other sites that point to your site), recommends going about link building as if search engines didn’t exist. In other words, does the link you’re trying to get from a website have value apart from its potential to improve your rankings in search engines? If the answer is no, the link isn’t worth your time and likely will not carry SEO benefits.

So how do you market a website? The answer to that question depends in part on the topic of your site. You’ll market a site about chess a lot differently than you will one about investing. But there are some methods that are effective for almost all types of sites. Here are some ideas, along with additional resources:

  • Get to know your community: If you start a blog about chess, you should research the top chess blogs, websites, and forums. Not only will this research give you ideas about your own site, but it will also give you a list of sites and webmasters relevant to your site’s topic. Part of promoting your own site is engaging in the online discussion, and you can’t do that if you don’t know your community.
  • Get to know relevant reporters: One of the best ways to market your blog is to get a link from mainstream media. The level of difficulty depends in part on the topic of your site and your expertise in that field. Using Google News and Google Alerts, keep track of the reporters that write stories relevant to your topic. And then look for ways to help these reporters. Whether it’s information or data relevant to their field, or perhaps a story idea, you’ll find many reporters far more open than you might expect. Also, sign up for HARO (Help a Reporter). You’ll receive daily emails listing stories reporters are working on, and who are in need of an expert in the relevant field.
  • Publish a guest post: A guest post is an article you write for another blog or website. In exchange for free great content, the webmaster will include at least one link back to your site. If you decide to write a guest post, keep three things in mind: (1) Seek to publish guest posts on the top sites relevant to your niche; (2) Recognize that you may get a lot of rejections before you find a site that will publish your article; and (3) when you do get your chance, make sure the article is your very best work.

The above three ideas are just a drop in the bucket. Here are some additional resources on how to market a website:

There is another article that is important for you to read – How to Survive the Affiliate Evolution. This article was written in 2007, but is as relevant today as ever. The article deals with sites that make money through affiliate marketing, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, if you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to either leave a comment below or send me an email at dr [at] doughroller [dot] net. I will have follow up articles that dig deeper into this whole crazy business of blogging for dollars, so stay tuned. . . .

Related: Best Game Apps That Pay Real Money

Rob Berger

Rob Berger

Rob Berger is the founder of Dough Roller and the Dough Roller Money Podcast. A former securities law attorney and Forbes deputy editor, Rob is the author of the book Retire Before Mom and Dad. He educates independent investors on his YouTube channel and at

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