TSHOE February 2017: Open For Business

This month in The Side Hustle Overshare Experiment, The Earth Awaits is open for business with dozens of new features, a few promising avenues towards monetization, and some useful real-world feedback. If you didn’t read the first article in this series, I’m chronicling the exact financial realities of my attempt to make The Earth Awaits support itself, and longer term, provide some income.

On January 27th, I released tons of new premium and free features on The Earth Awaits. With this major release, the site is now theoretically capable of supporting itself. I also released the new Travel Hacking search, which allows a user to pick any origin and destination airport in the world, learn all the airline reward chart redemptions that will get them there, and find the best current credit card offers to acquire those points with little or no additional spending.

User Signups

In the two weeks since I released the new features, 143 unique users have created accounts. Of that 143, 126 have actually verified their email address. I suspect that the 17 that didn’t activate mostly consist of spam signups, and people who just mistyped their email addresses. Of the 126 active users (those who actually activated their accounts), one of them is a paid user.

Woo hoo!

OK, OK, obviously I was hoping for more paid signups, especially after having emailed 2,700 or so subscribers to my mailing lists. That said, I get that the premium features don’t yet have a major “killer feature” for a lot of folks. I’m not about to give up on the subscriber model entirely, as there’s still so much I hope to implement, and most of them will be subscriber-only features. I intend to keep adding premium features until I reach a tipping point where the subscription begins to represent a great value to users. I already see certain niches where the subscription makes sense (economists wanting to track COL across time, relocation specialists, etc.) but I think those niches are too small, and it doesn’t make sense to expend major effort to attract them. That time is better spent innovating and expanding the premium features to appeal to a broader audience.

Speaking of subscriptions, I actually decided to lower the price on the subscription model before release, so a monthly subscription is just $6, and an annual subscription is $48. I felt like the cost of a coffee per month might be easier to swallow– it means finding around twice as many paying subscribers to hit my income goals, but it also significantly lowers the bar to gaining subscribers.

Another thing I’m investigating as a source of income is single-city reports. Most people considering a relocation are interested in one specific location, or perhaps a small handful of cities. Spending a very nominal amount ($5-7) to generate a full report for that city, with international school data, all historical pricing info, and anything else I build in the future may be a more compelling option for many of those people, especially as it doesn’t require signing up for recurring billing.  I’ve also thought about selling a few tiers of the reports– a one-time report for $5-7, or the ability to regenerate the report at any time for 6 or 12 months for a few bucks extra. The primary impediment to adding this feature is that I need to figure out how to generate PDF reports from my data. I could probably quickly write a report generator, but I want to make sure that the report people receive is beautiful, with full-color charts and graphics, and that may require some further outsourced design/layout, then a lot of work writing the code to generate such complicated graphics. Right now this is in the early, early design stage, so it will be some months before I can roll it out.

Credit Card Affiliate Income/Travel Hacking Search

The other possible income source I discussed last time was affiliate income from the new Travel Hacking Search Engine. At that time, I was struggling to find a credit card affiliate program to work with me. At the extreme last second– which is to say the day that I released the new features– I finally managed to sign a contract with a CC affiliate program and get live credit card offers added to the travel hacking award search. If you haven’t checked it out yet, the search integrates knowledge of 21 different airline award charts (and growing) with current award credit card offers. A visitor can input an origin and destination airport and see a “recipe” of the credit card offer that will earn them the most points, how many points to transfer to the airline, and how much additional spending they’d need to do on the card. I wrote about it in my article on Braindead Easy Travel Hacking.

The travel hacking search has produced a good amount of unsolicited organic traffic. It has led to a number of clicks over to the credit card sites, and at least one signup so far. I’ll discuss that income in next month’s article since it came in February, but it looks like it’s possible to make north of $100 per signup. If I could reach a point where the Travel Hacking Search is the go-to link that people send to first-time travel hackers or people interested in learning about award travel, this could be a great avenue for supporting the site.

Needless to say, if you love The Earth Awaits, please please consider sharing the travel hacking search with your friends, family, and on your blogs or other social media. If you’re planning to explore award travel, you’d be supporting The Earth Awaits in a big way if you clicked through my links to do your credit card applications. I’m most excited about it because while it’s a source of income for me, it’s also providing serious value in the form of hassle-free no-cost travel to the visitor.

Search Engine Optimization

Last month, I asked anyone with SEO experience to reach out, and Claudia from Two Cup House and SEO Audit Guide offered to help me improve my search engine results.

Claudia looked at the pre-release version of the new site and helped me with the following awesome suggestions:

  1. Fixed the URL Structure: In the few months the site has been live, I have gone through three versions of the URL structure for directly linking to a city on the site. I have decided to try to optimize the site for searches for “Cost of Living in <some city>”, so I have changed the url structure, hopefully for the last time, to include the words cost of living, and the name of the city. Before, the default link to Paris would have been something like “https://www.theearthawaits.com/city/284/apartment1bedcitycenter/2/modest/“, now it’s “https://www.theearthawaits.com/cost-of-living/in/paris/“.  Way better!
  2. Added a Canonical Link to each city: Related to the URL structure changes, each city page now includes a canonical link tag. Basically, since each city can be linked with different lifestyles, family sizes, housing needs, and other attributes in the URL, the canonical link tag tells the search engine to merge all of these different links together under the canonical (definitive) link for each city. This also helps me let Google know that the older versions of my URL structure are the same as my new one. In effect, we’re distilling all the separate versions and types of links to a single city into a single search result… at least once Google gets around to reindexing them all.
  3. Add the Sitemap to robots.txt: I already had a sitemap that I had submitted to Google, but Claudia advised me to add it to my robots.txt so that search engines would pick it up that way too.
  4. Changed the Meta description on each city: The meta description is the description that appears in search engine results just below the page title and link. I needed to make mine a little longer, include the term “cost of living in <city>,” and added a call to action at the end.
  5. Add some text content to the landing page: Previously, when you went to The Earth Awaits, you were dumped directly into the search engine.  Now there’s some text and example results directly under the search widget to help people understand what the site does and entice them with some pretty pictures. More than just marketing, though, this gives search engines some text to index and use in their ranking of pages for a given keyword. Needless to say, “Cost of Living” shows up here a couple of times too.

Claudia also gave me some other great suggestions that I haven’t managed to implement yet, such as turning the News section into a more full-featured and appealing blog-type interface. This would let me run articles like “The Ten Best Cities for Retirees in Southeast Asia” and other articles that might get recirculated in the media.

Though it will be some months before my SEO improvements really start to pay off, I feel much better about it at this point. If you are looking for SEO help, or you’re interested in learning SEO as a side hustle, I would strongly recommend contacting Claudia at SEO Audit Guide, who was gracious, generous, and a wealth of information on the topic. In a few months, we’ll look at traffic coming in as a result of search and see how the site is doing. Maybe we’ll see some big numbers!

Costs to Date

It was another somewhat expensive month to run the site. I had to add a SendGrid transactional email subscription to be able to send notifications and budget updates to users, both free and premium.

ItemThis Month CostLifetime Cost
Total$922.58$7,280.49
Data/API Licenses$0.00$1,300.00
Web Design$554.85$4,143.87
Data Entry$134.60$768.58
Application Hosting$146.00$634.00
Image Hosting$1.24$29.00
Convertkit$49.00$193.15
Sendgrid$12.89$12.89
Stock Photos$24.00$69.00
Postal$0.00$130.00

So, a little pricey, but the majority of the expenses were design costs. The core cost of running the site is now around $400-450 per month. If I can get to 4-5 credit card signups or 10-12 paid accounts per month, I could at least run the site in “stasis” with no expensive improvements.

Traffic Numbers

January was a much better month for traffic on the site than December, with a nice little upswing when I released the new features and reached out to my subscribers:

Almost across the board, these numbers are improving. January’s 21,000 sessions topped December’s 12,000, 16,000 users vs. 8,200, and 79,000 pageviews vs. 45,000. Part of this was probably that December was filled with holidays, but a good amount seems to have been enthusiasm for the new features.

Income

In January, I gained one annual subscriber ($46.31 after fees). The site also made $28.32 in banner ad income, $5.48 in Amazon affiliate income, and $9.60 in Internations Affiliate Income. So, the site made a total of $89.71 in January. Could be better, but it already is in February– so more on that next month.

This week, I started reaching out to the media again to see if anyone has an interest in writing about the new features. No responses so far, but that’s not totally unusual. It took five or six weeks to get things going after the site’s initial release, too. I make myself find five promising media outlets every single day, and send them email. It’s mostly sending emails into the void, but sometimes it’s possible to use previous media attention as a toehold to get more.

Up Next

This month, I’ll work almost exclusively on new travel hacking search improvements, coming up with a plan for single-city reports, and trying to gain some media attention. My goal is to get five credit card signups and hopefully reach break-even on the site. If you’re looking to start travel hacking, maybe you can help! If you’re not, but you run a blog or other media outlet with readers that might be interested, let’s do a guest post, plan a theoretical trip for you and your family, or otherwise get people traveling!

See you next month!

3 thoughts on “TSHOE February 2017: Open For Business

  1. Ten Bucks a Week

    I am glad you are considering your potential customers. I was also thinking relocation consultants, but that is a bit narrow. I would suggest asking what people want AND what feature would make them pay.
    Best of luck, I have enjoyed using the tool for COL, but use the award search in my head 🙂

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