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Ep. 240: How this SEO coach helps aspiring bloggers achieve freedom with their online content with Isabel Leong

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In this episode, I speak with Isabel who is a Full-time travel blogger and SEO coach 

She loves roaming the world at a whim, making the world her playground. 

Isabel’s mission is to help aspiring bloggers and brands achieve traffic goals and financial freedom with online content.

Listen on to find out how Isabel exposes millennial travelers to experiences beyond their imaginations.

Listen Below:

RELATED EPISODES:

Ep. 239: How this solo adventurer sold all her possessions in her 30’s to start fresh as a digital nomad with Claire Summers
Ep. 238: How the founder of SafetyWing is changing digital nomad’s lives by giving them a safety net with Sondre Rasch
Ep. 237: How to make slow travel sustainable with Frank Thomae

Transcription:

Debbie:

Hey everyone. Thank you so much for being here. I am really excited to speak with my guest today. I’m here with Isabel. 

Hey, Isabel, how are you? 

Isabel:

Hi, I am great. How are you? 

Debbie:

I am wonderful. Thank you so much, Isabel, for being here with us. Can you tell us a little bit more about you and why you live an offbeat life? 

Isabel:

Yeah, for sure. So I am a travel blogger at Bel Around the World. I have been blogging since 2015 and I managed to turn it into a full-time career in 2018. So since then, I’ve been traveling full time. 

I went back to Singapore where I came from in the early last year 2020, during the pandemic when it hit. I left Singapore in October 2020 and have been traveling as a digital nomad since. So it’s been over a year now. 

Debbie:

That is pretty incredible. And how did this all happen for you, Isabel, because a lot of people’s dreams are to be able to just make money while they’re traveling and you’re able to do it with your travel blog? 

Isabel:

Yeah, for sure. I did have my own struggles when I first started. 

When I first started, I was a student. I did my university exchange in France. And so, that’s how the travel blog was born, actually. And then as I went deeper and deeper into travel blogging, I was doing a lot of research. I came across a lot of case studies of people who managed to make it happen. 

And then I thought, “I really want to live their life too.” But then. I was also faced with realities. Like, I was a fresh grad, I had zero networks, I had little, like, limited internship experiences. And so I thought that I wouldn’t be able to make it out on my own in this world with zero experience behind me. 

And so I thought I had to work in a social media agency for a year or so while working really hard on the blog. So whenever I had spare time, I would always be researching, learning, experimenting, figuring out Google, and trying to be as active as I can on every single platform. 

Yeah, eventually the hard work did pay off. So that’s the short story.

Debbie:

And I’m sure a lot of people ask you this question because this is what most people are curious about: how long did it take from zero to actually making this an actual business, to make money from this? How long did that take for you? 

Isabel:

Yeah, good question. I love answering that question. 

So you have to first understand, it’s kind of a mindset shift. In the beginning, I always treated it as a hobby blog to document my travels. So it didn’t really matter if it looked its best or if my content served my audience the best. 

And so, I didn’t dedicate as much time of course ’cause I also was working full-time. It was only in 2018 when I met this shift. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to make it or break it.” So I was at this turning point where I just completed a working holiday in New Zealand.

And I had two choices: I could either go back to Singapore and look for a full-time job or use this time off before I go to any full-time job, before I was tied down to anything to try and make the blog work. 

And so it was really this shift in mindset that made me get serious with blogging and made me make it work. With blogging, there are different income streams: sponsored post opportunities, brand partnerships, social media partnerships, advertising. 

And so I knew that in order to really scale my blog and really make a full-time income from blogging, I had to have a decent traffic. And back then, Media Vine accepted bloggers who had 25,000 page visits. And so that was really my number one goal: to hit that baseline traffic.

With bigger traffic, you’ll not only get more advertising revenue, advertisers are attracted to you and they want to partner with you, you are able to raise your prices as well. And so to me, having this traffic goal was, I would say, the first step that you would want to take in order to turn hobby blogging into full-time blogging. 

Debbie:

Yeah. And you mentioned that you had this mind shift and you ended up just hunkering down, making sure you were serious. And you wanted this to turn from a hobby into an actual full-time business. 

So when you say you became really serious, what does that mean? And what were the actual actions that you took to become serious so that you can make this into a business?

Isabel:

Yes. So I worked on it full-time, I treated it as a full-time job. I dedicated at least eight hours a day. I went back to either reoptimize all my posts or delete them if they’re really redundant. 

Like, I remember I have one post about how I celebrated the New Year countdown in Paris, and from an SEO perspective, if I wanted to get visitors visiting my blog through Google search, that is not going to count, that is not going to provide any value. 

And so I really went back and did an overhaul on all my old posts to decide if something is well beefing up or I’ll just discard them totally. And also I made my first big investment with hiring a custom theme designer to really rebrand my whole home page. 

Debbie:

That is awesome. And one of the things about travel blogs is that people not only go there to read the articles but also to look at the images, to look at the places because it’s like a visual journey as well as a story that they’re going for. And obviously, the tips and tricks, where to go and what to see. 

So, I love that and you all should definitely go to Isabel’s website because it is really beautiful. You have a lot of incredible places that you’ve gone too and it definitely shows for you. 

So, when you finally did that and I know you said that. Mediavine was 25,000, now Mediavine actually upped it to twice as much now. It’s 50k, right? 

Isabel:

Yeah.

Debbie:

I actually did that. I remember so many bloggers complaining about it. But in a way, I think it’s better because then it makes you become even more serious and the money is better too at 50k. 

So once you did that, Isabel, what are the other strategies? I know one of them is SEO and we’re going to definitely talk more about that in your extended interview and then you hired someone to make sure that you had a really great brand and template for your website. Are there any other things that you can share with us that really shifted everything for you that allowed you to make this into a full-fledged business? 

Isabel:

Yeah, for sure. 

The first thing is to really define your audience. I mean, I don’t want to go down the conventional road and say that everyone needs to have a niche because, in all honesty, my blog isn’t a very niche travel blog. I like to encompass different styles of travel. I like to talk about food and I like to go on adventures but I also like the scenic route as well. 

So when I say define your target audience, for me, it was really narrowing down the country demographic I wanted to attract to my blog, and for me, it was the US. 

So I mean, I could go down the easy route and say that I just wanted to target Singapore because it’s a smaller audience, it’s a smaller country. And so it’ll be easier to rank but my direction was towards the US audience. And so far, for the US audience, the easiest way to boost your traffic is via Pinterest. 

And so when I was this close to 25,000, I was really pushing a lot of effort into Pinterest to really push up my traffic and it did work. 

Debbie:

I love that. How are you feeling about Pinterest right now? Because they’re doing a huge change with the platform, right? And it’s not the same as it was before. Do you find it different? Harder? How has that changed your, I guess, strategies and techniques with that platform? 

Isabel:

Yeah, for sure. 

I have done many different strategies with Pinterest and I started with manual pinning. I think there was this platform before, it was called Blog Buster or something like that. So I was there for a bit and then it closed down so I went with Tailwind for a year, pinning 1520 pins on its own with the auto-schedule function as well as really creating a lot of pins at bulk each time. 

And even then, I was also pinning on Facebook threads and all of this was really time-consuming even with hiring a VA, which I did for a while. Yeah, for sure, there were traffic spikes from Pinterest but it was really time-consuming. And for me, I’m always looking for the easiest, the most efficient way out. 

And so with so much active work on Pinterest, eventually, I realized that there were other more efficient methods to grow my traffic. And so, right now, I’ve really taken a backseat with Pinterest and all I do now is manual painting. But even then, I don’t place much focus on it anymore. 

Debbie:

Yeah. It’s so interesting ‘cause I’ve spoken to a lot of different bloggers and they’ve said the same thing too. 

And even with the people who we’re getting a lot of traffic from it, because of all the changes that Pinterest has made right now, it’s not really conducive to what we want to do as people who have websites because they want people to stay on Pinterest itself. 

And I have talked to a Pinterest strategist that says you can do a lot of these different strategies but for someone that is mostly about their website and they’re doing other platforms to relearn all of these things, it’s just a lot of newness, right? 

Isabel:

Yeah.

They introduced ads as well so a lot of focus was placed on AdSense. So it’s even more difficult to get your reach as it was before. 

And also the introduction of video pins, which is extra effort. On top of designing your pins, you have to design video pins now. It’s just way too much. 

Debbie:

Yeah, it’s a lot. I mean, we could definitely repurpose but if it’s not doing enough traffic for you, there definitely other things that you can do and SEO is obviously one of them.

I did speak to another blogger, Isabel, I don’t know if you do this, do you put a lot of emphasis on social media to grow your platform? 

Isabel:

Well, honestly, no. The only social platform that has really proven results for giving me traffic was Pinterest. I mean, let’s talk about it, Instagram, you only have one link in the bio to really push out your post. And if you really want to promote every single post, whenever you push out a new image, that’s going to take a lot of effort, updating the link. 

And then Facebook as well. If you’re not sharing with the platform, they usually single you out, they don’t show your posts anymore, which is why I found that social media doesn’t really do that much with driving traffic.

But sure, it’s also important to keep active on social media platforms as well as as a blogger but when it comes to driving traffic, it’s the best platform. 

Debbie:

Yeah, I do agree with that. And it’s so interesting ’cause I’ve spoken to huge bloggers with hundreds, some of them even have millions of traffic a month, and that is the same thing. Like, they don’t even go on social media. Maybe they’ll post here and there but it’s not the thing that they do to drive traffic to their website. So, this is so funny. 

That’s why every time I talk to a blogger like you, Isabel, who does really well. That’s the one question I always ask, “Do you even use social media?” And they’re like, “No, not really. I’m here and there but…” 

But I do have to say though, for people who are maybe consultants or coaches, I have seen social media work really well but again, it’s different on how you want to interact with your audience because, in that way, you’re getting clients instead of traffic to your website. 

So there are definitely many different ways to use social media but I actually absolutely agree with you on that. I found it to be the same. So it’s really interesting. 

So one of the things that I also wanted to get back to is when you first started and I’m sure you still do it now, is when you did that research regarding how you actually make sure that you’re getting visits and you’re getting traffic. And one of the things that we always do is do our research. How did you make sure that you’re going to the right places? Are there any specific websites and resources that you go to that are super helpful for you to drive traffic? 

Isabel:

Yeah. 

The very first way to see if traffic works for you is of course to look internally, to look at the feedback and the best way to do that is through Google Analytics. So you want to study what are the best performing posts. In my case, it’s in travel I blog about different destinations. 

So then take a look at what kind of destinations are doing particularly well. What kind of themes are doing particularly well, is it in travel, is it in food, is it in adventure, or is it in packing list, things like that.

From there, you have an idea of what draws or Google favors in your website. And also what your audience is drawn into. And so that’s going to be the first direction to look at.

Second, when it comes to researching, I usually have, like, a vague idea. If I was in Medellin, I would want to blog about Medellin but Medellin is very broad and things to do in Medellin are very broad. 

So I would go into this keyword research tool called Keysearch or Ahrefs if you have a bit more of a budget and really go and look at the competition, look at the long-tail keywords and see what kind of information people are looking for. 

Even if you don’t use these paid keyword research tools, you can always go into Google, search up a broad term, say “Medellin things to do,” before you hit enter, you can usually see a list, in the drop-down, of different long-tail keywords related to the word “Medellin.” And so that gives you an idea of what people are searching for around that broad term. 

Debbie:

Yeah. I love that technique and that’s definitely a great way to make sure that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. And Google Analytics is free, you can just sign up for it, put your info there, and it has everything there for you. So I love that.

So going back to your journey, Isabel, and this has definitely been a few years and there’s a lot that you have done so far. In order for you to kind of make sure that you’re prepared, was there anything that you had to do? Did you have any savings? Did you plan everything out before you became a full-time blogger?

Isabel:

I definitely did have savings as a backup plan just in case because with blogging you don’t earn. You’re kind of, like, a freelancer in a sense. You don’t own a stable income and so it fluctuates time and again, especially with the pandemic, everything went down. And so it can be unpredictable sometimes. 

So yeah, it’s definitely good to have some savings as a backup. 

Apart from that, in terms of preparation, I didn’t really have any real solid preparation. Like, if I were to choose a location for a base, okay, then, yes, I do have to do some research on the cost of living like, if it has reliable wifi, the different resources available there if it has a digital nomad presence. So those are usually the key factors, key considerations that I take into account before moving to a place. 

But other than that, once I settle on a place, I just try to wing it. Like, trying to live as the locals do and usually, it doesn’t sound as scary as it was before you ever visited that place. 

Debbie:

Yeah. And I think it’s scarier when you’re just planning it out or when you actually overthink things then you stop yourself from doing it.

But I feel like you’ve traveled often enough, right? So you were in a lot of different places before you decided to become a digital nomad. So, this is obviously something that you’ve always wanted to do. 

And now you’re doing it full-time but you became a digital nomad during the pandemic, what was that whole situation like? Because most people would be like, “I’m not going to go anywhere. I’m just going to stay in one place for now. Hopefully, this all blows down soon.” But you did the opposite. What made you decide that? 

Isabel:

Yeah. I know. It’s quite crazy. I actually have the pandemic to thank for really launching this digital nomad lifestyle.

Back in 2020, when I was in Singapore before the pandemic, I used to travel full-time but that usually would be for press trips and then I will go back home for a little bit. I’ll move to Japan for three months, which is as long as my visa allows, and then come back to Singapore for a little bit. So I wasn’t away from home for an extended period of time. 

And also, I mean, there’s this parents thing as well. They are always encouraging me to come back home, things like that. So, yeah, it was very different before the pandemic. 

And so, I went back home for Chinese New Year. I was there for eight months and because I was used to traveling every few days, the longest time I was home before the pandemic was maybe 2 weeks. So then I would always be over season. I will be used to living on my own already. 

So being home during a pandemic for that long, eight months, was really excruciating. I mean, it wasn’t bad. It was just, like, I wasn’t used to it and I wasn’t as inspired as before. I couldn’t blog about travel, I couldn’t create content in a sense. It was just very suffocating being home, being stuck because of all the restrictions as well. 

So, with the encouragement of some friends in the US, one who happened to be living in an RV. And when I was at home, I was actually bingeing a lot of travel van conversion YouTube videos. So that really, like, sparked me and revitalized me. And I realized that that was what I needed. 

And with the encouragement of my friends in the US, they were like, “Oh, everything is contained back then.” It was still, like, relatively free to move around as long as you had your mask on. 

So I booked that one-way ticket to Seattle. 

Debbie:

That is amazing. I love that and I love that you kind of just put yourself out there. And I know that during that time, it was really scary and even now it’s still a pretty crazy time for a lot of people but you’re like, “I can’t do this. I have to actually do something with my life. Otherwise, I’m going to go crazy.” 

And you do have those itchy feet. 

Isabel:

Yeah. Part of me really thrives on adventure and thrill. 

And yeah, for sure, there were plenty of risks. I had, like, a mountain load of masks. I had the face mask on, the one with the face cover. My parents insisted I get, like, two or three hand sanitizers.

Yeah, there were lots of risks. And it was also not easy drossing countries. Yeah, I was actually held at the Japan airport for 24 hours while transiting to the US. So it was fraught with a lot of uncertainty. 

But then again, I felt, like, my whole travel blogging journey has been like that and I’ve always been a firm believer that nothing is gained if you don’t really step out of your comfort zone and really go for what you want. Yeah, that’s been how I live life. 

Debbie:

I love that motto and I think we could all learn from that because there are so many times that we just wait for things to happen, right? Like, you could still be waiting in Singapore right now and it’s already 2021 and you’re like, “Alright. When is it safe to go?” 

And obviously, you do have those risks but sometimes you just have to take them, especially not stopping your life, right? Not just making sure that you’re living every day but you’re actually enjoying it and you’re making the most out of it. So I love that mentality that you just shared with us, Isabel. 

I feel like most of my friends were travel bloggers, it’s different, right? It’s different now, there’s a lot of different changes and there was a lot of panics especially in 2020 when there was nobody researching how to travel. 

But now things are starting to open up but things seem to be a little different. Are there any changes that you have made for your business going forward? 

Isabel:

Yeah, for sure. 

It was during this pandemic when I thought of pivoting from becoming just a content creator in the travel space to an educator of some sort because I had been already blogging for 6, 7 years now and I’ve managed to build a life around travel blogging and I’ve managed to get a life around what I love. 

And so I thought if this could be the time to pivot since there was no travel content to be written, I thought, “Yeah, I would actually come and create a course and see how it goes.” And so now, this has been part of one of my main businesses right now and it’s been a fun journey, relearning everything. 

‘Cause after you’ve been in the travel blogging space for so long, there’s just so much you can learn and after you mastered all of it, it becomes stagnant in a way. And so moving towards creating courses has been, like, an act of learning and relearning for me, which really stimulates my brain and really rest me up in a way that travel blogging used to do for me. 

And so, yeah, it was like learning all over again how to attract a new audience, because now it’s no longer about people who love to travel but people who want to learn how to travel and make a full-time traveling. 

Debbie:

Yeah. And it’s interesting with all of the things that you have gone through. And obviously, everybody, there’s a lot of obstacles that you went through because of this but if you just put your effort into it, there’s also a lot of things, there’s also a lot of opportunities. And this is another thing that you had gained from it. 

Now, you have courses and different streams of income. And it’s so interesting that so many people are able to, now, have multiple streams of income because of the pandemic. Because now you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I have to make sure that I have other things going. Otherwise, I’m screwed. I don’t want to be in the same place again.”

Isabel:

Yes, definitely. It’s been eye-opening for sure with the pandemic.

Everyone’s realizing that they can’t be stuck in one place anymore.

Debbie:

And it’s interesting to see how many people who didn’t even have remote work, like, on their radar, now, they’re, like, getting a taste of it and they loved it. And now, there are so much more remote workers out there. 

So, it’s kind of an interesting time to live in because before what we do and how we live was very unconventional and it was unstable. And now this is actually more stable. 

Isabel:

Yeah. It’s like we’re pioneering the remote work movement. 

Debbie:

Exactly. And I love that. 

And now there are so many people that are into it because first of all, they have no choice and second, a lot of people realize that they actually enjoy it as well. 

So, Isabel, let’s look into maybe 30 to 40 years from now and you’re looking back in your life, what legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for?

Isabel:

Wow, that’s deep.

I definitely want to be remembered for being the action taker, for being not afraid to step out of my comfort zone and live an unconventional life because if I had never done that, I would not have had such an enriching experience and such a fulfilling life. Not just In terms of seeing and experiencing everything in travel but also internally, I have learned and grown and developed so much.

Just having to work and figure things out on my own is, I guess, why you can call an entrepreneur as compared to just someone who is a hamster in a wheel and doing the daily mundane tasks in and out. 

So I do want to really inspire and motivate people who feel like they are stuck in that rut to really take action and follow their guts and really choose the life that they have been yearning for. Because it sounds scary coming from a certain life to an uncertain life but really the adventures, the excitement, what you can gain from it is so much more worth it. 

Debbie:

Yeah. 

So let me ask you this, Isabel, were you always like this? Were you always that type of person that just went out there and adventures or was this something that you had to learn yourself and push yourself towards? 

Isabel:

I wouldn’t say that I’ve always been like that because being brought up in Singapore, everyone’s kind of living a default lifestyle. So when I travel I used to travel with either a companion or family or friends. 

The first time I really forced myself to get uncomfortable was when I booked a one-way ticket to France to do my student exchange ’cause I was like, “This is something that I have to do before I go into the workforce. If not, I’m going to regret it for all of my life, forever.” 

And so I had these bucket lists, places that I want to go. And if I couldn’t find anyone, I wouldn’t be stalking them in my dorm room. I am going to book that ticket on my own and figure things out and speak sign language just to get there and experience it. 

So yes, I guess that experience traveling alone in Europe really challenged me and made me do things that I never thought I would. Like, couch surfing in a stranger’s home even if it was just a male host. 

Yeah, there were scary parts but I overcame it and it makes you stronger – whatever you have overcome. 

Debbie:

Yeah. 

I love that because a lot of people think that if you’re someone as adventurous as you are, Isabel, it just comes really naturally, that it’s just so easy. But in the beginning, especially the first time, it’s really, really scary and sometimes you even have anxiety about it, right? 

It can be debilitating especially if it’s out of your comfort zone but once you step out of that, once you take that first step, it’s like you can’t go back again because you have a taste of it. And even though there’s a lot of fear and sometimes anxiety that goes along with it, I guess the gift of it and the reward from what you’re getting from that is just so much more than the actual fear. 

So for the listeners out there who have anxiety and fear about going out of their comfort zone, Isabel didn’t have that confidence in the beginning. I definitely didn’t and pretty much most or all of the people I’ve interviewed didn’t have that either but it just takes that first time, right? 

Isabel:

Yeah. 

I wouldn’t deny that it’s scary but there are certain ways that you can go about overcoming the anxiety and fear. One of which is to really take precautions. Like, right now with technology being so advanced, you can actually share your Google location with friends and family, like, close friends and family. So that’s one way to really safeguard your safety. 

The other one is, of course, to keep them updated just to make sure everything is going fine, to give periodic updates to your close people. That would be one way to really keep safe when you are traveling to the unknown.

And the other way, like for me, every time I think about doing something scary and it deters me, I think about what I would feel if I don’t do it. And then I know I would be overcome with so much guilt and so many what-ifs. And so that is primarily what spurs to move forward, to hike that 6,000-meter mountain in Bolivia. 

And yeah, I guess that kind of really emboldens. 

Debbie:

And I really, really love the fact that you said that, that you can be adventurous but also have safety measures that go along with it. You obviously don’t want to just go into something blind and you’re not protecting yourself, especially as a woman, one of the things that we’re always concerned about is our safety.

So make sure that you’re being smart about it as well. And, Isabel, you have some really good tips about that ’cause you’ve been doing this for quite some time and I’m sure it’s been quite a road for you but we really appreciate it and for you to be here.

So if our listeners want to know more about you, Isabel, where can they find you?

Isabel:

Yeah. My travel blog is Bel Around The World.

So you can find me at BelAroundTheWorld.com and I am also active on all social media platforms. I’m most active on Instagram. I usually share my Insta stories and my day-to-day life.

So yeah, you can find me there.

Debbie:

Awesome. Thanks so much, Isabel, we really appreciate you. 

Isabel:

Thank you for having me here.


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Show Credits:

Audio Engineer: Ben Smith

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