Bloggers who manage to attract a large enough audience to interest advertisers can turn their hobby into a living. It's not easy, but there are lessons to be learnt from the pioneers.
How to get paid for blogging
Searching for the Arab world's answer to Perez Hilton, one of the world's richest bloggers, turns out to be a fruitless task - and, some may say, happily so.
The oft-sued Mr Hilton - whose real name is Mario Armando Lavandeira - is very much at the wealthy end of the vast spectrum of "pro-bloggers" who treat online writing as their primary source of income.
Whatever your take on PerezHilton.com - and there are many detractors - its revenue figures are impressive: it is now worth US$32 million (Dh117.5m) with annual revenues of $5.4m, according to the financial website 24/7 Wall St.
This is all the more impressive given the site's focus on celebrity gossip, photos overlaid with scrawled remarks, and, in a posting earlier this month, the unlikely topic of promiscuous squirrels.
But at the other end of the spectrum are those who earn barely enough advertising revenue to cover the cost of a domain registration. And it is in this category that the majority of Arab pro-bloggers fall, say local experts.
Yet this certainly does not apply to Bebhinn Kelly, the owner and founder of the fashion website Hellwafashion.com. Ms Kelly, whose site is targeted towards "someone who wants to look a bit different", derives a full income from selling online advertising.
"It's possible to make a salary. I wouldn't say it's a decent one, but it's enough to live on," says the 32-year-old Irish expat, who lives in Dubai. "This year it has become a lot easier to make an income."
Ms Kelly sells advertising on her site in several ways.
First, there are automated advertisements provided by the likes of Google and local advertising networks. But there are also individual advertising deals formed with clients. Ms Kelly says that, if she were to start over, she would also have sold more products on her site on an "affiliate marketing" basis.
"Banner ads is one way. The other way is through interactive content - you'll see a lot of competitions and things where we try to work with clients," she adds.
Typical advertisers range from technology companies and credit- card providers to beauty brands and retailers looking to tap the website's readership, 85 per cent of which is female. While Hellwafashion.com is technically a website rather than a blog, it is not backed by a larger media company, with "99 per cent of the content" handled by Ms Kelly.
It was set up in July 2009, when Ms Kelly termed herself a "blogger".
"A year and a half ago, people didn't understand what a fashion website was, so I called myself a blogger," she says.
Putting all blogs on a level playing field is not always fair.
Money-generating blogs worldwide vary widely in their funding and structure. For the most lucrative sites, the image of a lone scribe in front of a laptop does not apply.
For example, the most valuable "blogs" are run by larger outfits, such as Gawker Media, which is valued at $240m by 24/7 Wall St.
Huffington Post (valued at $150m) is more like a fully-fledged media company than a blog, employing dozens of staff. A more realistic view of the average income for a full-time blogger is offered by Technorati, an internet search engine for finding blogs. In its latest State of the Blogosphere report, it put the mean non-salary income for a full-time blogger at between $13,489 and $17,101.
Yet, for popular blogs attracting 100,000 or more unique visitors a month, the average income is around $75,000, according to the previous year's report.
Hellwafashion.com aside, commentators say that bloggers in the Arab world tend to earn less than the worldwide averages, with many struggling to cover the costs of the domain name and website hosting.
Mohamed Marwen Meddah, a former employee of Yahoo Middle East, founded the StartUpArabia blog (www.startuparabia.com) in March 2008.
The site is focused on entrepreneurship and features adverts supplied by Google, from which Mr Meddah derives a modest income.
"It's enough to cover the hosting costs, domain name costs and maybe a few bucks more," says Mr Meddah. "But not anything big."
This view is shared by Issandr el Amrani, a Cairo-based freelance journalist who founded The Arabist (www.arabist.net), a blog devoted to "Arab politics and culture".
Mr el Amrani has Google ads, paid ads and a donation function on his site, but he says the revenue from this in no way recompenses him for the time and effort expended.
"I make a few hundred dollars a year in profit," says Mr el Amrani. "Compared with the amount of time I put in it, it's nothing."
Mr Meddah adds that blogs about specific topics are the most effective in terms of attracting advertising from self-serve advertising platforms, which include Google AdSense and the regional network ikoo. "The more specialised and more targeted the profile of users, the more money that you will be able to make," he says.
But Mr Meddah adds that blogs can help an individuals make money indirectly.
"It helps to create a profile," he says. "There are multiple ways that a blog can help a person make money, even if not directly."
While both Mr Meddah and Mr el Amrani make some attempt to monetise their respective blogs, they are not full-time bloggers.
But there are others who, like Ms Kelly, treat blogging as their primary source of income.
Take the Tunisia-based pro-blogger couple Ziad Barouni and Hana Rahman. The husband-and-wife team founded the Waleg.com entertainment website back in 2004. The site claims to have "grown from a simple blog to become the first and largest pop culture and media gossip blog in the Middle East and North Africa".
The site now consists of 19 blogs - 15 in English, three in French and one in Arabic - on subjects such as celebrity gossip, fashion, health, cars and gadgets.
Mr Barouni, a 33-year-old Tunisian, says that he and his Jordanian wife, Hana, gave up their jobs - and a joint income of $40,000 a year - to work on the site full time. Despite a blip in advertising revenue during the recession, he says they now make more money from the website than they did in their jobs.
"We are earning more than that and are able to cover office expenses and pay part-time staff," he says. "It's a good business. We survived the economic climate of 2008 and the beginning of 2009." Mr Barouni claims that the site has an average of 750,000 unique visitors a month, with 3 million page views.
The "Perez" tone does not work well in the Arab world, he says.
"It's not possible to use the same style that Perez Hilton uses. The main reason is that readers do not accept such style.
"We tried again and again to have stories in the Perez Hilton style, but our readers were offended."
Mr Barouni says a professional Arab blogger could expect to earn "between $35,000 and $40,000 in the first year", although this is, of course, easier said than done.
It is not as simple as setting up a WordPress site and AdSense account, and watching the money roll in. Mr Barouni says bloggers looking to make serious money should be prepared to make a real commitment. Others say that pro-bloggers need to find a "niche" subject to write about, to help attract more target advertising.
Ms Kelly says that bloggers in the Arab world should not be put off by the tiny proportion of the total advertising money that goes to online media - estimated at between 1 per cent and 2 per cent.
"That 1 per cent on digital spend is misleading. You'll get income coming through the PR budget or the events budget," she says. "And definitely that spend has to increase."
She hopes this optimism will bring hope to potential pro-bloggers in the Arab world.
"There's a lot you can do from behind a computer," she says.
Tips to make blogging pay
Find your niche
Blogs targeted at niche audiences stand a better chance of attracting advertising, online experts say.
While having high traffic figures is important, advertisers are primarily interested in targeting distinct, identifiable audiences, says Isam Bayazidi, the chief executive of the Middle East online advertising network ikoo.
“The more specialised the blog is, the more focused it is, then the more potential for advertising there will be,” Mr Bayazidi adds.
Popular subjects for niche blogs include those centred on fashion, celebrity, technology or motoring, he explains.
“With many of the small bloggers, they are targeting niche audiences,” says Mr Bayazidi. “Usually, it’s small in traffic volume, but with a high potential for niche advertising.”
“Content is king” may be a cliche in the media, but it’s true.
To attract readers, blogs must be engaging and relevant to their audiences. “You can’t get away with content that isn’t sticky,” says Bebhinn Kelly, the owner and founder of Hellwafashion.com.
Ms Kelly adds that content is “first and foremost” the most important thing to think about.
“What I really focus on is the exclusive content,” she says. “If I’m publishing something that doesn’t have a different angle, the person can look at another blog in two seconds.”
Quantity counts as well as quality. The more blog posts that appear on a site, the greater the chance it has to be noticed.
Readers – and advertisers – need to know that your blog is out there. But sites run by just one person are unlikely to have lavish marketing budgets to take out paid advertising.
Still, there are ways to promote blogs and non publisher-owned websites. Ms Kelly of Hellwafashion.com says that she worked flat out promoting the site when it first launched.
“In the beginning I worked 24/7, so everywhere it was, ‘Hellwafashion’,” she says.
Aside from physical networking, there is the virtual side of things. Forming a presence on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter is an easy – and free – way to drive traffic to your blog.
If advertising revenue is not flooding in, try different things.
Mr Bayazidi, the chief executive of ikoo, says that bloggers should be prepared to try different advertising models. “I’d suggest that they try different methods and not stick to one system,” he says.
This approach means adapting the content of the site to current trends. Experimenting with different topics could also help bloggers build traffic to their sites.
For example, The Arabist received “one of the single biggest spikes” in traffic around a story it did in connection with the WikiLeaks revelations.
“If I was running the site commercially, I’d be spending my time combing through WikiLeaks looking for similar stories,” says Issandr el Amrani, who runs the blog.
The most valuable blogs in America, based on valuation and estimated annual revenue.
1. Gawker network
(includes sites such as Gawker, Deadspin and Gizomodo)
Valuation: $240 million
Estimated revenue: $53.6m
2. The Huffington Post
Estimated revenue: $28m.
3. Drudge Report
Estimated revenue: $13m
4. PopSugar Media
Estimated revenue: $11.5m
Estimated revenue: $9m
6. Cheezburger Network
Estimated revenue: $10.5m
7. Perez Hilton
Estimated revenue: $5.4m