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Blogs and bucks

It took an email from Scott Adams — the creator of Dilbert — for Purna Duggirala to change his blog’s name from “Pointy Haired Dilbert” to “Chandoo”, his nickname. “I like what you’re doing, and wouldn’t want to impede your momentum, but a name change is due,” Adams wrote, citing copyright issues on the commercial use of the name Dilbert.

That was in 2010. Duggirala had by then been blogging for almost six years. The blog was to initially help him keep in touch with friends and family while he was a student at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore. Three years later, it had become the go-to site for anything on Microsoft Excel with an ever-increasing fan following.

“I started writing about MS Excel mainly because I was using it a lot when I was in a job. I started writing about my experiences and shared a few tips and techniques. Slowly the conversation grew,” Duggirala says.

Today, it takes five full-time employees and around six volunteers to keep it updated and for the blog’s other activities. Duggirala, who quit his job in April 2010 to focus on Chandoo.org, is one of the few Indians to pay income tax for his earnings from blogging. Although he doesn’t reveal details, industry watchers believe he earns around $2,00,000 a year. “I cannot share exact figures. But I can tell you that we are eager to breach the $1 million revenue mark by 2014,” he says.

The route to earning big bucks in India is clearly through writing on technology-related fields. Indian bloggers have to still catch up with their counterparts in the West, who write on varied topics. A successful Indian may have tens of thousands of followers, whereas the top bloggers in Western countries have millions of dedicated visitors. Some top earning bloggers worldwide include Perez Hilton of PerezHilton.com, who writes on celebrities, and Frank Frauenfelder of boingboing.net, who writes on science fiction and computers. Both are believed to earn millions of dollars through blogging.

It may not be long before some Indian bloggers become dollar millionaires. Agra-based Amit Aggarwal is getting there. The Indian Institute of Technology graduate started blogging in 2004. The web traffic monitoring engine, Alexa, ranks his blog labnol.org at 2,194 in the world and 310 in India — putting him ahead of many e-commerce websites in the country.

According to some bloggers who track others’ incomes, Aggarwal earns $2,00,00-2,50,000 a year, though the blogger puts it “at a few lakh” (rupees). “Blog may be a common term now but back in 2004, it wasn’t. Luckily, I’m from a traditional business family, and I could afford to take such a risk,” Aggarwal says. “It took about a year before my blog started earning money.”

Indian professional bloggers are not eager to talk about their earnings. An online analyst who wrote on the estimated income of top bloggers last year was threatened with legal action by some of them. “I was unprepared for the backlash. Some perhaps fear they will come under the radar of the income tax authorities,” says the online analyst, seeking anonymity.

The main sources of revenue for most Indian bloggers are advertisements by Google AdSense. AdSense displays ads on the blog which are mostly based on the content of the blog and the user’s current location. For example, if somebody is blogging about an iPad from Delhi, it is possible that offers on iPads from several vendors from Delhi will be displayed on the site. The bloggers are paid according to the number of visitors clicking on the ads. BuySellAds.com is another large advertiser.

But more often than not, a blogger’s income remains a secret. “You can measure the height of the sky, but can’t track exactly how much these top blogs earn,” says Nandita B., founder of MoneyCTL.com, a blogger who prepared her own list of top earning bloggers in India earlier this year.

Nandita claims she used a complex method to draw up the list. Besides using tools such as Alexa.com to assess the traffic to the blogs, she also looked at Google AdSense CTR (click through rate), ads sold from BuySellAds.com and from affiliate sales. She also interacted with some of the top bloggers for more information. (Google didn’t respond to repeated emails on Adsense.)

But advertising is not the only source of income. “I started getting a lot of ads from the US, which attracted more advertisers from that part of the world,” Aggarwal says.

Amit Bhawani of AmitBhawani.com, a tech blogger who claims to have earned around Rs 1.5-2 crore in the last assessment year, explains further. “Say a blogger, who’s an expert on automobiles, writes in-depth articles about cars in his blog. His followers grow significantly. It’s at this point the blogger will not be able to rely on AdSense alone and will need to start contacting automobile agencies,” Bhawani says. If the blog is popular, companies wouldn’t mind putting in money, he argues.

There are other ways to make money. “If you are writing about gadgets, you may promote affiliate links of online vendors, such as FlipKart, LetsBuy, IndiaTimes Shopping, etc., and if your visitor buys something from there you can earn a commission,” says blogger Soumya Pratihari, who has an annual income of around Rs 80 lakh.

Asked why tech and business blogs are more successful in India, Aggarwal says it could be because technology is not limited to an Indian audience. Indian eyeballs can lead to foreign advertisers too.

“I think it’s also because the first bloggers here were all techies and their followers emulated them,” reasons Honey Singh of Honeytechblog.com. “This led to a lot of helpful sites and advice you could find online,” he says.

While a few like Aggarwal have stuck to pure blogging, some — such as Singh and Duggirala — have diversified their work. Duggirala is selling tips on Excel, charting tutorials, dashboards, templates and other modules relating to Excel from his blog. “Today, our revenue mix includes our own products (60 per cent of revenues), advertising (Google AdSense, third party ads — 25 per cent), live training classes (10 per cent) and consulting (five per cent),” he says.

Singh has an online agency that tracks influential bloggers and helps them get ads. “We look for people we call ‘effective influencers’. We get them ads from telecom companies and other private advertisements,” says Singh, who writes on technology issues ranging from BlackBerry mobile applications to editing PDF files with free software.

The success stories among Indian bloggers, Pratihari believes, comprise just one per cent of all bloggers. “Most people, when they start a blog, will only write when they’re ‘in the mood’, and leave their blog alone for 10 days. That’s not going to lead anywhere,” he says. But if you blog regularly, the sky, clearly, is yours. To say nothing of the megabucks.

Top Indian bloggers

1 Blog name: Labnol.org
Founder: Amit Aggarwal
US$ 17,000

2 Blog name: SaveDelete.com
Founder: Jaspal Singh
US$ 5,000

3 Blog name: BlogsDNA.com
Editor-in-chief: Sandip Dedhia
US$ 4,600

4 Blog name: NirmalTV.com
Founder: Nirmal Balachandran
US$ 4,100

5Blog name: ShoutMeLoud.com
Founder: Harsh Agrawal
US$ 3,200

6 Blog name: AmitBhawani.com
Founder: Amit Bhawani
US$ 2,800

7 Blog name: DevilsWorkshop.org
Founder: Rahul Banshal
US$ 1,400

8 Blog name: Trak.in
Founder: Arun Prabhudesai
US$ 1,200

9 Blog name: Blogsolute.com
Founder: Rohit Langde
US$ 800

10 Blog name: 9Lessons.info
Founder: Srinivas Tamada
US$ 750
(All estimates, earnings a month. Estimates vary widely.)