Zach Brooks pocketed $1,000 this month blogging about the cheap lunches he discovers around midtown Manhattan ($10 or less, preferably greasy, and if he's lucky, served from a truck).
The site, Midtownlunch.com, is just a year and a half old and gets only about 2,000 readers daily, but it's already earning him enough each month for a weekend trip to the Caribbean — or in his case, more fat-filled culinary escapades in the city.
In the vast and varied world of blogging, Brooks is far from alone.
It's no longer unusual for blogs with just a couple thousand daily readers to earn nearly as many dollars a month. Helping fill the pockets of such bloggers are programs like Google's AdSense and many others that let individuals — not just major publications — tap into the rapidly growing pot of advertising dollars with a click of the mouse.
In 2006, advertisers spent $16.9 billion online, up steadily each year from $6 billion in 2002, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau. In the first half of 2007, online advertising reached nearly $10 billion, a nearly 27 percent increase over the first half of 2006.
Little technical skill is needed to publish a well-read blog, meaning just about anyone with something worthwhile to say can find an audience, said Kim Malone Scott, director of online sales and operations for Google's AdSense. That's attracted greater readership and advertising dollars, she said.
According to 2006 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 39 percent of Internet users, or about 57 million American adults, said they read blogs, up from 27 percent in 2004, or 32 million.
That doesn't mean bloggers are suddenly flush with money. For every blogger earning a decent side income like Brooks, countless others will never earn a cent.
But with the right mix of compelling content and exposure, a blog can draw a dedicated following, making advertising a low-hanging fruit.
"This is really a continuation of how the Web in general has enabled smaller businesses and individuals to compete if not at a level playing field, at least a more equitable level," said David Hallerman, a senior analyst with the research group eMarketer.
Google's AdSense is an automated program that places targeted advertising on sites big and small. Other programs such as PayPerPost are just as user friendly; bloggers sign up and advertisers cherry pick where they want to place ads based on categories and the number of impressions a site captures.
Getting paid might even help validate what may otherwise seem like a silly or obscure obsession.
For Samuel Chi, BCSGuru.com started as a way to demystify the convoluted universe of college football rankings for fellow fans.
Chi, a former sports journalist with training in statistics, posts his calculations every Saturday night during the season before official results are released on Sunday. Between Saturday night and Monday, about 4,000 sports fans log on daily to check out the "guru's" forecast.
This season, Chi made about $8,000 total from the blog; ticket brokers contacted him directly after word about his site got out. Google's AdSense brought in another couple hundred dollars for Chi, the owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Amelia Island, Fla.
Neither Chi or Brooks had to do much to gain a loyal readership; when it comes to such rarefied interests, word about a good site can spread rapidly in online communities.
"All it takes is a couple of mentions (on other sites) and hundreds of people can be directed to your site," Chi said.
BlogAds, which helps advertisers target relevant blogs for a commission, prices ads by the week, with sites tiered by the amount of traffic they get.
When the company started in 2002, founder Henry Copeland said it was mainly small advertisers selling T-shirts or promoting bands. Now he said "there's no big brand that doesn't advertise on everyday blogs."
About a third of BlogAds' 1,500 sites earn between $200 and $2,000 a month, Copeland said. Those sites get anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000 daily impressions.
Google's Malone Scott said access to advertising online is more democratic, since an ad click from a tiny site is just as valuable as a click from a site with a million readers.
Some advertisers have even found better response from smaller sites with more passionate, engaged audiences.
For ticket broker RazorGator, advertising on blogs like BCSGuru.com means reaching a very specific audience.
"We have found that more and more sports fans are turning to blogs and smaller fan sites to get their information so as an advertiser it makes sense to follow your audience," spokeswoman Toni Lamb wrote in an email.
The broker has advertised on smaller blogs like Chi's for the past two years; Lamb would not specify how many blogs it currently advertises on.
Despite rapidly rising advertising dollars online, blogs usually don't start out as a way to make money — they're more a means of speaking to an audience of like-minded individuals. MidtownLunch.com started as a way for Brooks to indulge his food obsession, but he soon realized his quest struck a note with a legion of office workers.
Taking that extra step to get advertising was a no-brainer. Companies like Random House's Broadway Books have posted ads for food books on the site, along with the makers of independent films seeking a New York City audience.
Brooks only spends two hours at most each day on MidtownLunch.com. But the blog affects his life in other ways. Like Chi, he's met close friends through his site. He has also scored freelance writing assignments, and, above all, the site has given his endless fascination with greasy foods a sense of validation.