My last post sparked some interesting debate! Here's the first of two guest posts that kind of take their lead from it.
It's by Mark Hodson. For those of you who don't know him, he's editor and co-founder of 101 Holidays. And he spent 12 years as a full-time freelance travel writer at The Sunday Times. He also consults on Travel SEO. Welcome!
After the recent Travel Babble event in London, Jeremy published an interesting and provocative post, Time to Fire Your SEO manager? in which he questioned the role of SEO in travel. In the wake of Google’s Panda and Penguin updates, he argued, the key players are now the writers and the content managers. SEO managers, he said, should be spending their budgets on creating quality content - including paying travel bloggers - rather than fussing over rankings and links.
I was also at the event (here’s my write-up) and I shared Jeremy’s irritation that none of the panel of SEO experts seemed keen to spend money on commissioning writers. But this got me thinking: what is quality travel content anyway?
There is a general assumption - apparently shared by all those commenting on Jeremy’s post - that we all agree on the answer. I don’t think that’s true. Certainly, we can agree on what isn’t quality content - like all those $5 articles speed-written by students in Indonesia, or "spun" by software programs.
But has the very notion of what constitutes quality travel content changed since the evolution of the web?
In the days of print, it was pretty obvious. The likes of Bruce Chatwin and Eric Newby were quality. The rest of it was - give or a take a few award-winning articles in quality newspapers or magazines - tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping. (And I say that as somebody who spent many happy and lucrative years writing for the fish and chip shop industry).
Quality travel writing was associated with long, introspective and reflective travelogues. Anything else - like Top 10 Mid-priced Hotels in Paris - was just hack writing.
But it was during the second half of the 1990s that the first-person travelogues in the weekend supplements were gradually eased out in favour of the Top 10s - what my editor at The Sunday Times called “service pieces”. Purists gagged at this populist approach. Old school travel writers stomped their feet in fury at the “decline in quality”. The editors were unmoved. They argued - rightly, in my view - that “service pieces” were what people wanted. Few people had time at the weekend to wade through 3,000 words about horse riding with nomads in Mongolia. It was the era of the no-frills city break and they wanted to know about 10 Mid-priced Hotels in Paris.
The instinct of the editors was proved correct with the advent of the web. When newspapers published their content online they could quickly see which articles were read, and which ignored.
The people spoke - and they wanted service pieces.
Then followed an unseemly rush to commission and write endless reams of service pieces, most of which were, frankly, useless. However, that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the best ones were well researched, well written, concise and bang up to date. They were useful. And, I would argue, high quality. Today we’ve moved on. There are tens of thousands of travel bloggers publishing their own work. And they are mostly writing ... not useful service pieces, but travelogues!
Some of these first-person narratives are engaging and thoughtful. But, let's be honest, most are dull, self-regarding and poorly written. Who - apart from the blogger’s friends - has the time or inclination to read them?
There’s a lot of talk now about how travel blogger’s should be “rewarded” for their work. Not only should tour operators and tourist boards give them free trips, they should also throw them cash. Really?
The problem with most travel bloggers is that they don’t engage with an audience that is likely to buy a holiday. Many are using their blogs to fund indefinite round-the-world journeys, staying at hostels or couchsurfing. Some spend more time Tweeting and Liking each other’s blogs than they do on the hard graft of writing. (And, believe me, if it’s not hard graft then you’re not doing it right).
Many bloggers have been lucky: they have found that SEO agencies are prepared to pay for links on their sites. In my view, Google’s Penguin update could kill that goose, with marketers only risking buying links from the most popular and highest-quality blogs. That may take a year or two to play out.
In the meantime, I believe there certainly is a market for quality travel writing - but we need to adjust what we mean by “quality”. We should stop thinking about school literature prizes and ask the question that Google keeps asking itself: what do people want?
I think the answer is content that is authoritative, reliable, informative and up-to-date. People want information they can trust. Yes, they want to be inspired. But mostly they want to be guided and helped to make the right decisions. They want to know that if they are going to spend hundreds or thousands of pounds on a holiday, it is going to meet their needs and expectations.
I’ve always said that if I was going to start a travel blog I would pick a lucrative but unpopular niche. Right now I would write about all inclusive family resorts. Or cruise holidays for retired people.
I can tell you one thing. I won’t be blogging any time soon about “how I’m travelling the world for free”.