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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!

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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”.

 

65 thoughts on “What the hell is quality travel content?

  1. There's no universal right answer to "What is quality content?" But it can be broadly split into the following:

    A) It's genuinely useful. A good service piece is at least as hard to do as a glorious literary narrative. There's a lot of skill in the research.

    B) It tells a story. A story that people want to read, teaches them something new and entertains them. Entertainment is an inexplicably undervalued realm of travel writing.

    Most "quality content" would fall into one of those two brackets. But both take hard work and skill to do. And that's what separates the quality content from the identikit barrage of guff out there. If you're doing service pieces that basically consist of things you were shown on your press trip/ blog trip, it's not quality content - it's lazy and show no willingness to provide the useful information. Similarly, no-one cares what you did on your gap year unless you can identify a compelling story out of it.

    The simple rule of thumb should probably be that if you feel compelled to read to the end or would print out and use the information whilst in the destination, you're probably along the right lines.

  2. As someone who has moaned regularly about the deterioration in the travel sections of newspapers and magazines, this certainly made interesting reading. I was also one of those who, for a number of years, wrote the more literary (I hope) type of travel piece, that sometimes featured on the front of travel sections and even occasionally won writing awards. I do miss both writing and reading those kinds of pieces in the travel sections of today.

    So it is galling to have to admit that Mark is probably right. I know from a lot of the online stuff I do for my own and other websites that articles about 'the best things to do in Manchester' or 'how long will it take to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?' are what people want. These information-providing articles get the most page views. Of course that's partly because people are Googling for that kind of thing, rather than for travel essays to read.

    I hope there will always be outlets and readers for the longer more thoughtful pieces, but we may have to publish them ourselves on the Kindle, or in the iPad travel magazines that are emerging.

  3. Interesting article. I'd tend to agree with much of it as well as with David Whitely who says it can be difficult to determine what is 'quality'.

    I've only recently started doing it and certainly am trying to go down the road of the longer form, literary type of article and don't have a lot of inclination to do the 'top 10 list' type of articles despite the fact that those may get found and read more.

    Mark says that the writing should be hard. Again, I'd agree. But doesn't it go hand in hand that for the writing to be hard the work has to be hard as well? The type of article that's being discussed can't be written from looking at media releases. The writer has to actually get out and experience the place. S/he has to talk to people, right? Gain some insight into the place. Figure out what questions to ask to get something more than just stock answers. Is that not right?

    As far as niches go, mine's pretty small. It's the more upscale traveller as the target audience and Canada as the destination. Very focused. Time will tell whether it will be successful or not.

    1. @Bob Fisher
      Yes, writing should be hard. But there's a confusion I've seen here: some people seem to think that the journey should be arduous. Or they think that if the journey is arduous then the writing will somehow be more valuable. None of that matters - it's all about how useful (or entertaining) the finished article is to the reader.

      1. I agree, Mark. The utility of the writing is very important. My only point was that an article that is useful and/or entertaining to the reader likely doesn't come without some hard work behind it. No different, really, from other forms of journalism. It's difficult to write with any authority if the writer hasn't researched or experienced what is being written about. And there can be a lot of background work that goes into it outside of the trip or destination.

  4. Brilliant article, and very timely. I've argued for years that "Few people had time at the weekend to wade through 3,000 words about horse riding with nomads in Mongolia," and this was a major failing of much of the travel press. But provide well-written, well-researched and up-to-date pieces on places people actually go to, and it's a whole different ball game. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for the great writers who genuinely go to Mongolia, but it is increasingly a dwindling market, in non-book terms. At the same time, the blogosphere is providing increasing amounts of noise as opposed to illumination, and it IS getting harder to find "quality travel content," and yes, it does still exist (101 Holidays is a great example, although Mark is too modest to say so - and no, I'm not on commission!).

    There are some really enlightened travel companies that still equate good content with good business (Attraction Tickets Direct and The Cruise Line Ltd are 2 that spring to mind) but, equally, strong niche destinations (like Florida, cruising and Australia) remain rewarding furrows to plough.

    I'm equally convinced that one of the reasons the big tour operators (hello, Thomas Cook, I'm looking at you!) are collapsing is because they have totally failed to invest in decent content. People DO notice and they Do vote with their money these days.

  5. Great debate.
    You know, I miss those 'Mongolia travelogues'. I recently took out a subscription to Wanderlust magazine partly because it was a great deal, but also because I believe in the future of print magazines and I want to support what I think is a great travel magazine. I like magazines, a lot and I don't see the web ever replacing them for me personally regardless of the new devices around the corner. (I also subscribe to Time magazine and to Esquire magazine too)
    Personally I'm bored stupid of web. It's usually dull, poorly-written-on-a-shoestring-budget stuff. A few people are making a decent hash of it - Nellie Huang with her Wild Junket projects and the guys at Overnight Buses are two examples I can immediately think of. But they are few and far between.
    I have a more detailed blog post brewing on this topic (stay tuned!

    1. Question for you, Jeremy. How would you propose these, for the most part, independents compete with large publications when it comes to budget? Most are being funded out of pocket. There isn't the advertiser revenue support that the likes of Condé Nast Traveler or, to use your recent subscription, Wanderlust have. Or Time. Or Esquire.

      Some travel blogs do have small amounts of advertising but web advertising revenues are tiny. And yes, print advertising has dropped off dramatically in the past several years but it's still far greater than what someone operating as an independent can hope to generate.

      1. Agree. At the moment most travel bloggers are making their money from SEO agencies using them for link building. So the agency pays to create a 'guest post' for their blog which has a link (or links) in it back to their client's website. I think this business model is on the way out as Google gets more and more focused on this kind of activity and tries to stamp it out. Ad revenue from all but the most high traffic blogs is pretty paltry. So the short answer - from my perspective is - they can't. And frankly I wouldn't start a travel blog about anything. To have a half change of making money you need lots of revenue streams which together do start to add up.
        There are two great guest posts on here by Mike Gerrard that offer some great pointers:
        http://www.travelblather.com/2011/05/google-adsense-how-to-make-money-from-travel-content.html
        The link to the second is at the end of this first one...

        1. That's pretty defeatist, Jeremy. I don't disagree that it's difficult to make a go, as I said earlier. But there are niches out there that aren't being served in the current environment. Is it wrong to try and serve one, or more, of those?

          I've been approached about link bait and similar link building schemes for both the sites I operate. I reject all outright. They're just scams that I want no part of. Blog farms produce zero in terms of valuable content.

          For the very reason you suggest that such strategies are dropping in terms of success, I think that writers who produce quality content may start to be able to generate revenue from direct advertising. It'll take time but I don't think it's out of the question.

          Personally I'm not a fan of AdSense or Clickbank. Clickbank is marginally better because you can control what ads are on your site but with AdSense, you take what Google gives you - good or bad. A travel site with a Google ad for bed linen or gardening supplies doesn't, in my mind, make a good impression to a visitor. You could also end up with ads that are for competing products or services.

          I have to question the CTR in the linked article at 3-8%. This article, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Top-Reason-Users-Dont-Click-iw-129671171.html indicates a rate of only .09%. I've never heard anyone claim CTRs as high as Mike suggests.

          Affiliate relationships are another possibility. Again, you have control over what goes on your site, which is important.

          But direct advertising is where I think most of the possibilities lie. Why? Because of the very directed campaigns that can be launched that will, in all probability, cost less and be more effective than the current scatter-gun approach. With adverts in printed media the advertiser has no idea who's paying attention unless there's some sort of reward program for responding/buying. But with ads on a website, I can tell the advertiser exactly how many people viewed a given page where their ad appears on a given day. They can tell how many people clicked on the ad to visit their site. Depending on what type of ad is set up (i.e., whether it's embedded in a video clip) I may be able to do tracking on demographics. For example, Vimeo - a video sharing site, think YouTube but with class - allows me to see exactly where any video I post gets embedded elsewhere. I can then follow those embeds and look at the respective sites. This could allow me to put together a pretty good demographic profile of who is watching and how often. That kind of information is invaluable to advertisers. It's a process I've referred to as active vs. passive advertising. Problem is that kind of data granularity is still in its infancy. But, hopefully, over time it will become more generally available.

          I do think the possibilities for independents are getting better. They'll have to be prepared to work hard to put together the kind of information that would attract advertisers and entice them to place ads based on demographics and data rather than simple pay-per-click ads. A lot won't be prepared to do the work but some will. For that reason, having a carefully defined niche market will be of greater importance and more valuable than being just one in a crowded landscape of adventure travel blogs. Even then an independent still isn't likely to have the budget of a magazine or other, large, corporate funded entity. I don't think that means the idea should be trashed though.

          I'll come back to something I said earlier. It takes hard work to write good content. And it'll take even harder work to monetise that content. Who's prepared to do the work?

          1. Hi Bob
            Sorry to be defeatist ;-) I'm sure it is possible but it takes a lot of work that's for sure. The ad thing - I am no display expert but increasingly we're seeing platforms that target the user and effectively cut out the need for a particular website to have a particular demographic. The demand side advertising platform already knows. See this:
            http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/26711.asp
            As it says in this piece "It's an industry shift to buying audiences, not sites or placements"
            Thoughts?
            J

          2. Crap, I just posted something and it disappeared. Damn I hate the web sometimes. Let's try again.

            As far as I understand, Jeremy, what DSPs do is pretty much exactly what I spoke of above. These platforms simply do it in a broader context bringing multiple advertisers and web locations together in a single place. What DSPs allow advertisers to do is carefully and specifically target audiences based on data. That's exactly what I spoke of earlier. Whether it's demographics, geography, behaviour. It's all about the data. So understanding your audience, as a site operator will be very important to attracting advert revenue. Perhaps the process is further along than I thought. But the concept is the same.

            Mike, that's fantastic. You're getting CTRs that are far and away better than pretty much anyone else out there.

  6. I know I'm supposed only to comment if I have something wise and insightful OR contrary to add, but I really just wanted to say what a great piece this was. You're right: there are no standards to judge what makes "quality content." But given that most of us can quickly tell what bad content is, I'd probably define it as "content that isn't bad content".

    I'm not a lover of long travel monologues in general, unless the writing is in the hands of someone really talented (I'm thinking Eric Newby, Laurie Lee, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Lewis, PLF etc.; "Naples '44" was one of the most entertaining [nicking David's word, above] books I've ever read). I'm *really* not a fan of the self-regarding travel blogs either, and I ignore most of them when they pop up in a Google search result. And you're right about the demand for "service pieces" - I inhabit a mini-niche writing them on tech-meets-travel for the Sunday Telegraph, for which shares on their widget seem pretty respectable compared to the average; and guidebooks are really just long service pieces too, aren't they? Like icebergs, the skill (as I see it) in those service pieces is 90% below the water line. It's graft and nous. In guidebook terms, it's walking til your feet hurt, if necessary to find out a couple of extra facts or to verify something you heard from someone vaguely reliable. It's all the stuff you considered for them but rejected because you found something better. It's all the research you did on something just to say "no, not good enough for readers" when it came to the final write-up.

    I can tell a good service piece from a slapdash effort, as I'm sure you can too. If I was starting a blog today (I'm not), I'd start there too.

  7. "I’ve always said that if I was going to start a travel blog I would pick a lucrative but unpopular niche"

    Right here goes, and in the spirit of Mark's polemic. And kind of in order(ish) of what commission is paid...

    1. A blog about complex car hire
    2. A blog about insurance for those over 65
    3. Family/Centre Parcs type holidays in Europe
    4. Longhaul Cruise holidays
    5. Campervan hire blogs
    6. Cheap Winter Sun holidays
    7. Spa blogs based on per month
    8. Low Cost Carrier blog
    9. Florida villa blog
    10. Some sort of amazing RTW blog like this?
    http://www.roundtheworldflights.com/rtw-blogs/index.php/worldwide.html

  8. Great follow-up piece and analysis from Mark - I always love learning from those who were in the trenches before I was out of diapers (or at least college... :)

    I appreciate the 'hard graft' of writing comment, as it makes us who do struggle to produce something not only readable but with some backbone to it to make others want to read it to the end, as Mr Whitley so aptly points out. And it aint always easy...

  9. It's simple really. Will the content in question sufficiently inform or inspire somebody, somewhere in the world, sufficiently to justify its existence.

    Other random thoughts.

    Is there really "a lot of talk" about how bloggers should be rewarded for their work? Or perhaps you've just got your ear a little too close to that very noisy scene.

    If it is as you seem to suggest, that many travel blogs are little more than repositories for dodgy links and naval gazing, why is half this story discussing quality content focusing on them? Surely we've reached the point where we don't need to thrash that dead horse for yet another lap.

    Why not spend more time talking about people who are doing it somehow "right"? Among many others, to inform you've got sites like Eurocheapo, Travellerspoint and mine, to inspire: PerspectiveTravel, Matador, WorldHum and so on.

    And lastly, at least two of the sites I mentioned have writers based in Indonesia. In one case they deliver excellent research gratis and the other for considerably more than $5 a pop, so you may want to rethink your Indonesia dig.

    Cheers

    Stuart

  10. Indulge me momentarily, won't you?

    I used to drive a beat up little 1985 Toyota Tercel hatchback. It got amazing mileage and was as reliable as your favorite pair of jeans. It finally gave out somewhere just a little short of 200k miles. In the time that I'd driven that car, Detroit had choked the US market with giant gas guzzling vehicles. When I went shopping for a new car, I was depressed by the offerings. In the midst of rising fuel prices and a war that we lefties insist is driven by oil, auto execs were explaining the poor offerings on US lots by saying this: It's what the people demanded.

    Bullshit. It's what they told us we wanted, and what they wanted to fund. They weren't creative about what they were offering us At All.

    So, yeah, travel content. People keep telling us we won't read long features and that we don't have the attention span.

    Paul Theroux makes me want to travel. ANYTHING by Pico Iyer makes me want to travel. I read an amazing piece by Susan Orlean that made me want to high tail it to Oahu's North Shore. I've been reading Paris Paris, slowly, a collection of essays about, you guessed it, Paris, and whaddaya know? It makes me want to go back to Paris. I didn't want to go to Cambodia because I'd read a service piece about how to go to Cambodia. It was because I'd learned, through long form reading, about the temples of Angkor. I read National Geographic cover to cover every month and not an issue comes to my house that doesn't have some well funded feature in there that makes me want to put on my shoes and head right to the airport.

    So this idea that service content is the right stuff because it sells travel, well, I guess it makes me sad.

    I find service content interesting at one time only, when I'm booking a trip. Arguing that service = quality is the same as arguing that narrative = quality. Both are extremely valuable to travelers, both can convert into bookings. And when we short change our imaginations because we think "it's what people want" we get crappy offerings on the auto lot.

  11. If you assess the value of travel writing online by comparing all of it to newspaper travel supplements, you're going to miss a few things. Most importantly, you're going to reduce travel to places to sleep and modes of transport, because a newspaper has other sections to inform, ask questions, etc. And yes, in this context, a blog about all inclusive family resorts sounds like a fantastic idea, because like newspapers, you're going to think the only way to make money is by selling ads.

    Travel writing online is not just taking the place of newspaper supplements. It's taking the place of all travel media. Many of the next generation of travel writers -- the people who "genuinely go to Mongolia" -- will start their careers with blogs, which will in time become platforms for their books. And if they're good, people will still be reading their travelogues for a long time to come.

    Travel is too often reduced to disconnected destinations with a list of amenities that are sorted and ranked by Tripadvisor. It isn't really about that, and good travelogues can help people to travel better in more fundamental ways than finding a good mid-range hotel. They can also inform, and I think we'll see more that blur the line between travel writing and reportage, like Road and Kingdoms, who are now working with Time Magazine.

  12. Mark
    As a marketeer with a background working in tourism, I believe I understand the requirements of creating compelling content for digital media(learning the the hard way, by experience), which is why I've found the debate fascinating.

    I started WordPress blogging a couple of years back and committed to weekly posts for well over a year. I found it hard to stay motivated and keep writing quality content when almost the only comment I was getting back was spam. Looking back it felt like spitting in the wind; and I'm not sure it was worth the considerable effort of being original and taking an entirely independent stance.

    Drawing on my existing knowledge and commercial experience in the industry, allied to a bit more research, I could write quality service pieces and all the pieces suggested by Stuart above; but somehow it's got to be made worth my while.

    I've recently picked up freelance writing/photo journalism commissions and some broadcast work via networking. So I'm probably going to stick to Twitter and social media. Monetisation is indeed key. I shall watch the continuing debate with interest.

  13. Great article Jeremy and very interesting comments from everyone. I thought I would throw my contribution into the fray as both a writer for the travel industry and a hobbyist travel writer cutting my teeth.

    I think there is currently a disconnect between the travel industry and the travel writing community. I've seen the exchanges on the TBU site as travel companies don't know how to engage the writers or their fans to share their own stories and travel writers don't know how to pitch their work. Many companies don't understand how to curate the content they have and it ends up as a dog's dinner.

    I sat in a WTM session last year when the question was asked "how many people are getting paid to do their travel writing?" and two hands went up in the room.

    As the web goes more visual with the likes of Pinterest and Instagram we could all still be debating here and the market will have moved on. It's not just about writing any more - the visuals have to be just as compelling.

    Our writing has to deliver value for our readers and we have to measure that to demonstrate this to the client.

    Many companies are still working on last click attribution models and that does not help our case. It's not just about the content but how readers interact with it that will drive up the reader's propensity to book or buy.

    The companies in the know such as some of the big online travel agencies and a few niche players, understand that good quality content forms part of an overall customer engagement plan that delivers ROI in the long term. The rest of the travel industry now has to start playing catch up.

  14. In a world of choice, everybody has different views on what is quality travel writing.

    I like to find all of the information in one place. Long pieces inspire and don't always give the info; too many snippets and my head starts to spin.

    In essence, I would like to think good quality travel writing can be a mixture of everything: long well-written articles informing and inspiring, useful info that is well researched and very definitely up to date with the latest trends about how to get there and where to stay, where to eat. The articles that annoy me the most are as many people say ones that are just thrown together and just regurgitated from what's already out there on the web.

    Good writing and research are key to both short and long pieces.

  15. A few people have said how much hard work it is, creating quality content for a website (however you define that quality).

    Well, words certainly don't write themselves but it isn't that hard to produce good and useful travel content. As an example, our Pacific Coast Highway Travel site currently has, according to Google, 177 pages indexed. At an average of 400 words a page, say, that's roughly 70,000 words. I know that several people who have posted here have written guidebooks that are much longer than that, and in some cases many guidebooks.

    If you were commissioned to write such a guidebook, you could do it. But in the case of a website, you have to have faith, do the work up-front, but in time you will get paid far more than a publisher would pay you. Our site brings in over $1000 a month in revenue (and some months much more), whether I work on it or not.

    We've also written an ebook guide to PCH Hotels. That's only about 14,000 words and has brought in about $3000 a year for the last 3 years. All I do now is spend a week each year updating it for a new edition. It is not hard work.

    The reason i use the service I do for this and other websites, Site Build-It, is because they teach you how to build not just a website but a commercially successful website. Anyone can start a WordPress travel blog, and millions of people have, but no-one is going to find you out there in the vast Milky Way of travel blogs.

    It's no wonder there are so many people saying it's hard work and you make no money. If you find that is the case then the answer is quite simple - you're not doing it right.

    1. Hi Mike
      I also think though that you found a really solid niche which wasn't too competitive early on and as a result of the hard work, sitebuildit etc you now dominate the SERPs for these terms. Which is cool!
      But, the challenge for newbies now is to find a big enough niche that's not too competitive, that they can really write authoritatively about - agree?
      J

      1. I hardly dominate them, and there was (and still is) another site about ther highway, but we didn't think it was very good and thought we could do better.

        But to say that it's now a challenge to find your niche is, to me, a bit like saying it's hard to come up with an original idea for a novel. It is, but new ones come along every year and if you want to do it, you'll do it.

        Another of SBI's tools provides you with the ability to research ideas for websites. In fact they ask you for three ideas, and make you crunch the numbers before you go ahead with any of them. If the results don't pan out, you continue to look for your niche.

        When I started my first website I was very much a newbie then, as people like Tom Brosnahan and Durant Imboden had been doing travel websites for years. I was very late coming to the game. But it's never too late.

    2. But you had to put in the work at some point, right? You've visited and stayed at all those hotels? You've visited and researched all the PCH attractions you write about? You've critically evaluated the various places and things you've written about to provide value to your readers, right?

      As far as the ad revenue goes, if you were to put together some of the kinds of data that Jeremy and I were talking about above - that is, do a bit of work (and no, it's not simple work) - you might be able to take that $1,000/month number to something much higher.

      We'll agree to disagree that AdSense ads and affiliate relationships make a site commercially successful. And if that's what your $299/year to Site Build-It does for you then I think it's costing you too much.

      1. "We'll agree to disagree that AdSense ads and affiliate relationships make a site commercially successful. And if that's what your $299/year to Site Build-It does for you then I think it's costing you too much."

        That's a highly unfair comment on Site Build-It's fee. It's what I choose to do with my website, as it's easier. You make it sound like SBI says 'stick ads on your website and make money'. That is far from being the case. And yes, I could earn more, if I was of a more commercial mind, but I want to leave some time for travelling and, well, writing quality content.

        Their $299 includes domain name, hosting, the web-building tools (I have no wish to learn how to build my own) and support on anything and everything you might ever want to do with a website. Personally, I'd find it hard to criticise a service if I hadn't actually used it, and it sounds like you haven't.

        1. You're right. I haven't used that particular one. I have; however, considered using other, very similar, services in the past. I am aware of what these types of services offer. There are countless examples of this type of service bureau in the market. As I said, we'll agree to disagree. :-)

          I guess what it comes down to is whether or not this type of endeavour - just as with many others - is approached as a business or as more of a hobby. And being a hobby isn't a bad thing. Not at all! But if it's going to be a business; on its own or as a part of a broader writing/photography venture, then that requires a different approach and mindset, I think. And if the idea or desire is for it to be a business then it is hard work.

          Example: I made a trip to Ottawa in May for the Canadian Tulip Festival. Over the course of the roughly 2 1/2 days I was there I had 7 meetings/interviews that were directly related the article I wrote. And I'm not here to proclaim that I'm a great writer or that my site is the cat's ass. I'll leave that self-congratulatory narrative to the larger egos. But it was work. I had to do a lot of work in advance to arrange the meetings and interviews, then spend the roughly 30 minutes with each one, then transcribe and condense the interviews into something that would work for the article I was writing. It is work. And work isn't a dirty word.

          1. "I haven't used that particular one. I have; however, considered using other, very similar, services in the past. I am aware of what these types of services offer. There are countless examples of this type of service bureau in the market. "

            I've never found one yet that offers everything SBI does. That's like saying you've seen a shop and they're all the same. Not at all. OK, agree to differ on that but you are criticising something you don't know about.

          2. Maybe you haven't but that doesn't mean others like them don't exist. You accuse me of critcising without knowledge. I could make the same comment to you. And quite frankly, I think you're trying too hard to justify your choice - whether to yourself or others I'm not sure. But the umbrage you're taking at my comments is pretty high.

  16. As someone who makes a living (of sorts) primarily on the web, I'm afraid I have to agree, sadly, with Mark. Sadly because I have enjoyed writing more lyrical and literary pieces for national newspapers in the UK and USA. And also sadly because it was print travel writing that gave me my wanderlust in the first place - growing up with the travel section of the New York Times, with my father's copy of Travel & Leisure when it was the American Express members magagine, with books by Bruce Chatwin and the most wonderful book "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen. But the market for that kind of writing is disappearing and perhaps instead of bemoaning it, we should be asking more questions about why. It is not simply the internet that's involved. Before people start searching for the 10 Best Hotels in Paris or the 10 Safest Hostels in Timbuktu or whatever, something has inspired them to want to go there - in the same way as the print media inspired me, years ago. I don't think much of that inspiration comes from the web because most people I know have little patience for reading long, discursive or literary pieces online. Is it television? Films? I'd be interested in finding where my fellow travel writers believe the inspiration to travel (that ultimately leads to search for the online service articles) comes from. Maybe then we can get back to being inspirers ourselves.

    1. Thanks for the post, Ferne, and the reminder of why we all travel in the first place. I was fortunate enough to be working for Bruce Chatwin's literary agent when he was finishing off In Patagonia, and Paul Theroux was emarking on his travel writing career at about the same time. I'd already discovered Eric Newby and Norman Lewis, to give me inspiration.

      I think my own desire to travel came from watching David Attenborough's Zoo Quest series on TV as a child, and from reading Zoo Quest for a Dragon. My aunt gave it to me for Christmas, and I was hooked.

      I don't know what the cause is of the decline in interest in longer travel narrative essays - perhaps it's the same shortened attention span caused by use of the internet, and texting. I think it's also to do with the obsessive need to 'be connected' at all hours of the day and night. In fact people who are always on their smartphones are disconnected from what's going on around them. Hopefully people will continue to read books, and somehow be inspired to travel.

  17. A followup thought...

    In the comments, there seems to be a theme that quality content is content that is financially successful. Summarized, perhaps in this remark:

    "It's no wonder there are so many people saying it's hard work and you make no money. If you find that is the case then the answer is quite simple - you're not doing it right."

    I'd argue that this isn't always true, and there are plenty of analogies in other industries -- take television for one -- that bear this out. Lots of successful garbage on your TV, I tell you what. In the movies. Twilight, anyone? Etc.

    I think the discussion about what's financially viable and what's quality are two different things. Financial success is an indicator of business acumen, not the ability to produce a quality product. I'm not saying you CAN'T have both, but they are not the same thing.

    We need to stop talking about how it's hard, too. It's hard? Whatever. Get out of the kitchen.

    1. Great point, Pam. Equating quality with financial success is a specious connection at best.

      I wonder if you could expand on your last remark. Are you saying it is or should be easy? If so, how? Because it's not. And anyone who's run a successful business will tell you it's not. I'm a little confused by your statement.

          1. I wouldn't have put it quite like that. But I don't find staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, visiting museums and then writing about them afterwards hard. Must just be me.

          2. And that's OK, Jeremy. There's nothing wrong with a difference in positions. Where I have difficulty is where people try to use bad semantics to justify a bad position or to justify a lack of effort. For some reason the word 'work' has become a dirty word and the concept of 'hard work' is as foreign to many people as Sanskrit is to a native English speaker.

            I think, as well, there's a big difference between the ones who are trying to make something a part of a business plan and people who are doing it more as a hobby. And a LOT of the people writing in the online travel sphere are doing it as a hobby. They're caught up in the romantic notion of travel and writing those navel-gazing articles that talk about 'I went here this week and look at the pretty pictures I got.' Or 'I ate at this fancy restaurant and look, here's snapshot of my lobster thermidor.'

          3. "They're caught up in the romantic notion of travel and writing those navel-gazing articles that talk about 'I went here this week and look at the pretty pictures I got.' Or 'I ate at this fancy restaurant and look, here's snapshot of my lobster thermidor.'"

            Well, that did make me laugh, having seen quite enough Twitpics of plates of food.

        1. Sorry, Pam. That makes absolutely no sense at all. Don't bother responding, I'm going to stop the subscription to this post. It really is pointless.

          1. Too bad, I'm explaining myself anyway in case anyone else missed my point. :) I don't want to be misunderstood.

            I don't like it much when travel writers decry how hard their jobs are. It's not an easy way to make money, sure, but the work itself -- doing some research, traveling to some places, and writing some things down -- isn't farm labor or marine welding or delivering supplies in Iraq. So when we talk about how it's hard, I kind of shut down and stop listening. If it's too hard, do something else.

          2. I didn't miss your point, Pam. My grandfather was a coal miner, and ultimately it killed him. Now that's hard work. In comparison, sitting in my dressing gown typing on a keyboard while sipping coffee? I don't think so. Your comments make complete sense to me.

  18. Think it is easier to make money out of useful content online than it is to make money out of quality content online. Throw The Great Railway Bazaar online and try and make a buck out of it with Adsense/affiliates etc - good luck with that. Tell people where the post office is though, and perhaps a living will come somewhat easier..

    Perhaps.

    Individual mileage will vary as there is no one right way.

    1. "Think it is easier to make money out of useful content online than it is to make money out of quality content online."

      That would be great. Show how 'it is easier to make money...' and then define useful content.

      Oh, and then give an analysis of how this works within the Google corporate paradigm -- as of now, at current time, to be changing whenever they (Google) feel their (that would be Google millionaire investors) profit margins are sagging (poor babies may be losing 10k dollars per month.. start crying a river now...) -- if able to do that (highly doubt) give a general outline of what should be followed in the next four months, or maybe up to a year.

      Thanks much!!!! :)

      1. Hi Molly,

        It's easier in that if you're running a site that tells people where the post office is (as I am) rather than waxing lyrical about a train trip (as Theroux would be) you're at the right end of what I call the "inspiration to buying timeline".

        By that I mean you're at the part of the trip process where the person has already been inspired by Theroux to go to Asia and are now at the nuts'n bolts planning stage (or perhaps they're already on the trip) where they're actively looking for "actionable" information -- in my case, one of those actions is booking hotels.

        So it's "easier" in that I've positioned a part of my site to be as close to that "I need to book a place to sleep tomorrow night" planning point as possible -- if I'd put Theroux online, I'd still be stuck way back trying to convince them that "hey you can do this too!"

        I've been doing this a while (the site just had it's eighth anniversary) and it's grown from a site that earned zero for years (and by zero I mean zero) and where I did everything, to one with revenue solidly in the six figures, is growing strongly, and has a team of over a dozen paid writers contributing to it day in day out. I'd be lying if I was to say it was easy -- it isn't -- but it is a hell of a lot easier than if I'd been trying to make cash out of magical travel prose.

        As for Google, we've dodged those bullets -- as I've written elsewhere, I don't think SEO is a particularly dark art -- at least not for content sites -- it's more a case of being patient, not trying to out-smart Google and working your ass off.

        There's no secrets unfortunately, but it can be done.

        1. I know you know your business well... it's the money part that is being side-tracked... and the fact that Google is a monopoly corporation (brilliant one, we'd all agree, who does a lot of great work by brilliant people, we'd all agree most likely) put aside when we start talking about content... what makes money, what is 'quality' etc.

          The bottom line is money, no? You've done well after a lot of hard work which is great, many have worked very hard and not done well, which is a reality also, many are working hard who may or may not make $ - ces't la vie... or however you right it...

          It's when folks get to a point that they've done well, then take on a leadership role (which is great) and start passing advice on how others can do well when in reality, what made them money most likely (in the Google game we are talking about) was dumb luck, lucky timing, etc.

          It doesn't matter how hard you work your arse off, how great - or useful - your content is. That is reality. Or your SEO. Only thing that matters in the Google corporate-led web-o-sphere is what Google is choosing to put up top on the rankings. For that type of $ value at least. Other ways of monetizing too but that is different I think that the thread of recent posts here on Travelblather.com.

          M

        2. Didn't mean luck as in anyone who is successful didn't work their arse off for years and don't produce quality work - but for all the examples of folks like you and your better half who do, there are too many examples of 'unique south america travel experience.com' (accidentally posted below instead of here) who are ranking high (and making $$$) for little reason other than maybe luck (in that case if they started today don't think you'd see them online in 8 years, or even 2) or for whatever other reason they've appeased Google (paid for adwords, etc.).

          It's not that they necessarily have good, useful, coherent, of value, helping someone plan for their trip, etc. content... like yours, the reality is a majority don't. Yet there still up there...

  19. Mark, you mention that analytics told us that people like travel service pieces, but you don't make a connection between travel blogging and traffic. Should I be the one to say it then? Very, very few people read travel blogs except for travel bloggers. There is some fantastic content out there by really smart people that I like (and the opposite, too), but these travelogues are for the most part totally ignored by the general public.

    1. @Jason

      Sadly, you're absolutely right. The travel blogging community is very supportive but it can at times resemble a closed circuit. There's a lot of mutual love flying about in the form of comments, Likes, etc, and not a lot of constructive criticism. Maybe that's a fault.

    2. Hi Jason

      'Very, very few people read travel blogs except for travel
      bloggers'

      Do you have stats to back that assertion up? I'm not disputing it for a moment - I think it could well be true... but just curious to know if you do
      J

      1. I no longer have access to the expensive analytics system I could use at Frommers.com, but when I did tracking travel bloggers was next to impossible because they rarely showed up as a blip. You see depressing numbers with supposedly big blogs, too: I remember that Matador was always in the doldrums.

        But good traffic doesn't make something automatically good. There are lots of sites with crap stuff that see high pageviews. And there are good sites (like yours) that don't see record-breaking traffic but see massive user engagement from those that do visit (like 50+ posts on a piece like this). My point is that travel bloggers have very little to offer PRs and others in terms of access to regular consumers.

      2. A few of the more prominent travel bloggers use Quantcast, which tends to deliver fairly accurate reader numbers. Tis a good starting point.

        1. Luck plays a major part - sometimes the biggest part... check out a site 'Unique South America Travel Experience.com' - gets 10k visitor per day, is complete utter crap (and if you know Panda...etc. check out the design, ads above fold, oh wait, those are adsense, and oh wait, they pay for adwords) - why are they doing well? No reason other than the site is over 8 years old, started at an opportune time, have been immune for whatever reason to algorithm changes.

          A zillion similar examples. Don't think they have a Google related relative, are from Ireland and supposedly born and raised in Argentina... Not all that important, just to the point that it is not hard work and great content in many cases that makes money... but luck, lucky timing.

  20. would you ever read a 'service' piece about a place you had no intention of visiting? would doing so inspire you to visit the destination? of course not. this type of dull travel bureaucracy is just the same old guide-book listings transferred to the net via a short residency in newspapers.
    no-one would read a guidebook to place they're not visiting either. that sort of dreary functional journalism can have its qualities but it's largely boring to the majority and ultimately falls victim to the usual travelwriters' conceit - that somehow there is an objective truth to be discovered about places and lots of studying restaurant menus and examining hotel mattresses will unearth it.
    quality writing is so much more than that and it is definitely not correlated with financial success. except, in much of my experience, in reverse.

  21. I was enjoying this article until I got to the comments. There still seem to be a lot of jabbing and jibes within the industry rather than constructive workouts.

    "What the hell is quality travel content?"

    It depends on the medium and the end-user. What suits a newspaper might look like torture on a blog.

    What reads like a rolling barrel of addictive emotion on a blog might read like childs play in novel.

    A person looking to get from A to B will click off a short blog post for a Wikitravel page in milliseconds.

    While someone looking to read about what to experience in a location will spend 2 minutes longer on a blog than a wikitravel page.

    Very rarely can these world's combine.

    Want to make money in producing quality travel content? Write quality content for the medium it will be published on and for the readers it's targeting.

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