What motivates a travel blogger like me to write about particular topics?
Let’s be honest: often, it’s the clicks.
If you wonder why travel blogs can seem overly obsessed with certain well-worn topics, it’s because the incentives to do so are incredibly strong. In fact, it’s often necessary to cover certain tried-and-true topics for a blog to be in any way successful.
I don’t think the (often frustrating) economics of travel blogging are always so well understood.
A while ago I received a comment on a post I published about Chiang Mai in Thailand. You can see the comment here; but basically, it’s a complaint on how blogs often cover similar topics in a very similar way. It’s true: listing some of the top things to do in Chiang Mai, one of Thailand’s most popular destinations, hardly seems inspired. I mean, ugh, yet another one of those?
I completely understand the reaction. Chiang Mai is one of those places that is incredibly well-visited and incredibly well-covered by blogs. Undoubtedly, Chiang Mai will be of interest to anyone who’s new to Thailand, but well-traveled followers of travel blogs may roll their eyes at another excited take on this city. When it comes to Asia, it’s easily one of the least original places to write about.
So, then, why be the umpteenth blog to do so?
Why bother at all with such a mainstream and on-the-map place when you could be writing about somewhere way more original?
It probably doesn’t make sense… at least, not until you see how popular places like Chiang Mai stack up against the less popular ones.
Why I keep writing about Thailand
Whenever I mention I’m a travel blogger, I think people usually picture me scouring the world for the Most Unusual and Adventurous Places.
They probably picture me working on some magnum opus on the forgotten borderlands of mid-northeastern Bulgaria — some crazy overlooked place that will totally surprise you. Maybe they think my ideal sort of content would be a story about, I dunno, drinking testicle soup with goat herders in remote Kazakhstan. Because that’s super viral and shareable, right?
In reality, I spend a lot of my time thinking about well-known destinations that large numbers of tourists (and not just the travel freaks) go to.
That doesn’t sound quite so cool. But blogs like mine rely in a very large part on search engine traffic, which means you often end up responding to what is already popular.
That’s the reason why I still publish so much about Thailand. It’s a country visited by 35+ million people a year, so clearly many people seek information on it. My blog happens to be well established within this topic, thanks to having had a variety of Thailand content for 5+ years now. Tens of thousands come to Indie Traveller each month looking for tips specifically for Thailand — and I want to give them what they want.
Here’s a chart showing the relative number of pageviews for destinations on this site:
Whoa! Look at Thailand just lording over all others like it’s the Burj Khalifa.
Now, I have to admit… in my heart of hearts, speaking purely about what makes me feel excited as a traveler, Thailand is not really top of the list anymore.
I recently passed through Thailand for the 5th time… it all felt a bit too familiar. If it were entirely up to me, and if my blog weren’t a factor at all, I’d probably visit somewhere completely new. Tajikistan, maybe?
I have to say that Thailand is an amazing starter country, an almost perfect launching-off point for any new traveler. It’s an easy and fun country to spend some time. But these days I get more excited about going to more obscure places… like off-the-trail places in Laos, or a little-visited country like Armenia.
Yet there is often still a hand steering me towards more obvious hotspots. I don’t exactly mind re-visiting Thailand, of course, as it’s a wonderful destination, but at least part of my motivation is that it ends up paying the bills.
And yes, this can create an annoying self-reinforcing cycle!
Stories vs. travel guides
The types of content I write are also often dictated by demand. You might be surprised to see the different levels in pageviews for a travel guide, versus something that’s a story, a photo essay, or an opinion piece.
Here are the pageviews of my top three guides, versus my top three most-read stories:
Of course, it’s possible that storytelling is just very hard. Producing a truly good narrative piece can be like squeezing water from a rock. Not every travel experience makes for a great story and so many angles have already been done to death. But I’d like to think I do at least a decent job with more creative posts every now and then; I like my story on the Cardamom Mountains region of Cambodia from earlier this year, for instance.
But it actually doesn’t matter how amazing (or not) your stories are; it’s just that these days most visitors come to a site from search engines, and these search engines typically reward more informational pieces with more visibility.
From a cold bean-counter perspective, the travel guide style content on my blog is 20X to 50X more valuable (at least, in terms of making the blog generate a sustainable income) than even my most-read-ever story.
And it’s often necessary to achieve these volumes at least somewhere on your blog, as advertising revenues don’t amount to much on the web; most of my content is, in a certain sense, entirely loss-making.
But I’m not complaining
That’s just the nature of the beast though: what generates income for a travel blog isn’t always the things that are the most exciting, original, or unusual.
I try to think of it this way: 20% of your content is probably going to be popular stuff targeting a wide audience that does all the heavy lifting. This enables you to do the other 80% — the long tail with the more peculiar or personal stuff.
I’ve heard this had actually long been the case for travel magazines, before blogs were even a thing. The cover feature basically subsidized the smaller stories. One key difference was that at the time they didn’t have detailed analytics to know this for sure, which probably let editors get away with featuring a much wider range of stories than they’d otherwise be told by their publishers to commission.
Despite the realities of what gets the clicks or views, I do believe it’s important to write certain posts just because you want to. Sometimes I have to remind myself that not every post needs to be break even, so to speak. When success is only measured in likes or pageviews a travel blog will clearly lose its soul.
For example, I’ll surely be writing about Armenia soon, though I’m under no illusion that these posts will be a big hit. They’ll get like 0.0001% of the pageviews. But Armenia was a meaningful experience to me, so I want to write about it, and hopefully some travellers will also find this of interest.
I guess my point, though, is not to judge us travel blogs too harshly. If you see a blog covering some same-old stuff like Chiang Mai, or maybe doing a listicle that seems a bit commercial, then keep in mind those posts might well be subsidizing something else down the line… like that juicy narrative piece on some place you’ve never heard of.
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Sir, must I be a traveller to start a travel blog?
Thanks, Marek! This really hit home with me. When I first started, I was determined to focus only on a narrowed down niche. Well, turns out that narrowed down niche doesn’t have much traffic. I originally hated the idea of writing tons of listicles and “best places to visit” posts. But now I totally get it. It’s all part of the game. Keep it up, man!
I guess you always have to consider what most people want to read… good luck with the blog! 🙂
Great article! There is no real encyclopedia on traveling, despite the claims of certain organisations. Some come close and some are just huge sell outs. The real travelers get their relyable information from other traveler- holiday makers are ones you get your clicks from. Keep those obscure post coming, please! Because even though we like to get off the beaten track, sometimes we need a little arrow in the direction of that road less traveled
Thanks Danny, I hope I can do a better job of making those little arrows! I think you’re right that travel blogs are probably in a better position to do this than the bigger organizations. 🙂
Wow, this article helped me a lot. I just started my travel blog and just really don’t have an interest in being one of those non-personal, flashy, click bait, “Top 10 things to do here!” websites but I definitely see the value behind them now with regards to the economics of travel blogging. I will keep the thought that these types of posts are necessary (and honestly, sometimes I even search for “best things to do in x location”) and will continue writing about the destinations and tourism that I love to excite my readers. (No readers yet, but I am sure they will come as I post more)
I guess it’s a bit of a balancing act. By the way, something I don’t mention is that some bloggers don’t earn an income directly from their blog, but they use it as a sort of portfolio to show off their travel writing to get paid writing gigs for magazines and larger sites. That can be another viable path.
Good luck with your new blog 🙂
Excellent piece! This is something I personally struggle with all the time when deciding where to devote my energy towards travel writing. Some of my most viewed articles are incredibly boring, but they’re targeted for Google searches. For example, one of my top articles explains how to travel from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I explain which series of buses and shared taxis one would need to take to do the trip in a day. It’s super helpful for someone on Google, but it’s also mind-numbingly boring for anyone else. On the other hand, I write a story literally about cutting testicles out of goats, boiling them, and then eating them in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia and it might get 1-2 views a month. I also wrote about the exact location of Lee Harvey Oswald’s apartment when he lived in the USSR in Minsk. Nobody actually knew the exact location and guidebooks like Lonely Planet had it wrong, but I watched documentaries and referenced old photos with the actual building and found it. That post while fascinating and unique might get 10 views a month.
I think you make a really good case why it is important to write these repetitive articles. They might not be the most interesting, but they ultimately drive traffic to your site and help grow the blog. As a side note, I was in Armenia over Spring Break a few months back. Amazing country. My best article about Armenia is ironically how to take a shared taxi between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Nobody seems to care about my trip Khor Virap Monastery to see Mount Ararat up close.
It’s very pleasing to me that you have, in fact, the testicle soup-based content that was merely a hypothetical example in my article! If it’s any consolation, I’m off to your blog right now to read about this and your story on Lee Harvey Oswald’s home. 🙂
Amen. Not to mention “Top 10/5/whatever” and listicle posts. You feel dirty writing them, but put a number in a title and WAY MORE people click it, so what’re you supposed to do?
One quibble: Just because you have to write the umpteenth post on “Things to do in Chiang Mai” doesn’t mean you have to recommend the same things. Why not target that keyword then inform readers about lesser-covered attractions and even possibly (towards the end of the post) suggest somewhere other than Chiang Mai entirely?
Bloggers who don’t do so (and I’m not saying that’s you) are being part of the problem. They’re reinforcing the cycle instead of breaking it. Readers see they’re writing about Chiang Mai so they figure it’s the best place to go. They look up more stuff on Chiang Mai, generating more page views. Other bloggers see these high search volumes and write more about it too, attracting even more people. And so it goes until it’s like Venice or Barcelona where locals say, “There are too many of you! Go somewhere else!”
It’s shortsighted too, don’t you think? If bloggers all recommend the same overtouristed stuff just in different words, readers will eventually stop relying on them.
My belief (…hope) is the bloggers who are genuine and write in the better interests of their readers instead of for short-term easy page views might actually win out in the long run.
Armenia could use some of Thailand’s tourists, and vice-versa.
Hah totally. I’ve had articles with more natural titles which I later changed into listicle-style ones anyway… and then saw the visitor numbers triple.
It’s a fair quibble as there’s definitely a self-reinforcing cycle at play sometimes. It’s something I’m trying to be conscious of. In practice, I do often find it very challenging to lead visitors looking for Topic X down to a more specific Topic Y. I have an inkling that many people actually don’t like to see words like ‘alternative’, ‘off the beaten track’ or ‘less visited’, maybe assuming these will be more risky choices or that it is actually code for “not as good as the popular one”. Or maybe I just haven’t found the right ways to get people excited about that next click.
I’m trying to keep in mind that much more hard-to-measure credibility factor when I’m writing about something I know will be pretty niche. At least, it helps motivate me to write those posts!
My Thailand curve might look even more extreme than yours 😉
Isn’t it funny how people expect you to write funny stories all the time, when clearly storytelling doesn’t work at all on blogs? Even tourism boards expect that.
Thailand is just unstoppable!
Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this post. It helped me realize that I should stay true to myself and continue to write about what I care about. After all, every time I read my own stories and write-ups it’s like I’m revisiting the places I’ve seen and it keeps my travels vivid!
Doing it essentially for yourself might still be the best motivation to write!
I have to say I disagree with your friend! I actually thought it was quite a good and honest post. From the statistics you provided it would seem you’re absolutely doing the right thing, especially if you want this to be a viable income stream. I think you should continue to do what you want to do, keep honest and true to yourself, but keep one eye on the data provided to ensure you can maximise getting traffic by blogging about the areas of demand. No traveller is the same, which is the beauty of it, and you can’t please the masses. P.S. I found your page through your backpack reviews, not location blogs, so it’s important to have variety in what you do.
Hah that’s nice to hear! I’m now in a fortunate position where the blog is a viable income stream, so I hope to strike a balance between commercial interests and originality. The backpack reviews are another fun piece of the puzzle – it’s a great thing to do in between trips. Glad you found the blog via that route 🙂
A friend said this post sounded kinda grumpy… but to be clear, I love what I do!
OK question time: in your opinion what should travel blogs do more of or less of?