The Dumb Economics of Travel Blogging

How the popular stuff pays for everything else

Today I wanted to give a bit of insight into how a blog like mine works behind the scenes — and share with you some of the motivations that (sometimes) drive what I write about.

I think there might be some mystery around how travel blogs like mine often decide what topics to cover. Sometimes, travel blogs will focus on topics that may seem unoriginal or unexciting to a veteran traveler — but there may be good reasons for covering them anyway.

What made me want to write about this is a comment I got a while ago to a post I published about Chiang Mai. (This also happened to be one of my first commissioned pieces written by an outside contributor.) You can see the comment here; but basically, it was a complaint about how blogs sometimes cover similar topics in a very similar way, like… listing some of the top things to do in Chiang Mai (ugh… another one of those?).

I completely understand the reaction. Chiang Mai is one of those places that pretty much every traveler and their dog has visited at some point, and so many blogs have covered it.

Why be the umpteenth blog to do so? Why bother at all with such a mainstream and on-the-map place? Like, isn’t there anything else to write about?

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 buttcracks 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 shareable, right?

But in reality, I spend a lot of my time thinking about relatively well-known destinations and things that are at least more or less on the beaten path. That’s difficult to admit, as it doesn’t seem quite so cool. But blogs like mine rely in large part on search engine traffic, and that means you often end up responding to what is popular.

That’s the reason why I (still) publish 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 the topic since I’ve had 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, it’s strange to admit… but in my heart of hearts, I’m actually not that excited by Thailand anymore.

Thailand is known mostly as a mainstream holiday resort destination or as a starter country for backpackers. Back in January, I was in Thailand for the 5th time, and it felt a bit too familiar. When I now write about Thailand, I do try to see it through the eyes of a first-timer for whom everything is still totally unfamiliar and exotic. But if it weren’t for my blog, I’d probably have been exploring somewhere completely new.

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 which I came back from just last week. Yet there is often still a hand steering me towards more obvious hotspots… as these are simply the ones that end 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 I just really suck at storytelling. Producing a truly great narrative piece can be like squeezing water from a rock — especially given the plethora of cliches there are to avoid in travel writing. But I’d like to think I do at least a decent job; 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 financially sustainable) 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: the things that generate income for a travel blog and the things that are the most exciting/original/unusual aren’t always the same.

I usually 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. And this enables you to do the other 80% — the long tail with the more peculiar or personal stuff.

(I’ve heard this had long been the case for travel magazines, before blogs were even a thing. The cover feature basically subsidized the smaller stories, though at the time they didn’t have detailed analytics to know this for sure.)

I think it’s important to still do posts because you want to do them, not because you know they’ll get a ton of eyeballs. When success is only measured in likes or pageviews a travel blog will clearly lose its soul. Sometimes you gotta publish something because it’ll get the clicks, but sometimes because you just want to share something you’re passionate about.

I’ll surely be writing about Armenia soon, but 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, and someone out there may find my posts on Armenia meaningful too. And it’s surely the fresh and new stuff that makes your closest followers excited.

But I guess my point is that you shouldn’t judge us too harshly. If you see a blog covering some same-old stuff like Chiang Mai, or doing pretty dry commercial posts (e.g. listicles on the best hostels to stay), or just covering things that seem a little secondary to pure travel, 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.

P.S. If you’re a blogger reading this, keep in mind the examples are very specific to my site! Every blog probably has totally different topics that become their bread-and-butter.

15 comments

  1. Danny fox Reply September 9, 2018 at 11:46 am

    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

    • Marek Reply September 9, 2018 at 1:20 pm

      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. 🙂

  2. Crystal Reply July 24, 2018 at 4:43 pm

    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)

    • Marek Reply July 25, 2018 at 3:52 pm

      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 🙂

  3. Chris Joondeph Reply July 24, 2018 at 8:03 am

    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.

    • Marek Reply July 24, 2018 at 9:27 am

      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. 🙂

  4. Chris Reply July 18, 2018 at 9:44 pm

    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.

    • Marek Reply July 19, 2018 at 9:46 am

      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!

  5. Florian Reply July 18, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    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.

    • Marek Reply July 19, 2018 at 9:48 am

      Thailand is just unstoppable!

  6. Nathalie Reply July 18, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    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!

    • Marek Reply July 19, 2018 at 9:50 am

      Doing it essentially for yourself might still be the best motivation to write!

  7. Rhiannon Reply July 15, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    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.

    • Marek Reply July 16, 2018 at 11:04 am

      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 🙂

  8. Marek Reply July 14, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    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?

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