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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