I provide regular rants on this blog in between interviews and have more than a few negative critiques about boring blogs in the Travel Writing 2.0 book and in my Travel Writing Overdrive course. For an outside perspective, this week I’m running a guest post from Jeremy Bassetti. He’s a former student, a writer, and the host of Travel Writing World, a podcast in which he interviews authors of travel books about their work and the business and craft of travel writing. Take it away Jeremy!
Blogging is an important cottage industry within the world of modern travel publishing. Once focused on publishing travelogues, dispatches, and narratives, modern travel blogging has now become a business unto itself with a publishing strategy that focus more on practical and service-oriented content. What are the effects of this and where do we go moving forward?
The Early Travel Blogs
As the name implies, weblogs—or “blogs” for short—originally took the form of online diaries and journals. Jorn Barger, who coined the term weblog, said that his 1990s-era blog was “a day-to-day log of his reading and intellectual pursuits.” This was around the time that platforms like Open Diary and LiveJournal began operating, with the intention of helping users record and publish their thoughts.
The first travel blog posts appeared in the mid 1990s on websites like the Global Network Navigator. Author Jeff Greenwald kicked it off in 1994 with one of the earliest portable laptops and is often credited as being the first traveler with something resembling a blog. The posts took the form of travelogues, musings, reportage, and dispatches. Don George also contributed to a “digital diary” soon after under the title “The Don George Show” on Global Network Navigator. If you’ve been fretting over your blog’s design, his home page should give you some comfort:
The serialized, subjective diary/travelogue ruled the roost. As Cardell and Douglas remind us in the Routledge Companion to Travel Writing, travel blogs enabled “travellers and tourists to record and communicate their experiences in words and images accessible online.”
Some travel bloggers saw their sites as opportunities to hone their writing craft and began publishing narrative-like pieces alongside their “random musings” and “travel tips.”
The now-dormant World Hum and other early travel sites stylized themselves to be publishers of informative, enlightening, and entertaining travel articles. They defined themselves as anti-guidebook, publishing articles in direct contrast to the “mundane how-to-get-there information available in any bookstore travel guide.”
The Goal of Modern Travel Bloggers
Around the time that World Hum articulated their ideals, other bloggers began writing articles that were more “mundane” and service oriented. They realized that these types of articles attracted more visitors to their sites. And, thanks to emerging advertising methods like Adsense (launched 2003) and affiliate programs (first launched by Amazon in the late ’90s), they realized that they could make money instead of just doing this as a hobby.
Over the last fifteen years, travel blogging has transformed into a commercial endeavor. In other words, it has become a business.
Professional travel bloggers do not often publish articles that are not practical, which shows a larger shift in the idea of “blog” from subjective travelogues to objective guidebooks. The subjective travel blog is a threatened species, poached, chased off its native soil, and displaced into the hinterland of the internet by monied interest.
A desire to capture internet search traffic using keyword research and generate income through advertisement, affiliate marketing, and the selling of products and services often drives the creation of articles and posts.
According to a major blogging survey in 2019, “the most common reason for blogging is making money, with two-thirds of all bloggers naming it as their main motivation” (emphasis theirs). And nearly two-thirds of the top earning bloggers do keyword research when deciding what to write or publish.
The Business and Economics of Modern Travel Blogging
Economic theory can help explain the shift in the form and function of travel blogs from narrative travelogues to service-oriented commercial publishers.
If we are to believe Adam Smith, self-interest drives the economic endeavor of production and consumption. And in the world of search engine optimization (SEO), keyword research, and modern travel blogging, demand creates its own supply.
To put it plainly: a vast majority of people who search online do so to either make a transaction, perform a task, to get information, or to visit a specific page or site. This is known as the “Do-Know-Go” theory of search intent. Self-interest nearly always drives a user’s search intent.
Travel bloggers do keyword research to see what people are searching for (the demand) so they can write articles on the topics (the supply) which will, hopefully, capture a part of the search traffic. If they capture that traffic, this will increase their advertising, affiliate, or direct sales revenue (the self-interest).
Service is the Focus in Most Travel Blogging
Do “old school” narrative travel blogs and sites still exist? Do bloggers still aim to tell stories instead of publish listicles that give tips and advice?
The short answer is yes, but you wouldn’t know because almost all of those blogs are impossible to find. When Google killed off its RSS reader, that left social media and the search engines the main places for initial discovery and following of a blogger. If the blogger’s results don’t show up in search, they’re very difficult to find. Storytelling is then at a major disadvantage.
Christopher, an employee of a professional travel blogger, said that, “I don’t think there are any major blogs that do that, simply because you would never get any organic search traffic from Google (which is like 75% or more of most blog’s traffic). Virtually nobody googles stories—they buy them in books instead. That’s why most bloggers do a mix of stories and practical tips—so they can entertain their main readers while still capitalizing on search traffic from Google.”
What does a “mix of stories and practical tips” look like?
Out of the last 100 articles on one of the most famous modern travel blogs, around 20% of the articles are narrative or could fall under the categories of “news,” “life updates,” and “interviews.” Even then, a few of these articles still have “sidebar” information listing places to eat and stay or promote a product or service. The remaining articles are explicitly service-oriented, with titles that include the phrases “how to,” “the five best,” and “a guide to.” It can be argued that posts including phrases like “my favorite” in their titles are really service posts masquerading as true blog posts.
The “mix of stories and practical tips” looks less like a 50-50 Martini than a Jack and Coke served at a chain restaurant.
Sure, some travel bloggers only write about their musings, their private lives, their experiences, and their adventures. But these blogs live in the dark corners of the web and remain unseen.
Why are narrative blogs invisible? As Christopher said, “nobody Googles stories.” To put it another way, most people search to help themselves.
Even narrative travel websites like Roads and Kingdoms have started to publish more keyword-friendly articles, and other sites like World Hum have all but stopped publishing content. Perceptive Travel (established 2006) is one of the last ones standing that is still publishing travel narratives. It really operates as a monthly online magazine though, with a blog on the side that’s closer to that dry martini of personal travel stories and service pieces.
The visible travel bloggers are the ones who, in their own self-interest, cater to the self-interest of another person’s search intent. And that might not a bad thing, as they’re democratizing knowledge and revolutionizing the guidebook.
A More Human Writer for the Age of AI?
In this noisy world, when tips and advice are a dime a dozen and travel “bloggers” are more concerned with catering to our interests instead of telling us about theirs, perhaps there is some value in getting back to our roots. Maybe a new currency is having something unique to say instead of pandering to an audience.
We may not have a choice in the matter.
Thanks to the developments in artificial intelligence, the return to the roots of travel blogging may happen sooner than later. With outlets like Bloomberg and The Guardian using AI to write some of their articles, it is only a matter of time until this technology begins writing travel listicles faster, cheaper, and better than any travel blogger could. If the article won’t have any personality anyway, might as well have a robot write it.
What value will the travel blogger have to offer then?
Joanna Penn summarized this point in a recent podcast: “There are so many listicles, repetitive blog posts, pointless books with no real human input. And think how much more can we generate with these AI tools. So, my answer to this is, as ever, double down on being human. Distinguish yourself from the machine by writing with real human opinions, thoughts, emotions, [and] your take on the topic.”
Jeremy Bassetti is a writer and the host of Travel Writing World, a podcast in which he interviews authors of travel books about their work and the business and craft of travel writing. He is also the editor of Adventures in Ideas. You can learn more about Jeremy and his work at www.jeremybassetti.com.