About four years ago, in a fit of naivety and suffering from a serious case of itchy feet…
…I jacked in my steady career job in PR, bought an entry level D-SLR camera and booked a ticket to South America. I had it all worked out; I was going to become a travel writer.
I was old enough to know better. Or at least to do some research first. I soon realized I wasn’t the first bright spark to have this idea.
I’d missed the boat by about a decade or so and the world didn’t really need any more travel writers. Paying markets had been dropping like flies for years, and the rise of blogging meant that these days anyone with a plane ticket and a laptop was a travel journalist. Apparently some people even made decent money that way, but it seemed like a lot of work.
I didn’t last long. In fairness I did get a few by-lines and a couple of decent clips under my belt, which helped me get a marketing job for an online travel agency in Lima, Peru.
It was there that I realized a great, untapped market existed that offered a promising future for good quality travel writing.
One of my jobs was to make the travel agency more prominent in search engine rankings, a practice called search engine optimization (SEO). When I started out, SEO was a fairly simple process that involved paying outsourced firms in India to use various shades of online black magic to manipulate your website up the rankings towards the coveted #1 spot. The more you spent the better you did, and the more business you got. It was that simple.
That was the reason you would find poor quality websites on Google that seemed to be full of useless, generic information. Travel agency and hotel websites could get to the top of Google despite being full of junky and spammy writing that was never intended for a human audience but was written just to “trick” Google.
After a while Google and the other search engines wised up and decided to make it harder to game the system. Their army of Harvard educated engineers cast around to find a more complex and accurate way of measuring the usefulness and authority of each website, and therefore to determine how highly they should be ranked in search results.
And their groundbreaking solution? Good, old fashioned, quality writing.
Google’s geniuses set out “new standards” for what would now constitute quality information, and it seemed eerily similar to the standards long recognized in the offline world of journalists and travel writers: content must be detail oriented and accurate, it should be useful, informative or entertaining and – for the first time on the web – it should be properly written with the correct spelling and grammar.
At the same time another separate but connected process was at play; search engines went social. There used to be a time when people would search Google for hotel rooms and tour packages and then went to Facebook to waste time and catch up on the gossip. Now, the results you see when you search online for a tour agency can be influenced by what is happening on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. Search engines use signals from social media to help determine a website’s popularity, relevance and authority. Pages with more “buzz” through likes, links, tweets, shares, comments, and so on do better in the search results.
SEO and the practice of marketing a website had become a more complicated but infinitely more enjoyable process.
In order to do well in the results, websites now need to invest in creative, useful content. The days of “space filler” $10 articles are over and good, professional writing is coming back into vogue.
In short, two things have changed for commercial travel websites: the volume of content they publish has to increase by an order of magnitude and the quality of that content must improve by a similar factor.
That makes an exciting new prospect for the majority of travel writers who have found it increasingly difficult to earn a fair living for their work, especially when publishing online.
There is suddenly a vast and highly lucrative market waking up to an urgent need for the skills of good travel writers, in a variety of formats:
- Short blog-style articles covering any facet of travel, from guide-style restaurant reviews and museum recommendations to first person tales of travel amusing adventures.
- Longer “feature” style articles covering a specific destination or activity in detail.
- Detailed destination guides, possibly presented in downloadable e-book format.
- Special interest guides and information on photography, archaeology, cuisine, etc.
- Interactive content including audio, video and geo-tagged images.
Although the idea of a large, emerging market for travel writing is exciting, authors must be aware of the significant differences between traditional and the new online markets:
- Rates will be flexible: every travel business of every size will want to invest in content, but their available budgets will vary wildly from $200 for a 400 word blog article down to $15. Publishers will learn to get the quality that they pay for, and authors will learn to determine their minimum rate according to the assignment.
- Online publishers using content to market their site require first and exclusive use of the material which must be entirely unique and original writing. This essentially means selling your work on an “all rights” basis, which may influence the rate you’re willing to work for.
- Your writing will be intended to generate “buzz”, i.e. be good enough that people will share, comment, link or otherwise interact with it. This typically means the end of generic and derivative Top Ten lists and other formats that have become standard space filler online. Aim to be provocative, daring and original.
Basically, we’re talking about putting all the soul, character and quality of traditional travel journalism onto the Web. Happy Writing.
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