How travel writers can make money writing for the web

David Whitley July 11, 2009 6

–          Writing travel guides online.

–          Using existing guide book writing skills.

–          Understanding what people search for and how they use the internet.

–          Use Google Maps to illustrate travel guide sites.


Lack of work for travel writers?

There are few things liable to generate less sympathy than a moaning travel writer. And I say that as a moaning travel writer; whenever I crank up the whining, I’m always reminded that I’ve got a great job.

But times are hard for guide book writers and travel journalists these days. Matthew Teller’s recent blog post shows the thin end of the wedge in the guide book industry; titles are being cancelled, sales are falling and companies are laying editors off.

For those of us who write for magazines and newspapers, things are even more grim. Freelance budgets are being slashed (often to zero), travel sections are disappearing, and finding a paying gig is increasingly difficult.


Why the internet is good for travel writers

The pessimists blame this on the growth of travel on the internet. There are few web sites that pay for travel content – and many of those that do pay such small peanuts that making a living is virtually impossible.

This doom and gloom attitude irritates me immensely. The misery merchants foretelling the end of travel journalism have got it all wrong. The internet has created a world of opportunity – and guide book authors in particular should be getting excited. The tools are there – it’s just a case of harnessing them. And this, as far as I can see, is how to do it…


ONE: Use your specialist knowledge

Guide book writers, in particular, like to regard themselves as an expert on a particular destination or subject. And if you’re an expert on anything in particular, you should be more qualified to write about it than just about anything else, correct?

Well why wait for a book publisher to ask you to write it? That detailed knowledge is precisely what will enable you to earn money writing for the internet.

There’s very little difference in writing 50,000 words for a guidebook and writing 50,000 words for a website. It’s still a guide – it’s just formatted slightly differently.

As long as you have a niche that can be exploited, you’re on to a winner. The web is all about niches – and a little one man operation can often cover that niche just as well (if not better) than the big players. It’s all about the content – both the quality and quantity of it. Start-up costs are low (buying a domain and web-hosting costs a pittance) – it’s just a case of putting the time and effort in.

It doesn’t matter what your niche is – Albania, Mumbai, The Andes, shopping holidays – as long as you can write lots and lots of good material on it. If you’re confident that you can be the best at writing on the subject, then there’s money to be made.


TWO: Don’t worry too much about web design skills

Two of the most successful online guide writers I know of are Durant Imboden of Europe For Visitors and Tom Brosnahan’s Turkey Travel Planner. Both sites are hideously ugly, but their owners are very successful, and make a comfortable full-time living from their little babies. Why? The main reason is the level of detail present and the sheer weight of content. What the site looks like is something of an irrelevance – structure and organisation are far more important than aesthetics.

And surely structure and organisation are two things guide book writers have to be good at anyway? It’s hardly learning a new skill set.


THREE: Build up a mass of content to exploit the long tail

Europe For Visitors and Turkey Travel Planner make money because they have so much information, spread across thousands of pages. No one page earns all that much, but when the earnings from each page are added together, it comes to a tidy sum.

This is the long tail. It’s the same model that the likes of work on. They sell hardly any copy of most of the books they have, but those few copies of each eventually ends up being hundreds of thousands of books.

Web content works the same way. Turkey Travel Planner’s page on Phrygia and Phrygians in Turkey will get barely any traffic, but when that trickle of traffic is added to the trickles from the other thousands of pages, it gets substantial.


FOUR: Understand how people use search

Google is your friend. The classic mistake is to create a site and expect that people will look for it.

It doesn’t work like this – surprisingly few people will visit your site by putting in the URL and going direct to the home page.

The more likely route is that someone will be looking for a certain bit of information – they might be searching for museums in Eskisehir – and your page will turn up in the search results. It’s hard to second guess what people will be looking for, and this is where sheer weight of content comes in again. The more you’ve covered, the more likely people are to stumble across your site whilst searching.


FIVE: Use maps to illustrate your website

A massively underrated component of guidebooks is the maps they contain. A major part of a guide book author’s job is mapping the bars, restaurants, sights, internet cafés, shops etc. Up until recently, this has been both what is majorly lacking from online travel guide websites and one of the barriers that has precluded individual writers to provide what they would in a book on their own website.

Not any more. Take a look at this piece I’ve done on Sydney’s best pubs and bars. I wrote this, mapped this and put the advertising alongside it in less than two hours.

That’s two hours of playing with Google Maps from scratch, having never previously experimented with it. Granted, there’s probably an awful lot more that can be done to make it look better and be more useful to the reader, but it does show the staggering potential of Google Maps for travel writers.

If a complete technical klutz such as myself can map out a guide like that in such a short space of time – with little to no knowledge of coding and web design – then imagine what can be done with concerted effort.

Those in the know have been saying mapping is the way forward for some time. All the best hotel booking sites (such as Kayak) use maps, and newspaper websites are beginning to cotton on. Take the Guardian’s interactive hotel map or The Times’ walks, for example.

To me, any author looking to make money from the web should be jumping on Google Maps. It’s the way to make your specialist site stand out, be incredibly useful and present things in a way that those people seeking a guide want.

Think about it, travel writers: the mapping tools are free, you’ve got as many pages as you want, you’ve got the knowledge. The opportunity is there to create the best guide you’ve ever made, and earn enough from it for that guide to be a full time business. The internet may be killing off traditional outlets for travel writing – but every single guide book author and travel journalist has been given an incredible opportunity to take charge of their own area of expertise.

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