South East Asia-focused online travel guide Travelfish turned ten this month, a milestone given the numerous blogs and other services which have come and gone in the meantime.
As stalwarts such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have spent much of the past decade agonising how to evolve from book to web publishing, Travelfish has grown alongside them from its base in Indonesia to see off countless other brands trying to enter a hugely competitive sector.
To get over perhaps the busiest period, circa 2008-2011, when hardly a week went by without a new trip planning/guide platform being launched, is a quite an achievement for editor and founder Stuart McDonald.
But what are the various strategies the Travelfish team has used over the ten years? How does it make money? What have been some of the challenges it has faced?
These questions (and more) are featured below, following a discussion McDonald had with members of the Outbounding forum (TLabs here). It's a great overview of the fragility of the marketplace and how focus, strategy and creativity can pay dividends.
As you're a former guidebook author the decision to launch a destination guide as opposed to a typical 'travel inspiration' blog was an obvious one, but did you have second thoughts about that?
When we started the site "travel blogging" wasn't so mainstream -- Travellerspoint had a thousand or so travel diaries and I'm sure there were a tonne of travellers on Blogger and whatnot, but they really weren't on my radar.
I don't think I even read a blog till we started getting traffic from a couple of quality ones like Lauren & Todd's Ephemerratic in the late 2000s. By then we'd been online 5-6 years, so it wasn't so much me not wanting to do that, as much as me not knowing about that. Also, back then, Wordpress (and other platforms) were a shadow of what they are today, so even the platform wasn't on my radar (which for better or worse, resulted in me coding the entire site myself).
In John O'Nolan's article, what really resonates is where he writes "... because consumers don't research 'places Tom has been' - they search for '[place] I want to go'" and I think this is absolutely the case.
For me, destination aside, travel is about the reader -- not about the writer. This is why we work to give the reader the best information we're able to: so they can (hopefully) get more out of their travels.
Monetizing through ads is a huge challenge. How long did it take until you got the site and audience onto a stable footing?
I think it's very important to say upfront that when we started, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
When we started the site, we had no clear idea of how we were going to make money; the initial plan wrapped around some kind of vague concept of selling PDF travel guides, which we did do for a while down the track, but the initial monetisation was through Adsense.
Back then CPM rates were better than what they are now. So, 5,000 to 10,000 worth of daily impressions to Adsense was worthwhile. It took us a year or so to reach that kind of traffic - mostly organically though I did waste a nice chunk of change on Adwords for a while there.
The downside of chaining yourself to a revenue stream reliant on traffic is that the business becomes very linear. All other things being equal, double your traffic and you'll double your income; lose 30% of your traffic as we did in 2013 and it works in the other direction too.
For example you could write individual pages on:
Thailand, or Bangkok, or Bangkok's districts, or Things to see in Bangkok's historic district, or Temples in Bangkok's historic districts, or Wat Pho, or Wat Pho at dawn, or Wat Pho in the afternoon, or Getting a massage in Wat Pho, or How to get to Wat Pho and many more.
You could just say "When you're in Thailand, go get a morning massage at Wat Pho in Bangkok."
If you're chasing pageviews, the former is the way to go and somewhere between the two extremes will be the sweet spot to grow pageviews, help your readers and maintain your sanity.
If you decide to chase pageviews I think you need three things:
Do you think Travelfish would be a success today or is there too much noise and competition out there these days?
- You need to be able to write
- You need to be knowledgeable on the topic
- You have to be willing to write more or less nonstop for a few years. Oh, and you need to have an audience for whatever it is you are writing.
Would I start Travelfish as it stands today, from scratch? Sure, why not? But I'd need to be in my 20s, single (or better still dating an editor) and be based in a low-cost country, with no debts and be content travelling on a very low budget.
There are plenty of people who know Southeast Asia better than me, who write better than me and have more money than I ever had. It's true that the scene was less crowded a decade ago, but much of what ranks today in Google is of debatable value to the traveller, so there is plenty of scope to provide superior material.
What I wouldn't do is write it for a general travelling market (we started as writing only for backpackers, but the site's scope broadened over time). Instead I'd pick a niche. Be the go-to guide for cavers/climbers/surfers/yogis etc in Southeast Asia -- or elsewhere.
This will drastically reduce your traffic, so forget about CPM ads being an important part of the business and instead look at accommodation bookings/activities/courses etc commissions. Yoga in particular is an interesting area in this regard.
You think some travel sites fold because they're too broad? By being destination-specific you were better able to carve out a community, and sponsors?
I think some travel sites fail for a wide variety of reasons -- bad management can be just as deadly as bad content, too much money just as damaging as not enough -- and there are examples of global sites that continue to roll on, be it above-mentioned Travellerspoint, or Wikitravel / Wikivoyage to take but three.
That said, I think if we'd tried to make Travelfish a global site it would have failed.
The more niche you go, be it semi regional as we have, country-wide, city-wide, or just your local patch, the more you're able to reign in costs, but likewise your earning capacity drops correspondingly. Sponsors like niche, but they're often obsessed with traffic numbers -- niche doesn't often equal traffic.
I see a lot of "travel guide" style websites appear, covering a small area -- say a single island -- run for a year or two then fall into the dead pool after their owner loses interest, moves on or didn't see the return they wanted.
I guess once you're considering expanding your site to make more money and not because you're passionate about the new location you need to take a step back and think about what you are doing.
How you've kept up your passion for the project? About your monetization strategy?
I still (mostly) enjoy it. Because I built the site I can busy myself with the tech side as much as I can with the writing side as much as I can with the travel side, so it is easy to chop and change.
I still travel a lot -- last year I was away from the family for around six months of the year (in fits and starts) and that is definitely the bit that gets me down the most -- but then I love travelling, so it is a love/hate thing.
I guess you're best to get yourself in a position where you are not doing the same thing in and out. Write some days, code others, take a walk others -- mix it up. If you're really passionate about something, the easiest way by far of killing that passion is to do it day in day out for years.
As far as ways to make dosh are concerned, in broad strokes (and in no particular order) we've tried Amazon, direct advertisers, Adsense, selling PDFs, general affiliates, targeted affiliates, selling iPhone apps and hotel/guesthouses. There's probably a few others, but they are the main ones.
Unfortunately your mileage may vary when it comes to all of these, as so much is dependent on your site, your readers and your implementation - as opposed to my readers, my site and my implementation. But in brief:
- Amazon has consistently disappointed.
- With direct advertisers you need to price in a significant rate increase compared to Adsense to cover the 72 bazillion emails you'll need to close a deal. Often at the end of which they'll say "but it is cheaper if I use Adsense".
- Adsense: A/B test till the cows come home. 100,000 impressions is a good base figure for each colour/border etc
- Selling PDFs works - we only stopped it to do iPhone apps, which, in hindsight, was a mistake.
- General affiliates: Dead loss
- Targeted affiliates 1: Travel stuff (gear, luggage etc) - has promise but in my opinion you've got to write up your own reviews to really add true value - you want to run a travel website or a luggage review website?
- Targeted affiliates 2: Flights & insurance - In my opinion, there is no money in flights - just recommend what you think & ignore trying to monetise it through affiliate stuff. Insurance (we work solely with World Nomads) is worth pursuing.
- Selling iPhone apps: While I was off the scale proud of the apps we had built, I would not recommend getting into them unless they're transactional.
- Hotels/guesthouses etc: Yes. This is a very important part of our business. Pick a partner you use yourself.
Much has been written about how there is a flow in travel planning from inspiration to getting the credit card out. You want to be as close to the cc part of the thought process as possible.
Last click reigns supreme.
Why were iPhone apps a mistake? What happened and why?
The apps were a mistake because at the time, on the tech side we had a very small team -- me -- and we had something we were doing well and making money out of -- selling the PDF travel guides.
So while we worked with an outstanding iPhone developer and designer, we didn't have the resources to look after the CMS and development side of the iPhone development and also do the PDF guides - one had to go and it was the PDF guides.
We launched the apps to much praise, but our plan was always for them to earn their keep through selling them. That didn't happen.
It turned out to be the #2 paid travel app in the Australian appstore (at the time) you needed to sell between 10 and 15 apps a day -- that isn't many -- and we came to realise that we'd need to produce a tonne more apps than we had planned to meet the targets we had set and so, with my limited time we pulled them.
Looking back they were a huge distraction and we'd have been better off sticking with flogging PDF guides -- but you don't know unless you try.
Did you write the original travelfish.org CMS yourself?
Yes. Today, we use Wordpress for some parts of the site, but the vast majority runs off a CMS I wrote from scratch and in all likelihood will still be fixing another decade from now.
Do you ever think the "travel blog" craze of "making money with your blog to travel the world" will die down?
No, not really, but I don't pay it much attention.
What traffic/revenue points registered as milestones for you?
Hitting seven figures for traffic and six for revenue were both pretty satisfying -- and happened a few years ago now. Next target is adding another zero to each -- simple targets are the best kind.
Did the site grow fast from the get-go or was there a lot of hard work for minimal reward at the beginning?
Growth has been slow and steady -- not a hockey stick in sight. The reward financially took years to manifest itself. Other rewards -- seeing some traveller using the site in an internet cafe for example or getting a 'thank you' email from a Travelfish reader, came far sooner -- and was, in many ways, far more satisfying than earning enough to have Google send you your first Adsense cheque.
Can you ever remember a point at which you doubted the site would work / was worth doing, and seriously considered chucking it in?
Not really. I can be a bit stubborn in this regard. Any alternative available wasn't really all that appealing.
Why the name "Travelfish"?
The original URL we picked for the site was fourelephants.com (where one elephant would represent each country -- think of the Tshirt potential!). But, I had a bit of a false start with the coding and put everything aside for a year -- during which Samantha (co-Editor of Travelfish, and McDonald's wife) started using the domain for her own writing - so I had to pick another.
Travelfish - well easy to remember, has travel in it, fish go everywhere -- seemed good enough! The only issue is sometimes people think it is a website for Christians or fishermen -- they're still welcome of course, but so is everyone else.
How are you tackling constant change in search engine algorithms?
I'd be more defensive of Google's changes if the SERPS were better, but they're not. I'll regularly see 15 TripAdvisor results in the first two pages of results -- this is one of the reasons I use Bing.
We've been careful over recent years to follow Google's guidelines as best we can, which is why last year's sudden drop was a surprise -- and remains unfathomable to us.
In the end, we just continued working as we always had -- our "SEO strategy" (if you want to call it that) is very back to basics.
The only other approach I think is to try and insulate your site from changes in Google by concentrating on other traffic sources -- could be newsletters, social etc -- but the gap in numbers is vast.
Social networking sites become more commercial and often demand substantial payment for exposure? Which social sites you use?
We used to advertise on Facebook, but after seeing this video on Facebook fraud, I'll never give them another penny. We maintain our Facebook page because some Travelfish Facebook fans are very active on it -- that's the only reason now.
Use what you enjoy. I enjoy Twitter to a ridiculous extent, and even if I didn't have a business I'd still use it extensively - well & excessively -- much of the stuff I tweet is totally unrelated to Travelfish.
Others, say Pinterest for example, have potential as brand building and social tools. It can be time consuming, but so can answering emails or forum posts.
If you're spending an hour a day on a service you wouldn't otherwise use, I think you need to create a clear business reason for doing so within six months or so. If you can't make one and don't like the service, don't use it.
Email newsletter signups - Forced or Organic? What's best?
We were lucky enough to spend a few days with the founder of another far more successful travel business last month and we talked at length regarding quality content, "content marketing", popups and so on.
We were in agreement that popups are pretty awful. Neither of us use them, instead our approach it to write the best, most useful content we can and have organic search as one of the main ways of surfacing it to the reader.
But rather than attack them with a pop-up trying to force-feed them our newsletter, we give them what they're looking for.
Some may stay, but many -- the majority in fact -- will bounce off after they've digested what we've produced.
Next time they search, hopefully they'll find us again and repeat the above process.
And again. And again. Hey I remember this site.
Eventually, once they've found we've continually answered their queries, perhaps they'll start at our site rather than Google/Bing etc.
Then maybe we'll make it into their bookmarks.
At some stage, perhaps after they've used the site 5, 10, 15 times, they might notice the box for a newsletter sign-up and think, maybe that's worth signing up for? Look, there's a link to previous issues, so they take a look.
Maybe next time. Then they sign up.
Of course keeping them as newsletter recipients is an entirely separate process, but I'd rather have 10 on my list that decided to sign up in the above manner, than 1,000 who I force fed a popup to.
Why? Because they decided, totally at their own speed, and on the basis of what we already gave them, that they wanted to be on our mailing list. And you know what? They read the newsletter.
Getting subscribers is easy. Yes put a popup on your website. Getting readers is harder and I believe the manner outlined above is a better approach to it. But it will undeniably, take far longer to grow your list.
I compare newsletter popups to websites that offer some publication -- say en ebook or industry report for free -- but you have to signup for their mailing list to get it. To me this is totally wrong headed.
I don't want to get their newsletter -- I want their e-book/report. I have no intention of reading their newsletter. Why do they want to send me something I don't want in order to give me something I do want?
I guess it bulks out their mailing list so they can crow X,000 subscribers, but really, what is that worth if the bulk of the recipients signed up to get something other than the newsletter?
But, as with everything, your mileage may vary!
........... and, few lighter questions here:
Most embarrassing thing to happen on your travels?
Trying to bargain down a meal I had already eaten, when very drunk, then walking out of the restaurant and falling on my face. Watch out for the Hercules Wine in Udomxai, Laos.
Most embarrassing thing you've ever done to screw up Travelfish?
I accidentally deleted the entire site a year or so ago. Took me days to recover it.
How often do you shave?
The day before I'm passing through any immigration checkpoint.
NB: Main image via Travelfish Instagram page.