Hosteling

Read Travel Blogs? Be Careful.

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

It’s no secret that many bloggers have been able to monetize somewhat through the sale of links to search engine optimization companies and digital brands.  This has led to a sort of dance between bloggers, Google, and SEO professionals which is utterly confusing and complex. Are they any different than traditional ads? Does the intent matter? Are they misleading readers? etc. and the reality is that several high profile bloggers have come out and talked a bit about how they were funding their travels using this approach (on high volume) until it started to undermine their relationships with their readers, incurred the wrath of Google, or a bit of both. Others have established secondary sites that essentially serve as dumping grounds for these links and content. Yet others have been far less scrupulous and completely forgone the wall between paid content/endorsements/links/disclosure and genuine written material. What I find particularly disturbing about this is that it seems to be an increasing trend, particularly as rates for other forms of advertising/compensation decrease.

The link debate has been talked to death. As a reader you’re usually pretty aware when you stumble onto an embedded link in the midst of content that just shouldn’t be there or seems fishy (paid for).  I suspect most of you have also abandoned sites that fail to set apart or disclose this type of paid content.  However, what you might not realize is that a subset of the travel blogging community is passing off low-grade 3rd party content as their own in exchange for money or to increase their post volume. A practice which I find to be not only generally immoral and misleading, but downright obnoxious.

On a weekly basis my inbox is flooded by e-mails from SEOs and brands who have created fake Gmail profiles to hide their identities. These brands pass themselves off as “freelance” or “independent” writers who would love to “guest post” on my blog in exchange for inserting a client link.  Others are a bit more direct and want a link or two and will provide the content written by “excellent copywriters”. Never mind that even these e-mails are often loaded with basic errors (see below) and have obviously been mass-blasted to a whole database of bloggers. Even if the content wasn’t absolute rubbish, the fact remains that this is sub-grade material is written exclusively for the purpose of attaining commercial benefit for their clients with no regard for the blog’s real readers.  The unfortunate thing is, apparently, there are a bunch of bloggers accepting this content either for free (to increase their volume output which can help increase viewership numbers) or for compensation (which is almost never disclosed and spits directly in the face of you, the reader).

Example E-Mails

Here are a few examples of the types of e-mails we’re getting as bloggers (these are real e-mails with names removed):
[blogoma_blockquote]Hello Alex,

I’m XXXX looking forward to do some guest posting on your site, where I could share some more information for your site which I found very informative and the theme of your site is very impressive which can help you built more Traffic to your site. I have been writing articles and publishing them as a guest post.
My guest post articles are unique and usually of about 400-500 words with high quality English and contents.
Let me know if you’re interested and give your suggestions on it. And feel free to shoot me a mail.[/blogoma_blockquote]
To be clear, this grossly violates the concept of what a real “guest post” actually is.
[blogoma_blockquote]Hello,

I came across your website while searching for a platform where I could publish something to your site and travel industry. It would be nice if you allow me to present my post to entertain a common set of audience which you and I share.

Apart from being informative and interesting, the content will be travel industry oriented and will help your targeted audience to extract useful information out of your site.[/blogoma_blockquote]
The e-mails are usually some variation on this. At times they offer infographics in place of pre-written content. Some are also a bit more professional than others.
[blogoma_blockquote]Hi Alex,

1.) I am a marketing executive for XXXXX, a company who works with a number of reputable global clients to generate relevant and engaging online advertising on websites similar to your own.

2.) We currently have a client in the Travel industry and after reviewing virtualwayfarer.com we feel that it is topically relevant to our client and their users.

3.) We would like to place an article on your site

4.) Should you require further information, email me.[/blogoma_blockquote]
…and then there are some real morons.
[blogoma_blockquote]Advertiser:

Hi,

I was just browsing through your blog and I must say that I got totally pulled towards it !!!!

I was wondering whether you would allow me to write an article for your blog, which will be anywhere in between 400-500 words.

Hope to hear from you pretty soon :).

Fingers Crossed.

Cheers,

Me:

Not taking any advertising partners at the moment.

Advertiser:

I wont charge you anything for it !![/blogoma_blockquote]
Lucky me right?  I’m sure you’d all love to read a post written by her. We could call it a !! !!!! !!! guide to travel.

This is usually where I end the conversation. But, if not, this is roughly what the next e-mail always looks like:
[blogoma_blockquote]What we propose is to add a new page or guest post to virtualwayfarer.com. One of our team of dedicated content writers will create an informative and engaging piece that will complement your website. This will include a standard link through to our client’s website. We ask that you upload this content as part of your site.
In return for this we will provide you with USD70 for the inclusion of this page.
When the content has been agreed and uploaded we will transfer this money through to your PayPal account.[/blogoma_blockquote]
While I personally take objection to this and find it marginally insulting, is it really something we should be judging other bloggers harshly for? It is, after all, their blog and who am I to say that they should/should not be accepting third party articles. So long as they’re not passing that content off as material they’ve written (lying to their readers) and as long as they disclose the fact that it is a sponsored post written by a third party. Right? Something which the advertisers should have no problem with right?  Wrong.
[blogoma_blockquote]We do not have any issues with No Follow, but disclosures (guest post/ sponsored post shouldn’t be mentioned).[/blogoma_blockquote]
Virtually without fail these types of advertisers prohibit disclosure regardless of if it is a stand alone link or an entire post. You read that right. The terms of these agreements revolve around the blogger NOT disclosing the fact that the post/article/link is sponsored. This is more for search engine optimization purposes than out of any malicious intent to mislead the blog’s readers, but it has the same basic result.

So, ever wondered why there’s a random link for a British hotel booking website thrown in a post about South American nature hikes?  Now you know. As a reader, I encourage you to use this information to read with a critical eye. Don’t tolerate this type of crap content and only spend time reading and supporting bloggers who are clear and up-front with you. You can also look at how a blogger writes and their written-footprint. Does the blog feel like there’s randomly someone else writing it?  Does it feel like a single author blog has a bunch of authors?  Chances are good that your gut intuition is spot on.

What’s the policy for VirtualWayfarer?

Travel blogs are notoriously difficult to monetize.  That makes the dream of starting a blog, paying for your travels, and having some cash left over improbable for 99% of those who start one up.  In a given year, while the blog may open up some wonderful and exciting press trip opportunities from time to time, i’m usually lucky if I make more than a couple thousand bucks through site-related activities. These are typically tied more to freelance jobs than advertising sold on the website (I sell some) or affiliate links.  Website related costs run me between $300-500 a year + the cost of maintaining and periodically upgrading my camera gear, electronics, and self-funding trips burns up the remainder of whatever I’ve made through the site. This is pretty typical for most independent travel bloggers and why, for most of us, it is more passion than profession.

All content on this website is authored exclusively by me with the exception of two guest posts by family members. The only change to this moving forward may be the introduction of a series of weekly interviews/invite only guest posts with various travelers. These will be feature pieces focusing on sharing the travel experience and will not include any form of third-party influence or compensation.

I do accept four types of compensated content.  These are:

  1. Sponsored trips and experiences such as organized press trips or press stays.  In these instances I’ll always share with you that I was a guest (example). Any recommendations/critiques I make tied to these experiences will also be 100% authentic and I’ll do my best to keep them unbiased. Your trust is extremely important to me.
  2. Affiliate links for Amazon (photography gear) can be found at the end of photo-intensive posts as well as on my sidebar. I make roughly 6% of whatever is purchased through these links. The items linked are typically items i’m currently using or have previously used (eg: my Canon dSLR camera).  While I amend these links where there is a relevant mention or item that I feel might be of interest to you, I will never write or adjust my content for the purpose of promoting these links directly.
  3. Purchased traditional advertising (I do very little of this). Periodically you may see a 125×125 pixel advertisement on the sidebar of this site under the “Advertising Partners” sub-header. I also provide some advertisers the opportunity to purchase a sponsored blurb at the end of (and independent of the content in) my Friday Photo posts.  These appear in place of the camera specifications /amazon link and are set apart/declared with text along the lines of, “This post was made possible in part by….” and will contain identifying verbiage such as “support”, “partner”, “sponsor”, or “advertiser”. Lastly, you’ll also see Google ads on some of my youtube videos.
  4. Product reviews and promotions – in cases where I feel a product or experience is particularly interesting I’ll periodically do a product/destination review.  These are also typically amended to a Friday Photo feature and will clearly identify themselves as a product review, sponsored giveaway/contest, etc. For an example you can see this post.

At the end of the day my policy and commitment is simple.  I write this blog for you, the reader. I view the trust you place in me as something of paramount importance. To that end, the content you find here on VirtualWayfarer will always reflect my voice and focus on authenticity and transparency. If you’ve ever got a concern, question, or request I invite you to share it with me.  I view the journalistic integrity of this blog and my content as something I’m personally very proud of and as something I refuse to compromise. I will also endeavor to only work with brands, people, and other bloggers who take a similar approach and I will always strive to give you a clear and honest insight into the travel experience as a whole and all it has to offer.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

13 Comments

  • Gabriel
    August 2, 2014

    Yea we have a very similar approach to you. If I don’t like it and use it I won’t promote it. Same thing for places I’ve been, tours, etc. We do let people guest post from time to time but only if it’s content that we agree with and feel that our users will benefit from. But it’s not very often that content like that ends up in our inbox.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      August 2, 2014

      Yeah, exactly. To be elaborate further, I don’t have any problem with guest posts. At least, not real guest pots – I think they’re great and love them in fact. But, paid copy-written crap is definitely NOT a guest post.

      Reply
  • Nina
    August 2, 2014

    I share your sentiments. I’m a firm believer that sponsored or media trips, as well as paid advertorials must be disclosed. It’s just not fair to the readers who are looking to read about genuine experiences. It’s more than a little disappointing to see several blogs not disclosing an obviously sponsored trip.

    Earning from the travel blog is not as stable as I would like. I’d rather keep doing my full time work to be able to say no when a too good an offer from a brand/company I do not like comes.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      August 2, 2014

      Thanks for weighing in Nina, I agree. Better to nurture secondary income sources vs. finding oneself stranded and tempted to compromise oneself to pay hostel rent.

      Reply
  • Bret Love
    August 4, 2014

    I couldn’t possibly agree with you more, Alex. We have high prices and VERY strict policies re: sponsored posts (no-follow links, no embedded keyword links, clear disclosure, etc), and as a result we do very few of them. We also have a very simple policy re guest posts– we only accept them from bloggers we know personally– which makes it pretty easy to respond to that sort of nonsense. But it is a LOT of nonsense and a waste of time.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      August 4, 2014

      Sounds like a good policy approach…and yeah, the time waste is annoying, even when it is streamlined.

      Reply
  • Meghan
    August 9, 2014

    The fake gmail profiles are just classic … who falls for this stuff (i.e. posting articles for free)?

    Reply
  • Ed Graham
    August 12, 2014

    Good post. I no longer bother to respond to 90% of my email because of this exact issue.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      August 12, 2014

      Yeah. I fluctuate between ignoring them, responding, explaining, linking straight to this post, or somewhat aggressive responses.

      Reply
      • Ed Graham
        September 3, 2014

        Or I’ll offer to do it for some insane amount of $ right off the bat. I figure best case I never hear from them again, or perhaps by some chance they’ll actually say yes! Win-win for me.

        Reply
  • Bali Attractions
    August 18, 2014

    so luvly blog

    Reply

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