Travelfish: 2012 in review

Overnight rain here in Bali washed most of the pungent smoke out of the air from last night’s fireworks extravaganza and it looks like we’re settling in for one of those overcast with occasional shower type days, custom-designed for laying in bed doing not much at all. A contemplative day.

So with that in mind, here’s a bit of contemplation on where 2012 took

This has been, without doubt, our busiest year ever and the site has grown beyond our expectations, through hard work, having an excellent team of writers and, without doubt, a bit of good fortune thrown in here and there.

Through the year, Samantha, as editor in chief, took over all editorial responsibilities of the site and managed our growing team of freelance correspondents, currently 19 in total, who are based across the region. We also took on our first staff writer, David.

Through the year we brought a number of our writers to Bali individually for a weeklong workshop, where we showed them more of the inner workings and tried to better explain the whats, hows and most importantly, whys of how things get done at Travelfish. In some cases, this gave us our first opportunity to meet people who had been working with us for long periods of time, and in all cases we think it was a great learning experience for everyone.

Personally I managed to fit in an uncomfortably frequent travel schedule, with nine trips to Malaysia, four to Thailand, three to Singapore and one apiece to Vietnam and Cambodia — yes Laos, I’ve not forgotten you — I’ll see you soon!

Between my and David’s travels along with the correspondents’ regular contributions to the Travelfish blogs, we published more than 1,100 stories and 34 features. Vast amounts of our destination research was also either updated or expanded, with Java and sections of Malaysia finally getting the attention they deserve. Yet there is plenty more to do — you should see the input queue! We also added our 5,500th property review in December 2012.

With all this new material we needed to take a far more structured approach to getting it from us to you. An editorial schedule appeared, and we made information available via Facebook and Twitter (and to a far lesser extent, Google+).

Samantha’s efforts with Facebook grew our overall likes to more than 11,500 (from 7,000 at the start of the year) and while we at times felt stymied by Facebook’s policies, we’ve rolled with the punches and continue to consider it an important channel for organic growth.

My Twitter addiction continues to grow at a gangrenous rate, with almost 13,000 followers, most of them possibly real (!). I thank you all for putting up with my blathering — well those who haven’t (justifiably) muted me anyway. The Travelfish Twitter stream is 100% me with a dash of Travelfish thrown in — nothing constructed. I think it’s useful to know, love and/or hate who the people are behind a brand — I hope most of you are in the former!

We also moved the on-again off-again newsletter to a firm, well almost firm, Monday weekly schedule and this has seen our email list grow by about 75% over the year. While it is tedious to do, people seem to love it — it’s the only thing we do where if we run late, real people actually email or tweet us asking where it is. We love you all :) Not a subscriber? You can sign-up here.

At the very tail end of 2012 we finally made some changes to the Travelfish forum, hoping to make it both easier to use for existing members and more enticing for potential new members. We’re allowing members to add in their social networks to better allow them to find like-minded travelling souls and we’ll be adding more features in the coming weeks.

Numbers wise, saw continued steady growth traffic wise, receiving almost 8,000,000 visits in the year (up around 45% on 2011) and more than 20,000,000 pageviews (up about 20% on 2011). While member numbers continue to grow, we did see fewer new members compared to the year before (nice one Facebook!). We’ll be working hard to grow this further in 2013 by creating yet more reasons to make it worthwhile to become a Travelfish member.

Revenue-wise, despite losing long-time advertiser AirAsia in the first half of the year, overall revenue grew by about 70% and we believe we’re well positioned financially for 2013 and beyond. This is a great relief and has been a long time coming particularly as we adhere to a strict policy of never taking freebies.

So what does 2013 hold for Travelfish?

To a large extent, more of the same really. We’ll continue to build upon and add to the depth of our destination coverage. With seven writers based in Thailand alone, we have a lot of new material planned. We’re finally making progress filling out our Malaysia coverage and if you thought you heard a lot about Indonesia from us in 2012, you ain’t heard nothing yet. Indonesia is where independent travel is at! (We get a lot of people asking about The Philippines and Burma, and while we’d love to add them, 2013 won’t be the year this happens.)

This new year will also see us reinvigorate our existing iPhone apps, while iPad and Kindle users should (hopefully) have something to get pretty excited about soon as we finally firm up a concept we’ve been experimenting with for much of 2012.

But most importantly, what we’ll be concentrating on doing more than anything else, is helping travellers get the most out of their travels to Southeast Asia.

Because we want travellers to love Southeast Asia as much as we do.

Best wishes for a great 2013 to you all, thanks for your support, and good, safe travels,

Stuart McDonald
Head Chef

Tourism: Fantasy Vs reality

This is a little bit off topic but here are two videos about what you can experience as a foreigner in Australia.

First, here’s a recent video by Tourism Australia.

Looks gorgeous doesn’t it. Viewed just shy of 400,000 times in about 5 months.

Secondly, here’s a video of what a foreigner in Australia can actually experience in Australia.

A little less gorgeous. Viewed almost 2,400,000 times in five days.

Not quite sure what an appropriate response from Tourism Australia should be, but given the later video has obviously gone viral, with the international press picking it up, there is work to be done.

Is not doing SEO the stupid way?

The Travel Blog Camp was help in London overnight and while thankfully I was asleep for much of it, there was one tweet that got a bit of traction and this rainy morning got my attention.

“SEO is a fundamental part blogging. If you do not do SEO you are stupid. Which is why bloggers are publishers”

The Travel Blog Camp twitter account later attributed it as “sort of a quote from @blogworld” and noted that “I think what he meant was if you want an audience you need to do SEO so that they can find you. Difficult to relay in 140.”

It’s an interesting one.

I think it is interesting because it’s painting SEO as some kind of additional thought process that needs to go into a post — kind of like you write the post and then you build an overlay of SEO over it. If that is how you are doing it, then in your case “doing SEO” is stupid.

For most of us mere mortals, simple SEO need not be a dark art — it can be if you want, but it need not be.

In most cases, use a good title that tells the reader what the story is about. Sure, nothing wrong with the occasional “Fergie Toe Job” title, but generally a more descriptive title is useful.

Don’t bury the lead.

Sparingly add influence (generally with bold or sometimes subtitles) to points that deserve it.

Link out to additional information that your readers may find useful and or of assistance in learning more about the topic in question.

That’s it.

All of the above will improve the reader experience.

So why aren’t you doing it anyway? Regardless of SEO.

On audience

I read a great blog entry the other day by Gary Bembridge — I’d not heard of, nor read anything by Gary previously, which only made what he wrote all the more refreshing. The post, titled “Travel blogs, travel bloggers & travel blogging conferences are doomed” covered a range of bases that sorta get tossed around pretty frequently, but there was one section, in which he was talking about what goes on at the conferences, that really leapt out at me.

“I was surprised, especially with my marketing background, that there is limited discussion about what real travellers and everyday people are seeking in the form of information, advice, education and entertainment about travel. There is almost no discussion and no data on what the real target are consuming, enjoying, returning to, valuing and seeking. The focus is on more on what is โ€œin itโ€ for the blogger, so how to do better SEO, how to be a better writer (on assumption that real people are actually looking for that) and how to get tourists boards and brands to want to work with you.”

He’s talking about audience.

A common catchphrase (not just with blogging, but writing for the web in general) is write for the reader not Google, but there seems to be little discussion about who these readers actually are.

Who is our audience? Who is yours?

With online travel, I think generally speaking you can draw a line from left to right.

To the far left you’ve got the real inspirational/naval gazing stuff — for the readers who don’t know if they want to go to Peru, Paris or the Pharmacy. This might be your Sunday supplements, some mag at the hair salon or generic travel bloggers.

As you move to the centre, the readership becomes more specific and they might be interested in a diving supplement, an adventure travel magazine or a more specialised travel blogger — say one aimed at travelling with kids.

Further to the right again, they’re really narrowing down — picking up a destination specific magazine, reading a trip planning website or browsing a destination specific travel blog.

At the far right you’re got the transactional websites — be they flights, accommodation, tours and so on, where the reader has a pretty firm idea of what they want to do and has a credit card in their hand.

At each of these stages, the reader (be it on- or offline) is looking for inspiration, followed by more information, pretty much makes a decision and then finally wants someone to pay to make it happen.

So I return to my question who is our audience?

Is it what Google Analytics tells us? British, Australian and American, obsessed with weather, islands and where to score drugs in Cambodia?

Or is it what Facebook tells us? Thai, Indonesian and Australian fascinated with noodle soup and sunset pics.

Is it the blog traffic? More disasters involving copious amounts of water please.

The newsletter perhaps? Brits and Yanks love a sexy title.

The forum? Expats and regular returnee travellers to the region.

Hotel bookings? Surprisingly flashpacker to midrange, heavily Australian.

Appsales? Australians, Americans, French and Germans.

There’s a certain amount you can infer from each of the above to try to better cater to the readers, and I guess it isn’t too difficult to double down on the material that people find the most interesting.

Or think about it another way. Who do you want your audience to be and where on the inspiration to transaction line do you want to be? If you’re trying to make a business out of this, you want to be as far to the right as you can.

This brings me back to Gary’s quote back up top.

Who are you writing for and more importantly, what do they want?

What happens when there is nothing left to mine?

1) I read last night about a travel start-up launching, in this case to become “the most current and trusted travel information provider on the planet”. They seem to be doing this in part by “sifting through” around a dozen other travel websites.

2) A week or so ago there was a somewhat unusual exchange on regarding a new member who wanted to “mine” our information to produce their own PDF guides (which they would then sell).

3) A few months ago I was in Bangkok, talking to a writer for a top tier travel guide publisher who boasted that they love because they just mine our site for all the places their publisher doesn’t pay them enough to visit in person.

In all three cases the focus is less on “putting feet on the ground” and gathering their own information — instead it is all about partnerships and reusing or, mining, existing data.

I think this is a badly missed opportunity.

We live in a time when travel has never been easier and more affordable yet there appears to be little interest in actually investing in improving the information that people use on the ground. There’s nothing wrong with user-generated content if it rocks your boat, but I’m talking about expert-generated content.

Online travel start-ups have raised millions in funding but I’m truly at a loss as to what they spend it on.

Words from Wikitravel, wCities, Footprint or Frommers, free photos from Flickr, free maps from Google and, of course, the great stub-filler, reviews from the general public.

Is it really that expensive to create your own content? To cover much of Southeast Asia you’d probably need a couple of hundred thousand dollars for good, conscientious writers to do a solid first run. When you’re raising eight figure sums I’d have thought that was doable. While information on is far from perfect, we built what we did with far less than a single million and we’ve always paid our writers.

Perhaps it isn’t doable because, in the eyes of the founders, this information isn’t actually seen as being all that important. The words are there really just to funnel a Google search through to an adclick or a hotel reservation. Just enough words to dodge a Google Panda penalty (or, in some cases, not).

As for the guidebook publishers who no longer require their writers to actually visit all destinations (or in some cases, the country at all – no I’m not talking about Colombia Columbia!) then you fully deserve to be in the dire situation you are — you took your readers for granted and not surprisingly, they stopped buying your books.

Information is everything and if you haven’t been there, you haven’t been there.

What I’d love to see is a new travel start-up with the funding to really double down on the content and the people who research and create it rather than the technology that presents it. You don’t need a Pinterest mashup to find the post office — you just need an address.

There are more ways, and it is easier, to make money out of online travel content than it has ever been before. I say that with one caveat: you need to own the content to reap the full benefits.

Invest in your writers and the content, build something original that doesn’t solve a non-existent problem and be in it for the long term.

This is an exciting time to be in online travel — I just wish there were more new ideas and concepts to get excited about.

Organise your life with Asana

About a month ago over on GlobalThing, Michael Smith put me onto and I’ve never looked back.

Slick on the outside, powerful on the inside.

Slick on the outside, powerful on the inside.

It’s basically a personal/project management package that allows you to set up various todo lists and share them with coworkers. I’d long been looking at various similar solutions, particularly Basecamp, but I’d found them too complicated for the fairly simple matters I need to get organised.

What makes Asana so awesome is its absolute simplicity. It has a flat interface in that everything gets shared with everyone, but as (at the moment) there are only three of us using it, that’s perfect.

Big picture, medium picture, detail.

Big picture, medium picture, detail.

At first glance Asana did my head in a little, but after watching the first two introduction videos and playing around with it for 15 minutes, it was all clear.

Essentially there are three panes. The left column has your broad task collections — the centre column shows you the tasks within one collection and the third shows the contents of a particular task.

The Asana whip-list for the day.

The Asana whip-list for the day.

The third pane is the most useful as it is here the task gets detailed, assigned to a team member and the task path is recorded and displayed with progress notes and final status.

Organisation has never been a strong point for me, and Asana has brought a tremendous amount of clarity to what I’m doing, what I need to be doing and what can be filed away for a rainy day.

A detailed blame trail for why something isn't done.

A detailed blame trail for why something isn’t done.

Aside from asigning tasks to team members, you can set deadlines (for others or yourself), sync to your calendar, set tasks to repeat (say preparing a newsletter) and use it for broader stroke big picture visualising what a new project or task may entail, then break it down into smaller chunks and eventually sprints. There’s also email notifications (yes, you can’t escape your tasks) and a bunch of other features I’m yet to fully explore.

Broad strokes.

Broad strokes.

The actual interface may look complicated, but, once you’re used to it, it’s extremely intuitive and dead easy to use — fast too.

Best of all?

It’s free.

If you’re looking for some kind of multi-user author tool and don’t need an overly complex solution, check Asana out — I highly recommend it.

No Dave, you link selling shyster, I’m not interested. But thanks for asking.

Subject: Ref Content Placement Aug 2012


I have a name, it is Stuart McDonald, it is listed, beside my photo, on our homepage

I hope you do not mind me contacting you like this but I have just been on your site and found your posts really engaging.

Well I do actually. I post fairly rarely, so I’d love to know which ones you liked — especially as you don’t appear to know my name.

I was wondering if you would let me write a post for you?

No thanks.

I am looking to get my work placed on high-end sites such as yours and would be happy to write a unique article just for you.

Why thank you. Still no.

I can come up with a title – or if you have something that you would like me to cover I can work from a brief.

I bet you can. No I don’t sorry.

What’s in it for you, you are probably thinking?

Let me think. Probably nothing.

I place a sponsor in the post, which could take the form of a linked word to a reputable client relevant to the article.

Undoubtably a nofollowed, clearly marked paid-for link right?

Your free article would be 500 words or more in length and completely unique to you.


If you would like me to get an article started please just drop me a line.


I am constantly looking for partnerships, so if you like the first article I would love to place more with you.

I bet you are.

I look forward to hearing from you and speaking to you in the near future.

Thanks Dave, no need to contact us again.


Editorial Manager

A better kind of press trip (part of my $7,000 series)

News of a few press trips run by national DMOs and focussed on travel bloggers have landed in our email/gossip box over the last few weeks and I think they’ve really got it so wrong.

One, run by or somehow remotely facilitated/related to a certain Southeast Asian tourism board and a third travel website is simply too wacky to go into and is more a tacky link buying exercise than anything else, so I’m not going to bother with it here. No doubt it will serve as fodder down the path for some case study in what not to do.

But another, associated with another country’s tourism board, is more conservative and typical in structure. A mix of local and foreign bloggers get flown and shuttled around the country on a “best of the top shelf” tour of the country. Inbound flights and all expenses are covered — so the airlines, travel agents and hoteliers are all in the mix. In return the bloggers are required to blog regularly about what they are doing and push their work out through social media and so on — thus introducing the country to their varied readerships.

It’s no different to when a bunch of newspaper hacks get flown around the shop to fill the next few months of Sunday supplements.

Regardless of the bloggers all forming their own opinions/not being influenced blah blah and what not, everyone who put a comp in wants a piece of the pie. The airline gets a mention, perhaps the hotels do, and, of course, by writing about top shelf displays, the various travel agents who can organise these various jaunts will hopefully get a bit of business as well.

At the end of the day, the bloggers have all become copywriters for the various vested interests and that kinda sucks.

What is perhaps a better approach?

Tourism board does its research. Finds six prolific writers — whether they call themselves bloggers, travel writers or journalists — from around the world who have readers in target markets. Gets in touch. Asks about stats, readership and so on. Finds out more about their personal interests, what they know about the country and what they don’t know but want to learn.

Sorts the writers out with a return ticket. For whenever they want.

Gives each of the bloggers say US$7,000 and says:

Come to my country.
Travel for as long as you want.
Where you want.
How you want.
To grow your site.
To serve your readers.
To present the destination country, warts and all.

Then, they give the blogger a phone number and say:

If you need a hand organising something, give us a call and we’ll put you in touch with the right people. You’ll pay for it (out of your kitty) of course, but we’ll use our contacts to help open the doors you need opened.

There is zero editorial oversight.

The writer is under no obligation to write anything.

Surely that’s a better result for everyone on board?

How to make $7,000 per month travel blogging

Making money online is kinda modern day snake oil – just buy my book and you’ll know too. I hate that crap. So, here’s one way you could make $7,000 per month travel blogging.

1) Come up with a snazzy brand.

2) Make a snazzy sticker (at least as snazzy as the brand) that includes the domain name and logo and have 1,095 stickers printed — or go crazy and print 1,100 just to be safe.

3) Set up a blog that supports multiple authors – 1,095 in fact. Start with WordPress — or whatever tickles your fancy.

4) Plan a trip. It’s a comprehensive one — it goes for three years. (In case you haven’t figured that out, that’s 1,095 days).

5) Do a writing course.

6) Do a photography course.

7) Read a lot. A Lot.

8) Start travelling.

9) Each and every day, for the next three years, find a single place that is better than anything else you found that day. The highlight. Could be a hotel, a bar, restaurant, a bike mechanic, an accupuncturist. You get the idea. Something great.

10) Write about that single thing. In depth. With photos. Explain why it was great. Help your readers to reach them.

11) Go to the place you wrote about. Give them one sticker and tell them to value it. Set them up on your WordPress site as an contributor with permissions on their specific post. Explain to them that they’re responsible for keeping the page up to date.

12) Tell them you’ll run the page for free for them for three years. Afterwhich it will cost them $10 per month to keep going. (Don’t forget to mark any links “nofollow” once they are paying for them)

13) Use Twitter, FB etc etc to promote what you’re doing. Obviously also have blog posts that are more personal as you develop your voice and readers begin to identify with you. You know, build a brand.

14) Repeat for the next 1,095 days. Day in day out. If you can’t build a brand in 1,095 days, you’re in the wrong industry.

15) Alowing for say 25% of businesses to go go bust or not see the value in what you’re doing (pick your favourites carefully), in around 2,000 days you’ll be seeing around $7,000 per month in income. Is this for everyone? No. I’d hate to do something like this!

16) That’s it.


Would the above really work? Perhaps. If you’re a highly motivated, self confident individual with the gift of the gab, why not?

But what I’m really trying to illustrate here is that if you really want to make money travel blogging, you need to be thinking — and planning — along these kind of timelines.

Three years is a short time, but you can do an awful lot in 1,095 days.

PS., yeah I know they’d be costs in getting the money off people etc — just travel for a fourth year to cover those ๐Ÿ˜‰

Great ways to make your website as hostile and annoying as possible

Here’s a roundup on my take regarding some of the most annoying practices on websites, along with how I react to them and suggestions on an alternative approaches that site designers may want to consider. With I’m guilty of some of these (we use some flash and not all of the site is mobilised yet) – there’s always ways to further improve the user experience.

Use a pop up for newsletter subscriptions
While I realise you could just signup via the newsletter subscribe box in the left hand column, research * has shown that

pop up boxes, ideally loaded about 15 seconds after you start reading a story and nigh on impossible to close on a smart phone are far more preferable to readers.

Why do people do this?
Most likely because it pumps up subscriptions as people find signing up is the only easy way to get rid of the pop-up.

What do I do?
Close the website.

Another option
Write compelling content and have a subscription box towards the end of the content.

Publish all stories over at least four pages
Research * has shown that readers much prefer to read a story over four pages rather than one. Readers also love pagination boxes that are minuscule and require the filing down of fingers (or the accidental clicking of ads) in order to be able to be used.

Why do people do this?
To drive CPM revenue.

What do I do?
Close the website.

Another option
All stories should be displayed on a single page to make the reading process as easy as possible.

Display all image galleries via slideshows
Advanced research * has indicated that loading images into a slideshow is far more preferable to having them all running down the one page. For an additional usability bonus, make sure that the image gallery is Flash based so that it won’t work on many smartphones.

Why do people do this?
To drive CPM revenue.

What do I do?
Close the website.

Another option
All images should be displayed on a single page to make the viewing process as easy as possible.

Display every single available social sharing plug in
You do want to share the story before you read it right?

Why do people do this?
Because they don’t know any better.

What do I do?
Ignore them all.

Another option
Facebook is the only social service I’d say warrants automatic inclusion. Others such as Twitter of Google+ should be included only if you are especially engaged on that platform.

Supply only partial feeds to RSS readers
All research * has indicated that people far prefer to click through from their RSS reader to read a full story. This is especially advantageous when your readers lack internet connectivity.

Why do people do this?
To drive CPM revenue and to protect content from scrapers.

What do I do?
I find this intensely annoying and will only click through to read the absolute most compelling content.

Another option
Full feed all the way. If you must have a partial feed, have a custom intro rather than just the first par so that you’ve a better chance to get that clicktrhough.

Use Js plugins selectivelyAdd all Js at the bottom of the code
Anecdotal research * has shown that users prefer to wait as long as possible for Js related widgets to load, just to guarantee that the reading process is as disruptive as possible. Never ever use async Js.

Why do people do this?
I have no idea.

What do I do?
This is often especially annoying with some WordPress plugins that result in the story shifting around a lot on a phone. Dealing with this kind of stuff is one of the only ways I end up clicking on an advert or related story link.

Another option
Use plugins very selectively.

Do not have a mobile version of your site
All research * has clearly illustrated that people prefer to pinch and zoom regular websites on their smartphones rather than use a mobilised version.

Why do people do this?
Lack of tech knowhow or a belief that mobile is not important

What do I do?
Close the website.

Another option
Add a mobile version. If you are using WordPress this is generally very easy to do.

Auto play all videos
A practice pioneered by the Sydney Morning Herald, it has been clearly shown * that autoplay videos, especially those that commence with an advertisement and cannot be turned off are absolutely preferred by readers.

Why do people do this?
To boost user engagement

What do I do?
I get engaged with the “close window” button.

Another option
Don’t ever autoplay anything.

Use as much Flash as possible
Readers, especially those using smart phones prefer to get as much content in Flash as possible. The most innovative hotels often make their entire websites in Flash which is an absolute boon for readers trying to find the telephone number to call to make a reservation.

Why do people do this?
A lot of legacy websites just haven’t adapted, but anyone being advised to build a new website mostly in flash needs to get some new advice

What do I do?
Stare at blank screen for a while then close window.

Another option
Use Flash only is totally unavoidable.

In conclusion, think of everything from the user’s point of view. Many of the above are counter intuitive from a reader’s point of view — why would youwant to sign up for a newsletter when you have not had time to read the story? Look at each case and think which is preferable for a reader – that’s most likely the approach you want.

* “Conversations with a single drunk tuktuk driver in Bangkok” by Stuart McDonald, 2012.