Are blogs the future?
After 10 years plus, I am putting my hobby website, travelfromHere.com, up for sale. Take a look and you will see that it is a very straightforward directory of websites aimed at UK travellers. It is rather like Yahoo! was in its first incarnation. It gets regular submissions of websites requesting a listing and my editors decide whether the sites are worthy of inclusion. Visitor traffic to the site built-up very nicely across the years with the site generating a useful income from affiliate links. I like to think that the site served a useful purpose, allowing visitors to browse a set of links that had been approved by real human beings rather than a computer. Then came a Google algorithm update a few years ago that decimated the traffic.
The site has a Google Page Rank of 4 and an Alexa rank of 357,000 which, if you don’t know about these things, is on a par with many successful medium sized tour operators. However, traffic is down to one tenth of what it was. Google disfavours directory websites, possibly in the belief that it can do a better job of addressing consumers’ search needs (which may well be true) or perhaps because it sees no reason why it should be used to promote any websites that might vaguely be competing with it.
This last thought could be quite contentious given Google Hotel Finder and Google Flight Search. Can you imagine Google one day updating its search algorithm to disfavour online travel agents? Surely not, but it is a concern, isn’t it? Monopolistic organisations are generally free to wield power as they wish.
Nowadays, Google favours content that its algorithms believe will be appreciated by its users as interesting and relevant to their searches. This has had a huge impact on the blogosphere with blogs in the ascendancy and hundreds of thousands of bloggers making a living out of writing relevant stories and peppering them with paid links. The big question is whether these blogs are relevant to consumers or whether they are just a cynical ploy to make a few bucks.
A recent report by Nielsen attempts to answer the question. Nielsen created an experiment to measure the relative impact of content from users, experts, and brands themselves. The organisation created a lab testing situation to judge just how different types of content perform for 900 individuals that were matched as consumers to the content types to which they would be exposed. This was not a travel specific test but, nevertheless, one can draw some conclusions relevant to travel.
At first sight, the experiment actually seemed to counter my rather cynical approach to blogs. Expert content (let’s take that to mean blogs) was more effective than user reviews or branded content in persuading consumers about the worth of a product. This was particularly so for high ticket items.
Then I started thinking about the blogs that I use and the blogs I ignore. I have a group of blogs that I regularly use. For example, trustedreviews.com is my first port of call for tech stuff. Its reviews are unbiased and its bloggers’ considerations well informed. I am sure there are plenty of similarly good, expert blogs in travel as well but there are also many, many second rate ones. I get regular spam emails, as I expect you do, offering me articles written in any number of blogs with the sole purpose of including a link to my website to help move my site up the Google rankings. I am really not sure that these blogs serve up any real value to the travelling consumer.
This thought brings me right back to my own travelfromHere.com website. Google decided that it did not want to favour directory sites anymore and the result was a loss of 90% of visitors to the site.
So are blogs the future? I reckon only until Google says enough is enough. It can only be a matter of time before Google properly differentiates between genuine expert websites and the blogs seeking to cash in on their high search engine rankings. If you are an operator of blogs like these, you better have another profession up your sleeve. When the Google hatchet falls your blog income will disappear overnight.