Since launching ImagineTravelDiscover in April 2014 we’ve received many comments asking how we started blogging, what platform we use, how to start writing, how we manage spam attacks, what it costs, how much time it takes and a number of other blogging related questions. But the first question to ask is why start a blog at all?
For reference, see our Home page and the About Us page that describe who we are and generally why we started blogging. But to provide more detail, we had specific reasons to start our own website and blog:
1. We are planning a life of long-term international traveling within the next year or so and wanted a means to document our travels.
2. We wanted to start our blog a year or so in advance of our international travels in order to be experienced in blogging before we hit the road.
3. We wanted to start our blog now in order to build up readership and possibly monetize our site by the time we leave for long-term travel.
4. Even before we start traveling long-term, we do a lot of traveling in America’s Pacific Northwest and throughout Mexico , so have plenty of experiences to blog about.
How to start a blog? Well that took some doing on our part. We don’t have sophisticated knowledge about computer code; in fact we are just basic computer users. The whole idea of starting a website and blog was overwhelming to us. This is how we did it:
First we surfed the web and found a number of travel blogs we liked (some of our favorites are listed in our blogroll in our sidebar). We started following them and contacted them. We soon discovered that most of them were happy to answer questions about blogging, and we learned a lot from them. But, we also saw from other sites things that we didn’t like; sites cluttered up with pop-up advertisements or notices, too many photos or not enough of them, fancy scrolling headers, and sites that tried to cover too much material. Basically we liked comprehensive, but reasonably simple sites with solid, straight-forward travel reporting that stayed on point.
Based on what we learned from other sites we considered what we would blog about, how we would write our posts, how we might organize a website, and if we had information that would be appealing to readers. Just as importantly, we considered if we had enough time to administer a blog site. In our case I don’t work at a regular 9 to 5 job but Sonia does, so we decided my task would be to learn how to establish a web site and then administer it. At least for now I write the posts and do the day-to-day administration of the site while Sonia proofs the posts and comes up with ideas for reporting – like this post about blogging.
After we determined the general direction for our site we developed a simple business plan that set goals that we would like to reach before we begin traveling long-term. It really makes a difference to set down your goals in writing, especially if there is more than one person involved in the blog. When your plans are in writing it forces you to express what you want more accurately and iron out any differences. Our plan addresses organization of the site, the target audience we want to reach, levels of readership we want to achieve and by when, monetization of the site, and ideas for evolving the site over time. A good business plan is flexible – we may change it altogether as we gain experience, but we’ve found it is important as a guide and helps keep us focused on what we’re doing together. So far we’ve met, or exceeded all of our goals.
After we had a plan it was time to look for a user-friendly host from which to build our site. I checked reviews of many website hosts from other bloggers and though there are other hosts that come highly recommended, we found that WordPress was one of the largest and most widely used so we decided to use them.
Now that we had a plan and selected a host it was time to deal with the mechanics of actually setting up the web site. This stalled us for a few weeks. We looked into classes for using WordPress at local community colleges, private tutors, and online courses but they were all expensive (ranging from $300 to $1,000 for introductory lessons). We contacted a few website designers, but that was prohibitively expensive starting at $1,500 and more. Besides, I had read through the start-up instructions from WordPress and understood most of it and, the classes we investigated covered the same material. Finally we decided that the only way to start was to just dive in, make our mistakes, and learn as we went, and that’s what we did.
The first decisions we had to make were: deciding between using one of WordPress’s free themes or purchase a premium theme, whether to purchase our own .com domain or use WordPress’s free wordpress.com domain, and whether to pay extra for sophisticated spam protection. We decided to pay for a premium WordPress theme (Adventure Journal) in order to be free of advertisements (which come with the free themes), purchase our own .com domain in order to be more visible on the web, purchase a proxy domain host which protects your personal information from hackers, and to use WordPress’s spam filter. All this costs about $125 per year in subscription fees. We could have started the site for free by using a free WordPress theme and be hosted at wordpress.com but we have no complaints at this point.
Now that we had selected our WordPress theme and had a domain address, we had the hardest task of all facing us; actually setting up the site and writing our first posts. Fortunately I found WordPress’s start-up tutorials reasonably easy to follow and even more, the support community at WordPress very helpful to computer idiots such as myself. As we set up the site I found the WordPress themes pretty forgiving and mistakes were easy to delete. Still, we fumbled around a bit, learning through trial and error, but after the first few posts we became comfortable with the basics such as setting up the site menu, publishing posts, importing photos and responding to comments.
Writing – that’s the heart of a blog isn’t it. Fortunately I’ve always liked to write and since Sonia and I enjoy a variety of activities, we usually have a variety of interesting things to write about. We go backpacking into the wilderness and sea kayaking. We like nights out on the town, going to off-the-wall festivals and out-of-the-way places. And, we love to travel.
Our business plan features a web site that relies on first-hand experiences and that’s what we do; write about what we experience. We don’t think that writing fiction or using previously published material is bad so long as the sources are referenced, but a fundamental feature of our site is reporting on first-hand experience, so we don’t write fiction or use previously published material. However, we do occasionally use stock photos off the web to illustrate our experiences when we don’t have adequate photos of our own and we are careful to reference this in our posts when we do.
Many professional bloggers advise that you make a schedule for publishing posts in order to keep your blog fresh. Many blogging platforms have automatic publishing features in which you can write your article and store it to be published automatically on a certain date. But we just write when we have experiences to report on. We try to publish a new post once every 7 to 10 days, sometimes more often. We’ve found that posts don’t need to be long, but they do need to be pertinent.
I’ve learned that taking a lot of photos is essential to writing our posts; that and writing the post as soon as possible after a trip. Photos give me a reference on how to start writing a post, which is usually the hardest task for me. Sometimes I’ll start writing without the beginning I want, but the beginning always comes as the story unwinds and having lots of photos to refer to reminds me of the experiences we had, refresh me on details, and helps me write a cohesive story.
When we write we don’t try to be coy or profound, we just write the way we would tell the story verbally. We like to write with a sense of humor, keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, and try to express the feelings we experienced at the time we experienced them.
We think lots of photographs are essential for a travel blog site. And, for us the first rule of photography is to have a camera that you will carry with you all the time. For more professional photographers that could be a shoulder case with a digital SLR camera and interchangeable lenses (SLR – Single Lens Reflex). For us it’s a pocket-size Sony, Cyber-Shot digital camera. The small size ensures I have it with me all the time and the little Sony takes surprisingly good quality photos and videos, the battery lasts a long time, and it holds up well under rough outdoor conditions. But it has limited telephoto range and the quality, though good, can’t match that of a more sophisticated camera. I’ve passed up a few photos knowing that the small Sony wouldn’t capture the image as I wanted.
Often there will be other people with us on our various excursions and I always try to get copies of their photos. This gives us a much larger library of photos to choose from while still depicting the actual experience we are reporting on.
Soon we will update to a newer generation camera. Pocket-size cameras now have up to 20X zoom lenses and we may add a more sophisticated SLR digital camera as well. But regardless of the equipment you use – we’ve learned that the basics are to take lots of photos. In fact, we never seem to take enough.
ADMINISTERING THE BLOG:
A frequent question we receive is how much time does it take to administer our blog. At first, it took us up to half a day to write a post and publish it. But once we became comfortable with writing it takes half that time. Selecting and then importing photos into our posts is the most time consuming part.
SPAM: We learned from other bloggers that maintaining contact with readers is important to keeping the blog fresh and alive, but this is where we encounter spam. Spam comes in a variety of flavors; Some is promotion of other websites disguised as legitimate comments, multiple comments from the same commenter, and some, though not technically spam, are unintelligible Google translations into English from another language. Most all of the genuine commenters are kind and supportive; we receive very few ugly or abusive comments. WordPress uses a spam filter that has options to control incoming comments. At first we set these limits very liberally, but after a few months we were receiving about 150 comments per day, most of them spam of one sort or another. Reading through and then deleting or approving these comments soon became an arduous daily task. So, we revisited the spam settings and tightened the restrictions. We found that you can limit comments to any time period you want from the date of publishing a post (we re-set ours at 90-days), you can get rid of persistent spammers by entering their URL in a blacklist, you can set the spam filter to delete any comments with objectionable key words (“porn” in our case), and a few other settings that help reduce spam. Since we re-set our spam filter with these restrictions we now receive far fewer comments in general, but the tradeoff is much less spam to deal with (although the proportion of spam to legitimate comments is about the same – roughly 80% spam).
TIME COMMITMENT: Between writing posts and responding to comments we spend about 10 to 15 hours per week administering our site. In the future we expect this time commitment to double as we begin reporting from the road during long-term travel instead of from the convenience of home. And we know we will spend much more time on the site as the number of commenters increase, as we monetize the site, as we upgrade the site to add more travel categories, and as we experience more traveling in a shorter time. Many travel bloggers that have been at it for a few years say that the commitment to their blogs has become a full time job – 40 hours or more per week, and I can see why.
Already we see that we could organize our site better. Our site is simple, many commenters like that, and we want to keep it that way, but we will eventually add a few more features like video. It works pretty well as is, but eventually we need to partition our travels into more distinct categories; separating wilderness treks from more conventional travel, add new pages for regions of the world as we travel through them, maybe add a section for country-by-country budget traveler’s cost guides, another for videos – we’ll make those decisions as our international travel date comes closer.
We would like to eventually monetize the site, but not at the expense of cluttering it up with obnoxious pop-up advertisements and such, so we’ll probably add a sidebar for advertisers. There are all sorts of arrangements to be made with advertisers and we’ll be learning more about that in the future. Some other travel sites even offer services like tours, guest authoring for pay or selling travel E-books. We’ll make those decisions later as the site matures.
Things that are working that we won’t change:
1) Reporting on first-hand experiences. The comments we’ve received so far often mention how our writing is original, not re-hashed material already available elsewhere on the web. And, that makes our job even easier since we simply write about what we experience instead of researching the web for material to write about.
2) Keeping it simple. Commenters have also appreciated the simplicity of our site and we agree; simpler is better. So, when we add features to our site, we’ll keep simplicity in mind and avoid cluttering up the site with too many tabs, fancy pop-ups, fancy auto-scrolling post headers and such.
Things that could be improved:
1) Since we have Spanish and French speaking followers we us a Google translator in our sidebar. It doesn’t work as well as we hoped and we’ll be looking for a better translation widget to replace it.
2) The WordPress theme we use, Adventure Journal, has enough features for a basic website but adding features like video requires upgrading, so we may upgrade to a different, and more sophisticated theme later. we’ve been satisfied with hosting our site at WordPress, but we will investigate different hosts beyond WordPress later just to see what’s out there.
3) We’ve reached a stage where we’re comfortable with the basics. We can post an article, import photos, manage comments, but it’s time to reach for the next level. We will learn more about connecting to social media, using video clips, using computer code. We think the important thing is to always keep moving forward; not to stagnate in a comfortable level of proficiency but keep pushing towards more sophistication.
We hope this post has answered some of the questions about how and why we started blogging. If there are further questions, please contact us through our Contact Us page in the header of our site. Thanks for reading, and please come back to visit us as we publish new posts frequently.
Bob & Sonia