June 12, 2007

Interviewed by Blog de Viajes
Tanah Rata, Malaysia

An e-mail interview with Jorge Gobbi, from Argentina's Blog de Viajes.

Hello Craig. Since September, 2003, I've been keeping a blog about travel and tourism called Blog de Viajes, which has an English version called Zirma. Then, towards the end of last year, I started keeping, by commission, the corporate blog of the online travel agency Despegar. For this last site, and for a few months now, I've been doing interviews to people who keep travel blogs. Until now, every participant had blogs in the Spanish language, but these days I'm expanding the interviews to English language sites.

If it's ok with you, could you answer the questions below? The Spanish version will be published at Despegar Blog; the English one, at Zirma.

Why did you decide to create a travel blog? Did you have any inspiration model?

The original reasoning behind the creation of Travelvice.com was born out of the devastating tsunami of 2004. I was on holiday in Thailand at the time, and narrowly avoided becoming one of the thousands who died in the event. I was far enough removed from the impact zone to dismiss many of the event murmurs as exaggerated rumors—only realizing the full extent of the damage when I visited an Internet cafe almost two days later.

My inbox was full of concerned inquiries from friends, family, and co-workers. Contacting all the people who needed to know that I Was alive and well was a mess, as I was using a simple web-based mail program that didn't contain any of the e-mail addresses from my computer at home.

It was during this trip in Thailand that I decided to embrace my passion for travel (and life abroad) by quitting my job, selling everything I owned, and leave the United States with a backpack on my shoulders, never to return to live there again—25 years was enough for one country.

It was also at this time that I got to thinking about how best to communicate to people where I was, and what I was doing. The effort involved with maintaining a large e-mail mailing list of friends and family wasn't the most enjoyable of thoughts, so the idea of creating a Web site whereby people could visit and PULL the latest happenings in my life (instead of PUSHING it into their inbox) was born.

My professional background in photography, Web site construction, and database application development gave me the skill set to imagine, design, and create the site you see today.

What sort of topics do you choose more often? And which do you plan to choose in the future?

Travelvice.com has evolved since its initial conception, over two and a half years ago. It's become a necessary creative outlet for me, and an information depot for others, full of photos; educational stories; how-to guides; tips and tricks; historical facts and trivia; cultural and country oddities; busted stereotypes; prices and reviews of food, transport, and accommodations; and the raw emotional highs and lows that a shoe-string budget traveler experiences.

Travel isn't all smiles, and any writer that tells you otherwise is selling something.

If you had to convince someone to visit the place you live in, what would you tell him to convince him?

I live everywhere, and nowhere. I've been a nomad since 2005, and (over 30 countries later) have yet to find a place that captured me in such a way as I'd consider living there for more than a few months. Part of it is my age, mindset, and an overdeveloped sense of curiosity, but at a deeper level its the ability to feel at home wherever I am.

The biggest draw for me to visit someplace new is the fact I haven't been there before—and the intense desire to see things with my own eyes, and pull a personal mental image of a place when a country or city is mentioned in conversation.

What would you tell a person that's thinking about opening his own travel blog? What things should he know before starting? How can he attract a certain number of readers?

Write frequently. Spend less time thinking about your style and more time writing and creating content. The key to attracting readers is to build up the content on the site in a way that folks searching for topics you've written on will discover your site.

Part of that has to do with the search engine optimization (SEO) of your posts, URL titles, and site design, but a lot of it has to do with the amount of content available in the first place. The more I write, the more Travelvice.com becomes an established and trusted resource on the Internet. The 20% visitor growth per month on my site is a manifestation of such things.

It should be noted that there's a difference between loyal readers and visitors though. Less than 10% of Travelvice visitors are repeat readers. This means that people are hitting my site because they're searching for information. Some find it, others don't, and a percentage of those who discover the site actually enjoy what they read so much they visit again, or subscribe to the RSS feed or Travelvice In Your Inbox mailing list.

Ultimately, you have to make the distinction between the two groups and decide which is more valuable to you. If you plan on trying to support your site (or travels) with Google AdSense advertisements, it's all about the unique visitor hit count.

I'd also advise giving thought to how you plan on writing content for the site. Speaking from personal experience, the "write it out on paper and retype at an Internet cafe" method doesn't work. It's time consuming and expensive. I'd strongly suggest looking into a PDA/keyboard combo or an ultra-portable laptop.

Could you tell us what other sites you have in the Net besides your blog (youtube, flickr, del.ici.us, etc)?

I'm going to mention my use of BallofDirt.com. Since 2005 I've been using this free service to (roughly) plot my route history. I find the path overlay on their maps to be visually enjoyable, and the historical archive of my movement an absolute must.

How has your experience with Blogspot been? (I'm going to publish a series of entries on sites to create blogs, and it'd be good to see each blogger's experience with different blogs tools)

To put it simply, using Blogger as the publishing engine behind Travelvice was a mistake—and over two years later I'm paying for it with pain and problems at an increasing rate.

I spent over a thousand hours dreaming up an creating every visual element of Travelvice.com (by hand). The site was engineered to represent the pinnacle of my Web development career, and last for years as a maintenance-free monument to such things.

Sadly, because so much time was spent on the visual design and presentation, I opted early on for a publishing tool that needed no installation or brain power to use. I sought out something that was established and could provide a redundant, off-site archive of my writings. Too late did I realize that Blogger's simplicity would ultimately become the Achilles Heel of my Web site.

Advanced scripts using the PHP programming language were developed to compensate for many of Blogger's shortcomings—manipulating Blogger's output on my end of things. But a risk that couldn't be mitigated to my satisfaction was the instability of the tool itself. Blogger is still a growing and changing application that I have no control over. In December of 2005, those fears were substantiated when a forced account conversion over to a "new Blogger" crippled my ability to publish or edit posts on my site for two weeks.

Now, as I travel and use the service, I can see many additional cracks in the Blogger infrastructure. The site has problems when connecting over slow Internet connections (forget about using it when you're in that remote fishing village), and has been blocked by governments in certain countries (including access all all Blogspot hosted domains).

I think I underestimated just how much Travelvice was going to be a part of my life, and how much using Blogger would complicate it in the long-term. Travel blogs fizzle out faster than fireworks, and I had no idea if I'd be part of the majority or the minority—some people thought I'd be back home after six months.

But I'm still traveling, still writing, and still suffering with Blogger difficulties. If I had the resources to switch to a product like Movable Type or WordPress, I would.

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