What's a good travel blog?
First published 14th July, 2007
Search on Google for "travel blog" and you'll get around 313 million results -- probably more than you need when all you want to do is post a few stories and holiday-snaps. Given I'm not quite ready to review 300 million blog results, I divided that total by around one hundred million and took a look at three travel blog products that stand out from the crowd.
TravelPod, Travelblog and Travellerspoint each produce a free blogging platform aimed squarely at independent travellers. As each has its own nuances and quirks I signed up for each and posted a few entries from an old trip I did through the Mekong Delta -- here's my report.
Of blogs and mobile phones As I blogged away I couldn't help but compare the three services to mobile phones -- TravelPod was like a Palm Treo, with its slick interface, near-endless functionality and steep, often frustratingly confusing (for me anyway) learning curve. Travelblog is akin to my banged up Nokia 6100 -- not the prettiest phone on the block, but instantly familiar, totally easy to use and well, kind of homely. Travellerspoint, the new kid on the block, is the iPhone. Of course my Travelfish expense account doesn't quite stretch to actually buying an iPhone, but if it did, I'm sure I'd love it almost as much as I loved the Travellerspoint -- incredibly easy to use with an up and down attractive interface.
Putting the similes aside, as age always comes before beauty, let's start with TravelPod.
One of the travel blogging originals, Travelpod first appeared on the internet landscape in 1997 and maintains a vast range of travel blogs from world travellers. Recently purchased by travel-mega-portal, TripAdvisor, Travelpod looks to be adding a steady stream of new features for its members and won numerous awards and accolades before the purchase.
There's discussion boards, photo albums, Facebook tools and trip-placement on Google maps to name but a few. Best of all it's free -- albeit advertisement supported -- for all but the most power-hungry of power-users.
It's not an exaggeration to say that the TravelPod platform is heaving with features, but this wealth of options often left me feeling a little confused. While by post number two I had it all figured out, the interface just didn't feel as intuitive as it should have been. There's lots of instructions and pop-ups to wade through, but once you've figured it out, it's a no brainer -- especially if all you want to do is run a simple blog with a couple of happy snaps. One disappointment was not to see any clear notes asking people to only upload material they wrote/owned.
As with most travel-blogging platforms, TravelPod comes with Google Maps integrated, so if you want to plot your trip on a map, you can. I found the maps to be very slow loading -- perhaps testament to Travelpod's huge user base.
Unfortunately, it's when it comes to reading TravelPod blogs, that the real issue arises. It's an advertising-supported medium, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I found the adverts (mostly Google Adsense or TripAdvisor house ads) to be very obtrusive -- especially for the individual entries, where there is a sizeable adblock before your text, then a large house advert for Tripadvisor followed by another block of GoogleAds. If you're bothered by this level of advertising then I'd suggest either upgrading to the "Enhanced account" for US$39.95 per annum which disables adverts on the blog, or consider another platform -- of the three platforms I tested, TravelPod had by far the most visable level of advertising.
Aside from the advertising, there's some seemingly needless clickthroughs required to get to an actual post. From my "TravelPod homepage" it's two clicks (and two page views and associated ads) to get to an entry, when it could have just been on my homepage.
As already mentioned, the features are considerable. Video and photo uploads, RSS, Facebook and a 60,000+ member forum for starters along with some neat navigation features, that for example let you see other blogs about the same destinations. Once you've ironed out the actual posting process, these features go a long way towards compensating for the high number of ads.
Founded in 2002 by Ali Watters, TravelBlog doesn't have the slick interface that Travelpod does -- it looks, and feels somewhat home built -- but in a positive manner. It's the kind of site where an email to "support" probably goes straight to Ali himself, and I liked that. The community feels like a community -- not a corporation. Touchy feely stuff aside, TravelBlog is fast -- very fast -- and even better, it's especially easy to use.
This ease of use runs throughout the application -- from a sign-up process so simple you could blink and miss it, through to a remarkable ease of posting new and editing existing entries. Sure the interface could do with a bit of a style makeover, but it's unpretentious and it works very well. Hats off to them for the prominent notice asking posters to only add text or photos for which they hold copyright, is in the public domain, or is fair use -- this is something both the Travelpod and Travellerspoint products could do far better.
The posting interface lacks the WYSIWYG finish of Travelpod, relying instead on a form of UBB tags for HTML, perhaps a little confusing for a complete newbie, but anyone with a little message board experience under their belt will get the hang of it quickly. Likewise the image upload is a simple form dialog with the images sorted in a list to the right. You don't seem to be able to share images across posts, so if you want to use one photo on multiple posts you need to upload it a couple of times, which was a bit of an inconvenience, but certainly not insurmountable. More problematic was an image gallery feature, which I simply couldn't figure out how to use.
Their map implementation also uses Google Maps and yet again it is a good, very fast implementation, though it's not as sophisticated as some solutions as each map is displayed independently -- I couldn't find any itinerary linking from place to place.
Sensibly, your blog homepage lists summaries of your latest posts, so no needless clicking and it's simple to navigate. Like Travelpod, Travelblog is advertiser supported, but the Google-supplied adverts are kept to a bare minimum -- refreshingly some pages have no adverts at all. Every post is footed with a notification regarding copyright and usage of the text and images -- well done.
Travelblog is extremely easy to use with more of a ready-to-go home-grown yet well-loved feel to it rather than a slick corporate aura. By the time I'd finished entering my entries and having a bit of a surf around, I left liking Travelblog a lot. It has a quirky yet endearing feel to it and I think if I saw another member blogging away in a cafe I could roll over and make fast friends -- it's that kind of site.
Developed by two brothers since 2002, Travellerspoint boasts some 65,000 members and I'm sure their blogging package will see a lot more coming their way. Time and time again I've spied a feature on their site and thought wow, why didn't I think of doing that? The site is seamlessly integrated and very easy to use and their new blogging service allows their loyal user base to squeeze even more juice out of what was already one very juicy orange.
Travellerspoint has Travelpod's polished finish without its complexity and advert-heavy look, while having TravelBlog's ease of use and friendly feel -- the best of all worlds.
Sign up is easy, posting and editing even easier. If you're already familiar with a blogging tool like Wordpress, then the Travellerspoint blogs are a no-brainer. The text isn't WYSIWYG, instead, it relys on UBB style coding, but it's easy to work out and you can even add in trip maps (put together in a separate application). Also daring to be different, Travellerspoint doesn't use Google Maps but an independent Flash map system -- it wasn't as fast for me as TravelBlog, but was still considerably faster than TravelPod.
Best of all, your blog is far more like a freestanding independent blog rather than a network-style blog -- unless you were looking for it, it's difficult to tell the blog is even associated with Travellerspoint. You can also choose from a number of skins to display the blog as you wish, making it appear even more like a freestanding blog.
Even more best of all, the blogs contain virtually no advertising. There's a small link off to their accommodation booking services, but it's so unobtrusive you could blink and miss it. While that's great, it would have been good to see a more hefty note about copyright infringement in a similar manner to TravelBlog. There is a link to "Blogging best practices" from the main admin page, which does cover the issues, but a more substantial mention would have been good.
I don't mean to sound totally superficial, but the best thing about the Travellerspoint product is just How Good It Looks -- this is one very polished, professional looking package.
The above are just three of hundreds of different blogging tools available, but I really found the Travellerspoint offering to really stand out from the crowd -- an excellent product is almost all aspects. If it doesn't work for you try out Travelblog -- it ain't pretty, but it's fast and works really well. We'd only recommend Travelpod if you opted for the upgraded, advertisement-free solution.
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