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Digital Nomad: Using Google Surveys to Adapt and Survive as an Independent Travel Publisher

The game has changed, you either adapt and survive or go home.

When I first began publishing on the internet full time in 2005 it was still a Wild West kind of environment, there was an excitement that resonated throughout the industry. People who simply had something to say were provided with a platform where they could say it AND make a decent living. For those of us writing about travel, we could move through the world, publish our stories and photos, and — if we tried hard enough — could make money. Some of us once made very good money.

I can remember the buzz that we all felt about the future. We’d look at our growth charts, track how our traffic and revenue were continuously rising, and plot a course for the future. Things were looking pretty good, we thought that what we were experiencing would just continue, and it seemed like blogging was becoming an adequate career choice.

We didn’t see what was coming next: in early 2011 the bottom fell out. The very field that we were playing on was flipped upside down. The fat “Garden of Eden” days of independent publishing were over, and we were all plunked off the beaches of paradise and thrown into a barrel with millions of other hungry crabs. Where there was once more than enough food for everyone, we were now clawing at each other for scraps. Most died — they went out of business, took down their sites, and were forgotten. It was an all out massacre.

The herd was thinned.

Almost all of the professional travel bloggers who were around when I first started are gone now. The ones who survived did so beyond all sense and reason, and pretty much only made it because they were too stubborn to admit defeat. While it is still possible today to make a living blogging — I’m still here — it’s 10X more difficult, the earning potential is 10X less, and the barrier to entry is 10X higher. The Wild West days of the internet are over, major changes have been made, and those who’ve survived needed to adapt.

Beyond the new politics of web traffic — a conversation for another day — one of the biggest changes is that advertising alone quickly lost its viability as being the sole way for content-based sites to fill the coffers. And one of the major adaptions that sites made is requiring users to contribute. If you want to consume the media we put our time, effort, and money into making, you need to give something back. This often took the form of paywalls.

At the end of last year, Bloomberg Businessweek declared that 2014 would be the year of the paywall, and they were pretty much correct. The internet is no longer an open sea that can be navigated from link to link, site to site at will. It is now a network of toll gates. The paywall experiment has so far worked, and more and more sites are erecting them. The NY Times now gets more money from readers than it does from advertisers — the traditional ratio was always 80/20 in favor of the latter.

The free internet is a thing of the past.

In this fray I know that Vagabond Journey again needs to adapt. We again pay some of our most frequently contributing writers, so we now need to do more than barely get by. We need to grow. We need to hire more writers in more places. We need to produce more content and higher quality content. This is the era of the super-blog, you go big and offer readers a wide variety of content that they can’t get anywhere else daily or you go home.

At various points over the past few years I’ve discussed the financial barriers that this site faces, and many readers have suggested that I conform and put up paywalls around premium content like big media does. I won’t do this; I can’t do this. First of all, I don’t think it will work. Secondly, we want our best work seen and shared, obscuring it trumps the very reason we create it in the first place. Beyond that, the internet was called “the web” for a reason, and that was because it was an all encompassing, inter-connected network of pages. Paywalls snip the internet into isolated pieces, leaving it a shattered, disconnected clump of frayed strands. I will retire Vagabond Journey before I put up a paywall.

Though we do need readers to contribute.

I’ve been looking for a way that readers could help Vagabond Journey grow financially for some years now without charging, but it was only last week that a reasonable solution revealed itself: Google took their surveys program out of beta, it is now open to a wider range of publishers. So rather than charging readers money, we could request a few moments of their time every few days or so. For each survey that is completed we are paid a small sum of money. I ran the numbers on how much this system could make us, and it is seriously the difference between being able to expand and staying stagnant.

If this works out you can expect to see immediate growth: i.e. more writers reporting from more places.

Filed under: Digital Nomad

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

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