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Vagabond Journey is Now Slimmer, Faster, and Easier – Status report, August 2012

Perhaps the biggest developments that has happened to the VagabondJourney.com project since publishing my first blog post back in 2004 have occurred this past month. The site is now just a blog. All of the various sections, the arms and legs of the site have been combined into one, single system. Almost the entire site has [...]

Perhaps the biggest developments that has happened to the VagabondJourney.com project since publishing my first blog post back in 2004 have occurred this past month. The site is now just a blog. All of the various sections, the arms and legs of the site have been combined into one, single system. Almost the entire site has been streamlined and united under a single navigational system. There is now nothing complicated about VagabondJourney.com, and users can now seamlessly navigate the site. It is still a huge mountain of travel information, but it is no longer ungainly and gangly.  It comes as a breath of fresh air for me to be able to sit back and know that I finally have this beast under control.

In 2004 I began blogging. Life was simple, I traveled around the world, took photos, wrote about my experiences and what I learned. The work was fun, I enjoyed it immensely, and decided that I was going to do it for a living. Fast forward three years and I found myself expanding far beyond blogging. I found myself with a huge website with many parts and pieces, sections, different installs, various databases, running various systems concurrently, and expanding at an incredible rate. I found myself on the road to creating an online empire. I sent out little colonies everywhere, but the shear size of the operation eventually led to its demise.

I lost control of my kingdom. It began falling apart right before me. I found that I was devoting hours and hours out of every day to maintenance. It got to the point where I found myself without adequate time to write and create new content as I was spending days and days, hours and hours, simply keeping up and developing what I’ve already created. Something was going very wrong, and I needed to either disolve my empire or it was going to crumble and crush me under its weight.

It is no secret: I’m working on two books now. I’m making the transition to being an author that has a blog rather than a webmaster who writes books. I looked at myself, what I’ve become, and realized that I was no longer a writer but a webmaster. I’m a pretty decent webmaster but I can’t say I enjoy it immensely. I’m a travel geek not a computer geek.

To continue traveling along the path that I was going on I would have needed to hire a full time php coder to take all the heavy lifting off my hands, and that just wasn’t going to happen. So I downsized, streamlined, and exchanged big and gangly for sleek and compact.

I failed to some extent in my web-mastering objective, and I now need to pick up the pieces and combine them into something useful. The site that I built was like a big tree with many branches, but with foliage only growing in sporadic patches. I waited for many years for it to grow balanced and unified, I worked my arse off to these ends, but it just wasn’t growing well. So I pruned it, cut of the dead branches, and gave the project a new start.

I realized that I was far happier when I was just a blogger rather than a webmaster, so I took this past month and simplified everything — I hacked away at the site’s lose ends and got rid of all inessential parts and pieces. I took all of the sites’s quality content and moved it into the blog, and I axed the rest without remorse. I killed Wiki Vagabond, I killed the travel guides, I killed the forum, I merged the family travel blog, the gear site, the books review blog, and travel help into the master site, and I simplified the English version of VagabondJourney.com into one neat, easy to navigate, completely interconnected travel blog.

I’ve returned to the prime directive of life, and it has come with a massive exhillation of relief.

VagabondJourney.com is now two blogs: one in English and one in French. I do the English version, and the Laurent siblings handle the French one.

Life is simple again.

Then I found Alex Brisson

Or, more accurately, Alex Brisson found me — and he came armed with ideas.

A few months back Alex emailed me offering to help with the graphic design for the next issue of Vagabond Explorer magazine, and I, of course, took him up on the offer. Then a couple of months passed, and the project just didn’t get under way. It was my own fault, I found myself too wrapped up in running the website and ticking out the books to take on the colossal task that is VEx. As much as want to put out an issue 2, it probably isn’t going to happen this year.

But I didn’t forget about Alex. I recently asked him if he would like to jump into the VagabondJourney.com project, and he accepted. We started working out some new graphic design and layout strategies, and Alex proved to be much more than a graphic maker: he ended up being exactly what this project needed. Alex is someone with aesthetic sensibility, who knows how to get from point A to point B and look good doing so.

I need a partner, someone that has enough of a sense of what looks good to balance me out. I like ugly things, I truly have no taste. When it comes to food, clothes, and web design I just don’t get it. I’m the kind of person who would take an exquisite French delicacy and pour hot sauce all over it before eating, and I design websites with the same abandonment of the obvious. I’ve needed a partner in this fiasco for a long time to balance out my pragmatism with style, and Alex delivers.

Like I said, he also has ideas. It took him about five minutes to triage VagabondJourney.com. He looked at it, saw what was good, what sucked, what should be sluiced away, and what should be added to the mix — and what is coming out Alex is looking pretty good. I come up with an idea and he gives it life; he makes a suggestion and I follow it.

Alex is also a traveler who gets it, the type who was custom made for the long, long road. He is in Fiji working on his divermaster’s certification, where he has what I’m sure is the slowest internet connection on planet earth.

He also has an amazing mustache.

Alex Brisson was exactly what the Vagabond Journey project has always needed.

Page speed improved

One of the biggest struggles of my career as a webmaster was getting VagabondJourney.com to load quickly. This past month I took it as a mission to complete this objective, and that is what I did. With a lot of research, a cutting away of all non-essential elements, and a little instruction from Alex about how to compress images, we’ve done it. According to Pingdom Tools, VagabondJourney.com is now loading between one and two seconds depending on where in the world it’s being accessed from. That’s fast.

Roxy the illustrator

If you look at the sidebar of this blog you will see the artwork of Roxanne Aubrey Marina. She’s been doing illustration projects for Vagabond Journey for a while now, and I just asked her if she would have any interest in illustrating the book of travel tips that I’m knee deep in now. “TOTALLY interested,” was how she replied, so I guess I have an illustrator for this book — which definitely needs one.

I’m excited now. I’ve been dragging my feet on this book for two years, but the fact that there is now a well laid out path ahead for its completion has provided the impetus to finish it. I’m one lucky guy that I was able to find an illustrator for the amount of compensation that my poor ass can offer (especially one that’s as sensible, talented, and cool as Roxy). Oh yeah, she’s also a traveler.

To check out more of her work go to huppytheanarchist.com/.

The Senior Vagabond is still kicking

Gar Williams, the Senior Vagabond, had not drowned yet. The last we heard from him he was having some big problems with the roof on his house leaking in Mexico. Well, he moved out of that place and into another. Although this new house didn’t leak and had a toilet seat it didn’t have functioning internet, so Gar wasn’t able to beam over to us his excellent tips for post-retirement travel. Well, I just received a report that Gar: he just moved into another house, and this one doesn’t leak, it has a toilet seat, AND internet. So expect more Senior Vagabond transmissions soon.

Welcom Felix

I’d like to welcome Felix Gervais to the Vagabond Journey writing squad. Felix has been all over the world, sometimes traveling the slow road, sometimes tearing across large expanses of terrain. I have no idea where he is right now. The last I heard from him he was in Kiev getting ready to burn through some of the Caucasus countries. He should be back in China soon though, where I will join him for a visit to a thousand foot skyscraper near where he lives in Jiangyin.

Felix has already written one article for Vagabond Journey about traveling to Lake Sailimu in the far northwest of Xinjiang, and we should be prepared for more!

Pierre Laurent’s Moroccan Journey series

A new series by Pierre Laurent will soon appear on VagabondJourney.com. It will document his travels through back country Morocco in videos, images, and stories. I’m really excited about this.

Travels

I’m working on some books now so my travel strategy needed to change to reflect this. In point, almost every person who has ever written a travel book did not do so while traveling. Most “travel writers” research a trip from home for months, take a three or four month journey, return home and spend the next year writing the book. This is not me. I’m a traveler, I’m homeless, I like to stay mobile. Though I have to admit that I’ve found my travel preferences getting in the way of my book writing. I need to compromise.

Perpetual travel is great for blogging — it provides a never ending stream of new observations and experiences — but it’s a spike in the gears of writing a book. Writing a book requires long durations of time doing research, working and reworking passages, setting up interviews, and digging far into the topics at hand. For this reason I’ve had to come up with a new strategy: I now spend two or three days a week traveling and the rest writing.

It seems to work.

For the traveling part of my week I’m 100% focused, I don’t bring along a computer, I don’t get on the internet, I don’t do any webmastering, no blogging. I just take notes, talk with people, and focus on where I am and what I’m doing. For the remainder of the week I’m back in Taizhou busy ticking out blog posts, chipping away at the books, and enjoying the time with my family.

How you can help

There are many simple ways that readers can help VagabondJourney.com, here are a few:

1. Comment, and comment often. Comments are the lifeblood of a blog. Without a discussion, these posts are just articles. Please join in, we want to hear what you have to say.

2. Download the Alexa toolbar in your browser. As stupid as this metric for rating websites is, many advertisers and “blogging community” rely on it for seeing who’s on top and who’s not. When you have the Alexa toolbar installed in your browser each site you go acts like a vote for that site. So each time you visit VagabondJourney.com you will be moving us up in the rankings. This helps us greatly when trying to land advertisers and all that.

As far as practical purposes, I use the rating system as a rough indication of the authority of the sites I visit. If a site is ranked under 100,000 I know it’s big and powerful. This helps me separate the wheat from the chaff of the internet, so to speak.

Get the Alex toolbar.

3. Share on social media. In this phase of web publishing it is absolutely essential to collect a lot of social media shares. I care the most about Google +, as this impacts standings in the SERPs and my “authority” ranking with the Big G. Twitter is also pretty good as well. Facebook? Well, all FB shares are appreciated, but it is a colossal task trying to pull people away from this site. I stand outside the box when I say that I don’t think investing much time marketing to the Facebook crowd is worth it.

Conclusion

VagabondJourney.com started going to the gym, found itself a good personal trainer, a new self-concept, and ended up slimmer, faster, and, yes, easier.

This has probably been the biggest season of change in the history of the Vagabond Journey project. Thanks for bearing with me through this transition. It’s just about complete. and I’ll get back to some old school travel blogging soon.

If you have any suggestions please use the comment form below to let me know.

As always, thanks for reading and for all the support over the years.

Walk Slow,

Wade

Filed under: Vagabond Journey Updates, Website Construction

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 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 3426 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

18 comments… add one

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  • Nathan August 6, 2012, 8:00 am

    Great job Vagabond Journey Team!
    The pages are loading markedly faster and a personal pet peeve of my own has also been eliminated; entries now load within the original page as opposed to a new window.

    Wade, any thoughts on releasing a new VJ t-shirt? Erik gives me hell for wearing the other one too often.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 6, 2012, 9:26 am

      Thanks Nate,

      Hmm . . . a new shirt could be done. I think I’m going to have to get rid of all the old ones first though.

      Link Reply
  • Bob L August 6, 2012, 8:25 am

    Nice job, looks great. I like the simplified menu along teh top and the simple look. One thing that “might” make it better is to put a menu, drop down or otherwise, that has some of the more major subjects, such as travel with family, cheap travel, etc.

    What happened to the “donate here” button? Maybe not many were donating?

    The Features area looks really nice, makes it easy to pick something interesting, which would then lead someone to wander elsewhere on the site.

    Keep up the good work.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 6, 2012, 9:45 am

      Thanks Bob,

      There is a donate button on the homepage, but I have to admit that donations have decreased greatly. Funny, a year or two ago we were making nearly $200 per month from reader contributions. Now that the site doesn’t look so crappy maybe people think I’m not as derelict haha. The button also decreased page load speed too, which is the main reason I limited its usage.

      We have a totally new nav bar coming in the next week or so, and we’ll take your suggestions in making it.

      Thanks.

      Link Reply
  • André Vieira August 6, 2012, 10:01 am

    Really good step forward. The site is much more simpler and information isn’t as scattered around as before. And finally the RSS feeds are able to condense everything post which is awesome!

    Thank you.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 6, 2012, 10:59 am

      Thanks Andre,

      Real glad that this move seems to be going in the right direction.

      Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 6, 2012, 8:56 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, Andre,

      It seems as if this moving is going in a good direction. We’ll see where we end up haha. Thanks for reading.

      Link Reply
  • Alex August 6, 2012, 10:29 am

    Thanks for the kind words Wade! Glad to help.

    Nathan, I have ideas for a t-shirt, I just didn’t made my pitch about this to Wade yet…ahem. Well this can come later, we still have work to do, and each time I mail him he must start to become afraid I’m going to ask for more changes! hehe

    You’d be right to be afraid Wade. 😉

    Unfortunate, but I shaved my mustache 2 weeks ago after one year of having it growing. But don’t fret, 15 minutes later I decided to let it grow back.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 6, 2012, 10:40 am

      For sure I’m scared, you’re making me be a webmaster again haha. I couldn’t say that I’ve ever been more pleased doing this work though. It’s really going somewhere. Thanks to you for that.

      Bring on the t-shirt idea . . . well, maybe after we clear off our table a little 🙂 It would be good to get a new design out there to go with the previous one. If you want one just let me know and I’ll have one of our woodblock printed shirts sent to you.

      We’re rooting for the mustache’s return. I shaved my beard a little while back because my wife had never seen my face without it. Well, I don’t think she liked what she saw: she took one look at me and told me to grow it back.

      Link Reply
  • mike crosby August 6, 2012, 11:55 am

    This is cool Wade. Simple is good. I hope to be reading you 20 years from now.

    Went to Alexis and it’s down for “system performance”. Wouldn’t you know it?

    Wade, I also like Gus’s posts too. I’ve never been a traveller, but if I ever do, I’d love to be able to make a guest post on your blog. Perhaps it might be interesting looking at it through fresh scared eyes.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 6, 2012, 8:53 pm

      Excellent, Mike!

      Good to hear from you. Thanks for reading over all these years. Much appreciated. The Alexa thing can be added as an extension to most browsers. This is probably the best way to do it. Thanks. It’s unfortunate that a ranking system that is no where near very good has become the industry standard.

      Link Reply
  • Dave August 7, 2012, 2:00 am

    Congratulations on the new speedy VagabondJourney Wade. It’s certainly loading faster than ever.

    I don’t think it’s ever easy to make huge changes like this.

    One of the finer points in your article is that of the online producer. One can’t really perform the massive role of a successful online website (of high content) alone these days.

    From quality content, to SEO, to social media, to webmaster duties, to publicity, marketing, advertising etc it’s a massive job for one man to accomplish. Add in a life away from the computer, family, shopping, going out and socializing it’s not possible. And that’s not including extracurricular activities like writing a book, traveling or photographing etc.

    It’s better to scale back and focus on a few of these things. Or simply get other people to do them for you. As a hat tip to the previous Vagabond Journey and all it’s branches I think such a mammoth site gave you the resources to now focus on the current task at hand!

    Dave

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 11, 2012, 11:14 pm

      For sure, man, it’s hard to run these shows alone. Even just having someone who is knowledgeable in the ways of modern webmastering that can give advice from time to time is truly needed (and finding these people alone is incredibly rare). This game has gotten many times more complex over the past couple of years, and only the strongest independent webmasters will survive. Like you said, to continue existing we need to be SEO, coding, journalism, photography, design, social media, and PR masters. That’s a complete skill set that very few — if anyone — has alone. Most travel bloggers, especially, focus on one or two of these elements at the expense of the rest.

      I know that I need people like Alex to pull this off a this stage of the game.

      But I have to say that you do a very admirable job balancing everything on your own.

      Link Reply
  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell August 11, 2012, 8:29 am

    Looking good … definitely faster. Was wondering how it was so heavy @ 10 mb – so it was uncompressed images. I would definitely add a few more sections in drop-down menus, as suggested. And as you’re using Thesis still, version 2.0, will surely present more options than present, if it ever released (soon apparently).

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 11, 2012, 10:45 pm

      Thanks! Yeah, I too have always wondered why the homepage was so heavy haha. I had way too much junk on it and, well, the coding was sort of hacky and was always mean to be, well, a temporary fix haha. Yes, those uncompressed photos too didn’t help. Man, I just about cleaned out everything and killed whatever wasn’t thin and fast. Survival of the fittest of webpage code haha. One of the major problems was the third party site traffic system I was using. It turns out that the little button would take whole seconds on to load time. Alex helped out a lot too — he was really what I needed here.

      Yeah, I’m looking forward to Thesis 2.0, for sure. They are talking a big game about it, so hopefully it will live up to it. Thanks.

      Link Reply
  • Nancie August 11, 2012, 11:39 pm

    Hi Wade,

    This is my first visit to your site, so I have no idea what the old one looked like. I’m going to bookmark you and I will definitely be back. I don’t even mind giving you a Google+ rec, and I hope you’ll do the same for me in return 🙂 Happy Blogging!

    Link Reply
  • Jack August 20, 2012, 1:44 am

    I really like the new layout and having everything on the front page. There is only one thing missing and that is there is no way to scroll to older entries from the front page a la http://www.vagabondjourney.com/page/2 and so on. Just need to add it to your template and you are golden. The code should be this:
    in your index.php template file but I’m not one hundred percent sure.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 20, 2012, 2:23 am

      Thanks Jack,

      Your code got cut out, but I’m on it. Yes, our pagination code is not currently working properly on the homepage, but it’s a quick fix. It’s down there on my coding to-do list somewhere 🙂

      Link Reply