Engagement, Metrics and How Blogs Change

I’ve been focusing the last several months on engagement. In particular, social media engagement. For the purposes of this discussion, “engagement” is just making a countable, one click action to share or show approval with a piece of content. In particular, in this post I’ll be talking about engagement with posts on my travel blog.

I’ve been tinkering with variables such as post timing, formatting and other factors. I’ve only focusing on boosting engagement on my content, not for content that isn’t my own. In particular, images with quotes on them which always seem to do well on Facebook. (I played around with that over a year ago, but gave up on it as I thought it wasn’t really authentic and it was sort of cheap. If they aren’t liking my images or words, I am not really interested.)

One of the metrics I’ve been informally following is daily gross engagement (DGE). That is a fancy term I made that means I’m just looking at the total of all countable social media engagements on my blog. Because I post an image every day, it is actually pretty easy to see how each day is doing.

What I do is count up the total number of Google +1’s, Facebook Likes, Twitter Retweets, and Pinterest Pins. I don’t count StumbleUpon or Reddit as they tend to be very feast or famine and I don’t count LinkedIn because I have a consumer focused site and I’ve never gotten any traction on that platform. I also don’t track Instagram as that isn’t really linked to the website.

To give you an idea, here are some of the DGE numbers from my daily photos from the last week. These numbers are never final, as people can always continue to engage with those pages, but well over 95% of the engagement on most posts will take place in the first 24 hours.

Photo Date Google+ Facebook Twitter Pinterest DGE
February 1 93 217 38 88 436
January 31 125 136 23 8 292
January 30 87 79 10 1 177
January 29 112 76 6 20 214
January 28 72 90 13 1 176
January 27 86 90 26 2 204
January 26 108 241 29 12 390
Average 269

This isn’t intended to be the final word in metrics. In fact, it really isn’t much more than a back of the envelope calculation to see how posts are performing over time. Nonetheless, it is helpful and does provide some insight.

Just doing a cursory look at how the same days performed in 2013, I know that I’m getting, on average, well over 200 points of engagement more per post in 2014! I haven’t done a hard look, but it appears to be about a 4-6x increase. That’s not too shabby.

Google+, Facebook and Pinterest are both up dramatically for me. Twitter is actually slightly down. I have two theories as to why Twitter engagement is down:

  1. Twitter is just getting more noisy and people don’t catch as much as they used to.
  2. I’m finding more and more people are now clicking “favorite” instead of “retweet” on Twitter. Easily half of the engagement on Twitter I’m getting is from favorites, but that doesn’t show up in the button on the page. This is a shift I’ve noticed over time where people used to never use the favorite feature, where as now it has become quite common.

The main reason for the increase it that engagement is something that is on my radar now. 7 years ago when I started blogging, these things didn’t even exist. 12 months ago I didn’t pay attention. Now I do pay attention and you see the results.

Things change. The advice you get a year ago might not be valid today. You have to keep your ear to the ground and constantly experiment and get feedback. I’m sure in 2015 things will be totally different again.


Tools I Use to Manage My Travel Blog

I am often asked what software I use to keep my site up and running. Here is a someone complete list of everything, and the reason behind why I chose it.

I actually put very little effort into website maintenance anymore. It really isn’t necessary. I have a set up that is relatively secure and stable with reasonable performance. I only monkey around with it about once every six months, and today was one of those days. I figured it would be a good time to list everything I use.

Blogging Software

I use WordPress and I’m not sure there is really a close second. You can use sites like Blogger and Tumblr, but you are really limited with what you can do. If you take your blog even semi-serious, you should be on a self-hosted WordPress installation.

Web Host

Last year I moved to Websynthesis and I couldn’t be happier. Websynthesis only does WordPress hosting. That’s it. That means everything they do is optimized around WordPress. They’ve locked down everything that is a potential opening for hackers. The databases and webservers are all optimized for serving up WordPress. Since I moved, I can’t recall a moment of downtime. The site is also significantly faster. They work on a system wide level with Sucuri to check for malicious software.

There are other WordPress only hosting sites that I have also heard good things about. I highly recommend getting away from the Hostgators of the world and move to a dedicated WordPress hosting company. You pay more, but it is worth it.

DNS Hosting

Many people ignore the hosting of their DNS and just let their registrar handle it. I’ve moved all my DNS hosting to Cloudflare and I haven’t regretted it. Cloudflare has both a security component to filter out attacks and a content delivery network component as well. That means your site will be more secure and perform better. The best part is, it’s free. There is no excuse to not use Cloudflare.

Image Hosting

I’ve been hosting my photos for years on Smugmug. With them I get unlimited storage and bandwidth for my images. I host ALL my images on Smugmug, including all the small little images that are part of my WordPress theme. I have moved literally everything I can to SmugMug. With Smugmug I can use my own domain< for my photo hosting, so everything is kept under the same umbrella as my site. While I use other services for my RAW files, Smugmug also serves as a way to backup your travel photos.

I always recommend to bloggers to move your images off your webserver. The biggest bottleneck for most servers isn’t bandwidth or storage, it is the processor. By removing everything you can off the webserver, you are off loading most of your http requests, which means your webserver has nothing else to do except to serve up web pages.


Akismet This should be installed on 100% of all WordPress installations. It doesn’t stop 100% of comment spam, but it is pretty good.

Align RSS Images I’m fussy about layout. The layout you’d see in an RSS reader always looked different from what you’d see on the blog. This helps solve that problem.

Digg Digg This manages the floating bar of social media buttons you see on every page (except the home page). After I installed this, I saw a significant uptick in sharing.

FeedBurner FeedSmith This has been around forever. Google may have killed Reader, but they seem content to let Feedburner just limp along. This should also be installed on every blog that uses Feedburner.

FourSquare Localizer This was a custom plug-in written for me by my friend Jason. It takes my last check-in on Forusquare and puts it at the top of my blog under the “Gary is currently in ______” section.

Limit Login Attempts A simple little plugin that can help prevent against brute force login attacks.

Optimize Database after Deleting Revisions A tool that will remove old versions of posts and optimize your WordPress database. I only have to run it a few times a year.

Outbrain All those related post thumbnails at the bottom of my page. I’m not thrilled with Outbrain, so I might move to something else this year.

Page Link Manager This is a simple plug-in that just lets me select which pages get displayed in my navigation bar.

Page Links To This is another small plug-in that lets me redirect to a different site as if it were a page in WordPress. I basically just use this to put my photo hosting site in my navigation menu.

Sucuri Security I was hacked several years ago and have since signed up for the Sucuri service. The plug-in will do an audit telling you what you can fix on your site to improve security. I’m signed up for the service through 2014, but after that I’m going to cancel it as it is bundled into my web hosting service.

Use Google Libraries This is a little-known service which Google offers that more people should take advantage of. Google keeps many common javascript files on their servers all over the world. This plug-in just tells users to grab the files from Google, rather than off your own webserver. Again, like photo hosting, it is a form of poor man’s load balancing.

W3 Total Cache Another must for every blog, this plug-in works well with Websynthesis and can dramatically improve performance.

WordPress Backup to Dropbox How do I handle my backups? I just have this plug-in back everything up to Dropbox every day. I never have to worry about it. Websynthesis also offers a backup service as well, but this is much easier to deal with.

WordPress SEO Created by Yoast, this will let you set several site wide preferences. It will also manage your sitemap files and can provide special inserts into your RSS feed.

wp-dropcaps This is just a simple app that lets me add drop caps to posts. I don’t use it all the time, but it is a nice feature I wish they integrated directly into WordPress.


My 2014 State of Social Media

Social media is always changing and you have to be able to adapt to the changes. What worked last year might not work this year and something new is always on the horizon.

When I began my blog in 2006, Facebook and Twitter existed, but they weren’t that big of a deal. I actually put quite a bit of effort into my MySpace page when I began traveling in 2007, which seems silly now, but at the time it made perfect sense.

Here is what I’m currently finding with the various social media channels I use, how effective they are and where I plan to put my efforts in 2014.

I put a lot of effort into Twitter several years ago. I haven’t really cared about it in a long time. I think too many bloggers, PR firms and companies put way too much emphasis on Twitter. It is the least effective platform for me now in terms of engagement (retweets and favorites).

Twitter’s problem is that it is so ephemeral, that if you don’t happen to be looking at the screen when someone tweets something, you’ll miss it. It is almost the opposite of the problem which Facebook has (see below).

It is very effective as a chat room and if I want to talk to other bloggers, Twitter is the best way to do it. If I have an off hand comment, I’ll put it on twitter, because I really don’t worry about timing or the number of posts I make.

I’m still amazed at how much stock people put into things like Twitter hashtags, when the action is all happening on other platforms. Many sites like Klout use Twitter as the default platform for determining someone’s social media ‘status’, and it really shouldn’t be that way.

One thing I have been doing lately is embedding more images into my tweets. This has improved engagement levels, but it is still well below other platforms.

One side note, there was a change during 2013. Now most of my engagement on Twitter is in the form of people favoriting my tweets, not in the form of retweets. Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up on most counter stats, so it tends to be hidden from most people. Nonetheless, favoriting is becoming more and more popular on Twitter.

One of my biggest uses of Twitter today is as a recruiting tool for Instagram.

I get far, FAR more engagement on Facebook than on any other platform. It isn’t even close really. Recent changes to the algorithm Facebook uses to show user content sucks, but you pretty much have to suck it up and deal with it because everyone is on Facebook.

The last 2 years I’ve invested in some ads for my Facebook page. I’m not going to do that in 2014. At least not like I have in the past. A side effect of Facebook limiting what people see is that there is very little incentive to grow a Facebook audience anymore, because you’ll never be able to reach most of the people in your audience.

That being said, I do occasionally boost a post on Facebook. I’ll do it anywhere from 1 to 4 times a month with a budget of $5 to $25 per post. It can make an enormous difference, especially if people start sharing the content. It can often set a spark to turn something quasi-viral.

I’ll only do it for links to my site, and only for content I think is especially good. There is a hard limit to what I’m willing to spend, but small boosts, used strategically, can be well worth it.

Goole+ is now my biggest audience in terms of raw numbers, but it doesn’t have the engagement that Facebook has. This may slowly change over time as Google is clearly not giving up on this. The key to posting anything on Google+ is images. Photos are the key to success on Google+. If you just post a URL, it will perform worse than Facebook. If I post a URL, I always post an image with it. I don’t expect a ton of discussion or debate on this platform.

I paid almost no attention to Pinterest until last year. With the launch of their new mapping feature, which really works well for travel, I’ve seen over a 10x increase in my following on Pinterest in the last 3 months. I’ve gone from 2,500 to 25,000 followers in that time. Things have slowed down since the launch of the mapping feature, but I am still seeing growth. How things perform on Pinterest is still hit and miss and I am still figuring it out. Some images will get over 100 pins and some get almost none.

On a per follower basis, Instagram beats Facebook for engagement. While this is my smallest platform in terms of followers, it has been growing rapidly and steadily the last few months. Moreover, engagement has been going up as well. Here is a graph I got from

The red bars reflect total engagement, which is often just a reflection of how much you post. The brown line shows engagement per post, which just keeps going up. It is almost at 200, which is on a par with images I post on Facebook.

It seems that ever week or two I’m placed on a new list of Instagram people to follow and I’m seeing constant spikes in followers.


Because I run a consumer focused site, I don’t really bother too much with LinkedIn. I use it as a business tool and a glorified rolodex. I don’t even think of it as a marketing platform.

If each social platform were a stock, here is how I’d rate them:

BUY Instagram and Pinterest
HOLD Facebook and Google+
SELL Twitter

The biggest single social media takeaway from 2013 was that photography really works well across the board. Even on Twitter, photos perform better than non-photo tweets. If you are a travel blogger, put some time into improving your photography. Even if you aren’t a travel blogger, find ways to integrate images into what you do. Original, non-stock images.


Back Into Startup Mode

Last May I announced that I was going to be changing how I travel. I had hit a point where I wasn’t able to continue at the pace I was going.

However, before I could implement the new plan I had one thing I had to finish: my Lesser Antilles trip. This had been in the works for months and I didn’t want to move into my new travel mode before finishing the trip.

As I write this on the island of Grenada, the Caribbean trip is near completion. Tomorrow I’ll be on Trinidad which is my final stop. I’ve almost been viewing my arrival in Trinidad as a finish line of sorts. Once I finish with my Trinidad visit, I can start a new chapter.

I know this blog tends to be visited by other bloggers and industry people, so I wanted to go into some more detail about what I’m going to be doing and what my plan is going forward. I haven’t fleshed everything out yet, this isn’t necessarily set in stone.

Before I do that, I have to explain what the fundamental problems are that I’ve been facing.

I love to travel. That isn’t just a cliche I’m tossing out because it sounds good from a marketing perspective. I got into this to travel, not so I could become a ‘blogger’. If I had to choose between traveling and running a website, I’d hit the delete before the ultimatum was over.

As the blog has become more successful, however, and the travel industry has become more accepting of bloggers the opportunity for travel has exploded.

I’m like an alcoholic at a bar where everyone is buying him free drinks. I’m able to indulge in my passion without almost any restraints. On one hand it is wonderful. However, it does have its drawbacks.

As early as 2009 I pointed out the problems with traveling and creating content. You can’t be running around the world while putting out high quality articles and photography.

At first I thought that for ever 2 days traveling I would need 1 day to work. Later I moved that ratio out of 1 day of work for every 1 day of travel. Having spent more time around successful travel writers and photographers I realized that, that ratio still is out of whack.

Observations I’ve made

  • I don’t need to be moving constantly. Rick Steves claims to travel in Europe for 3 months every year. Most travel writers only seem to travel about 4-6 weeks each year. Some travel much (much) less. I know a few that barely travel at all. They write stories from press releases and online research.
  • Traveling means missed opportunities. I’ve spent many nights sitting in hotels around the world watching other travel media professionals getting far more opportunities because they live in New York or London. The ability to professionally network is basically non-existent while you are on the road. For many things within the industry, your travel resume is really irrelevant. (I think it matters to readers, but that’s another issue.)
  • Constant travel means letting things slide. The current WordPress theme I’m using is now 4 years old. When I had it commissioned it was sort of cutting edge. Now it has become a frankenstein of code cobbled together over the years. I haven’t had time to devote to upgrading my site, so the old one just limps along. I have a project I’ve been wanting to do for years that involves tagging and putting captions on my photos. I have yet to do it. I wont even mention my book which which is now over 3 years in the making.
  • You can’t write much when you are constantly moving. Yesterday I had a 6am flight, which means I had to be up at 4am. My flight was then delayed for 2 hours during the layover. By the time I arrived in my hotel it was 1pm and I hadn’t eaten. By the time I addressed all my emails and social media for the day, I was tired and it was already late. I didn’t have anything in me to write something meaningful. Writing is a habit. If you stop doing it, it becomes harder to start. One of the reasons I’m writing the article you are reading is just so I can type something to get things going. I’ve probably written less than 10 meaningful articles on my blog this year.

When I was growing my site I would spend several weeks in one spot and just work. I spent over a month in Saigon in 2008. I spent 3 months in Thailand in 2010. I wrote guest posts and was active being everywhere online.

I rarely do that anymore.

I can’t remember the last guest post I’ve written. I seldom read other blogs and leave comments anymore. I have contacts and the ability to do freelancing for major travel outlets and I haven’t taken advantage of a single opportunity.

My traveling has been the fundamental stumbling block in growing my travel website. (The irony is not lost on me.)

Coming to grips with the idea of traveling less has been difficult. I’ve come to accept that this is a lifetime process and that I don’t have to do everything NOW. I also have come to realize that my travel resume is as good as it will probably ever need to get for whatever professional purposes I’ll ever need.

I’ve also had lots of time to think about where I need to be going in the future. I’ve had a lot of thoughts on the future of what I’m going to do and the future of blogging. Right now I’m at a point where I’m willing to hit the reset button and totally start from scratch if necessary. Here is some of what I’m thinking:

  • How important is having a blog? Robert Scoble has made 1 blog post from February to August of 2013. He doesn’t bother actually posting things to his blog because it is so much easier to post to Facebook, Twitter and Google+. I’ve been posting far more in social media outlets than I have on my own website. Does it really matter where you post so long as people are reading it? I’m aware of the advantages of owning your own platform, but it is also true that you have to go where the people are. I’m not saying I’m giving up my blog, but I am saying I am willing to rethink things. I’m going to experiment with treating each social media platform as its own end for the next several months, not just a means of generating traffic for my blog. This will mean less traffic but more engagement. I’m considering even reposting entire blog posts on Google+ and Facebook. I’ll see what the results are in a few months.
  • More video. Since before I even began traveling full time I’ve had friends tell me I should be doing video. I’m naturally more comfortable talking than I am writing. I’ve been doing competitive public speaking since I was a sophomore in high school and it is my strong suit. I have given the problem of travel video a great deal of serious thought. Cable television has totally dropped the ball in terms of travel and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. I’ve paid close attention to Anthony Bourdain’s move to CNN and the reason’s behind it. The reason the Travel Channel let their top star go is because of the cost of production. From what I understand, Bourdain travels with a crew of 8 people, which isn’t cheap. I think it could be done with 3 and with much cheaper gear. You can’t do video half assed, however. You have to do it whole assed. There are many reasons to do video and many problems that will have to be overcome. I have a clear idea of what I want to do in my head, but implementing will take some help.
  • Focus. What should Everything Everywhere be about? Honestly, I don’t care about most things ‘travel’ related. I don’t care about hotels, airlines, frequent flier points, travel hacking, top 10 lists, guides or tips. I don’t want to get into the business of writing guides for destinations. All of those things address the how of travel (which is important), but miss the much larger question of why. National Geographic is technically not a travel magazine, but it has probably launched more trips than every other travel magazined combined. That is because if focuses on the why, not the how. Culture, nature, and history couples with great photography are the drive inspiration to travel to other places. I have never been satisfied where my blog was at in terms of focus. I’d be willing to sacrifice traffic to bring in a more intelligent reader who is curious about the world, not just someone who is looking to save a buck on a hotel room.
  • More people. I’ve considered turning Everything Everywhere into a multi author blog. This would be a radical change, but I would still keep my personal stamp on the site. I’ve thought of many different ways this could work. One option would be to recruit other travelers and organize expeditions around the world they would go on. Get a small team of explorers and send them to the four corners of the world. I have built enough contacts and a brand that I could bring in talented people have get them up to speed quickly. More people means a smaller work load for each and they can focus on doing more in-depth work. Another option would be to get a small team to curate culture, nature, science and history related news. The two options are not mutually exclusive. In either case, the site would expand to more voices beyond just mine, but still keeping a focus on photography and the ‘why’ of travel.
  • Freelancing. I don’t think freelancing is a good business model either. You can make a living at it, but it is difficult and you will never really hit a home run doing it. However, I you can have more success if you have something to promote, be it a book, blog or something else. I have a lot of opportunities to freelance, so it is just matter of picking the right opportunities. I still see little point in writing in print as it doesn’t provide any ancillary benefit beyond the check you get. People can’t click and Google can’t index it. I’d write for online first and if someone wants to put it in print, so be it.

I’m sure plans will change, but once this trip is over, I’m back open for business.


Thoughts on TBEX 2013

With a bit of time to digest everything, here are some random thoughts on this year’s TBEX conference in Toronto. I’ve been to every TBEX except for the event in Copenhagen, so I have something to compare it to.

  • TBEX is all grown up. 1,300 people is a lot. The feel of the conference has definitely changed. Even last year in Colorado I could still at least say hello to most of the people I knew. This year there were many people who I know attended but I never once saw. This is just the new reality and is something everyone is going to have to live with. The number of people who want to be travel bloggers is swelling and I see the growth rates continuing for at least several years. How big can TBEX get? There are other blogging conferences which get 3,000-5,000 attendees, so I think that would be the upper limit. I don’t, however, think that travel blogging will be a popular as parenting blogs, so I think 2,000-2,500 might be the max. If it goes beyond that it will be because the conference evolves beyond blogging into a general new media conference for the travel industry.
  • Increasing Pressure for Quality. There were 45 slots in the writing workshops and a waiting list of 91! There is clearly a demand for this level of education for writing (and to a lesser extent photography and videography). I would not be shocked if next year the writing workshops go a full day and have even more instructors to fill the demand. I could easily see 150 people attending the sessions. The preBEX workshops could very well become their own thing independent of the main conference.
  • Many businesses are still clueless. A common thread I heard from bloggers is that a lot of businesses they spoke to still don’t know why they were there or what they want to do with bloggers. They were pretty open about admitting that they had no clue what they were doing. Everyone feels like they should do something, but they don’t know what. A few companies have figured it out (or at least have figured something out), but it is still a mystery to most companies.
  • People expect too much from sessions. I never go to a conference expecting to learn anything. Anything you need to know can be better learned online. 50 minutes listening to someone with a PowerPoint presentation isn’t an optimal learning environment. You should hope to come out of a conference with ideas. The seed of something you didn’t think about before that you can expand after the conference is over. Most probably, you will get these ideas from talking to people in the hallways, which is the real value of any conference. That is the real danger of having such large conferences. The hallway time you spend talking to people get diluted and it is hard to find people. The parties this year were just so big, I couldn’t have as many meaningful conversations as I have had in the past.
  • Have smaller events. Rather than one massive party each night, 2 or 3 smaller ones might be better. Last year they had breakfasts for bloggers in various niches to meet and talk. That was absent this year. It would be nice if they brought that back.
  • I have no idea how productive this year was. I had 2 meetings all weekend. My manager Amy’s schedule was full. We talked afterwards and we might have a few things which could pan out business wise, but I won’t know for months. Oddly enough, several organizations who really wanted to talk to me didn’t bother to even notify me before the conference. None have followed up with me as of yet.
  • Supply is still greater than demand for press trips. A sobering thought, but the reason why so many people are starting blogs to get free trips is because people are giving free trips to almost anyone. I’ve been amazed at some of the bloggers I’ve seen some PR companies and DMO’s sending on trips, but they don’t seem to care. Right now we are in a phase where just having “blog” attached to you is enough to get people excited. PR clients want to do “blogger trips” without really caring who the bloggers are. I’m not sure if this is a fad, or just the modern day equivalent of hack writers going on press trips, which has been happening for decades. The truth is, there are still more hotels and destinations than there are bloggers. So long as there are budgets, you probably wont see the end of this. I’ve noticed more veteran bloggers cutting back on sponsored travel because the trips are often not that fun and are tiring. That means more opportunities for newbies.
  • New sessions for next year. I would like to see a session on how to pitch stories to traditional media. I would also like to see a session (or track) dedicated to traditional media people who are getting into blogging. Both would be useful and welcome.

While TBEX has changed, it is still the #1 conference on my schedule each year. It is the only place I can meet people like myself and companies who are looking to meet people like me. That alone makes it worth the trip.