National Geographic Traveler
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January/February 2007
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Blogs: The Caveat
Text by Christopher Elliott   
Photo by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

Photo: Amsterdam boat
Bloggers took free trips to Amsterdam in exchange for positive write-ups. 

They're changing the way travelers get information. Just take them with a grain of salt.

an you trust your travel blog? With millions of weblogs now being published online (some estimates put them at 30 million)—and many of them about travel—it's a question worth asking. The answer: Not always. 

Some travel blogs are now published by people who are paid by companies to post favorable reviews—a fact that isn't always disclosed on the sites. Other bloggers agree to post a positive write-up in exchange for free airfare, hotel rooms, and meals. (National Geographic Traveler's own blog makes no such quid-pro-quo deals and adheres to the same journalistic standards as the magazine.) 

"Bloggers don't have a standardized set of ethics," says blogging expert Alexander Halavais of Quinnipiac University. "You might trust something you read in a magazine because you have faith in the news organization. But when it comes to blogs, the trust is often tied up with the person." As a result, you may be accepting tainted advice from your favorite blog without even knowing it. 

For example, the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions in 2006 sponsored a trip to Amsterdam for 25 bloggers, which covered airfare, hotel, and admission to city attractions. In exchange, the bloggers agreed to publish a "Bloggers in Amsterdam" logo on their sites and be interviewed about the trip. "I stayed at the Lloyd Hotel and loved it!" gushed one blogger in an interview published online after the trip, adding, "All the food was great." 

In 2005, Visit Milwaukee paid a blogger for a year's worth of high-speed Internet access, bought her a $1,700 laptop computer, and offered free admission to some city attractions in exchange for publishing a blog about Milwaukee called "Play in the City." "We view this as a minimal incentive, when you consider the volume of writing she is doing," says David Fantle, a spokesman for Visit Milwaukee. The results were so promising that Visit Milwaukee renewed her contract in 2006 and launched another sponsored blog called "Taste of the Town." 

One of the most high-profile examples of a sponsored blog is the state of Pennsylvania's "Roadtripper" project, which followed the journeys of "real people" exploring the state in 2005. The write-ups were posted on the website, although the six blogs did not clearly disclose the fact that each pair of travelers was paid a stipend ($1,000 per trip, and each pair took three trips) to write about Pennsylvania.

The outcome was impressive. "The Pennsylvania Tourism Office and its partners were able to present information in a way that resulted in an overwhelming majority of mentions being neutral or positive and containing specific position statements such as 'innovative' or 'fun,'" says Carrie Fisher, a spokeswoman for the state tourism office. The blogs are now widely hailed in the public relations industry as an example of a destination using blogging to attract visitors. 

Persuading a blogger to write favorably about a destination isn't difficult. "If you manage a business that is able to accommodate me for free in return for a free, in-depth review, please get in touch," A Luxury Travel Blog offers on its site. The resulting reviews are fawning. One of an Italian hotel that apparently agreed to the arrangement concludes, "if you're in Bellagio, there's really only one place to stay: the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni." 

Advertisers are equally up-front about their intentions. A company called pays bloggers for "approved" blog entries that mention a product. Among the recent bids was an offer to pay $10 for a 300-word post that plugs a Hawaii vacation site. 

Is this kind of blogging payola hurting anyone? Some bloggers insist it doesn't—that few, if any, readers complain about their free sites, let alone gripe about their arrangements with sponsors. Steve Broback, publisher of the business travel blog, notes, "There is a line of thinking I tend to adhere to: Bloggers aren't necessarily journalists. We write about our experiences, and it follows that a blog may not meet journalistic standards." 

In an era of product placements, where advertisers can buy their way into movies and TV morning shows, sponsored blogs are only going to increase. The consumer's best defense is to take a skeptic's view of blogs (and other media, for that matter). Don't base big decisions on one piece of advice. Be your own reporter and check out other sources. Your next vacation may depend on it.

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