Is the web doomed to become a cesspool of mediocre content? I often wonder.

Here's a guest post from Matthew Barker who runs Hit Riddle an online travel marketing business. He has a solution. Do you think it will work?


As a some time travel writer, editor and marketing consultant, I find myself in the weird no man’s land between content creators, publishers and travel brands, from where I glean insights from all sides and do my best to empathise with each perspective.

It seems to me that one of our biggest collective challenges is the signal-to-noise problem; that the sheer volume of digital travel content has overwhelmed our ability to filter through the deluge and find the great travel journalism that certainly exists out there.

There are many contributing factors to the ‘churn it out’ school of digital content creation, but the net effect is very damaging. It distorts the economic model (and livelihoods) of creating “quality content,” it provides an incentive for cheap, thin and superficial space filler and click bait, and it erodes audience faith, loyalty and interaction. It is often, as has been pointed out here before, just a bit crap.

Our collective response to the deluge has been to surrender many of the old ways of organising, quantifying and valuing all this content. We can’t keep up so we have abdicated responsibility to the algorithms of search engines and social media.

But the idea that an algorithm is an adequate substitute for human editing and publishing is nonsense, despite all the protestations made by Google on its never ending quest for “quality” search results.

Search and social media algorithms are gamed or at least manipulated (I know because I do it for a living). They tend to reflect and reinforce their users’ existing interests and familiar sources of information rather than expose them to new or challenging perspectives. They frequently resemble popularity contests that serve the established publishers and bloggers best - with very little room for smaller and lesser-known entities to break in.

Surely there must be a better solution to the signal-to-noise problem?

I believe there is, and I think that by combining the most useful aspects of mass community participation with a robust algorithm and – crucially – muscular and proactive human editorial oversight, it is possible to cut through the deluge and begin to curate a stream of demonstrably great quality travel content.

This is the ambitious challenge that we have set ourselves with the OutBounding.org project, currently in public beta at http://beta.outbounding.org. We have partnered with the team behind the hugely successful Inbound.org (comprising Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz and Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot, among many other talented individuals) to create a platform that does exactly this.

At first glance the concept seems similar to some other well-known sites. Users submit and upvote content that they consider reliable, high value and inspirational. The more submissions or upvotes a piece of content gets, the further it rises through a leaderboard, which can then be filtered into categories and locations. An algorithm factors in things like weighting against repeated self-submissions and time decay to produce a continually evolving list of the most influential travel content on the web, as selected by the vast community of content creators, publishers and our audiences.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘So far, so Digg’.

The critical difference is that sitting on top of this mass, open participation is a team of around 20 dedicated editor-moderators, all professional travel journalists or bloggers, whose job it is to monitor the stream with a stringent set of editorial criteria.

We filter out the bad stuff (spam, weak content from popular publishers, etc) and we promote the great content that deserves extra attention, typically from lesser-known authors and publishers.

We believe that this filtering process can produce what countless travel brands, publishers, editors and consumers all want and need: the definitive source of the best travel content on the web.

But our ambitions don’t stop there. We want to then distribute this great content as widely as possible.

Our platform produces feeds and embeddable widgets that can be integrated with third party websites, publishers and platforms - pretty much anyone who has a need for well-curated travel content. Eventually our feeds and widgets will feature on sites and platforms across the web, including in our own digital magazines and publications, and through regular emails to our subscribers.

In each case our feeds link exclusively to the source site, sending new audiences directly to the original publication.

We believe that our solution provides a substantive improvement on all the existing methods of content curation and discovery. It allows the community to self-curate the very best of our own output while re-establishing the value of human editorial oversight in a transparent and open way.

Furthermore we think that by connecting the curation process with a new distribution mechanism we can contribute something of great value to the community of travel content creators, publishers and our audiences. A mutual asset that rewards and promotes reliable, useful and inspirational travel journalism over the dross that has been promoted under the reign of search and social media algorithms.

We are busy finalising a number of features before launching our public site in a few weeks. In the meantime we’re inviting anyone with an interest in what we’re doing to pay us a visit, start to share & participate, and help bang the drum.

And if you have any thoughts or comments I’d be happy to answer in the comments here.

17 thoughts on “Can we ever cut through all the crap?

  1. It SOUNDS like a terrific idea. But how do you make it pay off for your team of 20 or so editor-moderators? And how do you stop yourselves being inundated with masses of stuff that has no great value, thus diluting your working efficiency?

    1. Hi Simon, many thanks for your comment.

      Our editors are all volunteers for now but if all goes to plan we'll be able to compensate everyone involved eventually. In the meantime it's a labour of love and we're all just in it for the cause. It's been really encouraging to see how many people take this stuff very seriously and are keen to give up their time to help get it all off the ground.

      We fully expect to be inundated, but we're (perhaps naively?) hoping that most people will respect the community and what we're trying to do. For all those that don't we've got a solid algorithm that helps us filter out the rubbish, remove spammers and the constant vigilance of our editors around the time zones makes sure that it's only good valuable content reaches the top. Well, that's the theory that we're testing during the beta.

      Thanks again for your interest, please do tag along for the ride.


      1. I will certainly be paying attention when I can and applaud your team for working mainly pro bono. It honestly isn't something we could support with our own working model (which means working pretty much 24/7 on our wide variety of travel sources) but if it really does sort out the wheat from the (piles of) chaff (or Chavs!), it will be well worthwhile.

  2. Matt,
    I think that you are demonstrating a heroic step and on that will be difficult at best. My father was in journalism and there are times, whether through TV, Newspapers or blogs that I cringe at the lackluster performance by so many.

    My father would turn over in his grave, if he knew how rotten the majority of the industry has become. I applaud you and your group for endeavoring to change the path and am excited to see your agenda. Please know if there is any way that I can help or volunteer, I am at your disposal. Thank you kindly for taking this on!

    1. Hi Mike,

      Many thanks for the encouragement. Funnily enough my dad is also an (ex) newspaperman which is where I get a lot of my inspiration from.

      We could always use some extra help with the editing/moderating, if you'd like to drop me a note at info@outbounding.org I'd be happy to fill you in.

      Thanks again,
      - Matt

  3. Took a look at outbounding. A couple of things.

    1. Travel blogs desperately need something curated enmasse like this. There's a world of potential there.

    2. First thing that struck me was that there were no categories. Search worked well but categories would help lazy folk like me.

    3. Finally, and perhaps most disappointing was that I came across a sponsored blog post nearly straight away. That's not to say the sponsored post was outboundings, it wasn't. It was a source blog. However from my interpretation of outbounding I would have hoped not to see any form of content that's been sponsored / supplement / junket etc. To me it's just a slippery road to go down. I'd like to see something that's been curated like this void of posts like that.

    Again, this is my take on the site. If that's not the way it's meant to be, then so be it.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for taking the time to check it out.

      There are categories but the system isn't yet finished and there are improvements in the works. We'll have the ability to filter by location and theme/subject very soon. People will be able to filter our feeds with the same categories, accessing content for the specific themes they're interested in.

      We've deliberated long and hard on the issue of content that has been sponsored or otherwise funded by "corporate" interests. We do have a very clear set of editorial criteria that will be published for public view and so far we have decided to allow sponsored content provided it fulfils that criteria. I think in principle this is a reasonable position, I know a lot of great publishers and content that is funded by private travel businesses - is there anything fundamentally wrong with that? I'd be interested to hear other perspectives.

      Cheers Dave, it's good to have your input.
      - Matt

  4. Excellent stuff Matt!

    Popped over for a look and ended up spending a good hour reading some great content. As I'm time poor, I can see that once this kicks off it will be the only place I look for travel content - it's very frustrating sifting through the rubbishy dross on my Facebook news feed.

    I have a suggestion that may or may not be difficult to implement depending on how you manage it...

    One of my clients raised a valid point that she doesn't use written guide books or apps anymore but instead searches for relevant blogs to aid her in travel planning. However if she decides that the writer's mindset differs too far from her own, she'll ignore and look elsewhere.

    This is an intensive process, and a frustrating one.

    Therefore, if you could enable broad categorisation of the blog itself rather than just the posts, it could help browsers filter through stuff that doesn't interest. For example, what's the gender, age group, interest, traveling style, writing style of the blogger?

    Some people want to hear from 50yo mums who like creature comforts. Others want to read from late 20s men who've just graduated from backpacking to a slightly more comfortable style, and write in a chatty tone.

    Both of those may have written about how to enjoy Rome in 48 hours, but each article will be very different.

    Good luck with it!

    1. Hey Andy,

      Glad you found some good stuff in there. Once we've got our distribution channels set up it will become even easier - you'll be able to access our feeds by email, facebook, however you like, or of course just by checking in on the site.

      Many thanks for the suggestion. It's an issue that's on our radar for the mid-term. We'll be introducing a form of "authorship" that connects publishers / authors with their own content through the platform and will allow us to do all sorts of cool things including filtering the content stream by publication(s). Classifying publishers into interest groups would be a really good idea, thanks for the thought.

      - Matt

  5. Have you looked at Medium?


    Problem is my willingness to contribute to any site that relies on crowdsourced material is compromised if I can't immediately understand where the money to maintain it is coming from. For instance, why would I should invest my time in adding value to someone else's business especially when the entirety of that business is based on other people's content? Take Medium - they are hiring staff. But how is it funded? Who owns the content?

    You could argue that as Medium has a substantial following it is good 'exposure'. But if I try and recall the names of authors of posts I've recently read on Medium all I can recall is the site, not the author. The business plan for many social platforms seems to be to build up a following then 'monetise' or sell and sod the goodwill of the community who got them there.

    Is Outbounding simply being run for the public good because you love to share great travel content with people? Or is it intended to be a for-profit site? What is 'the plan' to compensate your editors?

    Let's remember that the algorithms work just fine for most of what I look for on the web simply because these searches are for stuff that no one can make a profit off by gaming the results. Travel is obviously not one of those categories and is plagued with spam.

    1. Hi Mark,

      No I hadn't seen Medium before, but looking at it now it seems very similar to my own personal favourite curation site, http://thebrowser.com/ What I think makes these sites so valuable is the human input in their curation process, which provides a solid basis in good old fashioned subjective editorial judgement.

      That's what we're trying to replicate with our team of editors, while also appreciating that crowdsourcing from the wider community is the best (only?) way of accessing and distilling the full world of travel content in all its diversity.

      OutBounding originated from the desire to fix the signal-noise problem in travel content, not to make money. In all honesty we haven't yet established any business model/plan, but we're well aware that if we're successful then we could have a number of commercial opportunities. We're fortunate that we don't have any urgent commercial pressures and that we can just focus on getting it right. At this stage all I care about is getting the platform working to its full potential and getting the community as engaged as we can.

      There's no prospect of us exploiting and discarding the goodwill and input of the community for two reasons: firstly we all come at this from within the community and from a profound wish to have a positive impact. Secondly (and more practically) because we will always depend on the goodwill and engagement of the community to do what we're trying to do.

      Thanks for your thoughts Mark, I hope to see you on the site.

      - Matt

  6. I had/have similar concerns to Mark. My first reaction - as someone who has seen his share of 'collaboration' projects that sound great in altruistic theory but ultimately just take up more time and offer little or no financial reward - was scepticism.
    But the thing that made me think again was the distribution idea. That's a new (for me anyway). The idea is not so much about creating a site with lots of different people's quality content on it and 'hoping' it will gain traction and deliver traffic. That's part of it, but it's more about creating a network. Distributing the content far more widely than I'd be able to myself. That for me is the innovation and, potentially the money provider. Publishers are beginning to pay for feeds of other relevant content that compliments their sites. (There's buzzword/phrase for this concept and my mind has gone blank... can anyone help!?)
    The stuff the Guardian is doing right now chimes with this too (I think): http://www.guardian.co.uk/open-platform
    Google might think RSS is dead, but I think there's heaps of life left in it.
    I'm not 100% sold on it, (yet) but I do get it now and I'm certainly keen to consider it some more. (Hence the suggestion to Matt that he guest posted about it here!)
    Finding out that Rand Fishkin is also involved added real weight to the concept for me too.

    1. Cheers Jeremy. There are a bunch of things that I think differentiate what we're doing from many of the other 'great ideas' that have littered our industry.

      Firstly, as you say the distribution model could become truly powerful and in a way that is substantively better for publishers than existing social sharing tools like StumbleUpon et al (most travel publishers/bloggers will admit that SU traffic spikes are so fickle as to be almost worthless, we're aiming to send people new *audiences* not just anonymous, brief clicks.)

      Another important point is that the degree of actual engagement required is tiny, and is akin to clicking a Like or Tweet button. It literally takes seconds to submit a piece of content to OutBounding, so we're not expecting people to carve out new time for our project or change their normal behaviour/routine (we'll also be making this even easier in the near future.)

      So I think we're striking the right balance between our expectations/requirements from the community to help us build it up and add the value we need, and the payoff/reward for those that do help us out by sharing top class content.

      But I totally understand why people might be skeptical or even jaded by all the grand ideas and promises that have gone before. I'm hoping that before too long we can let the distribution and new audiences do the talking.

  7. This is something I have a keen interest in, and have wanted for a long time, as someone who straddles the line between blogging and freelance content writing. I reckon you could get people to donate a fiver for every piece they wanted edited, if not from the off then in time. Be interested to discuss it further at some point. I hope to see a lot of really interesting discussion about stuff like this at WTM.

  8. Cheers, Matthew, for giving people who care about quality travel content a platform to find, share and discuss it. I agree with you that the main problems facing those searching for this continue to be the volume of material and the absence of an effective mechanism for evaluating it. My main problem with blogs in general is that they are not really built for curious minds hungry for information that may or may not be available on the internet. With a nod to Walt Whitman, the kind of nonfiction I like to read, whether it's online or in print, is "large and contains multitudes." While it may fit neatly into a category, it's more likely to cross over into several. It may also defy categorization. The travel content I want to read shows how a place or trip transformed a writer. The writer will have invested time in research and critical thinking about the experience. The travel content I want to read will not be about the trip, destination or itinerary as a commodity. It will often focus on in-between places like the ones Bruce Chatwin and Pico Iyer write about. This is also the kind of content I want to share and discuss with others who care about travel as an experience that is only one part of a full life. Travel as a string of FAM tours to touristy destinations does nothing but help fuel escapist and commercial tourism, when what we really need is more global environmental, cultural and political awareness. This is what has driven me to take a "day job" as a travel consultant for Expedia and pursue work for other companies as a travel planner. That way I can travel (my first FAM tour was as a tour operator, not a writer), make a living, and stop imagining I'll eventually support myself as a freelance writer in an age where paid content is all about selling.

    1. Thanks for your comments Ellen, they're some fine sentiments and I agree 100% percent. And thanks for being so active on our beta too!

      By the way, to everyone else subscribed on this post - we'll be launching the public site shortly, you can still join the beta here http://beta.outbounding.org/ or else keep an eye out for our announcements - any help spreading the word will be much appreciated!


Comments are closed.