10 years ago today I published my first blog entry on Road Tips. Most blogs don't last 10 months and here we are today, celebrating a decade of what started out as a hobby but has turned into a life of its own. I've had some people ask me in the past how I got started doing this, and if you'll indulge me for the next few minutes I'll tell you the story of Road Tips.
I've always liked to write. I was inspired by Jim Bouton's great book Ball Four to write my day-by-day experiences of being a sophomore in high school. That turned into a diary of my experiences of my junior year of high school, followed by a journal of my experiences as a senior in high school. I took writing classes at the University of Iowa and gained some practical experience - including the highs and lows of critiques. After college, I entered the business world and used my limited writing skills primarily for memos and training documents.
I've been on the road for nearly 30 years and have eaten at a lot of places along the way. I joined a list serve that talked about Iowa Hawkeyes sports where I became friends with many who had similar interests as me. Invariably, the talk would turn to food and where the best burger was, or who made the best pizza, or who could recommend a nice restaurant in, say, Minneapolis. It seemed that I contributed more to those discussions due to my travels over the years.
In 2002, I started to work for my present company - the best job I've ever had - and my travel became even more extensive. Covering 11 states with trips to various parts of the U.S., Canada and Europe broadened my culinary and cultural experiences. It was in 2005 when one of my list serve friends, Tom Kirkendall, suggested I write a blog of my travel experiences. My first reaction was, "What's a blog?" It turned out that Tom was already writing a successful blog of his own - Houston's Clear Thinkers. He pointed me in the right direction by suggesting that I go with Typepad as my blog engine, given that I didn't know what the hell URL's and HTML was all about. I signed up for a free trial in October of 2005 and officially joined Typepad a month later.
I'd thought about doing something that would help the traveling community in the Midwest, providing information about hotels that are good to stay at, where you can get a good late night dinner in a specific town, even have information as to the nicer public restrooms in a given area. So, I sort of had a game plan but the initial execution was much to be desired.
Coming up with a name was nothing like an epiphany or a bolt of lightning out of the blue - I was going to be on the road and I was going to give tips. Road Tips. Simple, easy to remember. Certainly nothing that stands out or is intriguing. Still, to this day, I get called "Road Trips" by some other bloggers who link my blog on their sites - which, in hindsight, is probably a better name than Road Tips. But I started with Road Tips and I'm sticking with it.
My first official entry on Road Tips was on one of my all-time favorite burger joints - the since-closed Dad's Town Pump in Clear Lake, IA. It was a three paragraph post, no pictures and no basic facts about the place. You can click here to see that particular post. As you can see if you care to read it, it was simple and not very well written.
Initially, I tried to have entries every day - I was told that frequency got you more readers. But then I found that it was nearly impossible to do. I backed it down to three times a week, then down to two times a week. Once I got on a regular traveling schedule and figuring that I was visiting a number of new restaurants each week - and given the time I actually took to sit down and write the entry - I was back up to three times a week. It's still about three entries a week, but my goal is to go back to two entries a week. Frankly, I'm getting tired of finding new places and I really miss going back to some of the ones that I've found - primarily because I feel like I have to find new places to eat each week I'm on the road.
And that's the one thing - good and bad - about continuing the blog for this long is that it pretty much forces me to seek out new and interesting places to try when I'm on the road. On the other hand, if I've found a place that is really good and I want to go back, I have to think twice to see if there's somewhere that I've pinned as a place that I would like to try. Right now on Google Maps I have dozens of restaurants pinned in the 11 states I cover in the Midwest that I would like to try. But as much as I worry about it, I don't think I'll be running out of subject material anytime soon.
Not being too confident in my writing, I initially told only a handful of people about Road Tips and after a year I had a small gathering of friends and family who would look in from time to time. I was getting something like 50 to 65 hits a day on the blog site, sometimes it would surge to over 100 hits if someone linked a blog entry to an e-mail. And my focus wasn't quite in place yet. I would post recipes, talk about condiments that I particularly liked, and added reviews of DVD concerts and music that caught my fancy.
It went on that way for about four years - every once in awhile there'd be a major spike when someone would link a blog entry on a list serve or another blog site. But for the most part I continued to get about 50 to 65 hits a day. That is, until Google came calling.
I received an e-mail from a young lady at Google who had come across Road Tips and wanted to know if I would be interested in working with them on a beta test for a new search engine feature they were working on. It had something to do with keywords and other stuff that I didn't fully understand. I said, "Sure, why not?"
On May 31 of 2009, I think I had something like 52 hits that particular day. On June 1st, my hits went up to about 175. The next day, it was well over 200 hits. Later in the week I was suddenly getting about 400 hits a day for my little hobby blog. I was like, "Uh oh. There's people out there who are actually READING my drivel!" I decided that I needed to step up my game with better writing, more in-depth info on the history behind the places I was writing about, and adding more pictures to the entries to try to captivate the reader through the end of the piece.
All that summer I was getting nearly 375 to 500 hits a day and on Sept. 1 the beta test went away. Suddenly, I was back down to 55 to 70 hits a day. It stayed that way for awhile until someone from Google asked me if my hits went down significantly. Well, yeah! They certainly did! And I can't tell you exactly when their new keyword program went into effect, but my daily hits went back up to the levels I saw earlier in the summer. And they've stayed there ever since.
Because of the sudden uptick in page clicks for my blog, my wife and others began to suggest that I have advertisements on my page. My wife had this vision of going to Hawaii every year based upon the advertising revenue that could be generated from my blog. But I had to let her down gently when I discovered that the advertising revenue earned from my site would - possibly - pay for the annual subscription I have to give Typepad for administration fees. It's not quite enough for an annual Hawaiian vacation, that's for sure.
Still, I hemmed and hawed about it for awhile, even checking with some other bloggers who have ads on their sites. I decided that I wanted to keep Road Tips as it is - no endorsements and no advertisements.
Along that same vein, I've had a number of requests from restaurants - mainly through marketing people who work for the restaurants - to come do a review on their place. Some have even sent along vouchers and on-line gift cards for me to use. I've even gotten gift cards sent to me after a particularly glowing review of a given restaurant. I never have - and never will - accept any form of gratuity for my efforts in what is essentially a hobby for me. I usually just toss the gift cards or delete them when I receive them via e-mail. I very rarely identify myself as a blogger to a restaurant where I'm eating, mainly so I can make sure that I get the same experience as a person walking in off the street.
To help facilitate the upward swing in viewership, I started to develop a Road Tips social media presence with both Facebook and Twitter. I've got over 350 followers on Facebook along with over 450 "likes", and probably 150 followers (give or take) on Twitter. Not quite a huge following either way, but big enough that there's an audience out there who seems to enjoy receiving updates on blog posts.
About 4 years ago, I got an e-mail from a local Quad Cities restaurateur who liked a review that I gave him. He said that he was getting trashed by some people on Urbanspoon - possibly a former employee or a competitor since most of the bad reviews were one-offs - and wanted to know if I could link my review of his place to his Urbanspoon page. I really didn't know what to do, but I looked into it and found that it was relatively easy to post a link to a blog entry on Urbanspoon.
I began to do it for most of the restaurants that I had visited up to that point and suddenly I had over 100 reviews on Urbanspoon in the course of about three days. I was soon contacted by a guy from Urbanspoon who said that I was pretty prolific as a reviewer and they couldn't keep up with posting the entries on their end as fast as I was putting them up. He basically gave me editor status on Urbanspoon to allow me to post my reviews on their site as soon as I put them up.
At one point in time, Urbanspoon even recognized Road Tips as their "most traveled" blogger - I had reviewed restaurants in something like 70 areas up to that point. I found that my blog was also one of the more popular on Urbanspoon jumping all the way to No.1 in the world on the site before settling comfortably into the Top Ten of popular blogs world-wide. (I still didn't quite understand the way Urbanspoon's point system worked, but it was still nice to have the recognition.)
Earlier this year, Urbanspoon was bought by Zomato (pronounced zo-MAH-to) and my reviews migrated over there. I had a conversation with a Zomato representative out of Chicago a couple months ago and I now have the coveted "blue star" designation from the site that shows that I have been verified as a true blog site and am not some troll that will write bad reviews on restaurants I used to work at. I now have over 1000 reviews on Zomato - I'm not the most prolific reviewer on that site, but I'm one of a very few number who have over 1000 reviews.
Yelp is another restaurant site that I visit from time to time to check out reviews on places I'd like to try. Yelp isn't friendly to bloggers - they don't seem to embrace the blogging community the way Urbanspoon did or Zomato now does. While I'm not too whippy on the content style on Zomato, it still does a good job of getting my blog out in front of more eyes. (Interestingly, I have something like 75 people on a growing list of followers on Zomato. I would say that 80 percent of them are women. Yes, I have Road Tips groupies!)
I've looked into contributing to Yelp and Trip Advisor, but they're definitely not blog friendly. I have two colleagues who are heavy contributors to Yelp and their posts are interesting, but not as in-depth as I can go on Road Tips. I've been asked to contribute to Trip Advisor by some people, but I'll stick with Zomato for the time being.
And because of social media, I've made Internet friends with other like-minded food and travel bloggers whose sites I admire and read on a regular basis -
- Slakingfool is a former newspaper employee who doesn't drive, but still gets around the Des Moines area (and other parts of Iowa and the Midwest) to do his reviews. He likes beer and good ol' dive bars with good food - just like me.
- I started to follow the Jeni Eats blog site when she was living in Fargo with her husband who works for Pepsi, and continued to follow her as they moved to Mason City, IA and most recently to St. Louis for his job. She's got a pretty keen eye for interesting foods, restaurants and places, and her blog is always entertaining. And it's well laid out, too. Her blog looks like a professional site while mine looks like a fifth grader's project.
- And I've been following the Chicago BBQ King's Smoking', Chokin' and Chowing with the King blog site for a number of years. I've gotten some great ideas from him for out of the way places to try in the Chicago area (and elsewhere around the Midwest) over the past few years. When he followed me on Twitter, I was like, "Wow! This guy follows ME on Twitter!"
With the 10 year history of a hobby gone viral, it's interesting to look back and see some of the neat or weird things that have happened. I used to be worried that no one would comment on my posts. I didn't know if I was provocative enough or if I had given out enough information. However, when I got more readers, I got more comments.
Some of the comments that I've received over the years have been downright strange. I've gotten comments from people looking for family members of theirs, comments from people who want to get a job application for a restaurant I reviewed, and comments from people who are looking for recipes. The most commented-on blog posts on Road Tips have to do with a visit I wrote about to the now closed Rosalie's in Marblehead, MA, and the on-going debate regarding Maid-Rite's in the state of Iowa - and what's better, Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, the Newton Maid-Rite or the Canteen in Ottumwa. (Man, I really struck a nerve with people from Ottumwa when I first wrote about the Canteen.)
Critical comments are part of the territory. I think my first criticism of a post I wrote had to do with the poor service at an Indian restaurant in the Twin Cities. The commenter called me a "tool". I thought, "That's great! I finally made it as a blogger. I'm getting called names!" Some critical comments have been dismissive of my food acumen and my reviews as a whole. I've also been threatened, like the time that I wrote a somewhat lukewarm review on a place and a commenter threatened to find me and put an end to my blog. I would have been more worried had he not posted the comments anonymously, like most - if not all - of the most critical comment have been over the years.
One criticism basically made me realize that I needed to unpublish a blog post on a former Iowa high school girls basketball player who had a peculiar - and somewhat funny name - when she was growing up. It was probably the most read blog post I've had - and still may be, even though I took it down about two years ago. It was an in-depth story on the strange named girl told to me by a person who knew her and her family growing up. To me - and a vast majority of others - we couldn't fathom a girl going through life with a name like that and wondered what her parents were thinking. Well, it turns out that she's a great gal from a salt of the earth family who has feelings. I thought it would be best to just sort of put that entry to bed.
I've come close a couple times to having a shadow blog site - Burger Lust - named after one of my all-time favorite burger joints in Omaha that would focus only on burgers that I've run across. But I have a hard enough time just keeping up with this particular blog and I do hear from time to time that I probably eat too many cheeseburgers, so I thought maybe that would be a little too much.
But, then again, what would you rather read about and see pictures of -
Uh huh. I rest my case...
I thank the people who have followed the blog for all these years. You know who you are. I keep doing it for you.
Finally, I have to thank my biggest fan - my wife. At least I think she's my biggest fan. She's put up with this nonsense for 10 years and she's been part of many of the entries on Road Tips. She was sort of appalled - initially - that I included her in some of the blog entries. But she's just sort of accepted it as part of our lives now. She even gives me tips on places to try from time to time, as well.
So, in a nutshell, that's it - now that's all you know about Road Tips, the 10 year journey and how it's grown into this own little, well, something. I can't quite put a finger on what it is - it's own little world? It's own little life? I don't know. All I know is that it's been fun, it's made me broaden my culinary horizons and seek out the unique and unusual places in addition to finding the places where the locals eat when I'm on the road. Even though I continue to have a bit of wanderlust in me, traveling is a minor pain in the ass. Finding the neat experiences and good restaurants - and sharing them with you - is what helps keep me going.
Thanks again for looking in!