30 January 2006

Web sites and the empty page syndrome

I wrote a piece on a search engine optimisation forum yesterday evening about how we use the word 'directory' to describe two very different things: commercial noticeboards (95%) used for search engine marketing purposes, and real directories (5%) for consumers.

In it, I described three tell-tale signs for spotting a noticeboard...

  1. Ongoing fees. If any payments made are renewable (eg annually) then that's an advertising fee and the site is not a directory. After all, if a listing is relevant enough to get onto the site in the first place, does its usefulness to a site visitor change at midnight when its current payment runs out? Clearly not.
  2. Empty Categories. If a site has empty categories it is a clear sign it is a noticeboard. Empty categories are no use to visitors. The only reasons for publishing an empty category are to impress search engines and entice potential submissions.
  3. Description. Where does the description come from? If it is supplied by the listed company itself, the site is a noticeboard. Of course we don't know what the copy supplied in any submission was... but the word "we" is a dead give-away. If it appears in any listing, the site is a noticeboard, not a directory.

Number two particularly irritates me as a user. You go to a directory, maybe because it has been highly listed on Google, expecting to see a list of organisations in the category of interest... and there's nothing there!

I mention it now because I've just visited an accommodation video review website (zoom + go, I'm not going to link to them) who claim to have "the internet's largest collection of traveller-submitted videos". Sadly the site looks a lot more comprehensive than it really is because they publish empty categories, demonstrating how search engines are more important to them than users.

27 January 2006

Real directories and the joy of discovery

I am often (once or twice most weeks) surprised (delighted) by the comprehensive coverage of my directory.

(It's a golden rule that, unlike most directories, I never publish a list until I think it is complete, near complete... or in the case of 'special places to stay', reasonably populated. Users should never see a page that is empty or populated with just a couple of paid advertisers)

Yesterday, for a typical example, I got a press release about a new low-cost operator, Fresh Holidays, which I thought looked interesting. I wrote a 'holiday ideas' item about them. Then I went to add them to the listings for a number of countries and found them already listed in every case! Cool! But... a bit worrying that I had no recollection of them. Must be getting senile.

It follows that the occasions when I run across a travel provider that I didn't know - and on checking, REALLY didn't know - are few and far between. Which makes them all the more fun.

I've just found one.

GW Travel. They specialise in exclusive private train journeys through Russia, China and Canada. In particular their own private Trans-Siberian Express, which they've been operating for 13 years.

I'm stunned that I have not come across them before (especially since they are an ABTA member). In fact, they look familiar, I suspect I have, but just forgot them. Either way, it is a delight to find them.

That's what REAL directories are about - the joy of discovery. Companies are listed because I can't wait for users to find them. Not because they paid to be listed, or were trawled by a bot.

24 January 2006

Plans to axe the Gatwick Express are still there and still as daft

A release from Gatwick Express came in this morning, all about coming out on top of the Dept of Transport's 6-monthly National Passenger Survey for the fifth time in a row.... this time with a 93% satisfaction rating from its passengers.

It didn't mention it, but I wondered what happened to the threat of closure that was hanging over Gatwick Express. So I started researching... to find that it is still there. The Dept of Transport (DoT) still wants to alleviate commuter congestion on the Brighton-London rail route by sacrificing the dedicated rail link to Gatwick Airport.

I'm amazed. I thought the immediate and overwhelming reaction to such a stunningly stupid idea (it was first raised by the Strategic Rail Authority - now disbanded - in Sept 04) had caused them to quietly drop it. But no! In fact it turns out that only last week BAA and Gatwick Express had to offer a compromise timetable proposal to try and keep the DoT at bay.

Meanwhile the campaign to save the service has even had the U.S. Secretary of State for Transport telling the UK government that US airlines and their passengers think the idea stinks.

In fact, everyone thinks the idea stinks. Including, I suspect many hard-pressed Brighton-London rail commuters who must be appalled at the idea of confused, luggage-struggling air passengers mixed up with them on their trains & platforms. Imagine the scenes as jet-lagged and linguistically-challenged foreign air travellers try to change trains at Clapham Junction (what to they call it? 'The world's busiest rail junction'?) at the height of rush hour!

And how will axing a dedicated rail shuttle from our second largest London airport fit into our transport strategy for the Olympics in 2012?

I got to thinking about my own position. Living in North London, I'm pretty well placed for all the London airports, but Gatwick is probably the easiest. If the Gatwick Express was axed, it would in a stroke become my least preferred London airport. The same must be true for most Londoners and travellers passing through London.

Come on Mr Darling, stop this nonsense now.

20 January 2006

Google - clever but not smart enough

You've got to smile at this.

Google, understandably, wants to ensure that its clients' adverts are seen in the best possible context, so the clever little algorithms that work out which adverts to display when a page using Google's Adsense is opened, also have a filter that is triggered when a page has too many words of a sensitive nature. (eg die, stroke, maimed, paralysed, electrocuted, bomber, terrorist, industrial action, prison, riot, heroin, cocaine, poker, casino & all the sex keywords we can think of).

When it is triggered it stops displaying normal ads and switches to Public Service Adverts (PSAs).

So in my case this means when I write news items about pilot's strikes or rail crashes the two advert panels on the left and right of the Travel Headlines page shrink to just one panel with one or two PSAs.

Clever but not 'smart'!

If you look at the New Holiday Ideas/Products page you can see that the subtleties of an item about Warwick Castle's special family events (
"Terrible Tortures and Potty Punishments") for February half-term were too much for the algo to cope with!

The PSAs have swept in like an overly fussy nanny at the mention of torture chambers, thumbscrews, dungeons and mis-trials!

19 January 2006

Travel websites need to strike a balance between Lookers & Buyers

I ran into a spate of poorly designed travel websites this morning. It's a fairly familiar experience but made more noticeable today because every other site I looked at seemed to break one of my two golden rules.

There used to be three golden rules, but thankfully these days everybody has realised that the first - do not require visitors to register before viewing your site - was a bad, bad idea.

Back in the late nineties companies - Expedia for example - thought they could easily build up a database of sales 'prospects' by getting visitors to register. What they quickly discovered was that casual visitors simply moved onto the next site. Pre-registration was dropped very quickly.

Why then have so many travel companies, big and small, failed to grasp the other two blindingly obvious 'things not to do' on the cluetrain?

2. Do not force people to confirm a departure date, airport, size of party, and return date, when they are not actually checking availability or making a booking.

3. Do not put anything less than your full product range on the website.


Because, since the Internet was born - in academia - people have used it primarily as a research tool. Even though there has been an explosion of ecommerce activity on the net, nearly every buyer starts out looking. If they can't look/browse easily, or they can't find what they are looking for, they will move to another site and probably end up buying there.

I don't have statistics for the UK but the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA)'s latest annual survey of American travel consumers shows how defined the two stages - looking & buying - are.

Seventy-eight percent of travellers - that's 79 million Americans - turned to the Internet for travel or destination information in 2005, and 82% of travellers who planned their trips online also booked a travel component online.

Research conducted in the USA by Feedback Research, a division of Claria Corp, between 1 April - 1 July, 2005 breaks the relationship between 'looking & buying' down a little bit. It found that 88% of Americans who planned to travel later that summer, used the Internet to research and/or purchase their travel arrangements. Of those, 61% purchased or planned to purchase airline tickets online, and 52% purchased or planned to purchase hotel accommodation.

Or put another way, of every ten people looking for information on a travel website, four did not, or were not intending to, buy airline tickets and five did not, or were not intending to, book a hotel. IE They were there to research only, or they researched but failed to buy.

Which is why travel website design should not be focused on e-commerce sales alone.

So, to return to rules 2 & 3...

Do not force people to confirm a departure date, airport, size of party, and return date, when they are not actually checking availability or making a booking.

If you are visiting the site to find out if this company operates/sells tours to Sardinia it is very irritating to have to start giving dates for a hypothetical trip, and if the answer comes back 'no', does that mean 'no, they don't go there' or they do go there but just not on the dates you happened to pluck out of the air!

Do not put anything less than your full product range on the website.

After all, it's easy & cheap to do. Just add pdfs of your brochure for visitors to download.

If, for example, in addition to your portfolio of holidays on Mauritius, you also organise tailor-made breaks at one or two resort hotels on neighbouring Rodrigues, then say so on the website. A potential client is not going to visit your website, not see Rodrigues mentioned anywhere, and then phone you or email on the off-chance!

Break either of these two rules and your visitor is likely to leave you and visit somebody else's site, where they'll probably spend money.

18 January 2006

Cunard steaming too slowly

Here we go again.

It looks like we are shaping up for another object lesson in how not handle crisis communications in the 21st century.

Cunard's flagship stopped working properly yesterday and had to return to port. So now there will be thousands of interested parties - passengers, their families, passengers with future bookings, travel agents, port officials, journalists, shareholders, etc etc - all clamouring for information at the same time.

"Is it serious? How long will it take to fix?"

These are questions for which Cunard simply doesn't have answers just yet, probably. But they do know what has happened (ship starting vibrating shortly after they left Port Everglades, Florida), when it happened (1pm local time yesterday) and what their response has been (gone back to port, sent divers down).


...the very first place everybody in a connected 24hr digital world will look.

That way they could save themselves hundreds of inbound phone calls, and take control of the news. That way every one will know where to look for the latest updated information.

One of their sister companies (they are all owned by Carnival these days) P&O knows how to do it. When Oriana's engine broke at the start of a cruise last year, the info was quickly and continuously updated on their website.

Come on Cunard. It may only be mid-morning in Florida but these are no longer the quaint old days of Royal Mail ships steaming majestically across the Atlantic as your branding likes to evoke. News travels a bit quicker these days.

14 January 2006

Like elephants, an editor never forgets

Just been having a conversation with somebody about a popular holiday island, during which I mentioned that I actually don't cover it on Travel Lists... not at all. There's no list of British tour operators who go there, or local travel companies, or special places to stay. It is not mentioned in any news stories or bargain tip-offs.

"Why not?" they asked.

I had to think. Well, 'habit' I suppose. I haven't really given it much thought. This particular destination seriously messed me about once - blimey, over ten years ago! - and I remember thinking at the time "well, that's ok. There are 230 or so countries in the world, I really don't need to talk or write about this particular one, ever!"

And I never have.

Seems a bit churlish now. It's not really a boycott set in stone. I'm not sure I feel that strongly about it now, but it's never really been tested.

And there's another: one of the UK's best known travel companies. It's founder/MD dropped out of a live programme at the last minute in the early years of Classic FM. Word got back to me that he was too busy and didn't think it was important enough. That must be 13 or 14 years ago! His company has never featured in anything I've done since that day.

I wont name them here because they are just quiet boycotts, and I won't engage in any conversations about them, because that is the point... they are not going to cause me any more hassle!

I don't think there are any others. Oh wait. There's the Public Relations woman who irritated me the other day and whose subsequent press releases have been binned on arrival, but that's not a long term thing... I'm just not really interested in the one client subject she keeps pestering me about. If she gets another client or campaign I might start listening again.

Funny though. Those first two brought me up short. I hadn't realised just how long I'd held those grudges!

Some PR companies like to put a value on their work by comparing the coverage of an article or piece of publicity to what an advert with the same 'reach' might cost. I wonder, if I had treated them as any other destination or company, how many times I might have featured them in a programme or written about them during those years and what the sterling value might have been? Maybe not much, but it HAS cost them.

And what would be the point of this emailed travel offer?

The Dream Holiday Group (aka Lynton Cooper Travel (London) Ltd) have emailed me a flyer about their January Sale for one of their tour operator brands, Ski the American Dream...

£50 off per person on bookings to a selection of resorts in Canada and Colorado.

"A limited number of rooms are available in each property & will sell out fast!", the flyer warns. "Call 0870 350 7547 to avoid disappointment. Offer expires 4pm this Friday January 13, 2006!"

... So why send me an email about it, eleven hours after the offer ended?

01 January 2006

Second-hand Pixels?

Happy New Year!

Somebody who will certainly be celebrating right now is Alex Tew. His Million Dollar Homepage closed its doors to new orders on New Year's Eve. They are sold out! One million pixels sold between Aug to Dec - quite an achievement.

Why am I interested? Well, Travel Lists has a single block advert (100 pixels) and as sales reached the 999,000 mark there was a noticeable leap in traffic from that ad. In his blog, Alex reported that on Friday morning the site was getting 25,000 unique visitors an hour!

It made me think.

The idea behind the site has always been that it would stay online for a minimum 5 years. Given that, A) there appears to be a huge pent up, and now un-fulfilled, demand for Alex's pixels; and B) that over the next few years existing advertisers will disappear or their marketing needs will change; I see the potential for a buoyant market in second-hand pixels.

As to all those copycat sites. I haven't really changed my mind (a million copycat creeps). I see the arguement that some might be congratulated for taking the original idea and making it better. But I still hope they don't succeed. It's like repeating a good joke or a story - when you hear it a second time, it's not as good. When you hear it a third time, it isn't interesting at all. At 300 times, it's both irritating and insulting.