26 April 2006

Google advertising (Adsense). Why do we carry it?

Well... duh!

That said, it's not exactly a major revenue stream for Travel Lists. It pays for the odd pint down the pub.

Despite that, we don't exactly go out of our way to improve advertising revenue. We could try advertising from other sources (Yahoo, Valueclick, direct sales, etc). We could put it on more pages. A quarter of the site's pages are menu pages, free from advertising (yes, I know about Google's 'terms of use' but like many publishers seem to, we could ignore the TOS altogether, or add a couple of words to dress the pages up as content).

No. The reason there is no advertising on menu pages (or on the home page) is that it slows things up. Every ad is another call to another remote server, and these are navigation pages. You should be able to whizz through them at the speed of light. That's why we dropped all graphics from the site design in the first place. That's why we don't have a logo. Just a favicon.

Anyway, the real reason why I started this blog...I was just thinking that, being an independent directory, our commitment/relationship with the advertising on the site IS slightly odd.

For one thing, we are in competition with ourselves. The better we do our job - list all the travel companies worth bothering with - the less likely it is that a visitor will click on any adverts.

On the other hand (and this is a benefit) if we are not doing our job properly (it happens! occasionally!) an advert might appear on a page for a worthwhile company that we haven't got listed, and that can be a handy tip-off!

All in all, you can tell, it wouldn't take very much to tip me in favour of ditching all advertising from the site, but for the time being I think I'll leave it and keep onside with the landlord at my local.

22 April 2006

XML is lovely stuff

I was just looking at my screen desktop and noticing that I'm using raw XML more and more these days for simple day-to-day lists. From keeping a note of the weight I'm (not) losing from exercising, to drawing up a list of party invites.

They are beginning to stand out because the numerous XSLT stylesheet files attached to them also litter the desktop. That, of course is the great strength - the same data sorted, filtered and presented in different ways.

I'm running an ongoing marketing campaign at the moment sending emails to people who send me press releases, newsletters and other promotional information. For the last month or so I've been keeping a list
(an XML document) of them so I don't send them an email more than once. A quick change to the stylesheet means I can sort them by company, name, date, email address, whatever.

I'm also moving house right now and trying to sort out what furniture will fit in the new place and where. A few days ago I opened notepad and started another XML doc to record dimensions of furniture, current location, future location, notes etc. One XSLT stylesheet sorts it all by current location. I just created another to produce a comma-separated text file to export into Excel so I can calculate scaled down sizes for a scale drawing of the rooms (could have made those calculations within the stylesheet itself but I'm not quick enough yet). And when it comes to the move, I can produce other variations telling the removal men room by room where to find it and where to put it.

Nice simple elegant stuff, XML!

18 April 2006

Losing it

Every week one of my favourite PR gurus mass-emails his newsletter with details of what his clients are up to. The email itself usually has some comical or quirky banter in its introduction but today I'm a little concerned he might be losing it...

I hope Easter proved the earned / expected re-charge for everyone, though time lifting one's nose from the keyboard does allow peripheral spectres to float centre field into the vestigial sharpness of an otherwise atrophied mind's eye. Life is too short indeed. Now that Cold War is a historical reference unfamiliar to some adults, the mental agility test posed by 'the four minute warning' has lost its intrigue. 'What would you do... and with whom?' is no longer topical conversation. However, listening to Iranian and US rhetoric flying through the water glass of PR spin and media interpretation perhaps we won't have to wait too long for the clock timing the Human Race to be heard ticking once again. Then we'll know what it is to be alive...

And, in case you're wondering, my Self Assessment reminder arrived this morning.

Have a good week.

What do you reckon? Should I alert him to the presence of those men in white coats creeping up behind him with a big net?

17 April 2006

Are America's surly doormen damaging tourism?

Travelmole has an interesting report from the World Travel & Tourism summit in Washington DC at which the US homeland secretary Michael Chertoff reportedly recognised that increased security measures at US airports is damaging inbound tourism.

"Americans lose when we put up rules, when we keep people [out] who are good people who want to come to work, study and play in the United States" is the quote.

What is striking is the tone of the first four (and only, at this point) comments posted at the bottom of the article. They all complain of long queues and bully-boy treatment by US Immigration officers who seem to consider all foreigners as undesirable, and probably illegal, aliens.

And remember, this is not a consumer magazine, this is a news site/community forum for registered travel industry workers - people who by definition are better travelled than most and can make comparisons.

The truth is, of course, that there are plenty of nice immigration officers (I've met some of them!) and not every entry these days into the USA is a grim and humiliating experience. But there is an increased risk that your arrival in America will not be joyous, and for some potential visitors that's enough to make them pick an alternative destination (Europe, Canada, Australia) where they are more likely to feel welcome from the word 'go'.

14 April 2006

Poor little specialist operator. All dressed up but nobody will know.

There was an interesting statistical juxtaposition yesterday that made sober reading for hundreds of excellent specialist travel providers (tour operators and travel agencies) in the UK, and for travel consumers searching for the very expertise they have to offer.

Firstly, in his leader column in yesterday's Travel Trade Gazette (TTG, weekly trade newspaper for travel agents and the travel industry) Graham Donoghue, head of new media at travel giant TUI, recounts how he has been learning in recent weeks all about the 'Big Daddy' update at Google and how it has "had a negative impact on some of my sites".

(At this point, wearing a torn singlet and carrying a machine gun, I lean out of a broken window at the Nakatomi Building and shout: "Welcome to the party, pal!")

He warns travel companies to check their rankings and points out this is important because search engines are "the number one entry point for around 70% of the people in this country (UK) who buy travel online".

Move on to a new survey reported on BBC Online.

Conducted by Jupiter research in the US, it shows that most people using a search engine expect to find what they are looking for on the first page of results, and will only go through three pages before giving up.

Gosh! Would never have guessed.....NOT!

But it also found that while 62% of the 2,369 people surveyed clicked on a result on the first page, four years ago that percentage was 48%. Consumers are getting lazier.

Gosh! That, I didn't know... really!

Some 90% of consumers clicked on a link in the first three pages. That's up from 81% in 2002.

In other words, if you are a travel provider not listed in the first three pages - by default, 10 to a page, that's 30 listings - your chances of being found by a consumer (70% of online purchasers, remember, according to Graham Donoghue) are slim and getting worse.

Ok. Try a little experiment. Take Google. Seventy-five percent of searches in the UK are made on Google according to the latest research (Websidestory Inc, 24 March 06), so Google handles 52% of all searches made by travel consumers in the UK. Search for "tour operators to XXX" inserting a destination of your choice. Now, of the top thirty listings, how many are genuine candidates?

According to research conducted at the Université de Provence in France earlier this year, search results on Google manage an average relevancy of 46%. So, it's not even thirty listings at the top. 54% of them are likely to be irrelevant... A travel provider (let's hope it's a good one!) has to be one of the top 14 relevant listings in their niche.... to even be noticed online.

There was one chink of light among these gloomy stats. According to the same Jupiter Research survey, 41% of consumers changed engines or their search term if they did not find what they were searching for on the first page. Let's hope THAT figure grows.

12 April 2006

Airtime on BBC radio 4

I've just fired off a 'How'd you do that?!' email to Steve Barrass the MD at Airtours.

I was making coffee and heard what amounted to a 10-minute advert for Airtours' new package holidays to China on BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme.

I'm not complaining. I'm admiring!

It's a good item for the programme and interesting enough to deserve coverage. They had an interview with Steve about the holidays and then got the independent expert view from the Telegraph's travel editor Cath Urqhart who talked up the Airtours China programme, talked ethusiastically about China as a destination and then in support of the humble package holiday.

Since the demise of Breakaway (R4 holiday programme on saturday mornings) there have been very few opportunities to talk in any detail about new travel 'products' on national radio. I know PR gurus and travel industry marketing directors who would sell their granny to get 10 mins like that on Radio 4!

Safe sex the Google way

Been pondering this for a while, and thought I had already blogged about it, but I can't see anything in the archive.

Background: Search engines are in a continuous state of war with spammers, whose aim is exploit the system to try and push their sites higher up the search rankings than they should naturally be. Google, which is the biggest search engine of all by a long way (In the UK 75% of searches are made on Google. The nearest rival, Yahoo, accounts for 9.5%) bases much of its ranking on the number and quality of links a site has pointing to it from external sites. As a result a huge trade in links has built up - webmasters exchange links ("you link to me and I'll link to you") and set up directories where you can buy a listing (link). Google can spot most of these activities and devalue the importance of links that don't appear to be natural endorsements.

In the spring last year Google told webmasters that by adding a little bit of code (rel="nofollow") to a link they could tell Google's spider not to follow the link and therefore not pass any credit to the target of the link.

Why would you not want to pass credit onto a site you are linking to?

Well as Google's Spam-Master General, Matt Cutts, explained in his blog, you could avoid the risk of your site's own reputation being devalued by Google if Google thought you were trading links. "If you sell links", he said, "you should mark them with the nofollow tag"... or as the wags among the search engine watchers quickly dubbed it, a Google condom.

Much scorn has been passed on the "links without juice" idea by the Search Engine Optimisation/Marketing (SEO/SEM) community, in blogs and on forums. A common reaction has been, 'why should we do Google's work for them, identifying paid-for links?' and 'will Google put nofollow tags on its own Adsense advertisements, since they are also paid-for links?'

Directories (that's me!) are the prime targets* here because most directories are really commercial notice boards full of paid-for links. They are caught, as is Google's intent, between a rock and a hard place. If they put nofollow tags on their links they are undermining the very value of what they sell. If they don't, they run the risk that their own PageRank (that little green bar you see on Google toolbars) will be devalued, and that's one of the ways potential customers judge the directory's importance - the higher the PR of a site, the higher the value of the PR it passes on to sites they link to, the more worthwhile it is paying for a link there.

But what if you are not a directory of paid-for links?

How does Google decide if links might be paid for? Does it just look for a site with a directory structure, lots of links and an e-commerce payment system? Ooer, that's me again! (We take a review fee from sites who don't want to wait for us to find them).

But Travel Lists is exactly the very opposite. Every link is there precisely because it has NOT been paid for, or bartered in a link exchange. Every one specifically IS a recommendation. The very concept Google's page ranking system is built on.

Ironically, since the links on Travel Lists are not paid for it wouldn't matter if I did put a Google condom on them. I don't owe anything to the websites I list. But that's not the point. The point is that far from practising safe sex the Google way, the links on my site DO 'have juice' and SHOULD be passing it on.

So like I say, I've been pondering it.

Back in the autumn last year, when this became a topical issue I did slightly panic and put condoms on every link on the site. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was ridiculous and 48 hrs later I took them off again!

And that's the way it's staying for now. I'm not really bothered about large travel brands, but I do think some of the smaller specialist travel companies deserve to have proper, un-requited link votes, and like other webmasters I rather resent the fact that Google is making me choose between benefiting myself or my 'linkees'.

*Other prime targets are signature links on forum postings and links in comments posted on blogs (I haven't looked to see if the default setting on blogspot is with or without juice), but feel free. I have to approve them anyway!

04 April 2006

Company failure the modern way

Here's an interesting twist on the way these things normally happen.

When tour operators and travel agencies go bust, the first we hear of it is usually a notice from ABTA or from the Civil Aviation Authority who run the ATOL licensing scheme. There's normally very little information; a standard note on the status of travellers who are abroad at the time or have forward bookings, and some advice about possible refunds.

That's it really. It is in the nature of these things that offices close, telephones shut down, and directors/staff are difficult to contact. Sometimes if web host companies are slow to close the website, there might be a sad notice apologising to customers and thanking them for previous business.

Today it was the turn of an agency/operator in Harrogate called Raho Travel, which traded as Kiwi Talk Travel and Oz Talk. The CAA has just called in their ATOL bond to repatriate & refund customers.

What makes this one different is that I first saw it on a newsfeed from Travelmole.com, a travel trade community site, and attached to the news item is a comment from the owner explaining how the business came to collapse - basically the drop in business after the tsunami created their problems but, she argues, the CAA has acted prematurely forcing them into liquidation. This is then followed by another comment from a manager at another well-know tour operator expressing sadness and asking her to get in touch to see if there's anything he can do to help!

Amazing how the internet can shape communities, accelerate the pace of communications and bypass the traditional gatekeepers of news dissemination!

02 April 2006

The best promo gift I ever received?

... was a CD opener.

I was just musing that over the years, in amongst a, not huge, but seemingly endless stream of small promo gifts - sunhats, T-shirts, sunglasses, calendars, paperweights, notebooks, drinks containers, toiletries, bottle openers, calculators, key fobs - that turn up each year from PR companies, hotels, tourist offices, etc, a few stand out.

Three in particular have stood the test of time and are still in regular use. In ascending order of importance...

3) A plastic bottle opener from the Zambian Tourist Board. Not sure why it's been so successful, it's not very pretty really, but when it's not on picnics and trips, it's in the kitchen drawer and used most days.

2) A magnifying glass from Thistle Hotels. Actually it's multi-role desktop item; a paperweight (doesn't get used for that!), a world time zone calculator (line up the time with the cities under the glass. Sometimes used for that), and a magnifying glass (used continuously by everyone in the household for reading small print, extracting splinters, etc etc)

1) A CD opener from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A simple plastic device with a little embedded cutter that you run down the side of a CD case to strip off the selophane wrapper. You know, the plastic that most people spend minutes trying to tear with their teeth and fingernails. It's brilliant! Especially in an increasingly CD-rich world - music CDs, CD-roms, DVD-RW, etc etc. It might not get used quite as frequently as the other two but it wins on the grounds that I could replace the others easily.

Anyway... I've just used it again and I thought I'd share that with you.

PS. And while I think about it, some advice for anyone responsible for buying promo gifts for their organisation:

  • T-shirts & hats are always a pretty safe bet.

  • The large, easy-to-write-on calendars, are good to distribute in Dec. Particularly for domestic kitchen-wall use. But you always run the risk of competition (another calendar might get there first).

  • I think mousepads are underestimated. It sounds silly but mousepads wear out. You don't know what you've been missing till you get a new one and your mouse glides again!

01 April 2006

Ocean Village cover up for Brits

Hats off to the 'eagle-eye' at trade newspaper, TTG, for spotting this one.

They've published a picture taken from the German edition of the brochure for Ocean's Village's 2007 cruise programme, showing the glamorous on-board sauna
on their new ship, Ocean Village 2, with two naked couples enjoying the sea-view window.

Underneath they've printed the exact same photo in the English edition of the brochure. It has computer-generated swimming trunks and bikini tops added to protect delicate British sensibilities!