I've had several recent interesting chats with clients and potential clients of iCrossing where I work several days a week as travel editor. A number of thoughts and observations I want to share which I will post as a short series. I'd be very interested to hear what people think.

The Comparison Engine

This large company which we were talking to about content, sells flights and flight + hotel packages using a database and booking engine that's very very similar to many of its competitors. You know the kind of sites I mean: travelocity, expedia, ebookers, opodo, orbitz and so on.

The comment from their marketing manager: "we don't do content".

As far as he was concerned, content was an expense they were not prepared to afford. Something he felt added little value. All the user gets in the way of content on this site is very top level description of the kind of break they are looking for (beach holidays, city breaks etc) and hotel descriptions served up from the database.

How can a site like this, selling virtually identical products to its competitors differentiate itself without quality content?

The short answer is by getting Google to do it. Using hardcore SEO tactics to make sure they rank really well for typical big traffic holiday terms like say, holidays in Thailand or flights to New York. Add to this some serious paid search spending and banner advertising and PR you have a business.

But will it last?

Personally I was really surprised by the fact that such a big company could feel that they could sell a complex product like holidays without seeing the need to create authoritative, useful, credible content that will help people decide where to go and what to do.

But they aren't alone.

Expedia looks to have a similar viewpoint. According to the 'how to use this site page' they offer 'detailed destination content... supplied by Time Out and Wexas'.  But actually, they don't any more.  Click the 'destinations link' in the sidebar on several pages and you just get dumped back on the home page: http://www.expedia.co.uk/destinations.aspx .

Are these companies being pragmatic? Or short-sighted?

The fact that comparison engines even exist in the travel sector is interesting. It's a zero-sum game: the assumption - a piece of technology can make the right choice for you. It suggests that the product has been so stripped down and devalued that price is the only differentiator now. Nothing else matters. Comparison engines seem to be particularly powerful in travel and financial services. Oddly, two sectors where the products can be very complex. Does the very presence of companies like this in the travel sector suggest that tour operators and airlines have screwed up? They have failed to cultivate their products and their brands online enough. As a result people no longer see any difference between any of them and make their choices solely around price and nothing else?

Does the presence of comparison engines suggest the online travel sector is in poor health?

9 thoughts on “Should you DO travel content?

  1. A very interesting article Jeremy- particularly the aspect of monetising your site. Actually I think it is just a question of whether you want be mass market or non mass market, and whether your site is something you are interested in or just a money maker. Basically Expedia etc. sell on price and convenience; content sites sell on the basis of dreams and the information to facilitate their happening.

    With HiddenPousadasBrazil.com the aim was primarily to share the paradises I had found in Brazil with similar independent travellers who were certainly price conscious- but more in the sense of wanting value for money. The sort of people who want to know a lot more about where exactly they are going and what they are getting before booking. The pousadas on the site(boutique hotels, inns, guesthouses and b&bs) all need these sorts of travellers- particularly off season. So they pay, rightly, for the marketing services which attract them- and we don't need to clutter the site with ads.to bring in the cash. I don't think there is inherently anything good or bad about either system or business model, but I am sure the future and interest is in content sites, which are constantly updated with interesting material. Cheers, Alison

  2. Yes, they should *do* travel content to differentiate and to maintain organic traffic levels. Comparison engines in other verticals (eg, shopping) were dropped from Google soon after they launched what was then Froogle. Some of these engines, Foundem & co, have turned to the EU courts for what they see as justice. Others, like an engine we owned, exited when they lost literally millions of unique visitors a year.

    V short-sighted of travel comparison engines given what G are up to. However, unique content takes time and £ to layer onto a site so expectations need to be managed.


    1. Interesting topic and one often debated in a number of forums. I am not familiar with expedia uk site - but here in N. America, expedia employs their acquisition Trip Advisor for content aggregation. Trip Advisor is not only a "cash cow" for them, but also is a great traffic generator for expedia, hosts the top mobile travel app (by user rating) and is generally “loved by many a user”. On a quick view of the expedia uk site, i do see that they invest in collecting user reviews which, according to PhoCusWright, seem to weigh in heavily for most for UK travelers (http://connect.phocuswright.com/2010/09/where-does-price-factor-into-the-destination-decision/). They also host general info about a property: class, location, proximity to “other areas”, photos, amenities etc. Furthermore, these guys are investing in content from a price & availability standpoint. They spend gobs of money contracting and connecting various inventories (see Expedia Quickconnect) which are "searchable & bookable onsite" as opposed to a Meta searcher. I guess my point is twofold - this OTA marketing manager seemed to oversimplify their standpoint by saying "we don't do content". Also, it seems to me to label these guys a "comparison engine" is to say they are a meta-searcher, which they are not. They do have "unique content" but a different kind than you are referring to. Finally, I think they (expedia's of the world) do struggle to create inspiration which is why there continues to be a need for travel writers (in my humble opinion). Good post!

  3. Froom a user perspective, if I knew a comparison engine would get me the best deal every time, I'd use it even if it looked like it'd been designed for use on an Atari 2600.

    The problem is that no one comparison engine constantly comes up with the best deals, so I've no particular loyalty. I'll tend to go to Kayak or Skyscanner first, as they've some nifty functions/ useability touches that the others have. But could I care less whether they've got content on them? No. That's not what I'm using them for.

    Now if I'm looking to book something more complex than a flight, further information/ "content" starts to become more important. But I'm still more likely to have one window open looking for a deal, and another looking for background info.

  4. It seems like a no brainer to me. Using "hardcore SEO tactics," paid search spending and banner advertising is probably essential, but by having specific travel content, that opens up so many more keywords that can lead people to the site. Once readers are there, then they see all the "book now" stuff. Or maybe people reading travel articles aren't actually the ones booking?

  5. I'm a novice about this issue, but it's shaping a lot of my business interactions lately.

    It seems that if you're going to "do" content, you need first to decide what, exactly, your goals for that content and what the implications of following those goals are.

    If you're "doing" content for SEO, your ranking might be high, but what you're providing isn't useful so that ranking doesn't translate into customers. That's a numbers game. You can win at the numbers game and not gain customers. Google loves you? Is that a good thing if people aren't buying? Google, as an entity, isn't booking flights, people are.

    If you're "doing" content because you genuinely want to provide value to potential customers visiting your site, well, that's expensive and has a longer SEO ROI. Good content can build loyalty and reputation, but not overnight. I guess you can win at the value/reputation game, but lose when "the man" says "Where's my damn traffic?"

    And to tie all this back to the comparison engines, they don't really seem to do it right. I'll often run the engines, then go directly to the provider -- if the comparison tells me that, say, Alaska Airlines has the best fare, I'll book through the Alaska site because I've been burned booking through comparison engines -- Expedia specifically -- by complicated but critical information that's not properly exposed to the customer through the OTA.

    Because I'm an advocate for valuable content - I write the stuff, I love to read it -- I like to think, yes, of COURSE you should do content. But I know it's not that simple and a framework of goals is critical to making that decision.

  6. I do believe that content is very important because it helps customer to decide and makes the buying process faster. And I hope it is just a matter of time when hardcore SEO tactics days will be over.

  7. Great article Jeremy and your observations highlight what I am calling the industrialisation of mainstream tourism. When experiences became products; when guests became targets, when price was the only strategic tool applied in times of market downturn or interruption the slide down the slippery slope of commoditisation began. The transparency of the internet plus meta search engines simply accelerated the process. Unless suppliers and destinations re-think their model and move off quantity to quality their long term prospects are poor and, yes, rich, relevant CONTENT in all its forms is the way back out of trouble.

    1. Hi Anna.
      Thanks! I agree with you completely. And interestingly more and more travel companies that I talk to seem to feel the same way. The key word you use above is 'Relevant'. Content for content's sake is pointless - even if it's well written. The Net challenges us to really focus long and hard on customer and product before we start writing. Far more so than in print.

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