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?