Well, the news is out. The travel content site launched by Simon Nixon (who made a lot of cash with moneysupermarket.com) is being wound down because it's not making enough money. So what went wrong?
I've blogged a lot about this site over the couple of years its been around. Part of me feels a little smug because I always felt they got some basic principles wrong, but I'm also sad because it was offering another avenue for travel writers to earn money for their writing. I'm actually quite surprised it has gone down as I felt they were more or less on the right track.
From launching with the intent of just harvesting what was little more than user generated content (Simon Nixon described a 'new cottage industry of travel writers' which really annoyed me and other pro writers) the site changed direction radically around a year or so ago with the hire of well known travel writer Nick Trend to oversee the roll out of a new strategy to pay pro writers to create 'proper' content. And they paid fairly decent rates too. Clearly the hoped for increase in traffic and bookings via affiliate links on the site didn't materialise quickly enough to offset the extra cost of paying for content. You can see this in the way the site now prominently features a booking engine. So what went wrong?
Simonseeks a dumb URL
The heart of the problem? It was a site for people looking for travel inspiration and travel guides. And its main revenue stream was ad revenue. So people HAD to be able to find its content easily. Lots of different elements go into making pages rank well on google, but a URL that reflects the kind of content on a website is a bit of an obvious requirement. The URL and the name of the site should have been all about travel ideas/guides. Choosing a name like Simonseeks - an unknown brand with no association with travel was plain silly. And, dare I say it, a bit arrogant?
Free content is worthless
If this site proved anything conclusively, it was that the idea that you can just go ask people to post their content on your site and low readers will come and ad revenues will flow just won't work. A few early arrivals like Trip Advisor have made that leap but I'd say personally this model is dead now. There are too many thousands of sites all trying to be the same now and achieving the kind of critical mass of traffic needed is virtually impossible. Unless you go down the content farm route and publish thousands of pages of poor quality content you won't make money this way. And Google is trying(?) hard to stamp out these practices. I think the Murdoch paid-for model will gain the ascendency... eventually, but it will take time and only the big players with the big pockets will have the cash to ride it out.
Brand really matters now
There's so much mediocre travel content out there now that people are lost in it and don't know what they can trust. No one had heard of Simonseeks and so it was never going to become a destination for people looking for travel content without serious advertising investment. The likes of the established guidebook publishers and travel magazines have a real opportunity to make ground here. This is increasingly the case as the Google algorithm seems more and more weighted towards trusted brands. Slowly the on-line world is beginning to look a bit more like the real offline world too.
The right promotion?
Simonseeks was really pushing its pro-writers to develop Facebook and twitter profiles to publicise their content on the site. But from what I've seen and what I know it always felt like it was a bit of a lip-service thing. There was no real incentive to get writers to do this and no social media strategy from Simonseeks editorial team that I am aware of. They could and should have really invested in social media - by that I mean having someone on the editorial team responsible for a twitter feed and Facebook profile engaging with users, publicising content, driving traffic. Instead the blew £2million on TV ads. This for me really made clear that they didn't 'get' online. Sure it might have worked for Simon's Moneysupermarket.com business, but that kind of site is about people arrivin ready to buy. Simonseeks was far more about people arriving ready to browse, consider, engage... and then maybe buy by clicking through somewhere else. A far lower revenue per visitor kind of model. I'd have spent a quarter of that sum on building a following on twitter and facebook and really leveraging the content that was there.
So... where does that leave this kind of concept? Dead and buried I think. The web has moved on - as swiftly as it always does - and I think the way people will pay for travel content in the very near future will be on their smartphones. Maybe a chunk of the 2 million they spent on ads they should have spent on an iPhone app and an android app.
Lots of great writers have slogged long and hard to get great content on Simonseeks.com. The pros have been paid a decent rate and so in some ways that's that. But for example my friend Shawn who is the SS expert for Seville now has nowhere for that content. Will she be allowed to take it back and stick it on her own blog? Will SS retain it and delete it? Or will it sit there ageing quietly, the links being farmed and redirected by a third party.
What do you think will happen next and where did Simonseeks go wrong?