Travel publishers v. travel cos – the battle is on

Publishers now want customers, not just readers; travel cos now want readers, not just customers - who will win?

I’ve blathered a bit already about ‘free’.

I don’t buy this myth precipitated by internet companies and web savants – (Google, Chris Anderson etc) that somehow content just arrives by magic online with no cost associated with it. And somehow people make lots of money. It seems to me that almost all of the time, the people who create the free content (publishers, academics, enthusiasts) don’t make the money. It’s the tech companies that package and deliver it – think iTunes, Google again and so on.

I think 2012 is going to be a really interesting year for content and for monetization.

From my experience of talking to big media organisations and one-(wo)man blog operations alike, advertising alone usually does not pay your way. There are too many pages online chasing our eyeballs for the necessary scale to be achieved. And of course the number of pages keeps on and on growing.

As the world economy continues to slump, publishers – small and large – are just not going to be able to keep funding the creation and curation of free content in the vague hope that some day they will make money.

So... There’s pressure to monetize like never before.

Then there’s the Google panda update. For those who aren’t familiar with this, Google made quite radical changes to the way they rank pages about 6 months ago. The key reason for these changes was to try and stamp out the really poor quality content that clogged up search results. Content farms that published 100s even 1000s of pages every day using search term research to create poorly written pages of content that did just enough to make Google think they were decent. (Here’s how you do make money from advertising – by creating monstrous scale – and not giving a toss about readers.)

Panda kind of worked – a lot of the crap has dropped right off the search results. Many bonafide companies would argue they have been unfairly demoted too however, whilst big brands seem to have done rather well.

So... Quality content and a well-known, trusted brand matter like never before.

For the travel sector (and probably many others) I now see a really interesting race taking place between travel publishers and travel businesses.

Travel Publishers
The free content (aka advertising) model doesn’t work, so publishers (newspaper travel sections, travel magazines) will have to find other revenue streams for their online operations. They could put up paywalls and charge you to read. Some have done that – but general consensus would seem to be it’s hardly delivering vast revenues.

So, either the quality of their free content will have to diminish (they’ll cut costs even more to try and at least break even with what ad revenue they are achieving) or they’ll have to sell us stuff much more overtly. Maybe a combination of both. Think more Top 20-style charticles with more overt ‘buy this holiday now’ messages alongside. (We could get to a point where the website and the print editions look increasingly different as a result. In fact I’d argue for this model to work, they should be. Radically so.)

Travel Businesses
There has been much talk of brands as publishers. The idea that online, anyone can publish stuff, so why not be a publisher too? But up to now I don’t see many that have taken this idea really seriously. By this I mean doing far more than sticking up some destination guides and trying to get customers to add reviews. This could all change with the impact of Google’s panda update. Think of the typical online travel agent (OTA) (someone like Expedia) or the metasearch engine (someone like I know nothing about the SEO strategy of these businesses, but I’d bet they’ve spent a lot on old school SEO over the years – using link building and all the other smart ways that SEO people know to ensure that they stay top of search results... with far, far less investment in quality content. But, me-too bog-standard content isn’t working so well now. Google is pushing people to create better, more authoritative content by implementing the panda update. The quality of its content will increasingly impact how high up the search results a website is. The smart online travel businesses (big and small) are beginning to get this. They are investing in really good, well written content. And if they are smarter still they will keep investing.

What I find fascinating about this situation is that travel companies have a huge advantage over publishers. They have a business model that works. They sell holidays/flights etc. and make money. The publishers don’t (yet).

Who is best placed to dominate in the travel sector online ultimately?

Can the publishers plug product into their online offering without giving the impression that their hard-earned reputation for impartiality is now worthless? Conversely can the travel companies publish really excellent unbiassed content without reverting to their standard mantra of buy, buy, buy?

I think 2012 could be the year we really see.


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