Travel website Roadtest – Ten Years of Online Travel

We assessed eight companies considered by many to be early pioneers in the sector to find out which best meets the basic criteria for a successful, usable site



Thomson.co.uk


Thomson Holidays’ colourful past stretches back a lot further than just a decade, but the acquisition of Lunn Poly by Thomson Travel Group in 1972 was the move that associated the Thomson name with the UK’s largest chain of travel agents. Thomson Holidays is now part of TUI UK; itself part of the wider interests of German parent company, TUI AG.


Design
Thomson.co.uk may have a build date of 2004, but the pop-up window on the homepage is pure 1990s. As both Internet Explorer and Firefox block pop-ups by default, few are ever going to see this window’s content. In 2006, pop-ups are generally considered unwelcome; and pop-ups that get blocked seem wholly pointless.
Score: 8/25


Usability
Either white text in an orange box is an important link, or it’s a heading. Having both styled in a similar fashion is just confusing. A user unfamiliar with a site should be able to spot all a page’s links at a glance. Design decisions like this make such a feat less likely.
Score: 14/25


Accessibility
At least Thomson.co.uk shows evidence of its 2004 birth date in its code, but there’s little concession to accessibility.
Score: 12/25


Search engines
Thomson.co.uk is primarily a conduit to push traffic to Thomson’s many, many other websites. Marketing departments love this architecture: break up the company’s interests into individual themed websites, and have an ‘umbrella’ site to unify them. One website to rule them all. Flaw one: back-links (links from third-party sites) are spread among multiple sites, diluting the ability of any of the sites to rank well. Flaw two: the site that naturally attracts the most back-links – the main company site – is bereft of content, so is unlikely to rank for any worthwhile searches.


Score: 12/25


TOTAL: 46/100


Thomson.co.uk does the job it was designed for, but from both a user’s and search engine’s point of view, it’s not actually a job it needs to do. Yes, the concept of breaking up a large, sprawling site into multiple smaller ones is valid, but not at the level Thomson is working at.



Ebookers.com


While Ebookers as we know it was only launched in 1999, the Flightbookers site that preceded it was claimed to be the UK’s first interactive travel website, back in 1996. Ebookers was eventually sold by founder Dinesh Dhamija to Cendant in 2005.


Design
Basic and functional… but there’s far more interesting stuff going on behind the scenes.
Score: 18/25


Usability
In common with a number of sites here, if you know exactly what you want, and there’s availability, handing over your money is relatively pain-free. When the situation isn’t so straightforward, it unravels. For example; why list more than 100 possible destination airports in Australia when we wanted to fly from London?
Score: 15/25


Accessibility
On its accessibility guidelines page, Ebookers states: “Ebookers’ aim is to make our website accessible and usable for all users. We have incorporated ‘best practice’ design principles… to ensure this website can be used effectively and easily by all.” Unfortunately, Ebookers has issues with every browser we tried other than Internet Explorer 6. These issues ranged from minor layout problems in Firefox, Safari and IE 7 to complete browser crashes in IE 5.
Score: 6/25


Search engines
Strange things are afoot at Ebookers: keyword-stuffed metatags, doorway pages with automatically generated content and duplicate content across multiple domains is just the start. Add in the extensive use of subdomains and in-site page redirects, and Ebookers looks like a site that’s asking to be black-listed. A search on the company name in Google doesn’t return this site until the fifth page of results, suggesting that Google may have already started to dish out the punishment.
Score: 2/25


TOTAL: 41/100


It may seem like Ebookers has few redeeming features. However, it does say on the site that improvements in accessibility are ongoing, and it has recently admitted that it’s having problems with its Google rankings. Maybe this unusual level of openness will prompt someone to step in and help Ebookers out.



Expedia.co.uk


Founded by Microsoft in 1996, purchased by what would become InterActiveCorp in 2003 and cut loose in 2005, Expedia is, and always has been, a big hitter. Roll in sister sites such as Hotels.com and TripAdvisor, and you’ve got a huge online presence. Expedia.co.uk is a relatively new addition, but it follows a familiar pattern.


Design
Google, eBay and Amazon understand that sometimes simple is best. So does Expedia. The site takes advantage of Internet conventions – main navigation that mirrors the look of real-world paper tabs, and underlined blue text as links – and rolls them into a clean, uncluttered design. It’s let down by a lack of consistency though: layout features, heading styles and text sizes change between the main sections, suggesting that content is being brought in from multiple sources.
Score: 14/25


Usability
When there’s little to say about usability, it usually means a site has got it right. Booking a hotel or flight with Expedia is uneventful, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Score: 18/25


Accessibility
For such a new site, Expedia’s apparent disregard for accessibility is difficult to understand. The underlying code is an awkward blend of different vintages, and the deals page alone returns an excessive 1,500 errors in the W3C’s HTML validator. Text resizing using browser controls works, but in Internet Explorer on the PC it goes from normal to unworkably large in a single step.
Score: 8/25


Search engines
Expedia.co.uk looks to carry the legacy of site components built by Microsoft. This makes large sections of it impenetrable to search engines. To combat this, content has been copied on to thousands of doorway pages, specifically for search engines to digest. Mixed in are pages that don’t have equivalents on the main site, and are of dubious value to users.
Score: 8/25


TOTAL: 48/100


For the average user, Expedia does the job. However, look under the bonnet and you’ll find a site that perhaps doesn’t live up to its billing.



Explore.co.uk


Set up independently in 1981, adventure holiday specialist Explore is now part of Holidaybreak, where it joins other well-known travel brands such as Hotelnet and Eurocamp.


Design
Explore has won awards, including one from Wanderlust magazine, and there’s no denying the site is rich in both design and content.
Score: 22/25


Usability
Earlier this year, Microsoft was forced to alter Internet Explorer as a consequence of a lost court case. One of the changes was in the way IE handled interactive Flash content, which required the user to explicitly enable each Flash control before using it. The workaround was to embed Flash content by using JavaScript, which resulted in lots of web developers having to fix sites which Microsoft had broken. No-one told Explore though, and the top navigation and clickable maps now require two clicks to get anywhere.
Score: 18/25


Accessibility
Old school tables-based layout, spacer GIFs and Flash main navigation suggest a 90s coding ethic, and as such, there have been few concessions to accessibility. Text doesn’t resize at all in IE and the homepage layout is broken in Firefox.
Score: 8/25


Search engines
Effort has obviously been put in to improve search engine ranking: there are search engine specific links in the family adventures section and on the homepage. They’re very obvious on the homepage… But this won’t help with Google though, which has far bigger issues with the site. Due to the single site being visible under what are technically three different domains – Explore.co.uk, www.explore.co.uk and Travel.explore.co.uk – Google is seeing three copies of the same site, and has applied a duplicate content penalty to the lot. Fixing the domain issues is simple, but getting Google to play fair again can be a fraught process.
Score: 6/25


TOTAL: 54/100


There’s more to a great website than just looking good, and Explore needs to work on some of the problems outlined above to maximise this site’s potential.



Havenholidays.co.uk


Bourne Leisure brought together the Haven and British Holidays brands when it acquired Haven from The Rank Group. Haven and British Holidays currently operates 34 holiday parks around the UK.


Design
This is the only site in this edition’s Roadtest that looks as if aesthetics were a priority. The design is consistent throughout, and relies on traditional web sensibilities wrapped in a modern design – the best of both worlds. There’s excellent use of colour too, without relying on it for site usability.
Score: 24/25


Usability
There’s a lot here to like: intelligent use of web conventions, such as tabs and standard link styles; multi-step bookings clearly labelled; strong and prominent calls to action placed at the top and bottom of appropriate pages… the list goes on. A lot of thought has been put into this. It shows.
Score: 24/25


Accessibility
Haven and British Holidays claim compliance with the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to AAA standard in most cases, with some pages only complying with the less rigorous AA standard. The implementation isn’t perfect – all pages would have to validate to the W3C’s published grammars for a start – but there’s been a very serious attempt to get things right. To put things in perspective, only Haven and Ebookers give any indication that they’ve even heard of the W3C’s accessibility guidelines, and this is the only site that’s made any attempt to implement them.
Score: 22/25


Search engines
A usable and accessible site takes you a long way, but links from other sites are just too important to ignore for a good ranking. Havenholidays doesn’t have these, known as backlinks, but for a site of this quality, link building shouldn’t be difficult at all.
Score: 14/25


TOTAL: 84/100


Haven and British Holidays may have an easier job than some here; it’s a far smaller site than many, and much simpler. However, the company has managed to do so much more in a number of categories than any of the others. For that, we applaud them.



Holiday-rentals.co.uk


Celebrating 10 years online this year, Holiday-rentals’ name perfectly describes its product. While still based in West London, the company is now owned by Texas-based HomeAway Inc.


Design
Holiday-rentals isn’t perhaps going to win any fashion shows, but this is simply due to the company prioritising function way above form, just like some of the web’s most celebrated sites, such as Amazon and Google.
Score: 18/25


Usability
There’s so much here that works, and even the low-quality maps don’t spoil things. Tab and breadcrumb navigation, blue and underlined links… even links to search results that tell you what to expect before you click the links. You can get a list of properties back in a country of your choice with either one or two clicks from the homepage. No waiting either.
Score: 20/25


Accessibility
Even though there’s no giveaway that Holiday Rentals has any sort of policy on accessibility, the straightforward way the site has been built, together with a lot of the search engine-centric work has resulted in a surprisingly accessible site. On the pages we looked at, Holiday-rentals complies with all of the W3C’s priority 1 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines’ checkpoints, something that only Haven and British Holidays manages to score better on.
Score: 18/25


Search engines
Holiday-rentals’ on-site optimisation efforts aren’t subtle, but it could all be justified as being for the users’ benefit too – just about. This use of keyword-rich clickable text (anchor text) and links within the actual page copy (contextual links) are a big part of this optimisation, and enhance usability and accessibility, as well as search engine rankings. Some 50,000 backlinks suggest that Holiday-rentals hasn’t been idle with its off-site optimisation either. Consequently, Holiday-rentals is one of the major players in its sector.
Score: 22/25


TOTAL: 78/100


A company that understands its market and the way the web should work. It may not be the best in all of the categories here, but Holiday-rentals is the only site that doesn’t have an obvious weak spot.



Lonelyplanet.com


A lot has changed since the publication of Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973. Now, Lonely Planet publishes more than 600 titles, and has rolled out its brand to encompass a television production company and Lonelyplanet.com, home to The Thorn Tree travel forum.


Design
The Lonely Planet site is essentially a navigable map of the world. You can drill down all the way to major cities, revealing not only snippets of Lonely Planet’s own content, but handy tips from fellow travellers. Speciality searches, such as hotels and flights, are loosely integrated and unobtrusive. A perception of independence is important to the brand, so being heavy-handed with commercial partnerships is carefully avoided.
Score: 24/25


Usability
The multi-level dropdown menus demand the dexterity of Mozart, but fortunately they’re not the only way to navigate the site – the clickable maps being far more intuitive. Adding a synonym ring to the main search would prevent searches such as ‘Marrakesh’ and ‘Marrakech’ returning significantly different results.
Score: 20/25


Accessibility
Lonely Planet’s code is a mix of old-school ‘tables-for-layout’ with inline JavaScript and modern accessible design sensibilities. This is typical of a site that’s been built up over time, but it is a sticking point for accessibility. Try navigating the site without JavaScript
enabled and you’ll soon come to a grinding halt.
Score: 10/25


Search engines
Unlike a lot of travel sites, Lonely Planet’s money terms are fairly restricted. It’s not competing for flight and hotel terms – even though it potentially could. However, search for ‘[destination] travel’ or [destination] guide’ and you’ll find Lonely Planet in the upper reaches of Google’s results. It’s an all-or-nothing approach, but half a million backlinks allow Lonely Planet to pull it off with little on-site optimisation. As the travel industry gets more competitive, and Google puts more weight on linking strategies, Lonely Planet’s results are only going to get better.


Score: 20/25


TOTAL: 72/100


It does what it says on the tin, and that’s difficult to criticise.



Travelocity.co.uk


Owned by online travel behemoth Sabre Holdings, the original Travelocity site was launched in 1996. Cutting out intermediaries was a radical approach 10 years ago, but the competition soon caught up, meaning Travelocity hasn’t always had an easy ride.


Design
While Travelocity’s fundamental design is clean and simple, it looks as though the site had a facelift a couple of years ago, rather than a complete redesign. Once you get into the site proper, such as the holiday information pages, the formatting is basic and not appealing; rather spoiling what could be a very nice site.
Score: 16/25


Usability
It works, but there are huge improvements that could be made on the searches. The site’s happy to return no results on a search, and rarely provides any clues on how to remedy the situation. Supposedly useful functionality such as ‘find city’ on the flights search can hinder rather than help. Prompted to “enter the first few letters of the city or airport or country”, entering ‘BER’ only returns Berlin as a possibility. Users could assume that Travelocity didn’t book flights to Berne or Bermuda, when it fact it does.
Score: 14/25


Accessibility
Things certainly don’t look the same in Firefox or Apple’s Safari as they do in Internet Explorer. Luckily, the differences are superficial though, and don’t impact as negatively as they might. While the underlying code is far from standards-compliant, it’s a noticeably more modern effort than most here. Forms are built correctly, and resizing text from the browser works well cross-platform.
Score: 14/25


Search engines
Travelocity is built around a series of booking engines, which don’t provide much content for search engines. Travelocity has resorted to doorway pages. These aren’t subtle, and if they are integrated into the main site, we certainly couldn’t find them.
Score: 8/25


TOTAL: 52/100


It works, but it’s obvious that it’s primarily a route into Sabre’s back-end systems. The destination information and interactivity that can turn an average website into a good one is lacking.



The reviewer:


Rowan Shaeffer is a technical marketing analyst in the award-winning web development team at Netizen Digital.


Originally from a background in graphic design, programming and offline sales, Shaeffer has been involved in search engine marketing since 1997.


Prior to joining what was then Netizen, he held positions at Hoseasons, First Choice and MyTravel.
Netizen Digital is the newly created company formed following the acquisition of Netizen by direct response advertising agency, Accord Holdings.


The company’s paid-for search division, Accord Search Marketing, has been merged with Netizen to create Netizen Digital.



Criteria:


DESIGN = It’s not just whether a site is visually appealing: Does the design get in the way of the site’s functions? Are design themes consistent? Are web conventions utilised? Does it work convincingly?


USABILITY = Making it easy for your clients to find the exact information they need when they need it. A huge and emotive subject, but the usability testing carried out by gurus such as Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug has provided a solid knowledge base for tuning underperforming websites.


ACCESSIBILITY = “…the ability of a web page to be viewed by everyone, especially people with disabilities who use various assistive technologies.” At a rudimentary level, does a site work in all modern browsers? Site operators should be taking the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines into consideration.


SEARCH ENGINES = The key to good search engine rankings in 2006 is to be both popular and relevant. Links from other sites, on-topic page copy and traditional optimisation can all help. Abusing the system can be effective, but you run the risk of penalties or banning.



Overview:


On August 6, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee posted a summary of his World Wide Web project to the alt.hypertext newsgroup. By 1996, the most agile of this month’s Roadtest subjects had followed Berners-Lee on to the Internet.


Lest we forget, 1996 was a world where Netscape had a stranglehold on the browser market, where the term ‘search engine’ meant the likes of Infoseek and AltaVista, and where the concept of making websites accessible to everyone was crazy talk.


In the intervening decade, the online travel sector has become one of the most competitive and potentially profitable of all. Today’s travel websites have to balance design, usability and compliance with still-evolving accessibility standards, and, if these want a cut of the vast amount of free traffic driven by Google, Yahoo! and MSN, a degree of search engine friendliness. And be able to convert enough traffic into sales to warrant the effort? A tall order that very few sites get right.


However, our selection of travel pioneers have had a decade to polish their performances. Does practise really make perfect?

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