Travel website Roadtest – Social media

We assessed eight travel information portals on five different criteria to see how successful they are from a social media perspective



Telegraph Travel


The Daily Telegraph was the first European national newspaper to launch a website in 1994. Since then it has seen FT.com and Guardian Unlimited take the praise for innovation. An ownership change has meant investment in digital services is now flooding in.


Community
Community efforts include a message board and the ability to comment on blog posts. But both are watered down versions of the kinds of participation we see in wider social media. There are no links from blog comments to individuals’ blogs. The message board didn’t seem well used and there was no connection back to the articles. Score: 9/20


Popularity
The site does very well at attracting links from blogs. These are earned for the most part by the quality of the journalism, strength of stories and its authority as a news source for bloggers. Score: 12/20


Usefulness
The Daily Telegraph is useful to its networks mainly as a source of high-quality, authoritative content that can inspire or act as reference for discussions and content in social media, such as blogs and wikis. It would be even more useful if its forums and commenting facilities were better at facilitating discussion. Score: 12/20


Use of social media
In its travel section there are podcasts, links to social media communities, RSS feeds and a message board facility. Its high standards of journalism also translate into highly readable blogs, and an approach to blogging that is well thought through. Score: 13/20


Findability
The Telegraph Travel website does well in search rankings, but could do better. The site uses session IDs and parameters in its URLs, which make it harder for search engines to access it. The internal search function searches the site as a whole – therefore a destination-based query didn’t return travel-related content and we also had problems finding specific articles we knew were there. Score: 10/20


TOTAL: 56/100


A determined innovator, but it could do more to encourage community and connect with social media.



Times Online travel


The Times is still the unofficial ‘newspaper of record’ for the UK. Times Online acts as a portal for The Times and The Sunday Times.


Community
The Times’ marketing campaign majors on the idea of joining the debate on its website, and it doesn’t disappoint. The Your Say section lives up to its name with comments and debate around some stories every bit as interesting and engaging as the original article. A showcase for travel stories and experiences in Your World is scheduled for this month. Score: 10/20


Popularity
As a trusted media brand, Times Online, like its peers, benefits from a healthy amount of links and references from social media, with more than 1,100 Wikipedia links at the time of our test, and a good number of blogs with posts on Times Travel stories. Score: 16/20


Usefulness
The Times is most useful to social media in the stories it provides. It organises its information around destinations well, but like most newspaper brands, its information is presented as a collection of its articles and it is up to the user to dig for information they need. Score: 10/20


Use of social media
The Smugshots section – where people can send in holiday pics – is a nice touch, but it feels like user-generated content in a filtered, controlled way. Times Travel also has blogs on the main site, but no way of selecting specialist travel blogs. The travel section would do well to consider providing its readers with a wider, forum-style space to debate issues and swap travel tips. Score: 11/20


Findability
Search engines can access all the content. The internal search function returns results from the entire Times Online site. However, when the query is destination-based, the results are biased towards the travel section of the site rather than general news content. Score: 15/20


TOTAL: 62/100


Times Online is a highly connected website. However, beyond the ability to comment on articles, it is only scratching the surface of the benefits it can gain from engaging more fully with social media.



The Independent


The Independent is the youngest of the so-called quality UK newspapers, launched in 1986. It has won plaudits for its innovation in print, being the first broadsheet to go compact.


Community
The Independent doesn’t even make a bad job of including reader comment in its travel section – it doesn’t do it. Reader contributions are limited to the letters section, which is a reproduction of the letters that have been printed in the main paper. Score: 1/20


Popularity
Attracts the least links from social media networks of any of the portals we reviewed. The reason? It is barely open for business as far as social media is concerned – there are so many other useful sites to link to and to get information from. Score: 2/20


Usefulness
The Independent has very average usefulness to its networks and is the least useful of the four national papers we reviewed. There seems to be a lack of interest in this area at present. Score: 8/20


Use of social media
The site provides an RSS feed and some sponsored podcasts, but there is little beyond this. Even the RSS feeds have to be acquired the hard way – readers would have to cut and paste the URL into a form. This misses out on the latest features in most web browsers that allow people to subscribe to feeds via a button on their toolbar. There is a blogs section but it is not a thriving one and there are no travel-focused blogs. Score: 6/20


Findability
Search engines can access all the site’s content and it benefits from strong search rankings. The internal search function searches the site as a whole, so a destination-based query didn’t return travel-related content. A Google site search provided more relevant results. Score: 13/20


TOTAL: 30/100


The Travel Channel on The Independent is a dour website. It is much more like a collection of newspaper articles available for view online. Of the newspaper websites we reviewed, The Independent was the least engaged with social media.



Guardian Travel


Guardian Unlimited was launched in 1999. It has expanded to become the UK market leader, with about 2.5 million users a month. The travel portal relaunched at the end of November.


Community
There are plenty of opportunities for readers, although there’s no facility for comment after news and feature articles. Most impressive is the site’s Been There facility, which compiles travel guides to destinations from readers’ comments and insights. Score: 15/20


Popularity
Guardian Travel scores big on earning attention in the form of links (and presumably traffic) from social media. It not only attracts links for the same reasons as other traditional media brands, but because it goes furthest in making itself useful to its networks. Score: 18/20


Usefulness
The journalism is excellent, and with Reader Tips, blogs and articles all contributing to the content, and information about all aspects of travel, readers are well served. Most forward looking of all, Guardian Travel happily sends users elsewhere for useful content. Score: 14/20


Use of social media
RSS feeds, blogs, message boards, podcasts and tag-clouds abound. The message boards would benefit from being more forum-like (see Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree). The RSS feeds could be more tailored – but that’s a minor criticism of a website that is learning from social formats and finding ways to make the most of them. Score: 14/20


Findability
The website has no accessibility issues, so search engines can access all the content. The internal search function searches the whole site – a destination-based query did not return travel content. Curiously, Been There still resides on its own URL. Score: 15/20


TOTAL: 86/100


A leader among newspaper brand travel portals. Its redesign brought a fresh look to the site and gave more prominence to its Been There reader reviews. It is innovative in its use of social media formats and benefits from an ethos and strategy suited to engage with its communities and benefit from the network prominence.



Yahoo! Travel


The travel portal of global Internet giant Yahoo! has expanded massively in recent years. New tools are being added frequently. Yahoo! has bought into Web 2.0, snapping up Flickr and Del.icio.us.


Community
There’s community involvement on the Yahoo! Travel site: users can submit reviews about hotels, restaurants and local attractions on Travel Guides. Expert reviewers are also included (content taken from and linking to other travel sites). But this is a sales environment first and foremost, and it is hard to forget that. Score: 12/20


Popularity
Despite its enthusiasm for user-generated content Yahoo! Travel attracts relatively low numbers of links from social media networks. This may be because of the lack of original content or news, which blogs especially are more likely to look to mainstream media brands for. Given the brand, it could be attracting a lot more attention. Score: 10/20


Usefulness
Although most of the content on the website is from third parties, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as Yahoo! Travel draws on quality sources. So the usefulness of this site is in aggregating content and services and combining them with a booking engine. Score: 12/20


Use of social media
User reviews are the only real social media influence on Yahoo! Travel in the UK. The US version of the site offers slide shows for destinations in which you can choose to see Lonely Planet or Flickr images. Clearly this will arrive in the UK soon. Score: 10/20


Findability
As you’d expect, findability is one of the strengths of this portal. A destination-based query returned a search result page broken up into relevant destination guides, visitor attractions and restaurant. Other travel portals should consider this a benchmark for findability. Score: 20/20


TOTAL: 64/100


Yahoo!’s purchase last year of Flickr and Del.icio.us, two of the most high-profile social media community sites, mark it out as a site that should be very much engaged with social media. But this is a sales site, with pages packed with deals and prominent advertising.



Lonely Planet


The first Lonely Planet was published by husband and wife team Tony and Maureen Wheeler from their home in Australia in 1973. Since then the company has produced about 650 guides. Its web presence includes the popular Thorn Tree chat forum.


Community
Lonely Planet is all about community. Look at one of its books and you will see lists of acknowledgements of contributions from independent travellers. This makes for highly rich and detailed content. All reviews on the website include a Review facility for others to leave their responses and personal experiences. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree community forum is impressive in its own right. Score: 19/20


Popularity
Lonely Planet is a global brand and it shows in its link popularity with social media. It benefits from massive attention from blogs, social networks and content communities from around the world. Score: 19/20


Usefulness
Lonely Planet is the most useful of the travel portals we reviewed. It starts with in-depth, authoritative destination information and reviews and then goes much further. There are links to third-party websites, a classifieds section to help independent travellers find everything from flat-shares, jobs and travelling companions. Score: 19/20


Use of social media
Social media formats are widely used. There’s a personal blog from the founder of Lonely Planet, podcasts and links to Del.icio.us. One curious feature was the Personal Travel Journal that offers travellers a blogging facility – although at $89 a year it is an expensive option compared with the many free or lower-cost blogging platforms. Score: 17/20


Findability
Search engines can access all the content and its internal search function competed well against a Google site search. Score: 18/20


TOTAL: 92/100


Lonely Planet is the leader when it comes to travel portals from a social media point of view. Its popularity with social media sites is rewarded by search engines. If you’re surfing for travel information you’ll discover Lonely Planet – and you’ll be pleased when you do.



Rough Guides


Launched in 1982, Rough Guides has expanded to produce books for about 200 destinations.


Community
Community is right up there as a heading on the Rough Guides toolbar, and the site has some good points in this area. Contributing to the community is rewarded by a system of points (1,000 for writing your first journal) that can be redeemed for gift vouchers for online stores and frequent-flyer miles. Score: 16/20


Popularity
Although Rough Guides is strong in community and social media features, it is less connected than many of the other portals to social media networks. It performs well in terms of links from communities such as Del.icio.us, but is a long way behind Lonely Planet. Score: 10/20


Usefulness
Rough Guides is feature and content-rich and there are many ways to explore the mass of editor and user-produced content. Podcasts, e-books, audio books, and downloadable maps make it a useful site as that visitors can use the content in different ways. Score: 17/20


Use of social media
There are lots of social media-like features – but they are executed in less flexible ways than you would see in many successful social media communities. The journals could be more useful to the networks though; they have a clunky US-centric sign-up process, for instance (you can only choose five of 40-odd travel activities that you enjoy for your profile). Readers can rate articles but not comment. I didn’t see any links out, which limits their usefulness. Score: 13/20


Findability
Rough Guides has no accessibility issues for search engines. The internal search function is average, but it provides relevant results. Score: 13/20


TOTAL: 69/100


Rough Guides has experimented with social media formats and done a lot of work to build and involve community. It could learn more by looking at how its communities organise themselves and use content in social media networks and by taking on some of the features of blogs to become more connected with its networks.



MSN Travel


The travel section of the MSN portal is more comprehensive for US users than those in the UK. MSN is also a portal for news, information, and lifestyle topics.


Community
We found little to win over or encourage community on the UK MSN portal. But in the US users can post information and ask questions on message boards. There is also the facility on the US site to submit user reviews direct to the MSN portal. Score: 10/20


Popularity
The UK portal is infrequently cited by social media as there is little reason to reference it. The US portal fares better, as it has more useful content to attract links from bloggers and other social media. Score: 12/20


Usefulness
The UK portal has little to speak of in terms of usefulness beyond access to an excellent booking engine – Expedia. The US portal clearly has social media ambitions, but the execution is patchy and frustrating. For instance, the ability to e-mail articles to other people is useful, but the ‘IM This’ and ‘Blog This’ tags are not as they will only work on Microsoft’s services. Score: 10/20


Use of social media
Microsoft is making great strides in its engagement with social media, but there seems to be little integration with its travel portal yet. Microsoft’s Expedia owns TripAdvisor, which has been put to good use on the US portal. Message boards and tips were offered on the US portal and include nine pointers for research. Score: 10/20


Findability
MSN uses multiple parameters in its URLs, meaning some pages aren’t accessible to search engines. For a destination-based query, the internal search function returns relevant content, but it’s slow. Score: 11/20


Overall score: 53/100


Like Yahoo! Travel, MSN is first and foremost about selling travel rather than informing and being useful. It is mostly a travel sales site with an emphasis on searching for and booking a holiday.


* MSN was expected to relaunch the travel portal after Travolution went to press.



The author:


Antony Mayfield heads up Spannerworks’ content and media division, which has a strong focus on how social media affects brand and search engine marketing.


Before joining Spannerworks, the Brighton-based search engine marketing specialist, Mayfield worked for Bell Pottinger Group where he was a director at its technology specialist arm, Harvard, providing consultancy to clients including PlayStation, Vodafone and Fujitsu Services.


A member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, he is a regular speaker at marketing, media and communications conferences on the convergence of search engine marketing, brand communications and social media.


Read Antony’s personal blog

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