Travel publishers v. travel cos – the battle is on

18 Dec

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 Travelsupermarket.com). 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.

Image:DaveCrosby

25 Responses to “Travel publishers v. travel cos – the battle is on”

  1. Matthew Teller 18. Dec, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    Really smart post, Jeremy - thank you.

    You missed one other possibility. Canny travel publishers (I'm thinking newspapers) could realise which way the wind is blowing in travel, pull back from the morass of travel crud being churned out online & elsewhere, and use their travel pages as loss-leaders. Restore masthead credibility & reputation by giving readers standout beautiful writing, unbiased listings, genuine destination insight and even some photography that isn't bog-standard agency filler.

    To do that means no celeb beach lounging, no family hols for staff, no one-feature-a-week scrimping, no advertorials - it would be a conscious decision to invest in quality travel writing that breaks new ground in terms of coverage, treatment and tone in order to entice readers and draw choosier advertisers across the title. No other part of the paper could do this - politics is ossified, finance is too depressing, sport is subservient to TV, features too woolly... Everyone travels. Everyone can relate to travel. Newspaper readers want a good read. It fits.

    The way the Telegraph once used to tout its sports writing, or the Independent used to tout its political analysis - a paper which used its travel section to become known for quality, and therefore worthy of purchase, could be onto a sly winner.

    Well, a travel writer can dream, surely...

    • Jeremy Head 19. Dec, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

      It is a dream though isn't it? I just can't see it happening when the renevue equation doesn't seem to add up. Huge investment with no certainty of financial return. Would be brave publisher indeed who did it.

  2. Andy Jarosz 18. Dec, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    Excellent questions with no clear answers. Agree that travel companies have a clear advantage in being able to use content to drive sales by improving their search engine results. Those that get it are investing in decent content to climb the search rankings. Stuart (RTW Flights*) provided his ROI analysis for buying articles from writers at Social Travel Market. He showed how by paying writers to produce articles that prospective customers wanted to read he gets a better return than he would from a pay-per-click campaign.

    An increasing number of travel companies (although still a small minority overall) are following a similar route. It will be interesting to see if this growth continues. I suspect it will, but slowly.

    As for publishers, they may well increasingly feel the need to tie product sales to their content in order to survive (I can't see advertising providing a sustainable revenue for many folks in the current climate). With that shift comes the risks associated with lack of impartiality you've mentioned, but how much of that trust has already been lost? Matthew's utopian vision does sound far more attractive I'll admit.

    As you say 2012 promises to be very interesting although the cynic in me wonders whether the picture will look even murkier this time next year.

  3. stuart 18. Dec, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    I think the pressure to monetise has always been there. There's a very good talk by Wolfgang Blau of Zeit Online in which he both agrees -- and disagrees -- with you. He says CPMs are going two ways - north and south, with the quality of the content being the deciding factor.

    Google Panda, which at least theoretically devalued junk (I'm yet to see a compelling case of a travel site penalised which didn't to some extent have it coming), combined with what Blau says and you have the way forward.

    Quality, useful content.

    I do think other revenue streams, in particular hotel reservations, can be used to far surpass what travel sites will earn through flat CPM deals. Plus other affiliate stuff can be used to provide a few extra baskets for them eggs. I do think these can be managed without impacting independence.

    But at the end of the day, the net owes nobody a living and the days of throwing together some generic sunny beach content and slapping Adense on it are long gone.

    Blau video is here:
    http://vimeo.com/33490877

  4. Andy Jarosz 19. Dec, 2011 at 7:25 am #

    Apologies for the floating asterisk in my earlier comment; it was meant to indicate a disclosure that I do occasionally write for Stuart at RTW Flights.

  5. David Whitley 19. Dec, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    I think 2013 might be the key year. Panda has changed the way that Google looks at things, but it is by no means perfected yet. There's still a mentality that you can pump out lots of poor to mediocre material and still do well out of it. The rush to pump it out is only going to continue in 2012.

    Travel companies are increasingly switching on to the idea of getting eyeballs in with content. But most travel companies are run by accountants rather than publishers - they'll want to get their 'content' up as cheaply as possible. Quality will be a secondary issue.

    But as more and more mediocre content hits the web, said mediocre content will become less useful. The Panda will get pickier, only interested in the highest grade bamboo. More importantly, people using the web will eventually tire of wading through endless mediocrity, and seek people they trust to guide them through it.

    So I see 2012 as the year of content explosion - mostly cheap, unadventurous content. Smart publishers and travel companies will see 2012 as the year to position themselves as offering something different - something better. And that pre-standing reputation will put them miles ahead of the pack in 2013/ 2014 when everyone realises that content for content's sake doesn't work - it has to be of good quality and distinctive.

    That's my utopian vision, anyway.

  6. David Whitley 19. Dec, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Just realised that my essay avoided the original question. Heavens know how I passed my exams at school...

    Anyway - for the traditional travel publishers, 2012 will be vital if they're going to be able to stay in the game. Bold decisions will have to be made, presenting travel differently - and excellently. If they want to be seen as the trusted guides to lead through the morass of average, they have got to publish high quality material, present innovatively and stay a step ahead. Some will. Others will die out.

    • Jeremy Head 19. Dec, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

      Differently - yes absolutely.
      The thing people just aren't doing enough (particularly trad publishers) is using the far greater functionality the web offers over paper and delivering a totally different user experience. Critical... but I see no evidence of this kind of visionary thinking at the moment... one possible exception the Guardian's city guides:
      eg: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/series/istanbul-city-guide
      But still a long way to go I'd say.

  7. Jack 19. Dec, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    'More importantly, people using the web will eventually tire of wading through endless mediocrity...'

    I hope you're right David. However, this one word makes me think possibly not - TripAdvisor.

    • Jeremy Head 19. Dec, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

      I think that Trip Advisor is actually doing some pretty innovative things. They definitely 'get' this issue of being confronted with hundreds of reviews. Still a good way to go - but see this for example:
      http://www.travelblather.com/2011/08/friends-future-seo.html
      I'd be surprised if they didn't come up with more ways to sift and sort the reviews so they are more individually relevant in 2012.

      • Jack 21. Dec, 2011 at 9:21 am #

        TripAdvisor may be doing some innovative things and, if you can sift through the dross (or have friends who write objective reviews), some reviews are useful. The question is how many mainstream users seeking reliable information can separate the wheat from the chaff? It's a question that applies to online and print writing otherwise how do we explain a zillion comments praising the most banal of blogs or, as Matthew mentioned, newspapers filled with celeb beach lounging and advertorials etc?

        TA is packed to the gunwales with pointless reviews, self promotion and serious subjectivity of advice on its forums (all advice is subjective but there's a difference between authoritative and 'my opinion after 5 minutes in a location'). Yet despite its many flaws and questionable content it's immensely popular. Its DEs probably have more direct influence than many travel bloggers...and writers.

        It is a triumph of mediocrity.

  8. David Whitley 19. Dec, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    I'd argue that the existence of Tripadvisor makes my scenario more likely. It has done an excellent job in largely cornering the UGC market. Others can copy, but where's the USP? The more mediocre content there is - and that's what people will invest in while they see it working - the greater the need for good content.

  9. Sean O' 19. Dec, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    Great article, Jeremy. And thanks to the commenters for sharing the Wolfgang Blau video.

  10. Stuart Lodge 19. Dec, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    It could be argued that CPC through adwords needs to rise to such a level as to make well-written articles more worthwhile for mainstream travcos. I think this will be the major driver of quality (funny what people will turn to in a recession)

    However bear in mind the dichotomy of Google: whilst driving through Panda can be applauded in delousing the web a wee bit, through Adwords, hotel maps, flight search, and the "space they take above the fold" of a search, the Big G are the biggest competitor to all other marketing. This is not such a good thing IMO.

    Don't know so much about traditional publishers, although my wife is a fairly senior one, but digital first (and last), seems to be what's on everyone's lips. It would seem Amazon is to book publishing what Google is to traditional travel advertising and thus content and thus writer's pay...

    Merry Xmas one and all

    Stu

    ps. Lots of utopian visions going on and I hope one of them is right. Suspect you're all a bit ahead of your time though. Like Michael J Fox.

    • Jeremy Head 19. Dec, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

      Hi Stu
      Great points about Google's ambivalence here.
      I wonder if their ad revenues shot up after panda?
      And yes re maps too - reckon this will drive the move to more niche content - 'hotels in New York' type queries will deliver the map. But pet-friendly hotels in New York won't. As long as users appreciate the need to get more and more specific with their search queries this should I think lead to better content.
      And of course there's more to come isn't there for google with flight search etc etc.
      Yo ho ho
      J

  11. Caroline Eden 19. Dec, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    Would like to add to Matthew's comments about pulling 'back from the morass of travel crud being churned out online & elsewhere'. We certainly all wish for this.

    I am, this morning, writing a feature on Central Asia, somewhere that I specialise in and a region that I feel lends itself to 'classic' travel writing- plenty of adventure, culture, history etc, which for me, makes for an interesting, informative read.
    Getting editors to publish on this region - where most readers will not actually travel to ever - is a toughie.

    I have managed it with a 3 good magazines, 1 guidebook publisher and one new on-line mag - but it's an on-going challenge.

    Ed's worry that their readers will find a feature on the 'stans difficult (I always disagree with this - I feel it's because Central Asia is not deemed 'sexy' enough that many dismiss it - what about Mongolia, China, Burma? They all get a fair bit of coverage) and vex about their ad revenue (understandably) whilst I'm left pondering how the many of them got these top notch jobs in the first place when they admit to lacking the most basic geographical knowledge of this key region of the world....

    It seems book publishers like the idea of daring travelogues across less-visited areas but newspapers and mag's - aimed more at the masses - will not take, even an occasional, risk - a shame, I feel.

    • Jeremy Head 19. Dec, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

      I think it's all unfortunately about ad revenue. The big destinations - Italy, Thailand, Spain etc are the ones that most people want to advertise around. Editors are less and less able to choose the focus of their sections these days. More and more of these decisions have strong influence from the ad sales team. The end result is the same old features month after month. I'm exaggerating a bit... but I think you see my point.

      • Matthew Teller 20. Dec, 2011 at 8:43 am #

        Maybe I'm utterly thick, but I never understood why - especially in travel - ads have to relate to editorial. What difference, if a three-page feature on Tajikistan is split by ads for Italy and Thailand? What difference, if you advertise a Kenya safari in a feature on Seattle?

        If your weak & fragile ad can only stand up if buttressed by editorial, then surely you need to talk to your designers. And if editorial can only function when buttressed by neatly sync'd ads alongside, surely the commissioning eds need to hire more compelling writers.

        No doubt someone will now pop up to explain to me how much more 'effective' an Italy ad is if placed in Italy editorial.

        Or is this actually part of a creeping unspoken global conspiracy to subtly erase the conceptual difference between editorial and advertising altogether, and thereby implant 'buy buy buy' impulse chips into our frontal lobes?

        If I'm reading about X I'd *prefer* to see an ad for Y alongside, rather than a sequence of ads for X. Targeted advertising gives me a nasty rash. I *like* an ed-ad mashup. Am I just old?

        • Jeremy Head 20. Dec, 2011 at 10:05 am #

          Well, talk to any ad sales person and they'll say it's a far easier sell to get someone to advertise if it's to go alongside a destination that they sell.
          And I think that's testament to how in the old days at least editorial was seen as all powerful. The idea that the reader gets hooked on the idea of that destination by reading a great piece of writing and is then moved to start thinking 'Hmm. Maybe I should go there?'
          It's a pretty tried and tested formula. I guess it's about as 'targetted' as you can get with advertising mainstream in print media. The potential audience is so vast and broad that it's your one hope of putting your promotional message in a vaguely appropriate place.

  12. Matthew Teller 20. Dec, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    You're undoubtedly right. But it's patent phooey, of course. People don't think in straight lines like that, and certainly not on a purchase of several hundred (or thousand) pounds.

    "Wow, Tajikistan sounds great, doesn't it? We should go away again soon, shouldn't we? Oh look, Bloggins Tours have got a deal on Cuba - wouldn't that be lovely? Gosh, this is such a varied & interesting magazine. What's for tea?" Sounds plausible?

    Sales are following advertisers, who are following Mythical Customers, who want to read something nice but are distracted by sales, who are following advertisers... Business vanishing up its own posterior. I'm starting to sound like Murray. Sorry for threadjack; will stop now.

  13. Dan Johnson 20. Dec, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Hi Jeremy - do you have any thoughts on the Northern & Shell experiment - putting travel content from their 3 titles (Express, Star and OK) onto a separately branded deals website (www.tripideas.co.uk).

    It seems to me that their strategy is to create a deals website backed by good content, rather than tack deals to their traditional travel pages?

    I've also been wondering why the travel press don't start charging for links in their online coverage? If handled in the right way (so it protects the integrity of the editorial) this could supplement falling classified revenues.

    • Jeremy Head 21. Dec, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

      Hi Dan
      Sorry I meant to reply and forgot.
      I think this approach is absolutely a good way to go IF you are switching your focus towards a more aggressive commerical model. Consider the product you want to sell first, then create appropriate content. This is of course what the travel cos already do. But I think publishers will increasingly start to think like this too. Tripideas is a pretty nasty looking site though and I'd question how successful it will be.
      Here's something the Telegraph just launched... some interesting similarities:
      http://www.hand-picked.telegraph.co.uk/current-sales/affiliate
      Re links: At least one national has tinkered with this idea too. But paid links are an absolute no-no with the likes of Google. A mainstream publisher just couldn't risk doing this. Way too dangerous. If Google found out they were doing this, they'd drop them from their rankings and the damage to the reputation of the publication would be huge.
      Cheers!
      Jeremy

      • Dan Johnson 23. Dec, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

        Thanks Jeremy - the Telegraph site looks great. I think sites such as 101Holidays, where established journalists are writing content to promote company's who pay to advertise with them, are another way forward.
        Re your comment about paid links, lots of sites charge companies to advertise/partner with them, in return for being featured or for mentions in roundups and articles - is it only wrong when you specifically pay for a link?

  14. Caitlin 27. Dec, 2011 at 2:32 am #

    Heh, it's funny that you mention lists with 'buy, buy, buy' messages, when I've just done my first ever affiliate post! I hope it stands up as quality content though. Actually I think it was a bit of a service because you can't search the Urban Adventures site by type of activity, only by destiation. http://www.roamingtales.com/2011/12/26/city-kayak-tours/

  15. Durant Imboden 01. Jan, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    I'm skeptical about the idea that online travel agencies and other vendors will be able to usurp the role of travel publishers. For one thing, it just isn't cost-effective for a large company to commission and maintain the kind of in-depth, professionally-written editorial content that stands out from the ever-growing flood of general travel sites. A company like Expedia is better off investing in its core business than in trying to become the new Lonely Planet or Frommer's.

    A few other thoughts:

    - Don't be too quick to assume that advertising doesn't work for publishers. The "nichier" the publisher, the more opportunities there are for decent ad CPMs--at least, if the publisher has enough traffic to interest a strong rep firm or vertical ad network.

    - Affiliate links, hotel-search boxes, etc. are another form of advertising ("CPA," or "cost per action" advertising), and they can be extremely profitable on sites where active travelers are researching where to go, what to do, and how to spend their money.

    - There's a tendency to lump all "travel sites" or "content sites" together when discussing the viability of business models. That's a mistake. For a site like Lonely Planet or our own Europeforvisitors.com, which are geared to active travelers who are planning trips, travel advertising and affiliate links are more practical--and profitable--than a paywall. For The New York Times or The Telegraph, the opposite might be true.

    - An observation about Google Panda: We lost some traffic to Panda, but we also gained traffic for our most popular and profitable topic (which happens to be the one for which we have the most comprehensive, in-depth editorial content). I suspect that, going forward, sites that don't have big brand names like TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet will benefit from focusing on the topics that they cover best. (Either that, or hiring authors who have expert knowledge and using Google's "author markup" to draw attention to the presence of material by those authors on their sites.)