How bizarre is this. In a world of turmoil, amid a sea of technological innovation, Australia’s online travel industry quietly, steadily goes about its business, firmly in the grip of long-term trends and a big corporate, deals-based culture. Where is the romance, the adventure, the inspiration, the volatility! The answer is – like your next holiday destination – it’s all out there; you’ve just got to look extra hard.

Here are some thought on the Aussie Travel Web after researching the Top 25 sites for final judging in the TRAVELtech Amadeus Website of the Year. What do you think?

  • Design: The big trend is the increasing use of large images, especially rotating splash for destination and hotel sites. While sometimes this approach works really well, at other times you’d have to question its logic as it can obscure the quest for content and information. A mix of both is always best. As for the big commercial sites, very little change. Why?
  • Fear of Failure: A lot of sites are sticking with the status quo, fearful of change. There are probably two reasons: 1) if it ain’t broke don’t fix it; 2) The risk of losing Google rankings, costing visitors and income. The re-launch of TotalTravel.com by Yahoo7, marked by a dramatic fall in visitors, is a classic example of what can happen if change is not managed properly.
  • User reviews: Remain sadly lacking in 99% of major Australian sites. Not a single important website that didn’t already have them has introduced user reviews in the past year. This still includes Wotif.com, the most popular accommodation website. Yet they boost conversions and do wonders for SEO. This reticence is a mystery to me.
  • Social media: A misnomer. Really, it’s all about Facebook, which many sites are integrating and leveraging rather than using their own web own platform as a basis for community. It’s an understandable approach – why reinvent the wheel – but needs to be managed properly. For example, the current strategies seem overtly commercial and revolve around garnering as many ‘likes’ as possible through using deals and prizes as hooks. Buying affection never works.
  • Innovation: Despite fear of failure (see above), there’s some good stuff happening. Clever, practical Apps developed by World Nomads and Viator come to mind. Also, there’s been further refinement of already slick operations among the big sites such as Qantas.com, which claimed a world first by a launching a flexible multi-sector booking engine it developed with Amadeus.
  • Visitor Numbers: Not a lot of change in the Experian Hitwise Hottest 100. Any market shift among the commercial sites appears closely linked to the amount – or lack of – search marketing activity. The rise and rise of Booking.com (#14 after not being in the list two years ago) is a good example of that.
  • Google: Always Google. Obviously it’s not an Australian site but needs to be included in this appraisal because it remains by far the most powerful site in Australian travel, probably even more so than 12 months ago, wielding enormous robot-like power over local sites in terms of rankings, revenue and ad spend. Rising search marketing costs are also having a profound impact on the Australian web.
  • R.I.P: Lonely Planet. Not dead yet but let us mourn the move of its digital division to the UK by owner BBC WorldWide. This means LonelyPlanet.com no longer qualifies for the TRAVELtech Amadeus Web Awards, which it won in 2009. It recent history, of a business model that failed to adapt to the new world order is also a cautionary tale for us all.

So, in conclusion, um, steady as she goes. And in our crazy world right now, that can only be a good thing.

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