The past few months have been quite an experience, a long rambling journey through the Australian travel web. It’s been a roundabout route on my way to choosing the TRAVELtech Top 25 Australian Websites, from which TRAVELtech Website of The Year will emerge.

I have seen sites I didn’t know existed, and others that shouldn’t. In the end I had to choose 25. It wasn’t easy and I’m still not convinced. There are so many sites that could so easily have been there but aren’t.

Accommodation aggregation sites are by far the most competitive category. No coincidence that’s where the money is to be made. A ready supply of inventory through the massive online databases (ultimately) controlled by the likes of Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia also helps. Popular sites such as www.lastminute.com.au, www.roamfree.com.au, www.quickbeds.com.au and others came so close to making the Top 25 it’s ridiculous. But, right or wrong, decisions had to be made.

Accommodation aggregation is also where a lot of the better technical stuff is happening; fast sites, well managed and designed with good use of maps, images and social media courtesy of user reviews.

Some of the most interesting stuff came from left field, outside the travel mainstream, where niche travel communities are being built online.

A good example is www.exploroz.com which, according to Hitwise, is one of Australia’s most popular travel websites.

That would be down to the vast sprawling community of people ‘4WDriving camping and caravanning around Australia’ who use the site as their online meeting spot (busy forums), marketplace and information board.

Another site with a vibrant community is www.ski.com.au, which has done a great job of being a ‘real time’ website through resort cameras and a front-page twitter feed with up to the minute updates from a variety of sources.

Both these sites offer a lot of depth, plenty to engage the visitor, something that is absent in other categories such as car hire, where it’s all about the sale.

At www.oodles.com, www.vroomvroomvroom.com.au and www.drivenow.com.au the booking engine is front and centre.

No doubt it works but, given the quality of people behind these sites, it is surprising there’s a lack of obvious things like maps, road imagery or travel-based content – anything to make the customer linger longer.

An exception is the blog on www.drivenow.com.au regularly updated by former AFL player ‘Spida’ Everitt, who is travelling around Australia with his family

Most airline sites are also largely one dimensional and do nothing to fire the romance of travel.

Qantas and Virgin Blue are exceptions to the rule; they’re trying a few different things.

On the airline aggregator side there’s www.Webjet.com.au, which is very popular and trying hard to ignite the passion with its ‘Experience The Wonder’ positioning and tools like the strangely named ‘planitonearth’.

There are quite a few good sites in the retail category, including three that couldn’t be considered because they were developed overseas.

I’m referring to www.Expedia.com.au. www.Zuji.com.au and www.statravel.com.au, where the technical work is largely done in the UK and US.

But Webjet and other retail sites like  www.travel.com.au, www.flightcentre.com.au and www.bestflights.com.au also do a pretty good job, though integrating airfares and accommodation remains a challenge wherever you turn.

Elsewhere, the media sites were generally a letdown, existing as sub-branches of big name portals with identity issues.

Is it a transaction or content site? It is just a branch office or headquarters?

Puzzling to note poor use of new social media tools by these sites, perhaps still tied to a print mindset.

Also worthy of mention are the linking sites, of which there are many – big fat sites that give the illusion of depth but end up being a succession of links.

People seem to like them though, as do the search engines – high keyword rankings, lots of traffic, but generally not that attractive…

Plenty of good destination sites but they all look the same.

It must be said some of the state government sites are as much a political statement as an information source for travellers.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but you know what I mean.

There is also sameness with a lot individual property websites, where a few in-demand web developers are coining it.

The issue is that their design doesn’t really change from site to site; same template, different brand and pictures.

It’s cheaper and simpler to go with the tried and tested.

Which brings us to innovation, a key criterion in selecting the TRAVELtech Top 25: the ambition to be better and different is what takes a site beyond the ordinary.

Innovation will also, I suspect, be the key factor in determining the TRAVELtech Website of the Year.

Which site will it be?

You can find out when the winner is announced at TRAVELtech in Sydney on September 8, 2009.

Share and Enjoy: