How the web giants fail travellers. Part 1 - Google - Rusty Compass travel blog

How the web giants fail travellers. Part 1 - Google

| 15 Nov 2014
, 2 Comments
15 Nov 2014

Travellers to Vietnam are very poorly served by Google’s search results. Mark Bowyer asks why so much incorrect, outdated and blatantly commercial information is served up and how Google's search impacts the future shape of travel publishing?

Punch “best restaurants Hanoi” into Google search and if you’re in Vietnam, the first thing that comes up is a listing consisting mainly of hotels (it depends on where you are). This list occupies around a third of this valuable piece of Google real estate.

I’m not sure whether these are ads or Google’s best efforts to help people find Hanoi’s best restaurants. Either way, it’s not very useful information. People looking for restaurant ideas tend not to be looking for hotels.

And if they are ads, they dominate the page so comprehensively that Google should penalise itself for spamming - as Google would penalise a website for similar dodginess.

Why do all these hotels get such prominence in a search for restaurants?
Why do all these hotels get such prominence in a search for restaurants?



Scroll down into the conventional search results and the number 2 or 3 spot in Google’s ranking will likely be Conde Naste Traveler’s Hanoi restaurant guide.

Yet the people at Conde Naste seem not to have visited Hanoi’s restaurant and cafe scene for at least five years.

That’s their prerogative of course. But how valuable are such dated recommendations in a city changing as fast as Hanoi? And why do these recommendations get near-top billing in Google’s results?

Several places in their listing have closed, others have moved and one’s been demolished. None of the very good restaurants and cafes that have opened over the past 5 years are listed.

Also ranking high is the American Express owned Departures website offering more Hanoi restaurant recommendations by a food critic from French newspaper, La Figaro.

The piece was written nearly five years ago. Its recommendations were questionable from the day they were published.

Of the 8 outlets listed, 5 have some connection to the Sofitel Metropole Hotel - 4 are in the hotel and one is run by the hotel’s former chef.

The author doesn’t tell us where he stayed. Care to guess?

The other restaurants listed, which have been staples in guidebooks for more than a decade, required no effort or imagination. 

The author tops off his piece with this snippet of local knowledge, “The Vietnamese word for street, - pho, just happens to be the name of the national soup.”

Except that the observation is wrong.

The word for the famous soup and the word for “street” may look the same to a westerner but to a Vietnamese, where the little squiggles above and below letters mean everything, they’re as different as potato and broccoli. (For more you can check out my language class for travellers here).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Google’s search results for travel to Vietnam are full of outdated, incorrect and poor quality information.

How could the world’s smartest people at Google get travel search so wrong?

One reason is that travel is big business so there are lots of websites competing for the eyeballs of travellers - and for rankings in Google’s search results (including me).

A good many of them are spending more on SEO (search engine optimisation) or scamming Google than they are on creating interesting content. And Google seems to be rewarding their efforts.

Another is that few areas of publishing are as comprehensively broken as travel publishing. The idea that travellers are deserving of quality information, free of commercial spin and bias is anathema to a travel industry that has most media wrapped around its finger. Most travel publishers, from the esteemed, to newly minted bloggers, seem happy to oblige the industry.

Google’s doing its bit to perpetuate the idea that travel writing need not be independent, credible, transparent, accurate or up to date.

Travel’s big business for Google too.

The ads that it places around its travel search results generate billions of dollars of revenue each year.  You’d expect that a greater effort might be made to sort through the rubbish.

I’m not a disinterested observer. I’ve been publishing Rusty Compass for 5 years and watching with increasing dismay the low quality information that dominates Google's Vietnam search results.

The dearth of reliable travel information online is one of the things that prompted me to start Rusty Compass.

But Rusty Compass languishes in the lower rankings for many of the most important search queries for Vietnam - we usually do rank on the first page for Hanoi restaurants by the way.

While there are plenty of subjective judgments about what constitutes a good travel guide, (writing style, author taste, reader taste, site design, user experience etc, etc, etc), there are some objective measures as well. How up to date is the content? How comprehensive is the site? How accurate is the information? Are there original images? Original videos? Maps? How engaged are users?

I’ve worked hard to tick both subjective and objective boxes - check out the site. But Google’s mostly unimpressed.

The objective measures I mention above can be tracked by Google’s algorithm (accuracy is hard but if you get all the others right, there’s a good chance you’ll be reasonably accurate too).

Dien Bien Phu, VIetnam Google seems surprisingly unimpressed by original photography and video.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Dien Bien Phu, VIetnam Google seems surprisingly unimpressed by original photography and video.


Yet it seems Google prefers other “signals” that consistently throw up low quality results of the kind I list above (and they really are trivial examples in the bigger story of bad content ranking highly on Google for Vietnam travel search queries).

Punch “vietnam travel guide” into Google search and you might find Rusty Compass languishing on page 3 or 4 - that means there are 30 or more travel guides that are a “better” match for this search query. Punch “Hanoi travel guide” or “Ho Chi Minh city travel guide” and you’ll find Rusty Compass at similar lowly positions.

According to Google, there are 30 or more travel websites covering Vietnam that are “better” matches for these queries than Rusty Compass. I've studied these results closely and most of the sites ranking on Google for these queries barely meet any of the "objective" criteria I list above.

Tripadvisor enjoys the number one spot across a huge range of Google rankings. I’ll write more about that in a separate piece. Whatever your view of tripadvisor, millions of travellers clearly love it.

Then big players like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Fodor’s, Conde Naste, Travel and Leisure and others come in.

Lonely Planet and Rough Guides certainly have the content to be among the best travel resources. Problem is, they don’t share much of it online. They focus on selling their books and apps and limit the information they make available for free on the web.

That’s a reasonable commercial strategy for them. But it doesn’t help travellers doing a search. And it should surely impact on their rankings in search.

Lonely Planet peppers its recommendations with tour products for sale. These might easily be misconstrued as Lonely Planet operated or endorsed tours rather than ads or sponsored placements.

I seem to recall being told by Google that this is a no no.

I think it’s pretty uncool for a reputable travel publisher. 

Not all the sites that rank on Google are big publishers. Quite a few sites that play with URL names or other SEO tricks also rank highly. For example, a hypothetical URL, dodgyvietnamtravelguide.net, would likely rank quite well for “Vietnam travel guide” searches - seemingly irrespective of the quality of the information that sits behind the domain.

Yes, there are also some genuinely interesting and innovative sites that occasionally pop up in Google’s Vietnam results as well.

May there be many more.

In a perfect world, Google’s travel search would be a contest between a range of different publishing voices serving different interests, fighting it out over quality, engagement, accuracy, currency, integrity, functionality and user experience.

It’s true that these are the issues dogging publishers and readers of online information across the board. But travel publishing does an especially poor job of serving its audience.
 
And that’s at least in part because Google sets such a low bar - and so many publishers are ranking highly with junk content.

Unlike many conventional publishers, specialist travel publishers only get to bond with a visitor during their travels to a specific destination (assuming they only visit a destination or a region once).

No matter how much value the user derives from the site, they’re not likely to revisit after the end of their holiday.

So we’re especially dependent on search referrals.

Google is more than a passive purveyor of poor quality travel information. Its algorithm actively rewards and penalises sites and these results have a long term impact on the shape of travel publishing.

Unless Google can work this out, expect the torrents of unreliable, outdated, spammy travel advice to continue to dominate.

Disclosure

I’m an independent travel publisher and so the issues covered in this piece are dear to me and yes, I have a very vested interest. My judgments of the effectiveness of Google’s travel search are based purely on my analysis of its Vietnam search results. I have not analysed Google’s performance in relation to other destinations.

Search results are different for each user and each region. Though not as different as you may expect. The results quoted here have been derived using a US VPN, local search and a range of browsers set to “private” to avoid cookies.

And if you made it to here - a gold star to you. Thanks!

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
Support Rusty Compass
Rusty Compass is an independent travel guide. We’re focused on providing you with quality, unbiased, travel information. That means we don't receive payments in exchange for listings and mostly pay our own way. We’d like tourism to be a positive economic, environmental and cultural force and we believe travellers deserve disclosure from publishers. Spread the word about Rusty Compass, and if you're in Saigon, pop in to The Old Compass Cafe and say hi. It’s our home right downtown on Pasteur St. You can also check out our unique tours of Ho Chi Minh City at www.oldcompasstravel.com Make a financial contribution using the link below. Even small amounts make a difference. Thanks and travel well!

  • Previous
  • Next

2 comments so far

Hi, Since I'm gong to visit Ha Noi next Februari, I found this very valuable information. Thank yo very much ! Olle Andersson Sweden

  • Olle Andersson
  • Hanoi
  • Tuesday, 18 November 2014 19:15

Really good post Mark. Google doesn't seem to worry too much about objectivity, which is annoying – not only as someone who has just launched a self-funded travel website and would quite like to find readers, but also as a person who travels a lot and wants to find useful stuff. I've actually started using Duckduckgo for research and planning recently, as its travel-related results aren't completely dominated by Tripadvisor. But it's not perfect. And how many people would seriously switch away from Google? And that's really the problem – it's still the only search engine that matters. So if Google goes all evil and starts promoting the same crap over and over (at the expense of information that might be more useful) then that's tough luck, because the competition is so far behind. Nice site, by the way.

  • Steve Vickers
  • Hanoi
  • Tuesday, 18 November 2014 19:34