The importance of website monitoring

Out of order

If your website is down, will you promptly know about it?

Many people assume that their website automatically remains up and running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  This is usually the case with reputable web hosting organisations that have staff monitoring the services they provide around the clock. However, if you’re hosting your site with a small organisation that only provides support during limited hours, the onus is on you to ensure your website is running every minute of the day.

As an example, let us relate what happened earlier today – this Saturday morning – which is outside of traditional business hours.

As a complimentary service to all those that advertise accommodation on the Travel Victoria website, we provide a monitoring service that checks each day at 6am to see if an accommodation provider’s own website is up and running. If there are any issues, we are emailed a report for further investigation.

This morning, our monitoring service alerted us to 6 accommodation provider websites which were not up and running. As it turned out, all were hosted with the same organisation in the regional Victorian city of Ballarat which we won’t name to protect the privacy of themselves and their clients. That organisation provides website design for small businesses and they also offer web hosting on web servers they manage themselves.  It sounds like this business provides an ideal combination of services – a one stop shop.  However, when you realise that web design is the delivery of an end product, and web hosting is a hands-on 24/7 service, then those two operations are incompatible with a business operating from 9am to 5pm weekdays and not on weekends or during holiday periods.

We sent out notices to our 6 clients about their web services being down.  We couldn’t email them as all were using email services tied to their off-line web hosting services, so notices were sent out via SMS and FAX.

At round 12 noon, web services to our clients were restored.

The important point here is that if wasn’t for the complimentary monitoring service that we at Travel Victoria provide, some of our clients wouldn’t have been aware that their website and email services were not working from 6am this morning as they had no other website monitoring in place.

All this illustrates the importance of having some sort of website monitoring.

If you’re with a large, reputable website hosting company that operates every hour of the day and every day of the year, they will usually be quickly on top of any general and widespread downtime with their clients’ websites unless it relates to the specific configuration or traffic flow to your own website. But if you’re with a smaller organisation that does not operate around the clock, particularly one whose primary service is something other than web hosting, then it is wise to have some third party website monitoring in place.

There are many organisations that specialise in monitoring of websites.  We only do it for our clients for free, and only a simple once a morning check in order to detect extended periods of downtime.  One example of a more fully-featured service is UptimeRobot - they can check your website every 5 minutes.  Their service is free and they’ll notify you by email if your site goes down.  There are more upmarket monitoring services that can do quite in-depth checks of your website’s status and they can even send you alerts directly via SMS if you prefer.

Your clients or customers expect your website to be up and running every minute of the day.  But your web hosting provider may not be monitoring it 24 hours a day.  Therefore, it’s recommended you have a third party monitoring service looking over your site, alerting you promptly when something goes wrong.

The most popular online accommodation booking systems for your website

reservation

Book your stay online

There are an overwhelming number of online booking systems available for use by accommodation providers that allow guests to check availability and made a booking at any time, day or night. People are increasingly abandoning the process of phoning up to make bookings, and email bookings are also being shunned with the proliferation of instant online booking systems.

We have tallied up the 5 most popular third party (i.e. not in-house or group developed) online booking systems used by accommodation providers that are listed on the Travel Victoria website and these are the results:

  1. The Booking Button.  This is by far and away the most popular system, used by 25% of our clients that have an online booking facility.  It’s developed by SiteMinder, who have their headquarters right here in Australia, and their product is also used extensively by overseas accommodation providers. Minimum cost is $29 per month. We love the clean interface that The Booking Button provides to guests.
  2. RMS.  They’ve been in business for 25 years and, like The Booking Button, are from Australia and market their product overseas. Around 11% of our clients that provide online booking facilities use RMS. Minimum cost is $35 per month. However, we’ll go out on a limb here and say that the user interface for those booking accommodation using RMS is probably one of the most dated and cumbersome we have seen.
  3. ResOnline. Used by roughly the same number of our clients as RMS, the ResOnline group has had an interesting history with ownership changes and other dramas. Despite that, they offer a solid product priced from $39 per month.  It also provides free exposure for accommodation property owners into their associated RoamFree accommodation search website.
  4. FrontDesk. This is produced by V3 (pronounced as “V cubed”) – an organisation well-known for their venture with the ATDW (Australian Tourism Data Warehouse) in developing a national booking and distribution system for  tourism products called Tourism Exchange Australia (TXA). V3 provide FrontDesk to accommodation providers via a rather complicated fee schedule.  In general, there’s a $39 monthly fee (although for some providers, it may be free), plus there’s a transaction cost on successful bookings. Almost 10% of our clients that use online booking systems are using FrontDesk.
  5. Web Reservation Systems. 8% of our clients that have independently chosen to use an online booking system are with this group that are based in the idyllic holiday location of Byron Bay. Web Reservation Systems employ the easy to use Booking Center hospitality management software and are the preferred supplier for the Golden Chain motel group throughout Australia. They also create websites which are easy to maintain for businesses, so if you’re after both website development and an online booking system, they are your one stop shop.

Travellers are increasingly expecting to book their accommodation instantly online and will seek out those providers that offer that service. So if you don’t already provide an online booking system, what are you waiting for?

Identifying those fake TripAdvisor accommodation reviews

True or False

True or false? Spotting those real or fake TripAdvisor reviews.

The world’s largest and most popular holiday review site, TripAdvisor, publishes millions of reviews by those who have stayed at hotels and other types of accommodation around the world. The primary reason for its popularity is that one of the best ways to find out what to expect when staying somewhere is to actually read feedback by those that have been there before. After all, a slick website and the right photos can mask things like poor quality rooms and less than desirable service.

TripAdvisor is not without controversy, as there is no mechanism in place to verify that the writer of a review actually stayed there.  So there may be fake reviews creeping in, either by disgruntled staff or guests, hotels trying to sabotage their opposition, or paid reviews by accommodation providers trying to boost their standing.

One of the ways to possibly spot a fake review is by pasting the text of it into Cornell University’s Review Skeptic. They claim to use sophisticated language models that can identify whether a review is real or fake with an impressive 90% accuracy. They do state that it works best with hotel reviews worded in English.

Give it a go!  Our boss here at Travel Victoria is an avid traveller, so we put his recent TripAdvisor reviews (which we know are absolutely 100% genuine) to the test. We took the 12 reviews he posted for accommodation he stayed at over the last 3 years and plugged them into Review Skeptic. The results were that out of those 12 reviews,  only one was reported as being “deceptive” and the remaining 11 were reported as “truthful”.

With 92% accuracy in our real-world test of Review Skeptic, it’s quite impressive.

While Review Skeptic was able to declare that 92% of our real reviews were genuine, we obviously don’t have any fake reviews to give it to check. So we can conclude that if a review is really true, then Review Skeptic is pretty good at picking that up. We leave it up to the reader to test how well it performs with fake reviews.

Make sure your website’s drop-down menus work on an iPad

Apple iPad

Getting those drop-down menus on your website to work on an iPad

By the end of 2011, Apple had sold more than 55 million iPads worldwide. In many markets, sales of the iPad represented over 70% of tablet computer purchases. Therefore it is important to make sure your website is fully functional when used on an iPad.

If you don’t have an iPad, one of the first things you can do is to view your website using the Safari web browser which is what iPads use by default.  Safari is available for Windows, Linux and comes standard on Macs.  You can download Safari for free.

Unfortunately, using Safari on your PC or Mac isn’t quite the same as using it on an iPad.  One of the reasons is that “hover” events in HTML/CSS cannot be performed on an iPad. A hover event occurs when you hover your mouse over something, without clicking, causing an action, such as a menu to drop down. Interestingly, Android-based tablet computers emulate the hover action by allowing you to tap on the area which would cause something like a menu to drop down. This tapping is ignored on iPad and other Apple mobile devices.

So if you have a website which uses a standard HTML/CSS drop-down menu (constructed using HTML list elements such as <LI>) and it relies on the “hover” event to make the menu items reveal themselves, then it probably won’t work on an iPad.

There are many solutions which make the iPad behave like an Android-based tablet whereby clicking on a button will emulate a “hover” and display the full drop-down menu. Some solutions use JavaScript while others use code to try and detect if you’re using an iPad and work around it. There are many ways to accomplish this, however we began a quest to discover the quickest and simplest method of getting those drop-down menus to work on an iPad, and the solution ended up being trivial.

To make a drop-down menu appear when someone taps on the menu button, all you need to do is add

onClick=”return true”

to the “A” tag within any list item (such as <LI>) that triggers a menu to pop up. This works for cascading menus as well.

This simple workaround has no affect on people using web browsers on desktop or laptop computers – it just forces the menu to pop up on an iPad when someone taps on the menu button, which is equivalent to a click.

We have verified this all works on a couple of websites we manage that use HTML/CSS drop-down menus:

  1. Beach Stays
  2. Dogs on Holidays

Originally, the drop-down menus on those sites failed to operate on an iPad due to the missing “hover” functionality, making it impossible to access the hidden menu items and forcing people to go through the tedious routine of returning back to the home page to access an index of the website’s contents. Once we explicitly defined a click action to emulate a hover, suddenly those drop-down menus began working (when you tap on them) just like on a desktop computer!

Due to the popularity of iPads, it is important to make sure all parts of your website work correctly on them, including those HTML/CSS drop down menus which are becoming quite popular nowadays.

 

Beware of those promising to get your website to No.1 on Google

Number 1

Have you been promised a guaranteed No.1 ranking in Google for your website?

As a website owner, you will no doubt be regularly bombarded with offers from SEO (search engine optimisation) experts who guarantee to get your website to No.1 on Google’s search pages. They claim that for a modest fee, they will alter some of the text, rename files or adjust the layout of your website which will cause it to appear at the top of Google’s results for search keywords of your choice, such as “luxury accommodation in Daylesford” or “Ballarat motel”. Sounds too good to be true?

Keep in mind that while SEO experts may have an idea of some of the workings of search engines and how they rank pages, promises of guaranteed No.1 rankings are typically fanciful. This is simply because SEO experts have no control over Google and can thus cannot command Google to rank web pages in certain ways.  All they can do is influence the ranking of your website. Google is regularly altering their ranking algorithms to improve their search results, so even if they do manage to get you to No.1 for the keywords of your choice, it may only be short-lived glory.

Here at Travel Victoria, we regularly monitor where some of our web pages rank in Google for some search terms.  We have seen big fluctuations on a daily basis in how some of our pages are ranked, while other pages have remained rock steady for years. Today, a Google search for the town of Mansfield actually has us at No.1, but tomorrow we could be at No.5 or even lower. We just don’t know what tomorrow will bring, simply because we do not have direct control over the order in which Google will display web pages.

Another thing to consider when confronted by offers of SEO is who you are dealing with. Most of these SEO offers come via email – typical of people or organisations using the cheapest way of contacting people rather than telephoning or physically posting you something. And many of these emails are sent by people claiming to be senior experts in large corporations which specialise in search engine optimisation.  So why are they coming to you from a generic Gmail.com or Hotmail.com email address?

Remember that SEO professionals can offer services which may benefit the ranking of your website, but the best they can do is influence search engines like Google – they cannot make guarantees that you’ll attain a certain ranking and then retain it forever.

Use your website’s on-line booking facility to the max

booking online

Get the most out of your on-line booking system

More and more accommodation providers are adding instant on-line availability and booking facilities to their websites to ensure potential guests can quickly and easily find and book accommodation 24/7. The benefits to the provider and the consumer are numerous, some of which we’ve mentioned in our article why you need a real-time online booking system.

But are you getting the most out of your own on-line booking system?

A couple of months ago, one of our staff members booked a 5 night family holiday at the beachfront town of Cowes on Phillip Island for late November. The apartments they were looking at had an on-line booking system, so they expected using that would be the quickest way to make a reservation and get the best deal. Unfortunately, the apartment provider made their online booking system very unattractive by only offering apartments at the “rack rate”, which is basically the maximum price they’d ever charge without any discounts. In reality, you almost never pay anywhere near the “rack rate” unless it’s right in the middle of peak season or during some local event when accommodation is scarce. Whether you stay one night or 10 nights, the accommodation provider offered the same inflated nightly “rack rate” if you booked online with them.

Upon phoning the establishment directly, our staff member secured a deal for the 5 night stay that was 40% cheaper than booking on-line. Instead of paying the $275 per night online rack rate, they paid $165 per night.  Wow!

The lesson here is that if your on-line booking system is only accepting bookings at the inflated rack rate, then chances are you’re going to be missing many bookings.  Our staff member could have easily been put off by the exorbitant off-peak $275 per night rate shown in the online booking system and tried somewhere else, thus costing the establishment a profitable 5 night booking.

Some useful tips for accommodation providers with on-line booking facilities:

  1. Advertise your best rate within the on-line booking system on your website. You’ll only get one opportunity to secure a booking when someone visits your site as you’re not directly negotiating with them. So don’t scare them off with inflated prices.
  2. Ensure your on-line booking system has discounted packages for multiple-night stays. Most systems should be flexible enough to allow you to discount rates instantly when people enter in the length of their stay. People don’t expect that the nightly rate for a week will be charged at the same rate as just a one night stay.
  3. Don’t undercut your own website’s online rates on third party accommodation distributors like Wotif, HotelClub, etc.  If you can offer those rates to those websites, then you can surely offer them on your own website. In fact, you really want people to book directly on-line with you, to save you paying hefty commissions to those third party distributors anyway. Additionally, people often compare your rates on Wotif and others with your own website for the best deal, so save the commission payment and make your own booking system competitive.

Your on-line booking system is a valuable, time-saving tool, but it can also cost you bookings if used wrongly.

Are you wrongly assuming all your website visitors use Internet Explorer?

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer may not be No.1 for too much longer

You’ve got a great website – either created by yourself or by someone else – but can everyone actually see it as they should and use it properly?

Some PC or Windows users may be forgiven for thinking that the only way to visit websites is using Internet Explorer. However, there are in fact more than 50 different web browsers that people could use. While it is impractical to test the operation of your website fully in each one, you should consider how widely used certain web browsers are to ensure compatibility with your site for the vast majority of users.

Over the last year, Internet Explorer has lost almost 10% of the overall market share of desktop web browsers, seeing its penetration drop to 52.6%. Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome browsers now command a combined total of 40.1% of the desktop market share. See Net Market Share for current web browser rankings.

Based on the fact that nearly half of those who visit your website won’t be using Internet Explorer, it is important not to ignore Firefox and Chrome. Test your website in those browsers, both of which are available for use at no cost. Compare font styles and sizes, page layout, interactive menus and the general appearance of your website. If you’ve designed your website to certain standards, there should ideally be no difference between them.

It’s not just web browser software that’s the issue. Almost one in 10 desktop computers accessing the web is not a Windows PC, but a computer running an alternative operating system such as MacOS or Linux. So if your website has features that require a Windows PC to make use of it (such as special plugins only available for Windows), you may be excluding 10% of your visitors.

You’ve gone to a lot of effort to create a great website and get people to visit it. Don’t alienate them by making your website incompatible with browsers other than Internet Explorer.

Why you need a real-time online booking system

Booking your holiday online

Guests want to book online, so let them or miss out!

You’ve just spent a few great days at Mallacoota and enjoyed the natural beauty of the beach and surrounding national park. You and the family are heading home tomorrow morning, but just before going to bed, you check out the latest weather forecast on the internet – sunny and 30 degrees for the next few days – perfect beach weather! Everyone agrees the holiday should be extended by spending a few nights at Lakes Entrance for some more great beach fun.

But the problem is that school holidays are on, so many places may be booked out. It’s too late in the night to telephone accommodation managers direct, so you head to the internet looking to secure a place to stay.

Searching for Lakes Entrance accommodation reveals some brand new holiday apartments just across the road from the beach and right in the town centre, which will be perfect for the family! Oh no, the only way to make an enquiry is to telephone or email them. There’s no availability calendar or online booking system. You could wait for the morning to phone them, but in the meantime others may get in before you and snap up the remaining apartments. And if you wait till the morning, other vacant accommodation at Lakes Entrance might be taken.

You keep looking and find some more holiday apartments. They are older style, situated one block back from the beach, and a fair walk to the town centre. However, they do have a real-time online booking system and they have one family unit remaining for the next two nights!

As you’re determined to stay in Lakes Entrance, you make the booking. It’s not where you would have wanted to ideally stay, but you can’t risk waiting until the morning to contact the manager of those apartments with no online booking system.

The question for managers of accommodation properties is how many bookings are you missing out on because people can’t instantly check availability or book online 24/7? How many people are instead staying at places that do offer the convenience of online bookings?

It’s not just last minute bookings which you may lose out on. Some people may have a list of places they want to stay in, but to spend time and money making long distance telephone calls, or being prepared to wait a day for email responses to be answered, would put them off booking with you unless they can check availability instantly and then reserve that room in the process.

In this increasingly busy, impulsive, unpredictable and digital age, more and more travellers are expecting to instantly reserve rooms, any time of day or night. Which is why you really need an online booking system.

The best online reservation systems are those which don’t charge you a fee for every booking made (i.e. commission-free bookings), making the booking directly between and you and the guest, and are fully under your control. Some which you may wish to consider that are administered in Australia are:

  1. Web Reservation Systems. Their system gives you total control over pricing, availability and conditions. The bookings are secure and guests can provide credit card details to you through this system. Implant the booking button on your website and on other sites you have your property listed with to allow customers check availability and/or book.
  2. The Booking Button. An intelligent and fully-featured online booking facility which you can use on your website or others you’re listed on. There’s no lock-in contracts, you pay monthly, and pricing varies depending on the number of rooms your establishment has.

If you don’t have an online booking system for your accommodation property, not only is it costing you guests, but also time. While guests organise their accommodation online instantly, you can attend to other tasks instead of being tied up on the phone or answering emails.

What are you waiting for?