Note: This article contains actual links to real web sites. Even though we've made every effort to select bad sites as well as good, bad sites have a nasty habit of suddenly turning good themselves. Neither the staff nor management of AskTog accepts responsibility for such an unfortunate eventuality.
You don't have to be building travel sites to glean something useful. The same problems exposed here can be found all over the web.
Let's start with what would-be lodgers want from a web site. It's pretty much what someone would want from any site that is planning to take their money:
They want you to give them a simple, visible navigation model:
They want clear information:
They want to you to lower their anxiety:
They want you to sell them on staying with you, so they don't have to spend the rest of the night looking at other sites:
So how do different sites handle or mishandle these tasks?
The Sandpiper Inn in Carmel-by-the-Sea (just south of Monterey, CA) paid someone to whip up a brochure-ware site for them. While not the worst site in the world, it certainly could stand some work.
The site does a great job of selling the intangibles. They are located "only 100 yards from the white sandy beaches." They sell a romantic vision through words, through pictures, and through a background image of wood paneling that would normally overpower a site.
They fall down a lot on many of the other points. I'm sure many people who visit this site leave assuming that it consists of just the one page. The "secret passage" link, "SANDPIPER INN INFORMATION," is way too subtle. (We must assume that the designers are unaware that all-upper-case is the least readable form of western writing.)
It's hard to get lost in a three-page site, however, the designers were clever enough to move the Home Page button around just enough to generate the maximum number of errors.
You'll be hard-pressed to figure out where this place is without a map to go by. You do know, at least, that it is in walking distance of the beach. If you know Carmel, you'll know it is probably pretty close to everything just because Carmel is about the size of a 7-11 Big Gulp drink.
As crude as it is, the site carries out its function, which is to get people far enough along towards commitment to pick up the phone and call. If the site were oriented toward Internet ordering, if there were just an HTML form hanging off the end, this site would be a disaster.
Perhaps the worst and strangest feature of the site is the prominence of the website host's link, which is actually more visually prominent that the tiny passageway into the site. Really bad design.
I can't move beyond Sandpiper without quoting one of the more twisted sentences I've come across. It belong to the growing genre of "for your convenience, please haul your butt over to the far corner of the parking lot and fetch yourself a shopping cart." Sandpiper's version goes like this:
"[We offer ] a TV & telephone in the common area (not in rooms) to ensure your privacy." Hey, can't get much more private than a phone in the middle of the lobby!
Harris Ranch Inn
The Harris Ranch site is full-service, accepting room reservations without human intervention. Successfully closing a sale, rather than just pointing to a phone number, requires customers to have far more confidence in the site and the product or service being offered.
The Harris Ranch site, in many respects, is not as good as the Sandpiper site, starting with the really awful background color.
Even though the site has been designed by purported professionals who, like the Sandpiper hosts, brag about it in giant type, they mistyped the name of the establishment in such a way that the search engines miss it. (They typed H arris Ranch Inn, thereby achieving that burnt-out-bulb look so popular among seedy hotels and motorcourts.)
This site, like the Sandpiper's, has a secret passage that leads to the real site. At least with Sandpiper, you are likely to find it, since they only have two links. With the Harris Ranch site, they offer all sorts of links, including the "reserve a room" link that jumps down two levels, bypassing all the information people would need to make an informed decision. (The real way in is marked "Enter Here" and is close to the bottom of the page.) They provide a scattering of links at the bottom of a lot of the pages. They offer now clustering that might suggest a relationship. After spending probably an hour total kind of jumping around the site, I still don't understand it's structure.
Principle: The Home Page must be the front page
Cute little secret entrances have seen their day. The Home Page must be the front page to your "newspaper" regardless of what your web page is for. Rather than a few key links leading away from it, it must be the organizing center for your site, just as it is for AskTog. The Home Page must present the structure of the site, along with all major links. As few people ever venture beyond the home page, it must also act as your primary selling vehicle, and its first and most important job is selling people on moving beyond the home page.
Newspaper people divide the world into two pieces: Above the fold and below. Everything above the fold can be seen through the door of the newspaper vending machine. Everything below the fold may as well not exist in terms of selling the paper. It's the same with your web site. That top-left 640x480 is critical in keeping your audience. If you don't come across well there, you may as well pack up your keyboard and slink away into the night.
Principle: Show the Bedrooms!
The Harris Ranch Reservation Page talks about eight different types of rooms with absolutely no explanation of how they are different.
The sole advantage a website offers over a phone call or anything short of a gigantic brochure is that you can show people exactly what they are getting. Show people the rooms and give them a decent explanation of the differences between them!
Principle: Tell them on the site what you would have said on the phone
You are trying to avoid the expense of 800-number phone callsboth line charges and call-taker salaries. You must answer on your site all the questions people would have saved up to ask over the phone.
How do you know what to tell them? Listen to the phone calls. Collect every question asked. Figure out how to work it into the design. Many questions can become central to the designroom layouts, etc. Others may be in the form of attractive and accessible FAQs that people gain through a link just above where you ask for the order labeled perhaps, "So you still have questions?"
Harris Ranch, in California's Central Valley happens to be a really cool place. It's one of my favorite fly-in destinations, as they have a landing strip right beside the restaurant. The inn has beautifully-appointed rooms, the people are friendly, and the food is excellent, all information that would be hard to glean from this unfortunate site.
Hotel Reservations Network
The Hotel Reservations Network looks like an explosion in a used-car lot. Nonetheless, these guys are doing things right.
The link I've offered you pops you right into the list of San Francisco hotels. If you entered at the top, you could easily navigate your way to the city of your choice around the country or around the world.
Once you've arrived at a city, you are shown the list of hotels, many of which you have likely heard of, with a star rating system that is honest. Because their ratings will match your own knowledge, you will quickly begin to build up trust in the people behind the site. Still, you want to know where you are going to stay, what it's going to look like, and how much it is going to cost. All that is just a click away.
Choose one of the hotels and click on it. You are given, on a single screen, external and room views of the hotel, usually with a lobby shot thrown in for good measure. You are given a short, succinct statement about the hotel, capturing both the important features, such as room service, along with a feel for the character and charm of the property. You have the option to look at a map. While icons for muggers are sadly lacking, you can at least find out whether or not you are really "near Union Square."
They push their 800 number harder than their web ordering system, but if you click the "Online" link at the bottom, you'll be taken to a page where you can enter in your travel dates and wishes and get a very-real discount price quote.
Perhaps their biggest mistake, and one that displays a lack of user-testing, is in the following:
For an Immediate Reservation:
or Check Availability & Rates, then Book Online
The last line is ambiguous. I took it to mean I was supposed to call the 800 number to "check availability and rates," and only after I got them from the call-taker would I "then book Online." What they were actually trying to communicate was that clicking the Online link wasn't suddenly going to cause a charge to appear on your credit card. Instead, you can check availability and rates without becoming entrapped.
These web designers. the best of the lot, have their URL in tiny type at bottom of screen, without even a link. Perhaps that's the "leading indicator" of good sites. Now if they'd just hire a graphic designer....
I'm surprised you didn't mention the totally obnoxious <blink> tag at the Harris Ranch Site. I categorize the use of that tag as a crime against humanity.
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