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Booking Your Vacation Online - How to Evaluate Websites

The Internet has made looking for a vacation rental or hotel in a far away place much easier. But how do you know who you are dealing with? How long have they been in business? Will they be around if you have a problem?

Some things to look for and ways to get more information regarding online businesses are listed below. Keep in mind that most of the following are judgment calls. There are no hard-set rules. A reputable agency could have a poorly designed website or a legitimate reason to break some of the rules below.

You best bet will always be to get a first hand account of the property or agency from resources such as the Slow Travel review database or the Slow Travel Message Board.

You'll notice that I talk a lot about sites manipulating the search engine results and you may wonder, "what's wrong with that?" For me it's an indication that their primary business is search engine spamming and not the travel industry. If I'm renting a place far from home, I want to deal with a travel professional or private individual. Plus, I just like people who play fair.

Things to Look for on the Websites

Without further ado, here are some tips and things to look for on websites.

Look for an about us page

Reputable sites should have an about us page stating who they are, what they do, how they do it, how long they've been doing it and so forth.

Look for contact details

A site should list a physical address and a phone number. There are legitimate reasons for not listing these, but I like to see them in black and white on a commercial site.

Examine the domain name

Look at the domain name found in the Address bar of the browser. See example below showing the domain name "slowtalk.com".

screen snap of browser address bar

Who is behind this domain? You can get some information on who registered a domain and when from public databases. See whois database information below.

Does the domain name match the name of the company? At times, a site will call itself AGreatName.com although their domain is actually something different just because the domain AGreatName.com sounds great but was already taken. It can be a clue as to the type of business being run. As with all good rules there are some exceptions.

I have Italian clients who have difficult-to-spell company names and they prefer to use a domain that is easy to remember for non-Italian speakers. Business owners also often run into the problem of finding that their company name has already been registered so they are forced to choose another name for the domain.

The one to really look out for is when they try to make their company name sound like a domain name, as in AGreatName.com.

Is the domain name keyword stuffed? If you come across a site that has a domain name like cheap-hotels-in-rome-italy.com, they may be focusing a little too much on trying to get high search engine ranks in the short run. One hyphen is OK, when it goes beyond that I become leery.

What does the domain end with? If you're dealing with a commercial website, the domain should really end with .com or the country specific version, for example, .co.uk. It could also end with .net if the site owner thinks of it as a network.

I stay away from commercial sites that use .org and .info TLDs (Top Level Domain) That's not what these TLDs were meant for and it just means that the .com version was already taken and they registered what they thought was the next best thing.

Less internet savvy business owners might not really understand that they should not use a .org or .info TLD. In fact when registering, if the .com version is taken, sites selling domain names will suggest the other versions. So again, this is not a hard-set rule, but something to look at.

Then there are the .biz, .ws, .to and similar TLDs. These have never really caught on too well. And they are usually registered only when the .com version is already taken.

Do they have their own domain? Sometimes commercial sites will be hosted on free space such as geocities, tripod and the likes. Domains and hosting are really pretty cheap these days. If I'm dealing with a commercial site, I like to see that they have paid the small fee to get their own domain and hosting account. I want to see companyname.com rather than companyname.tripod.com

More exceptions: many individual property owners start out with free hosting because they don't want to invest too much in the beginning. And then it simply remains on the free hosting account. Others don't understand why you should pay for something you can get for free.

Is the site hosted on a free account? This is similar to the point above, however in this case, they have their own domain but it is hosted on a free account. You can tell by looking at the status bar of the browser while holding the mouse over one of the links to another page on their site.

screen snap of status bar

Instead of seeing http://www.companyname.com/about_us.html you'll see http://pages.123hosting.com/companyname/about_us.html.

Same exceptions as above in apply here.

Watch out for redirects

Sometimes when you click on a link from a search engine results page, the page then redirects to yet another page, usually the home page of the site. A frequently used technique is to write up a page of keyword stuffed text that results well in the search engines but doesn't read well to humans. Once they get you in from the search engine, they redirect you to a human friendly page. This is another clue that they are concentrating more on manipulating the search engine results than running their business.

There could be legitimate reasons to redirect, but most sites would do it server-side and you wouldn't even notice it.

Scroll to the bottom of the page

Way down at the bottom of the page, aka below the fold, you may find things that the site owner wants to hide from visitors, but make available to search engines. Visitors rarely venture down there, but search engines read the entire page. Some things you might find:

  • a slew of links: this indicates that the site is part of a network. This could be perfectly acceptable, as in the WorldBy family of sites. It could also be a sign that they are trying to manipulate the search engine results by creating numerous sites and linking them all together. If you're looking at a hotel site and you see links to lingerie and sex toy sites (I've actually seen this) then it may not be the best site to use.
  • a big blank space: try hitting CTRL A or selecting from the browser menu Edit/Select All. This will highlight all text on the page. Sometimes the big blank space is actually filled with keyword stuffed hidden text; for example white text on a white background. Highlighting the text makes it show up. This is the oldest trick in the book and indication of an attempt to manipulate the search engines.
  • gibberish: sometimes site owners write a bunch of gibberish at the bottom of the page that is filled with keywords. You might find "tuscany villa apartment lucca siena luxury villa rental tuscan hills wineries vacation rental in tuscany farmhouse Florence villa rental country house holiday home". Another indication of search engine spamming.

Legal terms and policies should be evident

Make sure the sites legal terms are displayed in an evident way, such as a link at the bottom of every page. Read them and print them for your records.

Make sure the site is secure if giving credit card data

If you're entering credit card data, make sure the url of the page begins with https instead of http. You should also see a lock in the status bar of the browser.

screen shot of secure site icon

Of course, this only indicates that the data will be transmitted securely. It doesn't necessarily mean that the website will store the data securely. The only way to find out is to ask the site. There are a number of tools that make it easy for anyone to add a shopping cart system to their site. If they don't have a programming and Internet security background, they could put your data at risk.

A word about affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing is a way for businesses to expand their customer base. There are a couple of different types.

  • In the first type, a small percentage is paid to website owners in return for sending customers to the main site.
  • In the second, used widely for hotels and vacation rentals, the main site provides its affiliates with simple templates allowing them to easily create a new website with listings of hotels, b&bs, apartment, villas, etc. The main site pays its affiliates a percentage of each booking.

It's relatively easy to become an affiliate. Just about anyone can do it. The main company provides you with easy to use tools to create a site with listings and a booking engine. It all appears very professional.

The problem is that often the owners of these affiliate sites are more specialized in manipulating the search engine results than the travel industry. They invest most of their efforts in getting their sites to the top of the search engine results, using tricks and scams. If they get caught and penalized by the search engines, they simply move on to a new domain.

Unfortunately, there is nothing on the affiliate site that explicitly states they are an affiliate of XYZ Co, but there are some signs. They are usually vague about who they are. If you look at sites for travel agents or booking agencies, they usually have an about us page stating what they do, their credentials, how long they've been in business, etc. Not so with most affiliates.

You may find the contact details a bit sketchy. Often there is nothing more than a form to fill out to request more information on a property.

You may also recognize certain elements of the interface, such as the same symbols used to describe properties or the same terms used to describe geographic areas.

They usually break a number of the rules. So if you use the tips above, you will probably weed out many of the more aggressive affiliate sites.

Whois

Whois is the name of a database of registered domains. You can get information on who owns a domain as well as when it was registered. There are several web interfaces that allow you to search for whois details for a particular domain.

In an effort to prevent automated programs from harvesting email addresses from the database, most systems also require a key to be entered to access the data. This is provided as an image that humans can read but machines cannot. Unfortunately, at times even humans can have difficulty reading the key. If this happens, just refresh the page in the browser (F5) and you'll get a new key.

For .com, .org, .net and .edu

www.geektools.com/whois.php: Geek Tools

www.networksolutions.com/en_US/whois/index.jhtml: Network Solutions

For both of these, simply enter the domain (without the www) and the key. You'll be presented with the following information:

The Registrant and the Administrative Contact: This should be the domain owner. It does happen occasionally that the web design company registers the domain in their name rather than the clients. Not a good situation for the site owner, but it does happen. You'll see their name, address, phone number and email address.

The Technical Contact: This is usually the domain name registrar but is sometimes also the domain owner.

The dates: Record created is the date the domain was registered. This is an indication of how long the site has been around. Record expires is the date the domain expires. Many people register for just one year and renew each year. If you do see that someone has registered for 10 years, it could be an indication that they plan on being in business for a while.

For country specific domains

You can also try one of the global whois tools, which should (though not always) work with any domain.

www.dnsstuff.com: DNS Stuff (type in the domain under "WHOIS Lookup")

allwhois.com: All Whois

The format of the data may vary but will be similar to the above and is usually in English. The format of the date will vary.

If you want to find a whois tool for a specific country, try a search in google for:
whois site:.TLD
where TLD should be replaced with the country's TLD. For example, for Italy, search for:
whois site:.it
This limits the search to sites to Italian domains that contain the word whois.

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