Author Archives: rodcuthbert407

An IAC Applications Ad Broke All Our Click-Through Records: Then We Blocked It.

It’s natural to pay attention when you discover one of the ads on your site has a click-through rate eight times higher than average. That’s what we discovered as we reviewed advertiser reports a few weeks ago, so we decided to look a little closer to understand what was going on.

Here’s some background: we introduced advertising onto the Rome2rio.com site in 2015, and it’s been a fast-growing revenue contributor ever since. With traffic peaking at just over 11 million sessions in August, we have plenty of available inventory, even taking into account our high floor prices. We use Google’s AdExchange and CSA systems to acquire advertisers, and those systems work well for us. Most of our advertisers have a click-through rate around 1.1%. When a particular ad is consistently at 9%, you definitely take a closer look.

The advertiser in question was IAC Applications, a unit of industry powerhouse IAC that was previously known as Mindspark Interactive Network. Learning that, we felt a little more comfortable. After all, IAC is a highly respected company; their board includes Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, and Chelsea Clinton. Seems pretty safe.

The ads that concerned us were from an IAC property called MyTransitGuide. As we looked at the ads, we immediately realised that our users were probably confusing them for an element of the Rome2rio site, and clicking on the ads with the intention of getting deeper into our site, not navigating away from us. That visual confusion would explain the super-high conversion rate.

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Understanding that our users were confused was quite troubling: during August an average of 1,700 users were leaving our site via the MyTransitGuide ad each day. While that represents only a tiny proportion of our traffic, 50,000 confused customers each month is way too many, and there was a view within our team that we should block these ads immediately.

We also considered the view that if our users were happy with where they landed, perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much. After all, our competitor GoEuro is also an advertiser on Rome2rio, and we’re happy for our customers to check out their offering. So why not this advertiser?

Sadly, it’s hard to form a positive view of MyTransitGuide. A web search for mytransitguide is dominated by links that describe how to remove it from your browser. Frankly, it’s got a terrible reputation: here’s a typical 1-star review from TrustPilot:

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We tried to understand how MyTransitGuide works, and why IAC would spend money promoting a product of such apparently questionable value. As we continued our research we discovered some independent virus tracking sites had written extensively about the problems associated with it; here’s an analysis from 2-Viruses.com:

The purpose of the modifications referred to above is to increase web traffic to 3rd party websites and generate PPC (pay-per-click) revenue. Search results influenced by MyTransitGuide rank 3rd party domains highly. Additionally, it injects a stack of advertisements into the non-affiliate websites.

Here’s another quote, this one from MalwareKillers.com:

MyTransitGuide or MyTransitGuide Toolbar by MindSpark Interactive Networks LLC is considered a malicious browser hijacker. When installed onto a customer`s computer, the redirector will attach to every popular browser on the PC, in order to compromise the browser`s settings such as the home page and the default search engine. When the user performs a search, it will be redirected to http://home.tb.ask.com/. The search results will be compromised, and they would show up information loaded with spam and third-party advertising.

We didn’t need to read too many of these summaries to decide MyTransitGuide had to go, so we quickly blocked them as an advertiser. While we are disappointed to lose the revenue, we figure we’ll have someone filling those slots soon enough. The bigger question, though, is one we can’t figure out: why would a respectable company like IAC be involved in practices that so many in the industry consider shady, promoting products which appear to have little or no value to consumers?

We’re still scratching our heads on that one.

Rod Cuthbert

 

Taking Another (Gentle!) Swipe At Google’s Transit Results

We wrote in some depth last year about the poor quality of the inter-city transit component in many Google Maps results. These results are displayed at the top of SERPs for queries like “How do I get from A to B?”. Since then Google has gone some way towards extending their coverage of transportation operators — here’s their new result for Amsterdam to Paris: perfect! — but they still fall well short of a standard that might justify putting their own results ahead of comprehensive and accurate results from others, including Rome2rio.

Here’s an example of what we mean: answering the query “How do I get from Toulouse, France to Zaragoza, Spain?” Google suggests a bus from Toulouse to Barcelona; a seven minute walk from one station to another; then the local R3 train to Barcelona-Sants station, and (finally!) a change to the high-speed AVE train to Zaragoza. That’s a complex journey of just under 9 hours, and it’s frankly silly when compared to simply taking the AVE all the way from Toulouse, via Barcelona. But Google doesn’t suggest that option.

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Logic-defying suggestions like this abound in Google’s transit results. Our comment when we last discussed this topic was that rather than suggest crazy routings, Google should not make any transit suggestions at all. That seems to be occurring a little more  here’s a good example, in Morocco — but within Western Europe, Google consistently leads its trusting users astray, with suggested routes that are often illogical, lengthy and hopelessly complex.

(Another classic example: Google’s suggestion for Nice to Milan. Two buses, then the Metro… 7:29 hours! Here’s the correct answer, the excellent Thello train service all the way, at 4:41 hours.)

A few months ago our industry colleague, Tripadvisor founder and CEO Steve Kaufer, got Google’s attention with a pointed tweet.

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It’s unusual for industry leaders to speak out against Google; frankly, nobody wants to upset the powerful operators of the search and advertising platform on which we all rely so heavily. But given Steve Kaufer’s success — Tripadvisor results for this type of query seem to be on top again — and Google’s oft-repeated mantra of always wanting to do what’s best for users, it’s probably safe to give them another gentle poke about their less than fabulous transit offerings.

It’s clear that Rome2rio and other multi-modal specialists — GoEuroGopiliQixxit all come to mind — provide inter-city transit results of a consistently higher quality than the search giant’s own somewhat patchy offering. A move by Google to preference high quality, relevant results from third parties over their own would certainly be a good outcome for users.

– Rod Cuthbert

A Map Goes Unexpectedly Viral, With Help From Reddit & Gizmodo

Recent media coverage of the isochronic map we developed, based on a 1914 map by the well-known London mapmaker John G. Bartholomew, provides a classic case study on how quickly things can flourish online. (We wrote about the map and made some observations about how clearly it shows our shrinking world back in January. This post covers a little more of the behind the scenes activity.)

Our engineering team first heard about the 1914 map in a Reddit discussion (which, in turn, referenced an article in The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine). One of Rome2rio’s senior engineers, Miles Izzo, wondered how an updated version of Bartholomew’s 1914 map would look. He began a collaboration with front-end design team member Andrew Greig to replace the 1914 lines from the original map with up to date information.

Miles used Rome2rio’s routing engine to generate a rough heat-map of the travel times from London to every airport around the world. Andrew then used the generated heatmap as a base to create the 2016 version of the world travel times map.

World-Travel-Times-Isochronic-Map-2016

Andrew quickly ran into some interesting problems. The first was that the 1914 map, produced before the introduction of satellite imagery and GPS coordinates, contained many inaccuracies, some of which made our current data look “wrong”. Miami, for example, appeared to be almost 200km away from its real location; many similar issues existed. A significant effort was required to redraw and move place names to their correct locations. In other cases, country names and borders had changed; again, plenty of re-work was required to match the current reality.

Within a few days, Andrew had completed a 2016 version, close enough in design so as to provide a direct visual comparison to the original data. One challenge remained: the “key” on the 1914 map divided the world into sectors that could be reached “within five days journey”, then “5 to 10 days”, right up to “over 40 days”. A new scale was required to accommodate the availability of jet airplanes and high-speed rail: if we had retained the original scale, the entire map, in the 2016 version, would have been within the red zone of “within five days”.

Having solved that problem, we contacted Jamie Condliffe at Gizmodo. Jamie had written about the 1914 map back in November, and we figured he’d be interested in our 2016 version. He was, and immediately wrote a follow-up piece. That story gained a lot of attention and was picked up in short order by mainstream media, including the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, the online travel industry specialist Tnooz, and a wide array of independent blogs and news sites.

We also posted the new map to Reddit, where we had first noticed the 1914 map. Reddit users loved it; within days over a million users had viewed the Imgur-hosted image, and the post had over 5,500 upvotes.

But the ride wasn’t over! The folks at Wellingtons Travel, a UK company that specialises in “old-style” maps of London printed on high-quality paper and canvas, saw the coverage and contacted us with a proposal to license our 2016 map for sale worldwide. It was an easy decision to make: within a few days we’d agreed on terms and production was underway. Which should be good news for the many Reddit users who expressed an interest in buying a printed version, including this request from “spookmann”:

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No problem, spookmann. Head over to Wellingtons and they’ll look after you. Meanwhile, we’ll get back to our normal occupations, helping our users figure out the best way to get from Rome to Rio. And everywhere else*, come to think of it.

Rod Cuthbert

* This example uses an unusual city pair. A Twitter shout-out to the first reader who can tell us why on @Rome2rio.

Advance Booking Alert Function Launches

Rome2rio announced today the launch of its Advance Booking Alert function, aimed at ensuring travelers are fully informed when transport operators require or recommend advance reservations for their services. The Rome2rio site now displays an alert alongside schedules that indicates whether advance bookings are compulsory, recommended, or not required. We believe we are the first online service to display this information on a global basis.

Do I need to book this in advance?” is among the most common questions asked by our seven million monthly users. Having discovered, for example, that there’s a frequent TGV service from Turin to Paris, travelers then wonder if they should book ahead of time, or take a chance and buy their ticket at the station. As advance bookings are mandatory for the TGV, we want to make that completely clear.

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Advance booking advisories ensure you’re not left waiting on the platform

On the other hand, many operators do not require mandatory advance bookings, and in these cases travelers are prone to assume that they’ll find a seat at the last minute. That’s often not true, and in those cases we’ll display messaging that says an advance booking is recommended. Inter-city trains in France, Italy and Germany, Amtrak and Megabus services in the US, many Russian trains and peak-season Mediterranean ferry services are all good examples, but the list certainly doesn’t stop there .

Advance Booking Example Image

Rome2rio is working with transport operators to collect data on advance booking requirements. Many operators, particularly in Europe, flag services that require advance bookings in their schedule data feeds, however in other cases the company will work directly with operators to collect the information. Eventually, advance booking information will be displayed for the majority of the almost 5,000 train, bus and ferry operators displayed on the site.

DB & Google Transit & The Best Laid Plans Of Mice & Men

Rome2rio CTO Bernie Tschirren and I have just returned from a couple of weeks in Europe; we visited Amadeus at their grand campus on the Cote d’Azur, attended the ITB conference in Berlin, and met with a number of companies in Paris. On the in-between weekend Bernie headed to The Netherlands while I visited friends in Italy.

All that travel was made easier by journey planning on Rome2rio — no surprise there — but we also took the opportunity to see what our friends at Google would suggest for our travels. And that, as they say in the classics, is quite a story!

There was quite a stir back in 2012 with the announcement of an exclusive data sharing deal between German Railways (DB) and Google. DB defended that decision in an open letter, saying (forgive the translation if it’s not quite perfect) “The quality of information for our customers is our top priority here.” By that, we assume DB meant that the schedule data must be displayed carefully and in line with various protocols that ensure customers are always seeing accurate, timely information. Restricting distribution of the data to a single partner, Google, was DB’s way of making the data more readily available to consumers while at the same time maintaining control over the quality.

Or so they thought. Check out this Google Transit result for “Amsterdam to Paris”:

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Amsterdam to Paris via Cologne and Frankfurt? Eight hours? I don’t think so! I suspect that seeing one of their services proposed for this route is actually quite an embarrassment for the folks at DB. They entrusted their schedule data to Google to ensure just this sort of ham-fisted result wouldn’t occur, and here is their chosen partner doing exactly what they were trying to avoid. Of course the correct result for this journey is the excellent Thalys high-speed train, a direct service that takes just over three hours.

The wildly inappropriate use of DB routes doesn’t end there. For my trip from Turin to Paris, Google proposed a scenic, 22-hour route that included back-tracking to Milan, meandering through Switzerland, a handful of train changes in Germany, and… well, you get the idea. Here’s Google Transit’s suggestion:

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Goodness me! Twenty hours, seven train changes… DB had sought to protect travelers from seeing poor quality information on 3rd party sites, but surely didn’t imagine that its schedules, even in cases like this where they are displayed quite accurately, could form part of such a bad result for users. They could be forgiven for feeling let down by Google, who don’t appear to be holding up their end of the bargain.

Anyway, back to my travels. I took the more obvious solution, the direct TGV service from Turin to Paris, which runs five times each day and really is a delightful, low-stress way to travel from Italy to the French capital. While on board, I poked around in Google Transit a little more. I found all sorts of routes where, rather than display no results — which might be a better option for their users — Google is displaying similarly inappropriate results along with this disclaimer:

“These results may be incomplete – not all transit agencies in this area have provided their info.

While some operators have joined DB in sharing data with Google — OBB (Austria) and SBB (Switzerland), for example — others, including France’s SNCF, have not. Laying the blame on the holdouts seems a little unfair, and is unlikely to convince any that they should play ball. All of this is clearly an argument for more data openness; after all, the sky hasn’t yet fallen in the UK, the Netherlands or Sweden, all places where government has legislated for public access to all transport data.

We hope the industry sees another lesson here: closed, exclusive arrangements deprive consumers of the benefits that flow from open markets. Making schedule data available to all comers, including highly focused and innovative startups like Rome2rio, Wanderio, GoEuro, FromAtoB and others will always lead to better outcomes for consumers than exclusive arrangements with corporate giants. The proof is out there, plain to see.

Rod Cuthbert

Rome2rio Announces Concur Collaboration

Rome2rio today announced a partnership with Concur, the world’s leading provider of spend management solutions and services, to bring Rome2rio’s journey planning solutions to Concur users worldwide. With this partnership, Concur customers will be able to plan a complete door-to-door trip with Rome2rio and have the itinerary automatically sent back to Concur as a travel request prior to booking a trip.

“This collaboration reflects a growing awareness among business travelers that looking carefully at all the transport options for a journey can have a dramatic effect on the overall cost and efficiency of a trip,” said Rod Cuthbert, Rome2rio CEO. “Most travelers focus on air and hotel costs, however in many cases air is simply not the best option. In other cases, the ‘final leg’ of the trip may have an outsize impact on trip cost. We enable business travelers to look at different travel options, compare costs, and then seek approval for the overall cost rather than only certain elements,” he said.

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​Screenshot example shows ​taxi (US$220) and train (US$20) options from Narita Airport
to a downtown Tokyo hotel.

 

Concur customers will benefit from Rome2rio’s comprehensive coverage of ground transportation options in Europe. “Travelers in Europe have many transport mode options, but it’s been difficult to quantify the relative costs on a side by side basis”, said Jigish Avalani SVP & GM, Developer Services, Platform Services. “Being able to quickly compare the relative costs and trip durations associated with air, rail, inter-city coach, self-drive and new options such as rideshare provides an unique benefit for our customers and aligns with our vision of the perfect trip.”​

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​Screenshot example shows ​various transport options for a typical European business trip.

 

​We expect to complete the integration of the Concur interface for delivery in the first quarter of 2015.

About Concur

Concur is the leading provider of spend management solutions and services in the world, with 20,000 business clients and 25 million users. Through Concur’s open platform, the entire travel and expense ecosystem of customers, suppliers, and developers can access and extend Concur’s T&E cloud. Learn more at concur.com or the Concur blog.

Focusing On Our Global App

​Over the last two years we’ve experimented with various ways of getting Rome2rio’s journey planning technology into the hands of users. Our web-based desktop solution is by far the most popular, with over 3 million unique users each month, and growing fast. Naturally enough — we are an online travel company, after all — we’ve also released responsive versions of the site for use on mobile platforms, and an iPhone App.
 
 
We took the App experiment a step further last year with geo-specific versions for the iPhone: the Melbourne Transport Planner, UK Transport Planner, Sydney Transport Planner and a number of others. Each of these apps functioned in exactly the same way, used exactly the same data and produced exactly the same results as their “big sister” app, Rome2rio. The difference was that they only allowed Origin and Destination entries within their geo-specific area.
 
 
photo 2 (3)     photo 2 (3)
 
Geo-specific apps like the UK Transport Planner (left) produce identical
results to the Rome2rio app (right).
 
 
This experiment has had mixed results: the Melbourne and UK apps were very popular, while we gained little traction with the others. That may have something to do with the fact we didn’t actively market them, that the same functionality could be had through the Rome2rio app, or that consumers looking for an in-city journey planner also wanted up to the minute arrival times for buses, trains and subways: the type of information that is delivered so well by apps like Hopstop, TramTracker, CityMapper and others.
 
 
In any event, we’ve decided to focus our efforts on our global app, Rome2rio, and plan a new release in the November timeframe. We’ve withdrawn the other apps from the Apple store. Look out for the new version of Rome2rio later this year, and check the mobile version of our web site, which also works on Android devices.