Web awards scam hits IT

Pull the plug on one of the most enduring scams in the interactive business – those innocuous electronic brownie points every site loves to show off. They take away much more than they add.

Until now, I’ve been part of the problem, and that’s why I’m writing this column. For example, a few weeks ago, while writing ITR’s Person of the Year articles, I slipped this sentence in: “Preview [Travel]’s Web projects won critical acclaim. ‘Look no further’ for travel information, raved Inter@ctive Week, awarding the company’s reservations tool its recent Site of the Week award.”

I am not alone. One of the most promising new travel sites, TheTrip.com, recently made the same terrible mistake. “TheTrip.com rates Web raves,” boasted a news release headline. “Online travel service makes AOL’s Web essentials.”

It continued, “TheTrip.com was recently recognized by three of the top barometers of Web success as one of the most useful-and hip-sites available.” The online critics that evaluated TheTrip.com were – not necessarily in order of importance – America Online, Cool Site of the Day, and Yahoo.

What’s wrong with mentioning a few accolades in a news release? Not much, by itself. But if you link your award-winning site to the award givers, you might as well stand on a street corner and hand out $100 bills?

By giving these so-called rating “services” publicity, and by participating in their contrived system, we’re disregarding the most basic of all interactive business principles: hits are needed for profits.

This simple axiom doesn’t require much thought or explanation. Visits to a site, if handled properly, eventually translate into more business and, given enough time, earnings. Take away the visits and you can kiss your investment good-bye, especially on a booking engine with no other revenue source.

Related story:   Is IT ruining travel agents?

But when awarded a glowing review, a site manager’s sensibility seems to melt away. He or she doesn’t stop to ask, “Hey, why are they being so nice to us?”

As editor of one of the earliest business travel sites, I didn’t think twice either. Instead, my publisher and I issued a knee-jerk press release not unlike TheTrip.com’s dispatch. My site had been written up by a couple of rating services-we were given a “Top 5 percent” award, a set of Magellan stars, and various smaller cybermedals – and I, for one, wanted the world to know about it. In retrospect, I believe that doing so was like handing money to sites that did the ratings.

Usually the honor is bestowed along with a “request” for a reciprocal link. Next, a Webmaster is invited to download and post evidence of the award. Last time I checked, the “Top 5 percent” GIF weighed more than 30 Kbytes. Ditto Magellan’s stars.

Not only does the valuable hyperlink bog down your page, it also begins to siphon visitors away. Dazzled by the shiny buttons on the bottom of a first- or second-level page, would-be customers curiously click on the award and away from your business.

Admittedly, a site that lists your pages will draw some visitors to you. But in the end you’ll lose more hits than you’ll gain. It’s just the way the system is set up: ratings services are not good Samaritans. They’re profit-hungry parasites.

You want proof? The Point, Magellan, Yahoo, and Lycos, all once independent businesses or non-profit sites affiliated with universities, are now lucrative subsidiaries of cyberspace conglomerates or publicly traded companies.

Related story:   Will biztravel.com's warranty work?

They’re making money. But are you?

So go ahead and do it. Remove that cumbersome “Top 5 percent” graphic. Tear down the links to Yahoo. While you’re at it, delete those utterly meaningless icons that offer a free copy of Navigator or Explorer.

Liberate your site from a scam that is making our industry look pretty stupid.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.