Most of the major online travel companies pay no tax in the UK. Or in the US for that matter. They are often based in very low tax countries like the Netherlands, regardless of where the bulk of their actual service is being used. Whatever the moral questions are around this, and people have their own views, this in practice means they have a lot of spare cash to spend on marketing, and by god, spend it they do. In billions. And this draws browsing customers straight to their sites. Fair enough, you might say, if they are profiling a small setting who no one would have heard of otherwise. Certainly the price comparison sites Expedia and Booking.com – which together garner 80% of online bookings, can give valuable coverage to small businesses. But their practices can also take customers looking for a place by name to their site, when they played no part is raising awareness of that B&B. One of the ways they do this, charmingly, is a practice called brandjacking. By registering with them I have to agree with their deal with search engines that anyone putting in my B&B name as a search term will be taken first to the OTA (Online Travel Agent) listing, not my own. There’s no algorithm that I can influence, however successful my website: it’s a straight up deal between the big giants that puts them first. So even if a neighbour puts in my B&B name in order to go to the site to make a direct booking, my listing on an OTA will come up first. A B&B in Yorkshire had an even worse scenario after winning multiple awards. They were so well known they no longer needed to register with the big multinationals; they could rely on a steady stream of people who heard of them through media and reviews. But then they discovered that a big OTA had set up a fake page with a photo (not of them) and a description (not written by them) of their B&B, but with the warning that no prices are available for that B&B so unfailingly directing customers off to other listings (who do pay the commission).
It isn’t just in search engines. It works between the big companies too. I used to pay TripAdvisor around £600 a year to have a listing with my contact details on it. But they have a deal with Booking.com that anyone coming across my listing on TripAdvisor would then see an advert telling them the best deal for any room would be through Booking.com, and off they go, leading to a jolly £15-18 fee I have to pay to Booking.com for snatching my customers. Because of course it was never true that the best deal was through the OTA – their terms demand that you don’t offer a cheaper deal on your own site (they track and link to your listed rates), but no one in their right minds would put a cheaper deal on a commission based service. But it was legal for them to make the claim, somehow. For a hotel or B&B to get their own website to the top of the search results – above Booking, Expedia, Tripadvisor – they would have to pay over £900 a month for pay per click views.
What started as a wonderful and useful service has proved profitable, and greed is growing. TripAdvisor have now changed their terms and conditions so all of their partner settings have to agree that TripAdvisor can harvest ANY of the text or images from our websites at ANY time, and have perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, transferable and sub-licensable rights to them. So I can pay a photographer, or use my own images for my site and Tripadvisor can not only use them for free, for any purpose, but can also sell them on to whoever it wants, and we don’t get a penny.
It doesn’t feel like a fair fight.
So, like so many scenarios, we’re just left with stark choices. Be exploited by the big companies or go it alone without the cash to compete. I chose to come off TripAdvisor (which used to be a free and freeforall comparison site, but now is heavily committed to settings paying to be listed, and paying more to be listed with their own contact details) and stick to Booking.com where most of my browsing guests were being sent anyway. I am now choosing to come off Booking.com too, because I find it sticks in my craw that someone can be told about me, puts my name in a search engine, and Booking.com get the booking because we all know that the first viable result gets the hit. It’s how it works. If it were just a service where I paid for a listing, but I could compete independently, or have some equal and respectful relationship with them it would be bearable, but it is enraging, because the demands and costs increase the more you become trapped in. It all works through software, so they don’t even have to pay someone to set up my details. They listed me as being in Hinton St George, the neighbouring (delightful) tiny village, and not my own. They put the nearest transport as some random hour away airport, and not the local train station. They recommend places to go that are bonkers places, miles and miles away, not at all what I submitted in my registration. Will they talk to me about their misrepresentation of my B&B? No, because the listing isn’t done by humans. It’s a software thing, so thought it’s all wrong, misleadingly so, that’s what stays. There I am, stuck, looking like I’m trying to pass myself off as a farmhouse in a hugely photogenic village when I’m actually very happy where I am, in my own beautiful, thriving, happy village, thank you very much, with some stupendous places to visit and eat just down the road, rather than Weymouth. (For the record, I’ve nothing against Weymouth, it’s just that I prefer not to drive for an hour to eat out, on the whole).
So I’m going to try a summer without them. And I will spread the message that the price comparison big agents don’t list everyone, just those who have agreed to their terms, so try a few different searches when you’re looking. And I’m going to ask if at any time you’re looking for somewhere to eat or stay, that it would be a very welcome, when you find somewhere appealing through an OTA, run as a tiny operation among tens of thousands of others, if could just put that specific name in Google and check the results, and see if you can’t run down the listings and find the one that isn’t an Ad, or via a huge tax avoiding multi national, but a direct site, probably built with the help of a local design company or coder, or possibly with a lot of sweat and tears the DIY way; run by someone who pays their local council tax which will then support the local community, and other businesses. And which, when some profit is made, pays income tax that will help pay the refuse collectors, and the health service, and the grants that have helped so many of us survive this year, and that will do something towards helping those who have not been so lucky this year. Because the truth is that most small businesses do pay their tax, and do their share in their local communities through helping out, or volunteering, or collaborating with other small businesses, or just sending business on. And when you have no local community, and pay people to find ways to cut costs and get things for free, you get more cash to get a bigger share of the pie which gives you more cash .. … So somehow bypassing the OTA signposting systems even if you use them seems a reasonable way to behave. It’s not how the biggest Online Travel Agents are designed to work, but it’s legal, and a choice. Now that I’ve started doing it wherever I go, I’ve found it deeply satisfying taking those extra few minutes to search, and have a little moment of pleasure in booking direct where I know I am going to be paying David, and not, for once, Goliath. Goliath will be ok. It’s not, on this occasion, a mortal blow.
ps. I know that the image doesn’t really have much to do with the article, but not having TripAdvisor’s large free image library, I was getting desperate. Please think small is beautiful, rather than focus on the fact that aphids are really annoying.