Can we rely on travel information we find on the Internet? An exchange on Twitter with entrepreneur and world travelling phenomenon Gary Arndt set me thinking.
@hackneye (me): Being right more of the time is what guidebooks do better than the Web. It therefore makes me sad to see one with horrendous errors.
@EverywhereTrip (Gary): I’d disagree that they get things right more than the web. They are always 1-4 years out of date given the publication cycle.
@hackneye: Yes, they can be, and sometimes that’s important. But they also tend to be researched and fact-checked more carefully.
@EverywhereTrip: So long as the public can edit the info, errors can be corrected quickly online. 1,000′s of people checking instead of 1.
@hackneye: I agree. But the public don’t correct most of the travel content on the Web. Hence the variable quality.
@EverywhereTrip: What is an example of this? Most pages have comments, or at least a way to contact the owner.
@hackneye: An example of what? An uncorrected error on a travel site? Just Google your hometown and dig around.
@EverywhereTrip: That’s the thing. I don’t see much incorrect information. People always give theoretical examples, never concrete ones.
@hackneye: Chelsea’s football ground is the site of a battle that took place 200 miles away: http://bit.ly/agSoZN… Michelangelo’s David is in the Uffizi: http://bit.ly/aq8Vfn [it isn't]. 2 quick searches, 2 highly ranked sites.
@EverywhereTrip: The internet is a work in progress. If you see an error, correct it. Everyone does a little bit and it adds up…
And so it continued, with a 140-character limit becoming increasingly unsatisfactory for expressing quite complex ideas. It never really occurred to me that my opening gambit was controversial. I’ve worked with guidebooks for years, and have seen (and, yes, made) sloppy errors. Have any made it as far as print? Sure, a few. But I’m certain I’ve never seen the kind of howlers that I discovered with 2 cursory searches on Google. I’ve never seen a guidebook that claims David is in the Uffizi; almost anyone who’s even read about Florence knows that. Nobody needs a guidebook, of course, and Google (heck, even Yahoo!) easily beats one for up-to-date pricing information. But a well crafted guide (like a history book) can enrich a visit; to compare the Blue Guide to Tuscany, say, with a Google search is to commit an obvious category error.
Further, I can think of at least 6 reasons that we’ll never be able to rely on travel information pulled from a search:
1. The Internet’s strength is also its weakness from a travel information point of view. It’s unedited and (partly) democratic. Ten cheers for that. However, there is no democracy of facts, facts need checking, then double-checking… and fact-checking means editors.
2. The Web follows something like a geometric pattern of growth. The number of people willing to spend their time editing it, for free, is more likely to grow arithmetically. There’s an incompatibility there; we could play whack-a-mole with mistakes forever.
3. The kinds of financial returns available online aren’t conducive to thorough destination research, at the moment and for the most part anyway. Patrick Smith has documented the UK launch of Demand Media on his blog, and the pay for experts at leading travel portals isn’t significantly better. (Not because those running such sites are rapacious capitalists; far from it. They’re professional outfits that have done the maths and worked out what a page is worth in traffic and click-through revenue.)
4. Visitors to travel sites are seeking information, inspiration and enlightenment. They don’t know; that’s why they’re there. They aren’t equipped to spot errors (a classic adverse selection problem).
5. When it comes down to it, why should we spend time correcting the errors of content creators who can’t even be bothered to check Wikipedia? (Even to read the Battle of Stamford Bridge, paragraph one.) If it’s your job (or your hobby) to provide quality, well-sourced travel information, then do your job. Visitors to your site aren’t there to correct your errors, and readers are generally not likely to help people with such cavalier attitudes to quality.
6. There’s just far too much information out there, much of it contradictory, much of it abandoned by its creator, and most of it easy to find with the right search term. This is an inevitable consequence of the Web’s DNA.
It strikes me as a truism that the quality of Web information available for free (or nearly-free) will improve. Algorithms will get better, the semantic Web may help push us to better quality sites. And, as Gary points out, crowdsourcing does work. We can agree on that. Individual travel sites will improve (and there are already good ones) and challenge the established names. One way some disruptors are doing so is by becoming editorially more like the traditional players.
I make a significant slice of my income writing on, or about, the Web. I use it all day, every day, and have done for over a decade. To see it as a ‘work in progress’ is to fundamentally misunderstand its nature, in my opinion. (Incidentally, some Marxists and neoconservatives make exactly that mistake with ‘history’… but that’s another subject.) I’m certainly not fixated on the professionally-produced guide as book, app, or whatever. It’s the message that’s key, not the medium. And unless I’m very wrong, the message we receive from the Internet won’t ever be ‘corrected’.
This is only a first draft of my opinion. Please feel free to use the box below to correct me.