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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Please don't tell me this is the future of guidebooks, or, Offbeat Guides part 3: a depressing postcript

Does the world really need travel guides compiled for us from Wikipedia and/or any other online sources for that matter? Following on from my posts on Offbeat Guides part 1: my findings & part 2: my conclusion, I've been thinking about the future of travel guides... but first, the postscript: after posting part 2, I returned to Offbeat Guides for another glance at the Dubai guide to look for some author details. At the end of the Contents, I noticed a References page. I'd initially thought this might have been a further reading list. It wasn't. It turns out the Dubai guide's content came largely from Wikipedia. A few questions immediately sprang to mind:
1) Why on earth would a site marketing itself as a new travel product with its own brand 'Offbeat Guides' rely on using Wikipedia (predominantly) for its content?
2) Why wouldn't they incorporate Wikipedia into their branding? Or announce on the home page where their content is mainly coming from? (Had I have realised that from the start I wouldn't have wasted time testing their beta.)
3) How can they claim they have the most current content on the web when they're so heavily relying on Wikipedia? Not everything on Wikipedia is updated regularly. Content is only as good as the author who has written it. Or the editor editing it! And if we don't know either how can we trust it? Which leads me to my final question...
4) Why did the team behind Offbeat Guides think travellers even needed such a product?

The shelves of most good bookshops are crammed with row after row of quality travel guides written by professional authors, edited by professional editors, and produced by established guidebook publishers (DK, Rough Guides, Footprint, Fodors, Time Out, etc), and then tucked into a little corner here and there will be books in smaller numbers but sometimes produced to even greater standards, like the gorgeous Thames and Hudson Style City guides and the sexy Hip Hotels books, there'll also be a few niche guides like
Hedonist's and Pulse's Night+Day series, and there might be a rack of cool guides like Wallpaper's, or a box of Luxe guides on the counter. And we haven't even started on online guides such as Triporati's travel guides and World Travel Guides, and all those excellent resident-authored city blogs that are as good as, if not better than, some published city guides... so why, when there are so many brilliant, high quality, authored guides, do we need something like this? Please don't tell me this is a sign of things to come. If anything, I was hoping that the future of travel guides would lie in more lovingly-crafted almost artisanal guides by small passionate publishers such as Love guides. Please don't tell me I'm wrong. What do you think?


Alexander said...

In a world where The Guardian will publish a piece from a writer that took a bus tour around Dubai, I'm afraid that this is all too likely a scenario.

I do know one writer who 'did' travel books using desk research. Can't say I approved, but having used the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka, I do have my reservations about travel guides and will be a lot more careful about what I buy in future. (Sorry, I know that's heresy!!!)

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Alexander

Oh gosh, you're depressing me even more! My husband Terry told me about Greer's piece but to be honest I haven't read it yet... I better go take a look.

I've heard of a lot of writers who do desk research only, and no I don't approve. Sure, there's a place for desk research. We're doing it now ourselves - however, we've just spent 3 months on the road and along the way we interviewed people, tried out hundreds of restaurants, scores of hotels, visited dozens of museums, tried a few tours... the desk research - checking facts, historical dates, timelines, comparing our experiences to others and so on, should supplement the real stuff that happens on the road, not be done in place of it.

And as for Lonely Planet, oh, yes, we've used a few shockers ourselves... but like LP the other guidebooks publish author details, so we can then make future judgements about which authors' books we're going to buy and which ones we're going to stay well clear of... we don't buy for the brand alone. So, yes, I totally hear where you're coming from!

Thanks for dropping by!

Anonymous said...

Hi Lara. Just wanted to say, I've immensely enjoyed the three-part series on 'off beat' guides. And the role of guidebooks in general. Sometimes it feels good to get pissed off at people who get it sooo very wrong. Thanks for getting annoyed, and for allowing me to be annoyed right along with you.

Anonymous said...

Ha... Germaine Greer, no seriously, that one doesn't even deserve a comment. She's hardly someone taken seriously, no matter what she writes.

I love that you do all of this Lara, because to be honest, you continue to really cut down a lot of my time researching stuff myself!

I think this might be Web 1.0 meets Web 2.0 (not resulting in Web 3.0, so much as Crap 3.0). I think a lot of these travel sites are relying on user comments and gathering material from other sources... and I am no longer interested in any of those sites unless they offer a cheap travel deal of some kind - and frankly, rather than value-adding, I find a lot of the stuff that they try to use for content more confusing than just having an ad to buy a travel product would be.

I keep wanting the answer to all of this to be that there will be one total standout: a gold standard. I have it for hotel bookings with (though annoyingly it doesn't have many hotels in the US and Canada, so it's not useful for a lot of my travel). I've yet to find anything even vaguely as useful for the experience of travel. The handiest thing I've found is reading blogs like yours, and the older technology of the edited books like The Lonely Planet ones, or travel writing that isn't a guide, but gives a bit of an insight. Almost no individual blogs do that for me (except for yours). And a lot of it is that the writing is poor, its self-indulgent, it's all of those things that Web 2.0 can, and in some ways should, be.

I think there are some really good moments that can be gathered from 2.0, but technology-focused as I am, I'm amazed at how much I still go back to the old stuff, and in the end it all comes down to one thing: editing.

I'm also aware that when I do use another technology, like watching CNN Business Traveller or Fast Track, I recognise that there is (usually) some really good research and work put into it. Until these websites realise that it will be in their interests to create something that costs a bit (and they would make a fortune), it's not interesting to me. I click that side bar in Facebook sometimes, but it doesn't direct my viewing, and that's the problem with most of the integrated guides/sales spaces. Do they make money off me? Heaps. I really do see it, but again, I value it more because it doesn't impose itself. And I'm fairly sure that Facebook make enough money, and aren't doing it for the love of it, you know? So I think that if someone could truly invest in a proper resource and sell advertising as banner process in their site, they'd make a frigging fortune, but it has to be good. And expedia, trip advisor (still better than most of those kinds of resources), booking buddy, triperati, and all of those other ones are just not yet hitting the mark.

Maybe I'm also after, what you just recognised was missing from Offbeat Guides, and what is definitely not missing from yours... honesty. It actually matters, so do contexts. I want to know who is writing, what their perspective is, all of that kind of stuff.

So... thank gawd for you, Lara. But someone, make a fortune by providing a good resource!

Anonymous said...

Great three part series. While I'm not at all familiar with Dubai many of your comments ring very true with their SE Asia offerings as well.


Maryam in Marrakesh said...

Wikipedia? That's ridiculous!!! The stuff in Wikipedia on Marrakech is laughable and totally unoriginal. Some guy who went there for a week is "allowed" to give his suggestions b/c he is "a Wikipedia editor." Undoubtedly ginormous numbers of people follow his suggestions to a T. I tried to submit my blog link to Wikipedia over a year ago and was struck down b/c it was viewed as advertising. The fact is that I have helped hundreds of people planning their trips to Marrakech - what do I get from it? zippo, except the satisfaction that they will know what to expect. I am with your earlier reader: when I travel I go straight to blogs, looking for a friendly face. But it doesn't always work. For exp, I am traveling to Yemen on assignment. I have been there before but was hoping for some updated info. But there don't really seem to be any English language Yemen bloggers. Pity!!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Scott

Thank you so much. Really. Much appreciated. Now you know how I spend my coffee breaks! When I should be writing somebody some stories... :]

Look, to be honest, I'd much rather be delighted about some fantastic new travel guide site someone has created, and write: "Wow, it does this, and it does that, and it does it all so well, and it's written beautifully, and they have such great choices on there, places I've never heard of..." etc etc. Wouldn't you? I don't like being annoyed.

But the thing is I seeing analyzing these trip planning tools just as much a part of my job as I do analyzing a meal or a hotel room or guided tour. Barely a day goes when someone isn't asking my advice so I feel I need to form some kind of opinion on these things. I'd prefer that it was a good opinion. Honestly. It makes life so much easier when you can say nice things instead of bad.

At the same time I don't want to see people getting ripped off. Why should they be paying $10 for a 'guide' they could go to Wikipedia/WikiTravel and print off themselves? The fact that most people wouldn't know this is what really annoys me - as it does you.

Feel free to enjoy my annoyances with me any time - but also join me in on the celebrations too! Just wish there were more of them!

Lara Dunston said...


I'm speechless. Thank you.

Couldn't agree with you more on your theory re Web 1, 2 & 3?

I do love for hotel reviews (we also write for them), because of their honesty - each review has a pros and cons list so they appreciate that even the best properties aren't perfect and they tell people so. Their readers respect that which is why I think they're doing so well. I definitely think more critical and honest writing is going to be the way to go, the way to set the quality products apart from the rest.

You've said it all, so I don't need to say more.

Thank you again.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Stuart

Thank you so much! Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks so. I was thinking I should have tested a few others out but you expect consistency from a 'series' anyway, don't you?

Is Travelfish yours? I absolutely love what you do, by the way. I should have included it in my post, but I forgot about it! It's everything that Offbeat Guides is not - it's local, it's thorough, it has great attention to detail, your writers stay at places, it's obvious you all know what you're writing about, and it's obvious you 'care' about the destinations and places you're writing about. I think I might have to do a post on Travelfish...

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Maryam

Oh, that's interesting about Marrakesh too. To be honest, I just don't use Wikipedia/Wikitravel because I've always thought it was crap. I was just saying to Terry how the science sections and history content all seems to be so thorough... all have long bibliographies and you can imagine these geeky science guys editing eachother's work, tweaking words here and there to make sure it's factually correct.

But that certainly doesn't happen with the travel content. I don't think a single professional travel writer has written anything there! If any of us had time for writing stuff I think we'd be writing our own content, wouldn't we?

I have seen some Yemeni blogs before - not brilliant but definitely local and interesting - I'll try and look them up for you.

Magda K said...

Hi Lara,

first, I want to say that I love your blog and your Dubai Encounter (LP) - it's so true and authentic.

Now, I was a little bit curious about Offbeat Guides, actually I didn't believe that they are so bad... I also live in Dubai, so I tried this destination. Oh, and it's bad, worse than I imagined. And the best thing is that if you want a printed version of the guide, and you live in Europe, they charge you $44.75 (+international shipping) for that crap!!!
Anyway, I think that it's not going to work, that Offbeat Guides - people are not stupid, and after quick glance through the content you know that's a s**t, and the guide actually brings nothing new to the subject.
The true quality defends itself, so keep writing!!

Vicky Baker said...

Woah. Wikipedia?? This can't be good. I've only had a v quick gander, but the Buenos Aires offering is hardly customised (aside from converting exchange rate into pounds). Yes, it provides an interesting overview (but one I could have found easily myself on Wikipedia) and solid recommendations are few.
For example, nightlife is surely a major draw in this city. But the guide basically says "Nightlife is good. Go on an organised pub crawl". God almighty, I've never heard of such a thing. Sounds fodder for a bad stag do! There's not a single bar or club recommended. And next-to-no restaurants. Very disappointing, because the idea showed promise. I' d like something that really could bring be the "best of the net" on a travel destination. Am sure someone, somewhere is working on it...

Anonymous said...

Is this even legit? Isn't there any copyright on Wikipedia, even if it's a Creative Commons licence? People contribute to Wikipedia because it's a non-profit organisation - people shouldn't just rip that off wholesale.

That's even aside from the quality and accuracy issues you've already highlighted.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Magda

Why thank you for the nice feedback on the Encounter book! And the general encouragement - much appreciated. Really.

I'm glad you felt the same way about the Offbeat Dubai guide. I'm truly astonished about the cost. I hope too many people aren't falling for it! That's my main gripe. Because it's hard for some people to assess quality if they don't know the destination. Hopefully the bad writing serves as a hint... and people notice the Wikipedia references. Thanks again for your comments!

Hola Vicky!

An organized pub crawl in BA! Heavens, where did they get that from?! Having said that, if you ever see our "Clubbing Guide to BA", don't you dare criticize! It was published in a few newspapers around the world without our knowledge. LP simply lifted the material from our Buenos Aires Encounter book - most of them would certainly *NOT* have been the places I'd have chosen for a BA clubbing story if I knew it was going to be published in a paper. We had a lot better selections in there that they could have chosen.

But, as for Offbeat, I'm glad you feel the same. Agree it's a promising idea, but it needs to come from a wide array of 'reliable' sources and that's the problem with the web - not everything is current, too many people are writing from their desks, and not enough frequent updating or fact-checking is going on. And some people struggle to judge this, don't you agree?

Hi Caitlin - because it is Creative Commons anyone can use the content anywhere, which is why it's in thousands of places - and even if the author has plagiarised, or should I say was 'inspired' by other text in the first place. But you may a terrific point about one of the reasons it's so successful is because it is non-profit... There has to be something wrong with that, doesn't there?

Thanks for commenting all - greatly appreciated! - I'm so enjoying the different ideas and opinions.

Michael Esposito said...

I'm not familiar with the Offbeat guides, but it seems that many will compromise integrity all too readily to chase the dollars.

I would rather use a well-written, somewhat out of date guide than one that supposedly was up to date but had shoddy workmanship.

Anonymous said...

Lara, excellent series on offbeat. Not sure what the future holds, but the optimist in me thinks that online the pendulum will swing back to high quality, professional writing about place rather than the generic "unauthored" content we're seeing.

Thanks, too, for your references to Triporati, where we're doing our best to present useful and accurate information about the world for travelers.


Lara Dunston said...

Hi Michael

Try Offbeat Guides for a destination you know well and see what they have to say about it.

You are right - sadly, they seem to be all about the money. I heard from one of my readers that the CEO comes from a technology background, so they seem to have created it with the technology primarily in mind, which is just wrong as far as I'm concerned. They should be thinking about the traveller first and foremost and what they need.

Hi Larry

Thanks! I'm hoping you're right. That's what I was thinking until I saw the Offbeat site.

One of the things I love about Triporati, apart from the site itself, is that you actually pay travel writers/destination experts to produce your content. What an original idea, hey! ;)

Anonymous said...

What do people think about V!VA Travel Guides