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Good info a needle in a haystack

Why are we being waylaid by poor Web design, diabolical navigation, and wrong assumptions when the Internet is all about speed and information?

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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VijayTHE MOST AMAZING thing about the Internet is its speed. The sheer speed of making a query, finding a myriad options, and getting on quickly with your business, whether it’s finding a boutique hotel in Gaza, unloading toxic assets – like the Penthouse under the bed with the amazing Dylan interview – or watching the antics of the subservient chicken, Burger King’s once faddish, now shonky, avian peepshow.

Speed is king in a world where web surfers make up their minds about staying on or exiting a page, in nanoseconds. That’s not a lot of time. A billionth of a second; about how long it takes a five-year-old to evaluate 20 options and hit the shoot button on PlayStation, or about the time it takes a Hollywood celebrity to date, fall in love, marry, adopt every kid in Malawi, and divorce. Of course, older people take longer to react. They’re more thoughtful. It is also a tad difficult to do a Google search if it’s the microwave button you’re pressing.

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If it’s all about speed, why are people everywhere throwing up barriers to this amazing information flow? Try to check on a hotel and the first thing to greet you is something called a “booking engine”. This stands at the very apex of the tyranny of commerce over intellect and free choice. To find a hotel’s details you need to first put in a booking date, choose a room type, and inform the hotel whether your kids are gay. By the time you’ve been through this palaver you’d like to drop a decent tonnage nuclear bomb on the place. Iran’s Ahmadinejad is not crazy. He’s just fed up of trying to find the best luxury spa resort in Haifa or Eilat, Israel.

There is a genuine worry that professional journalists will be driven out of business by a tidal wave of blogging blatherskites

The Hilton USA home page is one of the more egregious offenders, welcoming surfers with nothing more than a “buy now” sign on its home page (its Asia-Pacific site is a lot friendlier). It is not alone. Travel agents tie you up pushing price when you haven’t a clue about what they’re selling.

Another cardinal offence is the use of a so-called “splash page”, a showboating curtain raiser before surfers actually get to the nitty-gritty. This takes the form of a tedious Flash animation with image fade-ins, music and video of bikini-clad women strolling elegantly past sun-drenched pools, all the stuff you never get to see at any of these places. You’ll always spot a picture of a woman in the spa pool gazing out at the sunset, the camera lingering on her long, slender back, and glistening black mane. She doesn’t exist. Believe me. I’ve looked for her.

Splash pages turn people away. It’s a bit like arriving at the enquiry counter at the Revenue Department and asking for a tax form, only to have the receptionist treat you to a bravura performance of Paganini on his violin before answering. You need a quick answer. Not the Moscow Circus.

There was an innocent time when I was growing up where good information was an extraordinarily scarce and much prized commodity. People waited for it, and paid good money for it. Printed magazines, newspapers and books were in everyone’s hands. I read every comic I could lay my hands on. This earned my father’s ire, as he believed comics would ruin my English. I confounded everyone by building a fine vocabulary: POW, THWACK, KAZOOM. To this I added my Harold Robbins haul from The Adventurers, which consisted mainly of women screaming “Aaaarrgghhh”, a word I could never find in any dictionary.

The best thing about comics was the de rigueur clip-out coupon with that bold declaration, “Yes, I want a body like Charles Atlas. I am sick of people kicking sand in my face”. I mailed these off by the dozen. It finally dawned on me that living in New Delhi was a pretty safe bet as there was no sand, or beach, within 2,000 miles. In the Seventies if you hadn’t read the latest issue of Reader’s Digest, followed Harold Evans’ exploits at the Sunday Times, drooled over Rolling Stone, or scratched your head over Mother Jones, you were either French, or from one of those North American lost-in-the-woods communities more interested in dating caribou than a comely lass.

Hotel managers don their Spiderman costumes at night, fighting the bad guys (the competition) by churning out "reviews"

Today information is a “surplus” commodity. No one waits for it and no one is willing to pay. Knowledge has become “accessible” opening up vast opportunities for the formerly disenfranchised. It is unleashing human potential and improving human capital. But, as with any economic surplus, the price point (for information) has been savagely driven down along with quality. There is a genuine worry that professional newspaper journalists will be driven out of business by a tidal wave of blogging or twittering blatherskites.

Mass has resulted in mess. Cyberspace is packed with all manner of tosh. Information nuggets are theoretically within reach but dreadfully hard to find. Instead of having professional journalists sift through hundreds of facts to trim it all down in bite size morsels for the layperson, all presented neatly and lucidly with big headlines denoting the important news and then the smaller print for secondary items – something bloggers simply cannot mimic – consumers run helter-skelter onto a poorly signposted knowledge highway only to get run over by a ten-ton Booking Engine Truck.

The trouble with the Internet search is that the medium was initially exploited for selling stuff as pioneers like Amazon and eBay came into their own. People forgot that to sell something people have to be sold on it first. This involves brand awareness and the ability to find trusted, independent evaluations. Not just user-generated reviews that can range from dandy to diabolical. Hotel general managers are known to don their Spiderman costumes at night as they hit their keyboards, fighting injustice, writing reams of reviews for the Good Guys (themselves) and churning out webs to trap the Bad Guys (the competition). No one buys the prettiest or cheapest laptops. They seek professional reviews. First RESEARCH, then RETAIL.

This is the space we try to fill at SmartTravelAsia.com. We recognise that when you key in “Hong Kong shopping” on Google, you want to compare options, not price. We give you unadulterated journalistic enquiry. We don’t care if your kids are gay. Happy Year of the Tiger.

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