The ups and downs of offering free holiday accommodation listings

We’ve been offering free listings for holiday accommodation for over seven years now with quite a few changes to what we offered over that time.

Initially, we did the site by hand, taking in emails with the text and a photo then adding the property to what was then a simple list. That worked just fine ’til we got over 50 properties when it started to become a bit of a chore to keep up with the growing number of updates. That’s when we moved to the original database driven version of the sites (which had become plural by then) with a rise in the amount of text and the number of photos. As the years went on, we filled out the sites by offering more options for text and photos and variations on how we presented them with the general aim of producing a professional site but without the cost overheads. Depending on how you count them, we’re now on the fourth or fifth version of the site and possibly the sixth if you count the Android version that we’re trialling out at the moment.

One problem that we have which fully commercial sites don’t is that we need people to upgrade their entry now and again as we implement new facilities on the sites. Most noticeable is the resolution of the photos where we’ve moved from 150 pixels wide to 500 pixels at the moment yet still have some of the early properties using photos at the original low resolution. However, we’ve added heaps of sections from room descriptions, through local attractions to GPS co-ordinates which also need attention. We do prompt people to update their entry in our, slightly irregular, newsletters but it’s an uphill battle: people won’t update their entry without receiving more bookings yet they won’t get the extra bookings without updating their entry!

Along the way we’ve grown from the initial band of 20 property owners to six or seven thousand across the various sites. Although the original game plan was to offer totally free listings, we were prompted by a number of owners to add a charge. No, really! They felt that “free” meant that the listing had no value and there are a number of people who feel that way if the quality of the adverts we receive when we mention “free” is anything to go by. What we do these days is to say that it costs £40 or so but that there’s a free trial period. In practice, our listing is actually better than free as we do a free SEO review of your own website and we tidy up your entry so that it’s well presented on our sites. That free SEO review has been enough to increase the traffic on a fair number of sites around 30 fold so it’s definitely worth having!

The timing of the arrival of the adverts is still confusing though! I would expect them to turn up when the properties aren’t that busy so in principle we should have had next to no new entries over Easter but we received a good deal more than we normally do and pretty high quality entries at that too.

One big advantage that we offer over commercial sites is that all the development work is in-house.  The effect of that will be increasingly clear over the coming year or two as we will be rolling out a series of updates. Commercial sites generally contract out their development work and therefore only update their sites every three to five years. In principle, that should mean that we will gradually overtake more and more commercial sites in the markets in which we operate. For example, we’re in the process of writing a native Android app that would ordinarily cost around £15,000 or so which is a lot of money even for fairly large listings sites.

What’s been particularly sad to see over the last year is the massive rise in the number of people dropping out of the business. For us the drop out rate has historically been tiny but it’s around ten times the normal rate over the past year or so. Equally sad is the jump in the number of listings sites which have ceased operations: up from one to over 20 in a year.


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