The site, called SimonSeeks.com, goes live on 18 June and is a new concept from Nixon, who has built his fortune from price comparison websites Moneysupermarket.com and Travelsupermarket.com.
The premise is simple. The site invites travel enthusiasts and professionals to write and upload travel guides or reviews of their favourite places. Nixon explains: “The idea is that they write with passion, sharing their experiences and tips, and so will differ from standard guide books which can be very matter of fact.”
The website provides tools which allow people to search and find guides easily, and aims to encourage them to buy via a number of partners, such as Lastminute.com and eBookers.com, which will pay commission on bookings.
When a customer makes a booking, Simon Seeks splits the commission with the writer of the review that prompted the booking – a key difference from other travel websites containing user-generated reviews such as TripAdvisor.com.
Nixon envisages a time when writers earn a full-time living from revenue earned on Simon Seeks. He says: “We feel that if we are using the community to generate our content, then we should share the revenue with them.”
Reviews on the first page for any destination will be the most visible and therefore have the best chance of being read and clicked on.
Nixon says: “The guides themselves are rated, as on YouTube, by the community. Writers must keep reviews updated, as otherwise they will drop down because perhaps a hotel will close or there will be other changes. So they have to put the effort in and keep it up to date.”
Nixon says the Simon Seeks team will feed back to writers what consumers like about the reviews – which they prefer and what they want. He says: “Writers can then adapt their reviews. My view is that for a very popular place like Paris, to get on the first page within six months of the launch you’re probably going to need a video.”
The website will launch this week loaded with in excess of 1,000 guides from more than 300 travel journalists whom Nixon has approached prior to going live. Also included are a number of reviews created by celebrities including Cliff Richard, who has written guides to his favourite places – Portugal and Barbados. Nixon hopes for a “whole range” of celebrity writers to contribute over time.
With such potentially good travel writing on offer, Nixon accepts that there is a risk that people will visit Simon Seeks simply to read. “That’s one of the challenges,” he admits. “It is our goal not only to inspire people with the content, but to give them all the research tools and links that will help them book and make it happen. If we are not successful in doing that, then it will fail.”
Failure is not something to which Nixon is accustomed. He pocketed more than £100m when Moneysupermarket, the company he founded in 1999, was floated on the stock market in 2007. However, being part of a plc “frustrated” him, and he stepped down as chief executive in February. He retains ownership of 54% of the business and works there one day a week on special projects and product development.
Many who have made such a sizeable personal fortune might consider retiring to a gentler life but Nixon eschews the notion. “I’m only 41,” he says, adding: “I had this idea nine months ago and it really excited me. If I hadn’t had the idea I would probably still be chief executive of Moneysupermarket, but I just had to pursue this. I wanted to get back to a smaller, faster-moving business. I have this fire in my belly to do it all again.”
While Nixon’s enthusiasm is apparent, some feel that he may be optimistic in expecting contributors to maintain detailed reviews.
Metro travel editor James Ellis says: “It’s an intriguing idea but Nixon seems to be asking writers for an awful lot of work for possibly little or no reward. It is highly likely writers further down the list will have little incentive to continue writing reviews or to update previous reviews.”
Ellis adds: “I’d also be a little concerned about brand awareness. Both Moneysupermarket and TripAdvisor do what they say on the tin. What does ‘Simon Seeks’ mean, especially when it will not be Simon doing the seeking himself?”
Nevertheless, it is hard to argue with Nixon’s track record in founding profitable online businesses. Nixon says: “I think we know how to monetise customers by looking after them, giving them exactly what they want and making it easy for them.”
Simon Nixon, founder of Moneysupermarket.com and Travelsupermarket.com
18 June 2009
1 million unique users within 12 months. To be in the top ten travel websites.
Partners signed up
Lastminute.com, Hotels.com, eBookers.com, Superbreak.com, Late Rooms and Mr & Mrs Smith.
freelance travel writer, The Guardian,
New York Times
Sites relying on user-generated content need users, and Nixon’s idea of incentivising participation is a clever way of achieving a critical mass quicker than other start-ups. It might not be the best way. Offering a cut of clickthrough commissions is offering a cut of a very small cut: as with the site itself, generating personal revenue will be a numbers game. It won’t take users very long to work out whether it is worth their time.
Incentivised UGC entails a number of problems. First, if users are racing to write as many reviews as possible, it may also encourage “fake” reviews gleaned from the huge variety of other reviews on the web. As money is being made by the writers, however little, monitoring validity and plagiarism could become a legal strain. Simon Seeks will also face a challenge in converting hits and reviews into revenue. In an increasingly saturated market, and in tight economic times, holiday makers are painfully aware of value. I frequently look for well-reviewed hotels on a UGC site, and then shop around on price comparison sites to see who can offer me the best value.
Finally, the biggest challenge facing Simon Seeks is UGC itself. The market is dominated by TripAdvisor, which is becoming a victim of its own success as users strain under mountains of content backed by a dearth of validity or trust. Do we really need another rabbit hole?