the downfall

Posted on May 8, 2011


I’ve kept fairly silent on, the travel guide website where I’ve variously contributed guides as a total amateur, done freelance consultancy and research work, been a community moderator and destination expert over a few years. I’m also curiously #14 on their writers ranking, despite not having contributed much to the site initially and having been completely dormant for about a year now.

The reason is that frankly, I didn’t want to burn bridges (nor do I want to now). Through Simonseeks, I’ve made a decent amount of beer cider money through guides, a significantly larger amount through doing research work and a few contacts in the travel writing industry. It gave me the impetus to realise that actually I could write decently, and could monetise that content somewhat (though as I began to move away from Simonseeks I realised that the early monetisation provided by the site was fairly inconsequential in comparison to what you can get off your own back).

But with the news that Simon Nixon, who gave the site its name, has washed his hands of the whole idea, I feel I can talk a little bit about it and ultimately why it failed. Nixon – who I met on a trip paid for out of my own pocket to the Simonseeks offices in Chester – has said that the site is “simply not viable.”

That’s pretty much dead on, actually.

Simonseeks started out as a site for amateurs, contributing articles in the hope that their work would be more widely read and for scant compensation. Under that model, it almost could’ve survived. You essentially produce content for free (or the minimal costs associated with traffic, which barely went above £10/month for the average writer) and the amount of content is potentially limitless. When I was invited down to the Chester offices, that strategy seemed to be out the window.

The site was undergoing massive changes at the time (in January 2010), and I was asked there as a representative of the writers community to discuss where the site could go. There was also the underlying hint of a job offer, and given that I was six months away from graduating from university, that sounded like a good enough reason to fork out for a train ticket anywhere.

At the meeting my mind was picked for ideas as to how to better build the community (which was small and devoted) into something bigger. Over lunch I explained some initiatives which found their way – in a different form – onto the site. The concept of experts was already underway, and celebrity guides (which were initially a large part of the hook of the first PR initiative) were numerous as they were being listed on the whiteboard in the office.

However there was a sense of confusion: Simon had the latest designs for a relaunched website, he said, and asked if I’d like to take a look and comment. We spent a couple of hours looking through printed proofs of the homepage design, scrawling over it and moving objects up and down the page.

That in itself should demonstrate a few problems. In reality, someone who is there for a visit (and likely an informal job interview) should probably not be having a large say in the redesign of the key part of the company. Secondly, having to review the website on a sheet of A4 – and some of the comments by the staff about the site – indicated that more careful work should have been done before embarking on such an online-centred project.

I left Chester that day with a freelance research project for the site and Simon and his staff looking at how they could organise a role for me in the company as community representative working remotely and part-time, with the understanding that it would become a full-time (yet still remote, save for a few days a month in Chester) role upon graduation. Sensibly – and luckily for me in retrospect – they decided that working at such a distance in such an important role would likely not work, and gave it to a member of the team based in Chester. It’s actually quite concerning, in light of the recent news that follows 6 redundancies in the last month, to think that had they not decided against hiring me on the geographic basis, I probably would have ended up moving to Chester after a few months of remote working for a job which now doesn’t exist.

The reporting work was to compare how different travel websites integrated their community content with the main body of their site, and how they fostered a community spirit. Forums were the main suggestion I had, and they were dutifully undertaken. One thing I cautioned against was having too many forums – something which they initially adhered to, but eventually ignored, adding a slew of destination-based subforums.

The entire timbre of the site changed with the introduction of expert guides, and the increasing focus on professional contributions. That left a bitter taste in the mouth of the community which had started the site and grown it fairly quickly in a difficult environment, and it was the point at which I decided to begin scaling back my work on the site.

I had initially acted as an unofficial community liaison, trying to stoke conversation on the forums. When experts were introduced, it became difficult to remain impartial – or toe the party line. When I became Newcastle expert, I was slightly reinvigorated (even though I was still working for free, with the expectation that once I had produced the 40,000-odd words of content needed for a destination the enhanced visibility would give increased revenue.

The problem was that through the forums, I learnt that other experts were being paid – or given a stipend, at least – to do the extensive research and groundwork needed to catalogue a destination. From there all work stopped on the expert content: while before I had been operating under a go-slow, now I was on strike.

There were other ridiculous moves: big money spent on a television ad campaign that looked amatuerish, with a rubbish jingle. It also initially never stepped beyond the regional advert slots which are usually reserved for garden centres and outlet shopping centres. It seemed like a half-hearted attempt to make the site seem big time; mostly, it seemed like an expensive and poor way to throw away a huge wad of cash.

I did what Simon Nixon did, just several months earlier. I jumped off the ship, knowing that it was heading for the iceberg. I stopped visiting the forums; I just dropped by to login every month to check my (ever-dwindling) guide revenue and claim it. I probably still will until the entire site goes under, because £5 a month is better than nothing for all the hard work put in and all the promise that went unachieved.

And that’s about it for Simonseeks, it seems. It was fun while it lasted.

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