Marketing With the Cottage Life Show fast approaching, I've been spending the weekend doing some research for the seminars I will be presenting. Since one of the presentations is on Marketing Your Cottage Rental Profitably, I used a couple of hours early today to take a look at some cottage web sites to see what cottage owners are doing to effectively market their properties. For all sorts of reasons I'm not focusing on any of the really poor sites I found, but frankly, most of them fell into that category, and I sometimes wonder what people are thinking when they put these sites together. Do they actually ask other people for their honest opinions, or do they just not care at all? To be fair, I found some very good sites too – ones that look as though some care has been taken over the choice of photos and how the pages are arranged; the spelling and grammar has been checked, and the presentation is free of patterned backgrounds and changing fonts. But, on the whole, it was a disappointing reflection on the Ontario cottage rental market. With so many cottages available for rent, it is even more important to have an attractive web site with a professional look – anything else will deter potential renters particularly for out of season bookings. I feel a rant approaching so will just pinpoint some areas where I believe cottage owners could improve their sites and achieve greater traffic and ultimately higher booking potential. Clarity of presentation Many sites were cluttered with randomly positioned photos and far too much text that wasn't broken up with headings or paragraph breaks. One site had four different colours of text; two different font styles; over use of bold and underlining; and the text was centred making it tough to read. If you want visitors to stay on your site, it should be visually appealing, easy to read and attractively presented. Consistency It is important that a web site is consistent as you move from page to page. Each page should be instantly recognizable as belonging to the same web site you visited on the previous one. That seems to be a no-brainer yet I visited so many where the ‘designer' seemed to be creating a completely new site with each page. By consistency, I mean having design aspects that remain the same regardless of where you are on the site. For example, the images in a header may change but the features should remain consistent. Take a look at this site advertising Normandy Beach Rental and click on the links on the navigation bar at the top. You should get the idea. Navigation Visitors to your site want to navigate around easily and to find what they are looking for, such as rates, availability and facilities without any hassle. They don't want to go searching for information by scrolling down a long text filled page, or by linking to another page that has no back links to the home page. This is almost guaranteed to send visitors to another site, and there are plenty of them, so why should they hang around trying to access information that is difficult to find. Take a look at this site (which is still a work in progress) and note the clearly labeled navigation links: This delightful site advertising a beautiful property in Burgundy, France also has an easy navigation scheme: Photos I was just blown away by seeing so many poorly staged photos, with little attention to detail or any attempt at creating ambience. Images on a web site must be eye catching and attention grabbing, or the fickle audience is going to quickly move on to the next site. My particular bugbear is photos of toilets. This is a personal opinion, but I do not see the need to include them in a web site. Have them ready to send to potential renters if they want to see a picture of the bathroom, but from my perspective they are an unnecessary inclusion. Now if you have a whirlpool tub filled with bubbles; lighted candles and a couple of filled champagne flutes by the side, that is a different matter. That's telling a story and creating a fantasy; a toilet with the lid up is not! The images you use should capture the dream and drive your site visitors to make a booking straight away, not drive your visitors away. You want your potential renters to see the photos and imagine themselves staying at the property, sleeping in the bedrooms, cooking in the kitchen and kicking back and relaxing in the living and family rooms. When the photos and a brief description are all they have to go by, you've got to make a good effort to ensure they show well. Putting in extra effort in preparing the rooms will pay dividends in the interest the site receives. Links Internal and external links play a role in generating search engine traffic to the site as well as creating a user friendly structure. These links need to be checked frequently to make sure they still go to the right places, as broken links can be a very negative aspect of a site. One site I visited had a link with the text, ‘What Our Guests Think of Our Cottage'. When I clicked on it, the link went to an error message saying the page had been removed. That was not a great testimonial! Over the next few weeks I'll be reviewing some Content Management Systems (CMS) for building your own site as well as including some tips on finding a good web designer if you prefer to go this route. I believe every owner should have their own web site if they are serious about marketing to the widest audience. I'd just like to see these web sites reflecting the business of cottage rentals as a professional and respected method of promoting tourism.