Today, most would-be travelers start their journeys online by researching destinations, carrier schedules, accommodations and free web mapping services.
In order to compete with travel agencies and agents, travel information publishers, who traditionally published books, magazines and newsletters, have migrated to the Internet and become online publishers. Some have created retail websites whose primary objective is to sell traditional hard-copy books. Others are focused on publishing travel reviews on their sites, and derive revenue from advertising and affiliate links.
Still others, such as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and Priceline, are Internet travel agencies that place a high value on creating comparisons of prices and schedules. We chose not to review them as part of the top ten because they are retail websites, not media websites.
We make this distinction: The primary goal of a media website is to inform; the primary goal of a retail website is to sell. Similarly, if we were reviewing literature websites, we would not include Amazon.com, which is a retail website whose primary goal is to sell books, not review them.
We did an in-depth examination of 10 most popular travel information websites and evaluated them against 14 criteria—our famous Mequoda website design guidelines. Of the 10 websites, none was perfect, but most were very good and two or three were excellent.
InternationalLiving.com came in as #3, and we’ll tell you why.
International Living indulges the fantasies of Americans who dream of retiring as ex-patriots in exotic countries where luxurious living is cheap and the taxes are low.
The dream is alive and well. For more than a quarter century, International Living has been using a sales letter for its print newsletter that is classic in its ability paint a picture of retirement bliss.
“You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks. The sky is clear blue.”
“The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.”
“A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.”
“For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.”
“But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!”
A product of Bill Bonner and the fabulously successful Agora Publishing Company, International Living is now marketed online at InternationalLiving.com with the same expertise that Agora brings to marketing its financial publications, including Early to Rise and The Daily Reckoning.
The website’s big promise is that “International Living’s one-of-a-kind e-letter will help you understand all that you need to know about the opportunities the world offers you today.”
“Learn how to double your retirement resources and live as though you had twice the income. Discover 6 countries where you can live or retire in comfort and style on $1,500 per month, including a nice home, groceries, utilities, country club dues, even entertainment and travel.”
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1. Strategic Intent – A
InternationalLiving.com clearly wants your email address so that Agora can regularly market to you via email. It strategically places its email signup box in the top right quadrant of the home page for their main email newsletter, IL’s Free Daily Postcard where you can “Find out how you can Retire, Travel, Buy Real Estate, Invest and Enjoy Life Overseas”.
Users looking for information about overseas living will find plenty here. From the left navigation you can easily identify what you’re looking for wheteher it be about their print publication, free e-letters, free reports, events, or whatever else your heart desires. Users can download 20 free reports, plus sign up for at least a dozen additional special niche, email newsletters.
Thus, InternationalLiving.com does a great job of meeting both user needs and its business objectives.
2. Content Webification – B
There is no innovative use of multimedia at InternationalLiving.com, which would be a welcomed addition.
However, the site does feature a regularly updated blog, as well as a forum separated by Online Discussions, Europe, The Americas, Austalasia and Africa… plus an RSS feed. Good enough to earn a B.
3. Relationship Building (Personalization) – A
As noted above, there is a well-designed signup box for the main email newsletter, plus plenty of links to other, country-specific email newsletters from the initial sign up page.
In addition to that, you will reminded on their blog, that they can recieve the same content via a free subscription to IL’s Free Daily Postcard.
They’ve also partnered with American Writers & Artists, Inc. to offer two enticing email newsletters reaching out to Photographers and Writers wanting to learn how to earn money taking pictures and writing for magazines like International Living.
4. Community Building – A
As noted above, there is a blog where users can comment, leave notes and ask questions to IL editors. There’s also a somewhat active forum that users have to communicate with fellow travelers. Enough to earn this site an A.
Plus, an added community builder is a conspicuous invitation for users to “write for us.”
It says, “We are always on the look out for more people to write for International Living. In particular we publish what we call postcards from people all over the world, telling us about undiscovered international gems…cities, restaurants, hotels/B&B’s, festivals, golf courses, sports facilities or unusual sporting events, fishing, real estate, where to buy bargain goods, get any form of good value etc. etc.
“…we aren’t able to cover travel expenses for our writers and pay upon publication ($25 to $50 per note used on the website, in the E-letter, or in the actuality section of the monthly print issue…more for articles published in our monthly print publications).”
Who could resist that offer?
5. Persistent Navigation – A
The top and left navigation panels remain consistent throughout the site. New users won’t have any problems finding what they seek. Of course, many of the links lead the user to paid products, so this is a hybrid site—part free information, part membership, part retail.
6. User Task Depth – A
Signing up for the newsletter incredibly simple. After the initial email submit, you’re also encouraged to take the next step and subscribe to their other e-letter.
Same goes for Events, if you are looking at events, you are encouraged to take the next step and sign up for their free events e-letter where “You’ll learn how to meet like-minded travelers and local experts in overseas real-estate…international business…culture, cuisine, and art… all while taking an exciting, exotic overseas trip!” ….and hopefully, register for the event!
In addition to this, luckily, browsing, searching, buying a book and registering for an event are a breeze.
7. Affordance – B
Links work and look appropriately so, however, none of the links change color when moused-over, and only some of the links change from blue to maroon when the page has been visited. That knocked them down one grade in this category.
8. Labeling and Language (lexicon and taxonomy) – A
There’s not a lot of technical jargon associated with a travel website, and there certainly isn’tany here at InternationalLiving.com.
Navigation elements are dumbed down to their simplest form: Home, Current Print Issue, Free E-Letters, Free Reports, Bookstore and Events are the primary navigation links on InternationalLiving.com
9. Readability (Content Density) – A
InternationalLiving.com uses a very simple, standard design grid to anchor all the design elements. The result is an acceptable readability.
One recommended improvement: User-selected type sizes. Presumably most of the InternationalLiving.com audience is older Americans—those bearing down on retirement age—who would appreciate the ability to increase the type size with a single click of the mouse.
Most website designers must be under 40 and not yet victims of the “shrinking typeface syndrome” or we would see a “Change the Display Text Size” option more routinely on websites.
10. Organization – A
As noted above, the site’s simple, understated design works to organize the elements and proves the old minimalist adage, less is more.
11. Content Freshness – B
The daily update frequency at InternationalLiving.com seems often enough. But we reserve our highest grade for sites that are updated constantly throughout the day. So it was awarded a B.
12. Load Time – D
Download time was 125.73 seconds at 56 K as measured by the website optimization tool.
For a site with such a lack of innovative media use, it’s surprisingly slow to load each page. Nobody likes to wait two full minutes to see everything on a homepage. We’re betting that at least some of the graphics and ads here could be better optimized for faster downloads.
13. Aesthetics – A
InternationalLiving.com isn’t going to win a beauty contest or a graphic design contest. But it is perfectly adequate for what it is intended to do.
And while we don’t care for the distractions caused by animated display ads, at least most of the ads on this site are for the publisher’s own products and not a third party.
14. Brand Preference – A
The site uses the International Living logotype consistently across all its pages, as well as on its print version of the newsletter, which is certainly an aide to branding.
And InternationalLiving.com looks vaguely like all the other Agora Publishing Company sites, which begs a question. Why doesn’t the publisher leverage the brand and cross-sell to all the subscribers of all the newsletters and information products more aggressively? All the Agora products appear to be designed for customers with the same demographics: older people with discretionary money to spend or invest.
Overall, InternationalLiving.com is a fine example of a travel information website. It isn’t exciting, but perhaps that’s intentional. The site appears to work well enough.