83.9 F
Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, June 23, 2024


To the Source:
The official USVI Tourism site has been up sporadically for about a week. While our Tourism Department has not officially declared the site to be "up," it has been distributing printed materials that feature the site address. A good site is never final or complete, but we now have something official that we can critique.
The major purpose in creating a tourism site should be to make it easy for prospective tourists to use and convincing in what it presents. Our site does not do this. We don't even have the framework to do this. You can stop reading now.
As a professional in the field of web site creation, I had been trying to imagine what $750,000 buys for a site of this type — and was looking forward to learning a thing or two. I'm more than disappointed. If the work was done in-office or on a shoestring budget, it would be simply embarrassing. We were robbed.
Yes, some sites get very expensive. The expenses can include shopping carts, conversion of large catalogues, creation of huge numbers of pages, artificial intelligence, user interaction, on-line operators, business-to-business linkages, contests and research. None of these are evident on our site.
Most importantly, content is king. What we should have been paying for is quality, usable content. It can cost lots of money to create original images and text of good quality. Conversion is cheap and easy. I'm not a big reader of our tourism pamphlets, but I do recognize much of their content in our new site. While that's an acceptable practice, we shouldn't have had to pay so much for so little effort. And the conversion was not done properly.
The Internet is no longer a mystery. These days, it is easy to create and host pages inexpensively. We bought a site that many of our local web content producers would have eagerly and easily done better for less (even much less) than $20,000. For the content that we did get, a $5,000 bid would be a bit high.
Hosting for a site with these features should cost less than $200 a year. Thus, even with a "free" year, the quoted ongoing hosting fee of $50,000 is ridiculous. By the way, the site is being hosted not by IBM but by some company called "Connectria" which looks like it could be an investigation of its own.
It is always good to benchmark. I doubt that there is another tourism site anywhere on the planet that cost as much as ours. Worse, there are already many better Virgin Islands tourism sites that didn't cost the taxpayers anything. Why didn't we invest in improving those or hire locally? As with the "Bridge to Nowhere," we have spent incredible amounts of money on something that is not useful. The money would have been much better spent elsewhere.
I've got a right to complain. I offered my assistance before this whole boondoggle began. Despite my offer of free assistance, I was not asked to comment or assist before the site went public. So, here are some publicly shared observations. My instructors used to inform me that certain errors were "fatal" or an automatic F, no matter how good the rest of my work. The following focuses on the fatal errors of our site:
No content: There are a number of links to areas that might be of interest to potential visitors. All of these links lead to a paragraph or two with perhaps an attached and sometime appropriate brochure. When there are brochures, they are in a format which requires special software, unreadable on all but very sophisticated systems and occasionally with upside down content! Try searching in the restaurant data for "Native Food." Apparently we have none to offer.
Not search engine optimized: There are a number of tricks that can be used to optimize the location of a page for search engines such as Google and Alta-Vista. Most of these methods aren't used for this site. Some quick specifics of things we should not have done wrong are using graphic images of text and no meta tags.
Not Legal: The U.S. Justice Department has ruled that web sites are public accommodations that fall under the Americans With Disabilities Act. In particular, the U.S. government requires all government web sites to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Our site doesn't comply. And I hope that we have rights to the content obviously copied from our brochures.
Bad Name Choice: While "dot-vi" is the official domain of the USVI, most users expect web names to end with "dot-com" or perhaps "dot-net." It is hard to find a good name, but that is one of the things that you pay a developer for. At the risk of pointing someone to grab them before our government, I note that yourvi.com and yourvi.net are available. (The cost to register is about $10 a year these days.)
Note to government: Talk to me if you want a donation of http://tourism.vigov.net. I purchased and developed this site about a year ago simply to show what could be done in a single day.
High-Tech Blunders: The download time is not acceptable. In these fast-paced times, many folks won't wait. Much of the slow-to-load content doesn't add much to what should be the site focus. Never include tools such as search engines unless you have something to search.
Be very careful when putting content on a public site that requires special software or downloads. Examples of things on our site that probably won't work and could actually crash remote systems on the V.I. site are Java, Flash, Adobe Acrobat and sound. It is okay to use these formats, but they should be in clearly defined areas and not critical to content navigation. Never, never put potentially difficult content on the first page.
Bad Format: The pages are too wide. Most of these site pages demand a screen width at or above 800 pixels. This width is above what it is reasonable to expect on many potential visitors' monitors. Most folks won't bother to scroll left and right.
Text should always be readable. There are many examples where this doesn't happen — for example, light gray lettering on white background. Links should look like links, and buttons should look like buttons. Most people won't bother to try to figure out what was intended when navigation tools don't follow common formats.
No Subscription: There should be an easy way to find a mailing list that folks can subscribe to. Such lists are used to send out notices when any major change has been made to the site. In this case, they would also be useful to inform folks about special island events that would encourage them to visit. Unique subscriptions are one of the best ways to judge the effectiveness of a site.
In short, we didn't keep our "eyes on the prize." I can't imagine the casual web surfer staying for long. This may be good, as there is very little that would assist such a potential visitor in making a decision to visit. At best, we can hope they will go to a more useful USVI site.
When a Request for Proposals to develop the V.I. Tourism site was put out, I offered to have my students do it for free. We could not have done worse.
Charlie Balch
St. Thomas

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