ZA Webs is a website development company with (in 2010) over 360 websites in its current portfolio. These cover a wide range of fields from societal to commerce and industry. But the largest element is that of tourism with sites ranging from individual guest establishments to major tourist portal sites such as www.yourtravelcompanion.co.za (the publishers of the Your Travel Companion booklets) and www.graaffreinet.co.za (the official site of Graaff-Reinet Tourism).
Our connection with Uniondale began in 2002 when Sam van den Berg, the founder and owner of ZA Webs, had done websites for a number of clients in the Uniondale area. At that time, there was no formal tourism body for the town, although African Aloe had a handy and helpful information kiosk in their offices, and the town also had no website to market it.
Sam decided therefore to create a site for Uniondale and, at his own expense registered, hosted and developed a "Uniondale" site - www.uniondale.co.za. This was a static website, as opposed to dynamic, and was not operated on a commercial basis, being used initially to list his own clients and later other establishments as well, for a fee, to promote the town and area.
Over the course of time, this website grew in authority and became No 1 when searching on Google for "Uniondale" and bearing in mind that there is also a Uniondale in New York State.
In due course, a Uniondale Tourism body was established, an office created in the newly refurbished hotel and full-time staff appointed to run it. This body did not attempt to purchase the website from ZA Webs and we continued to run the site ourselves, while taking the trouble to meet the Tourism staff to build a working relationship and to encourage them to make use of the website in marketing Uniondale by means of updating it with news and information.
Later, for one reason or another, this tourism office failed and once again the website was left as the only marketing tool available to Uniondale.
More recently, another Uniondale Tourism body was established and staff appointed.
In 2009 the website was looking dated and, indeed, on our other tourism portal sites we were using later and much superior content management technology. We wished therefore to upgrade the site but the cost involved was quite beyond the resources of Uniondale Tourism. We proposed therefore to upgrade the site at our own cost and recover the expense over time by levying a slightly increased annual fee for all listings on the site.
The question of the website immediately became a contentious issue. Some Tourism members seemed to feel that it was detrimental to everyone's interests to have "their" site under someone else's control. There was talk of commissioning another "official" website for Uniondale. Other proposals were made for www.uniondale.co.za to be bought out by a couple of the bigger tourism providers.
We recommended strongly in favour of retaining the status quo for three main reasons :
1. The site under our management had already proved its worth to Uniondale over the years and enjoys an unrivalled place on the search engines;
2. The setting up of a rival site would incur unnecessary costs for Uniondale Tourism with little chance of accomplishing what the existing site could do;
3. The purchase of the site by certain individuals could have created undesirable factions within the tourism community.
We argued that our independent control of the site ensured both continuity and fair play for all. Eventually an agreement was arrived at with Uniondale Tourism the main points of which were :
1. Uniondale Tourism would levy its own fees on its members;
2. Any tourism provider could have one listing on the website together with a "More Info" page. Such a listing did not require membership of Uniondale Tourism;
3. The annual fee for such a listing would start at R300 a year (in 2009), payable to ZA Webs, and would not increase by more than 10% per annum;
4. Uniondale Tourism would have a free page on the site on which those of its members who chose not to have listings could have their business name and contact details displayed;
5. Uniondale Tourism could sell advertising on the site and, providing they did the work, keep all the proceeds from such advertising;
6. ZA Webs would provide training to the liaison member and the tourism officer in this respect.
This gave tourism providers four options :
1. Belong to Uniondale Tourism, pay their fees, and get a free mention on the Tourism page;
2. Belong to Uniondale Tourism, pay their fees, get a free mention on the Tourism page, and pay ZA Webs an additional R300 for a full listing on the website;
3. Pay ZA Webs R300 for a full listing on the website without belonging to Uniondale Tourism;
4. Go it alone without the website or Uniondale Tourism.
At the end of June 2010 Uniondale Tourism once again closed its doors.
While we very much regret this event we feel it does vindicate the final decision to leave the site in our hands as, despite this setback, the Uniondale site is still up and running.
Furthermore, one should bear in mind the effect on the website had it been owned by Uniondale Tourism from the time that body first came into existence. When they first disbanded there would have been nobody to pay for the site and it would have disappeared from the internet. When the next body was established the site might have reappeared only to disappear once again the following year.
How would Google have viewed such goings-on? Google takes many factors into consideration when ranking websites. Among these are maturity (age and continuity) and activity (i.e. not a "dead" site). If your site had been popping on and off the internet at intervals there is a real danger that Google would have seen it, not as a "mature" site, but as a Jack-in-the-box and penalised it accordingly, to everyone's detriment.