Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Friday, May 25, 2007

SpeedFerries ticket sale - cross the channel to France for just £20

Over at SpeedFerries they've announced details of a basic ticket price sale, reducing the price of their Dover/Boulogne fast-cat down to just £20 each way. Remember that the basic tickets are non-refundable, non-changeable, but if you know when you want to travel then they're fantastic value for a cross-channel journey for car and all it's passengers.

To help track down the cheapest tickets they've also added a basic ticket availability page showing (in orange) the dates that currently have £20 tickets available. A snippet's shown above and availability obviously reduces as you get into summer, but there's still loads of dates showing in May, June and July.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Blogger adds a really useful auto-save feature - no more lost postings!!

Very quietly Blogger's added a really useful new feature that definitely makes my life easier, Blogger now automatically saves my blog postings, so loosing all my creative thoughts because of an accidental close-window or PC crash is now a thing of the past.

Originally there were two little buttons, 'publish post' and 'save as draft'. The latter finished editing the current post, saved it as a draft, and dumped you back in a list of all your postings so you could either re-edit the draft posting or edit a completed posting. Hardly user friendly and not inspired to make you use it frequently.

A few days ago I noticed that the 'save as draft' button had disappeared, replaced by a 'Save Now' button and a little note that told me that Blogger would automatically save the post. It's quite intelligent in the way it works, postings are automatically saved every minute or so or saved when you stop typing; so if you are in mid creative flow you don't get distracted by the autosave kicking in whilst you're typing.

The spelling checker appears to have changed as well (for the better) with the spell check button now changing the screen background green and all misspelt words being replaced by drop-down lists of alternatives so you can more quickly fix and replace the typos.
Previously spell checking put up a modal dialog (a bit like the Microsoft Word spell checker) so you could correct one spelling error, then search for the next mistake and laboriously work your way through all the errors. For some reason this didn't always seem to work properly in FireFox and I found it tended to replace the wrong letters when I used it so I've not bothered for some time with the spell check (perhaps you've noticed my frequent typos ...)

Finally, there's also a handy control-S shortcut to save the posting at any time and also new control-P shortcut to publish a post.

I'd quite like Blogger to extend the list of html tags buttons that are available in the post editor (currently there's just bold, italic, link and blockquote) and add a toggle between edit and preview mode, but these new feature's are definitely worthwhile and continue to expand the usability of Blogger.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Google Checkout's refusal for my business

Further to my earlier post about being suspended from Google Checkout because I'm selling travel products, we've swapped reasons as to why I have been suspended ("in breach of their content policies" - which I knew) and I've tried to get to the bottom of why selling travel products (in my particular case, rent of my holiday home) is a banned item.

I pointed out that many of the items banned from Google Checkout are either illegal, immoral or otherwise of questionable value (drugs, fake passports, alcohol, adult materials, wonder miracle drugs, guns, etc), none of which I had a problem with, but that I could not understand why Google would classify travel products in the same way.

Today I received a reply back from them in response to my probing:
Hello Geoffrey,

Thank you for your email. I understand you would like to know why Google does not allow sale of travel products and services through Google Checkout.

I would like to inform you that when we develop our program policies, we focus on providing a positive user experience while adhering to various legal considerations. These policies are formulated to ensure overall program quality and a positive user experience for everyone, whether they are buyers or sellers.

While formulating our content policies, we take into consideration different factors like the buyer's user experience, chargeback risk (for both buyers and sellers), associated with the product or service that is being sold through Google Checkout, and the like. Our goal is to create fair, consistent, and adaptable policies.

As mentioned in my earlier email communication to you, Google reserves the right to expand or edit these policies at any time. Google will also exercise its sole discretion in the interpretation and enforcement of these policies in conjunction with the program's Terms of Service.

Please feel free to reply to this email if you have any additional questions.


The Google Checkout Team

So there you have it, an explanation (of sorts) for the suspension decision.

Google Checkout either thinks that taking payment for renting our french holiday home is illegal, it could result in a "negative buying experience", or it could result in a higher risk of charge backs.

Other payment mechanisms (rentalsystems, paypal, ownersdirect, gitesdefrance, etc) don't seem to perceive these concerns, but Google obviously does; and as they're judge, jury and executioner on any policy decisions, there's little I more I can do but reluctantly accept their decision.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Google Checkout opens for business in the UK (but not for me)

About a month ago Google announced the launch of Google Checkout in the UK and as a special offer (to drum up business no doubt) for sellers they would waive all card handling fees (normally 4%) up to the end of 2007, and for all purchases of £30 or more, they'd give all purchasers an automatic £10 reduction.

Having a quick look round the Google checkout fees and benefits I thought it was a worthwhile alternative to paypal et all as a payment method for taking rental payments for our French holiday home and so I successfully registered for a sellers account.

A couple of the features I liked were being able to have a Google checkout cart on my Google adwords adverts (hopefully drive through a few more customers) and that I'd get a discount on my checkout fees as a result of advertising on adwords. The credit card handling fees that paypal charge are IMHO quite extortionate and I was quite looking forward to being able to offer a more reasonably priced alternative that Google Checkout would offer me.

Since then I've been working on some new pages for the site advertising the benefits of Google Checkout, hoping to encourage some early 2008 bookings by means of the £10 saving.

Everything was finished and I was going to launch the additional site pages on the weekend but didn't quite get round to it for a day or so.

Today when I downloaded my emails I found all my effort was in vain as Google Checkout have suspended my sellers account as my (holiday home) site "contravenes their content policies":
Hello Geoffrey,

During our recent review, we found that one or more products or services on your website ( appear to violate the following Google Checkout content policies:

- Restricted product category: Travel and travel related Services

You may use Google Checkout for any other products or services which do not violate our policies. Currently, however, it appears that all your products or services on your website violate our policies. As a result, your account has been suspended. You may not process any orders at this time. If applicable, any pending orders in your account have been cancelled.

Your final payment will be initiated within two business days. However, your bank may take up to three additional business days to register the payment in your bank account.

If you choose to use Google Checkout for other products or services in compliance with our policies, please let us know so that we can review the status of your account.

For general product or account questions, please review our Help Centre at Alternatively, please do not hesitate to contact me by replying to this email.

Kind regards,

The Google Checkout Team

On searching Google Checkout's policies in detail (and it wasn't at all obvious), I finally found the appropriate page that describes what's allowed and what's not allowed to be sold via Google Checkout.

Google have quite a comprehensive list of things you're not allowed to sell via Google Checkout, many of which are illegal or of questionable morality such as Adult goods, Alcohol, Body parts, Copyrighted software, Endangered species, Drugs, Passports, etc - all of which I have absolutely no problem with at all and personally I'm quite glad that Google does prevent their sale; and then just about at the end of the list, there was the killer item that's caught me out:

Travel packages and offers Tours (including hotel, flight, and car reservations), travel clubs, and timeshare properties

Quite why Google have implemented this specific policy I have no idea but as Google's effectively judge and jury on policies such as this I suspect I have little chance of persuading them to change their mind. I've written to them to try to appeal but don't hold out much hope of getting anywhere.

I'm quite cross about the whole thing really, not just because of a policy that doesn't seem to make any sense, but also because of the time I have wasted in writing new website pages to advertise the option of paying by Google Checkout.

You can have a look at what I wrote over at my 'buy now' using Google Checkout page, which now sadly won't work until such a time as my Google Checkout account is reinstated (if ever).

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Win free ferry travel for a year !

Ferry Cheap

Here's details of a free French competition that's so easy you don't even need to use Google to find the answer.

Up for grabs is a year's free ferry travel courtesy of FerryCheap (an online discount ferry broker). You get 12 free ferry crossings (one per month) and you can travel with any of the ferry companies that Ferry Cheap offer (so you can go to Ireland, France, Spain, Holland, Sweden or the Channel Islands).

In return for all this holidaying you just need to know the answer to the question "What city is the capital of France?".

And if you really don't know, here's a quick competition hint from Google ...

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dilbert's pointy-hair boss decides to start a blog

From the mighty pen of Scott Adams, three recent cartoons where Dilbert's pointy-hair boss decides to start a blog ...

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Enjoy a day in France for only £10 with Brittany Ferries

Brittany Ferries are running a promotion from now to the end of June on all their crossings from Poole, Plymouth and Portsmouth into Brittany and Normandy of "a day in France for £10".

There are small additional supplements for Friday and Saturday crossings and it's an extra £25 if you want to take your car as well, but these are still great value fares if you fancy a quick spring top-up of France, French cuisine and of course lots of French Wine !

Brittany Ferries definitely run the best equipped ships on the channel routes with on-board cinema's, children's entertainers, a swimming pool (on Pont Aven) and the usual restaurants, bars and shops. Usually you pay quite a hefty price for crossing with BF (especially in peak season), but not with this offer.

See BF's website for further details of this 'day in France for £10 offer' and for a summary of the facilities on-board Brittany Ferries fleet

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Google announces major usability improvements to the free Analytics service

Like many other sites I've been taking advantage of the free Google Analytics service to analyse visitors, page visits, browser types, etc for both my main Brittany Holiday Home website and this Holiday Gite Blog.

Although I initially loved the power that it provided me to understand what my customers were doing and where my visitors came from, I have to admit that over the 18 months or so that I've been a user I tend to use it less and less. OK I do look to see how well my keywords are performing and where I'm getting referrals from, and I used it quite a bit when investigating visitor screen sizes and browser types ahead of redesigning the website, but on the whole my usage has dropped off from the initial flush of enthusiasm.

One of the reasons for the reduced usage is definitely the usability of Google Analytics itself. Although there is lots you can do fairly quickly, there are equally things that are quite a pain to do - drilling down into what search engine keywords were used to "find" the site is a couple of levels down in a report and I've not found any easy way of comparing keyword results across search engines (so Google vs. MSN vs. Ask for instance). Another niggle is that analysing "who got to what page" (e.g. the holiday booking enquiry or current property availability pages is quite cumbersome.

Anyway, I was pleased to see tonight that over on Google's Official Blog they announce a major overhaul of Google Analytics with lots of new features and usability improvements such as geographic visitor analysis, improved funnel analysis, keyword performance reporting, etc.

There's further details of the new analytics features on the Analytics Blog and a video tour of the Analytics features.

The improvements look well worthwhile and I'll be taking a closer look at how well it performs in practice when they're rolled out to my two sites.

And like most Google tools, Analytics remains free to use (as long as you have a Google Adwords account).

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Everyone (even Tony Blair) is congratulating Nicolas Sarkozy on his French presidential win

As you may have noticed I tend to keep out of commenting about politics (perhaps I'm part of the 'disinterested generation' ?), but the news of Conservative candidate Nicholas Sarkozy winning the French presidential election has been filling many column inches over the weekend.

Seems that Tony Blair has joined the e-revolution and yesterday Downing Street posted a short video on YouTube of Tony congratulating Nicholas on his win:

PM congratulates Nicholas Sarkozy on French election win

Wisely Downing Street have submitted the video with YouTube comments disabled.

Tony's also posted a second video of the same presidential congratulations announcement in French:

Tony Blair félicite Nicolas Sarkozy (en français)

Although Tony's obviously reading an auto-cue his French is pretty good (definitely better than mine) and he's clearly a confident speaker. Interesting to see that the French version's had more views than the English version - a new era of Anglo-French accord perhaps?

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

A couple of lovely shots of Pontivy

I've just uploaded to our Brittany Flickr Photo album a couple of lovely photos I took around the nearby town of Pontivy whilst we were over at Easter:

Last month I blogged about a great tool I'd found to easily browse Flickr photos, PictoBrowser, which I'd used to put together a photo gallery of favourite french pictures on our Gite website.

All I had to now do to get these two new photos to automatically show in the gallery was to tag them 'PictoBrowser' in Flickr, and the job was done - simple !

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Cheaper overseas bank charges promised by SEPA

SEPA is coming!

Since 2000 the European Central Bank has been working towards SEPA (The 'Single Euro Payments Area') which we're promised will be delivered early in 2008.

If you've ever tried using your credit or debit card abroad then you'll realise that most banks treat this as a licence to print money and charge you outrageous fees for the audacity of using your card abroad. Fees vary (and have increased in recent years) with most providers adding around 2.75% to the purchase price and converting the currency at a less than favourable rate.

That's of course if you can get your UK card to work at all overseas. If anything chip and pin has made things worse when you take your card abroad as the UK has been first to implement the new European standard you can often find that your card not accepted outside of the major towns and cities. We've had this problem ourselves with our UK cards not being accepted at French 24 hour petrol stations, and although the situation is improving and we still see other UK drivers sometimes struggling to get their cards to work.

Anyway, SEPA promises to change all that with "a single set of euro payment instruments" and "efficient processing infrastructures for euro payments".

Even though we don't use the Euro in the UK, SEPA should usher in a new era of more streamlined, simpler and more efficient debit and credit card payments, both whilst travelling abroad and for European visitors to the UK. As well as finding your cards more widely accepted the big advantages should be increased acceptance of overseas cards in the Euro zone (and vice versa) and reduced card handling fees.

SEPA isn't going to happen over night but the end goal is that you should be able to trade overseas as easily as you can trade in your home country with flexibility to make payments, receive cheques and setup direct debits with our European colleagues as easily as we can in the UK.

For Gite owners like myself it may in the long run mean that I no longer need to keep a French bank account to pay my utility bills and council taxes from, and I can manage everything from a single domestic bank account.

The first phase of SEPA comes in January 2008 and it's progressively being implemented through to 2010.

For more details there's lots on Google, but three I picked out are a SEPA overview on, the European Central Bank's SEPA homepage which describes progress towards the vision and "All you need to know about SEPA" from Albany software.

In the meantime a cost effective option is to have a Nationwide Building Society credit or debit card, they promise not to charge any handling fee for any of their cards if you use it abroad - further details of their Overseas card promise on the Nationwide BS website.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Been busy trying to get promoted

Sorry for the lack of Blogging for the last few weeks/days but I've been busy trying to get promoted.

After a couple of years of being "quite happy where I was" and being convinced that "I didn't need to be promoted", and then more recently promotion being talked about as something "I'll go for in a couple of years", all of a sudden this year it's all happened.

The next level up for me is Associate Partner in IBM and that means going through a promotion panel: preparing a business case as to my past achievements and my case for promotion ; then writing and delivering a short 10-15 presentation on my case; then answering questions about my case for 45 minutes. In all my career to date I've never had to do any form of promotion panel and so this in itself was quite a daunting prospect.

The original promotion timetable was to do a dress rehearsal of the panel process in April, learn what areas I needed to improve on, then I'd have 6 months to rectify any weaknesses before the real promotion panel in September/October, for the promotion to be effective from January 2008.

Then in March I was told that everything had changed, the timetable had been shortened, and now I was to have the dress rehearsal in March/April and do the real panel in April/May.

Eak !

In some respects this couldn't have come at a worse time, I was in the middle of trying to win a large consultancy and systems integration project for IBM which was soaking up all my time (day and night) so I'd little time to focus on the preparing for the panel. Nevertheless I did manage to carve out sufficient time to write my case and get as ready as I could do for the dress rehearsal panel last month.

At one stage it looked like I was going to be doing our final customer bid presentation and the promotion panel dress rehearsal on the same day, then the dates changed and they were scheduled for one day after another.

In the end I never managed to do the dress rehearsal as I had to go back to the client that day and help clarify some parts of our proposal.

Since then I've been getting increasingly stressed out about things.

We were successful in our customer proposal and the project was awarded to us, which on one hand was excellent news as having just won a major project is an excellent demonstration of my abilities, but on the other hand it meant that I had to focus on trying to mobilise the project

It's been really difficult finding enough time to prepare properly for my promotion case and think through the key messages I wanted to impart and the words I wanted to say. Trying to get the right balance between being succinct, insightful and with depth of experience has been tough.

Anyway it's all over now. My business case and presentation were all finished last week, I finished the words on Thursday last and spent quite a bit of the weekend practising my 'pitch'.
I've spent time talking to others about how to come across and I spent Wednesday last running through my slides and words with two of my peers who were also going for promotion.

I was a bag of nerves before I went in but all the prep appears to have paid off and I apparently came over in a confident and relaxed manner. I gave my presentation, answered the tough questions to the best of my abilities, and overall think it went quite well - I certainly gave it my best shot.

Now all I can do is wait. I won't hear either way until sometime in June and as there's 7 people going for roughly 3 places it's by no means a done deal.

Looking back on it, it's funny how your perspective on things change. I can clearly remember thinking that my case was a long shot at best, but when you sit down and analyse your achievements and skills and then compare them to the benchmark, I've come to realise that I am operating at the right level and I am in with a real chance. Like someone said to me beforehand, it's about "bottling up" all the best bits of confidence and impact I have and making sure that I look upon the panel presentation as being a business discussion between peers, and not a subservient relationship where I am trying to demonstrate something above my abilities.

Fingers crossed on this one ...