Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ferry collection - More Condor from Poole, less P&O from Portsmouth and even less EuroFerries

A quick catchup on some ferry bits of news that I've come across in the last couple of weeks ...

First up coming after the news that Brittany Ferries are stopping their year round summer ferry from Poole to Cherbourg, Condor Ferries have been quick to respond that they're increasing summer crossings from Poole to St Malo with 30 additional sailings of their high speed catamaran service. Condor point out that "St Malo and Cherbourg are less than 85 miles apart".

I also reported that Brittany Ferries are increasing their Portsmouth-Santander Spanish service and this news has recently been followed by an announcement from P&O that they're finishing their Portsmouth to Bilbao service in September this year.

It's interesting how one ferry company (Brittany Ferries) can be reporting that they're doing bumper service from the UK to Spain, so much so that they've bought a second boat to increase the number of sailings, whereas P&O have found the route to be "loosing millions" and after 15 years have pulled the plug. The two Spanish ports are less than an hours drive apart so I guess there'll be a lot of P&O customers who will now switch to Brittany Ferries who find themselves in a monopoly position.

And finally news of EuroFerries. I've reported a number of times about EuroFerries stop-start approach to commencing operations from Ramsgate to Boulogne, the most recent being news in November when the service start was pushed back to March 2010.
Well the news once again isn't good.

ThisIsKent reported last week that EuroFerries have cancelled their lease on the Bonanza Express which was to be used for the new service. EuroFerries logo has been painted out from the boat which has now returned to its shuttle service in the Canary Islands.

EuroFerries website still tantalisingly offers crossings "from £49" and shows a timetable starting on 1st March, but without a boat you do have to wonder how likely this is to get off the ground. More "wait and see" again ...

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Repairing a leaking gutter - requiring scaffolding, angle grinder and a brazing torch

When were over at our Brittany self catering holiday cottage in August last year I couldn't of course manage to relax for three whole weeks and so we organised in the middle week for Alan to come over and do some building work for me. Alan's a plasterer by trade but unlike many of the French tradesmen that tend to specialise on just one type of work, he doesn't mind doing other jobs.

One of the first things I asked Alan to take a look at was a leak in the zinc guttering over the patio at the front of the cottage. I'd tried on a couple of occasions to fix the leak using black guttering sealant but on both times the sealant hadn't worked and the water was again dripping down the wall. I knew that rainwater and walls don't mix well and so was keen to get the problem sorted.

In our part of France traditional guttering and downpipes are made of zinc, braised together with a generous dose of solder, so I expected that it'd be a straight forward job to just re-solder the joint together ... but I was quite wrong in my expectations.

The first thing Alan did was to put up a scaffolding tower from the patio to the roof level so that he could more easily work on the problem. I'd been expecting him to shimmy up a ladder which is the sort of thing I'd have done, so I was wrong on that thought as well!

Alan explained that the way that the zinc guttering should be installed is to overlap any joints with a generous 4 inches or so of guttering, and then this gives a good strong metal-to-metal area that can be braized together.

Leaking gutter in our French Gite
When we got up the scaffolding we could see that for some reason whoever had installed the guttering had either made a mistake or had run out of guttering length because whereas most of the joints had been overlaid and jointed properly there was one section where two guttering pieces had been simply butted together and then solder applied across the top. And of course with the heat and cold expansion that you get throughout the year the joint had failed and it was obvious that no amount of guttering mastic was going to provide a properly sealed and permanent joint.

So Alan had to get the angle grinder out to cut out the broken section of zinc guttering and it was off to the builders merchant to buy a new piece of guttering to cut and braze into position. Of course zinc guttering only comes in 3 metre lengths so I ended up with far more guttering than I needed for the repair (and of course I just had to save the excess "just in case" it ever became useful!).

Fitting new zinc gutter to our Brittany Holiday Home
Repairing the broken section was quite time consuming as the new section needs to overlap the existing guttering so Alan had quite a bit of filing, cleaning and bending to get the new section into position, then out with the blowlamp to melt solder all over the two joints, then test for leaks.

Job done.

As you can see on the picture the gutters are attached to the roof with big brackets and when finished the guttering is really really strong. If you ever need to climb up the roof you simply put a ladder in the guttering, rest it against the roof, and climb up!

'Jack on high' at the top of the scaffolding
And of course when it was finished our boys wanted to climb up the scaffolding and "admire the view". Here's Jack "on high"

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some insight from Google as to how they understand languages and synonyms

Just read a very interesting post on Google's official blog describing how Google search engine understands language synonyms.

I won't repeat the article here, but to give a flavour as to what the post is about (so you can take a view on whether you find this interesting or not), Google understands the context of what you're searching for to understand that:
      a search for gm cars turns up results for General Motors

      a search for gm wheat turns up results for Genetically Modified Wheat

      navy gm focusses on a Navy Gunner's Mate.

And remember of course that all this linguistic cleverness is done in more than 100 languages that are supported by Google.

Clever stuff these computers ...


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Improving your image - SEO tips, thoughts and ideas

I recently came across some SEO advice (in webceo's email newsletter) on how to improve the effectiveness of images on your website, and a few tips caught my eye that caused me to stop and think:
  • Use high resolution images, if available. Provide different resolutions of images.

  • Check how your image looks in thumbnail size. Stronger contrast is needed to better discern an image, which might lead to more people clicking on and linking to the image.

  • Provide a small description of an image in the alt attribute of the img tag, but do not fill the alt attribute with tons of keywords, even if they are relevant.

  • Think of also using a short image title with keywords in them.

  • Use descriptive keywords in your image files' names. Separate words in the file names with a hyphen, not an underscore.

On our main Gite website I've put quite a lot of effort into trying to get decent quality images and photos with the old adage of a "picture tells a thousand words" in the back of my head whilst I've slaved over Photoshop Elements for hours at a time.
I've tried to carefully select, crop, correct, highlight and sharpen to get the best possible results and whilst I have noticed that photos often need the brightness increasing if you're to show them as small thumbnails, I also found that Sharpening and maybe Sharpening a second time improves how well a small thumbnail stands out on the page.

The importance of filling in the image ALT tag cannot be under-estimated in my view as that's your opportunity to help the search engines actually understand what your picture is of.

If your website HTML includes a picture of your holiday home with just the HTML <IMG SRC=gite.jpg> then all that the search engines have to go on is that it's a picture of a Gite.

If on the other hand you've specified the HTML as <IMG SRC=gite.jpg ALT="The front of our lovely French farmhouse Gite"> then think how much more relevant and descriptive this photo becomes?

So following this reasoning I've always filled in ALT text for all the images on my website (and I try too on the Blog as well).

But what about the fourth tip, to use the TITLE tag as well?

Well I noticed some time ago that as well as the ALT text being displayed when an image is being downloaded, in Internet Explorer if you hover your mouse over an image then the ALT text is shown just underneath the cursor as a little 'tool tip'. So if like me you've diligently filled in your ALT tags with a brief description of what the photo is all about then any IE visitors will benefit from your prose automatically.

But I had also noticed that Firefox (which continues to be my browser of choice) doesn't behave this way and your ALT text remains hidden - bum!

When I was working on the most recent addition to our Gite website, the Driving in France page I did some more investigation and discovered that whilst Firefox doesn't make use of the image ALT tag (unless of course it can't download the image for some reason), but it does take notice of the TITLE tag in just the same way as IE by displaying a little tooltip underneath the cursor if you hover your mouse over a picture which has included the TITLE tag.

So putting these together you end up with the best of both worlds with
<IMG SRC=gite.jpg ALT="The front of our lovely French farmhouse Gite" TITLE="Roses climbing over our Gite entrance">
And by carefully choosing different (but equally relevant) text for both the ALT and the TITLE tags then you've doubled the value and meaning that you've given to the photo.

And finally, image filenames.

I have to admit that this is one that I've gone wrong on and have only relatively recently realised that I've got to fix it.

When I started off writing the website I knew I needed semi-meaningful image filenames so I could manage, find and edit the right images (I could never deal with hundreds of images with names like DSCF0583.JPG), but thinking about trying to keep the website HTML page size down as much as possible I decided to use abbreviated filenames so that I didn't unnecessarily bloat the download time.

And so I ended up calling a picture of Josselin Chateau from the riverside "jossch_river.jpg", and Josselin's lovely half-timbered Tourist Information building is "joss_ti.jpg".

In hindsight I realised this is not good and for the sake of a few bytes of text is a futile waste of time.

So last year when I added a new page to the Gite website describing the fantastic world heritage site at Mont St Michel I decided to start my path to correction and duly created far more meaningful image filenames such as "mont_st_michel_narrow_streets_and_shops.jpg".
By doing this I give the search engines much more information to chew on and I'm making it quite obvious that this is a picture of narrow streets and shops at Mont St Michel.

But the webceo advice then partly contradicted this, telling me to use hyphens not underscores - argh, and why?

Well for an answer after a bit of Google searching I came across this excellent post from Matt Cutts of Google's webspam team explaining why you should use hyphens to separate words in a URL.
The summary is that Google treats the underscore as being part of the word so Mont_St_Michel in a filename (or URL) will only result in a match if someone specifically searches for "Mont_St_Michel" whereas if you use hyphens then Google treats this as being a word separator so if your filename is "mont-st-michel-narrow-streets-and-shops.jpg" then your image will be found on a search for "Mont St Michel" - which is what you want of course.

Actually the story doesn't end there as Matt's posting was originally written in August 2005 and it seems that in mid 2007 Google changed its search engine algorithm so that underscores are now treated as word separators.

And sure enough when I tried a search for "mont st michel narrow streets and shops" my picture came up trumps, proving that the underscore is being treated as a word separator now by Google.

Nevertheless I decided to change my image filenames to using hyphens instead of underscores anyway. Long and the short of it is it's more human readable and although Google may not distinguish between underscores and hyphens as as word separators it doesn't mean that other search engines behave the same way. Read the many many comments on Matt's posting for what others think, the consensus seems to be to use hyphens.

I will also make a separate plug for Matt Cutt's Blog, it's one I personally follow and is full of useful (and sometimes not quite so useful) thoughts and ideas.

And finally, I will add one image SEO tip of my own, and frankly I'm surprised that the webceo advice didn't include it because I think it's one of the things that really can put you off a website.

It's to check the size of your images and to reduce them as much as possible. Even with just about everyone on broadband it still takes a few extra seconds to download a 10 Mega-pixel photo saved as 64 million colours. Add that up for several photos on a single website page and you're looking at bored and cheesed off website visitors who might well just click onto somewhere else that's speedier to browse.

To illustrate, the largest image on our Gite website is 74Kb in size and the majority are in the 40-50Kb range. And those sizes are for the fullsize "click for larger picture" variants. The thumbnails that are displayed on each page are all under 10Kb in size and some are as small as 4Kb. I personally recommend the free Irfanview for resizing and shrinking photos.

PS: I now of course have a mammoth job to apply all these improvements across my website. So far I've only applied them all to the hints and tips for driving in France page.

Oh well, will keep me busy in the winter I guess ...


Friday, January 08, 2010

Trust in an internet world when renting holiday properties

I've written before about some of the various scam booking attempts that we receive for our French holiday rental Gite, and in the main I'd like to hope I've got reasonably adept at spotting the ones that don't look "quite right" and fingers crossed we've not had any problems in the 5 years we've been renting the Gite.

You can usually spot the dodgy looking booking enquiries, either by the use of an overseas contact telephone number (such as 00 225 which is the international code for the Ivory Coast), or poor English spelling and grammar in the booking enquiry.

If ever I'm not sure I tend to copy some of the key phrases out of the booking request into google and see if anyone else has reported the same booking enquiry. These scammers don't tend to be original and you'll find exactly the same booking request is used time and time again with only the contact name and disposable email address changing each time. Another sure sign for doubt is email addresses ending in numbers such as or

One website I have found particularly useful when researching dubious bookings such as a 'surprise' honeymoon present is's forum which is a meeting place for other holiday home rental owners.

The other day I received another enquiry I wasn't sure about and when I google'd some of the text from the enquiry I turned up another useful resource for spotting scam bookings, rentalseal's blog where they report details of current rental scams and rental scams in the news.

Rental Seal graphic

But on reading further I found that RentalSeal are more than just a blog, they've a fairly unique Internet business proposition, and to be honest one that I hadn't considered as being an issue up to now.

Their raison d'etre is quite simple, "how do you know the holiday home rental you are just about to book genuinely exists?"

Basically they offer the customer who wants to rent a holiday home (or 'vacation rental' as the American's say) protection against scammers who have duplicated attractive photos of vacation homes from the web and copied content from other legitimate vacation rental property listings in order to create their own fraudulent listings.

And I suppose I see how this could be a problem. It costs practically nothing to create a website and it's easy to copy someone else's website so if you copy a property listing, get it well ranked on the search engines then potentially unsuspecting customers will book to stay in the fraudulent property, pay their money up front, then when they arrive they find that it's all been an elaborate hoax.

RentalSeal's solution to this problem is to offer a "trust seal of authenticity" on your property listing. As the property owner you provide RentalSeal with details of your property and proof that you genuinely do own it such as insurance documents, property deeds or previous guest references, etc. RentalSeal then reviews your application, verifies all information, and issues you with a trust seal that you can display on your property website.

It's an interesting concept and perhaps for the ultra-concerned customer I can see how this might be a good idea, but I'm not personally convinced that its really necessary, or more importantly, value for money.

Firstly there's the cost. This verification doesn't come free of course, RentalSeal ask for $100 to cover the initial registration and then $30 per year as an annual renewal fee.

Secondly there's the question of recognition of RentalSeal itself. If this trust seal idea really took off, customers readily recognised the trust logo and absolutely every property website needed to have a RentalSeal approval if they wanted to have a half-decent chance of getting bookings, then I can see that this would be something I'd have to subscribe to.

But I'm not sure its there yet. Unlike some of the other 'safer shopping' logos such as Thawte, ShopSafe, WeTrust and TrustGuard, and merchant schemes such as Verified by Visa for secure credit card handling; I suspect that pretty much no-one has ever heard of RentalSeal and thus the value of the "seal" is severely diminished.

And finally there's the question of market penetration. After a bit of investigative searching on RentalSeal's property directory I've concluded that they've currently got 63 verified properties on their books, of which only 4 are in Europe (in Italy and Greece). And with such a low number its not going to be an organically growing trust seal any time now.

Returning back to the question of whether fraudulent property listings is really a big issue that needs a trust logo like this, personally we've never had any queries from customers worried that we might be trying to take their money and not have a holiday home for them to rent in return. Of course it may be because we've not got the RentalSeal logo that such concerned customers never lodge a booking enquiry in the first place, but with 80+ bookings over the last 5 years I somehow doubt it. If a potential customer was worried then I've got enough photos of the property, I'm more than happy to talk to customers on the phone, and of course there are all the previous happy customers that could act as referees if it really came to that.

I'll finish with one final thought though. How do I know that RentalSeal itself is to be trusted and isn't a form of even more elaborate internet scam? How do you trust the trustee in a potentially unsafe internet world?

All in all too complicated a problem I think.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Flying update

I last wrote about my burgeoning career as a Microlight pilot in September and October 2009 when I announced that I'd finally been cleared to fly solo for the first time, and then went solo again a few weeks later.

There's not been much flying since then as the weather has been awful and I've had flu both of which have kept me on the ground. In fact I've not flown at all since October.

But that's all changed now.

Medway Raven Microlight
The big news is that I have bought my own Microlight aircraft, a Medway Microlights Raven, G-MWLB. She's (it's ?) a relatively basic 2-seater aircraft with a cruise speed of 45-50mph, a practical top speed of 70mph, a 20 litre fuel tank and so a practical range of 70 miles or so. But at least it's my own aircraft and I'm up there rather than down here.

In October I did a little bit of flying in the Raven (with the instructor accompanying me), then on Sunday I flew a couple more circuits before the instructor announced that he was getting out and leaving me to it! I was expecting to require much more conversion training onto the new aircraft so was very surprised to be "let out" on my own so early on.

But the instructors were confident in my abilities and by the end of Sunday I'd clocked up another 45 minutes of solo flying, but this time in my own aircraft.

On Monday the weather was good again (although flipping cold) so I was down the Microlight centre again, did some more solo circuits, takeoffs and landings, then the instructor sent me off to fly to Grafham water which is about 20 miles North of the airfield. It was great to actually fly somewhere different for once and to enjoy getting used to handling the aircraft, and of course to putting my navigation skills to the test by keeping on course and not getting lost on the way.

So after what seems like an interminable time I feel I'm actually over the "hump" of learning; I can fly more when I want to rather than when an instructor is available, and I can focus on polishing my skills. The landings still need some more finessing as the Raven flies much slower than the school aircraft and thus the landing approach is a lot steeper than I'm used to - but practice makes perfect.

And I'm up to a massive 3 hours 45 minutes of solo flight time now!


Sunday, January 03, 2010

Start of a new year and I'm thinking about Gite advertising

Happy New Year, Happy New Decade, and all that stuff.

In a couple of days (January 5th to be precise) it'll be the 6th anniversary of Liz and I buying our own French holiday home. The first year was spent sorting the place out, decorating, buying furniture, etc, then we started renting the Gite in February 2005.

2010 is thus our 6th year of renting, and although we've seen some 'normal' ups and downs over the years, there has definitely been an abnormal drop off in rentals over the last year, no doubt caused by the downturn in the economy.

And so I am thinking (again) about advertising the Gite.

I've recently found a couple of new free advertising options to pass on ....

First up, is Rent Gite France run by Dave Smith.

Dave writes the interestingly named Gite Guru blog and as well as passing on SEO and Wordpress tips he also creates professional Gite marketing websites. What is a little unusual is that Dave creates all his websites using the free Wordpress Blogging software which whilst creating some restrictions to the website layout has the big advantage of making it really easy to produce and add new website content.

Earlier in the year Dave launched Rent Gite France (RGF) as a free Gite advertising directory, and I guess partly also as a showcase for his Gite SEO skills.

It's taken me ages to actually get around to creating our own Gite listing on RGF but with the holiday break I finally had time to do it. You get plenty of space on RGF to describe your Gite, the features of the Gite, add pictures, and of course where it is on the map. And best of all, RGF is completely free!

Secondly, which is an altogether bigger holiday home rental site.

Lovetoescape dropped me a note (via the 'Contact us' enquiry form on our own Gite website) to ask if we would like to list on their site. Their website is already well established as a UK holiday accommodation directory with some 7 million page views per year and they've recently expanded into France and the rest of Europe.

You can list on L2E with a free basic listing, or for £150 you can list as a premium entry, which provides all the usual holiday home rental facilities; full details of your property, lots of photos, the ability to manage your holiday booking calendar, and any enquiries you receive, etc.

Until the end of January 2010 all basic listings for French holiday accommodation on L2E will be upgraded free of charge to a Premium listing, all you have to do is to drop them a line to request the free upgrade.

L2E claim that Premium listings receive on average 2,000 page views a year and between 250 and 500 direct referrals, so it's certainly worth a try.

So far booking enquiries have been very quiet but I'm hoping that they'll pick up as people return to work next week. Certainly the more places we advertise with has got to increase our booking opportunities.

See other articles I've written under the GiteAdvertising category for other advertising options we've found.