Feature Spotlight: Pricing Details

As is the case with most businesses, a lot of the work that goes into our product isn't "visible" change. Over the last couple of months, we've spent a whole lot of time getting the word out about Packershack -- via SEO, building interesting infographics, and even meeting up with hostellers and hostel owners in person. We've also spent a lot of time reworking our backend due to upgrades and integration of 3rd party software, and to improve performance.

But our goal is to be the best hostel metasearch/comparision site out there. And while we believe we already fit that bill, we decided it was high time to add something new: to improve the site in a visible way, making it an even more indespensible tool for hostel booking. So we asked ourselves: what is the biggest remaining pain point in hostel booking, and how can we fix it?

In the previous version of the site, we showed, for every hostel, the lowest price available from all vendors. And don't worry -- if price is your primary concern, that's still the first thing you'll see.

But the lowest price may not always be what you want -- you may be interested in a female-only dorm, for instance. Or you may find a twelve-person room to be too crowded and prefer a maximum of eight. Or you may be willing to pay a few extra dollars to get that private bathroom. Whatever your preference, it'd be very helpful to be able to see all the room options available for a given hostel, from all of the various hostel-booking sites out there, with the corresponding prices, all in one place. So we made it happen.

Note the "Details" button in the screenshot above. Clicking it will reveal the new Detailed Pricing tab. Here you'll find every kind of room offered by the hostel.

But it gets even better. When two vendors offer the same type of room for different prices, we only show you the best deal. So there's no clutter, just the info you want to see.

If you're curious, you can always take a peek by clicking "Show worse options," but soon you'll forget that weeding through all that information was ever part of booking a hostel.

So we're happy to announce that PackerShack now does even more of the trip-booking work for you, leaving you free to enjoy the journey!

Infographic in D3: US Obesity

Yet another d3.js infographic just for you! A couple weeks ago, the American Medical Association declared obesity a disease. There was a torrent of subsequent news coverage, and blog posts revolved around the subject for days. So, I decided why not find myself some data on obesity and do another data visualization even though one might argue that it has nothing to do with travelling. But just for fun, I'll try to tie the two together anyway.

When Jenny and I were travelling in Bangkok, Thailand back in 2008, we went to check out the world famous MBK center (a gigantic shopping mall). Like any other mall, the MBK center had tons of restaurants: you name it, it's probably got it. Among them was the obligatory Burger King, and as we passed by, we noticed it was packed with Western tourists, probably mostly American. Seriously, after travelling all this way to see the world and learn about other cultures, you're eating burgers from Burger King? Are you kidding me? For us, one of the best things about travelling is not necessarily the historical sites, museums or great beaches, it's the food. Invariably, whenever I crack open a new Lonely Planet guide book, I find myself jumping straight to the food section. Perhaps other people are not as into food as I am, or maybe they're just afraid to try something new, but I find it really sad to think someone would travel all the way to Thailand and then seek out a Burger King.

Enough ranting. Click on the image below to check it out.

Bulk URL Removal in Google Webmaster Tools

About a month ago, I finally pulled the trigger to ditch the #! convention and used pushstate instead to allow major search engines to index our ajax content while keeping our urls nice and purrty. Unfortunately, during this endeavor, I messed up utf-8 + url encoding for the urls that contain non-ASCII characters. I have since fixed the bug, but google is still attempting to crawl these badly-encoded URLs.

After poking around Google's webmaster tools a bit, I found that I could tell google to remove an individual url from its cache and index, but I could only do one at a time! Yes, I could've submitted a new robot.txt with those urls blocked, but it would take some time for them to be truely unindexed and I'd also have to keep that list around more or less forever. Some hacking was in order. I decided to write a Chrome browser extension to allow bulk url removals. You can get my extension here: https://github.com/noitcudni/google-webmaster-tools-bulk-url-removal.

To install it:
1) git clone https://github.com/noitcudni/google-webmaster-tools-bulk-url-removal.git
2) Go to chrome://extensions/ and turn on Developer mode.
3) Click on Load unpacked extension and load my extension.

To use it:
1) Create a list of urls to be removed and store them in a file. All urls are separated by \n. I downloaded the entire list of problematic urls from the health error page and wrote a quick script to extract the ones with utf8 errors.
For example:
http://packershack.com/foo
http://packershack.com/bar
http://packershack.com/baz

2) Go to Google's webmaster tools.
3) Click on Optimization -> Remove URLs.
4) You should now see a new drop-down with several removal options, along with a "Choose File" button.
5) Click on the Choose File button.
6) Select the file you created in step 1.
7) Sit back and relax.

Hopefully, you will find this extension useful.

Infographic in D3: US Import and Export Tourism Data

I have always meant to play around with data visualization, and in the past a number of people mentioned the d3 javascript library. After working on PackerShack nonstop for the last few months, I really needed something else to tinker with for a little while. So, why not give d3 a try! And that's what I did.

The hardest part of data visualization is not necessarily the visualization itself, but where in the world do I get the raw data. Thankfully, most existing d3 visualizations out there cited their data sources, and after some googling and poking around, I finally found a good starting point. If you happen to be looking for interesting data, I would highly recommend starting with Worldbank's site or a government agency. I found the tourism-related data I ended up using here: http://tinet.ita.doc.gov/research/reports/recpay/index.html. They have data on inflowing and outflowing dollars to other countries to and from the US broken down by year. Not surprisingly, the data is not ready for computer consumption, but that's nothing a small python script can't handle.

Admittedly, a simple bar chart is probably the easiest way to go and most likely the most informative to whoever is looking at the data. However, I really wanted to have a world map in my visualization and arrows flying around between different countries. Vanity! I came across http://www.naturalearthdata.com/downloads. This is the go-to place for SVG maps.

Click on the image below to play around with our US Tourism Map. If you have any technical questions about how a certain thing was done, don't hesitate to drop me a line in the comments.

100 Likes!

PackerShack reached 100 likes as of December 7th!

Thanks so much for the support!

For the record, we reached 50 likes on June 15th. That was pre-blog, so we didn't get to post about it. I did, however, take a screenshot for posterity!

Be Helpful

Marketing has proven a bigger challenge than we expected. I'm sure you've heard the mantra "Build it and they will come." We're here to testify that statement is false.

We've tried a couple of ad networks (specifically, Google and Facebook ads), but with our affilate links, our profit margin is tiny. The competition for ads in this sector is pretty brutal and we invariably ended up paying more to acquire a conversion than we made on the conversion itself. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned here and we should modify our approach, but we're pausing the ad campaigns for the moment.

Twitter, on the other hand, has been working out very well for us. We watched a helpful video (to which we've lost the link) and were inspired to take their advice on utilizing twitter as a marketing platform. But not in the sense you might expect.

If we were to merely broadcast links to our product on Twitter, it would be less-than-helpful or even annoying to most of the people who saw it. However, if we take the time to find the people who are looking for our product, for instance someone who tweets "Hostel recommendations in Paris, anyone?", and genuinely try to help that person out by pointing them to our site, suddenly, they're very appreciative and often become a conversion.

This is definitely a mental shift from the usual goal of user acquisition. It's certainly on a smaller scale. But it's working for us so far and we've realized that when we're genuinely helpful, others who see the thread are naturally more receptive to the idea of trying out PackerShack.

The fact is, we know the product is good. That's why we made it. It serves a useful purpose for our target audience. So the goal is not to talk up our product. The goal is to find our target audience and show it to them.

Our motto while developing PackerShack was one line at a time. Now our focus has shifted to helping one user at a time.

Happy hacking. :)

Wiggles of Hope

We're happy to announce that we've had our first couple of completed hostel bookings!! We've been focusing on next steps in marketing lately and actually not paying close attention to our conversions, so this was a very pleasant surprise.

While roughly $10 from our affiliate links isn't much, it gives us a sense of accomplishment and, as Paul Graham might say, are our first "wiggles of hope".

Here's hoping for more wiggles!

Hello World!

My lovely wife Jenny and I have been working on Packershack (mostly over nights and weekends) for the past year now. We "launched" it in the middle of April this year, only to find that our realtime scraper (riding on top of PhantomJs) is eating up all of our paltry 512 MB memory. Our duct tape solution was to restart all the processes every hour or so. Obviously, this was not the ideal solution, as our user experience was negatively affected. After a couple weekends of battling and even hacking PhantomJs's source code, we feel we've found an acceptable solution. Packershack has now stabilized, and I've finally lost the impulse to log onto our server every morning to check if everything is running smoothly.

Getting Packershack out the door has been a humbling experience. At first, we subscribed to the naive notion of "build it and they will come." Quickly, we realized that could not be further from the truth. I'm not saying that software development is easy; however, in terms of marketing, we don't have the faintest idea where to start. We've been reading a lot about SEO and SEM, and we'll keep you guys (anyone reading this?) updated about our progress on all fronts.

OK, now. So, why Packershack? What does it do? Packershack aggregates hostels from various online hostel booking engines and displays them all in one place. The map is the major focus of the site. We discovered that when backpacking abroad, we wanted to find a hostel/hotel with the perfect balance between location and price. We didn't want to book a place that was super cheap but required a 30 minute bus ride to the city center. While the existing hostel booking engines have great inventory, we still found ourselves spending an inordinate amount of time in front of a computer trying to find that perfect hostel. Packershack was born out of frustration from our personal backpacking experience.

We'll continue working to improve our service. If you haven't already, please check it out. Let us know what works well and what annoys you. Either way, we'd love to hear from you.

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