A retrospective review of k9directory, the website I ran for just over thirteen years & which generated over a quarter of million pounds in revenue for the British tourist industry.

Photo of my son taking the grandparents Sheltie for a walk

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Why write this article?. Well there are a couple of reasons for me wanting to document the history of k9directory but my main motivation was to get everything written down before my memory started to fade. I also wanted to create something for my children to read when they are older, hopefully giving them some insight into what I did for a living.

Who should read this?. Anyone thinking about developing a niche directory or a highly targeted web site. I learnt a lot running k9directory during the 13 years it was live. By reading this article you can avoid making the same mistakes I made. Even though I made mistakes, I was proud of the fact that k9directory grew from humble beginnings and managed to generate over quarter of a million pounds in revenue every year for the British tourist industry.

Late 1999

I had the initial idea for creating a web site which listed hotels & cottages which allowed pets to stay during the winter of 1999. Earlier in the summer I had gotten a Border Collie puppy and wanted to go away on holiday, but didn’t fancy the idea of putting the dog into kennels while I went away. I started looking around the Internet for hotels and cottages which allowed pets to stay but didn’t find any convenient central directory.

Why was this? Well back in 1999 most hotel and cottage owners didn’t even have email addresses never mind a web site. Information was limited at best, but I decided to start compiling and curating a list of independent hotels which accepted pets. My thirteen year journey as a web publisher had started.

Initially I chose to cover one County and picked the popular holiday destination of Cumbria. The lake district with its stunning walking makes a perfect get away for owners with dogs, and a family holiday with kids and a dog is ideal. Unfortunately, not many hotels at this time where so forward thinking as to allow dogs to stay with their owners. The initial version of the site was simply a single web page listing the properties that I had managed to find. Each property then had its own page which gave more details and a single photograph of the outside of the property.

At the time I was employed as a full time computer programmer for the local government, and realised that if this experiment took off I would soon need a database to hold all the property listings.

In my spare time I started writing the first of what would turn out to be three databases, to hold all the property listings. This was back in the DOS days and the first copy of the database was written in a DOS database called DataEase. I was pretty proficient in using DataEase, so after one nights programming I had the initial database designed and ready to go. The database published all the HTML web pages at the push of a button.

The system I had developed was in fact a static site generator, long before the likes of Jekyll, Octopress, nanoc and the like became fashionable. It was to be model I stayed with, even when PHP and MySQL became popular for serving database driven web sites in real-time. Being an old school programmer, I wanted the majority of the site to be plain static HTML files so that it would load very fast and be trivial to move to a different hosting provider should the need arise.

As it turned out this was a good decision. The site changed hosting providers several times during its lifespan. Initially to scale up to meet the growing demand and later to save money as the cost of hosting dropped as competition between hosting providers reduced costs.

So, I had the initial site for built of Cumbria, yet needed somewhere to host the files.

In 1990, most people in the UK didn’t have broadband myself included. I just had a free dial up account with Freeserve which came with 5mb of hosting space. So I published the Cumbrian listings to a site like myname.freeserve.net. This was probably my first mistake, I should have registered a proper domain name from the start, I discuss domain registration in more detail later.

Surprisingly the site got picked up by one of the big search engines of the time Altavista, remember this is pre Google, and started to receive traffic and visitors. I also started getting e-mail feedback from users saying that the resource was really helpful and useful, but people wanted full UK coverage not just Cumbria.

2000 Registering a proper domain

The initial encouraging feedback formed the basis for my decision to make a go of it and attempt to cover the whole of the UK. It was clearly obvious that the project needed a decent name and its own registered domain name. After brainstorming different ideas for the site name I came with up the play on words “canine directory” and came up with k9directory. At the time k9directory.com was already registered but wasn’t being used as an actual web site, however k9directory.co.uk was available so I bought it and moved the site to a shared hosting account.

Being a programmer, I didn’t think like a business or sales person, I didn’t know anything about branding or building your brand identity. Getting the UK version of the domain name was the right thing to do; as it was after all a local directory, however I would advise you to make sure you acquire the .com version of a domain name first and foremost, and then purchase any regional variations as required. Luckily for me the .com version of the name became available in 2003, by which time I had learnt more about the importance of branding, so I snatched the name.

If you find yourself in the position where you have picked a perfect name, but the .com version of that name has already been registered but is essentially not being used for a live web site, then you have few options.

You could try writing to the owner, if their details can be found by using a whois lookup service, but many owners now hide their contact details. If their details can be found, then write to them making a financial offer for the domain name. Be prepared though, once an existing owner knows somebody is really interested in the domain, then the price usually goes up. So make them a realistic time limited offer, stating the name would be a nice to have, but you have alternatives lined up as well. You never know the fiscal position of the owner at the time you make the offer, and they may actually take you up on it.

For example I made a bid for webdeveloper.co.uk several years ago, and only recently the owner came back to me and offered to rent the domain to me for a set monthly fee. Obviously their financial situation had changed, as they were perhaps not getting the advertising revenue from the parked domain. Renting a domain is something I wouldn’t entertain without a written contract stating under what terms the owner could revoke the renting arrangement. Why would you build up your business using a name you didn’t have full control over. In these situations, it’s usually better to pick another name.

2000/01 Populating the directory

From July 2000 to the start of 2001 my then partner and I spent many weekends and evenings populating the database with hotel names and addresses. Every one in five hotels we added to the database, got listed on the site for free. The intention was to mail the remaining hotels advertising our service and hopefully have them register for a small fee.

Populating a directory from scratch is a mammoth task, and takes a lot of effort to do it correctly while keeping the quality of the data high. In a later section I will discuss in detail the strategies you can use to help you populate a new directory, but do not underestimate the work involved. Also bear in mind that the initial creation is only the first step, keeping all that data up-to date becomes very time consuming, and if it isn’t kept up to date could land you in legal trouble.

Around February 2001 the site was populated with a few free listings for each of the major holiday destinations within the UK. The next logical step was to direct mail the other 1,000 or so hotels with our promotional material and sales pitch. We had produced a small promotional brochure, set-up a business bank account, and acquired Royal Mail free post status -- our aim was to make it as easy as possible for hotel managers to register -- simply fill in the registration form we had created and send it back in the freepost envelope.

We spent several weekends stuffing envelopes, after printing thousands of letters with matching address labels. Each hotel had its own registration form with the hotels address pre-filled in. All the owners had to do was fill in a few blanks and grant permission to use photographs.

Ensuring the right registration form went with the correct cover letter, and everything was put into the right addressed envelope was a huge task -- even with a production line style process we had set-up it still took many hours to complete.

This direct mailing exercise cost us over £1,000 to implement with a very small return on investment, and was the biggest mistake I made. In the end very few hotels signed up via this process. Beside being a blow to my confidence in the project, it was a big learning curve. There could be a number of reasons why the direct mailing wasn’t more successful, but I think the directory wasn’t yet big enough to attract hotels, and I felt it was still too early as many smaller hotels didn’t yet understand the importance of Internet advertising as only a small percentage had their own web sites.

I continued to grow the site by adding new hotels for free, adding a couple each week to keep the momentum up. The number of users visiting the site continued to grow and eventually I had hotel owners contacting me to be listed on the site. At this point I decided to start charging a small yearly fee to be listed. There where costs associated with running the site, in particular the hosting costs in 2001 where very expensive compared to prices today.

Very soon the shared hosting package I was on was no longer adequate. Shared hosting is sold cheap, but companies generally pack too many customers onto a single server. It only takes one customers site on the server to be a resource hog and it will effect all the other customers on that server. It’s so easy for one of these many clients to install a poorly written PHP script, or write a malformed SQL statement which could bring the whole server to its knees by hogging all the resources.

Around this time, my brother in law was looking to get a dedicated server for his site (192directory.co.uk), however he didn’t have any server administration skills. We struck a deal where he would pay a larger share of the server costs, and I would acquire basic server administration skills and look after the daily running of the server. In return I would get host the k9directory site on this dedicated server.

The local data centre we choose recommended we use Freebsd. So I learnt how to install and set-up Apache, MySQL and PHP. I learnt how to write basic bash scripts to rotate logs and backup databases. Overtime I picked up a good understanding of server administration and ran the server for both our sites.

I have kept my server administration skills up to date, although today I use Linux servers. Either Debian or Ubuntu servers depending on the requirements, and where possible I use Nginx as the web server instead of Apache and Maria DB instead of MySQL. Recently, I’ve started using Caddy server.

Towards the end of year, the working relationship broke down. As my brother in law was paying most of the server costs, I felt it only right that I moved my site to its own server. This was easily done thanks to the design decision of keeping the site a collection of static files. I just moved the files to a new machine.

A couple of valuable lessens where learned during this period. Firstly, never to enter into a business arrangement with relatives, it’s simply not worth the hassle when things don’t work out. The second and probably most valuable lesson is being in full control of your domain name and its DNS, so if you find yourself in the situation where you need to move hosting providers / servers quickly then you can. You also need to keep meticulous documentation on your systems set-up and configuration to assist you in moving and setting up new servers. I now keep an up to date server diary, where I document when new software is installed and when configuration changes are made and what those changes are, so in the event of problems I can review the diary and usually determine when the problem was introduced.

More to follow shortly including:

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