Jan 31 2018

CanadianDriver.com – ran well when parked

Websites come and go, but there’s no website cemetery that I know of. There is an Internet Hall of Fame, it turns out, but there’s no Website Hall of Fame. If there was, I reckon CanadianDriver.com should be in it.

CanadianDriver.com was the brainchild of one Grant Yoxon of Ottawa, Canada. He registered it in 1998 as what was then called a “link list.” A link list was an early type of website, wherein a list of URLs related by common subject was pretty much the entire content of the site. You want to know which websites are featuring cars in Canada? Here’s a list of them. You want to know where to get information about Michael Jackson? You get the idea.

This was largely a time before effective search engines, don’t forget. People used to send each other links to these list sites, or join what were called “newsgroups” to share them.

Don’t laugh. Yahoo was pretty much a link list to begin with; actual content would come later. And while hooking people up to the Internet for a fee, big outfits like AOL (You’ve got mail!) were also offering access to a suite of themed websites via their “walled garden” (like a gated community) of family-friendly websites. Why family friendly? Because in those days, the World Wide Web was viewed more like the Wild Wild Web by many; a scary place where wandering down the wrong alley could expose you to… well, one shudders to think.

Additionally, of course, the AOL channels (and other websites started by far-thinkers) were to be a platform for advertising, which although it had yet to seriously arrive, was making corporate types salivate with anticipation (Google brilliantly cracked that nut!).

Anyway, likely using a browser called Netscape Navigator, Mr. Yoxon (whose day job was website development for a government agency) independently beavered away at locating and listing automotive websites as he rather enjoyed cars (owned a Fox-bodied 5.0L Mustang) and liked “surfing the web.” That evolved into offering images and articles about cars in Canada and the belief that possibly his site could itself be a popular online destination.

After all, people take buying a car seriously and a website could provide useful information about the various makes and models “24/7,” rather than just once a week in a newspaper section or once a month in a magazine. Thus was born CanadianDriver.com, a fledgling online media outlet serving the Canadian automotive market. And you know, Yoxon was bucking the trend. Not really world-wide at all; it was local (comparatively) and targetted.

This, to digress for a moment, was an exciting time for mass communications technology. Nortel was running bizarre advertisements that looked like they were made by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, asking what people thought the Internet should be. Everybody was going “online” for the first time (and what the hell did “online” mean, anyway?); “browser wars” ensued; consumers learned that they needed good “software”; something called “bandwidth” became important, we all used “dial-up” and everyone chased the latest “modem.”

Heck, people began apparently talking to themselves in public – an activity formerly described as a mental disorder – obliviously using their new “cellphones” on the bus or sidewalk. And what was a “cell,” anyway? Who knew? But apparently we all needed a “Blackberry” so we could send and receive “email” on it. These technologies were transformative, and really, it all seemed to be happening at once.

And think about this: in the late 90s, the above-mentioned Netscape Navigator had only been available for a couple of years (Netscape formed in 1994 as Mosaic Communications Corporation). Sure, web browsers enabled everyone with a computer to access the web, but as I say, there wasn’t actually much decent content on the web to browse (hence AOL’s play). Nonetheless, things were ramping up fast.

In the thick of it, our town, Ottawa, became “Silicon Valley North;” alive with high-technology firms, all of them in software, telecommunications and Internet development. Millionaires were being made on shares of local companies like JDS Fitel (Josef Strauss), Mitel (Terry Mathews), Cognos (Michael Potter), Corel (Mike Cowpland) and Nortel (pretty much everyone in Canada, for a while…). You’ve never seen so many Porsches and Audis on Ottawa’ Queensway highway; the fast cars contrarily heading west to suburban Kanata where all the tech companies were located, rather than east to downtown where all the public servants worked.

So this was the world in which CanadianDriver.com began and grew, although from the beginning it had an old-timey, handbuilt, consumer orientation; Mr. Yoxon being possessed of a rather thrifty disposition when it came to investment.

Not catering to car enthusiasts so much (another smart move), it was mostly talking to owners of Hondas, Fords and Toyotas rather than Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Why? Because those are the cars most people buy, and the companies building those cars are the likeliest to advertise in a broad spectrum of media outlets. Advertising was to be the source of revenue for CanadianDriver (not paid subscription, as some were trying) although the jury was definitely out on whether sufficient advertising would ever happen. This was the gamble.

For editorial content, Mr. Yoxon arranged second-publishing rights with several Canadian automotive writers, enabling them to make a few extra dollars on articles they’d already published in the mainstream (print) media. True, CanadianDriver.com typically paid only a fraction of the rate expected for first-publishing rights, but for journalists it was still a welcome new source of revenue. And it gave the site some “name” writers.

In addition to building the website from scratch using HTML, Mr. Yoxon also contributed his own articles and updated the site five days a week, typically doing so sometime around midnight Sunday to Thursday. Head office was the basement of his suburban house (during this period his wife rarely saw him, and apparently was not amused).

Soon enough, Mr. Yoxon needed help. He had stumbled on a characteristic of websites that would doom many: operating them takes significant and ongoing management, resources and investment. CanadianDriver.com wasn’t supposed to be a hobby site, and running it professionally was becoming a full-time job. Many full-time jobs, in fact. Effectively, the site was becoming a daily automotive “newspaper,” that required content, editing, layout, advertising and technical support (everything except the printing). Not helping was the revenue-generating advertising that web pioneers expected failed to quickly arrive. Early sites, like any early business, had to be propped up with lots of sweat equity and personal dollars if they were to survive.

Consequently, by 2001, Greg Wilson based in Vancouver and myself in Ottawa had become co-owners of CanadianDriver.com. Greg was formerly the guy that developed content for the annual CAA automotive guide and was an AJAC (Automobile Journalists Association of Canada) Journalist of the Year. I came out of high-technology sector as the former owner of a company called compuSkills and was already supplying editorial content to nascent US automotive websites. Each of us had automobile journalism as a vocation or avocation, and each of us believed in the commercial future of the Internet. We just had to make CanadianDriver.com the type of place where advertisers would want to be.

Greg was the Editor, preparing and assembling news and editorial for publication following a weekly schedule that he developed (typically three or four reviews or features plus a half-dozen news items each day). Grant kept the “back end” of the website in order and worked on generating advertising revenue (we already had an arrangement with an ad’ “repping” agency in Toronto, but it was generating a pittance). I effectively became the public face of CanadianDriver.com, attempting to raise its profile and build its reputation among manufacturers, advertising agencies and consumers as a credible, professional, high-quality outlet that could compete — indeed, become part of — mainstream media. We each contributed articles and images to CanadianDriver while working for the “established” media as automobile journalists (Grant eventually leaving his government job).

Greg and I were Vice Presidents; Grant was President. In reality, we were simultaneously publishers, writers and technology entrepreneurs, although few people in the mainstream media took websites or us seriously at all. In fact, websites were typically a subject of derision by print publishers and many print journalists alike, and almost completely disregarded as legitimate sources of information by them. Who could blame them? Just as Kodak was wedded to film, newspapers were wedded to print. It was hard for them to imagine a viable alternative.

In addition to churning out articles, CanadianDriver included images. Thousands of them; eventually hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of them. And they were scalable, because our primitive tracking tools indicated that people loved pictures of cars, especially big pictures of cars (we even determined that dashboards held particular appeal, so we increased our output of those).

Meanwhile, we three were contributing articles to newspapers owned by what was then the CanWest Global media empire. That company owned newspapers from coast-to-coast in Canada, including those in big-city markets like Montreal, Edmonton, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa and dozens of small-town newspapers, too. Publish an article in one paper, and the others would pick it up. In that way we were able to benefit from deep national coverage and build content and visibility for ourselves and for CanadianDriver.com, which we would discreetly mention in our print articles whenever possible.

Initially, it was through our newspaper work that we got on the list of invitees to national and international media events organized by car manufacturers. We’d cover them for the print outlets while writing separate articles for CanadianDriver.com. It was gravy for the car manufacturers – giving them a bonus online presence — but still no dollars for us beyond the freelance paycheques from CanWest.

So somewhat through a side door, we became “A” listers,” rubbing shoulders with Canadian automobile journalist stars like Jim Kenzie, Tony Whitney and Ted Laturnus, among other luminaries like Bob English, Jeremy Cato, Richard Russell and Dan Proudfoot (these guys, along with our Greg Wilson, were among the founders of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, otherwise known as AJAC, in the late 1980s. More on that later).

Initially, the now defunct CanWest didn’t care about our connection to CanadianDriver.com. Even if professional quality editorial was available online, mainstream media continued to brush websites aside with the quick and confident statement that no-one can make money on the Internet. However, we could see that automobile advertising, in combination with classified advertising, formed the backbone of revenue for Canadian newspapers, and they had done very well with that! In the early days of the Internet, little, if any, money was directed to websites by print media, providing us with virtually no online competition in Canada.

However, happily there were a couple of automobile manufacturers testing the online waters. General Motors was an early adopter along with Toyota, for instance. But surprisingly, car companies generally were slow to see the point and the potential of a web presence other than displaying online brochures. Famously slow out of the gate, Nissan was never able to register the domain Nissan.com because a small computer company had already taken it. At the time of this writing 20 years later, Nissan Motors is still trying to pry that domain away from the hapless but stubborn owner of Nissan.com.

In the meantime, what we also knew was that the advertising agencies representing car manufacturers were themselves unhelpful when it came to buying advertising space online. Why? Because they didn’t make nearly the money they would when compared with the elaborate and expensive print/television campaigns and press kits they’d design for their car company clients. Why bother with websites?

Right from the get-go, in order to make any money online (assuming you had advertisers at all) you had to generate sufficient page views to deliver the huge volume of advertisements required by the industry. A car company may offer a lucrative $15, $20 or even $25 cpm (cost per thousand impressions) rate, but for it to notice your website, the site must have the capacity to deliver huge numbers of page views and it needed to be targetting the right demographic.

CanadianDriver, in other words, needed the vast majority of its visitors to be Canadian in order for Canadian car manufacturers to be interested, and it needed to be big. CanadianDriver.com was working toward this.

How? We tried many ways. Again, there really wasn’t a go-to search engine in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Some readers may remember using tools like AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, Dogpile, Yahoo and several others to navigate their way around the web, but getting a useful result was always hit and miss. In our case, we were able to grow “organically” because we caught a wave (a tidal wave, actually). That wave, alluded to above, consisted of a massive proliferation of home computers, the concurrent introduction of the Internet, and the release of simple and intuitive web browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer that anybody could use to navigate it.

So the Internet was at that time growing exponentially anyway, even though most people didn’t really know what it was and what, ultimately, it was for. Its growth represented the millions of people plugging their “PC” into a dial-up modem, clicking an icon to open Netscape or Explorer, and spending a few pleasant hours browsing. And if they were in the market for a car? They’d use one or more of the search engines and try to tailor a query that would take them somewhere interesting and/or helpful. CanadianDriver.com needed to be on those search engines and the way to get on them, again, came down to reach. Were you a big enough target to be noticed by the search “spiders” crawling through the web?

Oddly (from our point of view) while some print companies were putting their toes into online waters, they were not necessarily archiving their automobile articles. They’d leave them online for a week, and then delete them. The reasoning was, I was told, that they saw their own websites potentially reducing newspaper sales. Shooting themselves in the foot, so to speak. In retrospect, this was a misguided (albeit temporarily misguided) strategy as it compromised their websites’ ability to grow and gain visitors.

Not to be too smug about it, but we, of course, encouraged this practice.

Because over at CanadianDriver.com, every image, every article, every scrap of information we posted remained online as our hard-drive capacity was increased and our servers multiplied (Grant knew!). In addition, we were offering an array of reader forums, where (mainly) enthusiasts could discuss, argue about and consider everything automotive. They were a loyal bunch and they generated significant page views

Eventually we grew to well over a half-million unique visitors per month, delivering over six-million pages to them. A decent size for a Canadian site. And by that time (around 2004), we decided to stop working for CanWest or any other competitor. Our income would come exclusively from CanadianDriver.com; our editorial content unique to the site.

The organization of the website was predicated on quick access to the information being sought. It was designed with a three-click rule (or goal) whereby after landing on the site, three clicks should take you where you wanted to go. This is in opposition to current thinking where site developers make people click multiple times to read an article paragraph by paragraph, thus increasing the “stickiness” of the site. But in the early days, people were using dial-up to get online, and dial-up was notoriously slow, causing people to get frustrated and prematurely leave the site they were trying to access. We countered that by making our site quick to load.

Our images, for instance, were attractively large scale, but web optimized to a maximum size of 100 kilobytes or less. And we noticed that some colours required more bandwidth than others. Red, for example, took a lot of bandwidth, so we took few pictures of red cars. In retrospect, what we tried to do was get the speed of high-speed Internet from the limited bandwidth of dial-up by creating a very lean site without sacrificing visual appeal. Interestingly, similar techniques are now being used as people migrate from desktops/laptops/tablets to mobile devices. CBC.ca, for example, has recently re-engineered its site because 70-percent of its users are on a smartphone.

I mentioned we grew organically, and one of our big drivers was the annual calendar of auto shows. Detroit, for instance, has its show every January and promotion of this show by mainstream media was (still is) huge. Mention of it was in every publication from December through to the end of January each year. We hitched a ride, beginning coverage of “Detroit” in early December (preview articles, press releases, images), and then Grant and I would go to the show — initially “on our own dime” – and cover the heck out of it. Greg would edit and publish the flood of press releases generated at the show from his office in Vancouver. Each year, that coverage would substantially increase our number of unique visitors, and interestingly, we’d retain a significant percentage of them. For a few years, there, if you searched Detroit Auto Show, even using Microsoft’s MSN search engine after Microsoft became Detroit’s official online sponsor, CanadianDriver.com was at the top of your results (it didn’t last, but it was very gratifying at the time!).

The Canadian International Auto Show, which we’d also attend, hardly made an impression on our traffic, such is the difference in scale between Detroit and Toronto. Still, it was good for networking. Eventually, we found ourselves covering shows in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Geneva, Paris, Frankfurt, Seoul and even Tokyo.

Other methods we used to increase traffic included our active participation in AJAC and its Canadian Car of the Year program, and creating special events like our hugely successful “50L Challenge.” The former gave our brand credibility and visibility, and the latter (wherein we drove a fleet of compact cars on a 1,000km tour until they ran out of fuel) was particularly timely, as the price of gasoline had alarmingly breached $1.00 per litre. Everyone was talking about this, and our fuel economy run arguably ushered in numerous similar eco-challenges that continue to this day. Popular with the media, advertising agencies and car manufacturers, we followed the event with a second 50L Challenge that garnered national attention for CanadianDriver.com in the form of a national media campaign by that year’s winner, Toyota.

Simultaneously, CanadianDriver.com signed on with AOL Media for representation. Actually, they courted us. Yes, AOL Canada was still a presence (although a diminishing one) and was attempting to solidify its foothold here. In the process, the company established its media agency to promote major online entities in Canada (I think the NHL was their client at one time). Eventually, AOL Canada had the idea that they’d like to purchase CanadianDriver.com and transform it into their Canadian automotive channel (what they offered on their auto channel was sourced in the US, and not tailored to the differences in our market). It almost happened, didn’t, but got us thinking…

For CanadianDriver.com, the relationship with AOL Media was a good one. For a percentage, they gave us a professional advertising sales force and supported the development of sections that could be separately promoted, like our Green section, Winter Driving, Auto Show, Luxury Cars, Tires, Technical, Used Cars and more (although we never were able to get a Classified section off the ground). One campaign I particularly liked was from Volkswagen Canada, wherein one Monday morning they took over our entire home page, translating it into German and running their banners and images. After a few seconds it would switch to English. Inventive!

During this time of strong growth (2004-2010), Grant, Greg and I were regularly invited to national and international media events to cover new vehicle introductions. At least one of us, maybe all three, would be away each week over a period of years. The site would be updated remotely using a laptop or hotel computer in the Business Centre if it was available. Additionally, we published original work from a cadre of freelancers based across the country.

But surely the biggest boost to CanadianDriver.com came from the ascendancy of Google as the search engine of choice. Using geo-targetting as part of its algorithm — along with its penchant for high traffic, long-lived websites — CanadianDriver perfectly fit Google’s desired requirements for high visibility. Our combination of an easy-to-search HTML site and a deep archive of Canadian-oriented, regularly updated original editorial invariably put us on the first page of Google’s search results. In short, we were a big fish in a small pond, and because of the geographic specificity of our content, 90-percent of our traffic was Canadian. This, of course, is key for Canadian-based advertisers.

All was going well until it wasn’t… Like everyone else, CanadianDriver.com was hit big time in 2008. September, to be precise. We were having an awesome year; the best ever, and then came the 2008 recession. Initially, we thought we’d be unaffected, as our revenues continued unchanged. But that was from existing contracts, and when those expired we found automobile advertising had declined significantly, as had our traffic. The reason? It’s a recession: people aren’t as interested in buying cars and nor are they as interested in shopping for them. That means fewer sales and fewer eyeballs on consumer-oriented car review websites.

It took a couple of years for things to turn around, and we could pretty much gauge the recovery by following auto analyst Dennis Desrosiers’ monthly industry sales figures. Once people started buying again, our fortunes revived. By 2010, we were regaining our stride, but the three of us were getting tired of the travel and the work and we could see serious, transformative, large-scale competition ahead. We’d need to completely re-engineer the site, we’d have to integrate social media, we’d require extensive video content, we’d need to scale the site for smartphones, we’d have to market, we were getting older. The prospect, to be honest, was daunting.

Around that time, late 2009, we began talking with Trader Corporation (owner of autotrader.ca) concerning their interest in purchasing CanadianDriver.com. They thought our site would provide a ready source of professional car reviews to assist buyers, and imagined coordinating autotrader.ca with CanadianDriver.com. But they would, we were assured, keep CanadianDriver.com as a stand-alone brand, having big plans for video and TV to augment it.

We sold CanadianDriver.com in July 2010, just after Yellow Media (owners of The Yellow Pages) bought Trader. Happily, Yellow Media was enthusiastic about the deal but as with many transactions like this, they had their own management to operate things, thank-you very much. Shortly thereafter they changed the name of CanadianDriver.com to Autos.ca. Even now, it rankles. But it was no longer our business, both literally and metaphorically. Grant, Greg and I continued to supply editorial for a few years, and then our contributions diminished, eventually ending. I wish I had more screenshots of the old site, but didn’t think to save them at the time.

Subsequently, as it turned out, Yellow Media sold Trader Corporation to Apax Partners, a British private equity firm, and in 2016 Apax sold Trader to Thomas Bravo, an American private equity firm. Autos.ca was abandoned in 2017, with much of its content folded into autotrader.ca. You can still find former CanadianDriver.com content there; and occasionally, buried deep, you can even find one of the old CanadianDriver pages in its original format.

It’s all very corporate now (the whole internet, really); quite different from “the old days.” For example, the corporate entity CanadianDriver Communications Inc, never had a head office or bricks-and-mortar location. We were a completely virtual company. Grant and I met every Monday morning for breakfast at the Lexus RestoBar in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans, where we strategized and problem-solved for about three hours. We held our AGM each October coincident with AJAC’s Car of the Year “Tesfest.” Other than that, the entire operation – which grew to about 30 writers, a technical support specialist, assistant editor, content manager and the three owners worked from their home offices, and when travelling, from their laptops.

If not a Website Hall of Fame, at least a Canadian Website Hall of Fame, don’t you think?

Recollections

Our first advertiser was Tiretrends.com, out of Vancouver. That was back in maybe 2002? After much deliberation regarding the amount, we charged Tiretrends $300 per month to advertise on our site and were thrilled to be getting it. In eight years of increasing traffic, profile and revenue, we never charged Tiretrends more.

We published Murray Jackson’s car crosswords every week. They didn’t get big traffic, but people liked them, we liked Murray and we had room. Advertising pretty much covered the cost, so why not?

Likewise, we published Bill Vance’s vintage car columns. Bill was a vintage car article machine; he knew just about everything about them although his knowledge didn’t really go past the 1980s. Again, not a lot of traffic, but Bill was a prolific and reliable contributor and we were happy to have his work on our site.

We had a terrific annual Canadian Buyer’s Guide. Every car with images, specifications and a price guide, too. You could go back over the years and check pricing and new model introductions. It was useful and fun.

An archive of home pages was created and a link to it placed in the menu. It went way back. You could pick a date, click and there would be CanadianDriver’s front page just as it was years ago, or last week. All the links worked; Grant’s son combed the site for broken links.

Every Christmas, Grant would put a wreath on the front page with Happy Holidays under it. On Remembrance Day, we’d put a poppy on the front page with Lest We Forget.

When we first started making money, we’d send a cheque for $25 to each of our contributors at Christmas time. When we were making more, we sent $50. When we were doing better, we sent everyone $100. They were always surprised and appreciative.

Eventually, just about every working automobile journalist in Canada had material published on CanadianDriver.com.

At one point our site was completely duplicated by some outfit based in China. I think they changed the name a bit: Canada Drives, or something like that. As I say, it was the entire site, but the links didn’t work. They stuck little pay-for-click ad’s on the pages. Eventually it was removed.

CanadianDriver.com didn’t bombard you with ad’s. We tried to make it so that nothing popped up, obscured the page, diverted you elsewhere or otherwise annoyed visitors. I think we were kind of the PBS of automotive sites. Yes, our revenue came from advertising, but we didn’t hit you over the head with it.

We didn’t divide articles into small sections so you’d have to click at the end of every paragraph to continue. Visitors got a choice: click to read an article on one page, or click to read it over two or three pages.

CanadianDriver.com offered trustworthy automobile journalism written by people you could count on. Targetted to consumers, our articles were designed to provide useful information that would help people make an informed decision when purchasing a vehicle.

However, we never tried to sell you a car!

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.