HYPERLINK ANALYSIS OF TRAVEL BLOGS: THE CASE OF TRAVELPOD.

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Vasiliki G.Vrana Technological Educational Institute of Serres Serres, Greece Kostas V. Zafiropoulos University of Macedonia Thessaloniki, Greece and Despoina N. Karystinaiou University of Piraeus Athens, Greece

ABSTRACT logs provide an easy way for an average person to publish material online sharing in this way a huge amount of knowledge. Travel and tourism blogs provide a new way of sharing tour experiences with an international audience and act as virtual forms of networking among travelers. TravelPod.com is the most popular travel blog. The paper aims at exploring whether Thravelpod.com is indeed an example of social network application. In other words the paper explores whether current top application with regards to travel communities, make use of the features that Web2.0 offers, or whether they are just a collection of travelers websites with limited either “social” or “networking” characteristics. Graph theory indexes are used to investigate linkage patterns among travelers participating in Travelpod.com. Keywords: travel blogs; hyperlinks; social networking; links distribution; connectivity

INTRODUCTION Travel and tourism are two of the most popular subjects in www (Heung, 2003) and blogs have important implications in this area (Schmallegger & Carson, 2008). Tourism products can hardly be evaluated prior to their consumption (Rabanser & Ricci, 2005) and depend on accurate and reliable information (Kaldis et al., 2003) thus elevating the importance of interpersonal influence (Lewis & Chambers 2000). E-word-of-mouth becomes the most important information source for travel planning (Litvin et al., 2008) mainly because of the perceived independence of the message source (Akehurst, 2009). Sigala (2007, p.5) mentioned “weblogs have the power of the impartial information and the e-word-of-mouth that is diffusing online like a virus”. A number of public travel blog sites have specialized in hosting individual travel blogs. Examples include travelblog.org, travelpod.com, blog.realtravel.com, yourtraveljournal.com or travelpost.com. Travel blogs include comments, suggestions, advice, directions, links to related websites hyperlinks, to external information and links to other travelers. Tourism and travel blogs provide a new way of sharing tour experiences with an international audience. As all tourism virtual communities, they offer information exchange, collaboration, knowledge creation purposes and provide value for tourists’ trip planning (Chalkiti & Sigala, 2007). People are also using travel blogs to share experiences with family and friends. Moreover blogs can help knowledge seeker tourists to get virtual experiences of trips, prepare their trips with confidence and use subjective data unfiltered and free of marketing bias (Hepburn, 2007) and trend information for their destinations (Schmallegger & Carson , 2008; Sigala, 2007). Travel blogs provide also geographic information, as destination websites. However, bloggers provide more authentic information, gained through personal experience than destination websites which tend to describe only the positive aspects (Sharda & Ponnada, 2007). Moreover, bloggers trust one another. Kozinets (2002) wrote on this, that people, who interact in spaces like blogs over a long period of time, trust the opinions of the other users and take them into consideration when making a purchase decision. The paper aims at investigating hyperlink connectivity in travel blogs. It uses TravelPod. TravelPod has been identified as one the most popular travel blog site by many researchers (Carson, 2007; Pan et al.,2007;

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Schmallegger & Carson, 2008; Wenger; 2007). On November 18th 2008, TravelPod was identified through Technorati as the 11th among the 100 top blogs having an Authority:9299 and Rank:9, and is the 1st travel blog in the list. “The discovery of information networks among websites or among site producers through the analysis of link counts and patterns, and exploration into motivations or contexts for linking, has been a key issue in this social science literature” (Park & Jankofski 2008, p. 62). The paper aims at exploring whether Travelpod.com is indeed an example of social network application. In other words the paper explores whether current top application with regards to travel communities, make use of the features that Web2.0 offers, or whether they are just a collection of travelers websites with limited either “social” or “networking” characteristics. TravelPod, founded in 1997 as the world's original travel blog. It introduces itself as: “TravelPod's free travel blog lets you chart your trips on a map, share unlimited photos and videos, and stay in touch while you travel”. Throught TravelPod travelers can 1.preserve travel memories by uploading photos and videos, chart trips with travel maps and weave photos directly into stories 2. Get inspired for next trip by meeting other travelers and participating in travel forums 3. Share experiences with family and friends, by setting up email import tools, send email updates and RSS feeds and email notifications for new entries 4. Use advanced features as update travel blogs from mobile phone, track visitors of blogs, show travel blogs on MySpace, Facebook and other sites send update notifications to Facebook friends and others. In TravelPod each traveler can maintain many blogs presented at “travelers TravelPod page”. On this page, “Recent Entries”, “Recent Comments”, “Recent Forum Posts”, “Favorite travelers” and “Others Similar Travelers” are also presented. “Favorite travelers” is a special form of a blogroll and is a list of travelers that travelers frequently read or admire particularly. These lists are taken into consideration in this paper in order to investigate connectivity and communicational patterns between travelers.

BLOGS HYPERLINKING Drezner & Farrell (2004, p. 5) defined weblogs as “A web page with minimal to no external editing, providing on-line commentary, periodically updated and presented in reverse chronological order, with hyperlinks to other online sources”. By definition, blogs link to other sources of information usually to other blogs. Barger (1997) who first used the term weblog, defined blog as ‘‘a web page where a blogger ‘logs’ all the other web pages he finds interesting’’. The most important difference between blogs and more traditional media is that blogs are networked phenomena that rely on hyperlinks (Drezner & Farrell). Park & Jankowski (2008, p. 60) claimed “The configuration of link networks themselves can be a source conveying useful overall information about the (hidden) online relationship of communication networks in interpersonal, interorganisational, and international settings”. Links between blogs take three forms. The first form is that of a “blogroll” that many bloggers maintain. The blogroll occupies a permanent position on the blog’s home page (Drezner & Farrell, 2004) and is the list of blogs that the blogger frequently reads or especially admires. “This form evolved early in the development of the medium both as a type of social acknowledgement and as a navigational tool for readers to find other authors with similar interests” wrote Marlow (2004, p.3). Blogrolls provide an excellent means of situating a blogger’s interests and preferences within the blogosphere. Bloggers are likely to use their blogrolls to link other blogs that have shared interests” mentioned Drezner & Farell (2004, p.7). Some bloggers have exhaustive blog rolls, while others are sorted by subject area (Waggener Edstrom Worldwide 2006). Albrecht et al. (2007, p. 506) referred to this form as “connectedness of weblogs”. The second form is comments. Comments are “reader-contributed replies to a specific post within the blog” (Marlow, 2004, p.3). In simple words, comment sections, allow others to post their thoughts, comments and questions about a particular topic. Comments’ system is implemented as a chronologically ordered set of response and is the key form of information exchange in the blogosphere (Drezner & Farrell, 2004; Mishne & Glance 2006). “Posting volume would be a key determinant of content value” claimed Lu and Hsiao (2007, p. 346). At last are trackbacks and pingbacks. Trackback is a citation notification system (Brady, 2005). It enables bloggers to determine when other bloggers have written another entry of their own that references their original post (Waggener Edstrom Worldwide 2006). “If both weblogs are enabled with trackback functionality, a reference from a post on weblog A to another post on weblog B will update the post on B to contain a back-reference to the post on A” (Marlow 2004). A pingback is an automated trackback. “Pingbacks support auto-discovery where the software automatically finds out the links in a post, and automatically tries to pingback those URLs, while trackbacks must be done manually by entering the trackback URL that the trackback should be sent to” (http://codex.wordpress.org /Introduction _to_ Blogging#Pingbacks). Blood (2004, p. 55) mentioned trackbacks ‘‘made these formally invisible connections visible’’.

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There are millions of individual blogs, but within any community only few blogs attract a large readership (Wagner & Bolloju, 2005). “The vast majority of blogs are probably only read by family and friends, there are only a few elite blogs which are read by comparably large numbers” wrote Jackson (2006, p.295). Herring et al. (2004) also claimed that the most discussions of the blogosphere focus on an elite minority of blogs. These blogs are referred to as "Alist". "A-list blogs—those that are most widely read, cited in the mass media, and receive the most inbound links from other blogs—are predominantly filter-type blogs, often with a political focus. The A-list appears at the core of most characterizations of the blogosphere” wrote Herring et al. (2005). Many bloggers desire a wide readership and the most reliable way to gain traffic is through a link on another weblog. Drezner & Farrell (2004, p.7) mentioned “when one blog links to another, the readers of the former blog are more likely to read the latter after having clicked on a hyperlink than they would have been otherwise. If they like what they read, they may even become regular readers of the second blog”. Park and Jankofski (2008,) investigated hyper linking of citizen blogs in South Korean politics and stated that “If there is an increasing frequency of neighbour links directly flowing through the blog of a politician, it may indicate the politician’s role as the online community leader as well as the information hub for the community” (p.64).

METHODOLOGY The paper considers the Top 100 travelers list, according to the number of visits to their website, for TravelPod and records links from travelers to other travelers within TravelPod. Next, by using snowball sampling, links from these travelers to new travelers within TravelPod are recorded. Finally, a set of 563 travelers and their incoming links is formed. The recording of travelers and their hyperlinks was done during December 2008. The analysis uses Social Networking theory to present and measures travelers’ connectivity and communicational patterns. Ucinet 6 for Windows is used for the presentation and the analysis of the network. Analysis is implemented by studying links between travelers, using the “Favourite travelers list” which is equivalent to blogroll. In order to construct a network, a 563 by 563 non-symmetric binary data matrix (the adjacency matrix) is used, where unity is placed in cell ij if traveler i links to traveler j through the favourite travelers list, otherwise zero is placed in the cell. The next step involves the construction of a travelers’ interconnection network. It is a directed graph where travelers are noted as nodes and incoming links as directed arrows (the edges). This results to a network presented in Figure 1. Figure 1 Travelers’ Social Network according to incoming links through “favourite travelers”.

The paper reports several graph theoretic indexes in order to describe the specific network’s connectivity.

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DISTRIBUTION OF INCOMING AND OUTGOING LINKS First, the paper examines the distribution of incoming links within the 563 travelers of the study. This is the distribution of the number of travelers who link to a specific traveller. For example, if the number of incoming links equals 10 for a specific traveller, this means that ten travelers consider this specific traveler as one of their favourite travelers, within Travelpod. Figure 2 describes the distribution of incoming links. Most of the travelers have a very small number of incoming links, while only a few blogs have a big number of incoming links. The number of incoming links ranges from zero to 30, with mean value 1.84 and standard deviation 2.44. Travelers have a very low degree of interconnectivity. An index that can help understand the distribution is skewness. Skewness of incoming links equals 5.157. This means that the histogram of the distribution has a long right tail. Most travelers have only few incoming links, while only a few of the travelers have a bigger number of incoming links. In addition, Figure 2 also presents a scaterplot of the ranks of travelers according to incoming links vs the actual number of incoming links. Ranks of incoming links are calculated by placing first the largest number. Here the skewness of the distribution is obvious. Travelers whose rank come next, they have only few incoming links. Figure 3 shows that skewness is also a property of outgoing links (Figure 3). Outgoing links range from zero to fifty with mean value 1.81 and standard deviation 4.56. Most travelers have only few outgoing links, while only a few of the travelers have a bigger number of outgoing links (skewness=5.627). Actualy skewness of outgoing links is a little bit larger than skewness of incoming links. Figures 4 and 5 respectively display more analytically the distributions of incoming and outgoing links. From Figures 4 and 5 it is clear that more than half of the travelers have no outgoing links to favourite travelers, while one forth of the travelers have links to just one or two favourite travelers. On the other hand, 7.5% of the travelers receive no link, while 61.8% receive one link and 15% receive two links. Figure 2 Histogram of travelers’ incoming links-indegrees (left) and scaterplot of travelers’ ranks according to incoming links vs actual number of incoming links-indegrees(right).
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Figure 3 Histogram of travelers’ outgoing links-outdegrees (left) and scaterplot of travelers’ ranks according to outgoing links vs actual number of outgoing links-outdegrees (right).

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Figure 5 A more detailed presentation of the distribution travelers’ outgoing links
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CENTRALITY The centrality of a node in a network is a measure of the structural importance of the node. A person's centrality in a social network affects the opportunities and constraints that they face. In this paper, we consider two forms of centrality: density, and betweenness. DENSITY: Degree is simply the number of nodes that a given node is connected to. In general, the greater a person's degree, the more potential influence they have on the network, and vice-versa. For example, in a community network, a person who has more connections can spread information more quickly, and will also be more likely to hear more stuff. The greater a person's degree, the greater the chance that they will catch whatever is flowing through the network. The “density” of a binary network is the total number of ties divided by the total number of possible ties. In the case of Travelpod’s travelers density (matrix average) equals 0.0033 or 0.33% with standard deviation 0.0627. It becomes obvious that density is extremely low. The whole network seems lacking interconnections or there exist just few sparse links between some travelers. BETWEENNESS: Loosely speaking, betweenness centrality is defined as the number of geodesic paths that pass through a node. It is the number of "times" that any node needs to go through a given node to reach any other node via the shortest path. The node with high betweenness can serve as a liaison between disparate regions of the network. Betweenness is therefore a measure of the number of times a vertex occurs on a geodesic. The normalized betweenness centrality is the betweenness divided by the maximum possible betweenness expressed as a percentage. In this specific travelers’ network mean Betweenness equals 0.275 and its standard deviation equals 1.307. There is a lot of variation of normalized betweenness since standard deviation is much higher than the mean. This means that there exist some travelers that have the property of betweenness, while on the other hand there are travellers who do not have this property. Further analysis of the distribution of normalized betweennes for the 563 travelers, reveals that 40% of them have the property of beweenness. On the other hand, the rest 60% of the travelers do not have this property. Normalized betweeness is greater than unity for only 6% of the travelers. Network Centralization Index can be regarded as a measure for the network to have central points or areas with greater number of paths than usual. Network Centralization Index equals 18.10%. Despite big variance of normalized betweenness, this Index it is fairly low. In conclusion, the specific network has only few central travelers (with regards to their links) and also they do not differ significantly form the rest regarding the property of centrality and the property of linking to others.

COMPONENTS AND CLIQUES Cliques and components are sets of travelers that are connected in certain ways. Finding cliques is an attempt to understand whether travelers within Travelpo.com interact as being linked friends in a social network. For example, if we think about Facebook or Twitter and other social media, we could understand that one major

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property of them is that people are self-organized in groups of friends or groups of common personal interests and characteristics. We do not claim that travelers’ network should perform and be organized as Facebook or Twitter, but it is interesting to watch to what extend this happens, since travelers are indeed organized within a certain platform (Travelpo.com) and they do not maintain their own individual blogs, and also they share common interests or use the same format for building their sites. COMPONENTS: A connected component is a maximal subgraph in which all nodes are reachable from every other. In a directed graph two vertices are in the same weak component if there is a semi-path connecting them. In this directed network, 28 components were found. Regarding the components sizes, one component includes most of the travelers: 535 travelers (95%), while 26 components have only one traveler, and one component has two travelers. It can be calculated that fragmentation, that is the proportion of travelers that cannot reach each other, equals 10%. This number is considered small, and it probably means that in general one user can navigate through Travelpod using links to favourite travelers, and practically with some effort and time spent; he/she could visit nearly all the travelers. However, things look a little different when studying cliques. CLIQUES: For the needs of analysis the original adjacency matrix is symmetrised. This means that we consider that two travelers are connected if either one links to the other. A clique is a maximally complete subgraph. Maximal means that it is the largest possible subgraph: you could not find another node anywhere in the graph which could be added to the subgraph and all the nodes in the subgraph would still be connected. A complete graph is a simple graph in which every pair of distinct nodes-vertices is connected by an edge. The number of cliques and the number of travelers who form cliques could be regarded as a measure of the volume of interconnectivity of the network. It shows how travelers are connected to form small companies of friends or colleagues, etc. Only 81 travelers out of 563 (14.4%) form 70 cliques. One clique consists of four travelers, while all the others consist of just three travelers. There are no larger cliques. The line graph in Figure 6 presents how many travelers take part in several cliques at the same time. This is a measure of popularity and a measure of interconnection at the same time. Half of the 81 travelers are taking part in just one clique each. In total one third of the 81 travelers take part in 2, 3, 4 or 5 cliques. Concluding, we can say that travelers within Travelpod.com are not self-organized in the fashion of other social media networks. Keeping a directory of friends is not a priority of them. It might be a good word of advice to travelers’ social media, to try to offer an upgraded environment. This would allow travelers to be informed of updates of their linked travelers. These updates should be reported to “friends” who are connected through favourite travelers lists, in the fashion that Facebook and Twitter use to provide updates of the status of connected friends and followers. Figure 6 Distribution of travelers according to incorporation to cliques
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CO-CITATION This section studies the way that travelers are co-cited by other travelers. That is how they are linked simultaneously by one or more travelers within Travelpod.com. Co-citations are used in the sense that they may be indexes of popularity of the travelers. Or they may be indexes of describing to what degree do travelers recognize central – core groups of other travelers and in this way they point to them. This is an important concept since it deals with the property of the networks self realization. That is, the way that travelers have a view of what happens in the network, who links to whom, who are the most interesting travelers, etc. Let us consider an example from the study of political blogging. The basic hypothesis supported by the literature (Drezner and Farrell, 2004) is that within polarized political systems blogs are forming clusters around central blogs, which are considered reliable or having the same affiliation. Users of the Internet who wish to be informed quickly, locate the focal points of discussion and for economy of navigation, they read only the posts on these blogs. Bloggers also locate focal point blogs and place their posts along with a link to their blog. They expect thus that the readers of focal point blogs will also visit their blogs. For travel blogs, the idea may take a different form. Travelers or travel blogs are interconnected through blogrolls or “favourite travelers” lists, and in this way they may form groups of blogs or travelers, which are considered familiar or most important while the rest of the blogs or travelers are more isolated (Vrana & Zafiropoulos 2009, Zafiropoulos & Vrana 2008). Co-citations are calculated by multiplying the transposed adjacency matrix by the original adjacency matrix. The product is a symmetric binary matrix. Its elements in place ij is the number of travelers that link both travelers I and J. So, for each traveler a series of 563 numbers is produced: it presents the numbers of cocitations with any other traveler. Obviously, it is very hard to present all these findings. For the purpose of economy, we use just a part of this data set. For each traveler the maximum co-citation with any other traveler is chosen and is presented in Figure 7. For example it is interesting that 60.7% of the travelers are not co-cited with any other traveler, while 26.1% of the travelers are co-cited along with one other traveler. In this fashion, it becomes obvious that co-citations are rare although that in some rare cases some travelers are co-cited by even 22 other travelers. Co-citations are very low. Figure 7 Distribution of travelers proportions according to co-citations
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CONCLUSIONS This paper attempts to present some social networking properties of one of the most popular travel blogs worldwide. It might be likely that other networks of the same kind would present similar if not the same properties. The basic research question that this paper strived to answer is whether Travelpod.com presents the properties that other social media do. Travelpod.com offers a user-friendly environment for travelers to build their blogs, upload posts and comments and link to other travelers. Although it does offer an advanced environment, it seems that it does not exploit the possibility of offering all the networking opportunities to its members. To a certain degree Travelpod.com operates as a collection of independent blogs, providing additionally a common and user-friendly environment for travellers to build their sites. While it mostly presents

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the characteristics of a community and additionally it offers a forum for discussion, it offers to a smaller degree the characteristics of blogs. Travelpod network presents small density, links are rare, and community characteristics (regarding hyperlinks of favourite travelers) seem to be sparse. Travepod.com although being one of the top travel communities and web2.0 tourism-travel applications, to a certain degree is regarded as a collection of rather independent websites where travelers post their own stories and information waiting for others to locate them without using any social networking self-organization tools. Travelpod.com and probably other web2.0 applications in tourism and travel, provide the entire necessary infrastructure for the users to act within social networks. Probably this indeed happens. Travelers may be interconnected through an informal way. They know other travelers and they upload photos and posts while they comment to each other. However, they use hyperlinking only to a small degree. In this way, they lack the opportunity of allowing visitors to locate them or they do not provide the means to Travelpod.com itself to advance its infrastructure. Travelpod (and other travel social media) could use favourite travelers links to organize information to be offered to groups of friends. It could provide updates of the friends’ status to the members of the groups of friends. Considering the huge evolution and success of other social media such as Facebook or Twitter and blogs themselves, one should consider that it is not that the users are not well versed to operate social networks environments, rather they are not much interested in forming formal linkage connections with others or it is not expected from them to do so because the specific social media are constructed under a different rational. Travelers just expect others to discover them. Concluding, we can say that although travelers’ social media provide significant web2.0 applications, travelers fail to exploit one part of new social media features, the one concerning interlinkages and connectivity, while it seems that they are very efficient in posting and commenting.

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