David Frey - Aspen Daily News Correspondent
Tue 10/10/2006 04:01PM MST
Jon Barnes' Ultimate Taxi has gained fame as an offbeat ride through Aspen, with flashing lasers, glowing light tubes and a billowing smoke machine that fills the interior of the 1978 Yellow Cab.
Lately, though, the cab has been a vehicle for Barnes to send Internet customers to the top of search engines. And now, it's made another stop. Instead of just taking customers to their hotels, Barnes is using the taxi's Web site to let them book hotel rooms online.
The taxi's Web site might be even more valuable than the cab itself, Barnes has found. Why? The reason pops the hood on search engines like Google and how Barnes' has driven his Ultimate Taxi on a magical mystery tour to the top.
"The key to the Internet is networking," Barnes said. "That's what it's all about. The whole idea of Google is, 'let's let the world vote.' I have a bigger vote than anybody else."
Maybe not anybody else, but bigger than a lot of people. Barnes' pimped-out yellow cab has gotten plenty of press over the past couple of decades and he's linked to a lot of the coverage on his Web site, ultimatetaxi.com. That means a lot of links to a lot of powerful sites with a lot of links of their own - sites like Kodak.com and the Web site for Italy's newspaper La Repubblica.
Popular, well-established links like that give a Web site credibility in the eyes of search engines, Barnes said. So does longevity. If his site looks a little clunky and cluttered compared to more recent sites, with their clean lines and snazzy animation, its history gives some legitimacy to Google's roving robots.
So Barnes started to capitalize on that kind of Web site success, selling links to his site to other businesses. There may not be much of a connection between Barnes' taxi and car dealers in Minnesota or Texas (except the rubber tires) but having a link to him have boosted them up in Web searches. Barnes said sites that didn't even make the top 30 in a Google search started popping up on page 1.
So, he decided, why not do for himself what he's done for others? He bought a hotel reservations package for his site, then started building pages to accommodate them, so people can book rooms from Aspen to Atlantic City, N.J., on his Ultimate Taxi Web site or related links that look a little like high-traffic sites like hotels.com and Travelocity.
"I don't want to put hotels.com and stayaspensnowmass.com out of business," he said. "I just want to book an occasional hotel room in some fabulous places."
Results vary, but on a recent search for "Aspen hotel deals" on msn.com, one of Barnes' sites, came up on top, over Travelocity, Yahoo and Tripadvisor. His Ultimate Taxi reservation site came up eighth, just below them. On Google, where he usually doesn't fare quite as well, he pops up on page 2.
Search simply for "Aspen hotels" and he comes up on page 2 on msn.com, just behind Stay Aspen Snowmass.
Just how famous is Barnes' taxi? Google "world famous" and the Ultimate Taxi pops up at No. 9. Not the most useful ranking, maybe, but it's better than being No. 1 for "miserable failure." (That's where you'll find President Bush.)
The reason Barnes fares so well here is the same reason Bush doesn't. Other sites link to the Ultimate Taxi with the words "world famous." Web masters "googlebomb" Bush by linking to sites that say "miserable failure." It's the way Google works, and Barnes has benefited.
But could the Ultimate Taxi's wild ride on the old information superhighway be coming to an end?
"Google hates this guy," said Trent Blizzard, CEO of Glenwood Springs' Blizzard Internet Marketing Inc. "They do not want him to be successful, in many ways, because he's artificially inflating his results."
Barnes isn't doing anything wrong, Blizzard said, but he is toying with the way Google works. To shake off people who it sees as manipulating the system, the king of search engines is changing the way it works, Blizzard said, to try to come up with search results it thinks are a little more authentic.
"Google knows whether you're in the hospitality industry or if you're selling Viagra," Blizzard said.
Blizzard contracts with lodges across the country, including the Snowmass Club and Snowmass Lodging, to optimize their Web presence. He advises his clients to work with people like Barnes to boost their rankings, he said, but it's a "small piece of the puzzle." He recommends other links that have a more direct connection with their product.
"If I were him," he said, "what I would do is sell to local Aspen businesses links to his site. ... Sell ads to local businesses, not Minnesota Toyota dealers."
Some Web masters who play fast and loose with Google run the risk of getting "dinged," Blizzard said, banned from the engine altogether. Barnes isn't in danger of that, he said, but he is in danger of getting left behind.
"As Google updates their algorithms, these things that work now won't work anymore," he said. "That's always been the case."
Barnes said he's aware that his cab's cruise on the Internet might not work forever. But for now, he's enjoying a wilder ride than he expected, even from a taxi with disco balls and drum machines.
"Selling T-shirts out of the trunk of my cab is not going to make me big bucks," he said, "but if while I'm asleep somebody books a hotel in Nashville or in Paris and it puts a little change in my pocket, I think I'm on the right track."
About The Car Jon Barnes
The Pictures 3D Fun
Jon's Photos Of Aspen Colorado Passengers Pictures From 2003
Taxi Video Clips