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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Parasite Websites Eating into Railways' Pie

IndianRail.gov.in is one of the more popular websites in India (though very ill-designed and un-userfriendly). According to Alexa it is ranked no. 30 in India and has a worldwide traffic rank of 721. Given the place that the Indian Railways has in the country's transportation system railway-related sites would continue getting the visitors. And this is what makes the Indian Railways' websites (indianrail.gov.in and trainenquiry.com) a very lucrative target for parasitic websites.

I believe that the Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS), that owns and maintains the official Railways websites also realises that and therefore has put up this warning on the indianrail.gov.in site:

Warning: No one is authorised to make any type of commercial usage like putting web advertisements or SMS service and Reproducing/Transmitting/Storing in its database, any content of www.indianrail.gov.in website, without prior written permission from Indian Railways. Violators will be severely prosecuted.

But violators don't seem to care much. There are quite a number of Indian Railways related websites out there, but most of them just provide basic information, but there are quite a number who offer services similar to that of the official sites.

Now a question might arise - What's wrong with that? The problem here is that the information related to train timings, seat availability, PNR status, train arrivals and departures is exclusively generated by the Indian Railways and others can have access to it only via the official websites (or with agencies that the organisation might have an agreement with).

What these sites do is that they provide the user an interface that looks their own (with some ads plastered around, though not in all cases) and when the user requests any information, the data is pulled from the Indian Railways servers. A practice also termed as leeching.

Someone might ask - Maybe they actually have a tie up with the Railways? I don't think so. Let us sample a few:

eRail.in: The site explicitly states that it "does not have any official connection or affiliation whatsoever to Indian Railways and related organisations." When you submit a query it displays the results within an iframe enclosing the official website.

The site doesn't have any contact info and a whois search reveals the domain registrant as the System Administrator of 5Force, Dublin, Ohio, USA. Nothing very precise. But the man behind the site has been discussed about on the WWW.

IndianTrains.org: Follows a similar method as that of eRail.in. The domain name has been registered via DomainsByProxy.com, who are in the business of hiding the real identities of website owners. Obviously no contact info.

IndiaRailInfo.com: Similar. Registered via myprivateregistration.com - another whois anonymising service.

BharatRail.net: Atleast the registrant seemingly used a genuine address.

Now let us also look at a few bigger sites offering railway enquiry services:

Rediff Trains FareSearch: It seems quite unlikely that a reputed website like Rediff would indulge in exploitative practices. But I tried searching online for information related to Indian Railways-Rediff tie up, but didn't seem to find any. Even the story on Rediff.com on the launch of the service doesn't mention any official agreement.

Other sites that also offer rail-related services (I didn't look into the details):

* Zoomtra
* Cleartrip

From a user's perspective, this is a welcome trend. With the bad usability of the official sites such alternatives make lives a little easier. The interface is so much better. Many of them also provide additional services like maps and weather forecasts that the official sites obviously don't have.

Now what should the Indian Railways or rather Times Internet Limited - that has won the tender for web advertisement rights on indianrail.gov.in and trainenquiry.com for two years - do?

Alexa shows a dip of 16% in indianrail.gov.in's reach over the last three months, while eRail.in registers an increase of 28% for the same period.

At a time when rising airfares is compelling people to opt for trains, this dip in the traffic for the official railway sites point toward the alternative service providers.

Unlike airlines, railways is a monopoly and the railways wouldn't like to loose it grip on that even online. But instead of expending resources over the 'violators,' CRIS should rather focus on improving the websites so that people would prefer the original source over the borrowed and bettered websites. And as payback they could borrow some ideas.



Also read:
* Greasy Tracks: The Truth behind the Indian Railways Success Story
* Railway Regulations
* Chugging Along
* TOI Story on e-Ticketing: A Distorted Perspective

Also see:
* Tracks to Nowhere
* Crossing the Brahmaputra

4 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi,

Your post seems to exhort the Indian Railways to develop a better website because of lost revenue for its alliance with Times Internet? You seem to care a lot about the Indian Railways website revenue!!! May I ask why?

May I also ask what business the Railways is in? Running websites or running trains? As a vital lifeline of the country, Indian Railways is OBLIGATED to provide this information free of cost and WITHOUT TASTELESS match-making and body-building popup ads appearing next to the Rajdhani Express schedule. In India, you might not seem to care. But, in Spain, where I live, because of these tasteless ads on the Official Website (among other things), people have a VERY, VERY POOR impression of India. You will notice that the national carriers of most countries DO NOT show ads on their official sites, let alone popups. Ask why?

Because of a sense of class. A modicum of taste. The Indian Railways should provide accurate train information that people need. So, once again, Indian Railways, you are not in the website business. Your website is ONLY a medium of providing information about the trains that you run - and THAT is your business. The Indian Railways is a popular website ONLY because everyone uses trains - for no other reason. Please LOSE that revenue. You are not allowed to make money on that.

As for the design of the website, ask Google. You might think it is easy, but website design is very, very complex, if you want to incorporate sophisticated information. The Indian Railways does not even get its grammar and spellings right, let alone code.

So, don't do ANYTHING to your website, because you are incompetent. ONLY, I just implore Indian Railways to remove ALL Ads from its website. The Indian Railways website is ruining India's reputation.

Vijay Kumar.
Apartado 12999, 28485 Alcobendas, Madrid, Spain

Soumyadip said...

Vijay: I do care about the Railways' revenue because I believe that they should be earning their money the right way rather than fleecing the passengers.

The purpose of the post was to bring to light where the railways were goign wrong, so that they can mend their ways and we as the ultimate consumers benefit.

For me it doesn't matter who runs the websites as long as it delivers me what I want it to.

And yes, I do agree with you that the official railways website isn't something that we as Indians can be proud of.

rk said...

Hello Soumyadip,

I am writing for one of "parasitic" websites you mentioned - indiarailinfo.com. This site does not intend to "eat into the railway pie". There are no intrusive and indecent popup ads on the site. In fact, there are NO ads at all. The "railway pie" is not for greedy people to eat into - whether it be the Indian Railways or anyone else. It is public information that everyone has a right to.

As for the "leeching" point, the Internet is a continuously evolving medium that does not necessarily always obey the "rules" set up by the previous generation of crusty old people. Does Google leech? The most valuable company on the planet depends on, and systematically caches the contents of billions of websites. Agence France Presse sued Google for putting its contents on the news site, but then inevitably acquiesced, when it found that “yeah, it’s beneficial to us, although, technically speaking, it is still in violation”. You might say, that is different and this is different. But, the world order and the previous ways of doing business are changing. YouTube was a gross “violator”, and Comedy Central sued it for putting its videos on the site. Now, it says, “put our videos on your site, it’s ok.”. Why? It’s benefiting Comedy Central and is increasing the channel’s popularity – for free!!! So, you see how what originally seemed to be a gross violation now turns out to be a benefit for everyone? So, the world is evolving very fast, and so should the law.

As for domain anonymity, the reason is that, India is still living 20 years behind the west, when it comes to laws and social awareness (the tech outsourcing industry, notwithstanding). The anonymity will at least prevent nuisance law suits in the short term. The law-making bodies in India are not keeping with the times, and cannot be hoped to. Google was hauled into Indian Court recently because someone “defamed Shivaji” on Orkut. In the US, that case would have been laughed at and summarily dismissed, because of safe harbour provisions. In India, no such thing. In India, murderers can roam free or appointed ministers, but trivial “violators” can be put in prison. For these reasons, the domain anonymity will stay for now.

As for the value of the indiarailinfo.com and other parasitic websites, plenty of foreign and Indian tourists use these sites to optimize and better plan their trips to India. Indian tourism benefits. Indian Railways benefits. India’s reputation benefits. The Indian Railways “website” is losing some revenue, but you need to look at the the big picture.

Do visit our website, and if you find anything particularly objectionable, please write it in the site feedback. In conclusion, I must say that your article was well-written, and brings out a lot of important discussion points. Keep up the good work.

PS. Your article had a typo in it. In your article, you misspelled it: indianrailinfo.com

Soumyadip said...

RK: I might have generalised the plastering the ads bit. Have made amends to it (isn't adlessness also a part of a longterm revenue strategy?)

But even if some of the sites do not put ads it still is a loss for the Railways, as traffic is being diverted and that has a direct impact on their ad revenue. But they might gain some leverage from e-ticketing, as this is still single source, as many of such better built sites would drive extra traffic into irctc.co.in.

I too believe that that information about train timings and seat availability should be freely available and not legally restricted to one 'official' website. But the existing scheme of things is a little different and therefore the need for this post.

It seems that this post is serving its desired purpose, to initiate a discussion.

I didn't mention the real reason that triggered this post, it was a series of spam comments promoting one of the discussed websites (indiantrains.org).

And thanks for pointing out the typo. Fixed.