Friday, 26 February 2010 - A Review

Six months after 'launching' at the British Birdfair the website is finally available today. As I commented at the time I can understand why they have developed an online presence in the face of a changing market and consumer trends away from paper and toward web based material but I still hold the view that by not acquiring or partnering with an existing provider online they are starting from a place somewhere in the 1990's.
After initially feeling a little frustrated that despite registering several times I found out about the live launch via a Twitter posting I headed onto the site tonight to look around and get a feel for what they've done. Industry gossip endowed them with a big budget so my expectations were high, I was looking for bells and whistles. Given that the 2nd edition of Collins Birds has just launched to huge critical acclaim with the errors that have been picked out still leaving reviewers feeling almost churlish to have mentioned them in the face of such overwhelmingly amazing content I thought the website would be packed with innovation.
Clicking on the registration button to bring up the registration page my first reaction was of disappointment. In keeping with other 'forums' Collins have gone down the pseudonym user name option allowing users to hide their true identity. As we know only too well this kind of identity protection has the effect of emboldening otherwise sane individuals into making all kinds of unncessessary statements, responses and comments in the safe and certain knowledge that they are unknown. It remains to be seen how robust their moderation will be in the face of some of the arguments that can rage on friendly forums.
Safely registered I went straight to the 'Birds' page, "the biggest library of bird information online", sadly within a short time I reached the conclusion that this should be redubbed "the biggest abuse of trading standards online". I can't begin to catalogue my disappointment that the company who have access to the best field guide ever have chosen instead to push out a wishy washy piece of rubbish lacking in all but the very basic information about individual species. Add to this that despite taking an age to 'get it right' they haven't, the species accounts are littered with errors. Within a few pages I noted Northern Shoveler with a female Red-crested Pochard plate, Black Duck with a Northern Shoveler plate, American Herring Gull with no plate, Black Tern & Black-headed Gull shown in non-breeding plumages only and Caspian Gull apparently is "the only silver-backed large gull in the area".
Whoever proof-read and beta tested the data should by this point be reaching for a passport and a new identity in Panama. They need a major re-review and quickly if they are to avoid blowing the site's credibility and any chance they had of capturing an audience.
I moved on to post a few sightings, Collins have gone down the same route as several other providers (Chirptracker/Birdnews et al) and intergrated Google Mapping technology into the sightings. Currently each sighting needs to be entered individually in a four step process involving dragging the sighting onto the correct location on the map, entering details, previewing and finishing, its not what you would call an intuitive process. I picked a couple of records from this afternoon when I took a short visit to a well known local site, which was immediately not recognised by the mapping technology forcing me to find the nearest known location and therefore rendering the map useless to anyone wishing to find the site exactly from the site name used. The information you can provide for each sighting is quirky at best, Number of birds seen has a drop down box with a current maximum of ten; and why would anyone want to record 'distance from the bird' in metres? Although with hindsight this obviously offers listers with new opportunities to be the the first to 400 species seen to 10m or less.
On the positive side it does offer the user the opportunity to create lists and checklists on a country basis and no doubt some birders may use it for this purpose but they are goung to find it a real long-winded solution to keeping a list.
Checking out the 'People' tab which in truth appears to be a kind of Facebook-lite for birders, although it claims to be able to "track their sightings and activity" perfect for the stalkers amongst us and guaranteed to root out the stringers.
Disenchanted and disorientated I moved into the Shop area of the site hoping to perk myself back up with the special launch offers, the ones that have either all been taken or are yet to appear in the Amazon store. Although it was here finally, I found something to get excited about, a small box to the right headed "Create Your Own Field Guide", coming soon the solution to all those ID nightmares as you can create your own customised Field Guide. No more mistaking Ring Ouzels on Shetland for something rarer just switch the plates around. Can't tell a Sab's from a Bonaparte's swap the descriptions around to fit the birds. Thankfully after looking a little closer it may not be quite as flexible as this, simply involving selecting which species you want to wrap in your own custom guide, it remains to be seen whether text and plates will include those in Collins Birds or the (more likely) other Collins range of Field Guides that are not to the same high standards.
Attempting to cover the globe is/was a huge ask, sadly by throwing the net so wide it appears that Collins are simply scratching the surface and have a site that will appeal to armchair-based RSPB members who might want to record their garden Chaffinches. This might indeed be their game plan, achieve a high volume of enthusiastic birdwatchers who take their content dumbed watered down. Good for business perhaps but they could have achieved so much more. What this site clearly demonstrates is that whilst they have a magical team in Svennson and Mullarney providing them with a winning formula for active birders, this site is not aimed at the same market. If you're out there birding most weekends you won't find any revelations here.

(If you do pop over and check it out, when you get to the Collins 'Bird Detective' where you can vote on the identity of a mystery pair of platform nesting raptors don't laugh too hard at the high percentage of idiots who think they are White-tailed Sea Eagle, it was just me testing out how robust the process was.)


The Liverbirder said...

Probably should have read all of your review instead of using the link immediately and registering!! I'll stick it out and see if it gets better as I become more familiar with what it offers. The Northern Shoveler fooled me. I thought it was something rarer than it actually was, and that soon calmed my excitement about a reported 'rarity' only 10 miles from my door!!

Tim Sexton said...

Oh no, not another website. And one that blocks words like 'tits' which is a problem on a birding site :) Recording sightings online is already possible via BTO's Birdtrack with the data immediately available for scientific analysis - hopefully Collins can link to this.

Finch said...

For a "review" this is a bit harsh. I took a look and it is actually not that bad. Just so you know, from an objective point of view it seems you have tried hard to rubbish everything about it for some reason. Did your Collins bird guides arrive late or something?!

alan tilmouth said...

Finch, I have no axe to grind with Collins other than I am genuinely disappointed by what they have put out. You suggest that you offer an objective viewpoint but offer nothing more than an opinion that the site is 'quite good', hardly objective. I have highlighted the areas I found disappointing and the reasons why, there is little subjectivity in that.

Anonymous said...

Birding product reviews are often a bit tame, so it's nice to read something that has teeth and is unafraid to use them!
I agree with you that it is underwhelming, poorly designed, and more than a bit pointless. I can't see a single good reason to use it.