Websites come and go, but there’s no website cemetery that I know of. Likewise, there’s no Website Hall of Fame. If there was, I reckon CanadianDriver should be in it.
CanadianDriver was the brainchild of Grant Yoxon of Ottawa, Canada. He registered the name 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 hockey teams? You get the idea.
This was largely a time before effective search engines, don’t forget. People used to email 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 via millions of floppy discs, 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 a wayward click of the mouse could expose you to… well, one shudders to think.
Additionally, of course, the AOL channels (and other similar 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, a fledgling online media outlet serving the Canadian automobile consumer market. And you know, this was bucking the trend. Not really world-wide at all; it was local (comparatively) and targetted.
This, to digress for a moment (okay, more than 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 “high speed modem.”
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 there wasn’t actually much decent content on the web to browse (hence AOL’s play). We’re really talking early days, but things were ramping up fast.
In the thick of it, our town, Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, became “Silicon Valley North.” It was alive with new 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’s Queensway highway; the fast cars contrarily heading west to suburban Kanata where all the tech companies were located, rather than east to downtown where the public servants worked (now we have Shopify, I’m currently happy to mention).
So this was the world in which CanadianDriver began and grew, although from the beginning it had an old-timey, handbuilt (it was!), consumer orientation.
Not catering to car enthusiasts so much (a smart move), CanadianDriver was mostly of interest 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, including online we were betting. 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, CanadianDriver 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 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 personally 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: namely, operating them takes significant and ongoing management, resources and investment. CanadianDriver wasn’t supposed to be a hobby site, and running it professionally was becoming a full-time job. Many full-time jobs, in fact. 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. 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 the high-technology sector as the former owner of a company called compuSkills and was already supplying editorial content to nascent US automotive websites, magazines and the local Ottawa Citizen newspaper. 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 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 long-form reviews or features plus a half-dozen or more 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, attempting to raise its profile and build its reputation among manufacturers and consumers as a credible, professional, high-quality outlet that could compete with — 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 and we were CanadianDriver Communications Inc. In reality, we were simultaneously publishers, writers and technology entrepreneurs, although initially few people in the mainstream media took websites (or us) very seriously at all. In fact, websites were typically a subject of derision by print publishers and many print journalists alike (“Anybody can make a website!” was a typical refrain), and almost completely disregarded as legitimate sources of information. Who could blame them? Just as Kodak was wedded to film, newspapers and magazines were wedded to print. It was hard for them to imagine anything else.
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).
While all this was going on, we three were contributing articles to what was then the CanWest Global media empire (it eventually became PostMedia). 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, 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. 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.
However, somewhat through that side door, we too 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 aforementioned Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, otherwise known as AJAC, in the late 1980s. More on that later, as becoming members of AJAC was a huge help to us.
As it turned out, the now defunct CanWest didn’t care about our connection to CanadianDriver. 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.” Obviously, we didn’t agree. 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. The opportunity was surely there!
Happily, there were a couple of automobile manufacturers testing online waters. General Motors was an early adopter along with Toyota, but car generally companies were slow to see the point and the potential of a web presence other than displaying their brochures online. Famously slow out of the gate, though, Nissan to this day can’t register the domain Nissan.com because a small computer company snagged it two decades ago. At the time of this writing, Nissan Motors is still trying to pry that domain away from the hapless but stubborn owner of Nissan.com (I check it every once in a while, and as of 2019, yup, still the computer guy…).
But things were changing in the early 2000s, although in order to make any money online (assuming you had advertisers at all) we knew you had to generate sufficient page views to deliver the huge volume of advertisements required by car manufacturers. Within a few years, car companies would offer lucrative rates, but to be noticed, your site must have the capacity to deliver huge numbers of page views (millions) 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 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. And we were in a market where people purchase between 1.5 and 2.0 million new vehicles a year.
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 needed to be on the first page of 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 in online waters, they were not necessarily archiving their automobile articles. Some would 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. In retrospect, this was a misguided (albeit temporarily misguided) strategy as it compromised their websites’ ability to grow and gain visitors.
But it was great for us. Over at CanadianDriver, every image, every article, every scrap of information we posted remained online as our hard-drive capacity was increased and our servers multiplied. 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 traffic.
Eventually we grew to well over a half-million unique visitors per month, delivering over six-million pages to them. Not bad for a privately run 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; and the vast majority of 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 enough to load and interesting enough to stay.
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. Really, the site was blazingly fast. 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 presence 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, although things are changing…) 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 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 and excellent for marketing. Eventually, CanadianDriver became a principal participant, televised live as we announced and handed out Canadian Car of the Year awards to the major auto manufacturers alongside Brad and Issy Diamond’s Motoring TV and the Globe and Mail newspaper. This gave our brand much-needed visibility and credibility. It was Television, Print and Online, and kudos to AJAC for recognizing CanadianDriver before online became really mainstream. Eventually, we found ourselves covering shows in Montreal, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Geneva, Paris, Frankfurt, Seoul and even Tokyo.
Other methods we used to increase traffic included creating special events like our hugely successful “50L Challenge” (wherein we drove a fleet of compact cars on a 1,000km tour until they ran out of fuel). This was particularly timely, as the price of gasoline had by 2005 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 attention for CanadianDriver in the form of a national media campaign by that year’s winner, Toyota.
By that time, CanadianDriver had 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 associate themselves with, and 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 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, 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 our own 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 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 came from the ascendency 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, as mentioned already, is key for Canadian-based advertisers.
All was going well until it wasn’t… Like everyone else, CanadianDriver was hit big time in 2008. September, to be precise, and I remember it well… 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 interested in shopping for them. That means fewer eyeballs on consumer-oriented car review websites and a reduction in advertising.
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.
After mid-decade efforts to collaborate with AutoTrader that culminated in a partial sharing of online resources (we really wanted a Classifieds section!), we were approached by Trader Corporation (owner of autotrader.ca) in late 2009 concerning their interest in purchasing CanadianDriver. They were abandoning their weekly paper classified publications and moving efforts exclusively online. They thought our site would provide a ready source of professional car reviews and content to assist buyers, and imagined comprehensively connecting the autotrader.ca classifieds with CanadianDriver. But they would, we were assured, keep CanadianDriver as a stand-alone brand, having big plans for video and TV to augment it.
We sold CanadianDriver in July 2010, just after Yellow Media (owners of The Yellow Pages) bought Trader. Happily, Yellow Media was enthusiastic about the deal to purchase CanadianDriver, but as with many transactions like this, they had their own management to operate things, thank-you very much. Shortly after the sale they changed the name of CanadianDriver to Autos.ca. We weren’t happy about that, of course, 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.
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 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 over numerous cups of coffee. We held our AGM each October coincident with AJAC’s Canadian 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 later from their laptops.
If not a Website Hall of Fame, at least a Canadian Website Hall of Fame, don’t you think?
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. It didn’t cost us much, but it was probably a help to Murray.
We also published Bill Vance’s vintage car columns. Bill was (still is!) a vintage car article machine; he knew just about everything about them. 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. Helped make us look good!
We had a terrific annual guide to Canadian cars. Every car with full Canadian specifications and a price guide, too (largely the excellent work of Woman on Wheels Jil McIntosh). 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.
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.
At one point our site was completely duplicated by some outfit using servers 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-per-click ad’s on the pages. Eventually it was removed.
CanadianDriver didn’t bombard you with ad’s. Things rarely popped up, obscured the page, diverted you elsewhere or otherwise annoyed visitors. We tried to make it so. I think we were kind of the PBS of commercial sites. Advertising didn’t hit you over the head.
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 pages.
CanadianDriver offered trustworthy automobile journalism produced by professional reviewers and writers. Targetted to consumers, our entertaining articles were designed to supply useful information to consumers that would help when purchasing a vehicle. But we never tried to sell you a car!