Going Underground is the website about the London Underground that's not for trainspotters. It was born in the first few days of 1999, and is now an extensive site which has received over 200,000 visitors (currently about 400 a day). Spawning several imitators, Going Underground has been quoted on radio stations -- and even turned up in office workers' inbaskets. Annie Mole, the site's webmistress, despite being pursued by the BBC for interview, has kept a low profile. She now breaks her silence to talk exclusively to AnotherSun about Going Underground.
AnotherSun: So why a site about the London Underground?
Annie Mole: I just wanted to see if I could create a site, and the tube seemed like a good subject. I seemed to spend half my life on it, so why not? In the first place, I thought Going Underground was going to be a forum where Londoners could moan about their journeys, and the nutters they met on the tube. But it soon developed a life of its own. Lots of my visitors were from the US, and they were actually using the site as a real guide to the London Underground.
AS: Really? What bits were they interested in?
Tourists would sign my guestbook apologising for standing on the left of escalators, carrying big bags and generally for travelling during the rush hours. So I suppose I altered my site to be more helpful to them. I started to sell travel guides, put on a page with links to online tube maps, underground planners and set up partnerships with travel companies.
When The Lonely Planet online said "Get smart and try Going Underground; all about the tube. It has tube tales, the Queen on the tube, buskers, celebrities and even what to read on the tube." I leapt about in excitement. Loads of traffic came in steadily each day from that small link.
AS: Where else do you get your hits from?
AM: A big early stepping stone was to get into Yahoo's search engine. Going Underground had already appeared in a few other search engines -- AltaVista and Excite. I had read in various guides that Yahoo was tough and slow to get into but it was well worth the wait (approximately 6-8 weeks). Too true. Traffic increased dramatically and for a while Yahoo was my best single source for referrals (although the search eningine - Google has overtaken Yahoo in terms of traffic). Yahoo also gave me what I consider my ultimate online accolade "Yahoo Pick of the Week". They also feature Going Underground on their Underground News stories page where it has better placing than the official travel sites.
AS: Was it then that the media noticed you?
AM: Yes. I suppose it was by appearing in Yahoo's News section that other journalists and websites zeroed in on my site. Without me even writing to them I found my site appearing on websites belonging to The Guardian, The Times, BBC and Channel 4 and National Public Radio (NPR) in the US. As a result of Going Underground, I even went on BBC London Live Radio as a commuter commenting on travelling through the hideously overcrowded Victoria station. That was a real eye-opener! Travelling on the tube with journalist with a massive microphone and talking loudly in carriages -- we all know that normally no one talks on the tube. It's also appeared in Midweek Magazine which was a big honour for me as it was my first print magazine appearance.
When the site appeared in the Trip.com newsletter it received its highest number of visits in a single day (almost 2,000) and hundreds of people signed the guestbook too as a result of this, with all sorts of questions and comments on the tube.
The most freaky thing was getting a call from a friend saying that some parts of my site had been sent to him in an e-mail that was going round his office. My site has a section on "humorous" announcements from tube drivers and the best of these had been taken from my site and quoted in an e-mail. I few days later I received the e-mail myself as it had been sent to someone in my own office, who had then sent it to everyone who worked for the company. This felt really weird to hear bits of my site quoted around me.
I later learnt that the e-mail had really done the rounds - a friend of mine from Portsmouth heard bit of it quoted on local radio. I heard it on Capital FM radio in London and it was also reported on Lycos's viral email chart.
When your site gets "virally marketed", without you doing anything about it yourself, you know that it has truly arrived.
The site also became one of FHM magazine's top 100 websites which was a weird honour and traffic seems to have rocketed again. Plus bestselling sci fi/fantasy and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman gave me a great plug for the site leading to much traffic from his legion of fans. Very recently I had an interview on BBC Radio Suffolk as their Website of the Day which you can listen to here - it's about five minutes long.
AS: So do you make any cash from the site?
AM: Not much really. I've started selling T shirts & caps with Mind the Gap on them and I sell London travel & tourist passes to overseas visitors. But I get a huge amount of personal pride from Going Underground and actually in a mad way I think I'm doing a service to the public. I take it reasonably seriously and point people to where they can get up to the minute news on delays and strikes and stuff. (I get loads of extra traffic on strike days and tragically on the day of the Paddington rail crash). However, my close friend has just got a book deal to write a fun guide to the London Underground - One Stop Short of Barking and I'm helping her write and research that, so look out for the book based on the site next Autumn. She's promised to share her royalties with me!
AS: What about the Amazon links we saw on your site?
AM: I also make a tiny bit of commission from Amazon selling books and referring others to their site. I'd say what I earn more that covers the cost of my Internet phone bills, but that's probably it.
AS: You're not a dotcom millionaire then?
AM: No, but it led directly to me getting a good job in new media. I started the site with a template and free space from Fortunecity. But the more I got into it, the more I wanted to change it, and add guestbooks, search engines, sell books, set up e-postcards and all the rest. I found that I needed to learn a bit of HTML, the programming language that most websites are written in, and with that on my CV I managed to talk my way into paid dotcom employment.
AS: How does London Underground feel about your site? After all you seem to slag them off quite a bit.
AM: Who knows, perhaps one day London Underground will pay me to close the site down. Have a look at it and you'll see why. However they are full of surprises and one day I even found that they had added my site to the links page of their official site. I couldn't believe it. Obviously when some bigwig noticed, it got taken off very very quickly!
AS: Has this got anything to do with you being anonymous?
AM: Yes I don't want London Underground to sue me. And I didn't want anyone thinking I was a train spotter (no offence to trainspotters - many of their sites have led to loads of traffic for me). I'd set up an web based e-mail address for myself as firstname.lastname@example.org. The Mole seemed an appropriate name as they are underground creatures. When I started writing for Suite 101 they said I couldn't use The Mole as my name as their policy is that their articles must look as if they were written by real people. So at that point Annie Mole was born. It's a bit like being "Annie Mouse" (anonymous) and an "Annie Mal" too.
AM: There seem to be lots of other sites about the tube now? Did they all copy you?
AM: There were quite a few unofficial tube sites when I started building Going Underground, but they all had pictures of trains and stuff about the history of the underground and rolling stock. Nothing really was about the experience of travelling on the tube as an ordinary punter. I think I can say that my site has influenced others which go down a similar route to mine. Like the (now defunct) Lew's Tube and Tubetrip - however they are all different in their own ways but were built by people like me just wanting to bring out the "fun" side of the tube.
AS: Have you got any tips for people starting their own website?
AM: Yeah. Buy yourself a domain name or website address before someone grabs it. 123-reg is the cheapest place I've found (£7 for two years). It's a doddle to set up and you can seamlessly direct traffic to the place where your site is held and get loads of e-mail addresses using that domain name.
AS: Anything else?
AM: (Laughs) Yeah. Browse round my site, enjoy the ride and whatever you do "Mind The Gap".
To visit Annie's site