How are SEO and paid search progressing in the travel sector?

travel searchThe travel industry believes that overall search marketing is basically going to become more complex and will require a better integration across all the disciplines, be it PR, social media, display, PPC and SEO to be truly effective.

In order to know more, EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta spoke to two executives from search marketing specialist and technology firm Greenlight. This is what Adam Bunn, Director of SEO and Hannah Kimuyu, director of paid search had to say:

Which according to you has been the most striking or potentially path-breaking development in the search engine marketing, especially from the travel sector perspective, in the last six months or so?

Adam Bunn – In terms of SEO and travel specifically, (it would be) the dual algorithm updates in January (unnamed) and February (“Panda” or “Farmer”) focusing on downgrading sites with duplicate and/or low value content.

Why is this issue for travel specifically? Because if there’s an archetypal site that has duplicate and low value content, it’s a travel aggregator/booking engine, with the associated preponderance of white labeling and content from central databases that is used by multiple sites.

The typical approach to get round this is to supplement the “standard” travel content with user generated reviews – but that’s not always successful if, for example you don’t have enough users to generate a critical mass of reviews.

For this reason a content strategy needs to be carefully thought out especially in light of the latest algorithm updates.

Hannah Kimuyu – From a Paid Search perspective, we’ve seen display marketing evolving into search. Google’s acquisition of Double Click, Yahoo! Right Media Exchange, and Direct Response crossing over; and MSN bringing its exchange to the forefront, as well as offering similar display programmes and formats to search advertisers – is turning what we all once knew as ‘traditional display marketing’ to a very search-like feel to display.

The Ad Exchanges specifically have been pivotal to this evolution, providing real-time bidding and optimisation. It is making advertisers and brands rethink their display strategy and investment – and ask the question, does display have a new lease of life? The best example of this was in 2010 following Google’s acquisition of Double Click, where it transformed its Content Network into a fully fledged display network (also rebranded Display Network) proving that in fact traditional display (blanket run of network etc) is a thing of the past, and marketers can expect more sophistication, control and results from a new era of display marketing. Imagine having search-like control with display. We expect this to flourish into 2011 where we expect to see more from this new form of display marketing and quite uniquely, being led by search specialists.

Considering some of Google’s recent initiatives (algorithm change and enhancement of the Social Search offering) and Bing’s tie-up with Kayak and Autosuggest Flight Prices for the travel sector and some other initiative such as Deals, how would you consider these developments for improving the overall travel planning and booking experience? If on one hand search engines are trying to offer better, faster and more accurate personalised search, on the other it is also being said that the “holy grail” of the perfect search return has not been found yet. What’s your opinion about the same?

Adam Bunn – I think it’s quite clear that while search is faster and more personalised, and has less poor quality results, it certainly isn’t perfect yet – the continued implementation by the engines of new updates and features is proof alone of that.

Hannah Kimuyu – From a Paid Search perspective the landscape has changed massively. When planning a strategy most advertisers these days will incorporate what we describe at Greenlight as our 360 approach. This 360 approach will normally include traditional pay per click (Google, Yahoo & Bing) a separate contextual strategy mainly consisting of Google’s Display Network but utilising all elements including Interest and Placement targeting, as well as remarketing (retargeting). Following on from Google’s remarketing format, advertisers may also want to use a second retargeting partner, such as Criteo or Struq, whereby the ability to retarget down to product or promotional detail including up-sell or cross-sell is a possibility.

Social media advertising is normally next on the agenda, where Facebook specifically has changed the face of this format. To which is no longer considered a branding exercise but a direct response channel. Facebook’s advertising model has evolved massively, with its recent innovations ‘check-in’ and ‘deals’ linking the relationship between online and offline marketing (Research Online, Buy Offline – Yahoo’s ROBO Study, 2007). If that wasn’t enough, mobile advertising is starting to make a serious impression in the UK; with travel and retail benefiting the most.

Google says its research shows that 78 percent of travel transactions involve research on a search engine. In fact, the average traveller searches eight times prior to booking. In addition to timing search ads campaigns with proper search seasonality, Google recommends taking advantage of new search formats. For example, if you are advertising a destination, you can create a free listing on Google Places and include detailed information and pictures. Is there any major change in the approach when it comes to planning for search engine marketing?

Adam Bunn – I think there’s a danger here of marketers thinking of SEO as only being concerned with “normal” or “traditional” search result. If local search optimisation isn’t part of search engine marketing then what is it? It’s certainly more complex than just creating a free listing – local search has its own ranking algorithm just like any other type of search – and that needs to be considered as part of a holistic SEM strategy. Indeed, for some sites local search in particular could be more important than optimising for “traditional” SEO results.

It is being highlighted that in order to become an authority in the increasingly complex world of search, companies need to supplement traditional approaches to SEO, where campaigns are based on research around historic search trends, by undertaking pre-emptive optimisation. What do you think are major challenges for travel marketers at this stage when it comes to SEO and PPC?

Hannah Kimuyu – This is where PPC has more flexibility. Bidding on the traditional keywords (generic, product-specifics and brand terms) has to be part of the base strategy, however if budget and profitability permits, there’s always an opportunity to bid on ‘lifestyle’ or extended long-tail terms. For example,‘hotels in New York by Times Square with air conditioning’. These type of keywords normally generate smaller volumes but tend to be cheaper and have a higher conversion rate because of the specific nature. Seasonality is also a major part of travel strategy. Looking at historical trends is also crucial, for example bidding on ski holidays during the ski season is obvious, but what about the research phase. How many weeks, months even are consumers researching ski holidays before purchasing and is this outside of the season? Suggesting that an advance warm up strategy should be consideration as well.

It is being said that Google Places significant emphasis on looking for ‘authority sites’ that come up with a new phrase or keyword, and sophisticated digital marketers will be spending at least some of their time speculating over what the next big buzzwords will be in their sector. What do you think travel marketers need to focus on to optimise their resources and budgets?

Adam Bunn – There’s certainly some speculation on this, which seems to have been prompted by the discovery of a patent describing the analysis of where a commonly used term first appeared as one potential signal of authority. I’ve not seen any evidence that Google is placing significant emphasis on this, though. It’s not something I would recommend marketers should be worrying about when there are far more fundamental obstacles to natural search success for most sites.

It is also being mentioned that 2011 will be the year when integration of search into other forms of media – essentially attribution modeling programmes – will become far more mature and operational within the organisations and budgeting of most large advertisers. How do you expect this to shape up?

Adam Bunn – I’d certainly hope that 2011 is the year of proper attribution modeling, as accurate analysis of the results of any type of search marketing is impossible without it. This particularly applies to SEO because SEO often targets generic keywords that are quite early in most buying cycles, so if full path analysis isn’t in place SEO can seem less profitable than it really is. I’ve seen some evidence that marketers are beginning to grasp this but not enough, in my opinion, to justify the claim that 2011 will be “the year” in question.

Hannah Kimuyu – That said, Greenlight has already started to make its own advances here via tracking partner TagMan. Greenlight initially integrated TagMan data (client specific) to understand the relationship between paid and organic search, but have since expanded this into understanding the full user buying cycle. The data findings so far have confirmed our initial thoughts on that the user doesn’t have a preference between paid or natural search, when searching for products or services. In fact the cross interaction between the two mediums, suggests that users are just focusing on their ‘search phrases’, and then picking the most relevant brand to buy with. Furthermore as advertisers diversify their online strategies more, the conversation becomes bigger than just understanding the relationship between paid and organic search. Brands should be asking themselves – what is the relationship between all online channels? Do I have the right media mix? And is my strategy cost effective?

Even though Search Marketing is over 10 years old, most advertisers are still using the first or last click model. Meaning anything that happens in between is completely ignored. Having both full click and channel path data allows Greenlight to analyse the entire user search journey, from first click to conversion. Resulting in several things:

  1. De-duplication of data, no more over paying affiliate commissions.
  2. Introducing Attribution modelling, fairer way of awarding affiliate commissions and sales/revenue to contributing channels.
  3. The importance of each channel, specifically the role each channel plays within the buying cycle.
  4. Transparency of the full click/channel path, what are users doing, what search phrases are they using and what channels are they interacting with to find the most relevant product or service? Are there are patterns in how users search? Can we use this data to shape our online strategies?

Stage one is very much about discovery – understanding the data/making sense of it. It should be noted that this isn’t a quick process, and getting all the relevant people around the table to discuss and analyse the findings is critical. At this point it makes sense to apply a ‘version one attribution model’. To which again will need to be discussed and evaluated before making any further changes. Although this may sound like a time and resource heavy exercise, it is beneficial. Our integrated clients are seeing cost benefits in year one, and now have a transparent view of how their users interact between the channels before converting.

It is being pointed out that advertisers are planning to spend about 10-20% of their pay-per-click (PPC) budgets on Facebook next year. How do you view this projection?

Hannah Kimuyu – This is already the case, if not more. We’re actually seeing our clients investing up 30% of their overall investment into Facebook. It’s proving to be a worthwhile direct response channel and very complimentary to Google AdWords and its Display Network.

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