NB: This is a guest article by Oliver Brendon, founder and CEO of Attraction Tickets Direct.
The heady days of 2002, post-economic bubbles and 9/11, pre-Iraq war and the credit crunch. Seems a long time ago, especially in online travel and technology.
TripAdvisor was just a year or so old and still an independent company, Travelport didn’t exist in name, the early metasearch engines were still finding their feet, online travel agencies were seen as innovative, and mobile phones were mostly rather clunky and, say no more, WAP-enabled.
Fast forward ten years and, of course, evolution has made its mark across so many areas of online travel.
The bar on website design and functionality is set very high now, for example. Customers are used to viewing compact yet useful sites with simple yet powerful booking engines.
When I started Attraction Tickets Direct in 2002, we managed to trade profitably and grow for 18 months with a flat and very basic website and no booking engine. Today, to support and maintain our nine websites to a reasonable standard, we require an in-house web development team.
If I was starting today, Iâ€™d certainly need a lot more than the Â£10,000 investment I had in 2002. I would also build the site and do the development in cheaper yet highly skilled countries such as Argentina, Poland or Hungary.
The internet has permanently accelerated the pace of change. To keep up in 2012, you will need adequate web development resources and also the ability to choose where to invest. For example, mobile friendly sites are more important than apps for the vast majority of travel companies.
Youâ€™ll need patience now. In 2002, there were ten million active websites. Today, there over 200 million, so on a very basic level, itâ€™s 20 times more difficult to make an impact with an SEO campaign.
Donâ€™t expect offline activity to translate to traffic online. Ten years ago, an offline advertisement or piece of editorial would get the phone ringing. Today, the same offline exposure might lead to an increase in search for your brand over a period of time but the impact is much more difficult to measure and certainly not as immediate.
In 2002, it wasnâ€™t entirely clear how to achieve good SEO because there were three major search engines with roughly an equal share of the market: Yahoo, MSN (now Bing) and Google had about 30% market share each.
Although they all stipulated that they wanted the most relevant site to appear at the top of the natural rankings, it wasnâ€™t clear how to achieve this and there were ways that companies tried to trick the search engines such as duplicate copy and link farms.
In reality, it was difficult to sustain a campaign that was SEO-friendly and sustainable with all three search engines. Today, Google is wholly dominant with 85% market share (in the UK) and they tell you what to do. Do it.
Write unique, interesting content about what youâ€™re selling, become part of the online community for your particular product in order to generate valuable links and structure the site in a logical, user-friendly way.
The CPC for our major key phrases such as “Disney Tickets” and “Orlando Tickets” is about the same now as it was in 2002 and, if anything, the CPC has fallen slightly.
However, the overall cost of a PPC campaign is obviously much higher in 2012 compared to 2002 due to the increase in internet use and the increase in competition leading to a lower average conversion rate (ie. users are clicking on more ads before purchasing).
PPC is vitally important. Probably more so compared to 2002. You are in total control of your PPC campaign whereas SEO results can vary depending on competitor activity and changes in Google algorithms.
In 2002, all of the paid listings appeared on the right hand side of the page of Google and they were obviously paid-for ads. Today, the top three PPC listings are gently shaded and appear at the top of the page. I suspect most internet users do not know the difference between these listings and the naturally ranked sites.
Now, there is a very simple rule for PPC: if a phrase is profitable, carry on. If itâ€™s not, stop buying it.
Mobile was not a web phenomenon back then either. In 2012, about 25% of customers now access our sites from a mobile device and the growth will continue (70% of 16 â€“ 24 access the internet from a mobile device, for example). So, in short, build a site that can handle all types of devices.
User reviews are obviously now really important for improving CTR and SEO and also useful for understanding and improving your customer service. It seems logical to say so nowadays, but just invite customers to share their experiences from day one.
Of course, FacebookÂ didnâ€™t exist in 2002. It is now terrifyingly close to having one billion members – a figure in terms of countries Â only surpassed by India and China.
But, still, I would argue that you could start a successful travel website without a Facebook presence. Why?
- Customers still use search and, in particular, Google when they are ready to make a purchase.
- Developing a beneficial social media strategy that really engages customers is time consuming, expensive and difficult to execute well.
- Getting a lot of “likes” is not nearly as valuable as getting a lot of bookings and there isnâ€™t a direct link between the two. Far from it in fact.
- Travel websites tend to sell brands and destinations that have huge customer recognition. Let the brands and destinations build awareness on Facebook and focus on making sure that your site appears on Google when customers are searching and ready to buy.
Some things never change however.
- Phone calls will convert at a dramatically higher level to web traffic so encourage customers by having extended opening hours and a Freephone number.
- Customer service must be sincere and specialist knowledge needs to have integrity and those values must be obvious on your site and via your call centre.
- Supplier relationships are just as critical as theyâ€™ve always been. However good your site is, you need something to sell.
While some elements of selling tourism-related products will never alter over time (customer service, quality of product), what a difference ten years makes in online travel.
NB:Â This is a guest article by Oliver Brendon, founder and CEO ofÂ Attraction Tickets Direct.