Cautionary tale: When an online travel agency falls foul of the new Google

NB: This is a guest article by Matthew Barker is managing partner of Hit Riddle, a marketing agency specialising travel search and content.

How long could your business survive if you lost 80% of your customers tomorrow?

For a growing number of companies that isn’t a hypothetical question. It’s an urgent, unanticipated crisis that can leave a previously stable business facing bankruptcy.

And it can happen to any firm that relies on search engines for their business; including hotels, bookings sites, tour operators and travel agencies.

I’ve spent the past seven weeks working with a modest and hardworking online travel agency, helping them claw their business back after being surprised by a “ranking penalty” from Google.

In a nutshell, Google employs a small army of engineers whose job it is to monitor the web and flag any sites that contravene their Quality Guidelines. If these sites are found to violate the rules, they can be penalised with removal from the search results.

Google still controls over 80% of the online search market, which means if you depend on search traffic for your business, as many travel firms do, a penalty can mean the overnight loss of four fifths of traffic, and new customers.

The world’s favourite search engine has been leading the fight against spam for years, and has introduced countless changes to the way pages are indexed and ranked, making great progress in weeding out junk pages, sites that have manipulated their way to the top, and other results that we generally don’t want to see when we search the web.

But in recent months, I have heard of a growing number of other sites getting blacklisted. The difference is that these sites are often a far cry from your typical spam culprit. They are genuine online businesses, typically small e-commerce firms who have been online for years, doing the same thing they have always done, only to fall victim to a much more aggressive application of the rules.

So what’s going on?

Well, Google has made no secret of its relentless series of system updates in the name of “quality”, and most website owners will have heard of the recent changes, nicknamed “Panda”.

Officially these and the hundreds of other algorithm changes that Google makes each year are intended to continually improve the relevance of its results, combat spam and generally improve the Google experience.

Unofficially, the webmaster community is alive with talk that a more cynical process is in play. As search expert Aaron Wall from SEOBook recently told me:

“The frequently claimed intent for the update is to ‘improve quality’ but if you look at the aggregate winners from the Panda update they tended to be a few larger brands and Google verticals (like Google product search, Google Places and YouTube).

The way I see it is that as Google increasingly hosts more content and tries to push further down the value chain, they wanted to remove other forms of duplication from the ecosystem.”

Whether or not you share Aaron’s scepticism, the long term prospect should be unnerving for any online travel business. Recent announcements about Google’s move into flight booking, hotel reservations and now tours and experiences make it clear that there’s a new rival on the scene – a rival with almost unlimited resources that is able to change the rules of the game at will to support its own business objectives.

If you do get hit, there is very little assistance offered to identify the problem and get you back on track. The first think you will notice is that your phones have gone silent. If you have a Google Webmaster Tools account, you will receive a short message there (but no email) that you have been penalised, with a link to a short, generic information page.

And that’s it. You will not be told exactly what you have done wrong, you will not be given any way of contacting an engineer and you will not be told what you should do to fix the situation.

The onus is now on you to identify and rectify the problem, and then go through a lengthy “reconsideration” process which may or may not result in the penalty being lifted. If it isn’t, you won’t be told why.

So with that in mind, what should online travel businesses do to mitigate the risk?

On a basic level it’s about the viability of your business model. If you rely on search traffic then you are overwhelmingly dependent on a single source of new business.

That is a fundamentally unsustainable position to be in and you should be taking steps to wean yourself away from Google dependency. You should also actively monitor your standing in Google’s eyes to make sure you’re not sleepwalking towards disaster.

  • Read, re-read, and read again Google’s Quality Guidelines. Heed every line and don’t attempt to trick your way around anything. Assume that Google is smarter than all of us and that it will catch you out if you break the rules; deliberately or not. No leniency is shown for accidental mistakes, or the defence that you’ve “always been doing it that way.”
  • Follow the latest guidelines on content quality. In essence this means avoiding all duplication of any content throughout your site(s). To be successful a site now needs to continually publish new content, all of which must be original, unique and detailed. Sites with predominantly duplicated, scraped, or low-value generic content are firmly within the Google crosshairs. What used to be valid reasons for duplicating content (the same tour on two different sites for example, or the same city introduction on different hotel pages) are no longer safe.
  • Consider spreading the risk by diversifying across multiple sites. But be careful: if Google thinks you are using multiple domains to game the system, they will all be banned. Only use unique, high quality content on each domain. Do not attempt to use links between your own domains to improve your rankings.
  • Work on expanding alternative sources of business; social media, PPC, advertising and email marketing should all be part of your online marketing mix.
  • Pay more attention than you currently do to Microsoft’s Bing, Google’s small but growing rival with a potentially rewarding partnership with Facebook. Bing also provides a host of tools and guidelines for webmasters who want to improve their site’s performance on their search engine.
  • Hope for the best but plan for the worst: have a contingency plan in place should you get burned. Specifically, make sure you have an expert on hand who can help and that you have enough capital reserve to resort to PPC traffic should your search traffic disappear.

NB: This is a guest article by Matthew Barker is managing partner of Hit Riddle, a marketing agency specialising travel search and content.

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Viewpoints

About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of his employer, tnooz, its writers, or partners.

 

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  1. Passport Stamps

    This is quite scary

     
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    […] do to Microsoft's Bing, Google's small but growing rival with a … Read more on Tnooz Amazon.com WidgetsRelated Posts:Latest Ppc Advertising NewsLatest Ppc Advertising NewsLatest Ppc […]

     
  3. Stuart

    @Matthew think no problem suddenly decided to enforce existing rules, but do agree moving into sectors (notjust travel)is concerning it’s a core mission change when “organizing the world’s information” involves putting yr own in-house results at top…even if for the benefit if the end user.

     
  4. Stuart

    @sam yes you should assume this is the thin end of the wedge and that eventually all will go this way. Read somewhere if you swittch to https across site then you get the referers …

     
  5. Stuart

    While I love a good conspiracy, especially one involving Google, not sure I buy the “google isnpenalising competitors to float it’s in-house stuff” argument. Google doesn’t have to penalize anyone – they just put their stuff on top. Re Panda, I’m yet to see an example of a travel site that was heavily hit, say 50% down, that didn’t have at least some of the hit coming to them. I’m a bit rusty on doorway pages but aren’t just polite terminology for a MFA site?

     
    • Matthew Barker

      I’m not sure a conspiracy is taking place, but it’s undeniable that Google is targeting webmasters with a new level of aggression, while simultaneously entering a great many new markets. Whether or not those two processes are related is irrelevant – site owners still need to be prepared for new pressure on their main source of search traffic.

       
  6. Paul Walsh

    This isn’t just a problem for people who find they’re losing 80% of their business. Losing 20% can be devastating and much more difficult to diagnose. I’d say (but then I would) that effective call tracking can help businesses discover this kind of problem much more quickly. If you can link each call to the search term that generated it, then when there are drops in any of those it should be easier to tell where the problems are.

    Paul Walsh, Founder of Infinity Tracking

     
    • Sam Daams

      As soon as Google rolls out the new “you can’t see the search terms anymore for privacy reasons” stance to all Google searchers (not just those that are logged in like now), it will be the end of that too, no?

      When that change does come around, it’s going to have an absolutely insane effect on the travel industry!

       
  7. Mark Hodson

    Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for a really interesting post. However, I take issue with this line:

    “To be successful a site now needs to continually publish new content, all of which must be original, unique and detailed”

    It’s echoed in Kevin’s comment: “And if you plan to rely on SEO as a major driver of traffic, good luck. To do so requires a huge ongoing commitment to building tons of quality, original content.”

    I don’t argue with the need for quality and originality, but I think it’s more profitable to focus on creating “evergreen” content that addresses the needs of your particular visitors, and promoting that content on and off the site, rather than creating an unending stream of content for its own sake, which by its very nature is likely to be low quality.

     
    • Matthew Barker

      Hi Mark, I agree with you entirely. This is the new challenge for successful online marketing: creating content that is worth its space on a webpage, rather than content for the sake of content. We’re still at the beginning of a convergence between “search” and “social” and as these two things become more closely integrated, the true value of your online content, the way it is used, connected to, shared etc, will be the main driver of your traffic, leads & ROI. For that to work you *must* have top quality content that visitors will appreciate.

       
  8. Molly

    Excellent post and great suggestions for moving off of ‘Google dependency’ to other sources of Web traffic (I am focusing big on BING as a backup).

     
  9. Kevin Fliess

    Great article. The only thing worse then seeing 80% of your traffic vanish overnight is not know WHY. As the article attests, don’t expect an answer back from Google on your penalty. As the publisher, you are left to scrutinize everything you’ve done. And oftentimes you may inadvertently make a terrible situation worse by “guessing” at the problem and “fixing” something else. When I was running TravelMuse we got hit with a penalty that reduced traffic to our hotel profile pages by 99% overnight – without any warning. We never determined what the problem was and the traffic never returned to pre-penalty levels.

    I was shocked because we deliberately avoided any kind of funny stuff — aka black hat or gray hat SEO. And while we did pull in some third party content, which is still the norm in online travel, we had troves of original editorial content, a blog, and trip plans submitted by users.

    The lesson for me was clear. SEO is a fool’s bet in online travel (Unless you’re TripAdvisor and have 10 years of accrued PageRank and millions of unique pieces of content – but even TA is getting pushed below the fold by the injection of Google Places / Local / Maps / Travel results above the fold).

    As a travel start-up / small brand the best advice I can offer is this: make sure you don’t penalize yourself. Have an SEO expert review your site architecture to ensure you are following best practices.
    And if you plan to rely on SEO as a major driver of traffic, good luck. To do so requires a huge ongoing commitment to building tons of quality, original content.

    I think most start-ups are better served building a product/service that people love and growing through word of mouth and viral channels. The conversion rate on direct traffic will be higher and you’ll sleep better at night, knowing you’re not betting the farm on that company that shall not be named in Mountain View.

     
    • Jim Kovarik

      This sounds like good advice – to put your main focus on building products/services that people love. Its still critical to understand SEO and how it relates to site architecture (especially for startups that can’t afford to buy traffic), but tactics designed to game the system not only are risky but also likely results in poor user experiences.

      As a user I applaud what Google is attempting to do here as there’s been way to much search spam appearing in their results lately. No surprise they’re attacking it aggressively as its their core business and responsible for, what, 95% of their business? I’d like to think their sole intent here is to just make their search product better which we’d all benefit from.

       
  10. Matthew Barker

    Sam – yep the site is now back on track after a lot of blood, sweat & tears and numerous re-inclusion requests.

    Hotelmarketing – there are certainly ways of structuring sites that duplicate content becomes less of a risk and it is often the case that there are valid reasons for repeating content through a domain or several domains. Google gives us tools to do that legitimately, such as the awfully named “cross domain
    canonical link tag”, but my advice is to err on the side of caution and avoid duplication wherever possible.

     
    • Sam Daams

      Actually, I just noticed you mentioned getting a message in Webmaster Tools about being penalized, so guess this had nothing to do with Panda, but was one of the more old school penalties. At least those are relatively straightforward to diagnose; Panda seems to be a totally different beast that very few, if any, have recovered from. Glad you managed to work things out; full recovery?

       
      • Matthew Barker

        We didn’t originally suspect any connection to Panda, and I still don’t think it was a strictly Panda-related issue, even though it was definitely content related. The actual notice given was about Doorway Pages, of which we had zero in the traditional sense. See Aaron Wall’s excellent article on the new interpretation of Doorway Pages and what might be going on at Google here: http://www.seobook.com/redefining-doorway-pages.

        I think the wider question is one of a new level of aggression from Google in leaning on webmasters for stuff that has always been entirely acceptable. As a few people have pointed out, that could be to do with forcing people towards Adsense or it could be to do with Google’s entry into a lot of new marketplaces – including travel.

         
  11. Sam Daams

    Has the site recovered? I haven’t seen many tales of sites recovering from panda…

     
  12. hotelmarketing@facebook.com

    though duplicate content might get punished if it is too omni-present, i have run sites that are using solely duplicate content and still rank in different countries alexa top 10.000 – i would say that you just have to look carefully at how you present that content…

     
  13. Larry Smith

    FWIW, you can often find a warm body at Google via:
    http://www.jigsaw.com/id215043/google_inc_company.xhtml?
    http://twitter.com/#!/who_to_follow/search/google

    The reverse is also true that if you and your customers start tweeting & posting “google killed my site listing for no reason” someone will often reach out to you once the volume or Klout is big enough.

     
  14. Jeremy Head

    At the risk of being even more cynical… the only way to get that traffic back as you try and work out what you did wrong…. is to spend a truck load on paid ads instead. And guess who makes a stack of cash out of your problem as a result… Google.

     
 
 

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