Three years on from Google Panda, many travel sites struggle with traffic
Panda. Penguin. Hummingbird. The names conjure up images of harmlessly cute animals.
But many owners of small and medium-sized travel websites worldwide hate the sound of these animal names because they’re also Google’s monikers for its updates to its search algorithm. These updates changed the search result rankings, inflicting damage on these sites’ visitor numbers.
More than a dozen owners of these independent, consumer-facing, service-oriented travel websites have told Tnooz in email and phone interviews that they have lost between 20% and 70% of their traffic during the past three years. The drops coincided with Google’s search engine updates.
In one sense, this story is “old news.” The first Panda update was in February 2011; the first Penguin was in April 2012. Hummingbird came around September of this year.
But what’s been overlooked by the media is how several travel websites have never fully recovered from the algorithm updates. Many of these companies promote hotels, vacation rentals, plane tickets, or cruises. They depend significantly on search-engine referrals for customers, so their revenue is almost proportionally linked to any changes in traffic.
The traffic tap gets cut off
For some sites, the dropoff in visitors came slowly. Travellerspoint, for example, experienced gradual decline in traffic since the second version of Panda. Today, in early December, it is sitting at about 30% of the traffic it had back in the comparable period of December 2010, before the Google updates, according to managing partner Peter Daams.
Max Kraynov, managing director at Aviasales and JetRadar, says that Aviasales’ share of search traffic has been gradually sliding down over the past 1.5 years, with the share of Google search traffic falling probably 10% or so. He says it hasn’t been “a big deal” because search engine referrals are “not the biggest egg in the basket.”
Yet for Kraynov’s other property, JetRadar, the story has been more dire. After May-June 2013, the search engine optimization (SEO) channel of JetRadar was devastated by the Google changes. “We have all but surrendered, concentrating more on growth through affiliate marketing,” he says.
“Like many independent travel websites I know of, we saw a marked, sudden and unexplained traffic drop in 2013. There was no notification of what Google terms a “manual penalty,” so one assumes it was algorithmic.”
Another victim that saw traffic dry up quickly was Just the Flight, which saw its visibility in Google search results and traffic shrink by up to 80% in February 2011.
“Google’s ever increasing big brand bias has meant that organic traffic hasn’t yet returned to pre-Panda levels,” says Mark Byart, director of Internet at Online Regional Travel Group, which owns Just the Flight. He adds, though, that among the struggling independents, his company is one of the best performing.
“Being a small company with no marketing budget, Google was bringing over half of our traffic. With the Panda update, we effectively lost 60% of our traffic and our top 3 position for most flight related searches in Italy.”
“In the UK, we don’t even appear on the first page, never mind top 3, which is now dominated by the high-paying AdWords clients, i.e., the metasearch giants, and (mainly) low cost airlines. We had to rebuild our entire architecture. As the result, our referral traffic has been relatively steady since Q2 2011.”
A broad trend?
Google’s key and, arguably noble, goal, in updating the way it ranks results has been to remove spam and low-quality content from its index of sites. Yet one effect of these updates has been to upend the online marketing of several small and medium-sized travel sites.
The case for blaming Google’s updates is circumstantial, as the search giant won’t comment on individual cases. Still, the broad picture paints an anecdotal sense of havoc across the board.
Greenlight, a digital agency, ran some numbers for Tnooz to get a rough sense of trends in “the holiday sector”. It split companies into two groups: “big”, being defined as firms listed on a major stock exchange or with comparable turnover/profitability as those, and “small” as being everything else.
In 2010, 45% of the twenty most visible holiday websites in natural search on Google UK could be defined as small/independent consumer travel sites. By 2013, this had reduced to 35%.
In contrast, for paid search, there’s been no real change. In both 2010 and 2013, 60% of the most visible holiday sites in paid search were small firms.
Meanwhile, a tracking of Mozcast Daily Big 10 finds that bigger websites have taken an ever-increasing share of the top three positions in search engine result pages (SERPs) in the past year, based on Google US ranking data.
Implicit bias in favor of giant brands?
When it comes to keyword searches, anyone can run sample searches and make their own judgements. For many industry professionals, it’s obvious that the big brands are crowding out the smaller players.
“In most of our keyword searches the top 5 slots, which used to belong to small, local tour companies like us, are now occupied by high-spending distributors like Viator or travel Goliaths like TripAdvisor. They occupy the ad spaces at the top and on the side of the page, and as a result are awarded the top organic results, too.”
“It’s a very discouraging time for independent webmasters and bloggers. What Google says and what Google does are two different things. In no way are they favoring sites with quality content over those with shallow content. Companies that are spending lots of money on Adwords are showing up at the top of the rankings, even if the linked page has almost no helpful content on it.”
“Smaller sites are finding it harder to compete with the big sites on trophy keywords, such as [Paris hotels] and [Russia holidays]. As a result they are having to churn out more content to target the “long tail” keywords in their respective niches. This is clearly because Google is favouring bigger brands for these keywords.”
Some experts argue that there’s nothing new here. They say the law of jungle — and of Internet search — is that the stronger survive while the weak perish.
More specifically, Google’s rules of engagement mean that, on average, a more established site is more immune to the occasional bad link than a smaller site. The company’s system for ranking sites works logarithmically, not linearly, meaning that once sites achieve a high domain authority they have more leeway to either make mistakes or engage in the odd bit of dodgy behavior, say industry experts.
“I think small sites fail to recognize that they often lack enough “natural weather” (for lack of a better term) and so their aggressive promotion looks odd. If they go out and obtain 200 links saying “Paris Hotels” overnight — and they lack many other quality links predating these — that’s a potential red flag, sure.
If you were a large travel brand and did the same, regardless of that, you probably have a lot of other quality links pointing at you. So if Google did find a red flag, you’ve got enough other reputation to carry you through.”
Another expert who disagrees that Google’s updates exclusively favor the big brands is Simon Dance, global SEO director for HouseTrip.com. He is skeptical that the algorithm changes have significantly displaced smaller travel sites from driving qualified leads from search results for long-tail keywords.
“It really does depend. For example, for both hotel and holiday rental queries, such as “Berlin holiday apartments” we can see a Google Places 7 pack at the top of the results. Many of these links are to independent holiday rental companies (not big classified sites or large online bookable sites). This is a major lifeline for small to medium size companies with premises.”
Not everyone joins the chorus saying that Google has it out for the little guy.
Sean Keener, CEO at BootsnAll Travel Network and Airtreks, says:
“Big spending companies like TripAdvisor and Abercrombie and Kent are and should get preferential treatment in results from Google. Put yourself in Google’s shoes. What would you do if you were responsible for the Google profit-and-loss statement?”
“Niche, service-oriented properties that don’t have the backing of large media companies can still rise up if they develop a core audience, produce deep, specific, quality content, and find a distribution fit, though it is highly unlikely such a fit will be top page search results alone.”
“If smaller sites are saying that the big sites are using the same tactics they’re getting penalized for, then they should just be patient. Because black-hat SEO tactics aren’t going to work for anyone very soon. Google’s algo is getting way more sophisticated over time.”
To be sure, some of the traffic loss for small and medium-sized sites may have been “deserved,” in the sense that some of these sites were knowingly engaged in gimmicks that can boost a site’s search ranking without making it more useful, violating Google’s stated webmaster guideline.
Admitted one owner, “Some sites may have had a penalty coming cause they were doing dodgy thin affiliate pages, selling links, or solely using API data from some other source (and so bringing essentially nothing new to the table).”
Yet in its interviews, Tnooz was struck by the number of site owners who claim to obey Google’s rules of engagement and yet have still suffered, while they say that their larger competitors continue to use the same tactics and remain unscathed.
Says Bennett: “I get it. Google is a business. But, let’s not kid ourselves about organic results and the ability of a small company to connect with consumers looking for its services via search. Those days are over.”
Google’s “opaque ruleset”
Given the hundreds of factors at play in Google’s algorithm, it’s difficult to suss out which are the most important. This lack of transparency bothers some travel industry veterans.
“We have not experienced any particularly surprising developments from Google over the last year, although I think there is greater scope for Google to be more transparent on changes they do make.”
Burge and other industry professionals Tnooz spoke with argue that, without the search giant more clearly articulating what the rules of engagement are, the playing field may become increasingly tilted toward the companies that have the biggest budgets.
By this reasoning, only the wealthiest sites can afford to invest in the broadest variety of possible techniques to ensure that when people run Google searches for travel-related topics like “family friendly hotels in Paris”, their webpages rank high among the results — a “try-everything-and-see-what-works” approach.
Smaller travel sites may lack the financial wherewithal to invest in the responses necessary to keep pace with the larger brands. Bennett of Context Travel says:
“The night of the first Panda release we disappeared from Google. And, it took us several weeks and a lot of extra work to get back on. This was a big waste of time.”
Adds a proprietor of a small travel site, who wished to remain anonymous for commercial reasons, “I know they need to be somewhat circumspect with how they rank sites, but some form of feedback loop from Google would be a major step forward.”
Says McDonald of Travelfish:
“It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to expect some form of notification, like, ‘hey your sudden drop in traffic was due to Panda Mk 42’. At least then the site owner isn’t left wondering why a chunk of their readers stopped searching for brand terms overnight.”
[Gif courtesy Egyptian TV commercial, “Never say no to Panda.”]
Are SERPs becoming a tropical paradise for big brands?
Several travel site owners claimed that specific tactics that Google penalizes when committed by smaller sites are ignored when committed by sites that spend the most on Google’s AdWords paid advertising program.
Reportedly discouraged techniques, such as over-optimizing webpages with keyword-rich links to other internal pages that a site owner wants to rank higher, is allegedly overlooked when done by the large sites but punished when seen on the small ones.
At the most basic example, the site owners say you can look up nearly any “travel in ____” or “hotels in _____” to see paltry results.
But there are more specific examples.
One owner claims that Hotels.com generates hundreds of pages on the theme of New York hotels (like this, this, this, this, and this) that if created by a site with less authority would probably earn penalties.
Another example of allegedly dubious behavior by a big brand is this: A search for “London hotels” on Google.com has a first organic result for a Hotels.com page. On that page, check out that “explore the world” module on the right. “It’s totally irrelevant to the page and only there for SEO reasons,” according to one small competitor.
Similar complaints are made for searches for “Luxury travel in Bangkok?” and “Cheap hotels near Peoria?” and “5-star hotels in Manchester”, and the accusation is that these links are only there for Google’s spiders, or text and link scanners.
“And you can only imagine how many links Hotels.com has pointed to its London homepage that say ‘Hotels in London’,” says one proprietor, claiming that the same tactic would be penalized if performed by a smaller company.
TripAdvisor was another large brand that received criticism for its SEO tactics in Tnooz’s interviews. The user-generated review site was accused by one industry professional of practicing a tactic of posting a single review per page, such as is illustrated by links regarding one hotel in Miami. The owner complains that the same tactic would be penalized if was implemented by a small travel company.
Similarly, one competitor complains about TripAdvisor pages “get away with” linking practices that are “against Google’s webmaster guidelines.” Says one owner:
“See all the links on this page for London hotels. That’s bad form. These also link off to destinations for all over the world. They also link to pages that are generated simply to provide a landing page for exact match searches.
On the right you can see under “Explore other London resources”— you’ll find links to “Discount hotels London,” “Budget hotels London,” and “Affordable hotels in London”. There isn’t much of a difference between those pages, is there?”
How can smaller players respond?
Some small-and medium-sized travel companies may go ahead and assume that Google’s updates aren’t in their best interests. If they do, they then have to decide what steps they’ll take to respond.
“Most bloggers get about 80-90% (or more) of their traffic from Google. I get about 20-25% of mine from Google. I’ve made a conscious decision to Google-proof myself and to get off the hamster wheel. [Through my experiments, I learned that] the game is rigged. Big sites will always have an advantage and they have far more resources. Putting time into SEO is sort of a sucker’s game.”
A recurring theme from the industry experts that Tnooz spoke with was that companies should invest in social media efforts, as well as to perfect apps for mobile.
“Google has made a number of plays to reward this type of activity, not only with the opportunity to increase SERP CTR (click through rates) when correctly using Google+ Authorship, but also with what Google+, the social network, represents, namely, a verified web.”
Says Keener from BootsnAll, “I know many small operators still crying over the spilled milk of Google search results changing. Clean up the ‘milk’, innovate, and start figuring out ways to connect with customers directly (Social?) instead of relying on search engine referrals.”
Borden, at Matador Network, has found social media to help:
“At Matador, we have invested time in creating content that will be shared heavily on social media. Our site will be seen as an authority on the subject because of that social activity, and our rankings will rise. This is working. One of our a sponsored content pieces from four years ago still ranks at the top of organic searches for “Montana backpacking“.”
“One thing Google can easily measure is the number of brand related searches in their engine, besides analysing link profiles. Established brands are heavily investing in creating likeable content, to keep up with the competition and make sure that they differentiate within their markets. Overall, that is something I don’t see happening with the websites that have lower budgets.”
One example of this strategy working is Just the Flight. Post-Panda changes to that site’s architecture, such as cutting webpage “bloat”, has helped to reverse much of the damage, with conversion rates and visibility in organic search steadily improved after a shift in focus towards content and inbound marketing. Says Byart, by e-mail:
But not everyone’s buying the social marketing line.
Says Leffel: “The wealthiest brands are also able to juice their “social signals” by buying likes and buying promoted posts on Facebook and Twitter. And they can run huge expensive contests to get more likes and comments.”
Regardless the effect or intent of Google’s algorithms, one thing is certain: Living by search engine traffic can be a dangerous game.
Says Keener: “The Great God Google giveth, and taketh away!”
Sean O’Neill is Editor-in-Chief of Tnooz.
Before joining us, Sean was the future of travel columnist at BBC Travel, senior editor of BudgetTravel.com, and an associate editor at Kiplinger’s. He now lives in New Jersey, after a four-year stint in London. Follow him on Twitter.