The future of search marketing for the travel industry

NB: This is a guest article by Matthew Barker, managing partner at HitRiddle.

Anyone who runs an online travel business will already be well aware of the frenetic pace of change in the world of search marketing.

Over the past couple of years we’ve been subjected to a relentless barrage of major algorithm updates and technological changes in the way that search engines organise and prioritise our websites in their results pages.

Plenty has already been said about Google’s Panda updates, the integration of social media tools into the wider online ecosystem, and the introduction of social search with Google+ and the Facebook-Bing alliance.

It is fairly clear what each of these things mean to online marketers, and how we need to adapt to accommodate them.

What is less talked about is the bigger picture stuff; what all these things mean when taken together, and what that says about the future of search marketing as a whole.

When we consider all these changes together and view them as all part of a single process it is immediately apparent that a paradigm shift is taking place right now in the fundamentals of how search marketing works.

This change presents real and direct risks to many online travel businesses, while also offering great opportunities to those who are flexible and able to adapt.

The paradigm shift in question is the gradual but unstoppable move towards the concept of content performance as the major signal of websites’ relevance and authority.

Whereas the search engines of the past relied on various quantitative signals to estimate a site’s value to the user (inbound links, basic content volume, on-site SEO methods, etc), the search engines of the very near future will be making qualitative assessments of the quality and usefulness of content, and will use that subjective value judgment to determine the rankings and exposure of each website.

Their logic is irrefutable: SEO is a fundamentally spammable art. You can buy links, publish junk content and give a website the pretence of being authoritative and valuable.

But search engines and their users don’t want pretenders to be ranking in the top ten results. They want to see genuinely useful, respectable and authoritative websites, and by rewarding sites with high content performance, that is what they will get.

How? Well it’s actually easier than it sounds, especially for the army of geniuses who are working on this stuff in Silicon Valley.

Search engine technology is now sufficiently advanced that the major engines can monitor what happens when visitors arrive on a website, what they do when they’re there and how they interact with the content.

They do this by looking at:

  • The percentage of visitors that leave without visiting any more pages (high bounce rate)
  • The average time spent on site
  • The number of pages visited per session
  • If users manually block the site from their search results
  • The volume and frequency of interactions via social media

That last point is especially important, as is the understanding that we’re talking about social media as a contributing factor to the search channel, not social media in its own right.

Personalised search, recently introduced to great fanfare by Google’s “Search Plus Your World“, means that social interactions with content will have a direct impact on web rankings in the search results.

Put simply, if content is generating “buzz” in the form of comments, likes, shares +1’s, tweets, etc, it will not only increase its exposure on local social platforms, but also in the universal search results, which have begun to factor the behaviour of our friends and networks into the results that are displayed when we search.

And this is massively important. Traffic sent via Facebook to the typical travel website tends to convert into leads at a very low rate.

But traffic sent by organic search results on Bing or Google tends to convert very well. Personalised, social-inspired search is the future, and it all revolves around high content performance.

So, the successful travel website of the future is one that is packed with useful, informative, entertaining and valuable content; content that is so extraordinarily good that it can generate the positive content performance signals that search engines are looking for.

That means we urgently need to recast the way we think about travel websites. They should no longer be seen as a “store front” or an online brochure, solely concerned with promoting and selling travel products. Instead they must be converted into entire libraries of resources that can inspire and engage travellers and potential clients.

The possibilities are almost endless, and are limited only by imagination and budget:

  • first person travel blogs
  • destination news and travel recommendations
  • detailed downloadable travel guides
  • interactive destination maps
  • image galleries
  • museum opening hours
  • restaurant reviews
  • photography guides

We’re all experts in our own travel destinations and the world is full of travellers who need that information. The key is in identifying the audience and giving them what they want and need.

But the most important thing to recognize is that OK content is no longer OK. In order to inspire the kind of reactions that social-search engines are looking for, content must become extraordinarily good. And that’s no easy task.

It is for that reason that online travel businesses must now start to think very carefully about how they will invest their marketing budgets in the future.

Search marketing strategies that rely on link building at the expense of content development are doomed to fail, leaving firms with the prospect of relying on expensive PPC traffic to maintain traffic and leads.

But for a fraction of the cost of most PPC budgets it is possible to create a full and comprehensive content development strategy that can put travel websites on a firm footing for the coming era of content performance.

NB: This is a guest article by Matthew Barker, managing partner at HitRiddle.

NB2: This is an abstract from a HitRiddle eBook – Content Is Not King – A New Paradigm For Search Marketing in the Travel Industry – which can be downloaded for free.

NB3: Travel keyboard image via Shutterstock.

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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 those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.



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  1. Dave from A Couple Travelers

    I don’t really see how social media is any less susceptible to spamming etc than link backs. Imagine an entire company that sold tweets, likes, etc via their client base. It’s not any different than buying back links – we just haven’t gotten there yet.

  2. The future of search marketing for the travel industry | Whistler Home Owner's News Blog

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  3. Lucy Thorpe

    In answer to the questions ” How does one transform a business into being a publisher rather than an online shop?”
    You involve someone who has worked in the media and knows how to write interesting content together with compelling headlines and fantastic images. Once you have one of these you start a blog.
    I have been doing this for travel websites for a couple of years. It really does make sense.

    • DJ

      Hi Lucy
      Yes that is a great start, however usually a blog is a bolt on to whatever is the existing offering, it doesn’t change the core offering. So, how do you really transform the existing offering?

  4. Heather Bayer

    It my be ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ but is a glaring omission in so many vacation rental web sites – lots of listings but little or no content to support this as a viable accommodation alternative. Aside from the technical stuff, this has fired me up to tackle the content issue on our own site. Good information – thank you.

  5. Robert Gilmour

    Why is there so much consternation about this? Google Analytics is free (as is web,master tools), has been developed well over the years, is a great comparison benchmarking tool, and doesn’t profess to be absolutely accurate.

    We can talk about this till the cows come home and this will achieve nothing (unless you can influence Google)

    And – Google doesn’t measure frequency of Facebook interactions with a brand – Facebook being a MILLION times more important than G+ to most travel brands.Just a slight exaggeration here, there is no empirical evidence of this whatsoever in the UK at any rate.

    • DJ

      So Robert, if one of your clients wants to know about outbound social media as a way of getting messages out to customers, you’ll be advising them to allocate resource to G+ *before* Facebook?

      • Robert Gilmour

        Thats not what i said!

        • DJ

          I have no study to calculate the “MILLION” however if I put “a whole damn lot” more important, would that make a difference to you. It’s the same point.

  6. eezeer

    Very interesting article but this part has been going on for ages!

    “They do this by looking at:

    The percentage of visitors that leave without visiting any more pages (high bounce rate)
    The average time spent on site
    The number of pages visited per session
    If users manually block the site from their search results”

    • Matthew Barker

      Sure, these things have always been important. The point is that Panda and now personalised social-search represent a step change in their importance, while other signals such as inbound linking are in gradual decline. From what I see, many(/most) online travel businesses aren’t properly prepared for this.

  7. DJ

    I am not arguing particularly with the outcome, just that some of your “facts” are not correct, or poorly explained.

    1. Google cannot detect bounce rate – it can detect a relatively fast return to a search results page, given that the user stays in the same window. What if someone opens a new tab?

    2. Webmaster tools simply detects a site’s visibility in search, and # of 404s from search crawlers, not anything about time on site. Adwords tracking *could* measure time between a paid search click and a conversion – only for users who convert. Knows nothing about the pages in between. Hardly an all-seeing ey,.

    3. Google doesn’t measure frequency of Facebook interactions with a brand – Facebook being a MILLION times more important than G+ to most travel brands.

    4. I would argue that content development is far more expensive, less measurable and significantly more risky than putting money into PPC. This is why most companies don’t do it.

    To the conclusion of the article, “investing in content” is so bleedin’ obvious as to be completely unhelpful. We’re beyond that. We need to know how to do it.

    So, to go further:
    1. How should businesses decide what content and formats to invest in?
    2. How should content be integrated into existing offerings, business processes and systems?
    3. How can they audit and evaluate what is “high performing content” versus what is customer obfuscating nonsense?
    4. What resources and skillsets are needed to develop – and more importantly maintain and govern – this “high performing content”. How does one transform a business to being a publisher rather than an online shop? How can you measure success with this strategy?
    5. How does one measure the performance of content if it is not linked to a business outcome – ie a lead or sale?

    These are the questions I would like to see answered from an article that is talking about content as a driver for product findability and inspiration in “future travel marketing”.

    • Matthew Barker

      These are all important questions, although way beyond the scope and intent of the article which was simply to explain that content performance can (and will increasingly) impact search engine visibility.

      You might think that this is all “stating the bleeding obvious” but I work with and talk to plenty of travel businesses who simply aren’t aware of this stuff and are at risk thanks to an over-reliance on outdated approaches to SEO and content development.

      Finally, given my point is basically that content performance = SEO, this is all patently measurable as part of the search channel.

      Thanks for reading the article and for your feedback, Matt.

  8. Geert-Jan Brits

    @DJ: You’re right, they can’t, which makes choosing to use GA a strategic decision.

    Good measures? do use it. Below par? Look for alternatives.

  9. DJ

    I’d like to challenge a few of the facts presented in this article.

    Can you explain how search engines track:

    The percentage of visitors that leave without visiting any more pages (high bounce rate)
    The average time spent on site
    The number of pages visited per session
    The volume and frequency of interactions via social media

    – if the site does not use Google Analytics, and the user is not logged into Google?

    Unless I am very much mistaken, search engines *cannot* collect this data *on sites other than their own*. Bearing in mind only G employees actually use G+, these almost invalidates all of the points made and rather casts a shadow over the whole article?


    • Matthew Barker

      Actually you’re almost correct in one respect: (officially at least) none of the data collected in Google Analytics impacts an individual site’s search rankings (

      However, the data collected in Google Webmaster Tools data is another question entirely. It is also supposed that Google uses data collected from Chrome users, Adsense cookies, the Google Toolbar, etc. Sometimes these are even publicly acknowledged to have contributed to algorithm and rankings adjustments (see Google Panda & sites blocked through Google Toolbar)

      There are much lower tech methods too: they know when a user returns to the search results soon after visiting a site (bounce rate) and they know when sites are manually blocked from the results.

      These, among other factors, were what allowed Google Panda to demote all those sites based on their poor content performance.

      I think the SEs ability to monitor the volume and frequency of social interactions is readily obvious, given that they’re already so heavily integrated into search and that personalised social-search results are clearly here to stay.

      And even if all the above wasn’t true, the overall thrust of the article, that an investment in high performing content is crucial for success in social/search as well as the overall performance of a website, is surely beyond refute?

    • Nick Marshall

      I would imagine that search engines gather this data because most site visits are the result of a search and so the search engine “tags” along for the ride and gathers the data as it tracks the searcher’s site visit.

  10. Robert Gilmour

    Search has made an astonishing, unrivalled contribution to travel and is not going away anytime soon, .I often think a pot shot at search is really like having a pot shot at Google, why are so many people so obsessed with this given the amazing contribution Google has also made to travel.

    There is not a system in the world that isn’t abused by some. that also isn’t going away anytime soon!


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