The travel industry is one of the most competitive verticals globally, with a very low barrier to entry for a number of services and consumers actively searching for and visiting multiple sites to research their ideal holiday.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the biggest brands in the travel industry, ranging from airlines and global travel aggregators, to boutique luxury specialists, ski chalets, and airport transfer companies.
Because of this, I can safely say that ranking on page one in the travel sector is no longer a game of ranking 1 to 10, it’s about providing value in Google’s world of SERP diversification, special content result blocks, and own products.
Because of this, it’s impossible to package deal SEO, sell it by tokens, or sell it by keyword color difficulties. Every travel SEO campaign is unique and is about applying best practices in a way that suits the business and helps it meet its objectives.
I’ve put together this series of guides based on my experiences consulting with travel companies – ranging in specialism and business size, including case studies of what to do – and what not to do.
Who is this guide for?
This guide is designed for small and medium-sized travel and tourism businesses, to gain a foothold in the digital marketing world themselves, without needing to engage in “cheap” SEO and black hat tactics, that could damage their business in the longer term.
By taking this knowledge and skillset in-house, by the time the business has grown to engage with base-level consultancies, you will be able to make a more informed decision around what they’re offering, and who is just there to take the money.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Keyword Research for Travel Companies
Chapter 2: Content for travel companies
Chapter 3: Building a Travel Brand Online
Chapter 4: Measuring Success & Benchmarking
The travel industry is one of the most competitive verticals to work in. This is down to two main factors:
- The consumer drive of increased wealth and exposure to new cultures/and experiences.
- The relatively low barriers to entry of the market (obviously getting ATOL and ABTA accredited has some barriers, but generally anyone can set-up a travel affiliate for example).
The travel industry is home to a large number of different business models, including airlines, tour operators, travel agencies and brokers, and affiliates.
Organic search is an important channel for travel sites, especially for smaller businesses where paid search is expensive, and not always feasible, alternative.
In terms of the UK travel market, data suggests that combined travel agency and tour operator turnover in the UK is worth more than $30bn, with more than 70,000 operators in the market.
So how do you set yourself apart from the competition?
You need to make sure your website and brand is working harder for you than your competitor’s website and brand are working for them.
You do this by combining the four elements necessary for strong SEO. These core elements being Technical, Content, User Experience, and traditional travel marketing/PR activities.
You can read more about my SEO tetrahedron model here.
This guide intends to help you progress those four elements of your website, and be more competitive as a travel business.
Chapter 1: Keyword Research for Travel Companies
Understanding your target users and the ways they search for various travel products and services is always the base of your travel keyword research – it’s about finding relevant keywords, with the right search intents and not about focusing on search volume.
Keyword research can also play a part in revealing needed site elements, such as resource guides, video content, or in some cases justify the need for a travel blog and non-commercial content.
A lot of people only consider keyword research to be important for SEO purposes. But, thorough keyword research can also help identify gaps in your user journey.
It’s not just about updating your title tag and the text on your site (whilst these are important), it’s much more valuable on that for wider business insights too.
In the travel sector, this activity might reveal that more people are searching for budget hotels rather than a luxury boutique, or in the case of the Czech Republic, that people haven’t taken them up on their rebrand to Czechia.
In this chapter I’m going to talk about:
- How to approach keyword research as a travel company
- Understanding the different user intents behind keywords and how they play a part in your sales funnel
- Why “long tail v short tail” keywords is not a real thing
- How to create content to match commercial intent queries
- How to create content to match research/discovery-based queries
- Understanding the difference between seasonal/transient travel content, and evergreen content – and why they’re both important
How to approach keyword research for travel companies
From working with 50+ travel companies over the years, a common error is focusing on a small sub-set of keywords that you want to rank for, and seeing those as being the be-all and end-all, and not ranking for those is the end of the world.
To an extent, this can be true, but it’s important to take into account that in order to rank for one term, you might need to be relevant for a number of other travel search queries — so you’re attracting many different visitors at different stages of their journey.
Keyword Research is about finding all the search queries and phrases, grouping these into categories, and then mapping them against your website.
Categories can be anything ranging from the products themselves to business priorities, for example, if your travel company offers tours of Rome, a sample of your keyword research and categorization could be:
|Search Phrase||Potential Categories / Tags|
|rome tours||objective | research phase|
|colosseum walking tours||colosseum | business priority | walking tours | tours | commercial|
|vatican city tours 2019||vatican | business priority| tours | 2019 | commercial|
By categorizing a single phrase as much as you can now, later down the line you can produce reports and measure progress either as a whole — or drill down into more granular detail a lot more easily. This is why the example “colosseum walking tours” is tagged both as a walking tour, and as tour.
“rome tours” has been tagged as an objective rather than a business priority, this is because “rome tours” will be (and is) a hyper-competitive term, and whilst ranking for it would be fantastic, it’s not the only search phrase that will drive leads to your company, that’s why it’s an objective to rank for the term and not a business priority.
You can also read my post looking at keyword research for hotels.
Time to stop the long tail v short tail nonsense
This is one of my biggest “bugbears” in SEO and keyword research, especially when it comes to the travel sector and this is the notion of short tail v long tail.
The theory goes that a long tail keyword (which is basically a long string of words) is easier to rank for than a short tail keyword, and ranking for a collection of long-tail keywords is fine as the lower search volumes “all add up”.
If you read this anywhere or see travel SEO specialists talking about long tail, move on from them – they don’t know what they’re talking about.
The notion of long tail is false, because:
- Search volumes are often lower on long tail, as the search volume data Google gives us is not total searches – it’s the average number of searches performed (within a month) in which a paid Google ad appears. So the more obscure the query, the less the “search volume”.
- 70% of all searches performed are long tail, so this isn’t some big secret and they’re likely just as competitive within your niche as the “short tail”.
Naturally, you want to rank for the big keywords, and being drawn to the high search volumes is fine – but it’s understanding the value that they have to your business, and where in your journey you are.
From experience, it’s also nigh on impossible to rank for a query like “rome tours” if you’re not relevant for all the associated search terms as well – as you’re not offering much user value.
This is why it’s important to keep the big marquee phrases in mind but focus on those relevant to your business (and your business size).
That being said, in some verticals, this is easier than others – depending on your niche and who your competitors are.
Understanding travel keywords and different user intents
In 2006, a study conducted by the University of Hong Kong found that at a primary level, search intent can be segmented into two search goals.
That a user is specifically looking to find information relating to the keyword(s) they have used, or that they are looking for more general information about a topic.
A further generalization can be made, and intentions can be split into how specific the searcher is, and how exhaustive the searcher is.
Specific users have a narrow search intent and don’t deviate from this, whereas an exhaustive user may have a wider scope around a specific topic or topics. Search queries can also have multiple meanings, and can generally be classified into three types:
- That the query has a single dominant interpretation
- That the query has a number of common interpretations
- That the query has some minor interpretations
- That the query possesses all of the above
Queries can then also be classified further as Do, Know, and Go.
- Do – transactional queries
- Know – informational queries
- Go – navigational queries
This then goes back to a statement I made earlier, that it’s not longer about ranking one to ten on the first page of Google anymore. As Google has gotten better at understanding the meaning behind keywords, it understands there can be multiple intents.
This is why Google actively practices “SERP diversification”, and uses data to rank a number of results to cater various intents, so you need to work out what is ranking for the query, and were you fit into this.
As a result, page one is not a linear one to ten, and can’t be achieved through just technical, content and backlinks alone – you need to factor in intent as part of your core strategy.
- How Travel Companies Can Adopt Micro-Moments for Better Content
- How People Search: Understanding User Intent
How to map search targets to your content (and site architecture)
I’ve worked with more than 80 travel companies, ranging from big international household names listed on the NASDAQ, to smaller outfits based all around the world.
One thing they all have had in common, at some point they had been given crappy SEO advice around content, and as a result, generated a ton of individual landing pages.
There is a process that travellers go through before they purchase a holiday, a funnel of sorts. Now the time that it takes for the would be traveller to pass through the funnel varies, and some don’t complete it at all, but from experience it goes like.
Research & Discovery Content
This phase is where people are literally looking around on Pinterest, Instagram and performing searches like “where is sunny in September in Europe”, or “cheap European city breaks winter 2020”. They will be bouncing around a lot of websites and destinations.
Your content at this point needs to provide value to the user and not immediately try and sell. The more value you provide at this stage the more you will be seen as an authority for that particular query, and the more likely you will be referred back to further down the funnel.
Planning & Scoping
This is the stage before the would be traveller makes the purchase.
They’re no longer looking for the high resolution images and sales patter, they want the cold hard facts.
- How much does it cost?
- Where can I fly from?
- Where do I fly to?
- What days can I fly on?
- What are the hotel options?
- Whats local transport like?
All important things. These can be included on the same page as the research and discovery information, and in my opinion you should – as this would create a very comprehensive resource on a particular destination that provides a lot of user value (and Google will recognise this too).
A great way to identify what I call “interrogative travel searches” is with a tool called Answer The Public. This is easy to export from, and also provides good visuals and question based searches around travel topics.
Understanding seasonality and search trends
We all know that travel, for the most part, is a seasonal business and you’ll likely know the trends for when you get most traffic and inquiries – however, Google Trends is a great tool that can also help you map research phase keywords. This will not only help you better curate content and a content calendar, but also give you more insight into your buyer journey from research phase, all the way through to purchase.
You can then use Google Trend data in two ways:
Create relevant content to coincide with the peak
For example, if you’re a business selling winter sun holidays, it may make sense to put together a “best cheap winter sun destinations for 20XX” and publish it in August, as this has historically been the start of the “peak” for searches surrounding [winter sun destination] search phrases.
Start optimizing existing relevant pages before the peak(s)
Once the guide has been published, this also allows you time to strategise other channels (and offsite link building) to build authority and point attention towards the guide.
Keyword research tools for travel companies
For a small to medium sized travel company on a budget, or for a larger company looking to add value to their suite I strongly recommend Mangools. It’s a very clean and simple to use user-interface that can very quickly help you identify keyword targets, search trends – and thus add value to your campaigns.
Alternatively, you can also use tools such as Serpstat (which I also recommend as a rank tracking tool further on in the guide).
Combining these two tools together, plus your Google Search Console data will give you a very good pool of data to take from and create awesome content and robust site structures that will enable you to outrank your competitors.
Chapter 2: Content for travel companies
Using the knowledge gained in chapter 1, you can now start to craft and plan a content strategy and calendar to satisfy the commercial and non-commercial queries that your target audience are searching for – when they are searching for them.
Let’s not call it content marketing
Content marketing makes it sound like we are producing content for the sake of marketing – but we’re not, we’re creating content to add value to the website, and to users.
Your webpage content has to be unique, and add value to them at their specific point in their journey.
Dealing with duplicate content across hotel, resorts and property listings
If you’re a holiday website listing multiple hotels and resorts — that are also listed on thousands of other websites, you may have content issues. This is not so much a duplicate content issue (yes, it is duplicate) but more of a value issue. What additional value are you offering to users by having the same copy in the same format as hundreds of other websites? Use their copy, but add to the overall value of the page and supporting content.
This isn’t so much an issue for major websites such as AirBnB or Booking.com – because they’ve built the authority necessary, and offer the additional value.
You can do this by talking about things in addition to the physical property itself by bringing in content (and links to content) from other areas of the website. Internal duplication of content isn’t a big issue as long as it adds relevance to the page and value to the user.
Travel blog content
A blog might be a bit of an outdated idea, but it can add a lot of value and topical relevancy to your website.
Typical travel blog content can include:
- Travel tips
- Activities you can do in your destination.
- Places to visit while enjoying your holidays in a particular area.
- Special guides for families with kids.
- Special guides for large groups and young people.
- Events worth visiting.
- Best beaches to swim.
- Local guides (where to eat, where to go at night etc.).
However, in my opinion, not all of this content is suitable for a blog – and can work a lot, lot harder for your travel website. You can also view this post containing a list of 134 travel content ideas.
How to write a blog post effectively
In summary, the best way to go about writing a blog post is to follow a simple 5 step plan, this isn’t new or groundbreaking, but WordStream summarise it perfectly:
- Plan your blog post by choosing a topic, creating an outline, conducting research, and checking facts.
- Craft a headline that is both informative and will capture readers’ attentions.
- Write your post, either writing a draft in a single session or gradually word on parts of it.
- Use images to enhance your post, improve its flow, add humor, and explain complex topics.
- Edit your blog post. Make sure to avoid repetition, read your post aloud to check its flow, have someone else read it and provide feedback, keep sentences and paragraphs short, don’t be a perfectionist, don’t be afraid to cut out text or adapt your writing last minute.
You can also read this blog post from Stacking Benjamins on how to write a 1,000 blog post in twenty minutes.
Travel content hubs for multi-location offerings
Content hubs and knowledge repositories are not new concepts, in-fact TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet are effectively content hubs first, and commercial sites second.
Whilst the content in theory can sit on a blog, and if you offer a single location service then in theory the blog is the best place for it — but if you offer multiple locations, content hubs are much more focused and a lot more powerful.
The blog model is a traditional model, and content is collated in a single folder that’s applicable to multiple locations, this is represented on the above diagram on the left.
The content hub model however still leaves you with commercial pages for flights and hotels (etc), but also has evergreen guides built for the target countries in a single hub. These provide valuable resources and content areas to support non-commercial intent queries, and provide strong “supporting” content areas for the site’s main content (the commercial content).
I’ve used approach across a number of verticals to improve rankings and relevancy for a number of commercial and non-commercial phrases to great effect, and if you’re a travel company offering multiple locations (cities or countries) then this definitely an approach I would take.
You can still run a blog in parallel for some forms of content, such as top 5s, ad hoc guides etc — but the “hardcore”, evergreen content such as things to do, places to eat, tourist attractions that are must see, this should be in the single hub. Through clever blog tagging, you can relay users to relevant blog articles from the hubs and really demonstrate your expertise to them.
A good example of this on a smaller scale is one produced on the Bonawe House website, a holiday cottage letting company in Oban, Scotland.
They have the content hub – The Oban Travel Guide:
As well as a number of standalone blog articles, including:
- A Guide to Fishing in Loch Etive
- 5 Great Day Trips from Oban
- An Exhaustive List of the Best Beaches on the West Coast of Scotland
- A Guide to Visiting Oban Distillery
All of which compliment the site in terms of topical relevancy, and act as good standalone content pieces.
Content during crisis
The travel industry is often at the whims from a number of external factors, and sometimes Governments need to advise against travel to particular countries.
If your business is affected by such advice, there are two routes to go down – a scorched Earth approach of removing all content, or a combined approach that:
- Preserves rankings (as best you can as it’s likely the real-life event that has triggered the Government advice will also affect SERP layouts, intents, and what content is appropriate)
- Adds value to users/customers beyond trying to sell – this is a good opportunity to build trust with your audience
- Leaves you in a good position post-turmoil, with a good foundation to move forward with
So what is the scorched Earth approach? This is taking your landing page, and deleting all content aside from the notice:
Removing all content and putting up a small notice such as this (without any links to the contact section) is bad for a number of reasons, namely:
- No content, no rankings
- It offers little use to existing customers who may have already purchased a holiday
- It doesn’t link to sources
It’s a scorched earth approach.
You need to incorporate messaging in a user-friendly manner, remove CTAs and opportunities to book, whilst adding user value for varying user intents by:
- Outlining the company’s policy for customers with existing holidays booked and clearly state and link to the channels they need to explore
- This will both lead to better user experience and reduce the processes on the company’s side from users entering the wrong communications funnels
- Make CTAs inquiry lead as opposed to booking lead
- Maintain content and information for users – and to preserve rankings
- Follow best practice guidelines around the use of interstitials, pop-ups, and overlays if used for notifying customers
Chapter 3: Building a Travel Brand Online
Building a brand is not cheap and can take a long, long time – but ultimately it can also be one of the best SEO assets you can have.
Years of experience has convinced me that every product or service needs to develop a brand to be successful (on some sort of scale).
When your building your travel brand, or refreshing/repositioning within the marketplace, it’s important to consider the following:
- Brand values – what value your brand brings your customers
- Brand promise – what you mean to your customers
- Brand positioning – where you fit into the marketplace
- Competitor research and analysis
- Brand mission – your ultimate goals
- Brand story – the “why” of your mission, why you set out to do what you’re doing
- Tone of voice – how you communicate and the language you use
- Brand pillars – the main pillars and driving factors of your brand
- The elevator pitch – a 30 second explanation of your brand and what you’re about
Offsite SEO, link building, and PR activities
The purpose of this chapter is to address offsite SEO for the travel industry, and some of the misconceptions and obstacles that come with it.
Link building in the travel industry is quite difficult down to two main factors:
- Its an extremely competitive space
- Travel bloggers now realise that their links have some value, so charge money for sponsored posts
Aside from paying for links, which is not a I practice I endorse – there are some tactics that still prove successful in the travel industry, these include:
- A member from your team is interviewed on a podcast and gets linked to in the podcast notes
- You create an amazing data-driven infographic and bloggers want to include it in one of their blog posts
- You create a travel calculator that gets shared and linked to
- You create the ultimate guide to a certain event, type of travel style, or country that becomes the definitive resource and is linked to
- You guest post for other websites, linking back to your own
- You reach out to sites with resource pages to include a link to your best resource
- Your company gets listed on your partners’ websites
The only thing that is for definite, is that doing outreach and link building properly takes a lot of time and resource as it’s labour intensive (unless you’re buying links).
You should routinely check the #JournoRequest hashtag on Twitter and be on the lookout for journalists and bloggers looking for contributions. Some travel bloggers also use this as a platform to find commissions, so be aware that not everyone is looking for honest contributions.
What about domain authority (DA)?
Domain authority is not a Google recognized metric, your own website’s DA has no correlation with how well it will rank and perform within rankings.
DA became the metric used by bloggers after Google stopped publicly updating PageRank, and it’s unfortunately stuck since.
DIY Building a travel brand from nothing
From the experiences of working with branding agencies in past roles, there is a trend of the services that they offer to help “brand you”, these are brand strategy, and brand identity.
Some do offer both services together, but by dissecting what these mean and reverse engineering processes, we can build a travel brand on a budget!
What is the cost of building a travel brand?
Agency Time (Optional) + Your Time + Cost to Create or Change Physical Assets of Your Business = The Cost of Branding
Creating a travel brand strategy
Your brand strategy is the backbone of your travel brand, and help enforce (or reinforce) your position in your market/niche.
A brand strategy is a plan of action for your business, that helps to outline specific, long-term, goals as well as your brand mission, and brand story. It should really form a part of your business plan, and acts as guidance for all marketing activities (including travel SEO). Simply put, your travel brand strategy is the “thinking” behind the brand.
One of Hubspot’s better articles outlines 7 key components to building a successful brand, these are:
What is the purpose of your brand, and why you’re doing what you set out to do. This isn’t the sales purpose, it’s the “mission”. For example, if you’re a niche company offering tours of Silk Road countries, it may to introduce new adventures and cultures to travellers.
How will you remain consistent and “on brand” in your communication? This comes from two places:
- Preparedness – having good guidelines in place for the brand tone of voice, boilerplate responses to basic complaints (for consistency), and having a crisis communications plan ready to action.
- Training – ensuring staff are aware of the policies and procedures, and have the tools and ability to carry them out.
Without these two elements, consistency cannot be achieved.
What emotional connection do you want to make with your target audience?
How can your travel brand remain flexible and react to the marketplace?
How can you get your employees involved and invested in your brand vision?
Is there an option for you to reward loyalty among your customers and staff?
Who are your competitors, and what are you doing that’s different to them?
Managing PR & outreach activity at scale
In my opinion, when it comes to managing outreach activities at scale, there are three pieces of software that can really make your life a lot easier (depending on your budget).
These tools are BuzzStream, Mention, and Google Alerts.
BuzzStream allows you to send targeted email campaigns to individuals (as well as track whether they’ve been opened or not) as well as build email gauntlets and automated scheduled follow-ups. In terms of pricing it starts at $24 a month, and can be a real asset if you’re dedicating a lot of resource to this activity.
In theory, you could get around not using BuzzStream and use an Excel/Google Doc instead – if you’re super organised, but you miss out on some of the time saving automation and reporting features (such as being able to see if they’ve opened your email and how many times).
Mention is an online listening service, and pricing starts at $29 a month for 2 basic alerts. You can set these up to monitor your brand name as well as any key, target phrase. It also pulls through Twitter so you can see if people are talking about you (positively or negatively). For larger campaigns and ongoing PR/outreach work this is great, but on this list I guess it could be considered a luxury.
Google Alerts are free, and you should set them up on your brand and target keywords. TechRepublic wrote this great guide on how to set them up.
Building links and generating noise online
This one is easier said than done, but collaborating with other businesses related to your niche, travel bloggers and travel influencers to publish guest blogs, social content pieces, and cross-promote each other’s content will not only help increase the reach of your content, but it will also provide you with an excellent opportunity to increase the number of backlinks your website has.
Backlinks are still an important part of Google’s algorithm, but they shouldn’t be measured in terms of DA (Domain Authority), or PageRank – because a) Google has publicly acknowledged that it doesn’t use domain authority and b) PageRank scores haven’t been publicly available for years.
How not to build links for travel websites
One of the easier routes to go down when you’re looking to build links to a website is a paid link building route, and to this day a lot of SEO agencies still take part in actively buying links for client websites. To some degree, and depending on vertical, this is still an effective tactic if done correctly (not one I engage with, but respect were respect is due).
However, when done sloppily, it’s very easy to see trends and patterns with paid links. Common patterns include:
Patterns in backlink acquisition timing
In order to provide a package service there has to be some level of routine and organisation, as a result links tend to get bought around the same time of each month (or time period), this pattern is extremely recognisable to the naked eye – so Google and other search engines can clearly see how unnatural it is.
Often appearing with the same websites in articles
Finding blogs or websites to get links off (or buy links off) takes leg work, as does producing content to place on those sites, and if you operate in a specific travel niche one way some agency’s try and scale is to include multiple clients in a single article. This can be very easily reverse engineered – for example, using the below methodology:
- Taking a ranking travel website from one of my previous Rome keywords
- Using a single backlink identification tool (Ahrefs)
- Looking at links from a couple of travel bloggers
I was able to identify that:
I was even able to identify a pattern in the three websites that they all seemed to appear on one website first (at the start of the pattern), and then gradually over others in a similar order.
If I’m able to identify this with one tool and 10 minutes of free time, Google definitely is. If you’re going to buy links, don’t make it obvious.
Importance of reviews
According to the Bazaarvoice network, one positive review can sometimes see an uplift in the conversion rate of 10%, and 200 reviews can see an uplift of 44%.
This is also were a number of technical and offsite elements come into play, and can really help improve the presence of your reviews.
Travel Crisis Management
Crisis management situations can arise in the travel industry for a number of reasons, whether it be a rogue employee, bad weather conditions, issues with the hotel and food, or even an over-escalation of a small issue – all of these things can lead to a PR crisis, and mainstream media are always quick to jump on customer complaint stories and stir the pot further.
Dealing with these emergencies is challenging for any company but especially for the small and medium-sized companies that don’t have an in-house PR team standing by 24/7, made harder when the expectations of customers and the media don’t differ between multi-nationals or family-run independents.
So how as a travel business can you handle a PR nightmare?
Keep talking, don’t hide
Don’t bury your head in the sand and try to ride out the rainy days. During a crisis, you need to keep talking, face issues head-on and show the outside world you’re aware and are taking it seriously.
It’s also important as journalists and media are always looking for information, so by taking control of the conversation you can be that authoritative source of information and prevent misinformation from entering the mediasphere.
This also means regular communications with staff, answering questions as best you can, and being transparent to prevent internal issues and misinformation.
It’s also paramount that:
- You maintain a single spokesperson and single voice
- Clear channels and communications (inbound) for inquiries
- Only comment on what you know to be fact, speculation doesn’t help anyone and there is no shame in acknowledging a question and responding once the information is confirmed
- Monitor social media for mentions, conversations and be sure to address any misinformation or concerns publicly – this again helps fight myths and also shows you’re very aware of the wider picture
A great example of controlling the narrative comes from Volkswagen during the emissions test cheating scandal.
Chapter 4: Measuring Success & Benchmarking
Measuring your efforts accurately is just as important as strategic planning and executing them.
Being able to track progress and show a demonstrable ROI (return on investment) will enable you to make better decisions around your SEO budget, as well as prove the investment is worthwhile to other business stakeholders. This is especially important in the travel sector, as there are clear seasonal peak months (and slow months), so being able to feast and know when to store for the famine is important.
In this chapter I’m going to talk about:
- Identify your competitors within the online travel landscape
- Competitor benchmarking
- How to identify and set realistic KPIs and objectives
- How to select tools on a budget (and how to use them)
- How to manage report effectively (and for the most part automate it)
Competitor benchmarking & analysis
When you are benchmarking against competitors, it’s important to be realistic. For example, if you’re a holiday deals website or affiliate, and you list websites like booking.com, Kayak, and Priceline as competitors – it’s important to understand that in the third quarter of 2018, Booking Holdings (the parent company behind these) spent $1.3 billion on “performance marketing”.
What does “performance marketing” mean? Paid Google Ads. Even though this isn’t a component of organic search performance, it gives you an insight into the marketing budgets these brands are playing with.
Using third party tools and data sets (so that everyone is on the same, level playing field), comparing yourself to these major travel brands won’t provide any useful insight, or provide any strategic direction:
However, if you compare yourself to operations of a similar size, the graphs start to become more practical and you can see were your competitive advantage lies, as well as areas of improvement:
This can almost be treat like an SEO version of a SWOT analysis, you need to be objective in assessing your travel brands strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats around your various SEO elements.
However, a lot of smaller travel businesses may not be as easy to discover (due to lower marketing budgets), so how do you go about identifying competitors of a similar size? There are a number of methods you can use, but primarily I use the following models:
- SWOT analysis
- PEST analysis
- Porters 5 Forces
SWOT analysis for travel businesses
Use SWOT analysis for business planning, strategic planning, competitor evaluation, marketing, business and product development and research reports.
A SWOT analysis is a subjective assessment of data which is organised by the SWOT format into a logical order that helps understanding, presentation, discussion and decision-making.
The PEST subject should be a clear definition of the market being addressed, which might be from any of the following standpoints:
- a company looking at its market
- a product looking at its market
- a brand in relation to its market
- a strategic option, such as entering a new market or launching a new product
- a potential acquisition
- a potential partnership
- an investment opportunity
It’s an analysis of Political, Economic, Social, and Technological factors. This type of analysis is not only great for identifying your competitors, but also in identifying if your product offering is equal to/better than those of your competitors or identifying the viabilities of business expansion activities.
This can also be expanded from PEST to PESTLE, and also include Legal and Environmental factors. Below is an example (top level) PESTLE analysis that I put together in 2012 as part of a project analysing the opportunities for the UK commercial fishing industry:
Porters 5 Forces
Porter’s 5 Forces is one of my preferred analysis models, especially when looking at bigger markets (suitable more for tourism generation businesses perhaps). This model looks at:
- Threat of new entrants to the market
- Bargaining Power of Consumers
- Bargaining Power of Suppliers
- Threat of Substitute Products
How to set realistic KPIs and objectives
Regardless of how well you advance your organic search performance, if you don’t set realistic KPIs (key performance indicators), milestones and objectives, you’re going to fall short by your own standards.
So how do you go about forecasting, and setting realistic objectives for the growth of your travel business online?
SEO goals should be SMART goals, these are:
Obviously achievable and realistic are open to interpretation, but necessary. It’s also important to benchmark what value achieving the goal would bring. I’ve seen people have goals set for them before that made no sense, such as “reach 10,000 followers on Twitter” – great, will this increase sales? Will it increase leads? In their position, no – it was a vanity metric.
Forecasting SEO performance for travel companies
Due to the sheer number of variables, it is almost impossible to accurately forecast the performance of any website, let alone a travel website in terms of traffic or rankings. For example, towards the end of 2018 my personal website saw a spike in visits because of a blog post I wrote in October, and then again in November when I spoke at TechSEO Boost 2018 – two events I’m unlikely to replicate year on year.
There are forecasting tools that you can put your organic traffic into, such as this one from Distilled, and you can produce forecasting graphs like this:
How useful this is however is open to interpretation.
Rank tracking tools
For a small travel business every penny counts, and there isn’t the disposable income for splashing out on a large suite of tools – so it’s important that you spend wisely.
For this, I recommend you invest in one tool (as this can also be used for reporting as explored in the next section). This tool is Serpstat, and specifically the two entry level packages ($19 a month, and $69 a month). I can also recommend SEMscoop as a viable keyword research tool.
The entry level $19 a month package allows for, what I feel, would be an adequate amount of daily queries for an in-house travel SEO, as well as tracking for 200 keywords against 10 competitors.
When to check rankings
From experience, checking rankings on a daily basis is not healthy. All search engines (including Google) fluctuate results, so some days you may increase by a couple of places, some days you might drop. You might even change two or three times during the day.
Rank tracking tools work by taking a single snapshot of the rankings every time they refresh, so at 4am when it takes the snapshot for the day you might be in position 4, but when you check later on you might be in position 6. Rankings are important, but there is no single ranking or absolute ranking solution, so don’t take the data as verbatim.
- You have your rankings refresh daily (so you have the data at hand if needed)
- You set your tools to report on a weekly basis to a project management system, or to your email
- You set your tools to report on a monthly basis with a more holistic report
This will give you the necessary insights to notice trends, as well as the ability to react and be proactive if necessary. Only reporting on a monthly basis doesn’t give you this.
Aside from other paid tools, it’s vital you’re making the most of free tools such as Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and Bing Webmaster Tools.
Easy ways to manage reporting
Reporting can be time consuming, and when you’re a small to medium sized travel business time is not something you have the luxury of. That’s why it’s important that you’re able to streamline your data collection and analysis process as much as possible.
You should be using free tools such as Google Analytics and Google Search Console as standard, and then connecting your Analytics to Google Data Studio (more information on this later).
I’d also setup rank tracking through a tool like SEO Rank Monitor, and setup a weekly, scheduled report to fire to your inbox on a Monday – so you don’t have to waste time putting one together or going looking for one. You can then assess if you need to take further action/dig into data further.
Data studio reports
Another really easy way to manage your reporting is to connect your Google Analytics account to Google Data Studio. Here is a good guide on how to set-up Google Analytics as a data source.
Alternatively, there are a number of pre-made Data Studio dashboards out there that will more than do the job for your online reporting – and in my opinion are a lot more insightful than a Google Analytics screenshot in an Excel document.
Other great travel marketing guides and articles you should read
My main piece of advice for anyone in any marketing capacity is not just read a single blog post and treat it as gospel. Yes, this is a big travel SEO guide and comes from my experience of working with lots of travel companies over the years — but it is by no means the only thing you should read. A good marketer looks to test everything, and challenge everything – so take my advice, but form your own strategies from it.
Other great SEO travel guides include:
- A guide to travel keyword research by SEO Travel
- Six most common travel SEO mistakes to get right in 2019 by Adam Durrant, on Search Engine Watch
- 9 Tips for Improving SEO for Travel Websites by Web CEO
- The Ultimate Guide on How to SEO your Travel Website by Alex Chris, on ReliableSoft
Last update: March 2020