Structured mark-up & rich snippets: uses and opportunities for travel sites

Thursday, 2nd May, 2013 by Matthew Barker | Leave Comment

First published on the I&I Travel Media blog.

Semantic search, search based on context and intent rather than keyword relevancy, is not particularly new but many people are convinced that it will transform the way we search.

Here’s a current example of semantic search in action:

semantic search london weather

Google isn’t just looking at my keywords and sending me to a bunch of well-optimised weather websites. It is trying to understand the nature or context of my query and deliver the content I need from a variety of sources.  At the same time it is inferring that I must be interested in visiting London so it gives me additional content from Wikipedia as well as various points of interest.

It can do this for two reasons: 1) better AI in the technology and algorithm, 2) developments in the kind of data that we provide to the search engines to help them understand the meaning of webpages, documents or objects. This is called structured data or structured mark-up.

Again, the concept of structured mark-up itself is not particularly new. You already know it as the ubiquitous meta tags that have long been a staple of basic SEO strategy. Structured mark-up is simply an expanded approach to meta tags that provides a richer layer of machine readable context and meaning to a webpage.

This is very exciting for its potential transformation (and disruption) on existing search technology and digital travel marketing (more on that below) but there are already a number of highly visible and rewarding applications for travel sites. These are called rich snippets and they’re all made possible through structured mark-up:

Google Authorship

The ability to connect content with a particular author and display that author’s details in the search results comes from Authorship markup:

Authorship markup has been demonstrated to improve click through rates, although that may tail off if/when it reaches fuller adoption rates/saturation point. The really exciting prospect though is of AuthorRank becoming a ranking signal, something that is widely anticipated throughout the community.

Reviews

You’ll have seen the gold stars under certain results, usually products or services that generate client reviews:

review stars structured markup

As with Authorship, this mark-up does not impact rankings but it does provide a much richer user-experience which makes it much more likely that users will click the results.

Products/offers

There are a number of ways to display additional product or offer information as a rich snippet in the search results.  Structured mark-up exists for product name, description, price, etc:

product price markup

Events

There is also a mark-up vocabulary for events, which can be displayed as a rich snippet:

event cruise departure rich snippet markup

This can also be used for event listings such as concerts and festivals, as well as departure dates for particular tours or cruises.

Video

Finally, there is a rich snippet for video content that will display the video embedded in the search result:

video rich snippet

There are many other types of mark-up that are supported as rich snippets, see Google’s guide for the full list.  To implement the mark-up you can use the Schema.org vocabulary that is supported by all the major search engines.

[Note that Facebook has its own set of mark-up, called the Open Graph Protocol, while even Twitter is getting in on the act with Twitter cards.]

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So, what’s the bigger picture?

So far these rich snippets are essentially “additions” to your existing search visibility. They don’t improve your rankings, they simply add more information to your existing results (which can have a massive impact on your click through rates.)

It gets really interesting when we look at the bigger picture and try to understand where the potential for transformation/disruption might be.

The underlying concept is that search technology is moving beyond viewing the relevancy of webpages based on the keywords of the content they contain, towards a point that the search engines can recognise items as actual things or objects in their own right, with a rich understanding of their meaning, context and relevancy to different queries.

In all the examples above Google is trying to identify the actual thing, not just the webpage or content that describes it. That includes people (via Authorship), products, events, locations, and many other actual, real world items.

Effectively Google is no longer content to serve content that describes things, it wants to feature those things themselves in its search results. This is the key to semantic search – drawing connections between actual objects and understanding them as “things” in their own right.

So going back to our first example, while searching for the weather in London, the search engine would be able to infer the intent behind the search (visiting London) and also show you upcoming events, hotel deals, particular points of interest, activities, and all sorts of other things that could be relevant to your search, perhaps even questions that you haven’t even asked yet.

Likewise, if you search for an upcoming event, Google could show you the weather plus driving directions or flight prices.  If the event is in the next couple of days it could choose to show you ‘last minute’ hotel rates.  Some of this data will be displayed embedded in the search result, but others will come from related searches that link off to other sites.

Think about the difference between this and current SEO strategy which still generally revolves around binary keyword targeting, i.e. making a particular document rank for a certain keyword.  In the future, documents (or things) will be able to rank for multiple search queries, all depending on the intent of the user and how well the page has been marked-up.

We’re only really beginning to grasp the full potential of semantic search and it will be a slow, piecemeal process – especially for as long as mark-up adoption rates continue to languish.  However, for early adopters there are two big opportunities:

  • Short term, the ability to stand your SERP result out from the crowd with rich snippets
  • Long term, the ability to exploit semantic search in your content strategy and create layers of content that are thoroughly marked-up to improve their connections to different users with countless different intents.

Navigating the fractured landscape of travel influencers

Monday, 22nd April, 2013 by Matthew Barker | Leave Comment

Originally posted on the I&I Travel Media blog.

The role of influencers in digital marketing strategy is problematic for many travel brands. Although the huge potential is well recognised, there remain significant barriers to “influencer marketing” becoming a mainstream activity.

Some of the many problems include identifying genuine influencers, working out what consumer behaviour they’re capable of influencing, and how it can all be measured.

This is particularly important in the travel industry where a large segment of our influencers are highly influential among each other – i.e. within the travel bubble – but not necessarily among the wider traveling public or within brands’ target markets.

In fact, an experiment with some new functionality from Followerwonk, a tool for analysing user behaviour on Twitter, suggests there’s much more to influence within the travel industry than we might have assumed.

Methodology

Followerwonk uses the Twitter API to access various layers of data on Twitter users.  A newly-released metric, called social authority, is a measure of users’ authority on Twitter as determined by their re-tweet rate and various other factors. The number of times a user is re-tweeted is considered more important than their follower count as a signal of engagement, click through rates and therefore authority.

There are obvious limitations to this and it should clearly not be used as a definitive or sole metric of an individual’s “influence” (more on that below). But even with a quick and dirty analysis of the re-tweet data we were able to come up with a number of useful observations and questions.

To begin with we created a database of all Twitter users with certain keywords in their bios:  travel, traveler, travel guide, travel advice, travel blog, traveling, travel magazine, travel blogger.  This gave us a total of 740,000 Twitter users who are in some way interested in travel – but not necessarily directly connected to the travel industry.

740,000 lines of data was too much even for our enormous processing capacity (an Excel spreadsheet and endless coffee) so we refined the list to anyone with more than 1,000 followers and a social authority score of over 50/100.  That still left us with over 4,000 users so we made another arbitrary decision to look at just the top 10% of influencers.

From there we removed all the nude Russian models and horoscope accounts and classified each user into a category (a painstaking, manual process with plenty of room for error). Our categories were:

  • Travel brand
  • Travel publisher/broadcaster
  • DMO/Tourism board
  • Travel blog
  • Travel media professional (including freelancers, travel writers, etc)
  • Social media entity (not connected to a brand or individual, e.g. @earth_pics)
  • Non travel (lifestyle, food, sports, actors, musicians, etc – individuals, brands or blogs who express an interest in travel but aren’t connected to the industry)

This left us with a relatively accurate, structured list of the 400 most influential Twitter users who have an interest or connection to travel. Using this list we were able to make a number of important observations:

Huge influence outside the travel bubble

About half (51%) of the top 10% profiles were not directly connected to the travel industry at all. This is an inevitable outcome of our methodology: searching for people interested but not necessarily working in travel is a very broad net which caught all sorts of disparate users.

But these people are far from irrelevant. These are the celebrities, musicians, authors, politicians, sport stars, brands and lifestyle blogs that many people in our target demographics are actively following. There is clearly huge influence out there that exists beyond our own bubble of travel media pros, bloggers and publishers:

top 10 travel influencers by category - I&I travel media

Some of the people we found that could influence travel consumers without being directly connected to the industry included:

non travel influencers - i&i travel media

Think about all the people in your target markets who don’t consume much/any travel media online. Where do their interests lie? Who are they following and listening to? Could there be opportunity to find influencers outside of the travel bubble?  Does your brand include people like this in your outreach efforts?

Relationships between authority and content type

Another interesting observation was the spread of authority for each category among our top 400 influencers:

spread of influence by category - i&i travel media

The most surprising aspect was that, according to the Followerwonk metrics, travel publishers/broadcasters have the lowest spread of authority.  With one significant exception (@LonelyPlanet), none of the travel publishers had an authority score above 80. Only eight had a score above 70, and there were only 55 publishers represented in the entire 400.

If anything, this lays bare the inherent limitations of using a single metric as a measure of authority. In reality these publishers are among the highest source of authority in our field. But it seems that their behaviour on Twitter doesn’t reflect that authority. There are interesting reasons for this that could inform our own content and social strategies.

The Followerwonk data shows that re-tweets, and therefore social authority, often derive from particular behaviour: statements that are concise, funny, pithy and precision targeted to their audience are re-tweeted the most:

content & approches for successful retweets - i&i travel media

Typically, travel publishers, brands and DMOs don’t specialise in this kind of behaviour. We’re fastidious in our outreach and engagement (lots of @mentions and conversations,) we curate and share plenty of content and do all the other things that Twitter is great for.  But the data shows that this kind of behaviour is not so frequently re-tweeted.

I don’t think anyone would recommend abandoning engagement and relationships for glib sound bites, but could there be a case for adding some more personality, humour and attitude into your brand’s Twitter activity?  The data certainly suggests it could be effective in increasing your re-tweet rates and therefore your wider exposure and reach.

The importance of niches and targeted audiences

The far away winners of our analysis were the social media entities that exist only on Twitter for the sole purpose of sharing viral content. There were only 10 such profiles in the top 10% of users, but they were almost all above the median social authority for the entire group:

top social media entities - i&i travel media

Related to the previous observation, note how few @mentions are made within this user group. All they are doing is broadcasting highly shareable content (“re-tweet bait”) that is laser targeted to their audience:

successful travel tweets - i&i travel media

Some obvious tactics that emerge from this include: trying to emulate this behaviour with your own profile, as well as trying to get some of your content noticed and shared by these power users.

Target your blog outreach

Another example of how niche targeting wins the day is to look at the travel blogs that came up with the highest social authority scores. If you’re connected with the travel blogging world, the first ten may come as some surprise:

top 10 travel bloggers - i&i travel media

Remember, we’re not looking for straight up follower counts here, we’re looking at the user’s authority on Twitter as measured by their re-tweet rate.

In virtually every case the most influential bloggers are those that are highly targeted to a specific theme or destination: hiking, luxury travel, Thailand, London, British Colombia, video blogging, etc.

This could have implications for outreach programs that aim to activate influential travel bloggers in support of your campaigns. Could certain projects be better served by looking further down the long tail of the travel blogosphere and engaging bloggers with a smaller overall presence but higher engagement rates in your specific theme?

Much more to be done

These are just a few observations that came up from our quick analysis. There are clearly limitations to the data and our methodology.  The usefulness of re-tweet rates alone as an authority metric is questionable, and there is much room for error in a “broad net” approach like the one described here.

But looking into the data like this shows just how complex and fragmented the influence landscape can be, particularly when we consider the countless individuals who can influence our target demographics outside of the travel bubble.

It’s within that complexity that the real opportunity lies. Each brand and each campaign will have its own set of objectives and audiences. Data like this shows that there is a rich ecosystem of influencers out there that could become very rewarding for brands that are nimble enough to navigate the fractured and diverse digital landscape.

NB: this experiment was intended more as a demonstration of possibilities than an attempt at serious statistical analysis. Please take all figures provided with a liberal pinch of salt.

The Hard Truth & Difficult Things I Say To 90% Of All Prospects

Sunday, 7th April, 2013 by Matthew Barker | Leave Comment

We’ve always taken great pride in our ability to help smaller, independent travel companies to compete against larger brands. Budgets are a lot smaller but this is still the kind of work we enjoy the most and is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

One big difficulty is in explaining to these guys exactly what it takes in 2013 to achieve decent returns from organic search. Many people come to us with little idea of how much SEO has changed, and how much an involved, proactive challenge it has become.

In many ways these changes can favour small companies with plenty of creative energy, rich expertise and strong, unique personalities, but only if they can accept and embrace the scale of the challenge and understand that these days it takes a lot to make the search engines work for their business.

Below is an (edited) exchange I had recently with someone I know and respect. (note: this is for a young site with zero Domain Authority, no link profile, no search rankings, in a highly competitive travel vertical.) We aim to be transparent and honest with everyone we deal with, and the following is a standard example of the difficult things I find myself saying to many people:

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Email from the prospect:

Hi Matt, thanks for the reply.
 
I’m looking for someone to [help with SEO] with little to no hands-on work from me.  I didn’t do the blogging and writing that [you recommended] last time, and unfortunately I am even less likely to do it now. 
 
I could be persuaded differently based on what you propose and if the price is right.  But really I am looking for someone else to do this so I don’t have to.  I’m looking at a budget starting around $500 per month to start.  Any sales made will go back into advertising so the budget could increase in the future.
 
I’m seeking proposals from several different firms, but due to your first-hand knowledge of the website, I am hoping you get the job.
 
Thanks so much and good luck,

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My difficult reply:

Hi -,

To be honest with you there’s not really much I can do for you on that basis.  SEO has become a much more challenging arena over the last couple of years.  The old approach of sub-contracting out the entire responsibility (for relatively small budgets) is no longer effective.  If you’re serious about generating substantial business through organic search you’re going to have to commit to a fairly involved, pro-active and long term process. These days you can’t really press the auto-pilot button and have someone else take care of things for you.

Well – people will still take your money from you and pretend that they can get you ROI from $500/month, but you’re highly unlikely to see any return on that. There are just no magic bullets any more. It takes time, effort and commitment.  If you’re not in a position to do that then it’d be much better to put your $500 into PPC (Google Adwords).

I’m no longer working with any clients that are seeking an auto-pilot approach. All our campaigns are with companies who have recognised what they need to put in to get significant results from the search engines.  In a nutshell this includes things like:
– Continual content development (itinerary/destination descriptions, blogs, travel guides, pictures, video, etc) all with high value content
– Online PR with methodological outreach to travel bloggers, journalists and publications for coverage. This is contingent on you developing a brand and an offering that is genuinely newsworthy/interesting
– Frequent press releases of your genuinely newsworthy stories (ditto above)
– Pro-active social media management: growing your followers, interacting with influencers, increasing social media sharing of your site content, etc
– Developing an email list & frequent newsletters to maintain contact with the people you connect with through the above work, and convert them into leads at a later date

This is just a very brief summary of the scope of work required to get real returns from organic search (SEO).

I don’t say all this to put you off, I just want to be honest with people. I wouldn’t take your money if I didn’t think I could make it work for you, other SEO agencies are not as scrupulous so please be careful.  My advice is that for the time being you should put whatever you can into PPC and when you get the revenue to make this stuff possible, we could talk again.

Best, Matt

In one respect, this is all a real shame as the net effect is to lock out large numbers of smaller travel brands from being viable contenders in organic search and forces them down the PPC avenue which is expensive and sub-standard when used on its own.

But on another level it’s quite a positive process. The net outcome is to reward travel brands that have the energy, enthusiasm, personality and commitment to make a real success of their digital presence.  It doesn’t necessarily take large budgets to make all these things happen but it does take a real grasp of the requirements and a long-term commitment to making it all happen. This is not something a smaller travel company can contract out at a feasible price, it really needs to be done in-house by a committed owner or marketing manager.

The role of the SEO agency has changed too. We’re no longer just an auto pilot working behind-the-scenes to build you links and periodically check your rankings. We’re here to provide support and guidance on implementing all the things that a small travel brand needs to do to make the search engines work for their business.

It’s critically important that owners of smaller online travel businesses understand how much the landscape has changed, and adjust their expectations to match.

Putting The Author Back In Authority

Thursday, 11th October, 2012 by Matthew Barker | Leave Comment

By Matthew Barker

Travel bloggers who follow Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) might have seen an article I wrote last week on a development from Google, called AuthorRank.

[If you’re not familiar with AuthorRank and want some background information on what it is, and how to get yourself set up (it’s very easy), take a look at my TBEX article, which includes links to all the necessary instructions and resources.]

Rather than go over old ground here, I thought it might be more useful to expand on the bigger picture, and explain how I see this as part of a wider development that all travel journalists and bloggers should be aware of.

The underlying issue behind AuthorRank is one of authority and influence.  Google is doing this because it’s all part of their never-ending quest to highlight content that is authoritative, high quality and popular.  This is Google’s fundamental mission: the more useful its search results, the happier its users.

AuthorRank will move some of the emphasis onto the authority of individual content creators, rather than websites themselves.  We can start to think of individuals carrying their own authority within their niche, in the same way we have become used to website authority.  The basic consensus is that at some point in the near future, sites that publish content from more authoritative writers can expect to do better in the search results.

This is a brand new concept in the world of search marketing, and it is hugely important for writers/bloggers/content creators.  Now your “product” – your words, photos, video, etc – can carry more value than simply the quality of your content.  If your content also carries with it the weight of your own personal authority, you will be offering a lot more value to the publisher.

Authority and influence are becoming incredibly important components to online marketing. Aside from AuthorRank, we are also looking for individual content creators who have other sources of influence online – for example, large social media audiences or a regular, engaged site readership.

Our company is now running a number of content marketing projects for several major travel brands. We commission travel journalism from our huge network of writers and we use that in marketing campaigns to produce tangible returns for our clients.

And although the professionalism or “quality” of the content remains paramount (we can’t achieve our goals with anything less than excellent writing), another major factor is the authority or influence of the contributing author. For our projects we are increasingly seeking writers who can clearly demonstrate their authority and influence; all of which can make enormous contributions to our clients’ web marketing goals.

Interestingly, this has largely weighted things in favour of online travel writers – particularly bloggers. Bloggers are usually in a stronger position to demonstrate social media followings and site readership stats than traditional/offline travel writers.

However with the advent of AuthorRank, the balance may be slowly shifting back towards those who identify themselves as writers first and bloggers second.  By connecting up your writing across multiple publications into a single online portfolio you can demonstrate to Google (and marketers like me) that you too have influence and reach, even if you don’t have your own enormously successful travel blog.

Previously, brands may have paid a premium to bloggers with the highest Twitter followers, Facebook fans and RSS subscribers, regardless of the actual qualitative nature of those “audiences.”  But increasingly, those arbitrary numbers should become less important and we can start to take a more nuanced & comprehensive view of influence and authority.   (This, by the way, is why we ignore Klout scores when recruiting writers for our projects.)

So, my advice for travel writers who wish to tap into this growing demand for professional writing online is to focus on nurturing your audiences, authority and influence in a way that is demonstrable to brands and marketers, but not by sacrificing your principles and standards in a relentless chase for more Twitter followers.

And for bloggers, the advice is to focus your attention on activities that make a tangible contribution to your authority. Don’t guest post articles just for the sake of a link. Don’t fill your site with thin content just for the SEO value. Don’t monteize your site by selling text links on cheap content without regard for your readers.

Thanks to things like AuthorRank, the travel writing profession is slowly turning full circle and gradually coming back to its original emphasis on engaging, authoritative & inspiring writing.  And also thanks to things like AuthorRank, there is now a growing market for that kind of quality and authority too.

Travel Guest Posting From The Other Side Of The Fence [Rant]

Wednesday, 22nd August, 2012 by Matthew Barker | Leave Comment

Matthew Barker

Successive algorithm updates have nuked great swathes of the link builder’s arsenal, calling time on all the old thinly disguised spam tricks and tacky link building methods. But the SEO world never sleeps and in their place have emerged a new series of link building methods, largely focused around the model of guest posting.

Plenty has already been said on the subject* so there’s no need to go over old ground. The basic point is that gaining “good links” is now paramount (read; editorial links from relevant, authority sites), and guest posting is one of the few widely accepted methods of gaining them. Provide some content to a relevant website, include a link. Rinse. Repeat.

Interestingly for the travel industry, people have been guest posting for ages, just not on a commercial basis. For years, travel bloggers have been bartering content in order to pool each other’s audiences and to give each other a bit of a boost in the search results.

But in recent months commercial SEOs have gatecrashed the party, turning up with thousands of words of low grade “content,” big budgets and an eagerness to pollute the blogosphere with blatant link-seeking drivel, with little regard for individual sites’ communities, audiences or quality standards.

I know this because I’m involved on both sides of the fence: I’m a commercial guest poster AND I’m an online travel publisher. And the impact of all this commercial guest posting on my work SUCKS on both counts.

I operate a large network of professional travel writers, partially to help me source high quality travel journalism that I can share with willing publishers on behalf of my clients. We do not do simple link seeking. I look for sites with well-aligned audiences, quality output and lively communities. I do this because I seek to provide value for my clients and for my publishing partners. Note the word partners.

I am also involved with a number of travel writing websites. Despite having some very specific guidelines on our link policy and commercial guest posting, we are inundated with requests for commercial guest post links.

Some just ignore the fact that we don’t want commercial posts and send them anyway. Others bank on our naivety and offer content “for free!” trying to sneak commercial links past us. The equivalent to shouting “what’s that over there?!” and stealing my sandwich while my back’s turned:

“I am Purvi an experienced content writer, Actually I am a freelance content writer and I love writing articles as a hobby on topics related to (TRAVEL ). What if I provide you with an unique article as a Guest Post absolutely FREE!! An article that will be informative for your readers. The article will be related to your website and will be appreciated by your readers.”

I try to reply to all emails, but I hadn’t had my morning tea yet and this one got sent straight to spam.

The overwhelming majority of offers are for thin, generic and poorly written articles. Articles that have been churned out by a faceless copywriter somewhere with no regard for the guidelines we’ve published on the site. Worse still, they usually offer to pay me to publish their articles.

Ordinarily this would be fine. I could just politely refuse all those offers, and it would take no more than 10 milliseconds of my day.

The problem is that I also do this stuff from the other perspective. I’m also the guy sending emails to bloggers, building relationships and offering my content out to publishers. And what I see is a total distortion of everything that made guest posting so cool in the first place.

Those link-seeking scumbags have imbued the entire process with their sleazy, tacky tone and as a result are tarring me with the same brush. I often don’t even get a chance to show publishers that our offering is qualitatively superior to the standard dross – I’m immediately pigeonholed into the “SEO link hound” category. It makes my work unnecessarily hard and is a major pain in the backside. Fortunately I can still rely on the basic good nature of bloggers and publishers out there who quickly see what differentiates our journalism from the rest and appreciate what I have to offer.

OK that’s my rant, now here’s what I propose:

  1. Bloggers and publishers should stop accepting any old nonsense so long as the money is right. Don’t turn yourself into a content farm at the expense of quality, audience and community. This is a BAD way of monetizing your site because it extracts value, provides little and will end up destroying your site. Stick by your standards.
  2. Bloggers shouldn’t necessarily reject “unpaid” content. If the material is good enough it can add significant value to your site, including search and social media visibility. Don’t just look for the dollar amount and ignore the value and worth of the writing itself.
  3. SEO people should stop peddling junk and offering to pay for its publication. People who do this should be publicly outed somehow. Either offer publishers valuable, quality material that suits their particular site & audience, or don’t offer anything.
  4. Brands and clients should be aware of what’s being done in their name. Do you want your URL attached to junk content? Wouldn’t you prefer to be associated with quality?

 

*http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2195069/The-Evolution-of-Guest-Posting

http://myblogguest.com/blog/

http://travel.hitriddle.com/travel-marketing-blog/legitimate-and-effective-inbound-link-development-for-the-travel-industry/

Travel Blog Exchange 2012: Three Questions For Next Year

Monday, 18th June, 2012 by Matthew Barker | 4 Comments

By Matthew Barker

As the dust settles on the Travel Blog Exchange’s annual networking shindig, several hundred hopeful travel blogtrepreneurs* are heading back down from the rarefied air of Keystone, Colorado, notebooks stuffed with motivational ideas on converting their travel sites into publishing powerhouses, advertising platforms and profitable online businesses.

The travel blogosphere is a huge and diverse place, but TBEX is quite consciously aimed at a specific segment: people who want to go pro and make their living from blogging.

For those of us on the other side of the industry fence, PR people, advertisers and web marketers, this is a hugely important audience. The role of bloggers in the travel marketing ecosystem has long been established and will only increase in importance as content creators, audiences and platforms all diversify and become ever more embedded in the principles of effective web marketing.

But given that most doubts about the role of bloggers have long since evaporated, it appeared to me as a first-time TBEX attendee that the blog world’s leadership is failing to help bloggers adapt, evolve and, dare I say it, mature to fulfil their rightful place at the top table of the travel marketing mix.

This is not to criticise the event organisation in any way. Aside from a few lengthy lunch queues and the absence of any free coffee this was one of the best and most professionally organised conferences I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to more than my fair share.

What I’m griping at is less the quality of the event, and more the substance of what was actually being said on the stages and podiums themselves. So in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are three questions that I would want to see addressed at the next TBEX conference.

How Do We Improve The Quality Of Output?

The most surprising feature of the two-day program was the near absolute absence of anything concerning the quality of output, or journalistic skill in general. Out of several dozen sessions, just one addressed the question of how to be better at travel writing.

This is important to me as a content commissioner because bloggers tend to produce travel writing that is more amateurish than their traditional travel writing counterparts.** Writers who have cut their teeth on professional magazines and newspapers are generally more likely to produce journalism that is well researched, detail focused and engaging to the reader than writers who write mostly for their own blogs.

Sure, it might be common sense that professional journalists can usually write better than (most) self-publishers, but for us in the industry that just ain’t good enough: we need bloggers with large online presence, reach and influence. But we also need them to be good writers too. If bloggers want to take their rightful place in the marketing mix they need to upgrade the professionalism of their output.

How Do We Improve Innovation?

A second surprise was the anaemic level of innovation on display by many of the big-ticket speakers. Although “monetization” was the undisputed buzzword of the conference, the reality is that many of the big personalities in the travel blog world are locked in to an out-dated model of mass user generated content (UGC) publishing.

Many of the speakers represented sites that have followed the traditional route to online travel publishing success: pack a site with vast quantities of UGC that is either produced for free or for pennies (usually between the $10-25 mark) and aimed at no real audience or purpose, and pursue a rapacious approach to social media follower building, regardless of the quality or value of your connections.

This quantity over quality approach to travel publishing is easily commercialised by showing naïve advertisers huge numbers of unique site visitors (but little qualitative visitor engagement) and selling Adsense, sponsored posts, text links or banner ads on a CPM model.

I should point out an honourable exception here: Ross Borden from the Matador Network was emphatic in his rejection of the CPM advertising model and called on bloggers to find more innovative commercial partnerships with the travel industry. But what are those strategies? No one seemed to know.

As it is, it’s the marketers who have to come up with all the new ideas. But why should it be that way? Why isn’t the innovation flowing in the other direction too?

How Do We Improve Value & ROI Measurement?

For marketers, entrusted to make significant decisions on the best use of our clients’ scarce budgets, the question of value and ROI is by far our most important consideration. What we do with those marketing budgets has an immediate and direct impact on bottom lines, and if we screw up we’re in trouble.

But in the blogging world ROI seems to be a secondary concern. The most interesting comment I heard all weekend was an exasperated request from one of the ski resort’s PR guys: “How do I put a value to all this? Do I give a blogger a free day pass, or do I put them and their entire family up for a week?”

I share that guy’s pain. If pro travel bloggers want to be treated as equals by the industry they need to learn to play by the rules. As a marketer I don’t only care how many uniques per month, subscribers, Facebook fans or anything else your site has. I also want to know about your engagement rates and ROI. I want to know what you can do in exchange for my client’s money.

That I didn’t hear the phrase “ROI” once this entire weekend suggests how far we have to go.

In summary, none of the above is intended as blanket criticism levelled at the community as a whole. Overall the blogging community is doing great things and has deservedly earned the industry’s respect. But from my perspective I would like to see more leadership on the issues that really matter, and much less emphasis on the fluff. Travel blogs have a bright future in the industry ecosystem but after TBEX 2012 it’s clear that we’re not quite there yet.

 

*I’m definitely claiming that phrase in the unlikely event that someone else hasn’t already invented it.

**I’m choosing my words very carefully so as not to tar all bloggers with the same brush: many of the bloggers who write for us are excellent travel writers.

 

What Does Travel “Content Marketing” Actually Look Like?

Friday, 8th June, 2012 by Matthew Barker | 1 Comment

By Matthew Barker

I’ve spent many months talking to writers, publishers and travel firms about the emerging trend for “content marketing” in the travel industry. The world of online marketing is currently undergoing a major upheaval that is fundamentally recasting the way that businesses will market themselves online. Quality, professionally written content is the key to success in search engines and social media, meaning big opportunities for both pro writers and innovative travel firms.

But what does this new approach to online marketing actually look like? We’ve been talking in vague terms for a long time, with little real clarity about exactly what it entails, who does what, and when. This excellent slideshow from SEOMoz’s Rand Fishkin pretty much sums up the theory, but what does it actually mean to those of us tasked with making it a reality?

Fortunately in recent weeks we’ve begun to boil a lot of the concepts down to specific, practical actions and services, which are providing a clearer picture of what the future has in store for all of us.

Example Content Development Strategy

We developed the following strategy for a client (who will remain anonymous for the time being) to achieve the following goals:

  • To publish more, and higher quality, informative “guide style” articles on the site, primarily to help inform site visitors and facilitiate bookings, secondarily to encourage visitors to remain on the site for longer and read more pages (an important ranking signal)
  • To publish a smaller number of first-person experiential stories about particular trips, primarily to inspire and engage site visitors to make bookings, secondarily to elicit social media shares and interactions and links/comments from other blogs & sites (more important ranking signals)
  • To increase the overall volume and quality of pages on the site, to improve visitor behaviour metrics (average time on site, pages read per visit, lower bounce rates), to improve search rankings

In each case, our content was developed by a professional, in-country expert who was writing from direct experience and thorough research.

Our first-person stories were commissioned from journalists with significant online and social media reach: popular travel blogs, wide social media networks and name recognition. Not only did our writers contribute their stories, they also cross promoted them to their own networks, giving the pages a social media “kickstart” which helped snowball the total number of likes/tweets/+1′s etc.

Unlike traditional SEO campaigns, this strategy didn’t simply take increases in search engine rankings as the measure of success. We also looked at:

  • The volume and quality of social media interactions, and their impact on traffic & leads
  • The impact on site metrics such as number of pages indexed, and the visitor behaviour metrics mentioned above
  • The overall impact on traffic, leads, and the quality of leads

Although the campaign is still in progress, initial results have been very promising. All the visitor behaviour metrics have improved, social media interactions are increasing, and the combined effect of the additional content has generated significant additional traffic. It will take time before we know the impact on rankings, and that is always a difficult issue to isolate and attribute, but so far the strategy seems to work.

Most importantly, it is proving to be far more effective than “traditional” SEO strategies ever could be. It would take months of link development to achieve the same increases in traffic, while failing to achieve any new social media interactions and all the additional benefits of online brand development.

When we get more details on the final outcomes we will publish a complete case study here. Until then, start thinking: are you ready for the coming age of content performance?

Download our free ebook on content marketing for the travel industry.

Are You Getting Serious About The New Search Marketing?

Wednesday, 30th May, 2012 by Matthew Barker | Leave Comment

By Matthew Barker

Search Engine Watch published a great article this week written by Jeff Slipko, SEO strategy manager at Expedia, specifically relating to the travel industry, with some stark warnings about the changing landscape of search marketing, many of which dovetail with what we’ve been saying at Hit Riddle for some time.

The article takes a broad view of all the recent and ongoing developments in SEO, including:

  • Google’s recent Penguin algorithm update which targeted link spam,
  • The previous Panda update which targeted on-site content quality,
  • The ever stronger competition posed by the major brands (Kayak, Expedia, Google flight & hotel search, etc),
  • The ever decreasing margins available from relying on PPC advertising.

Based on all of these long-term processes, Jeff argues that:

Looking at online marketing as just PPC and SEO isn’t enough anymore. In a post-Panda and Penguin landscape, sites need to be better than that.

Successful travel sites will look at online marketing as a holistic effort that includes as many pieces of inbound marketing as possible – SEO, content, social media, conversion, user experience, on-site merchandising, just to name a few.

And, because a picture always speaks a thousand words, SEW also gave us this handy graphic which encapsulates the idea of a broader approach to online marketing:

Image credit: http://www.seomoz.org/ugc/what-to-charge-for-seo-and-inbound-marketing-services-14703

At Hit Riddle we always like to see someone else banging the same drum as us, especially when what we’re saying has so much overlap. Here’s a passage from our recent ebook “A New Paradigm For Search Marketing In The Travel Industry

But times are changing. The most recent changes made in search engine and social media technology has signalled that the future of online marketing lies very much with the development and creative deployment of smart and innovative content. More than ever, it is content that will underpin success in search engine rankings, social media visibility and reach and brand development. The days of cheap content written for search engines are over, and online travel businesses of all shapes and sizes will need to consider investment in professional, quality content as important as their other online marketing channels.

So, the question is: are you getting serious about these real and rapid changes? Do you have a strategy in place? Are you ready to take advantage of the opportunities, or are you more likely to be caught off guard and get caught up in the risks?

If you haven’t already, a good starting point would be to download the ebook here.

INFLUENCE As An Emerging SEO Metric, And How Travel Writers Can Prepare/Help

Tuesday, 15th May, 2012 by Matthew Barker | 1 Comment

By Matthew Barker

Our friends at Travel Writers Exchange have just published my article, “Expand Your Portfolio To Access New Markets” which was primarily written for the travel writing community, but has enormous implications and lessons for all of us in the online travel marketing trade.

The idea is that commercial travel websites’ long-term success will depend upon publishing content that is so extraordinarily good that visitors will share, comment, Like, Tweet, +1 and otherwise interact with it using social media tools.

The basic gist of my article is what I’ve been banging on about ad nauseam for several months: changes in SEO and social media marketing mean that commercial travel businesses are starting to view themselves as travel publishers in their own right, and will begin to require professional standard travel content to fuel their social media and search engine visibility.

“Professional standard content” is travel journalism that can engage and inspire readers, hold them on the site for longer, elicit high volumes of social media shares and ultimately convert traffic into leads. You don’t achieve this with $10 fluff articles. You do this by commissioning a pro travel journalist who knows what they’re talking about, and how to write.

But, as I explain in my article, it goes beyond simply knowing how to write. This emerging market has a number of specific requirements that are new compared to traditional travel writing. Although these publishers are just as “commercial” as traditional magazines and publications, they will be measuring their commercial success by very different metrics. While a print magazine measures success by distribution, sales and ad revenues, an online publication measures success by the social media interactions and SEO value generated by the content.

This is a hugely important point for travel writers to understand and prepare for. Increasingly, it is the individual influence of each writer that will determine their value to online publishers, and therefore help set the rate they can expect to earn:

Firstly, writers that can demonstrate skill and aptitude for creating “shareable” content will be at an immediate head start. Understanding what makes audiences tick on different social media platforms, and then giving them what they want, will start to add extra ROI to the content itself.

Secondly, writers that have significant pre-existing social media reach which can be used to cross promote their contributions will be seen as more valuable by the publisher. If you can bring additional eyeballs to your article by posting to a large and active Facebook/Twitter/Google+ following, and if you can send traffic from your own blog or other sites you contribute to, you will be adding much needed value to your “product”.

Finally, writers that are ahead of their game with adopting new technology will be able to show additional value to their publishers. This is especially the case with Google Authorship which, although new and still nebulous, probably shows the long term direction that “author influence” is taking.

The fact is, the old SEO tricks are outdated, too easily spammable and about to become obsolete. In their place is a brave new world of content performance, social media interaction and author influence. Writers who can prepare themselves now will get a much needed head start. As will commercial travel sites who adapt early.

Further reading:

Download our FREE ebook “Content Is Not King: A New Paradigm For Search Marketing In The Travel Industry”

See this interesting article on the great Travel Blather blog about social media / social influence

Read our travel content How To guides on putting all this stuff into practice

Update: Latest Social-Search Integrations On Google & Bing

Friday, 11th May, 2012 by Matthew Barker | Leave Comment

By Matthew Barker

There was a good post in Search Engine Land today about the latest social media integrations on the Google and Bing search engines:

Earlier this year, Google made its results more social with Search Plus Your World. Now Bing has reshaped how it handles social information as part of its “The New Bing” launch. Which does better, Google’s blended search+search model or Bing’s more segregated approach. Let’s look at some examples.

Read the rest at: Head-To-Head: Bing’s Social Search Vs. Google’s Search Plus Your World 

Although the interfaces still appear a little rough around the edges, it’s obvious the direction that they’re both taking, bringing the behaviour and actions of all our friends and networks on various social media sites into the results that are displayed when we search.

The most important thing here is that both Google and Bing are taking into account more than just their own social networks (meaning Google with Google+ and Bing with its Facebook partnership). For example, Facebook is being reflected in the Google results, while Bing is showing pages that are trending on Twitter. It’s good to see that both are trying to factor in more than their own platforms and I think we can expect this trend to continue despite the very public rivalry between Google/Facebook/Bing/and to a lesser extent, Twitter.

This is important because I am still hearing people saying things like “no one uses Google+, so its impact on search is irrelevant” or “not many people use Bing, so Facebook’s influence on those results are less important”. Well that would be nonsense even if the search engines weren’t factoring in rival platforms to their results. That they are doing so makes all the more reason that site owners and marketers need to be thinking about the “shareability” of their content as a major factor in their overall SEO strategy.

And what does that mean for travel websites? Start investing in good, valuable and shareable online travel content, and start now.

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