In this, the second special edition of, ‘This Week In Organic’, we look at how SEO & content marketing works in the travel industry.
We referred to the following travel industry business models:
Business model 1: Travel industry aggregator sites
Business model 2: Direct travel industry service provider
Business model 3: Travel industry support services (Consultancy / SEO etc.)
And discussed the following topics:
- Is it still possible for smaller brands in the travel industry to drive significant traffic from organic search or have big, pre-existing brands taken over?
- Is the future brighter for aggregator sites or direct service providers?
- What are some of the most important social sites that consumers are currently using to research their trips and how do you best take advantage of that as a marketer?
- How do you get customers to remember you and come back to your site when you’re ready to book?
- How will Google impact the online travel marketplace in the future?
- How will an increased level of local search, mobile internet use and apps impact the travel industry?
- How has SEO in general changed in relation to the travel industry?
- What are the most effective content marketing activities that a travel-industry focused digital marketing professional should be concentrating on?
- What kind of digital marketing support services are the travel industry going to require in the future?
DAVID BAIN: Hello and welcome to a special edition of This Week in Organic. In this episode, we’re looking at the different digital marketing challenges that the travel industry is facing, and specifically into how the face of SEO and content marketing is changing different travel industry business models.
The three business types that we’re going to be looking into today are resellers and aggregator sites – bit sites that aren’t likely to offer their own branded holidays but try to provide a very comprehensive selection of holidays for their visitors.
The second type of business we’re looking into are the direct travel industry service providers, the brands that traditionally maybe started as travel agents on the high street but moved online as the general public started to embrace the internet.
And thirdly, digital marketing support service for the travel industry. There are still many travel businesses that aren’t taking full advantage of the digital world, so we’re also going to take a look at the types of third party digital services out there that travel businesses should probably be thinking of using.
We’re going to be talking about what’s worked in the past but isn’t working quite so well now. We’re also going to be talking about what is working well now and also what the future might bring and how to cope with that.
But with no further ado, let’s meet today’s guests. So joining me today are there top travel industry-focused digital marketing professions.
So let’s start again by saying hello to first of al, Gian.
GIAN CAPRINI: Gian Caprini. I’m from Expedia network, which is the B2B arm of Expedia Inc. and we basically focus on working on white limo solutions and API integrations with smaller OTAs as well as really big players in the industry, as well as airlines around the world.
And my main digital marketing challenge recently has been trying to convince businesses of any size that the only way for success in travel is going for a multi-channel marketing approach which puts together all the different elements of marketing, from SEO to SEM to social media to content marketing, integrating these into a very attentive and strategic, analytics strategy. And that’s the main thing I’ve been focusing on, providing these sort of consultancy services – a B2B services within Expedia.
DAVID BAIN: Lovely. Okay, thanks Gian. Moving onto Diego.
DIEGO PUGLISI: Hello everyone. I’m Diego Puglisi. I am Group Search Marketing Manager for Thomas Cook Airlines Group, which includes Condor, which is our German airline, and includes Thomas Cook Airlines Belgium as well. So I look after all PPC and SEO for the three markets of reference. And the main challenge I found here was to really shift focus on content marketing, which I think is extremely relevant for today’s chat we’re going to have.
DAVID BAIN: Lovely. Thank you, Diego. And our guest who forgot to put his own beard on today is Tom!
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Thanks, David! I’m Tom McLoughlin. I’m a Director at SEO Travel. We offer digital marketing services to travel companies specficially, from obviously SEO, as the name suggests, but also wider things like content marketing, PPC, social media, that kind of thing.
And today I’m quite interested in talking about the challenges of smaller travel companies competing with the likes of Expedia and Thomas Cook out there! And I guess the challenges of trying to get active on various platforms that are the challenges of the digital world today when you’re a smaller travel business.
DAVID BAIN: Lovely. Thanks, Tom. See, when I try to be funny, I trip over my words. I shouldn’t be doing that!
So let’s dive into business model number one – so that’s resellers and aggregator sites. That’s what I’d probably describe Expedia as. Gian, is that a fair description?
GIAN CAPRINI: First I’d like to explain something about my role within the organisation. I consider the brand Expedia one of my main competitors. We provide the hotels inventory that Expedia Inc, the parent company, aggregates into third party solutions. So my role is basically helping all TAs of different sizes, from small TAs up to extremely big players that can also be of the size or, or close to the size of, Expedia, to compete in this digital marketing space.
So most of them act as comparison sites and then aggregate and we’ll help some of them over a multiple type of services, like car hire as well as flights or package holidays. So it’s becoming an industry very much crowded with a very few players owning the space.
And on top of this is the new big trend in the travel industry online, which is meta-search. And meta-search is changing the landscape in the way most of digital marketing budget is shifting for TAs in particular. This is relevant for the flight space as well as the hotel space. A bit less relevant in the car rental space where the suppliers, the list of suppliers is smaller than the other two areas of the business.
So the trends that we’re seeing in this aggregating system, there is a big trend around big players spending a lot of money in performance marketing. So deposition channels are becoming very expensive. So it’s very difficult to help small TAs to grow in an environment where the budgets are massive for big companies.
And the main key point of this is that the money spent into paid search, as well as meta-search, as well as opening display advertising, is mainly focused on the lifetime value of the customers, which is the biggest trend, not just in travel, but in general on the internet. People are starting to identify which are the preferred providers for different services. And in travel, the most important action that businesses should look at is loyalty, making sure that you have customers coming back to your site and booking multiple times, and therefore your digital marketing strategy should be aligned to this. So you need a very good attribution modelling in place and you need a very good strategy around going after the right person at the right time. So integrating content together with performance marketing is the biggest challenge that many of these TAs are seeing.
And I think this is the starting point or the challenge for the success in digital marketing media in the travel industry.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, so basically the biggest challenge you see at the moment is the fact that you don’t think it’s as possible now to be successful just focusing on one form of digital marketing. You think many forms have to be integrated together and built upon each other to generate the success you require. Yeah.
GIAN CAPRINI: Yeah, that’s essentially the key strategy for success. And because of this particular role in the consultancy services within a company that mainly is focused on B2C brands, I have access to very interesting information and I’ve seen companies failing badly at not being able to integrate a multi-channel strategy and realising very soon that the budget behind paid search and the budget behind even looking at the technical issue aspects, if it doesn’t go together where it’s a full integration of all of the other channels, from email marketing to social media to content marketing at it’s core, which is creating good quality information for the users, they’re not going to be able to succeed in the future.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, so the marketing model really has changed quite a bit by the sound of it over the last few years. But what about the business model? Would you say the business model of Expedia has changed that much over the last, say, five years or so?
GIAN CAPRINI: I mean, the business model, the luckky role that these big TAs have been playing in the past fifteen years is the fact that they started early. So the two big companies in the market are Priceline in the US and Expedia, as well in the US but with a strong focus on some India brands as well, is the fact that they contracted hotels. So they have a very good inventory of hotels around the world. Therefore many other companies are using the inventory made available by this.
DAVID BAIN: Mm.
GIAN CAPRINI: …key players in the market. So what is happening today is that the margins are squeezed. The margins become extremely low. So it’s much more important to generate experiences that go beyond the pure transactions. So that’s the other interesting thing in the industry, is with new devices coming into play and the fact that you need to create innovation, the only way to succeed is actually providing experiences that are not just a booking. So in order to do that, you need to create simple loyalty programmes, like the one at hotels.com, a company owned by Expedia, which is developing every ten nights that you book with hotels.com, you get one free. So people get loyalty. They already have more than 15 million customers and part of this is loyalty.
Then you need to create experience in the apps. You need to be able to provide something that goes beyond just the booking aspects of it. So you need to create in-holiday support, like with guides around what to do when you’re there. We’ve done similar products added on top of the product you’re selling and you need to try to integrate again different sort of layers of the experience that is not just about booking one hotel.
DAVID BAIN: One of the challenges that Expedia may face is that perhaps all fronts focus on trying to actually trying to change the business model. What I’m saying is basically Google are entering the marketplace. You’ve got social media and perhaps an opportunity for local hotels that aren’t on big networks to actually target users individually. Then you’ve got complete changes in the business model by brands like Airbnb coming in there as well. So you’ve got a few different models that are trying to disrupt the marketplace. Do you have concern for the future of a business model that tries to actually offer customers everything through one platform?
GIAN CAPRINI: I think it’s a very interesting time. I think in the online travel space there are some new trends that are really changing the face of the industry and I think that the world is still really big and the rate at which the travel industry is growing in regions like Asia or Africa is still massive. I’m quite close to the Latin American region and I know how much businesses online are still depending mainly on their offline bookings. So they have just started to create an online presence. So there is so much still to do in order to grow the internet audience that I still believe that for the next period of twenty years, the business will not be severely affected.
However in certain regions where the market is extremely mature, like the United States, for example, you need to look into creating different experiences. You need to start innovating in technology. You need to come up with solutions that, as I was saying before, don’t just provide the booking experience. Because if you do that, you’ve got to go against the supplying services. So at the moment there are hotel managers to keep the cost down by avoiding having to pay any commissions to other parties and obviously the users would benefit from that. In the same way as renting your own home is a profitable business for many homeowners that before didn’t know what to do when they had their house empty. So Airbnb bridged a gap that was in the market in that space.
So I think there is space for innovation. There is also space for growth in many regions where the trends are still growing and we’re very far from having a saturated situation.
DAVID BAIN: Okay. One of the brands you mentioned was hotels.com. Now you talked about extra programs that they’re adding into the offering to try and encourage people to book again. Now hotels.com and other Expedia brands are obviously doing a good job in a lot of these areas. What things can maybe smaller businesses learn from that process? Maybe marketing automation, I’m thinking of, that they can actually implement and they’re possibly not doing it in their businesses?
GIAN CAPRINI: I think that’s exactly the key challenge that small businesses are facing, that how can they compete with such big organisations? And the key recommendation that I give to start-ups that are trying to enter the travel space is to go for a niche, is trying to identify a space in the market where the big hoteliers might not be as strong as they would be because of the size of the business they have to deal with. So an example is a partner that we have in the United States who focus on pet-friendly hotels. So they create really good content about where to go with your dogs for holidays and what kinds of excursions you can do with your dogs, so it’s content marketing together with a good strategy or marketing with an app that allows you to keep track of your previous bookings as well as giving you advice on where you could go with your dog for the next trip.
And this sort of niche is a way to still get away with interesting success. Again, it really depends on which market you’re trying to play in. The English market is definitely more complicated compared to other regions. As I have a global remit, I started to look more at how the market is growing in Asia and other parts of the world at the moment.
But another interesting thing I would say is that many of these organisations are kind of slow in adopting the latest techniques that Google recommends. So even today, starting from scratch with a new website, having the basics of technical SEO done right is something than can make a difference. Some of these big companies sometimes try to make quick changes. They have huge engineering teams and process and sprint times that don’t always allow them to take advantage of the latest opportunities. So I’m thinking think schema mark-up, I’m thinking about clever social media integration, content that is really well placed within the site, not necessarily just put in a blog where you just do it for the sake of doing it, but you actually have a strategy in place to generate traffic to the content and then using that streaming stage of the traveller mind, so when they go for the booking they know where they found the source of the information.
So trying to come up with more of the basics is still something that small organisations can, I think, have a quick win, as well as looking into niches, as I was saying before.
DAVID BAIN: Two wonderful tips there. So focus on niches but also you can react quicker than bigger organisations. I remember working on behalf of some big organisations that had content management systems which were up to ten years old and they couldn’t do anything with regards to changing them at all. And a lot of these big companies do have CMSs that are very tricky for anyone within the marketing department to update in any way. And that’s certainly an advantage for smaller business. Absolutely spot-on.
So obviously this isn’t just the Gian, show! I just wanted to focus on Gian to begin with for looking at that particular business model. But let’s bring Diego into it as well here. Diego, now one of the challenges that you’ve got working for Thomas Cook is that you could perhaps have your holidays, your offerings available on lots of different comparison sites or aggregator sites, whatever you want to actually call them, but of course that’s going to hit into your margins. So what’s the best way to go in terms of you for business strategy? Is it actually to have less of a margin but distribute your offerings to all these different sites or try and actually drive people back to your own site but not distribute your content?
DIEGO PUGLISI: Obviously acquiring customers directly is always the cheapest option. That’s why SEO in our business is extremely important. But we would not be able to get enough customers or hit the targets that we have just purely on SEO. So we’re always happy to make use of other channels and sacrificing margins slightly. But what doesn’t happen once a customer books through an affiliate site or a comparison site… I’m mainly talking about flights ‘cause that’s what we’re responsible for, and as an airline is that you don’t have access to customers’ information or you’re not capturing their address sometimes or you’re not able to communicate directly with them. And that’s why SEO in our company is extremely important. So margins in the airline industry, as Gian correctly said before, are already very, very tiny, so the acquisition and being there when people search for a flight… But also in any point of the moving funnel, which is also the inspiration, the planning and then the booking, is always very important.
DAVID BAIN: Okay. So one of the challenging things for brands that actually sell holidays, sell products directly online is the fact there are so many massive brands that own that estate at the top of Google and it’s very difficult certainly for competitive terms to appear there or to appear higher than them. Are you finding in general your organic traffic staying about the same or increasing or decreasing? And do you find yourself focusing on more different areas of marketing apart from organic because of that?
DIEGO PUGLISI: It’s especially true that we have large comparison sites. It’s no secret that Skyscanner is pretty much on top of the real estate of Google for any flight-related searches. It’s really hard to do better than them. The intent of the search is certain that Google will rank them first, absolutely. But also what Gian mentioned before, so finding your niche is the key. It’s not just for small businesses but in the travel industry, when you have so many comparison sites, finding your niche is the key, in terms of… Through SEO we obviously don’t target all the destinations that we fly to. That would be crazy with the budget. It would be really large and we don’t have an unlimited budgeted. Therefore once you have defined your target destination that you want to increase the visibility in organic for, then you start thinking of your persona.
So you segment your customer base. At Thomas Cook, our customers are in our hearts, truly. We understand who we want to inspire. We understand who we want to address our flights to. Therefore it all goes back to content. So we start thinking what kind of content they would find interesting to find on our site, or even on the internet through social media.
Then we start talking to each persona differently. So we provide information for each different persona, and that is the way we speak to them directly and we try to engage with that, creating tailored and relevant content around our target destinations but also targeted to specific personas. That’s the way we achieve that niche. It’s something that comparison sites would never do and Google would not do because but it’s mainly focused on paid. So niche content tailored around your customer base is really key for us.
DAVID BAIN: So if you were having a piece of content produced targeting, for example, Malaga in the south of Spain, would you have that content targeting different market personas all on the same page and then maybe segmented up into different sections and drive people to different sections of that page depending on the persona? And because you’re doing that, it might be better for SEO because there is more content on the page and perhaps a higher volume of links. Or would you produce different pages on Malaga, targeting all your individual market personas?
DEIGO PUGLISI: Many pages on your website where you can interesting content. For travel sites, it’s certainly destination pages. So people landing on that destination page through any consumer channel and then finding the information that could be useful to them. So yeah, this could be targeted through your destination pages. So you know that you have specific personas and you provide information about what they’re interested in.
But destination pages are not the only place where you can provide that information. You could have a blog, you could have videos on YouTube and also social media. So the touchpoints with our customers are many. The important thing is really to provide information that… In a company as large as Thomas Cook, there’s so much expertise about destination, about detailed elements of facts about destinations which should really not be missed and it should make the most use of that. So treasure all the relationships that your company has. So if you work with a specific destination tourist board, speak to them, ask questions, fill gaps that cannot be answered by you that you know your customers are interested in. So just make the most out of your connections as well.
DAVID BAIN: So Tom, I’m now hearing Diego talk about SEO like this because maybe just five years ago or so, SEO was on about producing fairly short articles, was getting someone to write them for $5 each, perhaps, outsourced, and maybe driving a few links through not such nice methods back to those pages. I’m not saying that you’ve done that or I’ve done that but some people have done that, I’m sure. But nowadays obviously, what Diego is saying is he’s talking about things like buyer personas, about real great business thinking behind content as well. I guess you must have seen SEO techniques within the travel industry change quite significantly over the last few years?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, I think it’s changed in line with how SEO in general has changed where, as you’ve said, it’s moved much more away from taking one keyword and giving that to an agency and saying, ‘I want you to go and rank that keyword,’ to essentially looking at yourself as a whole brand, looking at your whole website and setting your website up to cover all the areas that people within the customer journey will touch on. So obviously there’s the phrases where someone’s looking to book a holiday, where they might type in, ‘holiday in Malaga’ or something like that, but in that whole research process, people are going to be searching for things to do in Malaga. They may start with, ‘Where’s hot in Europe in May?’ or something like that and you want to make sure that you are able to capture traffic in all those different ways, rather than getting bogged down with one or two phrases.
And I think from Google’s point of view, as you said, previously it used to be able to do some slightly underhand things, get some links in some slightly suspect places and that would be enough to help you rank for the big competitive phrases, whereas now the focus has switched a lot more about emphasis on the brand and emphasis on your domain as a whole. So if you can get yourself out there and you can get yourself featured in good quality sites, whether that’s through things like content marketing or whether it’s through PR or anything like that, it’s those kind of good places that you want the link to your home page and say your brand name and all of those things building the trust in the domain itself and your site, and then if you’ve got good content on there already, the whole site will come up and start to bring in more traffic from a whole wide range of different areas.
So yeah, I would say that kind of shift off vanity keyword rankings to having to look at your whole site and where customers come from throughout the whole journey, it’s definitely switched that way and certainly for us, a lot of the clients that we work with are smaller travel companies, independent tour operators and things like that, so rankings-wise there’s been a shift for the big, competitive phrases. People like your Thomas Cooks and Thompsons and First Choice and your high street brands, they tend to dominate those big headline phrases, so smaller companies need to set their website up in a way that they’re capable of drawing traffic in from a much wider net of areas, rather than being caught up with one or two phrases that in the long-term are not really realistic target to go and compete for.
DAVID BAIN: So you mentioned that you have a few smaller clients there. You talk about local tour providers. If someone was perhaps a local tour provider in the Lake District in north-west England, do you think it’s realistic for a company like that to start ranking for terms like ‘Lake District holidays’ or realistically are the big brands out there all going to be ranking for these keyword phrases that have maybe 500 or 1,000 plus searches per month for and it’s not worthwhile targeting that and as a small business you should be thinking more long-tail?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: I think a phrase like that is still possible, I would say, for something like that. I would say if you look at the wider phrases, when you look at a country level, that’s where you get a lot of difficulty and it’ll be very hard for an independent tour operator to break into that. But I think if you get into a regional level, there’s certainly still potential for independents to go and do that. But I guess what I would say to a client who was trying to do something like that would be, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in that basket of trying to go and rank for ‘Lake District holidays’. By all means get that phrase in the right places on the page, optimise your home page if that’s the biggest phrase in your niche. You should be optimised for those kinds of phrases but equally, the rest of the content on your site, the kind of architecture of the pages on your site should be set up to capture people in different areas who might be searching for ‘things to do in the Lake District’ or ‘Lake District tours’ or ‘weekends in the Lake District’ or even on a wider scale you might look at ‘best places to go in the UK’ or ‘weekend breaks in the UK’. You could look to those sort of areas. So it’s more the principle being get out of that mind-set of there’s four or five keywords in your industry that you want to chase after, and widen the whole net and set yourself up in a way that you’re capable of getting traffic for all those different areas.
DAVID BAIN: Good advice. So Diego, going back to the direct holiday business model that independent agencies and companies like Thomas Cook would actually be focusing on, and also in relation to what Gian was saying earlier on, do you think that it’s you need to now combine different digital marketing activities to get best impact or can you still get direct call to action from, say, organic traffic? Is it possible to get someone to consider a purchase or opt in after directly finding out about a holiday offer from some kind of organic visit?
DIEGO PUGLISI: So SEO in the past was really just one department trying to fight their cause – getting links, or as we just discussed before, just creating a piece of content that would justify the right position. Now our job is really changing massively. So the integration with other channels is extremely important. So it could be integration to make a higher efficiency in your spends, but what I find to be successful in business is the integration with social media for the actual amplification of whatever you’re trying to do.
So pushing out a piece of content that wouldn’t be found otherwise if you just wait for people to land on your site, but it’s working together with your coms team. So your PR department is with your products team, so try to get information on your content from them. But it’s also with your dev team. So it’s really difficult to achieve, it’s really hard to work together with all the departments in your organisation, but if you achieve that then you suddenly become strong to be able to rank in the best positions in Google. So yeah, it really is not as simple as it was a few years back.
DAVID BAIN: So would you say that in general, departments within companies like yourselves, but not necessarily yourselves, respect what SEO can deliver? Or do you think top management still has issues with actually understanding what SEO does, and the true value of what it can provide?
DIEGO PUGLISI: I mean, a big part is really down to who’s managing SEO. You need to be able to communicate internally effectively how important the SEO channel is. I find that in travel, especially in the airline industry where the margins are really low, and acquisition really comes from the competitive side mainly, SEO is clearly one of the most important channels because, as we said before, if we could avoid sharing that margin with third parties then that is always the preferable way of finding new customers.
So I think an intelligent business still considers SEO as a key channel because also if you look at cost acquisition, very often SEO is one of the cheapest channels out there. So it should really still be the focus for any travel brand.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, and Gian, do you think that SEOs can continue to work in departments by themselves, or do you think to be a good SEO now you need to actually start understanding the impact of other aspects of the business in all areas of marketing completely?
GIAN CAPRINI: I think it is a fact that only the companies that understood that you need to have a strong attention to the organic acquisition channels are the ones flourishing, and are the ones successful today. And in order to achieve that, the internal change should be first of all having various senior positions involved in SEO. In the Expedia Inc. organisation, they have vice presidents for SEO in all the big brands. So these people sit on the highest level, and they can influence decisions of other areas of the business.
So the moment you have full control on the development roadmap with an SEO mind, then that’s where you’re going to start seeing good performance, and you’re going to start seeing that all your other channels can work better because you have a strong organic traffic coming in, and you have budgets to then spend money to other channels to increase and create new audiences. So rather than staying with the ones that are already searching for generic traffic because I think that’s the key change and shift within the industry is that in the past we were looking at keywords. We were looking at optimising for hotels in London.
Nowadays I think the main job for an SEO specialist is to help businesses in understanding that what people are searching primarily is related to something they want to achieve with a task completion approach. So they want to find hotels in London, but in order to save money you need to invest in brand. So using SEO as a channel to grow brand traffic, I think it’s the way to sell it internally, and to make sure that then people understand that that’s a key way of measuring success. The moment that you have an organic growth that comes from content marketing together with all your other marketing channels, but is increasing your brand volumes, and in particular your brand volumes associated with generic keywords, that’s where you are really being successful in the markets.
And the SEO specialist, I think they are in the best position to understand how these trends are changing. And with all these new devices, new technology coming into place, it’s very important to have a high level of curiosity, and always looking at how to integrate different pieces. And I think that the searches place is where most of the opportunities come from. And even today, I mean as average, 50% of traffic to travel websites comes from search. So search is already a key area of the business, and the moment that you have an online B to C presence, if you don’t use that as a basic for your business, you’re not going to be able to succeed. All the other channels are becoming too expensive.
You can’t compete against the biggest player in the market, so the only way is to have an integrated approach with the technical SEO basic stuff at first, and then the more organic SEO and content marketing together with your PR, and even traditional marketing strategy and TV advertising, or whatever sort of marketing activity you do, to gather into your branding exercise that can help your SEO performance from that point of view as well.
DAVID BAIN: Okay. And Tom, what are your thoughts on that as well? I mean do you think that the future of SEO, for example, is veering towards brand marketing?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: I think one of the problems that we see is a lot of the time people are looking at SEO kind of in isolation, and think it’s the sort of golden ticket to if I can rank for certain keywords then I’ll see my traffic go through the roof, and then I’ll be good to go. Whereas now more than ever I think, as you say, you need to do more to build yourself as a trusted brand, and to see yourself on a variety of platforms and channels where you can touch people through that customer journey. Yeah, I think now, these days compared to three to five years ago, you could maybe approach things in that way. Whereas now I think the smaller companies that don’t have huge budgets, the ones that are successful are the really good content.
So whether it’s the blogs, or whether it’s kind of wider things to promote the brand, the people who are incorporating those kind of things are the ones that have the potential, and see good organic growth, as opposed to the people who get kind of obsessed over a couple of keywords, and think that just heading after those is the way to go with it.
DAVID BAIN: So the third business model that we’re taking a look at in the digital travel industry is actually support services, so services like SEO from a specialist travel focused agency. So I mean, Tom, why did you actually decide to go down the route of focusing on the travel industry rather than actually targeting just general businesses, and just offering SEO services?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Well, I used to work for an SEO agency. I worked for a PR agency first, and then moved to an SEO agency, and kind of working in that environment I saw that there were a lot of good technical people who knew the technical side of SEO. But obviously a big part of what goes into the success of it is the promotional aspect of it. You know, whether you want to call it link building, or content marketing, or anything to get you out there, and get you visibility. That was the thing I saw agencies really struggling with. So, you know, we talked about it before – going out, and doing things that weren’t necessarily the best sustainable strategies.
And I actually was a travel blogger, and an aspiring writer at the same time. So I kind of developed a lot of relationships in the travel industry through that angle, and basically put the two together with the technical side of things, but then a kind of specialist approach to the promotional side of it. Yeah, they would help offer a better service on a kind of specialist level. So that was why I went down that route, and yeah, obviously it’s kind of grown from there, and we keep getting good results for people. So fingers-crossed we can keep growing things that way.
DAVID BAIN: So the nice thing from your perspective is I can ask you from a fairly independent point of view what you think about different business models. So would you rather be in charge of a company that had an aggregator type model that had offered lots of different products and services supplied by lots of different people, or would you prefer to actually have your own brand that perhaps offered less things, but were more niche?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: I think in today’s landscape, how it sits at the moment, it’s very hard to start up a kind of aggregator kind of site, whether it’s an affiliate model or something like that, and actually go out there, and compete with the big sites that are out there. And there are obviously big ones out there that are doing that, and are investing a huge amount of budget in grabbing what they’ve got already – you know, your travel supermarkets of this world.
So I think that’s a very kind of tricky area to get into. The people that we work with are going back to what John said earlier. They are kind of niche specialists, whether they specialise in one destination, or a particular region, or they specialise in a particular type of travel, like child friendly travel, or something like that. And I think that’s where there’s still a lot of potential to grow, and to actually get a good sort of portion of the traffic that’s out there. So if it was me, I’d be going down that route.
I think there’s also obviously in the sort of internet age, things have moved from, you know, you used to kind of talk to people in the street, and then you moved to you could sit in front of a computer, and never talk to a person in the day. And I think now people are moving back towards wanting that kind of personalisation, and being able to talk to a person, and get some sort of specialist advice, rather than land on a website that gives you a generic 200, 300 words that anyone could have written. You know, getting someone on the end of the phone who really knows their destination, and is enthused about it, and has really specialist knowledge of the different things to do, and the places to stay, and that kind of thing. I think that makes a big difference. So yeah, if it was me I’d be kind of veering down that route I think.
DAVID BAIN: One company that knows you quite well, and is starting to get quite personalised in its service is Google. And Google, of course, are starting to look at things like offering hotel bookings, and encroaching on the travel space themselves. Do you think that will impact what you advise clients in terms of organic search marketing moving forward?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: I don’t think it would necessarily affect it much beyond kind of what we were touching on before. So I think probably compared to what might have been advised one or two years ago, that’s definitely changed. But currently I think, as you say, they’re coming in with the aggregators, particularly for things like hotels, and flights, and insurance, that side of thing at the moment. I imagine that will impact the kind of bigger company maybe, and the kind of bigger aggregator sites.
I think the smaller specialist site companies, the advice is still you need to find your traffic in a lot of different areas, and when you do get that traffic, from a search perspective, you need to be doing the right things on your site, and on other platforms to hold on to those people. So whether it’s getting them to sign up to your email newsletter, or whether it’s getting them following your Facebook page, anything like that which you can then obviously keep going back, and making contact, and building a relationship with the customer so that you’re not reliant on a click from Google to book a holiday. You can catch them much earlier in the journey, show off your expertise and personalisation. And then when the person’s built much more trust with you, and sees that you can offer an extremely good service, you get that kind of conversion side of it further down the line.
DAVID BAIN: Gian, are you concerned at all about Google encroaching on the travel marketplace? Do you think that might impact existing big aggregator type models, or do you think that these brands are so well known anyway that people will naturally go towards them anyway for travel related information?
GIAN CAPRINI: So, I know for a fact that Google has an internal dilemma at the moment. From one end, they have their AdWords sales executive, that being able to sell to these big organisations accounts for billion dollars on a yearly basis. This is a stream of revenue that Google needs to play very carefully with. So pushing for other marketing channels that are driving traffic away, and clicks away from the main AdWords revenue is a really big challenge for Google because internally, not everyone is supporting this initiative.
At the same time, they’ve been keeping under the radar, and developing technology very well into the travel meta search engines place. So for both flights and for hotels, they have recently revamped their educational informational section around the Google hotel ads, in which they try to help OTAs or hotel providers in general. They probably prefer in most of the cases chains, as well as independent hotels when they have the technology available to integrate into their building systems specific for hotels.
In order to do that, though, you have to have a decent technology stack, which not many companies have, to be able to compete in that space. So I think that Google is definitely expanding their presence in travel, and they will grow farther. Especially outside of the US, they are doing some investments to be more relevant in this space.
At the same time though, as you were saying, you have the branding aspect that is making a difference. I mean, in many countries around the world people have their favourite travel sites. And these sites are really invested in loyalty as well as retention, as well as extremely aggressive marketing strategies to keep bombarding with massive use users, like the Booking.com approach with emails, or the targeting, and all this.
So big brands can still get away with a very high percentage of the traffic. And so far what we see with Google is that they generate traffic, but the number of conversions is actually not very high. So people are still connecting Google with a search tool, and not a booking tool. And we will see how this will shape up in the future. I mean, the ideal scenario Google is obviously to be able to control everything, but at some point they need to decide which areas of business they want to focus on. I don’t see that as a threat today, to be honest, for the big brands. However, I see this as an area that will grow farther, and in a few years’ time, we might be looking into different sort of ways.
DAVID BAIN: Yeah, it depends what Google, I guess, looks like in a couple of years’ time. It might be Alphabet two out there as well as Alphabet one.
GIAN CAPRINI: Yeah. T for travel.
DAVID BAIN: So Tom, in terms of customer retention and marketing to existing customers, and how that might impact SEO, are you involved with that at all with your existing clients? And are there any SEO tips that you could give companies that would actually help their SEO by marketing to their existing customers, and perhaps making their own existing customers help with their SEO?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, it’s certainly something we work with clients on, and kind of advise on different ways they can exploit their current customer base. I think, as we touched on before, if you can retain the people when they originally are finding you through search, getting them hooked into an email newsletter, or getting them following your Facebook page or something like that, having that kind of base of people to essentially kind of promote your content as you continue to produce it is a really good way of leveraging the customer base. And it kind of comes back to you need to create good enough content that your audience is going to be interested in. So there are obviously various things out there that customers will like, and I guess if it’s a Facebook audience, obviously things that get traction on there are the more viral things, the kind of BuzzFeed style content, that kind of thing, big long listicles, that sort of approach. So if you create that kind of content, and then promote it to an established Facebook page that you’ve built up through people finding you on the website, that’s definitely a great way to build that.
And I guess in terms of that kind of directly benefiting your SEO performance, I guess the sort of social signals won’t necessarily drive a ranking improvement. But if you’re getting more visibility, you’re obviously more likely to get links, and get it featured on other sites, and people to reference it elsewhere, which as a secondary benefit will push.
DAVID BAIN: So Tom just cutting out a little bit there. We’ll just move on to Gian actually in relation to that. Tom mentioned Facebook pages. Gian, is Facebook the best social network to be on for the travel industry at the moment, or are there other up and coming networks that can be really effective, depending on your niche?
But as the organic visibility on Facebook decreased so much, then even Facebook became a performance marketing channel where costs are still quite high for a position. So it goes on the road back to the way you would imagine that brand value is going to be able to generate across all the visitor marketing channels.
DAVID BAIN: Diego, is social media important for Thomas Cook, and if so which network is the most important?
DIEGO PUGLISI: Yeah. We’ve recently started a blog, which is always a great tool – it holds all your content. And then social media on the back of that became extremely important. In terms of channels, we do operate in many different channels, social media ones I mean. Facebook is the most important one as well for the mass marketing, in terms of speaking to more people. But Gian is absolutely right; costs for acquiring higher visibility on Facebook are increasing, therefore once you have your niche, and you know how to speak to your niche, there are other social media channels as well that are really important for us.
DAVID BAIN: So what is the most important channel to you in terms of growth at the moment?
DIEGO PUGLISI: For the airline, it’s certainly SEO because there is a lot of opportunity that we’ve found that we’ve not really tapped in the past. So I’m really lucky to be in charge of this channel internationally. So for us it’s not just the UK, but it’s also Germany. And these two markets, in terms of SEO, have the highest opportunity by doing the right things, and by really taking steps on the correct path on the two countries. I’m quite confident in that. SEO is really the most important channel for us in terms of growth, and I’m more than confident on that.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, and in terms of call to action, do you drive people towards trying to make a purchase, or do you just try to capture their details so you can market to them in the future?
DIEGO PUGLISI: From SEO point of view, so SEO is also content. So we’re really trying to serve customers and users with content and information at any phase of this funnel. Therefore, the blog is for inspiration and information. But then we have also, you know, looked at conversion on our pages. So we’ve made it easier for them to purchase, and we’re always improving the booking engine, and just making booking a flight and a holiday for them much, much easier. So we’re really always trying to improve the whole journey, from the inspiration to the purchase, and also during the holiday providing them with destination guides, as I mentioned before. But SEO is at the core of them. This is why it’s such an interesting channel.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, and Gian, in terms of customer knowledge, or knowledge of your customers, obviously it’s good to know as much as possible. But I guess it can annoy people asking them too many questions. I suppose it’s important to know their name and email address to begin with to actually get back in touch with them. In what order would you say additional information goes? Would you say it’s the address, or do you need to know more personal information, such as perhaps when they’re planning their next holiday?
GIAN CAPRINI: I think the most interesting trend about the user experience on websites nowadays is personalisation. So the more you know about your customer, the more you’re going to be able to show them, for example, the hotels that they like, the recent hotel that they visited. And the feature that most OTAs are investing a lot of their technology work in is the sort of scratch pad that you can see on the Expedia site, or favourite list as they call it on other sites. So a lot of customers can save for later, allowing them to have an experience, and allow them to compare on the site while they are browsing the products that they are interested in.
So the personalisation aspect can be achieved knowing as much as possible about the customer. So it depends on which stage you are asking this information, and there are different techniques around. There are some companies pushing for creating login profiles during the checkout process, which can affect conversion, but if you look at the lifetime value, you can actually improve having the information about that customer. If you integrate that, for example, with login with Facebook, depending on which level of data authorisation you’re asking, you can actually get very advanced information about your customer that will allow you then to do additional customisation of your potential future ads.
If you put this into a programmatic environment, which is the other interesting trend in digital marketing today, and with third party beta, and cookie tracking, and behavioural targeting, you can actually really create experiences that are one to one tailor-based. And this is probably the most innovative area that we will see changes in the future. Somehow it’s not related anymore to that search that happened on Google maybe a few weeks before, but it still very much rolls back to the search experience.
So I think a lot of the things we said today, and we labelled as SEO, are not really related necessarily to a search engine, but are really relevant for the general digital experience that users are living these days on websites. From the way they reach the website, after they purchase, and how they are experiencing the product or service that they have acquired. I think overall personalisation, and creating experiences that are focused on the users, depending on how much data you can access, but obviously being careful on privacy regulations, and annoying the customers with excessive targeting, or excessive email newsletters, as I see happening all the time these days, is the way forward.
DAVID BAIN: Yeah, there’s a fine line between being personalised and being scary I guess.
GIAN CAPRINI: Yes.
DAVID BAIN: And Tom, obviously there are a lot of personalisation opportunities perhaps for bigger firms there. Do you think that’s something that smaller firms can compete with? Are there third party tools out there that they can access as well?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think obviously with smaller companies it’s going to be less to do with I guess the current customer base, but there’s still a lot of tools out there that you can use to target very specific audiences. So Facebook ads is obviously one way you can really dig into advertising to people who follow a particular competitor. You can dig into people who follow a particular page. Obviously you can also filter through interests and age, and things like that. There’s definitely ways out there that you can really zoom into who your customer is, and make sure you target them with what you want to do.
DAVID BAIN: I’m also interested in just asking a little bit about how your services actually have changed a little bit, and how they might evolve in the future. Do you think, for instance, that there will be more SEOs employed in-house, and that your business model might change to more of a consultative approach? Or do you think that over the next few years you still see yourself providing SEO services on the behalf of travel companies?
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, I mean I think we’ve already changed quite a lot from it kind of being, obviously the name of the company is SEO Travel, but we’ve already kind of developed it from not just offering SEO. We’re offering kind of content marketing things, social media services because it’s very important that people are taking part on all of those different channels, as we’ve talked about.
I think in terms of sort of going in-house as opposed to having an agency, I think it’s getting more and more important that companies do have some sort of in-house knowledge. So whether that’s a specialist SEO person in the company, or whether it’s an existing employee getting a bit more educated on what’s going on with SEO, I think it’s important to have someone like that within a company because there are so many things happening with Google, and some of the updates that they’ve made more recently, which are not necessarily targeting people who are trying to manipulate the results, and do black hat things, or underhand things. They’re just things that you can get hit by if you’re just a normal site who thinks you’re doing the right thing. I mean, the Panda update is kind of a good example of that where particularly big accommodation sites got hit hugely by that because they had duplicate content from feeds coming in from different sites, and the same text being used on all of those. And in one fell swoop thousands of sites were obliterated, and that’s not from something that they were out there trying to manipulate Google’s results. It was just a change that Google had made.
So you need someone there to have that knowledge, and be monitoring the kind of updates that are happening to make sure you’re protected against them, and you can react quickly to them. I think there’s still got to be a place for the agency side of things too. But certainly in-house, I guess in terms of the promotional aspect, being able to test, and knowing what kind of things work on the promotional marketing side of things is a lot trickier to handle in-house on a consistent basis. And I guess to understand the marketplace, and what’s working, and what isn’t, we’re obviously kind of constantly experimenting with different things, and seeing what kind of things work. And if you’re kind of in a smaller niche, it’s much harder to get a true picture of what’s happening, and what works, and what’s effective.
So yeah, I think, as I said, there’s certainly the importance of having that knowledge within a company to know what’s going on, but there’s certainly, particularly for small companies, purely having man power they can’t employ enough people to handle a Facebook page, and all the social media stuff, and email marketing, and SEO, and creating content that goes out there, and is effective. So having someone third party who you can bring in, and just to produce those kind of things, and keep your best advice on what’s working will still be an important factor.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, there’s still going to be a job for you in the near future.
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Fingers crossed, yeah. Do I sound like I’m trying too hard?
DAVID BAIN: What about you, Diego? I mean, do you see yourself at Thomas Cook using agencies for quite a bit in the future? Do you use agencies quite a bit at the moment?
DIEGO PUGLISI: Yes. We’re using an agency mainly to help us make the most out of the assets that we have in terms of they have this thousand feet view on the market. And the good thing about the agency is that – I’m coming from an agency as well – you work across so many industries, and so many different battlefields that you actually have the flexibility in your thinking to be able to come up with ideas that brands might not even think of.
So with the best work that my agency is really useful for at the moment is coming up with ideas for content. So obviously they know our brand, they know our assets, they know our products, but they also know our personas. So they just come up with ideas. Why don’t we do this competition? Why don’t we do these events? It’s really good because an SEO, on a day to day basis, has so much work on technical, on internal communication, in terms of reporting. An agency is always really useful to provide you that inside, and that fresh idea of content that otherwise brands, larger like with smaller, would really struggle to have.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, that’s interesting. So perhaps brands in the past lacked that technical ability to implement SEO. Maybe they’ve got the technical ability now, but they still require people to think out of the box a little bit, a little bit away from the regular business thinking. And just take that experience from other industry sectors maybe, or just even other competitors in the industry, and give your business more ideas. So another vote for you, Tom, for the future. So that’s good.
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah. Absolutely. Sorry to jump in, David. Yeah, it’s absolutely, as Diego said, from the creativity side of things, I think someone being a technical SEO to also being a kind of creative mind to come up with ideas of how to promote things are quite different skills. And often within one person you won’t be able to find that kind of thing, whereas in an agency obviously you get a lot of people to throw ideas into the hat, and see what’s working. I mean, we just ran something with a client around the end of the Game of Thrones season, and we created a map of all the different places that are featured in the series throughout it, and promoted out there. And it got featured in a wide variety of places. And it’s not the kind of content that in your mind set of what you would write in your blog would usually fall into it. But it’s kind of thinking outside of the box a bit, finding what the hooks are in the news, and other entertainment things. Yeah, it’s definitely an important part of it.
DAVID BAIN: And Gian, just starting to close up here. Whenever I search LinkedIn for SEO, I find about 200 people in Expedia and related companies that are SEO specialists in different industry sectors. Does that mean that big massive organisations like Expedia don’t really have that requirement for agencies, or do they too?
GIAN CAPRINI: Well, as far as I know, there are some agencies imparting some of the work, but primarily all of the work is done in-house. As you were saying, there’s a lot of creative agencies that are supporting the SEO work. It is an interesting trend. But I think that’s a very interesting thing because SEO is important, and they have big teams dedicated to it, and big resources, big budgets. So they are really attentive to the subject. They don’t need to be sold into it, which is a vital thing. What they need to be sold into is making changes in the road maps, and making sure that the engineering side of the world actually are following the best practices, and latest recommendations.
But there is a big internal attention to it, and the teams are big and growing. This is as far as I know. When I meet external partners, I’m always really interested in understanding the structure, and how they are approaching the discipline. And I think the best scenario that has been described so far is always to have a strong team internally with some support with subject matter experts, where you cannot hire on a permanent basis, but you can pay someone in an external agency to give you that level of additional knowledge together with the creativity that you require for the outreach parts to make the company successful.
DAVID BAIN: Okay, great. Okay, well we’ve had a lot of great thoughts on what’s happening in the travel industry, and strategically what may happen in terms of digital in the future, and what other businesses should be doing. So there’s certainly a lot of thought gone into hopefully being able to give you all a final takeaway to give our guests. So what I’ll do is I’ll go around the three of you, and just ask for your details again, and hopefully a final great takeaway that all our watchers and listeners can go away with, and think about potentially implementing within their business. So should we start off with Gian?
GIAN CAPRINI: Gian Caprini, Expedia Affiliate Network. And my recommendation is to create content that meets the needs of the users. So imagine a task completion approach to your pages. Look at every page as to respond to exactly what they’re looking for. If it is for inspirational content, create good quality inspirational content. If it’s just to search and compare hotels, or flights, or cars, just action and respond to that query. And this will provide that evolution that Google is looking after to trying to rank sites that are relevant for the queries that they are seeing.
DAVID BAIN: Lovely, thanks for joining us, Gian. And moving on to Diego.
DIEGO PUGLISI: So Diego Puglisi from Thomas Cook Airlines. I think that what most businesses need to do is to look inside your organisation, look at the relationships you have, and make the most out of all the assets that you have in your business to produce the best content out there, most useful for your customer base, and through that content become an authority in your industry. You have a plethora of information. Make sure that you share it with your customers, and you publish it on your site, and distribute it as much as possible.
DAVID BAIN: And I’m sorry, just confirm your details, and how anyone can get a hold of you if they want.
DIEGO PUGLISI: So Diego Puglisi. I’m a group search marketing manager for Thomas Cook Airlines and Condor in Germany.
DAVID BAIN: Lovely, well thanks then Diego. So some great tips there. A lot of SEOs work in silos certainly in bigger organisations, and perhaps aren’t even aware of the content that is produced elsewhere, and that that could benefit them and the organisation as well. And moving on to, last not least, Tom.
TOM MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, I’m Tom Mcloughlin from SEO Travel. I guess my action point would be a bit more targeted than kind of smaller travel companies out there, and it would be to spend some time learning the basics of SEO, and what goes into that. I think that will stand you in good stead if you do go out there, and you start to look for an agency, or you want to know the basic issues with your website. It’s very important to have that kind of foundation of knowledge to make an informed decision from. So yeah, a little bit of time will go a long way in the future.
DAVID BAIN: Education, education, education. Great, okay. I’m David Bain, head of growth here at AnalyticsSEO.com. You can also catch me interviewing online marketing gurus over at digitalmarketingradio.com. This has been a special pre-recorded webinar. Normally we broadcast a weekly live show that debates the ramifications of the latest in SEO and content marketing news. So sign up to watch the next live show at thisweekinorganic.com. But until then take care, and well done for making it until the end. I hope you find it worthwhile, and I certainly did, but adios for now. Thanks guys, thanks for being a part of it.
GIAN CAPRINI: Thank you. Bye.
Working as Content Marketing Director for Authoritas since March 2015, David also hosts our own weekly show – “This Week In Organic”, commonly referred to as #TWiO.