NB: This is a guest article by Matthew Barker is managing partner of Hit Riddle, a marketing agency specialising travel search and content.
How long could your business survive if you lost 80% of your customers tomorrow?
For a growing number of companies that isn’t a hypothetical question. It’s an urgent, unanticipated crisis that can leave a previously stable business facing bankruptcy.
And it can happen to any firm that relies on search engines for their business; including hotels, bookings sites, tour operators and travel agencies.
I’ve spent the past seven weeks working with a modest and hardworking online travel agency, helping them claw their business back after being surprised by a "ranking penalty" from Google.
In a nutshell, Google employs a small army of engineers whose job it is to monitor the web and flag any sites that contravene their Quality Guidelines. If these sites are found to violate the rules, they can be penalised with removal from the search results.
Google still controls over 80% of the online search market, which means if you depend on search traffic for your business, as many travel firms do, a penalty can mean the overnight loss of four fifths of traffic, and new customers.
The world’s favourite search engine has been leading the fight against spam for years, and has introduced countless changes to the way pages are indexed and ranked, making great progress in weeding out junk pages, sites that have manipulated their way to the top, and other results that we generally don’t want to see when we search the web.
But in recent months, I have heard of a growing number of other sites getting blacklisted. The difference is that these sites are often a far cry from your typical spam culprit. They are genuine online businesses, typically small e-commerce firms who have been online for years, doing the same thing they have always done, only to fall victim to a much more aggressive application of the rules.
So what’s going on?
Well, Google has made no secret of its relentless series of system updates in the name of "quality", and most website owners will have heard of the recent changes, nicknamed "Panda".
Officially these and the hundreds of other algorithm changes that Google makes each year are intended to continually improve the relevance of its results, combat spam and generally improve the Google experience.
Unofficially, the webmaster community is alive with talk that a more cynical process is in play. As search expert Aaron Wall from SEOBook recently told me:
"The frequently claimed intent for the update is to ‘improve quality’ but if you look at the aggregate winners from the Panda update they tended to be a few larger brands and Google verticals (like Google product search, Google Places and YouTube).
The way I see it is that as Google increasingly hosts more content and tries to push further down the value chain, they wanted to remove other forms of duplication from the ecosystem."
Whether or not you share Aaron’s scepticism, the long term prospect should be unnerving for any online travel business. Recent announcements about Google’s move into flight booking, hotel reservations and now tours and experiences make it clear that there’s a new rival on the scene – a rival with almost unlimited resources that is able to change the rules of the game at will to support its own business objectives.
If you do get hit, there is very little assistance offered to identify the problem and get you back on track. The first think you will notice is that your phones have gone silent. If you have a Google Webmaster Tools account, you will receive a short message there (but no email) that you have been penalised, with a link to a short, generic information page.
And that’s it. You will not be told exactly what you have done wrong, you will not be given any way of contacting an engineer and you will not be told what you should do to fix the situation.
The onus is now on you to identify and rectify the problem, and then go through a lengthy “reconsideration” process which may or may not result in the penalty being lifted. If it isn’t, you won’t be told why.
So with that in mind, what should online travel businesses do to mitigate the risk?
On a basic level it’s about the viability of your business model. If you rely on search traffic then you are overwhelmingly dependent on a single source of new business.
That is a fundamentally unsustainable position to be in and you should be taking steps to wean yourself away from Google dependency. You should also actively monitor your standing in Google’s eyes to make sure you’re not sleepwalking towards disaster.
- Read, re-read, and read again Google’s Quality Guidelines. Heed every line and don’t attempt to trick your way around anything. Assume that Google is smarter than all of us and that it will catch you out if you break the rules; deliberately or not. No leniency is shown for accidental mistakes, or the defence that you’ve “always been doing it that way.”
- Follow the latest guidelines on content quality. In essence this means avoiding all duplication of any content throughout your site(s). To be successful a site now needs to continually publish new content, all of which must be original, unique and detailed. Sites with predominantly duplicated, scraped, or low-value generic content are firmly within the Google crosshairs. What used to be valid reasons for duplicating content (the same tour on two different sites for example, or the same city introduction on different hotel pages) are no longer safe.
- Consider spreading the risk by diversifying across multiple sites. But be careful: if Google thinks you are using multiple domains to game the system, they will all be banned. Only use unique, high quality content on each domain. Do not attempt to use links between your own domains to improve your rankings.
- Work on expanding alternative sources of business; social media, PPC, advertising and email marketing should all be part of your online marketing mix.
- Pay more attention than you currently do to Microsoft’s Bing, Google’s small but growing rival with a potentially rewarding partnership with Facebook. Bing also provides a host of tools and guidelines for webmasters who want to improve their site’s performance on their search engine.
- Hope for the best but plan for the worst: have a contingency plan in place should you get burned. Specifically, make sure you have an expert on hand who can help and that you have enough capital reserve to resort to PPC traffic should your search traffic disappear.
This is a guest article by Matthew Barker is managing partner of Hit Riddle
, a marketing agency specialising travel search and content.