"SEO is dead" is a well-known catchphrase, most commonly heard from newly unemployed spam merchants in bitter reaction to Google’s latest algorithm update.
NB: This is an analysis by Matthew Barker, head of strategy at IandITravMedia.
It’s always a wild exaggeration of course - the only thing that can "kill" SEO is for consumers to stop using search engines.
Unfortunately, nuance and restraint does not a clickbait headline make and the true victims of this hyperbole are business owners caught in the middle, trying to make sense of confusing and often conflicting advice on search marketing best practice.
But while SEO may not be dead, there’s no doubt that in just a few years it has changed almost beyond recognition.
Until fairly recently by pulling the right levers virtually anyone could build a business on "free Google traffic" from their target keywords.
A few optimised meta tags, keyword-stuffed content and some guest posts or paid links (never mind where from) and hey presto, a top spot for all your main lead generating ("money") keywords:
- Vacations to...
- Hotels in...
- Flights to…
- Cheap deals for...
But allowing anyone to buy their way into the top rankings regardless of their actual worth was a problem for Google and along came a succession of updates aimed at eliminating the shortcuts, a more punitive regime for sites caught breaking the new rules, and a concerted psy-ops campaign
to terrify the link spam industry out of business.
The result was the colonisation of the money keywords by major brands, the ones with the perceived authority to justify a prime spot of Google real estate.
Run a search for any major travel queries and where there was once a diverse ecosystem you’ll now find (with a few exceptions) a monoculture of TripAdvisor, Expedia, Orbitz and other long-established brands.
(For reasons of brevity/sanity we won’t get into a value judgement over whether this is "a bad thing" or not. Many small sites didn’t deserve their demotion, many did. And yes those big brands are still pulling the same levers that got the small fry de-indexed. Let’s just agree that life isn’t fair.)
Although breaking into top rankings for major queries is still technically possible, it’s certainly not feasible for most smaller companies or new entrants without very deep pockets.
Sadly there are still many SEO agencies out there who’ll gladly say otherwise to part small business owners with their cash.
For a stark indication of how far SEO has diverged between large and small brands, take a look at Google’s own Customer Journey tool which breaks out the role that each channel plays in the marketing funnel.
For large travel companies, organic search remains a bottom funnel channel - most effective at capturing traffic at the moment of purchase and converting clicks into sales:
But notice the dramatic reversal for small travel companies, where organic search switches from the classic bottom funnel, lead-gen channel and moves way up to the top of the funnel, bringing traffic in at the very start of the customer journey:
See here for background and insights from the Customer Journey tool.
You couldn’t ask for a clearer sign of how far SEO has changed for most small travel businesses.
Locked out of the rankings for most big money keywords, they’ve been forced into the long tail of search queries - the almost infinite number of low competition, low volume keywords for which high rankings are more realistic.
So instead of ranking for keywords like "Croatia hotels" we’re talking about things like "what’s the best time of year to visit Zagreb with young children?" and the infinite number of other tiny volume keywords that make up the long tail:
It’s called the long tail for obvious reasons...
This is still potentially valuable traffic, but it’s a very different beast to the “old SEO” we all got so used to.
Harnessing and profiting from the long tail of search queries requires entirely different strategy and expectations to targeting high competition money keywords.
User intent: By definition these searchers aren’t ready to make a purchase.
These are people who are researching and planning their trips, they’re coming in far too early in the customer journey to convert into leads or sales.
The challenge therefore is in converting these audiences into qualified prospects and to ensure they come back to the site later when they are ready to book.
There are a number of ways to achieve this: email, smart retargeting, paid search and social media to name a few.
This is at the core of all content marketing - first building and engaging an audience and then using the appropriate channels to bring them back on subsequent visit(s) to convert the sale.
With long tail traffic, organic search provides the first touch and we use other channels to close the sale:
A conversion path that starts with organic search and finishes with a PPC ad click
A conversion path that starts with organic search and finishes with a click from social media
The idea is to use multiple channels together in order to extend the value and returns of each one. This takes foresight and strategic planning but the reward is lower costs per acquisition and improved ROI across the board.
Paid search (Adwords) is particularly pertinent here.
With notoriously high costs per acquisition for many travel queries, using search retargeting to focus bids on consumers who have already engaged with your content can be a huge help in clawing back some of your margins.
Content planning: Also by definition, individual long tail search queries come with tiny search volumes.
It’s only by accumulating them in their thousands that you’ll bring a significant volume of traffic to the site.
But companies that have been investing in blogging or other content creation for several years will notice that their sites are already attracting plenty of long tail traffic, in fact it’s often the single biggest source of organic traffic for the entire site:
Blogs can become a major source of organic traffic in the long run
"Optimising" for these queries is usually a case of simply creating the most useful content possible for the intended audience.
What to do
While "keyword research" and "on-page SEO" are still important for targeting high competition money keywords, it’s neither scalable nor necessary for long tail search.
Instead, focus on depth and detail. Quality is important, but mostly in terms of Lonely Planet listings, not Hemingway memoirs.
This means anticipating and answering the questions that your target audience may have when planning and researching their trip.
Your sales and operations teams can be a source of insight here - what are the common questions they find themselves answering?
From there you can extrapolate into the subjects connected to your destinations and services: the best time of year to visit… recommended attractions, museums & galleries… eating & drinking recommendations… travelling with kids and families…
There’s an almost infinite number of subjects that your potential customers would find useful.
Google’s Panda and Hummingbird updates both promoted detailed and informative content, and an on-site blog is a convenient place to accumulate an archive that drives long tail search.
Importantly, avoid creating another content farm just churning out content for the sake of it.
Fewer longer, deeper and authoritative articles are more useful than hundreds of thin posts about very little. Keep an eye on your analytics to identify the subjects that keep visitors on the site and focus on giving them more of what they want.
Mark Hodson is co-founder of 101Holidays which gets millions of visitors each year by targeting top funnel keywords.
"It’s certainly possible for small travel companies to compete against the big boys in search but you need to use all your expertise to create an invaluable online resource.
"Try to create pages that visitors will find and think ‘This is what I want - I can stop searching now’.
"Some tour operators are reluctant to share their destination knowledge because they’re worried that competitors and DIY holidaymakers will use it to their advantage, but there’s really no alternative now.
"Google is not rewarding companies that have ‘secret knowledge’ they refuse to share on their websites."
A problem with top funnel channels is that it’s harder to evaluate their impact on the bottom line.
When SEO was primarily about lead gen it was fairly easy to look at the sales sent directly by organic search, do some simple sums on your costs and calculate your returns.
With long tail search (and any other top funnel channel) the activity isn’t generating direct sales, it’s starting conversion paths that are closed by other channels.
You want to credit the closing channel for the sale, but for accurate ROI measurement you also need to assign a value to the preceding clicks too.
With the Google Analytics assisted conversions report you can do just that.
With some simple configurations you can view the number of assisted conversions that were generated by your content, and compare them alongside your other channels:
It’s possible to configure this report for any traffic source or piece of content you want to track
As we’d expect, the above report shows us blog content tilted heavily towards assisted conversions - remember, these visitors are usually researching not booking.
It’s with the stronger last click channels shown above that we brought them back and closed the sale.
With this report we can see in clear terms the full value, and therefore the ROI, generated by our long tail SEO.
No one in their right mind would say that this is an easy, cheap or short-term solution. But the fact is that SEO is certainly not "dead", even for the smaller players.
In fact, with their unique knowledge, insight and expertise it’s often the smaller, independent operators who are best equipped to lead in this area.
So maybe the SEO world is a little bit fairer than we thought, after all…
NB: This is an analysis by Matthew Barker, head of strategy at IandITravMedia. Follow him on Twitter at @HitRiddle.
NB2:SEO search aircraft keyboard image via Shutterstock.