Back to the future: The old-fashioned secrets to search success

Back to the future: The old-fashioned secrets to search success

Forget the future. Let’s talk about history. Five years ago, when Travolution was launched, the world was more than six months away from Google’s universal search update, an update that replaced the old 10-listing text-based results format with pages integrating news, video, images, local and other results.

About 65% of 16-74-year-olds were accessing the internet at least once a week and a similar percentage of internet users had broadband and were ‘enjoying’ average speeds of around 4Mbps at home (but not on the move).

People at the bleeding edge of social media would have been taking their first tentative steps with Facebook (which launched on September 26) and Twitter (which was introduced on July 16).

No one outside of Apple would have heard of the iPhone (it was launched in June 2007). We wouldn’t hear about the iPad (which launched the tablet revolution) for another two-and-a-half years or so.

Five years later and we’re inhabiting a world in which “search engine rankings (both natural and paid for) can make or break a travel retailer”.

We live in a world where social media excites and petrifies brand marketers in equal measure, and where businesses are struggling to cope with a device (the PC) that has been with us for 25 years, never mind mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. A world in which TripAdvisor is more influential than star ratings.

I can’t tell you what you will be struggling with in five years’ time, but I think it’s safe to say that (a) your customers will be better informed than ever and (b) that competition for their custom will be fiercer than ever.

We could talk about device consolidation, gamification, behavioural targeting, location-specific marketing, augmented reality, eye tracking etc.

But let’s not. Let’s talk about what matters. Let’s talk about your customers and their needs.

I’m going to be bold and state that in five years’ time people will still want and need to travel. They will want ‘fly and flop’ and domestic holidays and all-inclusive deals and once-in-a-lifetime experiences and honeymoons and business flights, and everything else the travel industry has to offer.

These people will need to be inspired and they will want access to the information that will help them research and evaluate alternatives and, once they’ve made a decision, they will expect to be able to buy online.

Potential customers will be searching and purchasing online like never before and you will be fighting against specialist retailers, high street ‘names’, pure etailers, aggregators and, increasingly, Google to make sure you’re visible.

The good, the bad and the great

So, the good news is there’s a massive opportunity to expand your business online. The bad news is new and existing competitors have realised this too.

The great news is that you have a better opportunity than ever before to communicate what it is that you do and help others communicate (an advocate) on your behalf. But you’re going to have to up your game to take advantage of the opportunity.

I work for a search agency that specialises in travel and retail so I speak to travel businesses on a daily basis. I speak to the big players and I speak to owner-managed specialists. I speak to successful businesses and I speak to those playing catch-up.

I can tell you that every business is different but I can also tell you that, in terms of search marketing, about 90% of them have an understanding that hasn’t fundamentally changed over the past five years. I’m being generous; it’s probably more like 10 years.

This 90% think that search is a technical discipline best left to the “one-man-band SEO guru”.

They’ve missed the fact that Google (which is 90%+ of the UK search market) has changed the search landscape forever. They have substantial internal teams and/or employ agencies to produce expensive brochures but believe that one or two people can deliver search success.

They’ve missed the fact that developing engaging and useful content is important and that what people say about you is probably the most important signal to Google that you deserve a top search position. They waste their time worrying about Google’s algorithm and not delivering what their customers want and need.

Five steps to success

A lot of them will go out of business if they don’t change the way they think. My hope for the next five years (and I’m a hopeful person) is that they get to grips with this. Here are a few tips for you that might help you get that grip.

Firstly, understand the size of the opportunity now and in the future. By combining your own and industry data you have the means at your disposal to make strategic business decisions.

Over the next five years we will see an unprecedented growth in our ability to track users across multiple devices and touch points and better understand how customers research, evaluate and purchase online.

Once you understand how much certain destinations and/or categories are worth to your business you can start to understand how to prioritise your investment in certain target markets – even the biggest players find it impossible to dominate every market. Focusing on the best opportunities is the only way to go, unless you’ve got limitless resources.

Secondly, don’t exclusively focus on technical items. It’s important to consider them but these items will, increasingly, simply be the initial outlay you need to invest in. There will be people that use technical tips and tricks to get an edge; some of these tricks will be legitimate while others won’t. Don’t worry about them. It’s not a good use of your time. The success of tips and tricks is generally short lived.

Thirdly, spend the majority of your time understanding your customers’ search behaviour. The more you understand their wants and needs, the more able you will be able to create engaging and useful content.

Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, said: “One piece of advice I give to SEO masters is, don’t chase after Google’s algorithm, chase after your best interpretation of what users want, because that’s what Google is chasing.”

Content remains king in this brave new world. There is more content available than ever before and more ways of searching for it across search engines, review sites, and social networks and via multiple devices. Too many travel businesses’ content is heavily branded and of poor quality. Create content that your users want.

Fourthly, embrace the fact that your online authority is mainly determined by what others say about your business and not by what you say about it.

Too many businesses talk about link building and social sharing as an abstract exercise to pull the wool over Google’s and your customers’ eyes. That’s why paid links are still so prevalent (we’ve stopped buying them on behalf of clients – I’d like to think that everyone else will have too in five years’ time).

Get the right mix of skills

Properly done, high-quality editorial and creatively-earned links reflect that most important of things – your business’ reputation.

Lastly, take a long hard look at how your business is organised. You need to reorganise your team to ensure that they have the right skills and that they are all working together to make the most of online opportunities.

If your marketing team doesn’t have a mix of technical, creative and communications skills – if your PR team (marketing) doesn’t speak to your SEO team (e-commerce/sales/IT) and if your in-country staff don’t understand how they can contribute to search marketing and its value to the business, you will probably find yourself dead in the water, or struggling to stay afloat.

You’re probably a bit disappointed. You probably wanted to hear more about eye-tracking technology and the next big thing in devices. But you need to stop worrying about eye-tracking technology and think about where your next customer is coming from.

If you follow the five steps above you’ll be in a good position to work out what to do about eye-tracking technology and location-specific marketing and soon. Using search and search data to inform everything you do is a future-proof approach to digital marketing.

I have a colleague whom we refer to as ‘Jimmy the Glue’ because he holds everything together. Search is the same. It’s what we do in our personal and professional lives. I can’t see that changing soon, regardless of whether Google or Facebook win the battle for our online hearts and minds.

Do the good, old-fashioned thing and put your customers first by giving them what they want. And then keep doing it for the next five years. That’s the future.

Propellernet is a Brighton-based search marketing agency with a specialism in the travel and fashion sectors. It won the Travolution Award for Best Use of SEO in 2010.

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