Recent analysis of the organic search market for holidays found that while Thomson is the most visible brand, deals sites dominate. We asked the team behind the report, digital agency Stickyeyes, to share some insight into how such sites continue to take huge market share by apparently offering very little in the way of added value.
Links are the building blocks behind search ranking results, and a healthy and natural mix is a fundamental given in order to achieve high quality rankings. The ongoing process of algorithmic updates implemented by Google not only looks to improve search results and hence the search experience but demands brands to follow suit and improve the quality of their website content
We spoke to Jeremy Obsorne, Digital Director from Tui UK & Ireland (owners of Thomson) who commented: “We and Google share the same aim – to give the customer the best experience and the best information possible – and this makes our website relevant to those people searching for any form of ‘holiday’. Our business has been recognised by Google as a leading brand that can provide an engaging and pleasant online experience to their customers. We always look to create interactive and informative content so that potential customers can find, explore and enjoy the information they are looking for as easily as possible.”
Google’s algorithmic updates are typically thematic. Each change to the search algorithm is done with a key goal in mind usually to serve up better, more relevant search results to people using Google to find information. For example, the underlying principle behind Google’s algorithmic update “penguin” is very simple – catch sites deemed to be spamming its search results, in particular those doing so by aggressively buying links or obtaining them through link networks designed primarily to boost Google rankings.
But why do many brands still engage in this activity?
Google deploys its algorithm globally over a period of time. This inevitably results in a latency effect as it propagates from one country to another and also between sectors. In many respects this does give brands a warning to look into their strategies and make tactical changes; however, many sites are prepared to exploit the length of time it takes for Google to identify poor quality websites, while others simply fail to take note and evolve their methods.
Despite the introduction of algorithms like “penguin”, along with a series of upgrades and refinements (see Penguin 2.0: The Winners and Losers, Stickyeyes, June 2013), many brands within the travel sector are not only failing to keep pace, but are prepared to take risks and engage in rudimentary link acquisition strategies that that can either result in a penalty or substantial reductions in ranking.
Let’s consider the travel aggregator site IceCreamHolidays.
There are certain key indicators that suggest that IceCreamHolidays has recently deployed an overtly aggressive and potentially artificial link strategy that is designed to drive rankings within Google for keywords such as “cheap holidays” and “all inclusive holidays”. The first indicator is the proportion of brand to non-brand anchor text. A natural profile would typically be heavily weighted towards brand terms, however, as can be seen from Figure 1 IceCreamHolidays have a higher level of non-brand terms which accounts for 79.85%. This is disproportionately high when compared to other travel websites such as Thomson and Thomas Cook (see The Holiday Market, Special Report, Stickyeyes August 2013).
Moreover, there is a substantial emphasis geared towards the keyword “cheap holidays” in which it accounts for 38% of all non-brands anchor text – see Figure 2 which suggests that this term has been a key focus of attention.
What is most striking is the velocity of the link acquisition over the summer period and the resulting impact on their rankings for the high volume generic phrase “cheap holidays”. For example, during the period 17th July to 28th August IceCreamHolidays’ total volume of backlinks grew by a massive 902% (see Figure 3).
Velocity is an important signal that helps Google determine which links to trust as credible and natural, and which links not to trust. Put simply, acquiring too many links too quickly is a key warning sign for Google. When we look at referring domains (i.e. the number of website domains that are sending links) we see activity slowing down at the beginning of August. Despite this slowdown, the proportion of backlinks still increases. This suggest that there may have been a large number of links that have been acquired at a site wide level. Site wide links are a quick and easy acquisition method, however, this is another key warning signal that underpins an algorithm like penguin.
What has been the impact of this activity on IceCreamHolidays?
For the high volume generic keyword “cheap holidays” they have previously enjoyed a top 2 position. But, at the back end of August they saw their rankings dramatically drop to page 2 and then eventually out of the top 100 (see Figure 4).
This is far from isolated and for the same time period we can see they have dropped for a range of high-volume generic terms (see Figure 5).
What does this all mean?
Google’s ongoing efforts to tighten up their search engine results are geared towards sites that have used search engine optimisation tactics which negatively impact search results and hence the consumer experience.
Brands now have to develop a creative content strategy that not only ensures their sites comply with Google’s ranking polices but more importantly, produce rich and engaging content that will be naturally seeded and above all relevant to the needs of the search consumer.