Paul Evans – SEO: Get it right from the start

Our business model as a travel provider is to sell through most, if not all, channels. Retail distribution and call centres are meant to provide us with volume, albeit at lower gross margins.

Meanwhile, the vast choice of direct channels should provide cashflow, higher gross margins and the ability to collect e-mail addresses and up-sell, cross-sell, or even resell to a direct customer base.

The theory goes something like this:

We all chase that magic direct booking taken without pay-per-click spend, acquired naturally and not via an affiliate, through unprompted customer recall of the brand, or perhaps just good search engine optimisation.

Our industry spends too much money on PPC. So, determined to increase our return on investment, we have set about trying to improve our natural recall outside of above-the-line advertising and PR. We went through a tender process and have had five SEO companies pitch to us in the past two months.

We are determined to lower our cost of customer acquisition. My observations on this newish sector of the industry are as follows:

SEO providers’ costs vary hugely; it is the Wild West of the IT world at the moment where media and marketing companies, often with limited real travel expertise, are all hell-bent on becoming a ‘full service provider’, all trying to gain a foothold in this hugely lucrative sector. Many seek to manage PPC and SEO as well as the traditional above-the-line media spend channels.

Whether this is a good thing or not, I am not sure. PPC in our business has nothing to do with marketing. In fact I would go further: no marketer is allowed anywhere near it, as it is a yield management function not a marketing role.

PPC is about ROI not brand or positioning. The web has a questionable brand loyalty, where price rules more than brand.

Software companies that many online businesses use have an all-too-limited knowledge or interest in SEO, feeding this industry with far too many websites built in an SEO-unfriendly manner. Speed to market has been paramount at the time of launch, with insufficient care, help or focus on SEO in the early planning stages.

In some ways, if you were to plan a website and business after getting a credit card licence, the next thing you’d need would be some in-house SEO expertise before appointing someone to build your platform. Most SEO companies wish and try to be ethical, but the criteria of the search engines are changing so fast that I doubt if many fully know the latest rules completely.

We hear about blogs, Web 2.0 and social media. The ideal numbers and speed of set-up, or relevancy of links (with good content) and clear navigation are all given varied importance, confusing the website operator – or me, anyway.

There is no doubt that the cost of PPC is rising as new entrants launch their products. Learning how to improve your click-through-rate and so stay higher up on the paid search area, while also lowering your bid costs, must go hand in hand with improved SEO.

Too much time, effort and money is spent on PPC after launch, and not enough on SEO before, during and after launch.

This is probably because real travel SEO expertise is still a rare commodity – it is just too new.

My advice to those looking for good SEO advice is take care, shop around, listen and learn. And, above all, plan the website construction around SEO functionality.

There are a lot of sharks out there.

Paul Evans is chief executive of LowcostBeds

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