Search Engine Marketing For Travel-Related Sites

Search marketing in the travel industry is brutally competitive, with intense jockeying between travel agencies, affiliates, wholesalers and travel products companies themselves vying for top positioning. What's the most effective approach to search marketing in this cutthroat environment?

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 2-5, 2004, San Jose, CA.

At this session of the Search Engine Strategies conference, expert panelists discussed issues and strategies for the travel industry.

According to Jupiter Research, for each dollar generated online, travel companies recorded an additional $5 revenue from traditional channels as a direct result of research that consumers did online. In addition, by 2005, 20% of all hotel bookings will be made online: half directly with hotel companies and half from third-party intermediaries, according to a Cornell study. Therefore, search engine marketing, particularly geo-targeting, should be an integral part of the hospitality industry's online marketing campaigns.

"In researching travel, consumers typically know the destinations they are interested in," said John Waddy, President of Travel eMarketing, LLC. "65% of hotel buyers check three sites before making a buying decision in a study by Phocus Wright. So your SEM campaign should be geo-targeted."

Waddy recommended creating a multi-channel internet marketing strategy that includes search marketing. However, hospitality marketers need to keep in mind how competitive the travel industry is.

"To keep visitors on your site, always provide enough content on your site about the destination for visitors to make a buying decision," he said. "If a site visitor has to go to some other site to find out information on your hotel or event, you're probably going to lose that visitor as a conversion and repeat visitor." With plenty of keyword-rich content, search engine optimization can be a cost-effective means of marketing a travel Web site.

Search engine paid strategies

"If you are search engine marketer doing it internally for a client, I would say that (a)it's extremely competitive, (b)it continues to change, and (c)there are all these new niche marketing opportunities popping up on the horizon," said Jon Schepke, Vice President and Principal at Meandaur.

Schepke uses a number of SEM strategies that include PPC advertising, paid inclusion, and natural search engine optimization. "We're promoting over 5,000 terms for this client," he said. "Because the travel space is so competitive, tracking is essential."

For his clients, Schepke uses Overture's Tracking Console. "Everyone needs to figure out what campaign management tool is best for them," he continued. "With the URL string, we can track the campaign, the channel, the keyword, and the tactic. What's also pretty compelling is we can put a conversion tag on conversion pages, and you can pass a conversion string that associates the revenue type, or revenue amount, with the actual campaign and the channel."

To hit the majority of your keywords, he recommended using the Broad Match options on Google and Overture. Schepke also uses search engine advertising at FindWhat, Kanoodle, and Enhance Interactive (formerly Ah-Ha).

Since the travel industry is a specialized field, Schepke also takes advantage of specialized search services, such as SideStep (travel) and NexTag (shopping). "These are comparison search engines for the travel space," he said. "Travel specialists can use their email campaigns and geo-targeted advertising."

In addition, Waddy recommended the following marketing channels for travel sites:

  • Hotel or branded sites (such as Hilton.com)

  • Destination/travel sites (such as Chamberofcommerce.com)

  • Third-party intermediaries (such as Expedia.com)

The self-funding model

Not all hospitality sites have deep pockets for marketing sites across all channels. All too often, travel sites can only market through a single channel. This was the case with Wyndham Hotels.

"We wanted to create a self-funding model and so the client was no longer dependent on anemic ecommerce budgets," said Cheryle Pingel, Chairman & Co-Founder, Range Online Media. "The client had $30K of seed money. The goal was to generate $200K for every $10K spent."

Reinvesting 7, 10, or 13 percent of revenue was part of the self-funding strategy. "Assuming the same gross revenue and reinvestment percentage, your campaigns can begin to grow monthly," said Pingel. Within one month, revenue jumped from $10K to $26K. ROI can be determined by gross revenue or bottom line profit.

Pingel initially invested in Overture paid advertising, then in paid inclusion. "We always had to make sure we had the money to propel us along," she said. "In the beginning when our budgets were lower, we were daypart bidding with wild peaks going up and down. When we had more money to work with, we could think more long-term."

90 days should be the minimum time period before beginning a self-funding model.

"Success breeds success," said Pingel. "This self-funded model allows you to capitalize on your successes."

Travel site tips

Panelists offered the following tips for marketing travel and hospitality sites on the search engines:


  • Divide travel-related keyword phrases into categories. Waddy recommended combining city/state keywords with general keywords (Miami Florida family vacation), targeted geo-searches (city name + lodging keyword), vacation packages, and other destination keywords (shopping, golf, weather, maps).
  • Take advantage of event marketing strategies. "We'll work closely with a property on their local events and promote those related keywords," said Schepke. "10 out of the 20 keywords that generated the most traffic for one of our international travel clients were event-driven."
  • Use travel packages whenever possible. "The best conversions came from package keyword," he said. "First visit purchases accounted for 57% of conversions, and repeat visit purchases accounted for 43% of conversions."
  • Create customized landing pages for each campaign. By matching ads to specific landing pages, it increases the overall conversion rates. "We also created a particular property and worked that within the property management system," he added. "We passed that particular event through to the hotel, providing tracking both online and offline for the hotelier."
  • Offline and online conversion tracking is crucial. "Consider using landing pages with unique 800 numbers or dynamic discount codes identifying the customer lead," said Waddy."
  • Be aware of seasonal fluctuations. "You need to know when to hold back or when to invest based on your business model," said Pingel. Search engine advertising is often the best form of marketing for seasonal fluctuations since SEMs can turn campaigns on and off during specified months, days, and hours.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Search Marketing in the Unfriendly Skies discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

Shari Thurow is the Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc. and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility.

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