Travel Search Marketing: Time for a Test Drive?

For whatever reason, the travel search space is not getting the same attention that local, social, shopping and multimedia verticals are these days. But the funny thing is, travel search is all of those things, isn’t it? It’s the result of all of those verticals combined.

And travel search, one of the oldest verticals within the industry, has recently been seeing a surge in popularity. With the intersection of applications from the other verticals and the trend towards specialized search features, travel search is becoming more robust, more complicated, and is offering more opportunities to search marketers.

Putting a number on the growth of the travel search industry is fairly difficult, since it’s a category with many moving parts. The Top 100 ‘Travel’ category of Web sites shuffles constantly from month to month. Even though expected players appear regularly, their positions are continually challenged by new entrants in the space, and the jockeying for top status never ends.

The travel search space is diverse, made up of companies with many types of offerings and business models. It hardly seems fair to lump such vastly different types of sites together in the same category. To understand exactly what we mean by “travel search,” it’s important that we look at the parts that make up the whole.

Travel search breaks down into six primary categories:

  • Comparison Shopping (Kayak, Sidestep, FareCast, FareCompare)
  • Travel Aggregators (Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, Hotwire, Priceline)
  • Direct Purchase (branded airline and hotel sites)
  • Social/Review Sites (TripAdvisor,
  • Map/Local Search (MapQuest, Google Maps, Yahoo Maps)
  • Independent Travel Providers (agents, resorts/destinations, outfitters)

The Consumer Perspective

Many of us use travel search pretty regularly in our daily lives, whether it’s planning for business travel, leisure or adventure vacations. As consumers, we tend to seek out Web sites that best fit our specific needs and provide an answer to our query. So it makes sense that we may often look at several sources during the “travel conversion funnel.”

Business travelers certainly have a different motivation than the typical leisure traveler, and a corporate travel planner may or may not be involved in the search process. The most difficult parts of the conversion process are already answered at the beginning: Where? When? How quickly? How much?

A leisure traveler goes through a much different cycle to get to their intended destination. First, they must be inspired to take a trip, and begin the research phase. The second component of this step is that they must have a general idea of where on the planet they’d like to go. Then a traveler will move into planning mode, gathering the initial details for the itinerary — what general area to stay in, what to do, and so forth.

Next is the comparison shopping stage, checking for availability and best pricing. Finally, the purchase decision is made. Of course, there are variations in the shopping stage, as some travelers are motivated by aspects other than lowest price. Experiential and emotional factors come into play.

The Search Marketer’s Perspective

Your job as a search marketing professional is to fully understand and appreciate the needs of your client’s target market when considering playing in the travel search space. If you are working for a major conglomerate of hotels, you will likely need to use a mix of data feeds to the broad aggregator channels, as well as consider organic SEO and paid placement for the individual locations of the hotels.

For smaller clients, the focus may be more on organic SEO and targeted keyword buys. Quality content will play a major role, offering an opportunity to find your niche and target very specific customers online. Be sure to accurately represent the service and play up the unique aspects of the business – is it luxury or rustic accommodations, family- or couples-oriented? Recognize that the overall Web site design and content strategy plays a critical role, since travel is an emotional decision. Quality images and copy elements that sell the experience can also act as potential link bait.

In today’s travel sector, search marketers mush also go beyond geo-targeting efforts and local search strategies to social media. More and more consumers today will look to review sites and social media outlets for advice from their online peers. Search marketers need to be sure travel clients are well represented in the ever-growing list of social travel sites and come up with a plan to encourage satisfied users to share their positive experiences in such social media venues.

The first step is to make sure your client is present in the relevant sites, including newcomers World66, 43Places, RealTravel, Vcarious and Travelistic, among a host of others. Ensure that the descriptions of their services and amenities are up to date, and that they are presented in such a way to attract travelers. Most travel search sites provide a mechanism for proprietors to add or edit information, so it’s important to take advantage of these options to present your client in the best light.

From an ethical perspective, I do not advocate writing falsified reviews, touting the excellence of your clients’ travel related service, nor do I recommend writing disparaging reviews of your closest competition. Besides inviting karma to come back and bite you for this, it’s also an incredible waste of time, since the “wisdom of the crowds” will eventually prevail. The time you waste here would be much better spent focusing on how your client can improve their business and online strategy.

The next step is managing your client’s reputation. It’s human nature for people who are upset by service to be much more likely to share their bad experience, than for someone who has had a good experience to make the effort to do the same. That makes it doubly important for you to give satisfied customers a reason to do so, whether that’s in the form of a discount on future services, or other incentive.

It’s important to note that you cannot stop people from sharing bad experiences with your client, so the first step is for them to deliver solid service. You cannot successfully manage a client’s reputation online if the bad reputation is deserved. Part of that is appropriately representing the service on the official Web site – if guests book a stay at a place you described online as a “five-star resort,” they will be sorely disappointed when they arrive to find a run-down motel.

Finally, no matter what category of travel search you fit into, it’s imperative to implement a solid reporting system for conversion rates and ROI metrics, because it’s far too dangerous to play in this space while blindfolded. Paid campaigns can quickly spiral out of control if not adequately managed. When using social media tactics, it’s much more difficult to put a direct ROI on referrals that may have occurred over a long research cycle, but you must recognize the word-of-mouth component is a critical aspect of any travel-related business.

Reviewing historical data is the first step in discovering successes, failures, and often the best source of new ideas and opportunities. The old adage rings true in this space: you can’t know where you are going without considering where you have been.

The search space is going vertical, and travel search is one of the first verticals leading that charge. If you take the time to get to know this space, it can reap rewards for you, both now and down the road. Not only will it strengthen the services you can offer existing clients, and open up a new client base; but it will also help you develop techniques that you can use in the future to enter other verticals as they emerge.

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