Taking Off at SES Travel Edition

Category specific search marketing events allow like-minded individuals to gather and discuss the unique issues they face as an industry. At the end of the day, they are really commiserating while sharing best practices, but that’s neither here nor there.

SES Travel Edition made its debut last week in Seattle, Washington, July 26 and 27, 2007. Not surprisingly, travel marketers turned out in droves to study up and learn from their peers in the business.

I had the pleasure of moderating two discussions about search and travel: Ads Gone Wild, Big Budgets, High Bids and Harnessing ROI, and Mega Properties: Managing Large Scale SEM Campaigns. While many of the take-aways were very specific to search, I can safely say the following: I heard things I have never heard before. I saw things previously unimagined.

Fight for Your Right to Brand

Does anyone really care about brand building in travel search? Sure they do, as long as said brand-building effort results in a conversion. That being said, it occurred to me later that many direct marketers in the travel sector fear the brand campaign.

Heads in beds, butts in seats, cost per acquisition, cost per… What about the brand? Oodles of research studies have indicated that search works as a brand vehicle. Yahoo! gives an award for brand campaigns annually. Wouldn’t it be great if (for the first time) next year, a travel brand won?

At least one brand stood up to talk about how search can help build a brand. In a classic example of integrated marketing excellence, Hilton Hotels Corporation’s Manager of Search Engine Marketing Strategy, Diana Plazas, illustrated how search could be combined with other marketing initiatives to form a brand building campaign.

Hilton used both natural search engine optimization tactics (SEO) and search engine advertising in sponsored listings to generate awareness of a large sweepstakes.

The toughest part of brand initiatives in search? Managing multiple agencies in coordinating internal efforts, avoiding keyword conflicts with direct initiatives, and last but not least, adjusting management’s expectations.

Too Cool for Click Fraud

Generally speaking, a confirmed reservation takes a back seat to collecting leads and marking the number of sweepstakes entries. Every brand agreed that click costs are on the rise, and some indicated click costs had risen almost 30 percent in the last year.

In the Ads Gone Wild session, the subject of click fraud came home to roost. Invariably, in any discussion about rising click costs, the subject of click fraud is bound to come up. Range Online Media’s Phil Stelter wondered if the click fraud hype actually matches the reality of what advertisers face.

An attendee survey indicated that few or none of the delegates in this session had used a third-party click fraud validation tool. I suspect the combination of an industry that is struggling to officially define a click, lack of education about fraudulent behavior, and the search providers’ efforts to control click fraud are at the source.

Then again, it may just be that marketers don’t care enough to check. Stelter cited third-party research from SEMPO’s 2006 survey supporting the hypothesis that search advertisers had some wiggle room with click costs. Advertisers indicated they could handle as much as a 30 percent increase in costs before returns diminished beyond the point of no return, so to speak.

Affiliate Pollution Prevention

Jennifer Slegg from JenSense.com offered some great advice on beating the travel content arbitragers. For the un-indoctrinated, travel search arbitragers are the latest generation of search advertising capitalists who create destination sites that look and feel like travel search engines, but only offer a page full of revenue-generating sponsored search listings.

A step above those sites registering nearly-spelled-correctly domains like exprdia.com (for the record, exprdia.com is owned by Expedia), arbitragers serve themselves up massive click revenue, but don’t do much for information seekers. This little detail won’t stop opportunists from registering domains that reflect accidental keystrokes.

Slegg advises not clicking on the ads, not visiting the sites, and allowing the algorithm quality score to work its magic. In short, landing page content quality requirements designed to punish advertisers with shallow (or no) content will slow the arbitragers, but it won’t kill them.

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