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Irish Travel Websites Leaving Money On The Table

Posted in: Search Engine Optimisation by Richard Hearne on November 16, 2009
Internet Marketing Ireland

Last week I was the guest lecturer at the ITAA/DMI Diploma in Online Marketing course. My lecture, titled “Website Architecture – Building A Great Website for Search Engines & Visitors”, covered best practices in front-end architecture with a focus on the travel niche. I wrote last week about my experience with Falcon Travel’s lack of public email addresses, and I found many other cases that led me to the conclusion I draw in this post – the Irish travel niche is not leveraging the web anywhere near its potential.

Irish Travel Agent Websites
Irish Travel Agent Websites

Good CRM and Customer Reviews Should be Friends

Looking through many of the Irish travel sites I visited the first thing that struck me was the lack of any customer reviews. Reviews are a great way to internally measure business success, and are increasingly being used by buyers to help select destinations. Just look at the popularity of Tripadvisor.

So where does CRM enter the equation. When a customer returns from a holiday how many operators/agents follow up to ask the customer if they enjoyed the trip? Soliciting feedback is a great way to build relationships and continuously improve your business offering. Feedback can also be a great safety valve to identify issues early. Soliciting feedback can also reinforce the belief that the business cares about its customers.

I know that I’d appreciate a quick email follow-up from any travel agent asking me was I happy after consuming their service (and by service I include the consumption of the trip or holiday). Amazon has been successfully following up with every single purchase for as long as I’ve been a customer.

User ReviewsFeedback loops, including online reviews, can easily integrate with CRM systems. Integration can be loose or tight, but the point I hope I’m making is that travel sites could and should think beyond the sale. I recently installed a widget-based review system on an ecommerce site in about 5 minutes flat (excluding QA). While tight CRM integration could add a large overhead, Irish travel sites could offer user reviews without massive investment. (For reference: the review system was LouderVoice for Business)

OPPOTUNITY 1: Travel sites that embrace user reviews, UGC and feedback mechanisms will nurture stronger customer relationships and offer superior user experience to new visitors.

Top Rankings Still Doing Good Business?

I think everyone realises that the travel niche is suffering acutely from out current economic woes. But I imagine high ranking sites are faring better than others. The trends are clear – migration to online channels is only increasing as people search out higher value propositions to offset economic woes.

So I was really quite surprised by how the Irish travel sites were competing in the organic results. Being blunt (many people have told me I’d never make the diplomatic corps) what struck me was the lack of serious SEO. And this struck a particular cord, reminding me of an important lesson – in SEO everything is relative.

You Don’t Have to Beat Best Practice, You Just Need To Beat The Other Guys

I work with a fairly diverse set of clients, most of whom operate in more competitive niches. So I’m used to working on projects that require significant resources (and budget) to see returns. But looking at the online travel niche here in Ireland I’ve concluded that the lack of sophistication is far more prominent than significant competitive forces in the SEPRs.

One of the sites I noticed doing very well for many short-tail travel phrases was gohop.ie. I was interested to see how they achieved their success, and from what I could see this is down to article submissions. Generally I’d consider article submission to be low-level link building, but to GoHop’s credit they rank, and in reality the means are far less important than the ends.

Article Submissions - low level, but effective
Article Submissions – low level, but effective

OPPOTUNITY 2: SERPs are wide open to a more sophisticated SEO campaign, and I think even a newcomer who embraces high quality content and user interaction can quickly become the online organic leader.

Website Architecture Isn’t Brain Surgery

When designing a good website architecture for both users and search engines it’s important to promote your most important pages. That means building a navigation which tells users, both human and machine, what’s important. Your site-wide navigation tells users more than most other mechanisms, and I have to say that I’m really disappointed to see that one of Ireland’s leading travel agents have commissioned a new website which breaks many of the most basic architecture rules. No names, but it’s also terrible (but unsurprising TBH) to see large agencies churning out such poor websites, and doubly so given that said agency also tout their SEO services on their site. I always wince when I see things like:

<a href="javascript:__doPostBack([...]'')">[... ]</a>

or internal links with 490 character target urls. Things like that aren’t stupid, they’re incompetent.

OPPOTUNITY 3: Non-branded travel-related search terms wont be “owned” by brands as long as they pay huge sums to developers who don’t understand organic search. Small niche players can dominate SERPs while the large brands continue to haemorrhage cash to offline branded advertising.

Cycles Come, Cycles Go…

While current conditions are exceptionally bad for the travel industry, opportunities abound for the group of survivors that compete in the next up cycle. Embracing UGC and interactive feedback loops will increasingly differentiate market leaders from “also-rans”, while user-centric design and content will reduce new prospect acquisition costs and increase customer loyalty.

In my opinion there’s massive upside potential in this online niche, and I hope that the guys from the ITAA course will go on to dominate the online space in times to come. Lastly, thanks to last week’s students for all the great discussions and ideas.

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  1. One of your best articles IMO Richard.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Ricardo — November 16, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  2. Very kind words Ricardo.

    Thanks for that, rgds

    Comment by Richard Hearne — November 17, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  3. Good post Richard. It’s interesting to see GoHop.ie have such good rankings based upon article marketing. I know GoIreland leverage this as well.

    In the U.K LateRooms are second to none at SEO. They dominate rankings for everything. Really impressive. Looks as if they utilize their brand authority via internal links to inner pages and sprinkle them with some good links (some of them a little on the boundaries in terms of Google TOS). But still, brilliant at what they do.

    Comment by searchbrat — November 17, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  4. Thanks for the kind mention Richard. We recently rolled out LouderVoice on four hotel sites and it was very enlightening talking to their ecommerce people and hearing about the challenges they are facing right now in the hospitality industry.

    The big message from them is that they want people talking about them online and they want to facilitate it and learn from the feedback.

    If the same thing (a review) also works as a sales tool, marketing tool and SEO tool, then that’s the icing on the cake.

    The traditional travel agents need to adjust to the new online realities or they won’t be in business in two years time.

    Comment by Conor O'Neill — November 18, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

  5. Great article Richard. I was struck by this recently when trying to search for charter flights from Ireland. It seems that not only public e-mails are missing, but even search sometimes doesn’t work and sites are so crowded you can’t find what you are looking for. Why do they bother creating websites at all?

    Comment by Gita — November 19, 2009 @ 7:02 am

  6. @Conor – I think tools like yours open up a lot of possibilities to travel sites who really cant afford to build/implement themselves. Looking forward to seeing newer integration that is SEO-friendly also :)

    @Gita – I think we’re quite behind in Ireland in terms of understanding the true benefits of the web. Many traditional industries here are made up of small enterprises who often lack the knowledge required to leverage online channels. But the good news is that things are getting better, albeit at a slow clip.

    Thanks for commenting

    Comment by Richard Hearne — November 19, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  7. Read this article the other day and it so weird that a few days later Budget Travel are closing their doors.

    Wonder if they embraced the technology as you mentioned would this still be the case.

    Sad Day for the travel business and the people that have lost their jobs.

    Comment by Anon — November 26, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

  8. Hi SEO Dublin

    Forgive me, but I generally nofollow targeted signature links, but to in your case I’ve edited your signature instead. It is sad indeed that Budget shut down.

    It might be useful if you added some personal details to your site – it looks a little anonymous right now ;)

    Rgds and thanks for commenting

    Comment by Richard Hearne — November 29, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

  9. Hi Richard

    Excellent post. In fact I suggest you should reach out to these agencies, try getting them online and take a percentage of their profits from the online sales channel :). If none of them are using the online channel, there’s a serious first mover advantage in the offing – wish I was there :)

    Comment by Prasad — December 1, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  10. Looks like there’s to be a lot less competition in the space with all the liquidations. I wonder were they doomed from the get go or would some proper advice like this have kept them afloat. (Specifically budget).

    Comment by Dave Davis — December 4, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

  11. I reckon the Irish agents are afraid of reviews and dont know how to manage web 2.0 . Its a completely different business from the traditional brochure type stand or glossy pictures that was prevelant in 1st generation websites. My advice would be to dump the call centres and shops and concentrate on the web where the market is. Its hard to believe that a market leader like Budget didnt get advice on this area and develop a plan to implement it. It would have been a small fraction of their turnover to implement this. They had sales of over 160million euros in 2007.

    Comment by Dan — December 4, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

  12. @Dave – I think many of the problems go far beyond the online channel TBH. Most had a serious cost base, and the main reason many are going out of business is cashflow problems.

    @Dan – I’ve spoken to some people in this space now, and I think you’re right. There’s a whole lot of anxiety around customer reviews (“can of worms” was used) as often the agencies don’t actually know how good/bad their own inventory is.

    Rgds to both

    Comment by Richard Hearne — December 5, 2009 @ 5:33 am

  13. @Dan One of the big problems for traditional brands is that they are taking advice from the wrong people. Most traditional marketing agencies in Ireland are either clueless or petrified of two-way marketing.

    I spoke at the Hotel Website Marketing event last week (about reviews of course) and was very interested to get a feel for hotels’ thinking on everything social on the web. The overall sense is that most understand it is happening, know they need to work with it instead of against it, but feel they don’t know enough to do it with confidence.

    For many, 2010 wil be the year they really try to engage actively with their customers online.

    I met a hotel yesterday and asked if they did email marketing. They said no. I asked if they sent emails to their customers. Oh sure all the time :-)

    I think the ones who have the biggest problem are those who have decided to offload everything “online” to external agencies and stick their head in the sand. In contrast, the ones who now have dedicated e-comm or e-marketing in-house will do the best and you can even see that now with those companies weathering the recession better.

    Amazingly there is still a hard core who think they can put the genie back in the bottle. One person at the event asked how they could get their hotel taken off TripAdvisor! The old school approach to bad reviews – kill the reviews, don’t fix your service.

    Comment by Conor O'Neill — December 5, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  14. @Conor They need to cop on quick or they run the risk of being left behind and possibly going out of business. I think hotels should have an independent onsite comments page where they can interact with their guests after their stay and develop an open live forum promoting their customer service and using this to set themselves apart from their competitors. People are now very much infleunced by people and are sceptical of Star ratings etc. If your business is as the star rating states then you wont have a problem. However if you are just at that level when an inspector comes to your hotel and the standard dips below that rating post visit, then the hotel is falsly operating and disapointing guests. However if this standard is being maintained at the best of times an open forum will just enhance the brand and in the long term bring in more business.

    I think traditional marketers still play a pivitol role in developing an overall plan for a business. I think they need to employ an Internet marketer to assist with the implementation of digital marketing and engage with the digital marketer whether inhouse or outhouse on a weekly basis and follow up on progress etc. Its a new ring of the business and is quickly becoming a primary part of the overall marketing process.

    I disagree with inhouse v’s outhouse. I believe with the right management in place and the correct follow up procedures a good outhouse internet marketer can have as much impact as an inhouse marketer and generally at a fraction of the cost. My arguement would be that an outhouse marketer is doing this across many industries and can see new opportunities quicker than an in house marketer who is blinkered to working with the business in hand.

    Ity is difficult to find a digital marketer employee who is profecient in SEO, PPC, Digital Ads,Trafficking, Copywriting for the web etc. However employing a decent marketing firm who have individuals in place that are specialists in each of these fields can benefit a company hugely as you get the expertise of all these individauls in one package. Its up to the Marketing manager to communicate with the Internet Marketing firm and ask as many questions and understand exactly what they are doing for them.

    There are many small web designers who claim to be Search Engine Specialists and charge a monthly fee for something they know nothing about. They are just costing businesses money and really damaging the digital marketing world.

    If I could give one piece of advice, to a hotel that contracts it Internet marketing outhouse, I would recommend asking for weekly or at least monthly progress reports that highlight areas the firm is working on, progress from the previous week/month and a plan of what is to be achieved by the next month -Objectives and Goals. Then you will know they are working with you and delivering the goods.

    Comment by Dan — December 5, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

  15. I think we’re in agreement Dan. My concern was for those who outsource everything and are not engaged with it at all. Companies should always work with the best in each field but they need to know what is going on.

    Comment by Conor O'Neill — December 6, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  16. Very Interesting article Richard. I have just started doing the online marketing for our own travel website.


    Comment by Cathal — February 26, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

  17. Richard congratulations on a very well written article and on behalf of Gohop.ie I would like to thank you for the positive feedback in relation to our concentration/sucess to a small degree in SEO. We put a lot of work into search engine optimisation and in general trying to create a website that is useful albeit with limited resources. More importantly our focus is on the client and we have a team of travel consultants who are here on hand to offer personal advice based on their experience and help people plan their holiday. A hybrid model so to speak click and bricks. On SEO we do manage our SEO/Pay per click campaigns in-house but we do engage with consultants who advise us as needed.

    As always there is a huge amount of work to be done to compete and thrive in the online marketplace. We have been going for 10 years now and have a competent team of professionals who enjoy what they do and that is sharing their travel experience with people looking to travel abroad. It is vital that in the current environment people take a break away if they can afford it and we would appreciate the opportunity of helping you have a memorable holiday abroad. We do however need to share this experience better on our website http://www.gohop.ie but we are continually working to improve this.

    Budget travels demise was a sad day for myself and many others as this was once a very colourful and interesting brand with whom many of us grew up.

    The points in your article and the comments which follow will be consided in reviewing our online strategy. We do engage with customers after they have travelled to make sure they have had a nice experience and we take their thoughts onboard. In relation to customer reviews of properties we should look to integrate with tripadvisor or others as we need that breadth of content however the commercial realities of that is a considerable cost in itself. We must however rise to that challenge and exceed the customer expectation and that is what we will do.

    Comment by Stephen Mc Kenna (Marketing director Gohop.ie) — March 15, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

  18. Sorry One point I meant to clarify is the following. The reason that most travel companies do not put on email addresses everywhere is my guess based on our following experience.

    Booking ratios
    Email to book ratio approx 20 to 1.
    Phone to book ratio 6 : 1

    During our office opening hours we try to drive business via the phones and then represent the email address for bookings after normal trading hours. We also have online bookability of flights/hotels/car rental and late holidays online with specialist travel information posted online to drive ideas to help people who are planning something a little bit more tailormade that required contact with a destination specialist.

    Comment by Stephen Mc Kenna (Marketing director Gohop.ie) — March 15, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  19. @Cathal – good luck with your site.

    @Stephen – delighted you found this. Well done on what you’ve achieved. It certainly gives you a competitive edge to be generating so much free traffic. If you do look at reviews you might want to get in touch with Conor who commented above. Loudervoice has a very effective and cost-friendly service.

    Thanks to all for commenting.

    Comment by Richard Hearne — March 17, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

  20. Thanks for the recommendation Richard.

    We have just rolled out Google Rich-Snippet support for some of our clients so that their on-site reviews will appear in a much richer form in Google’s results.

    Comment by Conor O'Neill — March 17, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  21. I have just started to work on rich snippets (price range + time sensitive events). At the moment google don’t guarantee they will show it. From examples I have seen, it’s always large sites like Yelp that are shown. I am sure they will support it across the board soon.
    Rich snippets really do enhance the SERPs, but the SERPs have come a long way from the simple free listing. They are more and more resembling a human reviewed directory with social links thrown in.
    Definitely worth measuring CTR of rich snippets entries in Google Webmaster tools. I am trying to use Google Analytics intelligence alerts, but pretty difficult as positions fluctuate so much on Google at the moment.

    Comment by searchbrat — March 17, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

  22. @Conor and Kieran – do you still have to apply to get a site into that program? I know previously Google only accepted sites after human review, and that it took some time. The process has speeded up the last I heard, but is still in place. Can either of you confirm that?


    Comment by Richard Hearne — March 17, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  23. The latest info I’ve read is that they are aiming for auto-discovery but you can let them know about your site for consideration.

    We only turned on aggregate support for clients this morning (we’ve had individual hreview on the consumer site since 2007) and I’ve just applied to have reviews of ourselves considered so let’s see if/when it happens.

    We’ll be recommending that all of our clients who can use Rich Snippets (PHP only at the minute but .NET and others coming soon) apply too.

    Comment by Conor O'Neill — March 17, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

  24. Great article Richard, one of my favourites yet!

    Comment by SJL Web Design — April 15, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

  25. Hi Richard, off topic but what ever happened to the sites you picked for free research / traffic development some time back ?.
    Are there any case studies on your site anywhere ?.
    Have been checking back for ages to find out how the sites got on.

    Comment by Mick — June 14, 2010 @ 1:34 am

  26. ie the Conversion Rate Optimisation Testing

    Comment by Mick — June 14, 2010 @ 1:40 am

  27. Hi Mick

    I do have quite a bit of data, but I’ve been woefully inadequate here on my own blog :( Hopefully I can get back to blogging again soon, and I’ll also find a vehicle for publishing some testing results.

    I think I’ll also look for some new sites for free testing in the coming weeks also to build some new data.

    Will update here when I have some more info :)
    Thanks for dropping by, rgds,

    Comment by Richard Hearne — June 18, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

  28. Hi
    First time read your blog. Some content is really awesome my company is related to traveling so it’s really helpful for me.I have started the feedback campaign for my clients and it is helping a lot. The kind of comments and review which I get are some time bad and some time motivating. It’s helping my business and me to understand the requirement of clients.

    Comment by Ebby Murphy — July 14, 2010 @ 8:46 am

  29. Don’t forget that to make sure that you are working on what brings you money in, if not then your leaving money on the table Richard,

    I would put my sites first before my blog, Great post, i think if you got away from the travel niche even for a month and come back you’ll have a fresh perspective and see even more opportunities to capitalize on,


    Comment by Shawn McConnell — July 22, 2010 @ 1:55 am

  30. Brazilian Websites are also with the same problems.
    Don’t know for sure for irish market, but mostly SEO here is just starting.

    Comment by Daniel Caceiro — August 10, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  31. Great article Richard, very big industry in Ireland now.

    Comment by Daniel B — December 13, 2010 @ 5:25 am

  32. I think a lot of this holds across the travel niche. Working in hire cars I see a lot of websites where site architecture are poorly thought out. The meeting point between developers and business always seems to be fractious.

    Good post, and some points worth thinking about for any site regardless of niche.

    Comment by CarHirePhuket.com — December 15, 2010 @ 11:48 am

  33. I totally agree with you, travel companies out there are missing out on so much low hanging fruit. The lack of email contact details is however not just an Irish phenomenon. I come across this nearly everyday when accessing hotel & travel websites in Spain & Italy. They seem determined to hide their details from potential clients.

    To me User Generated Content seems like a no brainer, but I suppose these ideas take time to percolate up to the top. Their loss.

    Comment by Get Found — December 18, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

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