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How the travel industry is playing the Google rankings game

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Episode Overview

What is driving online visibility in travel? With Google’s recent core update, the travel industry is experiencing big transitions, redefining the major players and how the game is being played. What are the latest trends shaping the future of the online travel marketplace? In this fifth podcast of our April Searchmetrics Content Ranking Factors series, renowned SEO strategist Jordan Koene and Ben Shapiro of Searchmetrics take a deep dive into travel, looking at who is winning and losing, and why.

You’ll learn:

  • How are brands like Marriott and Hilton positioning their online content?
  • How are TripAdvisors and other content-centric players winning with user-generated content reviews and guides?
  • What are the travel aggregators catering to user search doing now?
  • How are the online travel agencies like the Travelzoo and Expedia weathering the transition?
  • How is location-based content like maps impacting the mobile experience and rankings?


Episode Transcript

Ben:                 Welcome back to industry ranking factors week of the voices of search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro, and this week we’re going to publish an episode every day covering what you need to know about the ranking factors that impact search visibility in your industry. Joining us for an industry ranking factors week is Jordan Koene, who is a world-renowned SEO strategist, and the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. And today we’re going to continue our conversation about industry ranking factors by talking about the ranking factors impacting visibility in the travel industry. But before we get started, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses, monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions. And as part of ranking factors week, we would like to welcome you, our loyal podcast audience to our upcoming webinar where we’ll discuss the evolution of custom ranking factors with machine learning on April 25th. Join our discussion about how the new generation of machine learning driven technology is evolving to provide on demand and domain specific ranking factors that are shaping the future of SEO. To register for our custom ranking factors Webinar, go to Okay. Here’s the fourth installment of industry ranking factors week with Jordan Koene, Searchmetrics CEO and lead SEO Strategist. Jordan welcome back to industry ranking factors week on the voices of search podcasts.

Jordan:             It’s time to take off then.

Ben:                 I see what you did there were getting on the private jet and we’re heading back to the mothership in Germany, right?

Jordan:             That’s right. Yeah. I was actually hoping someone more tropical, but I guess, I guess Germany will do.

Ben:                 What is the weather, like back at the Searchmetrics corporate headquarters these days. I imagine it’s still pretty cold.

Jordan:             Yeah. I think they’re getting out of their gloomy phase and moving into in moving into some sun.

Ben:                 You know, let’s stick here in northern California and let’s just talk about what’s actually happening in the travel industry, who do you see as the big players and what are the trends that you’re seeing in the travel industry?

Jordan:             Yeah, so let’s break down the travel industry into a couple of different buckets here to start off. First off, travel kind of is consumed largely by what we call the OTA so the online travel agencies, these are the Expedia, the bookings, the Travel Zoos, and the so forth. Then we have what we call the brands. And these brands are the like the United, the Hiltons, and the so forth. And then lastly, we have a unique hodgepodge of what we like to call the content players. And these content players, there’s the 800-pound gorilla in this particular sector, which is TripAdvisor and their ability to kind of overlay across all of the other two and really consume a lot of real estate in the SERPs.

Jordan:             Knowing that, knowing how we, how we break this down really where we spend a lot of our time is looking at how there’s, how volatility in ranking factors adjust for say OTA versus brands and vice versa or content players in the two. What we’ve noticed, probably the biggest shift are shifts that have taken place with TripAdvisor in particular, which TripAdvisor in the way that they deal with their content to really create dynamic transitions in terms of what’s happening within the SERP. Recently about midyear last year we noticed that they had had some, some, some transitions and declines and then recently with Google’s recent update, they also had some transitions to clients. And what that really does is it kind of recalibrate how not only the ranking factors are taking place, but really also how the different competitors are playing within the travel category.

Ben:                 So what I’m hearing from you is there’s really three types of brands, right? There’s the actual direct brands, the Marriott, the Hiltons of the world. Then there’s the aggregators which are combining and allowing you to search across all of the multiple sites, and then there’s the more content centric plays primarily you mentioned Trip Advisors, which are more user generated content reviews, guides, um kind of multiple different types of content, but there’s a question about, I guess the value and the authenticity of that content.

Jordan:             Correct. And, and maybe it’s really also kind of a third kind of component is how Google is also changing in this space and where they’re trying to say, define the different barriers between what you would really consider a very traditional travel transactional term. Right? Like, I want to buy a ticket or get a hotel room in the city versus I’m just trying to really do discovery and understand what it would be like to travel to say Peru or whatever place that you want to go to, and those are very different things and Google’s ability to kind of control those experiences is very volatile. And I think that it’s, it’s shifted a lot in the last six to 18 months.

Ben:                 Yeah. Understanding the difference between research and the transactional phase, seems like it’s a complicated process as these are established brands, lots of content, lots of pages. Let’s talk about the actual ranking factors. What are the different ways that these multiple categories of businesses are driving visibilities? What are the ranking factors in the travel industry?

Jordan:             Some of the ranking factors in the travel industry include having really strong location based content and so being able to distinguish exactly what a user wants when they search a specific Hawaiian island in a qualifier, say be a hotel or an airfare or a an event or some sort of activity. Those factors really are important and ensuring that that location experience is either holistic enough or specific enough in order to capture that searchers attention. And so that is really the, the most dynamic ranking factor and I know that that’s a very hard one for everyone to kind of grasp, but that’s really what we’re dealing with here is how do we ensure that users are accessing the right content based on that travel experience that they are, they’re seeking out.

Ben:                 So, you didn’t ask the question, but isn’t the answer structured data like isn’t it formatting whatever you’re reviewing or whatever the ticket is with the location and the price? Like isn’t that how you sort of get all of this information that Google is seeking specifically the address to the search engine?

Jordan:             Ah, that’s, that’s a really tough, that’s such a great way of looking at it it’s a really tough one to unpack. A structured data does play a huge role in this and that’s one of the reasons why it TripAdvisor’s had such a really strong advantage in this market is because they can really map a lot of the structured data in a very strong way, and their ambition or their goal for the user isn’t pure play, cross sell. Right. What I mean by pure play, cross sell is I’m an OTA or I am I’m a brand, I sell hotel rooms and I want to get people to get an airline ticket or rent a car or vice versa. In that pure play, cross sell is not really what Google is looking for and typically also not what users are looking for. And so going back to structured data with structured data really allows these websites in and ultimately Google to understand is what is it that’s taking place on these pages in how, how am I able to interpret that for different search intent? And yes, structured data plays a huge role in there and that’s definitely a major ranking factor.

Ben:                 So you mentioned intent and I think that that’s really the tricky thing about the travel industry where there is a large research component where people are trying to understand where to go, what are the events to do reading reviews, they take a lot of signal from people that they don’t know. Right? This is a place where reviews might be the most impactful, maybe with the exception of eCommerce, but then there is a huge kind of standardized transactional component as well. How do brands or how should brands basically inform Google of what the intent of their pages are and how do you wall off those experiences from being transactional to research, so Google knows how to think about you know the page and doesn’t think that you’re just going for the pure cross sell.

Jordan:             It’s a really good point Ben and fundamentally it comes down to not only just SEOs but the webmasters in in the engineers behind these experiences ensuring that they’re displaying the most valuable asset and expectation of that page right up front and in the most user-friendly way to the visitor. And so this means that if you’re trying to create a selection experience, or you’re trying to create an experience where there’s multiple options, say for hotel rooms or flights, the ability to have the most relevant and useful set of results on that page is absolutely critical. And that’s very hard for a lot of these brands in OTA’s to do. And that’s because in some cases you don’t have the selection. In other cases you don’t have the structure data to present that selection. And so that is why for years now we’ve seen the ability for TripAdvisor to control a lot of the real estate in this particular category because they really do have that selection that they’ve incorporated into various experiences within their page, whether it be review based, map based, um, carousel based. When you look at activities on their, on their site, it’s very carousel based. Those types of experiences really enrich and keep the user on those pages and have allowed these websites to really control the rankings and, and ultimately the ranking factors that we’ve see most visible in our data.

Ben:                 Honestly, Jordan, I’m confused. The experiences and travel are a hybrid experiences, right? You’re, you’re doing research and a lot of time that goes into booking and clarifying to Google what the intent of a pages there are multiple intents on these pages. So like I understand what you’re saying about you need to create a user experience that really addresses the page, but often it is, I’m thinking about booking this hotel. I want to make sure it’s in the right area, yes it is. I’m going to book here. Uh it seems like there is a reason to have multiple different formats of content on these travel pages. I’ll give an example of my favorite travel site is a site called Mr. and Mrs. Shout out to Mr. and Mrs. Smith love your work. And whether they have visibility or not, I’m not sure. But you know, they have a lot of content on their transactional pages to try to inform you about what to expect from the experience of staying at their boutique hotels.

Jordan:             Mm-hmm.

Ben:                 And, and that to me is an example of a lot of transactional stuff on the page and a lot of content that talks to you about the experience as well. So to me that’s a great experience. I don’t know if it generates a lot of visibility, but it’s, that’s the confusing thing about this industry to me.

Jordan:             Oh, it is a little bit confusing and maybe an example can help us. So when we talk about say activities, right? Let’s say we want to do activities in a city like San Francisco, a city like San Francisco has a variety of different activities that might be available to visitors. Things from like the big red buses to visiting museums to art in all exhibits. There’s a variety of options in a city like San Francisco. What we do know from the data is that if you’re going to create a solid mobile experience, nearly 30% of the results for activities in a city like San Francisco, will have a map experience on the page. So let me repeat that. The mobile experience for 30% of the rankings for activities in a city like San Francisco, will have a map on it and that makes a ton of sense.

Jordan:             It also really exemplifies like what is the experience expectation for someone looking for an activity. And that I think is really kind of connecting those dots and the ability to do that across what is a very unique and very expansive set of content is very, very hard to do. And I think that if you’re a brand, it’s very different than if you’re a content aggregator versus a an OTA, but the reality is that the brands really only focus on their brand and what they can own for their brand. The other two are trying to kind of constantly compete across all these different categories and subcategories within the travel category.

Ben:                 Takeaway here is that the travel industry is very nuanced, right? You have the three different types of players between the brands, the aggregators, the pure content and the experiences can be very blended. You know, specifically for the brands and for the aggregators of where you’re putting content and what is transactional. You know, the, the biggest highlight in the biggest ranking factor that we could point out is throw a map on the page. Location really matters, and outside of that figuring out your experience and you know, testing and understanding what’s going to work for your specific brand. The ranking factor here is you have to test and figure it out yourself.

Jordan:             I mean when we look at the number of organic results for travel, we noticed that it is much lower than many of the other industries. What I mean by that is the number of actual blue links on the page is much less in the reason being is that you know Google themselves are trying to consume real estate in the travel industry. What I mean by that is to be even more specific here is that Google themselves is putting their map experience. They’re putting their knowledge graph experience. In fact on desktop nearly 60% of the travel queries we analyzed have a knowledge graphs and that means that Google is trying to consume something about the travel experience. You know, obviously Google has their own kind of travel search experience now I wouldn’t be surprise of Google even expands this more this year, which is how do we as Google, really try to help users answer the question they have by creating new unique experiences within the [inaudible 00:14:43]. And I know that’s a lot to handle for some of our listeners, but that that is really kind of where Google is trying to go here. And that’s largely why it’s a very, um, it’s a very difficult category to like pinpoint just say this is the one factor, go focus on it.

Ben:                 Yeah, I think that you know the ranking factor, I don’t know if it’s a ranking factor, but you know, Google being interested in taking over the experience of presenting more content to the consumer and you know, basically taking the air out of the tires of the industry as far as visibility goes is, I don’t know if that’s a ranking factor, but it’s definitely something to be addressed and you know, as you’re thinking about your search strategy, understand that you know, there might be less opportunity for search in this industry moving forward.

Jordan:             Correct. Yup?

Ben:                 Okay. That wraps up this episode of the voices of search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan, Koene Searchmetrics as CEO and lead SEO strategist, we’d love to continue this conversation with you so if you’re interested in contacting Jordan, you can find the link to his bio in our show notes or you can send them a tweet where his handle is jt koine, that’s j t k o e n e. If you have general marketing questions or if you want to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes or you can send me a tweet at Benjshap. It’s a, b e n ja s h a p. If you’re interested in attending our custom ranking factors Webinar on April 25th head over to If you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights and your podcast fee, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back into your feet and tomorrow morning to discuss the ranking factors that impact visibility in the health care industry. Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the apple iTunes store or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Okay. That’s it for today, and until next time, remember, the answers are always in the day.


Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene is the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Searchmetrics. Previously, Jordan was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay. During his time at eBay, Jordan focused on utilizing eBay content to improve user experience and natural search traffic.

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