Unless you’ve been living in a cave (which might not be a bad thing these days), you probably already know that people go to Google when they want to find stuff. Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for tourism, is the ability to get your website to rank on Google when prospects are searching for the tours or activities you provide.
But with all the other marketing channels out there, is SEO still worth doing?
The answer is yes. More than ever. When you look at the numbers, putting your efforts into gaining organic traffic still trumps the rest by a longshot.
An Alexa report shows 54.9% of all traffic for Travel and Tourism websites comes from ‘Search’. Another 41.8% comes from direct and referral traffic, a good portion of which is PR (which should be part of your SEO program; more on that later), bringing the total traffic from SEO, or inbound marketing, for most tourism businesses, to well over 80%.
And for social media and influencer marketing?
The total from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the various other social channels out there adds up to just 2.2%.
Now, I think that’s a tad on the low side, and would expect a tourism operator that puts a decent amount of effort into social media to be closer to the 10% traffic level. But even at that, compared to SEO, the fraction is tiny. So, if you’re trying to get bookings, where do you want to put your resources?
When it comes to getting your website top spots on Google, there are over 200 ranking factors to consider. I won’t get into all of them here, but will focus on the key factors tour operators need to be doing now.
Many people fail to realize that SEO is in fact a tactic, NOT a strategy.
When it comes to getting qualified traffic to your website, it may be the ultimate tool. But it’s just that, a tool. Think of it like this: let’s say you had the highest performance, carbon graphite, titanium, NASA-designed, crazy expensive golf clubs money could buy.
Would you be able to play golf as well as Tiger Woods?
You see, it’s the strategy and skill behind SEO that makes it effective.
And that comes down to the hard work of figuring out core stuff like who your ideal clients are, how you differentiate your tourism business from your competitors, your customer journey, and ultimately, how you make your guests’ lives better.
It’s really marketing 101, but if you can’t absolutely nail those points, go back and spend some time there. Or hire a consultant to help you with that. There are no silver bullets, or magic wands with SEO. The same goes for every other marketing channel out there.
When it comes to inbound marketing for tour operators, you need to know what people search for when they’re likely to find a business like yours.
So where to begin?
Start by brainstorming. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes (or sandals or ski boots) and think about what search terms they may be typing into Google, and make a list. Then do this same exercise with your staff members and make an even bigger list.
You want to grow that list by finding all the different terms that people use in the ‘research’ and ‘buy’ phases of your customer journey, then whittle it down to the most profitable terms to optimize your website for.
Next head over to Wikipedia, yes, Wikipedia. (Thanks to SEO guru Brian Dean for that one). Look at your destination or sport and see what Wikipedia has on it, scan the list of topics or categories and add these to your list.
If it’s in Wikipedia, there are probably people searching for these subtopics.
Next, go to good old Google and open an incognito window (so you don’t get results skewed by what Google already knows about you) and start typing in terms from your list into the search bar. As you type, look at the ‘auto-suggest’ results that pop up, make note of any relevant terms and add them to your list.
Then, scroll down to the bottom of the page and scan through the ‘Searches related to…’ results.
Anything that looks promising here should be added to your list as well.
By now you’ve probably got a decent sized list of a few dozen search terms your target audience is using to find you. Maybe some of these you’ve never thought of before.
At this point, I’d split that list into two buckets, the top-of-funnel or ‘research’ keywords and phrases and the more ‘purchase-ready,’ bottom-of-the-funnel keywords. Both are important.
Ok, now here’s where things start to get (a little) technical:
Log into your Google Search Console and see what search terms you’re already ranking for and make a note. Do you see any from your list? Search Console will show you your actual position by keyword, so for example, you’d see #3 for ‘portaledge cooking courses’ if that’s where you’re ranking.
Now, you need to look at search volume, cost-per-click (CPC) and competition data for each of your search terms. This data comes from Google Keyword Planner (KWP) and is intended for running Google Ads, but it’s also an important starting point for SEO.
There are a bunch of SEO tools out there that take KWP data and combine it with their own data or just make it easier to digest.
I like Keywords Everywhere, since it has a Chrome plugin and gives you this data at a glance directly in your browser and let’s you easily export CSV files. And it’s cheap. So build a nice spreadsheet for all your keywords. When sorting the results, there’s really no hard and fast rules here, despite what you may have read. It really depends on your niche. Generally, If the search term has super-low traffic, I’d cross it off. If it’s too vague, cross it off. If it has high competition, say anything over 0.7, I’d nix it too.
Any terms with high CPC means they likely have a lot of commercial or booking intent behind them, so I’d put those in your ‘money keywords’ bucket. You’ll generally want to nail your list down to about 12-15 primary keyword phrases before going onto the next step.
Now here’s where a pricier paid tool can be a powerful weapon in your arsenal.
Ahrefs, SEMrush and MOZ all have great research tools for really drilling down and telling you what it will take to rank for your chosen keywords. So plug in your top keywords and check the results; you’ll likely see your competitors pop up in the top spots. You can use these SEO tools to literally look under the hood of your competitors’ sites and see their Domain and Page Authority, site structure, content and backlinks profile that’s giving them those top search spots.
AND then make a plan to beat them.
I find often that many tourism business owners think they need to rank for uber popular keywords like ‘powder skiing’ or ‘best fly fishing’ or something similarly so vague it can’t possibly be useful.
But here’s the thing, people do search for those terms, and tour companies pay top dollar to bid on them with Google PPC ads. Let them.
Here’s where really knowing your ideal customer and their buyer’s journey can save you a lot of extra money, time and effort.
For example, if you know that your target client typically finds you with ‘Guided Colorado Ski touring’ instead optimize just for that and a few other longtail related terms. That same person may have started with a vague ‘powder skiing’ search, spent time reading articles (PR) and watching videos (more research) bouncing around, and eventually decided that they want a guided ski touring vacation in Colorado.
Now that you have your two buckets of high value keywords, it’s time to start creating content.
The goal here is to tell Google (and ultimately, your customers) that you are an authority in your tourism niche. Aim to create content hubs, or hub pages with several blog posts all based on that key topic you want to rank for. Target 1500+ words per post, with images, maps, graphics, videos and whatever else your site visitors will find interesting and informative.
Those articles should be like spokes on a wheel, all pointing back, with links, to your booking page. What you’re actually doing here is using your content pages to ‘lift up’ your booking pages.
And that’s the basis of good SEO.
Work with writers and make sure your content is professionally written and consistent with your brand voice. If you have an expert on staff, like a senior guide, they may be a great resource for a writer to work with to produce awesome content.
But don’t overlook outside sources either.
The more valuable sources you can cite, and link to, the more authoritative Google generally finds it to be. Think like a journalist who is going out and researching a topic, trying to create the best piece for the website visitor. Then plan to create multiple versions of your core content, such as blog posts, videos, podcasts, ebooks and social posts, all with the same focus keywords.
Work with your webmaster to make sure page titles and URLs for your main ‘tours’ or ‘booking’ pages contain your target keywords. Include your keywords throughout your page copy but do not keyword-stuff your pages.
Photo or video-only pages might look stunning, but do little to help your rankings. All important pages, including your homepage, should have at least 400-500 words of copy minimum. If your site is WordPress, use Yoast to optimize your page titles and descriptions to improve your click through rate (CTR).
SEO audits can be helpful for finding crawl errors that can affect how Google sees your site. The best approach is to use a combination of tools and manually go through your site.
Look at your Search Console and see if there are any error reports. If there are, have your web developer fix them. Tools such as Ahrefs can also be helpful here to spot any other issues, such as missing image alt tags, broken links or bad titles.
Google is now crawling most websites as ‘mobile first’ so make darn sure your site is mobile-friendly, but don’t just trust the tools. I’ve seen many sites that get a 100% pass from mobile checkers, that actually perform badly on a real phone. Always test on multiple devices and make sure.
Once you’ve created a great content piece, don’t just sit back and wait for it to ‘do its thing’.
You need to promote it. In fact, many in the content marketing industry say you should spend 5X more on promoting your content than you did in creating it. At the minimum, spend a few bucks boosting it to your audience on Facebook and include it in an email newsletter. Post it on all your social channels. Show it off on your home page; this will not only drive some clicks, but every new post is seen as ‘new content’, so Google knows your site is fresh.
Of all the ranking signals Google uses to decide where you show up, the most important one is ‘backlinks,’ in other words, having other sites link to yours. If you’ve created strong content, these will occur naturally over time.
BUT, why not give things a push?
Again, you’re basically promoting your content by encouraging others to link to it. But here, quality is WAY more important than quantity, so ignore any offers from overseas marketing agencies to ‘buy links cheap.’ These will be so low quality, that you’ll get your site penalized, since Google really frowns on this tactic.
The right way to do backlink building is to reach out to relevant blogs and other sites in your niche, tell them about the awesome piece you just published, how it will benefit their readers. Then ask for a link. As you can imagine, this is a lot of work, and success rates are low, but who told you SEO was easy?
Here’s where you want to lean on some of your industry connections, like asking your Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) to link to it on their blog, or your tourism partners in your destination. Little by little, as you gather some backlinks, your rankings for that page will jump up.
Another way of getting backlinks, and gaining authority at the same time, is by ‘guest blogging’. Here you offer to write an article for the blog you want to appear on, and include a link to your content piece in the blog.
Yep, lots of work, but if you have existing content, or the resources, guest blogging can be very useful. Again, these must be super relevant sites to your niche, so choose carefully.
For the ultra-competitive types, there’s another, (somewhat nasty) technique to steal the backlinks from your top competitors.
Here’s how it works:
Use an SEO tool like Ahrefs to see the top ranking pages for your target keywords. If one is a competitor, go into their backlink profile and see who’s linking to it. Then go out and create a piece that’s 10X better than your competitor’s, reach out to the site owners who’re linking to it and say “hey, we just created this super informative post, that’s way more up to date, yada yada, so you should link to ours instead of theirs”. Killer.
Ok, by now you’re hopefully getting a sense of how important backlinks are to improving your rankings. So what if you could get a super authoritative site, like a major magazine, blog or newspaper to do a travel story on your tours and link back to your website?
Well, that’s what we call Public Relations, or tourism PR, and from an SEO perspective, it’s crazy valuable for improving your rankings on Google. And as a bonus, you can create awareness directly from PR that you can’t get anywhere else, not even from Google.
There are many ways to do PR, but it really comes down to crafting great pitches that will interest a journalist or editor, and being persistent enough to get them to cover your tourism business. Google places a lot of value on these links from the Press, and the SEO boost can last for years.
For in-bound tour operators, local SEO is key to making sure you’re not missing out on any regional rankings.
Make sure to set up and optimize your Google My Business listing and check that you’re showing up properly on Google Maps. Google has made GMB a key part of its business strategy, so don’t neglect it. Use all the options your category allows, and make GMB ‘posts’ a regular part of your social media plan.
Encourage reviews here too, as they’ve been shown to really help search rankings.
In the travel and tourism industry, Google puts a lot of weight on Tripadvisor, so make sure your listing is optimized, all your info is correct, and encourage reviews here too.
When it comes to local SEO, ensure your business Name, Address and Phone number, or NAP, are correct and consistent among all your major listings. This can sometimes be a problem if you’ve moved locations or changed business names over the years. Google hates inconsistency, and simple problems like this can mess up your local search rankings.
Even though we’ve covered a lot of stuff here, there’s still more for die-hard SEO nerds out there, but the good news is that if you do most of the stuff mentioned here, your Google search rankings will skyrocket and your tourism business will be well onto Page One and driving high quality traffic to your site.
But remember, SEO is not ‘set it and forget it’. It takes constant effort to earn and keep those results.
If you need any help in creating an effective tourism SEO program, contact us to set up a meeting.