CEO Shahin Fard looks back over his years of experience in travel SEO and shares some of the wealth of knowledge he has picked up along the way.
I remember attending the very first search engine conference session in 2001 called “Search Engine Strategies”, I listened to several speakers talking about SEO and was lucky enough to meet Danny Sullivan in person. Back then, we were learning how to optimise Meta keywords (yes, there was a time when it was all about the Meta keywords).
After the conference I came back to my then employer Cheapflights with 15 pages of notes and huge excitement about the potential revenue benefits from SEO. Luckily for me (and for them), the forward thinking management at Cheapflights, Hugo Burge and David Soskin, listened. They changed my position from Webmaster to Online Marketing Manager. To this day I remember David Soskin giving me his credit card to run the very first travel PPC client for Google UK, but that’s another story….
We started implementing SEO best practice on the Cheapflights website and we were getting positive results. SEO became embedded into the process and today Cheapflights is still ranking in pole positions across highly competitive terms under the new SEO leadership of Shahid and Andrew.
It is a great feeling building websites from the ground up, watching websites climb rankings and Analytics increase. After my eight years at Cheapflights a report from an independent third party agency gave Cheapflights a 100% visibility score across all relevant terms. At that point I knew it was time to take on a new challenge. I joined forces with Rob Passmore (ex-Commercial Director of Cheapflights Ltd) and we started Bravr Ltd.
Through my years as a digital marketer I’ve accumulated a wealth of knowledge; enough to write a book on the subject. However I’m far too busy working for that, so wanted to share some of the elements that I believe are crucial to effective SEO, particularly in the travel industry.
SEO Product design and site architecture
You wouldn’t build a house without getting an architect in, so why would you want to build a website without an SEO to help you with site architecture?
Architecture – I can’t stress how critical it is to get a good SEO in during the early stages of a website build. A site’s architecture accounts for a high percentage of how well your internal pages rank; having a structure that works for both users and SEO is critical to a websites success. We use Visio to produce architecture maps for clients on a regular basis, working alongside development teams whether they are our own, a client’s or external. Having a site architecture map really helps understand how the website works. An SEO can help raise the importance of key revenue driving pages; pages that are often sent to the bottom of the site map.
Links – On a hotel’s website the popular destinations e.g. Paris (especially around Valentine ’s Day) is popular. When websites put “Paris hotels” as a hyperlink on their homepage under “Popular destinations” it’s an SEO who has requested that. Typically, a website’s homepage attracts the most links, but where that source of authority links to is equally important, so structuring a website efficiently is crucial. You can’t link to every important page from your homepage; you’re spreading your authority thinly. Like sharing a medium pizza amongst ten friends, there’s simply not enough to go around.
Wireframes – Having SEO input into wireframes is also very important, they can advise how best to optimise content semantically and ensure that the boilerplate design is sufficiently different to prevent duplicate content filters.
A good analogy is building a house without an architect drawing up designs; inevitably it will leak and, eventually, it’ll fall down.
SEO Keyword research
We all love the joke SEO Exec walks into a bar, pub, drinking establishment, watering hole, cocktail bar……. But SEO keyword research is a crucial element of a marketing campaign.
Keywords and search volume are key intelligence in any search marketing campaign. Contrary to some people’s belief, keyword research isn’t just about getting the key words; it is about presenting them in a way that tells your company what they need to do and how they can do it. These target phrases should be organised and structured in a meaningful way; there is no point showing your management/client a long list of keywords and search volume if you don’t offer a good strategy on how to make the most of the information that you have provided.
In travel, make sure you have a database of generic terms and destination terms plus modifiers; in flights don’t forget about city pairs/routes. Keep the database up to date and I would recommend collecting them monthly so you can keep an eye on trends and seasonality. So in December when your traffic is low, you know it’s seasonal and the January rush often makes up for the drop in December. By keeping year-on-year monthly reports you’ll have the evidence to back this up to your manager/client.
Make SEO part of your development process
It is possible to work a little of the Bravr SEO magic on sites that haven’t been built with SEO in mind, but it is much easier, less time consuming and less costly to create a website that has SEO integral in the design process from the outset.
I work closely with developers; I speak their language. I take the time to explain why I’m asking them to code something in a certain way, and justify my request if necessary as the result of compelling research and/or a thorough explanation. Having an SEO’s input into the technical requirements gathering stage ensures the website isn’t built with technical roadblocks that prevent a website from ranking. An SEO should also be included in the pre-release stage; there is a set of pre-launch checks an SEO will perform on a website, and I advise clients to give us a week to go through the website in detail. To date there hasn’t been a single website I’ve worked on that out of date it is ready to go live.
A good analogy (and I do love a good analogy) is painting a car; after its painted there are always little specs of dust in the paint that need to be compounded and polished out. It wouldn’t be rolled out of the factory with flaws, no matter how small the flaws are.
SEO’s need to be included in the web development process and to be able to stop a website from going live if needs be, as clearing up a mess after it has gone live is a lot harder than when a website is in development.
The more competitive the sector, the more important it is that your website is built in a search engine friendly way and is as efficient as possible. Travel is a competitive industry and
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet…. This may work for Shakespeare but in SEO one word, one name, can make a huge difference. By keeping an SEO involved in your change process you can make sure that the only difference your word changes make are good ones.
Our Online Marketing Manager Erdal (also ex-Cheapflights) reviews our clients’ positioning across search engines globally each Monday morning religiously. He notices a critical term has dropped and after investigating on search engines and the client’s website, he notices it’s been changed. The page, that was about “flights”, is now about “travel”. The client wants to know why they aren’t ranking for “flights” anymore, inevitably it’s because the page has been changed.
It’s an SEO’s responsibility to make the client/management aware that changes whether large or small can have an impact on a website’s positioning. In some cases it’s minimal, in others the difference can be potentially devastating. Having an SEO signoff as part of a signoff process reduces this risk. Risk mitigation is part of an SEO’s life, they have to make judgements based on the art and science that is SEO.
Try new things, be open
Rise to the top of your search engine positioning, but don’t sit there and enjoy the view; you need to work hard to stay where you are.
Great, you’ve got to top position on your term, job done? Not quite – it’s only a matter of time before a competitor catches up. How can you stay a step ahead? Have you tried different internal linking methodologies, different on-page optimisation strategies, how can you continue to attract inbound links?
Being open is an essential attribute if you want to not only get to the top, but stay there. I learned a valuable lesson from an extremely talented CTO, Svein Erikson (not to be mistaken for the England Manager). He taught me a life lesson. He said there were two people in this world; those who are like sponges and absorb knowledge and those who believe they know it all. I like to think of myself as a sponge. It’s important as a senior SEO to listen to others and make a judgement call for yourself whether you should take their advice on board. Try not to be obtuse, leave your ego at the door because you should be acting in the best interest of the website in question.
The sales bit
At Bravr we really enjoy SEO and, guess what? We’re very good at it and enjoy working with clients and agencies. We provide all aspects of SEO services. If you are interested in the SEO services we are able to offer, please get in touch