Vine is the newest application to sprout from the Twitter family and into the social media scene. The free mobile app is to video what Twitter is to text: a platform built around a content constraint that promotes creativity and viral sharing. Vine’s six seconds of video (and sound! Take that animated gifs!) creates a plethora of possibilities for rapid reach, engagement and influence. High profile Vines include everything from comedy...

to sports...

 and even the White House!

Why Vine?

Blue Magnet has previously covered strategies and tactics for Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Foursquare. With a robust market of social media apps, why should hotels consider adding Vine to their social media marketing mix? Social applications are developing into increasingly influential factors of consumers’ brand affinity and purchasing decisions as digital and mobile technology become more pervasive in our daily lives. A 2012 Nielson study of 28,000 global consumers found that the top two most trusted forms of media are earned media (word-of-mouth, recommendations from friends, etc.) and online consumer reviews. These two sources garnered a 92% and 70% trust rating respectively compared to approximately a 45% trust rating for traditional media such as television, magazines and newspapers. Consumers are listening to their friends and family and their friends and family are highly engaged in social media. Digital Marketing Ramblings has a post regarding recent (May 2013) social media usage stats. The numbers may shock you (hello 1.11 BILLION Facebook users)!

With this in mind, marketers need to focus on tactics and platforms which best reach their audience. Regardless of the target, video is the clear cut king when it comes to influence across social networks. A new study from Adobe reports social video engagement has risen to 70% from 42% the previous year. Video content accounts for 77% of all viral reach. Hubspot has posted an excellent infograph which shows that videos on Facebook are shared twelve times more than all text and link posts combined. As the Adobe report points out, offering more video should be the prime objective to fully realize social media potential.

Size It Up: The Good & The Bad of Vine

PROS 

  •  Easy to use!
  •  Consumers love video
  •  Easily shared on Facebook and Twitter
  •  Guests generate buzz about your hotel
  •  Engaging content

CONS

  •  Challenging to consistently create good content
  •  Cannot edit what guests are saying
  •  Another channel to monitor and manage

Let’s Get It Started!

Download the app and start creating video content right away! When setting up a Vine account, a user can link their Twitter and/or Facebook account. Once registered, on the home screen, select the camera icon to begin. When the viewfinder opens, simply tap and hold the screen to begin recording. Release the screen to stop. After capturing six seconds of video, checkboxes allow you to easily integrate your snippet of video with your Twitter or Facebook profiles.

Vine post screen shot

For a more in-depth look at setting up a Vine account see the CNet video tutorial below or here if you can't view the video:

 

One Hotel’s Vine Success Story

The hospitality industry has already made its mark on the Vine scene. The Cavendish London Hotel’s #ValentineVine contest has been recognized as the first ever Vine contest:

valentinevine competition

The contest asked for romantic submissions via Twitter to @Cavendish_Hotel tagged with #ValentineVine. The winning Vine received an overnight stay at the London hotel along with cocktails, dinner, and breakfast. This contest was a great way to engage potential customers. It created a call to action, engaged consumers’ creativity, incorporated a popular holiday, and highlighted the property. In addition, it also generated a significant amount of international press, inherently creating powerful backlinks (from blogs like this one!) to the hotel’s website. 

Wow! Neato! But How Can I Use Vine For My Hotel?

Vine’s fledgling landscape is still untapped. Your hotel marketing team can utilize this opportunity to showcase their imagination, the uniqueness of the property and become a pioneering leader of this social media channel. There are several additional ways in which hotels can differentiate themselves and exercise their creativity by maximizing Vine’s video platform:

  • Renovations - Has your property recently undergone renovations? Provide a mini-tour or sneak peeks and build excitement for the new additions.
  • In-House Restaurants - Do you have a restaurant you would like to highlight? Use Vine to showcase new dishes, weekly specials, Chef profiles, catering, or events recently hosted at the restaurant.
  • Welcome Guests & Groups - Filming a “welcome” Vine for visiting conferences, business meetings, wedding receptions, or family reunions is a great way to show your hospitality, engage attendees, and hopefully receive shares in their social circles.
  • Unique Selling Features - On a cold, snowy day, maybe your Denver hotel shows off the crackling fire in the lobby to warm guests up, on a hot day, maybe your resort would do a video of kids splashing in the pool – how else can your hotel show off their best assets and evoke envy on people who are not at the hotel?
  • Live Events - Showcase live events at your hotel or bar to use for promotional material. Do you have a live band playing weekly? A themed happy hour during certain holidays like Cinco De Mayo or Halloween?
  • Pet Policies - Are pets allowed at the hotel? Show this off with a video of pets checking in!

Be sure to include hastags on every Vine post! People can search for your posts (using tags such as #HotelName) directly on Vine as well as Twitter.

The Future of Vine

Although Vine was only launched in late January 2013, it has enjoyed a more rapid and sustained growth in its first four months than other less robust competitors. According to Onavo Insights, April alone saw Vine take nearly an 8% market share and a 96% active user increase from March! Similar offerings from Gifboom and Cinemagram have seen their user base steadily decline during this same period.

2013 US iphone market share

Active Vine users will stay on the rise if developers remain responsive and continue making improvements based on feedback from the community. For example, an April 29 update included user mentions and the much clamored for support of the iPhone’s front facing camera. At the writing of this post, Vine is the #3 free app on iTunes. 

Vine is the next step in social media. The statistics support this--users crave and share videos! Many major hotel brands currently have Vine accounts, but beyond a couple initial posts, few are active. Local properties, such as Cavendish London Hotel, which utilize Vine in its infancy, will likely garner extra buzz and credibility for being early adaptors. This novel new app, with the muscle of Twitter behind it, has the potential to be the next ubiquitous piece of the social media landscape.

Bringing It All Back Home

Consumers have always trusted friends and family when it comes to purchase recommendations, but with the increased reach of social media this source is becoming even more influential. Video is the most significant medium on social media when it comes to viral marketing. Users are drawn to brief, easily shared video clips. Vine is all of the above, essentially everything today’s social media users are looking for. Hotels can use the platform to highlight amenities, renovations, restaurant offerings, special events, and engage customers in contests, promotions, or reviews. Vine, with an appealing and engaging content offering, can raise the profile of your hotel, build a stronger reputation, start earning recommendations from travelers and, over time, drive more bookings!

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SEO can be confusing and arcane, so SEOs often find themselves using analogies to explain the mysteries of the industry. Recognizing this trend, the good folks over at Internet Marketing Ninja recently put together an article featuring nine of their favorite SEO analogies that they have seen on various different SEO sites and blogs. The list features some excellent and entertaining analogies, but it does not include my SEO analogy of choice, so I have set out to bring the joy of this splendid simile to the great unwashed SEO masses and their considerably cleaner hospitality brethren.

Please keep off the grass Great Court Trinity College Cambridge

What is this miraculous SEO metaphor, you ask?

Spoiler alert: Look at the title. In the course of my SEO journeys, I have encountered various personages (salesmen, clients, reclusive uncles named Švejk) with tangential connections to the SEO industry who require elucidation of the philosophy of SEO in what the settlers called “plain words.” Drawing on my boundless gift for mixing instruction with nonsense, I concocted the perfect analogy: SEO is like mowing your lawn. Am I mad, you ask? Far from it, my friend. Let me explain and expand…

SEO = Lawn Mower

“Why can’t you just do SEO once and then be done with it?”

This is a question that follows SEO specialists around like a confused chicken. When faced with this question, I remove my spectacles from my nose, wipe my forehead, and in my most unctuously ingratiating manner reply, “Why can’t you just mow your lawn one time and then be done with it?” And before my unsuspecting interrogator can reply, I respond to my own question.

“Because things change. Your grass grows. There is a drought. A car drives over your lawn. Squirrels do things (I don’t know anything about squirrels). In order to keep your lawn in proper order, you have to “maintain” it, which involves doing the same things (watering, mowing, raking, planting) over and over again in different situations. Treat SEO the same way you treat your grass. Google changes its algorithm 500-600 times a year. Technological disruption is constant (e.g mobile devices). Just because you decide not to maintain your website/SEO (lawn), does not mean that your competitors (half-witted neighbor Gary et all) won’t. SEO (lawn maintenance) is not carried out in a vacuum. Search rankings (Best Lawn of the Year awards) are the result of Google (the neighborhood council) comparing different sites (lawns) and ranking them in the order they feel is most valuable for their users (constituents).

Mow, Edge, & Trim the Competition

If your competitors continue to optimize their site and adapt to the changing search world while you perform ‘SEO’ once and then consider it finished, you will fall lower and lower in the rankings as your site becomes out-dated and irrelevant. SEO is a continual process that involves maintaining your online presence, and just like maintaining your lawn, it involves the repetition of certain tasks (such as link building, content creation, performance optimization, etc.) as situations change and evolve, as well as monitoring the world of search and technology to make sure that when game changers come along (mobile, leaf blowers), you are able to take advantage of these new technologies in order to stay ahead.

Now, I understand that some people live in a desert where there is no grass and some hotels are the only game in town, and I admit that these people and hotels probably don’t need to maintain their lawns or their SEO campaign as frequently as others, but for the rest of the world, if you want to not annoy your neighbors/not get fined by the municipal board/not have a failing hotel, I strongly advise that you maintain both your lawn and your SEO. Take it away, Harry:

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When the slogan, "There's an app for that" debuted in 2008, its intent was to suggest mobile devices were capable of catering to our every need. Apps, short for applications, are various software programs that users can download to their smart phone or tablets and appear on their device's home page (very similarly to that of a desktop computer). In recent years, the slogan has become far more literal. With apps that simulate bubble wrap, ensure weight loss by vibrating the pounds away, and more, the slogan has transformed to "There's an app for THAT?!"

The influx of apps lead many, including those in the hospitality industry, to contemplate the need for a personalized app for their individual properties. At this point, I'd like to enlist the phrase my mother and many others have used throughout the centuries to discourage hopeful, yet misguided souls: "If so-and-so jumped off a bridge, would you do it?" The same applies to apps - not all industries should take the leap. In most instances, individual hotels simply do not and should not need to create a mobile app.

Strength of Mobile Users

Basic Breakdown: Hotel Seekers are Searching, Not Downloading

According to Business Insider, mobile usage is expected to surpass desktops by 2014. Capturing those mobile users that are looking for a, "hotel in your City, State" doesn't necessarily translate into a need for your own app. It is more accurate to say that it is an indication as to how best to tailor your overall mobile strategy. 

Oftentimes, the desire for mobile apps stems from a misunderstanding of the difference between the apps and a mobile-friendly site. A mobile-friendly site is an extension of your current webpage that is not only accessible via a mobile phone's browser, but it is easy to navigate and a good experience for the end user. A mobile app, on the other hand, stands alone and must be downloaded and accessed as its own entity. Once downloaded, it will appear as an icon on a mobile phone desktop. Let's take a look at some helpful statistics that give us insight on how the general public uses their smart phones and how that applies to you as a hotel marketer:

73% of Smartphone users said they used the mobile web to shop rather than an app (Source: Yahoo)

The term a traveler would use in a search engine is far different than what one would use in the app store. Apps are tools used to find information, much like a search engine - finding an app is a different conquest in itself. For example, a traveler wouldn't go to the app store and search for "Hotel near Wrigley Field". Instead, they would search for general hotel finders like Expedia or TripAdvisor, or brand specific hotel finders like Hilton or Marriott apps. In the process, they will likely bypass your hotel's individual app. Optimizing a website that all mobile users, Android, iPhone or otherwise can find, rather than an app they may or may not find, let alone invest the data to download, is a better investment of time and resources.

68% of users only use five or fewer apps at least once a week (Source: USA Today | Money)

Just because there is an app for that doesn't mean we need it. The novelty of a new app wears off quickly when its daily value dissipates. There is a small niche of professions that require regular hotel usage, so when the time comes for the leisure traveler to book again, they may forget they even have the app or deleted it from lack of use or memory space.

The Truth: You Already HAVE an App

Many major hotel brands, like Hilton or Marriott, have their own mobile app for guests. Your investment is better spent capturing the business that you normally wouldn't get rather than people who are loyal to your brand. The brand app provides an enhanced user-experience to easily select dates and book guest rooms, and therefore already has your brand loyal guests hooked. It's the users that are searching for more general key phrases, such as "Hotels in your City, State" that you want to target.

Oftentimes, if someone is running this search on their mobile rather than their desktop, they are a business traveler or someone on the go looking to book that night. If the person isn’t a loyal brand follower (or said brand isn’t in that particular market) and they run that search on mobile phone, it’s incredibly important that the hotel has a website visible and easy for a shopper to connect with, book immediately, and locate the hotel to physically check-in. Individual apps do not have the reach needed for these sorts of last-minute bookers, but a mobile-friendly website will provide more opportunities.

Brand apps aside, hotels also have one other travel titan in their corner: TripAdvisor. Second in "travel apps" only to Google Maps, TripAdvisor reigns in all the rogue searchers and allows them to find hotels and reviews. So, even if a potential guest is not a brand loyalist but prefers apps over a browser search, they are still more likely to use the TripAdvisor app than commit to a mobile app assigned solely to one hotel.

APPly Your Marketing Strategy into Mobile-Friendly: Your Next Steps

While apps can be helpful tools in the booking process, they don't translate into getting heads in beds the way that a mobile-friendly hotel website will. There are many aspects to making your site as mobile-friendly as you can. Here is a list of things you can do to make sure your page is optimized for mobile users and gives your potential guests the best experience on your page.

  • Is your site compatible with mobile devices right now?

Responsive sites and mobile friendly sites benefit travelers, and as a result, benefit your hotel. Responsive sites, or sites that recognize tablets and mobiles and reconfigure to those screen layouts, give you the flexibility to update your site as frequently as you'd like. Hotels can include upcoming specials, renovation updates, and any other relevant information at the drop of a hat on their individual mobile site.

  • Can your potential guest find your information seamlessly?

Make sure that the ability to book from your mobile site is as simple as possible. The first thing listed on your page should be all of your contact info and/or the ability to check availability right away. The potential guest may have been researching with other apps like TripAdvisor and may be ready to book by the time they arrive at your site. Remeber: most people looking to book with their mobile phones are most likely already in our city and are looking for a quick solution. Give them that solution with your mobile-friendly, easy to use website.

  • Are your other listings optimized?

When potential guests use search engines to find your hotel, you want to ensure that the correct information is displayed for your local listing. Make sure that the address and phone number are correct so that there are no errors in navigation or in an attempt to call the hotel to book. Make sure that the lisitng points back to your mobile-friendly page as well.

The influence of mobile phones is growing and shows no signs of slowing down. Make sure you can capture those potential guests by creating a great mobile experience on your website, rather than spending considerably more on a standalone mobile app.

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As a hotelier, you do not need to go undercover at your competitors’ properties to discover their online marketing secrets. With the online investigation skills I'm about to share with you, you will be able to uncover your competitor’s online marketing and selling strategies without resorting to cloak and dagger tactics. It’s not only incredibly important to continually monitor your hotel’s online performance and marketing strategies, but it’s just as crucial that you keep a watchful eye on your competitors. Learn to keenly observe the competition so that your hotel is ahead of the game and constantly seeking out additional opportunities to maintain a competitive edge over other hotels in your market.

9 Professional Investigation Skills to Master

Let’s start easy. Instead of manually searching for all the information about your competitors, have that information automatically sent to you directly. Watching your competitors is as easy as checking your inbox.

#1 Set up Google Alerts.
When hotels in your comp set are being talked about online, you’ll know it! Create a Google Alert for each of the top competitor hotels in your market. Choose your settings for how often you want to receive notifications of activity, and the news will come straight to your email. These alerts can help you monitor your hotel’s online reputation, as well as keep you up to date with the competition's new landing pages, special offers and other updates.

Sign up for competitor hotel eNewsletters#2 Sign up for eNewsletters from your competitors.
Want to know what exclusive specials and deals the competitors are offering? Do they have a special event coming up? Hear it straight from the source. A more advanced private eye would be mindful of the email address they submit. An @Hilton or @Marriott email submitted to a Holiday Inn may raise a flag and they could purposely remove you from the email list. Perhaps use a less suspicious address such as your personal Gmail account. Digest the eNewsletters and determine if the special event, deal, or news is a similar tactic your hotel needs to capture bookings and remain competitive in the market.

 

Now that we are intercepting the competition’s messages, let’s cross the border and visit their web pages to investigate further.

Evaluate Competitor Hotels' Websites

  

#3 Regularly review hotels’ brand or independent websites.
Plan these frequent online visits to take note of a couple key items. First, review the hotel’s keyword strategy. From the pages meta content and the copy on the page, you can determine the different keywords for which the hotel is striving to rank in the search engines. Do they have a well developed strategy? Perform a manual search on Google. Are they ranking on the first page of Google’s search results for these keywords? Are these keywords your hotel wants to target as well? Second, look for creative special offers as well while you peruse their website. Is there a special offer your hotel is missing and should have available as well? Can you offer more intriguing and valuable offers to the guests? It is likely that shopping the competition will spark your own creativity to generate new enticing hotel packages.

#4 Run a mobile search for the competition.
Take out your nifty high-tech smart phone device and run a search for your competitors. Find out who has a mobile-friendly website and is capturing mobile searchers. If all your competitors have a mobile friendly website, then your hotel is missing the opportunity of competing and attracting these searchers who are booking with the competition from their mobile phones. Or rather, if none of the competitors have a mobile strategy in place, your hotel could be at a great advantage with a mobile-friendly website. Your hotel would be in a position to convert the majority of mobile searchers to book at your hotel with the user-friendly mobile website. Furthermore, investigate the current traffic to your website. Are a good portion of the visits arriving at the site on a mobile device? If this is true, the hotel is already in need of optimizing their mobile strategy so that users can easily find information about the hotel and make reservations. Ask yourself, if your hotel does not already have an optimized mobile website, is it time to get one now?

#5 Get social with your comp set.
Monitor competitor hotels on social media“Like” other hotels in your market on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. This will help you stay current with their daily messaging, offers, events and promotions available on these channels. Gain key insights into what the competition is doing well on social media and what their weaknesses are. If the market is super active on social media with special promotions, contests and highly engaging visual content, be sure to match and go beyond this level of activity and special offers to garner interest in your hotel on social channels. Likewise, in a market with weak social media influence, take the opportunity to really stand apart for the competitors with a strong social media strategy to be highly engaged with fans and effectively establish your hotel as the authoritative voice of the area.

#6 Monitor rankings on TripAdvisor.
It’s not just your rank on TripAdvisor you need to care about, but the other hotels that are listed above you. Your goal is to be #1, so how do you get there? Are other hotels responding to guest comments more often than you are? What are guests actually saying about the other hotels? Do guests love their service? The price? The free breakfast? The free Wi-Fi? Look for these signals as ways to better improve your hotel on property, which will ultimately influence your online performance and improve your ranking on TripAdvisor.

 

Pull your cap down and push your collar up as we dive into a closer look at the competitor’s online performance; and we begin at Google.

 

#7 Run regular searches on Google.
Search both broad phrases such as "Chicago hotels" and niche keywords such as "hotels near Navy Pier" on Google. Detect who is ranking above your hotel organically. Notice which hotels are appearing at the top of the search engine results page for paid ads. Identify who is ranking in the local results. Click on the local listings and observe how hotels are optimizing their listings and how you can improve your hotel’s Google+ local listing or Bing Places listing. Focusing on the niche, more targeted keyword phrases, you will discover which hotels are providing more content with enhanced landing pages. Use this intel to better develop your hotel’s content strategy. Determine if there is a need for additional landing pages to compete with other hotels in the market targeting searchers coming to town for particular events such as the Taste of Chicago or to visit nearby attractions such as The Art Insititue of Chicago.

#8 Use Bing Link Explorer to take a good look at the competition’s link profiles.
When doing so, we are looking for authoritative sites to request similar links. It’s important to link build for SEO purposes, as these in-links are a strong source of boosting power in the search engine results page. Of course while you are looking for linking opportunities, you are also getting a peek at the hotel’s group and corporate business. You can tell which conferences and big events are being held at the hotel among other business partners. Use this as a sales tool to grow your prospect list and potentially steal business from the competition. Bing Link Explorer tends to provide a more complete and recent list of links, but another tool worth trying is SEOMoz’s Open Site Explorer. After all, every good spy has more than one trick up his or her sleeve.


Put on your polarized Ray Bans before you take your snooping to the next level! The final test to complete your investigation of competitor hotels is a reconnaissance mission to visit their property.

Visit comp set to review online marketing strategies

  

#9 Visit physical comp set hotel properties.
You may already occasionally visit the competitors, but next time, be mindful of these clues for strong online marketing strategies in place. Does the hotel have a decal on entry door reminding guests to check in on FourSquare or Facebook? Is there an option to sign up for the hotel’s eNewsletter at the front desk? Does the hotel encourage guests to review them on TripAdvisor after their visit? Are there QR codes in on-property flyers or collateral directing guests to connect with the hotel online? Be very aware of tactics the hotel is taking to make physical visitors become virtual visitors connecting and engaging with them online. These on-property marketing tactics that help hotels develop a strong online relationship with guests will ultimately create loyal fans who are likely to return again. Let the competitors’ on-property marketing tactics inspire creative marketing efforts for your property to also convert your current guests at the hotel into online guests on your hotel website and social media channels while blowing away your competition.

Congratulations on completing your online marketing spy course!

Now, put your online investigating skills to action and start enhancing your internet marketing strategies to go above and beyond your competitors.

Audit hotel competitors to improve online marketing strategy

 

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What is user-generated content?

What do Wikipedia, YouTube, and Tripadvisor all have in common? They are all websites that rely heavily on user-generated content. I use the term "content" loosely, as it can vary from credible facts and creative media to opinion-based reviews and personal stories... you get the picture.

User-generated content can be advantageous for gathering information about a hotel's amenities and services or learning about a travel experience from a previous guest's point-of-view, but it can also be controversial because this information is provided by the public and is often uncensored. Does that mean that user-generated content is not credible? No, that is not what it means. It means that a reader or viewer should consider the source when determining whether or not to trust the recommendation or story. For instance, you may trust the Wall Street Journal with world news more than your friend. However, if you're seeking hotel recommendations in New York, you may be more likely to take your friend's opinion over that of Frommer's, even though that travel guide tends to be a very trusted source. Your inclination to trust a source will likely depend on the type of information you are seeking. Also, keep in mind that most UGC is regulated or edited to some extent to ensure that the content meets the site's standards, even massive sites like Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia, has created and successfully implemented a voluntary governing force of editors for the user-generated content site to combat those "party of jerks" that every so often intervene with the "party of thoughtful."

A penny for your thoughts?

…not so much in the world of user-generated content. No one is actually paying for the content; rather people voluntarily share it as a means of collaboration. There might be an explicit, tangible incentive, such as producing content for the chance to win a prize, but more often than not, people are actually providing their content for the greater good. Yes, those people still exist.

What motivates people to voluntarily provide this content for free? The internet is an open platform for people to share their personal thoughts and experiences with the public, and many people simply want their voice to be heard. In a world where ever-expanding social networks are the norm, people enjoy cultivating a sense of community online; connecting with others over a mutual interest (staying at the same hotel), sharing their wisdom to show themselves as the "expert", or receiving some sort of acknowledged "status" based on level of involvement, like Tripadvisor badges for active reviewers.

How can hoteliers benefit from user-generated content?

Hoteliers can reap huge benefits from integrating user-generated content into their social media strategy! We are all well aware that people these days are more connected to their social networks than ever before, especially with the ease of use and accessibility provided by mobile phones. Think about guests that pass through the lobby each and every day. How often are they jabbing away on their smartphones, swiping through their Twitter feeds and "muploading" (mobile-uploading) pictures to Facebook? According to an IDC Research Report, Facebook is the third most popular activity on iPhones and Android phones behind email and web browsing.

So, whether or not you ask your guests to share their photos on Facebook and Twitter, I guarantee that they are already doing it. When describing the 5 Stages of Travel, Google states that at least 53% of leisure travelers say they share pictures of their vacations online, so it's up to the hotel marketing team to strategically integrate, encourage, and help guide these positive guest experiences into their own social media marketing campaigns.

Guests are among the most powerful social influencers because people tend to trust and pay more attention to their own peers' advice and recommendations than they would to an advertisement, commercial, or even a credible tour book. Imagine a guest shares a stunning photo of the scenic surroundings at their hotel, tagging the hotel's Facebook page in the picture and adding a heartfelt comment such as, "WOW! The Team @MatakauriLodge took such wonderful care of us!" That is free PR! Plus, it's coming directly from the mouth of a previous guest rather than the hotel's own advertising campaign, which adds an element of credibility. The guest was not paid to stroke the hotel's ego, so the positive review came from an unbiased source.

For the most part, you will find that your guests are more than happy to share their experience on Facebook or Twitter, usually enhanced with visual documentation, for the pure satisfaction of "bragging rights" (and to evoke envy on all of his or her Facebook friends stuck in rainy Chicago).

Twitter-Honeytrek-042913

Ultimately, the hotel marketing team can create a dynamic strategy that encourages guests to share their own experiences, which will then become a promotional goldmine. Use these five helpful tips to make the most of user-generated content in your social media strategy.

1. Increase on-property visibility 

Firstly, make sure that your social channels are all visible on property. Do you have your Facebook URL and Twitter handle on business cards, keycard packets, welcoming letters, lobby reader boards, or any other marketing collateral? Showing your guests that you are social savvy will remind them to engage with you online, whether it's tagging your hotel in a photo, checking in on foursquare, or tweeting about the smooth sailing you experienced at check-in.  

2. Enhance on-property engagement

You can take your social visibility a step further by creating an interactive on-property element that directly asks guests to engage, usually with an incentive to do so. For example, you can mark an X next to your pool and ask guests to upload photos of them standing in that spot to the hotel's Facebook page to receive a free cocktail. Or you can create a scavenger hunt to pass out at the front desk, asking guests to tweet photos from various spots within your hotel. Exercise your creativity and ensure that your guests have fun with it! Make sure you choose your hotel's best assets to show off so that your guests' photos ultimately influence their Facebook friends to book!

3. Monitoring social media mentions 

Along those same lines, make sure that you are actively monitoring all social mentions of your hotel and any other keywords that might be relevant. It might be helpful to use a social media monitoring tool (such as Revinate or Sprout Social), which will funnel in mentions across all social platforms. You will see several photos being posted on Twitter or Instagram that mention your hotel but the user might not have correctly tagged your hotel; therefore you wouldn't have been notified of this mention without proactively searching or monitoring. Retweet these photos on Twitter or take a screenshot and upload them to your own Facebook page with a catchy one-liner that sums up the photo. These photos are on the Internet for anyone to see or use (otherwise these people would have their privacy settings higher), but if you want to ensure you are giving credit where credit is due, you can always mention the user's Twitter handle or provide the Instagram URL.

UGC-Monitoring

4. Ask!

If you're still a bit wary about using user-generated photos without an official consent, you can take a much more direct approach. If you have established a good fan base already, simply post a message to all of your Facebook fans or Twitter followers asking them to submit #FanPhotos to a specific email address or tweet them using a designated hashtag that you are actively monitoring. The photos will be collected and shared on the hotel's Facebook page. A lot of people will be excited to share their own memories, but if you want to add an incentive you can offer to highlight a select few each week in a Facebook cover photo collage.

 UGC-FacebookAsk

5. Host an interactive contest 

If you have the budget, one of the best opportunities to create user-generated content is to host a contest on social media where guests submit photos, videos, memories, or goals to the marketing team and the randomly selected winner receives a free 2 night stay at the hotel. Of course, this comes with stipulations! The winner must serve as your "brand ambassador" in exchange for the free trip, providing live Facebook and Twitter updates throughout their stay on behalf of the hotel, which the hotel marketing team can then share and retweet. You might learn a thing or two from Fast Company's recap of the amazing Tourism Queensland contest, which went viral for receiving such an overwhelmingly positive response. Of course, their contest was a bit of an exaggerated example and we don't expect most hotels to have such accommodating budgets... but you get the picture.

Hotel guests are already actively sharing their travel experiences online with their social networks, so hotels need to amplify their own marketing strategies by taking advantage of an effective, user-generated content strategy that highlights positive guest feedback and experiences!

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As a hotelier, it's difficult to know where to place your digital marketing budget for the best ROI. There are plenty of options, but none have the instant results quite like pay-per-click advertising (PPC).  Maybe you have heard that your hotel brand particpates in pay-per-click advertising, but you may not be certain of what PPC advertising means for your specific hotel. Here's a crash course on PPC advertising for hotels, why it is different than organic SEO efforts, and why your property should be investing in this channel.

Pretend for a moment that you are grocery shopping. You walk up and down the aisles, trying to find the perfect product for your dinner/meal/snack/weird late-night food cravings, "searching" through all the products, picking up packages and reading their descriptions, until you find the one that you feel is best for you. Purchase made.

Let's identify the steps here:

  1. You have a need.
  2. You, the shopper, the guest, the user, "search" for something to fill that need.
  3. The store lines its shelves with things that might possibly fulfill your need, and...
  4. You pick the most relevant "answer" to best fulfill this need. If you picked one brand, for example Special K cereal, from 100 choices on the shelves, this would represent an organic search.

Now let's say the Kellogg's brand paid for better placement of their Special K cereal in order to make their product stand out from their competitors. Maybe instead of the cereal appearing on the bottom shelf, Kellogg's pays to have their Special K cereal placed at eye-level in the high-traffic half of the cereal aisle. This would represent a paid search effort. Paid search efforts are a way to ensure that you are more visible than your competitors to shoppers.

What is PPC?

  • Pay-per-click advertising is exactly what it sounds like; you only pay for the clicks your ads receive. No clicks = No spend.
  • Cost-Per-Click (CPC): this is the cost incurred per click. CPC is a basic metric that is often used to set budgets and expectations for a particular account. 
    For Example: If your average CPC is $2, and you budget $1,000 a month, you can expect (roughly) 500 clicks a month from the ads.
  • PPC ads show up on the top and the right side of a search engine results page (in green in photo below) after a user has entered the query into the search engine. The ad will enter an auction for the position, and the winning ad will be shown.

SERP Example

As this photo shows, the sponsored placements (green) will always be visible on the results page, while the organic placements (blue) and the local placements (red) depend on ranking factors. This is where SEO comes in. 

Why Do Advertisers Need PPC?

  • The purpose of paid search is to capture traffic that might have otherwise been directed to the highest ranking site on the organic results page. It is one of the quickest and easiest ways to put your business on the top of the search engine results page, which can be especially beneficial for a site that does not rank well organically for certain keywords or search queries.
  • PPC enhances all other marketing tactics: social media, email marketing, SEO, local results.
  • PPC is easily customized to very specific products, promotions, or offerings.
  • PPC can send traffic to the most relevant page on the site, eliminating the user’s need for navigation (and eliminating chances to drop-off!). 
    For Example: if you want to drive more traffic for summer weddings in Sacramento, your ads can send the user directly to your weddings page that showcases pictures, floor plans, catering, etc.
  • Out of budget? **Click** Now your PPC advertising and spending is turned off until you turn it back on. Instantaneous.

Why Do Hotels Need PPC?

Nearly every business can benefit from PPC Advertising, whether in building brand awareness, selling a specific product, or even getting folks into a brick-and-mortar location. Every business should be utilizing this channel in their online marketing strategy, and hotels specifically can greatly benefit from PPC in a number of ways:

  • Hotels are constantly battling dependency on OTAs, like Expedia and Travelocity, which collect a hefty margin for each booking. PPC efforts allow hotels to capture some of the market that would have gone straight to an OTA, and encourages guests to book accommodations on their most profitable channel: their website.
  • Hotels can direct traffic to their specific property. This ensures that the conversion (and revenue!) stays with your property, not on a different property in the same area.
    For Example: if a search is done for "hotels in Oakland", there will be landing pages devoted to all of a brand's properties in Oakland. A hotel will face competition from its own sister properties. The goal of these pages is to elevate the brand as a whole, not the specific hotel.
  • SEO + PPC = page dominance. Hopefully, your SEO tactics have put you at the top for both organic and local results. Pair those efforts with PPC’s ability to show your ad at the top or right of the page, and you have now given your audience THREE different opportunities to come to your site and not your competitors’.
  • Special offers, events, wedding or restaurant pages: Brand.com will run ads for “Hotels in [insert big city here]”. While this does drive traffic to your property's home page, broad searches such as these indicate the user is likely just beginning their search and not ready to book. By running property-specific PPC, you can now send those seeking wedding venues, on-site restaurants, business meeting space, and anything else your property offers to a specific landing page.

What's The Catch?

A/B Testing to always be optimizing! While few and far between, there are some 'cons' of PPC advertising. With all the dynamic ads and automatic bidding that Google and Bing offer, it’s fairly easy to pick your keywords, set your budgets, and launch your PPC campaign. Here’s the part that’s not so easy: optimizing. Optimizing PPC campaigns, strategies, and budgets is literally a full-time job (thank goodness!). Optimizing and testing is not critical to running PPC ads, but it is absolutely critical to the success of these efforts. The most rewarding (and fun, if you’re as big of online marketing nerds as we are at Blue Magnet) aspect of PPC advertising is its ability to always be one-upping itself.

For Example: run ads A and B at the same time. If ad B gets more clicks/conversions/whatever-your-goal-metric-is than ad A, stop running A, and now try to beat B.

Finding the sweet spot for your bids and ad rank takes a lot of knowledge, skills, and many, many tests.

Catch #2: Without proper access to the HTML code that makes up your site, Conversion Tracking is pretty much impossible. Hotels that have standalone sites in addition to their brand site can track the shopper’s journey from PPC ad to hotel site to reservation page. Without a standalone site, you can only track the shopper coming to the hotel's site. Without this valuable data, it can be difficult to see the exact ROI of your PPC efforts.

With thant in mind, you may be thinking: “So, if I don’t have an independent site, I shouldn’t do PPC advertising?”  Wrong.

A traveler would not be searching for "hotels in ______" unless they were looking to book a hotel in the area they have designated. By simply showing up to the Search Engine Results Page party for your keywords, your specific property will be capturing valuable, relevant traffic that might have gone elsewhere. Miss out on this party/opportunity, and your competitors (or OTAs) may capture what you didn't. It’s not ideal from a tracking (and optimizing!) perspective, but it is still valuable traffic that you have taken away from your competitors.

In short, PPC is a valuable, extremely customizable marketing channel that allows hoteliers to compete with OTAs and their local competitors, even those under the same brand. You can run ads on any budget, on any schedule, and as often as you like.

PPC is a beautiful thing. 

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Recently, Pinterest gave business-orientated users the long awaited insights they’ve been looking for by rolling out “Pinterest Web Analytics.” The Pinterest facelift (which is still slowly revealing itself to users – Mark Zuckerberg style) was generated with users in mind and to differentiate businesses from individuals. Pinterest first introduced business accounts at the end of last year, along with tools to help expand their pinning presence outside of Pinterest (i.e. the “Pin It” button). The most notable changes in the “new look” are the larger pins and the greater accessibility to older pins. Pinterest already generates a large amount of traffic (see “Fast Facts” below), there is substantial room for growth, and the referral ratio is any advertiser’s dream.

Fast Facts: According to Pinterest Insider, as of April 2013, Pinterest has a total of 48.7 million users. In addition, Pinterest hit an independent site milestone, reaching 10 million unique monthly visitors in record time.

Pinterest Web Analytics to the Rescue

It’s clear that companies have long felt the need to be on this particular social media network, but never knew precisely why it was beneficial. Many questions remained unanswered: How do we measure the performance? How does this help my business? What’s the ROI?  While there are already some third party sites and tools available to help facilitate insight, the recent launch of Pinterest’s reporting tool was highly anticipated (and is free for users). Google Analytics can provide insight in regards to referral traffic from the channel, but couldn’t offer any details as to how people were interacting on the social channel itself. Pinterest Web Analytics yields a better understanding on how the users, aka pinners, are interacting with the pins that originated on your website. Not only will you have a clearer understanding of the amount of traffic being driven to to your site, you will know what pins on Pinterest are driving the most traffic. This new tool is an eye opener to companies, helping them to comprehend the type of content that is generating the most interaction and showing how many times a photo was clicked.

Not Just Numbers

Your results aren’t displayed in spreadsheets or tables; Pinterest, of course, ensured that their data was as visually fascinating as your “Places I’d Love to Travel to Board,” by providing engaging graphics pertaining to your content. If you are more interested in the numbers themselves and less in the flashy graphs, Pinterest’s new tool gives you the option to export the data into a CSV file.

Pinterest Analytics - Pins and Repins

Pinterest Analytics - Impressions and Clicks

The Freeway to Pinterest Web Analytics: Verification Lane

In order to take advantage of the renovations, you must (a) have Pinterest’s “new look,” and (b) a verified business account. In order to be considered a business on Pinterest, you must verify your website. Once your site has been verified, you’ll notice a white check mark in a red circle on your account (next to your URL). After you’ve verified your account, you can find the analytics tool in the menu on the top right of your account, or by visiting pinterest.com/source/yourwebsite.com. If you’d like users to be able to pin items directly from your site, be sure to add the “Pin It” button to applicable areas onto your website itself. Before diving head first into analytics, it’s a good idea to make sure your profile is optimized as well.

One Small Step For Pinterest, One Giant Leap for Marketers Everywhere

Analytics is a big step for Pinterest and adds additional value to your presence on the network. Still questioning why this matters to you? Instead of just pinning for the sake of pinning and appearing “active,” you can now pin according to what your target market interacts with the most. Get inside the heads of pinners who are likely to stay at your hotel! Which of your pins was repinned the most? Which pins are being clicked on? Was it the picture of the wedding you hosted last weekend? The beach located next to your hotel? That picture of the beautifully decorated tuna appetizer? Plan your Pinterest strategy appropriately. Web analytics allows you to choose timeframes you want to see too. If pictures of the sunny hotel pool are re-pinned more in the winter when people are day-dreaming of warmer weather, then you can tailor your content during that time accordingly. If you have the opportunity to tailor the content of your boards to what pinners love most – you should take the opportunity and run with it!

“But I don’t have a business account…”

No problem. Here's how to set up your Pinterest business account today:

  1. The first step is making sure you are switched to the new look. If you are not, this can be done by hovering over your account information in the upper right hand corner and selecting, “Switch to the new look,” then click “Get it now.”
  2. In the bottom right corner of your Profile box, click on the gray pencil icon.
  3. If your website is not in there already, type in the URL and click “verify website.”
  4. There are two ways to verify your website (you will need access to your site to verify the account).
    1. Option 1: Pinterest will prompt you to “verify by upload,” download the verification file, and then upload the file to your website.
    2. Option 2: Pinterest will provide you with a meta tag that you will then add to theof your index.html file.
  5. Hit “Complete Verification” and you should see the check mark next to your URL on your Pinterest page!

Pinterest Verified Website Example

Now that Pinterest has given us the tools to answer many of our questions users, we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What’s next?” Will Pinterest come up with ways for the site to create more revenue-generated opportunities? Paid advertisements? Sponsored pins? Stay tuned!

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Let me ask you something: As a hotel, why would you want links from irrelevant sites pointing to your website?

Exactly. You wouldn't!

Your goal should be to have reputable websites containing relevant, quality, informative content link to your hotel. Consider learning the basics of link building and also reading about strategies on building high-quality links to your website. Google and other search engines use these links as an indication of trust, or an "approval" of your website. As part of the Penguin Update, Google made it a priority to fight web spam, or low-quality links. Google has actually stated:

"Your site's ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links influences your ranking. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity."

For instance, you would want links from the following types of sites because it makes sense to have various travel agency and local business sites--both relevant in terms of category and location--linking to your hotel:

  • OTAs
  • CVBs
  • Local colleges and universities with "visitor" pages
  • Local businesses

For example, say you have a page linking to your hotel from a local university. On that page, the university suggests nearby hotels for families visiting students. Having this link is going to be a much better indicator of quality than a link on a link directory site displaying thousands of links (with yours lost in the mix) and which provides no value to anyone visiting the link directory (if there even is anyone). If search engines notice that the list of sites linking to you is mostly spammy and low-quality, they are less likely to take your website seriously, and will likely penalize you too!

So how do I get rid of these nasty low-quality links to my site?

To start with, you need to figure out who the heck is linking to you. One of the greatest tools out there is SEOmoz's Open Site Explorer. The free version will give you an idea of some of the links pointing to your hotel; however, having the paid version of Open Site Explorer allows you to download an excel file that contains all the information necessary for researching links pointing to your site. It even helps you categorize and track your links easily.

Now that you have your list of links, it's time to filter through them and figure out which ones are low-quality so that you can proceed in getting them removed. Below is a comprehensive list of the actions you should take in order to find and remove low-quality links to your website:

1. Categorize Your Links

categorize links to hotel

Categorizing your links will give you a clear snapshot of your link profile. Some of the category types I use include OTA, CVB, Travel Site/Guide, News, Malicious Site and Link Directory. When determining if a link is a malicious site, your browser will usually indicate that if you proceed further with viewing the website, it can contain malicious content. It is recommended to disavow these types of links.

Any links classified as "link directory" are the ones you will want to go after and request removal. Remember, links from link directories are extremely low-quality and offer no value. They often sit on a page and are surrounded by numerous, unrelated links and zero useful or informational content.

How will you know if the site is a link directory? Look for the following:

  • Lists of links all over the page (your head will spin just looking at them)
  • Strangely worded domain name/site names (i.e. anything along the lines of "link to me" or "123links" or "directory" or "web catalog")
  • Absolutely NO informational content. Think about the kind of websites you visit - why on earth would you have any interest in going through pages containing only links and devoid of information that can help you with your search?

2. Create a Link Removal Status Sheet

In order to stay on top of your link removal activities, you're going to need a document to keep track of all of the contacts, follow-up initiatives and other efforts that are part of your campaign. Below is an example of a link removal status sheet:

link removal status sheet

NOTE: It is important to first do what you can to request link removal directly from the site itself before using Google’s Disavow tool, which is a tool used to say "Hey Google, this is a bad link pointing to my website and I don't want it to count negatively towards the value of my site." It is crucial to understand that using this tool should be your absolute last resort.

3. Reach Out to Webmasters

One by one, you will need to go to each link directory site, look for a contact form or contact information, and kindly request that the webmaster remove the link to your hotel from the site. Can't find a contact form? Try finding the technical contact through Whois. Simply enter the domain name of the link directory site, and it will give you a list of contacts to whom you will want to send your removal requests.

4. Follow-Up: 3 Strikes, You're Out.

Once you have reached out, through all means possible, to webmasters and any other contacts that you were able to discover, AND have sent 2-3 rounds of follow-up emails, AND have attempted to call the webmasters, only THEN you can consider using Google’s Disavow tool.

5. Putting in a Disavowal Request

disavow-links-toolIt's important to note that when you put in a disavowal request, you are suggesting to Google that they ignore these links. It does not necessarily mean that they will choose to disavow them. Again, using the disavow tool should be your absolute last resort and should be carried out by a professional. Instructions for putting in a disavow request are available for Google and Bing. Be sure that you are submitting one request, versus numerous requests over time. This article from Search Engine Journal shows how serious the disavow tool is and gives good reasons on what can go wrong if you do not submit your request correctly.

In the End, It All Comes Down to Quality

Unless a high percentage of your link profile is made up of links from low-quality, spammy link directories, your number one focus should be seeking out and acquiring fresh, new, high-quality links. Links that will benefit your website the most will come from those websites that offer valuable information and are most relevant to your hotel.

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Recently, Mark Zuckerberg and his crew released their third pillar to the ever-changing Facebook platform with Graph Search. Joining the Newsfeed and Timeline, Graph Search was born into a lot of hype, questions, and concerns about its impact on online searches, marketing, and privacy.

Good people of the Hotel Industry, let me guide you through what this means for your business.

Graph Search Overview

First, let’s get acquainted with Graph Search. If there is one thing the Zucklehead wants you to know, it’s that Graph Search is not a search engine. However, Graph search does represent Facebook’s larger efforts to move from just communication sharing to information sharing. With Graph Search, searching for a term will generate relevant results from friends, places, and pages that already exist. For example: you can search something like “friends who like British Airways” or “people that like Florida and live in Chicago” and people that fit that query will appear. The thing that truly makes Graph Search interesting and important to marketers is that the searches being conducted on Facebook are chock-full of intent. The searches are basically polling their friends for suggestions on what to buy, watch, do, etc. This presents huge opportunities to advertisers that can now target audiences at incredible new levels. For example: Joe’s Bed and Breakfast could now advertise to current customers’ friends who are in the market to go on a vacation.

Why It’s Important to Hotels

If I didn’t hook you there, listen up because it gets better. Why should you care? Because Facebook cares. Facebook views travel as inherently social, and they plan on playing a larger role in years to come. They have already taken their first step by hiring the first Head of Travel, Lee McCabe.

Now, we’ve all seen The Social Network so we know Zuckerberg is a smart guy. He’s proving it here again by going after the travel industry with the Graph Search. Where the Graph Search fails with some industries, it fits perfectly with hotels. Google search is probably better suited for inquires about things like doctors or dentists, but hotels are a different beast all together. Graph Search works because people love to share pictures from vacations and talk about their stays. Therefore, finding a hotel based on your friends’ preferences comes naturally.

Here’s where Facebook gets a little creepy. Marketers can also use Graph Search to learn the likes and dislikes of their audience as well as their competitor’s audience. You can search what books they like, what kind of music they enjoy, where they have traveled recently, etc. Once that data is collected, you can base a whole social media strategy off it. Another thing Graph Search enables hotels to do is the see the “check-in’s” and photos tagged at the hotel. These used to be invisible to us as marketers, but by the mighty hand of Zuck, we can now see what kind of information is being shared about our hotel.

Finally, searching has become social. With Graph Search, a higher potential reach can be achieved through user searches. If you are still doubtful that people will actually use Facebook to plan their vacation, I’ve got news for you. It’s already the third most popular use for the Graph Search behind searching for friends and photos. So why is the Graph Search important to hotels? Because people are using it to find hotels. Facebook is right, travel is social, and travelers trust their friends’ opinions. The Graph Search can show them “likes” where search engines like Google can only show them links.

What Now?

Now that we have established Graph Search as a legitimate contributor to online hotel marketing, you may be asking yourself what your hotel should do. The main thing that you need to do is to make sure your page is categorized as “hotels.” It seems simple because it is, but without the correct category, your business won’t be showing up in searches for hotels.

Besides that, things haven’t changed too much in the Facebook game. You still need to optimize your page with cover photos, regular posts, and interaction, and you still need to create an active and engaged audience. Though, the Graph Search does give extra motivation to boost your page’s “likes.” To Facebook, the number of “likes” a page has is an indication of the business’s credibility. Think of it as the wisdom of the masses. Similar to a yelp listing with many positive reviews, pages with more “likes” will be given preference in the search results.

Wrap It Up

In conclusion, no, Facebook will not replace Google. Graph Search is Facebook’s long-term project aimed at bringing a social experience to online searches. Things aren’t very different yet, but that will change. Graph Search has given us a glimpse into the future and a new understanding of what direction the industry is heading. It seems inevitable that the social search will stick around, and just as many methods of online searching before it, it will evolve and take on more importance. As the online travel sector grows increasingly competitive, the more you know and prepare now to optimize your Graph Search visibility, the more successful you will be in the future.            

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It's been so long since we last contributed to the ever-expanding knowledge base that is the web that you probably assumed Blue Magnet had been the victim of a very localized 2012 Mayan apocalypse. Not so, my fellow digital denizens. Fortunately, 2013 has jump-started us into another great year.  So much so, in fact, that we've had to put the blog on hold while we manage the growth of our company--a welcome change, indeed, but I'm sorry to say it has come at the expense of our own blog contributions. In other words, we're preachin' but not practicin'.

Nevertheless, we're back and ready to dive right in with a topic almost as legendary and mysterious as the Maya themselves: SEO.  Specifically, I'd like to explore the core areas compose a given business's search engine optimization efforts.

Those outside of the search industry typically associate SEO with keywords...and only keywords. Their understanding of SEO is somewhere along the lines of optimization circa 1997, where simply stuffing your content with keywords alone may have bought you top rankings in Altavista or Hotbot. But in our brave new online world, keywords alone do not an effective SEO campaign make.  The way I see it, there are 3 keys to setting your website up for SEO success: building great site usability, creating relevant content and establishing your site as a trusted authority.

The Search Engine Raison d'Être

In order to understand the core components of SEO, you have to first understand the purpose of a search engine.  Like any major business, the end goal of the major search engines is to make money through a sustainable business model.  As you've probably figured by now, the model of choice for the search engines is advertising.  Just like the newspaper biz, search engines thrive on advertising revenue.  And the way you sell more advertising is by having a large, targeted audience viewing your product.  Google has just that.  The more users Google gets to adopt its products (like Google Search, YouTube, Google+, Google Maps and all their other products), the more consumer eyes are on Google.com--the perfect place to present targeted Google Adwords PPC campaigns.

How Do Search Engines Build An Audience?

This isn't the Field of Dreams, so building it does not necessarily mean they will come. Search engines create an audience by providing a valuable service to consumers: delivering relevant websites based on a search query. If search engines provided crappy results users would simply turn to other channels to find information on the web (see: social media). That's why it's in the search engines' best interest to provide customers with the most relevant information from the most trusted authorities on that subject. Search Engine Optimization is really just about making sure your website is providing the search engines (and ultimately the searching public) with the most relevant and trusted website content.

We Have The Same Goals!

This is great news! Our goal of providing relevant, trusted information to our visitors is the same goal that the search engines have.  In the end it's all about helping the customer find the information they need. When Google sees businesses providing this information on their websites, it rewards them by ranking them higher in the search results. It's so elegant in its simplicity, and best of all, everybody wins! And it makes sense.  Why would Google or Bing promote a site that uses spammy keyword techniques, has little relevant information to your search and is part of a sketchy link network?  Promoting a site like that is a good way to drive users to other search engines--one which would hopefully offer better results.

The 3 Pillars of SEO

Once you understand the search engine's goals, it becomes clear that SEO is more than just keyword and link building; instead, it's about improving the usabilty of your site, the relevance of its textual content to the searcher, and the level of authority your site has within its industry.  Ultimately, both you and the search engines want to create a better user experience (which means more conversions).  And, although there are MANY, MANY ever-changing factors that determine how search engines like Google and Bing rank your website for given keywords, for the most part those individual criteria all tend to fit nicely into these 3 high level categories:  

  1. Site Architecture (establishes your site's usability)
  2. Content Optimization (establishes your site's relevance)
  3. Relationship Building (establishes your site's authority)

I'll break it down even more so you can get a better understanding of what I mean for each category.  In addition, we'll explore a few good examples of the SEO work done for each.

Site Architecture (for Usability)

Site architecture, as the name suggests, is the foundation of your SEO--it's about creating a user-friendly website.  Any good SEO professional will tell you that before you even dive into writing optimized content or building links, you need to ensure that your actual website is built in a user-friendly way.  After all, what good is it sending thousands of visitors to your site if the site's webpages offer such poor usability that those same visitors leave your site in frustration? Overall, site architecture is about designing and coding your website in a way that benefits your visitors. The easier it is for your customers to find, access and navigate your site, the better you'll rank in the search engines.  

Site architecture is one of the more technical aspects of SEO and includes things like:

  • Site speed - The faster a site loads the better it is for SEO.  Google even stated that it takes page load speeds into consideration as part of its ranking algorithm.  Slow loading pages frustrate users and offer poor on-site experiences.  Search engines do NOT want to promote those kinds of sites.  In addition, with the proliferation of mobile devices, it's more important than ever to make your site as zippy as possible to prevent your webpage from taking 5 minutes to load on your mobile device.
  • File naming and structure - Your website is made up of many different files, including things like HTML, image files and PDFs.  All the files of your site should be properly named and organized in a logical way.  For instance, don't name the photo of your hotel lobby "IMG_2364.jpg."  Instead, name it something more descriptive, like "MarriottAtlantis-HotelLobby.jpg."  Even that small change gives your hotel a greater chance of appearing for the keyword you just included in that photo's file name. In addition, if your site's URL looks like this mysite.com/file123.html?tag=accommodations&special=523, you'd be better off having the URL rewritten as something that makes a little more sense to the untrained eye, like mysite.com/rooms/chicago-hotel-specials.html. Not only does that rewritten URL give visitors a basic idea of its content, but you can even fit a few keywords into the URL as well (ie, "Chicago hotel specials").
  • Canonicalization - Otherwise known as the dreaded "duplicate content" problem, fixing canonicalization or redundancy errors in your site can streamline how the search engines crawl your site.  This problem arises when two pages of your site have identical or nearly identical content.  When this happens, the search engines figure, "Hey, why do I need two identical copies of this page in my database.  What a waste!  I'll just keep one copy and drop the other."  The problem is, you don't get to decide which page Google keeps and which it drops unless you specifically tell the search engine what you'd like to do.  This can be done with canonical tags in the code or by setting up 301 redirects.  It's an important "housekeeping" item that goes on behind the scenes, which clients rarely know about or understand.
  • Server errors - Have you ever clicked on a link to a webpage that displayed a 404 error, stating that the page you are looking for cannot be found? While these pages aren't inherently bad, your site should be scoured for outdated or broken links that point to 404 pages within your own site.  Using a tool like Bing or Google Webmaster Tools can help you troubleshoot those pesky 404 and 500 errors and get your site back on the right track.  Again, although most clients never see this part of SEO, it's an important part of the clean-up process.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to optimizing your website's architecture, but it's crucial to understand that not all optimization is in plain view.  Some of the magic takes place behind the curtain. And while it's not nearly as visible or glamorous or understood by all clients, it's imperative to the success of your SEO campaign nonetheless.

Content Optimization (for Relevance)

This is what most people think of when they think SEO. Whereas site architecture focuses on the usability of your site, content optimization deals with the relevance of your site to the searcher. How relevant is your page content to the keyword query of your visitor?  

While keyword optimization can be an important part of site architecture (ie, for naming files and organization), much of your keyword research will take shape in the content optimization section of SEO.  It's the meat of the campaign and comprises the (mostly) visible content on the page.  Making your site more relevant to searchers through Content Optimization can be done in the following ways:

  • Meta Tags - This is SEO 101, but optimizing your Title and Description meta tags is one of the most basic things you can do to optimize your website.  While meta tag optimization alone won't rocket you above your competitors in the search engine rankings, it's an important step in the overall process.
  • Alt Tags - Similar to meta tags, alt tags are the alternative text attached to the images on your website.  Adding alt tags gives the search engines crawlable text in the code of the webpage.  Without alt tags the search engines will see a big, fat ___________ where some good, optimized text could reside.  It's an often missed opportunity.
  • Headings - Like any good publication, headings also play a big part in the usability of your site.  They are the titles and subtitles on the page that help break your big blocks of content into smaller, clearly labeled chunks.  Although they have less impact on content optimization, headings (like H1 and H2 tags) should nevertheless be optimized for the search engines.
  • Body Text - Keyword research should be integrated seamlessly into the body text of every page of your site.  Focus on 2 or 3 keywords per page and write for your users, not the search engines.  Your text should always be written naturally and should never become bloated with keywords. Don't write copy like this: "This beautiful Chicago hotel in Chicago is the ideal Chicago hotel in the city of Chicago."  Spoiler alert: You probably won't rank for the keyword "Chicago hotel" writing copy like that.  And even worse, your site will likely get punished for your keyword stuffing.
  • Intrasite Links - Links from page to page within your site are integral to getting search engines to crawl deeper into your site. This ties in with usability, but is typically part of your content optimization efforts.
  • Interesting Content - By making your content more interesting, you make it more likely to be shared, which is an important part of the next pillar of SEO: relationship building.  Not all your pages will have link-worthy content, but the more unique and relevant your copy is to your community, the more inbound traffic see coming to your site.

Relationship Building (for Trust)

It's great if your site is user friendly and the on-page content is optimized to the gills, but if those were the only factors that determined search rankings, there would be a tremendous amount of unscrupulous nogoodniks that could easily game the system. This is because the site owner has complete control over the site architecture and the content on the site.  However, the one thing that the site owner doesn't control is the public's trust in their site.  

The search engines needed a way to establish trust online.  Which sites should be considered an authority in their industry?  And how do search engines assign a value on authority?  Enter link building and social media.  Google and Bing decided that the best way to determine the trustworthiness of your site is by evaluating it based on the company you keep. Which sites link to yours? Who shares your links on social media?  These social cues are indicators to the search engines that your content is a trusted source of information.  It's also why search engine optimization can take so long to impact your site. Trust isn't something you earn overnight; you become an authority through consistent leadership over time within a given field.  

With that in mind, here are some ways that the search engines establish trust:

  • Link Building - Having trusted websites link to your own is one of the best ways to build up authority in a given niche.  The search engines consider every good link a "vote" of trust for your site.  Conversely, links from poor quality sites or spammy sites can negatively impact your authority in the eyes of the search engines.  As someone's mom always said, "Mind the company you keep, and always steer clear of the misanthropes."  Same goes for websites.  Hang with the good crowd and get their links. Don't associate with sites of ill repute.
  • Social Networks - While link building is still an important part of SEO, social sharing is quickly becoming an indicator of both trust and relevance for the search engines. It's all one big popularity contest, and if people are sharing your content on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, then the search engines take this as a cue that your site must be pretty relevant. Social networking actually comes in to play within all three pillars of SEO.  It's important to build social sharing features into the architecture of your site to allow users to share your content. In addition, the on-page content has to be share-worthy enough to pass it along, so content optimization is crucial.  And finally, by building relationships through social networks you increase trust and authority in your brand, making it more likely that customers will spread your content to the own communities.

Making The Web A Better Place To Search

The good news is that you and the search engines are both working towards the same goal!  So build your site with usability, relevance and trust in mind and watch your site climb the search rankings. These lists are by no means exhaustive, but they should give you an idea of why SEO is such a time-intensive undertaking any why the search engines promote sites that benefit their users.  By improving your site content and how your users find information on your web pages, not only will you see an increase in traffic to your site, but you'll also see an increase in those visitors converting to paying customers!

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