Navigating the fractured landscape of travel influencers

The role of influencers in digital marketing strategy is problematic for many travel brands. Although the huge potential is well recognised, there remain significant barriers to “influencer marketing” becoming a mainstream activity.

Some of the many problems include identifying genuine influencers, working out what consumer behaviour they’re capable of influencing, and how it can all be measured.

This is particularly important in the travel industry where a large segment of our influencers are highly influential among each other – i.e. within the travel bubble – but not necessarily among the wider traveling public or within brands’ target markets.

In fact, an experiment with some new functionality from Followerwonk, a tool for analysing user behaviour on Twitter, suggests there’s much more to influence within the travel industry than we might have assumed.

Methodology

Followerwonk uses the Twitter API to access various layers of data on Twitter users.  A newly-released metric, called social authority, is a measure of users’ authority on Twitter as determined by their re-tweet rate and various other factors. The number of times a user is re-tweeted is considered more important than their follower count as a signal of engagement, click through rates and therefore authority.

There are obvious limitations to this and it should clearly not be used as a definitive or sole metric of an individual’s “influence” (more on that below). But even with a quick and dirty analysis of the re-tweet data we were able to come up with a number of useful observations and questions.

To begin with we created a database of all Twitter users with certain keywords in their bios:  travel, traveler, travel guide, travel advice, travel blog, traveling, travel magazine, travel blogger.  This gave us a total of 740,000 Twitter users who are in some way interested in travel – but not necessarily directly connected to the travel industry.

740,000 lines of data was too much even for our enormous processing capacity (an Excel spreadsheet and endless coffee) so we refined the list to anyone with more than 1,000 followers and a social authority score of over 50/100.  That still left us with over 4,000 users so we made another arbitrary decision to look at just the top 10% of influencers.

From there we removed all the nude Russian models and horoscope accounts and classified each user into a category (a painstaking, manual process with plenty of room for error). Our categories were:

  • Travel brand
  • Travel publisher/broadcaster
  • DMO/Tourism board
  • Travel blog
  • Travel media professional (including freelancers, travel writers, etc)
  • Social media entity (not connected to a brand or individual, e.g. @earth_pics)
  • Non travel (lifestyle, food, sports, actors, musicians, etc – individuals, brands or blogs who express an interest in travel but aren’t connected to the industry)

This left us with a relatively accurate, structured list of the 400 most influential Twitter users who have an interest or connection to travel. Using this list we were able to make a number of important observations:

Huge influence outside the travel bubble

About half (51%) of the top 10% profiles were not directly connected to the travel industry at all. This is an inevitable outcome of our methodology: searching for people interested but not necessarily working in travel is a very broad net which caught all sorts of disparate users.

But these people are far from irrelevant. These are the celebrities, musicians, authors, politicians, sport stars, brands and lifestyle blogs that many people in our target demographics are actively following. There is clearly huge influence out there that exists beyond our own bubble of travel media pros, bloggers and publishers:

top 10 travel influencers by category - I&I travel media

Some of the people we found that could influence travel consumers without being directly connected to the industry included:

non travel influencers - i&i travel media

Think about all the people in your target markets who don’t consume much/any travel media online. Where do their interests lie? Who are they following and listening to? Could there be opportunity to find influencers outside of the travel bubble?  Does your brand include people like this in your outreach efforts?

Relationships between authority and content type

Another interesting observation was the spread of authority for each category among our top 400 influencers:

spread of influence by category - i&i travel media

The most surprising aspect was that, according to the Followerwonk metrics, travel publishers/broadcasters have the lowest spread of authority.  With one significant exception (@LonelyPlanet), none of the travel publishers had an authority score above 80. Only eight had a score above 70, and there were only 55 publishers represented in the entire 400.

If anything, this lays bare the inherent limitations of using a single metric as a measure of authority. In reality these publishers are among the highest source of authority in our field. But it seems that their behaviour on Twitter doesn’t reflect that authority. There are interesting reasons for this that could inform our own content and social strategies.

The Followerwonk data shows that re-tweets, and therefore social authority, often derive from particular behaviour: statements that are concise, funny, pithy and precision targeted to their audience are re-tweeted the most:

content & approches for successful retweets - i&i travel media

Typically, travel publishers, brands and DMOs don’t specialise in this kind of behaviour. We’re fastidious in our outreach and engagement (lots of @mentions and conversations,) we curate and share plenty of content and do all the other things that Twitter is great for.  But the data shows that this kind of behaviour is not so frequently re-tweeted.

I don’t think anyone would recommend abandoning engagement and relationships for glib sound bites, but could there be a case for adding some more personality, humour and attitude into your brand’s Twitter activity?  The data certainly suggests it could be effective in increasing your re-tweet rates and therefore your wider exposure and reach.

The importance of niches and targeted audiences

The far away winners of our analysis were the social media entities that exist only on Twitter for the sole purpose of sharing viral content. There were only 10 such profiles in the top 10% of users, but they were almost all above the median social authority for the entire group:

top social media entities - i&i travel media

Related to the previous observation, note how few @mentions are made within this user group. All they are doing is broadcasting highly shareable content (“re-tweet bait”) that is laser targeted to their audience:

successful travel tweets - i&i travel media

Some obvious tactics that emerge from this include: trying to emulate this behaviour with your own profile, as well as trying to get some of your content noticed and shared by these power users.

Target your blog outreach

Another example of how niche targeting wins the day is to look at the travel blogs that came up with the highest social authority scores. If you’re connected with the travel blogging world, the first ten may come as some surprise:

top 10 travel bloggers - i&i travel media

Remember, we’re not looking for straight up follower counts here, we’re looking at the user’s authority on Twitter as measured by their re-tweet rate.

In virtually every case the most influential bloggers are those that are highly targeted to a specific theme or destination: hiking, luxury travel, Thailand, London, British Colombia, video blogging, etc.

This could have implications for outreach programs that aim to activate influential travel bloggers in support of your campaigns. Could certain projects be better served by looking further down the long tail of the travel blogosphere and engaging bloggers with a smaller overall presence but higher engagement rates in your specific theme?

Much more to be done

These are just a few observations that came up from our quick analysis. There are clearly limitations to the data and our methodology.  The usefulness of re-tweet rates alone as an authority metric is questionable, and there is much room for error in a “broad net” approach like the one described here.

But looking into the data like this shows just how complex and fragmented the influence landscape can be, particularly when we consider the countless individuals who can influence our target demographics outside of the travel bubble.

It’s within that complexity that the real opportunity lies. Each brand and each campaign will have its own set of objectives and audiences. Data like this shows that there is a rich ecosystem of influencers out there that could become very rewarding for brands that are nimble enough to navigate the fractured and diverse digital landscape.

NB: this experiment was intended more as a demonstration of possibilities than an attempt at serious statistical analysis. Please take all figures provided with a liberal pinch of salt.

Google rewards for readable content, implications for “AuthorRank”

We already know that Google Authorship is a major deal and will continue to grow in importance. One indication of things to come is the use of the “More by author” links that are sometimes displayed in the search results:

More By results displayed via google authorship

AJ Kohn has written a thorough and useful article on the technical background to this and what kind of search behaviour triggers these displays but in a nutshell users that dwell on a page for a certain period of time and then hit ‘back’ to return to the SERPs are sometimes shown these “More by” links. Interestingly, the links can connect with content on various properties – not just the author’s own domain or the one you were visiting but also their social profiles and content on other domains that the author contributes to.

This gives us a number of insights into the direction that Google is taking with the Authorship project, and ways that we can take advantage:

Rewarding quality (again)

It’s an ongoing and well established theme that Google is continually driving for higher “quality” and rewards domains that have better quality signals. One such measure seems to be the page dwell time. The magic number is around 2 minutes, which is presumably their estimation of how long it takes to actually read a page. So the obvious takeaway here is that we need to be publishing content that people actually read.

There are a number of facets to that aside from the obvious: write good stuff. Things like headings, images, embedded video, page design & layout, etc are all important in retaining visitors on the page. There’s an entire strategic layer to determining what you’re writing about in the first place, and ensuring that your themes and subjects are appropriately targeted for your intended audience. But the basic observation is that Google wants to see visitors staying on your site and reading your content.

But the quality theme is nothing new. Where this all gets really interesting is with predictions for things to come…

Encouraging rel=author adoption

These links are only displayed for domains that have marked up their content using the rel=author tag and verified their ownership via Google+. (more on that here) Although Google’s primary aim is undoubtedly to improve the user experience and in doing so to improve the data and connections that drives the “knowledge graph” (see below), it’s still a nice bonus for us writers & publishers to win some additional exposure on the SERPs.  This is yet another reason (if one were needed) to adopt the rel=author markup immediately.

AuthorRank Optimisation

Although AuthorRank (AR) (roughly equivalent to PageRank as a measure of an individual’s authority) is still theoretical and is not a part of the ranking algorithm, this is a pretty clear indication of the kind of factors that could be used as an AR quality signal. It stands to reason: if people are spending longer reading your content then surely that’s a decent signal of your own personal quality/authority. Again: AR Optimisation does not exist yet, but if/when it does arrive then these kinds of metrics are going to become very important very quickly.

The knowledge graph beyond rel=author

The fact that Google is displaying content from various properties demonstrates that the rel=author markup is not their only signal of authorship. They can in fact identify our content and behaviour from around the web, structured markup or not. This is a major component of the emerging “knowledge graph”, the concept that entities (individuals, domains, content) are bound together by a web of connections and that these connections can be used to transform the search experience.  The “More by” links lay bare the principle of individuals as entities within the knowledge graph.

At one level it’s quite creepy to see how Google is beginning to incorporate us as individual people into their matrix. At another level it’s something that publishers and individual content creators should be aware of and start to factor into their content strategy.

Google “AuthorRank” promises major changes for travel search

UPDATE – AUG 2014
Google recently announced it has depreciated the Authorship markup, and that the Google+ connections between content and author that are described below will no longer have any bearing on the display (or ranking) of search results.  Despite this, the core concept behind “AgentRank” remains the same: Google is doubtless as interested as ever in evaluating individual author authority metrics, but the search engine is now developing more sophisticated ways of gauging said metrics than relying on individual users to implement clunky markup code.

Originally published on Tnooz.

Since its outset, search engine optimization (SEO) has always been concerned with the things that we can do to websites to improve their authority and relevance as search results.

The practice of SEO involved improving things like a site’s in-bound links, its architecture and coding, and its content.

These are all signals to the search engines of your website’s authority and suitability to rank for certain keywords. Finding the right balance of these signals has been usually sufficient to ensure you rank prominently for your target keywords.

Although various algorithm updates have tweaked the balance to combat spam and manipulation techniques, the fundamentals have largely remained the same: SEO has always been about optimizing a website’s authority and relevance, loosely conceived as either PageRank (PR) or Domain Authority.

But now the SEO community is abuzz with changes being gradually introduced by Google, adding a factor to the equation.

The “ranking power” of individuals, not just websites

For the first time, Google may “rank” individual content creators by their own personal authority, and use those authority metrics to determine how highly their work should feature in other people’s search results.

The concept of “Agent Rank” is actually quite old and dates back to a patent first registered by Google in 2005.

However as Mike Arneson explains in an excellent background piece, it is only recently that Google has introduced the vital element that connects individuals to their content through a single digital identify: Google+ profiles.

Using their Google+ social media profile and some simple HTML tags, content creators can now claim ownership to all their work published on sites across the web.

This mechanism is called Google Authorship, and among other things it is how Google is now able to display author information alongside search results.

matthew baker hit riddle google authorship

The full ramifications of this change are still sinking in and it remains unclear exactly how Google will rank individual authors, and what the impact will be on the search rankings of websites that publish their content.

But the general consensus is that it’s only a matter of time before the concept of individual author authority, nicknamed AuthorRank (AR), is introduced to the algorithm as a ranking factor.

When this happens it has the potential to be a true game changer for SEO, at least as significant as the Panda and Penguin updates of the last two years.

We already know that those author snippets can improve click through rates.

When they start to influence the actual rankings too, the long-term impact on SEO strategy could be seismic.

Part of Google’s battle against spam and “low-quality” content

Google’s logic appears to be that individual AuthorRank (AR) will be harder to game than traditional PageRank: individuals will need to publish consistently well-received content in order to maximize their AR.

  • As Mike explains, Google will likely assess an individual’s AR by looking at:
  • The average PageRank of the sites they’re published on.
  • The number of +1’s, comments and shares their content generates on Google+.
  • The number of Google+ circles they are in.
  • The volume of on-site comments & interactions their content generates.
  • Their authority metrics from other reliable sources (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, if they have a Wikipedia page etc.)
  • And many, many other metrics…

Unlike the old SEO techniques, this stuff is hard (/impossible) to spam – you can’t trick your way to having popular, authoritative and well-received content: you just have to knuckle down and get on with it (or invest in an outside source.)

So, what does Google AuthorRank mean for the online travel industry?

We already know that content has become a major driver of success in search marketing and the impetus for investment in high performance content increases every day.

But the emergence of AuthorRank brings some extra considerations into the mix.

Unlike some of Google’s other recent updates, I believe this presents more opportunity than disruption, especially for marketers that are quick to adopt and make the most of the new system.

Aside from the technical aspects of setting up Google Authorship with your content (which is relatively straightforward and full documentation is provided), there are other content strategy issues that will need to be addressed.

Individual voices:

At the moment Google Authorship emphasizes individual authors and the whole idea is about highlighting people who are authoritative in their field (although you can connect your brand’s Google+ page with your content, too.)

This means you’ll need to start thinking about the individuals you have contributing to your site and decide on an approach to managing that.

Will they all connect their own Google+ profiles with your content? What safeguards will you have to make sure their personal activity doesn’t impact your brand? But this doesn’t have to be a headache, and can actually present a great opportunity for many online travel brands.

Online travel purchases hinge on the consumer trusting and having faith in the brand to deliver. Putting a human face onto your content and emphasizing individual expertise in certain areas can only contribute to that.

Where a travel blog may have previously published everything under “admin”, now you have the opportunity to highlight the expertise of each member of your team. Identifying and capitalizing on those individual voices will improve your brand and your search performance.

Maximizing AuthorRank:

In a previous article I wrote about the convergence between search and social marketing and this is yet another example of that process.

When AR is introduced to the ranking algorithm, it will be imperative that your contributors maximize their AR through the content that they are publishing and the social media interactions it generates: more +1’s, more Google+ engagement, more comments, more shares on other social networks, etc.

This also means your contributors will have to pay more attention to their Google+ activity, engaging with other users, +1ing more content and aiming to be added to more peoples’ circles – especially other relevant authorities.

You will have to build this into your social media strategy just as you maintain your own brand’s Facebook page.

Through its Webmaster Tools service Google already offers some data on the search impact of verified author results. Keep an eye on this data and aim to improve it over time.

Google AuthorRank Webmaster Tools

Influencer outreach:

Even with the above efforts, you will probably find that your in-house content creation efforts won’t build huge AR when compared to professional or semi professional journalists and travel bloggers.

For that reason more brands will start to consider influencer outreach and publishing partnerships with authoritative content creators.

Fortunately for us in the travel industry we already have a hugely active travel blogging community that has the potential to inject enormous value to search marketing campaigns.

Blogger outreach was already an exciting strategy since bloggers’ large and engaged social media audiences can make significant contributions to your site’s search engine visibility.

With AuthorRank, “borrowing” an individual’s authority by commissioning their content for your own site becomes an even more attractive prospect.

These are just a few immediate considerations thrown up by the prospect of AuthorRank as a ranking signal.

Over time, “AR Optimization” will emerge as a practice in its own right, but in the meantime site owners should be aware that it is coming and start to prepare for the huge opportunities it could offer.

Putting the author back in authority

Originally posted on the Hit Riddle Travel Marketing Blog

Travel bloggers who follow Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) might have seen an article I wrote last week on a development from Google, called AuthorRank.

[If you’re not familiar with AuthorRank and want some background information on what it is, and how to get yourself set up (it’s very easy), take a look at my TBEX article, which includes links to all the necessary instructions and resources.]

Rather than go over old ground here, I thought it might be more useful to expand on the bigger picture, and explain how I see this as part of a wider development that all travel journalists and bloggers should be aware of.

The underlying issue behind AuthorRank is one of authority and influence.  Google is doing this because it’s all part of their never-ending quest to highlight content that is authoritative, high quality and popular.  This is Google’s fundamental mission: the more useful its search results, the happier its users.

AuthorRank will move some of the emphasis onto the authority of individual content creators, rather than websites themselves.  We can start to think of individuals carrying their own authority within their niche, in the same way we have become used to website authority.  The basic consensus is that at some point in the near future, sites that publish content from more authoritative writers can expect to do better in the search results.

This is a brand new concept in the world of search marketing, and it is hugely important for writers/bloggers/content creators.  Now your “product” – your words, photos, video, etc – can carry more value than simply the quality of your content.  If your content also carries with it the weight of your own personal authority, you will be offering a lotmore value to the publisher.

Authority and influence are becoming incredibly important components to online marketing. Aside from AuthorRank, we are also looking for individual content creators who have other sources of influence online – for example, large social media audiences or a regular, engaged site readership.

Our company is now running a number of content marketing projects for several major travel brands. We commission travel journalism from our huge network of writers and we use that in marketing campaigns to produce tangible returns for our clients.

And although the professionalism or “quality” of the content remains paramount (we can’t achieve our goals with anything less than excellent writing), another major factor is the authority or influence of the contributing author. For our projects we are increasingly seeking writers who can clearly demonstrate their authority and influence; all of which can make enormous contributions to our clients’ web marketing goals.

Interestingly, this has largely weighted things in favour of online travel writers – particularly bloggers. Bloggers are usually in a stronger position to demonstrate social media followings and site readership stats than traditional/offline travel writers.

However with the advent of AuthorRank, the balance may be slowly shifting back towards those who identify themselves as writers first and bloggers second.  By connecting up your writing across multiple publications into a single online portfolio you can demonstrate to Google (and marketers like me) that you too have influence and reach, even if you don’t have your own enormously successful travel blog.

Previously, brands may have paid a premium to bloggers with the highest Twitter followers, Facebook fans and RSS subscribers, regardless of the actual qualitative nature of those “audiences.”  But increasingly, those arbitrary numbers should become less important and we can start to take a more nuanced & comprehensive view of influence and authority.   (This, by the way, is why we ignore Klout scores when recruiting writers for our projects.)

So, my advice for travel writers who wish to tap into this growing demand for professional writing online is to focus on nurturing your audiences, authority and influence in a way that is demonstrable to brands and marketers, but not by sacrificing your principles and standards in a relentless chase for more Twitter followers.

And for bloggers, the advice is to focus your attention on activities that make a tangible contribution to your authority. Don’t guest post articles just for the sake of a link. Don’t fill your site with thin content just for the SEO value. Don’t monteize your site by selling text links on cheap content without regard for your readers.

Thanks to things like AuthorRank, the travel writing profession is slowly turning full circle and gradually coming back to its original emphasis on engaging, authoritative & inspiring writing.  And also thanks to things like AuthorRank, there is now a growing market for that kind of quality and authority too.