Travel Blog Exchange 2012: Three questions for next year

As the dust settles on the Travel Blog Exchange’s annual networking shindig, several hundred hopeful travel blogtrepreneurs* are heading back down from the rarefied air of Keystone, Colorado, notebooks stuffed with motivational ideas on converting their travel sites into publishing powerhouses, advertising platforms and profitable online businesses.

The travel blogosphere is a huge and diverse place, but TBEX is quite consciously aimed at a specific segment: people who want to go pro and make their living from blogging.

For those of us on the other side of the industry fence, PR people, advertisers and web marketers, this is a hugely important audience. The role of bloggers in the travel marketing ecosystem has long been established and will only increase in importance as content creators, audiences and platforms all diversify and become ever more embedded in the principles of effective web marketing.

But given that most doubts about the role of bloggers have long since evaporated, it appeared to me as a first-time TBEX attendee that the blog world’s leadership is failing to help bloggers adapt, evolve and, dare I say it, mature to fulfil their rightful place at the top table of the travel marketing mix.

This is not to criticise the event organisation in any way. Aside from a few lengthy lunch queues and the absence of any free coffee this was one of the best and most professionally organised conferences I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to more than my fair share.

What I’m griping at is less the quality of the event, and more the substance of what was actually being said on the stages and podiums themselves. So in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are three questions that I would want to see addressed at the next TBEX conference.

How Do We Improve The Quality Of Output?

The most surprising feature of the two-day program was the near absolute absence of anything concerning the quality of output, or journalistic skill in general. Out of several dozen sessions, just one addressed the question of how to be better at travel writing.

This is important to me as a content commissioner because bloggers tend to produce travel writing that is more amateurish than their traditional travel writing counterparts.** Writers who have cut their teeth on professional magazines and newspapers are generally more likely to produce journalism that is well researched, detail focused and engaging to the reader than writers who write mostly for their own blogs.

Sure, it might be common sense that professional journalists can usually write better than (most) self-publishers, but for us in the industry that just ain’t good enough: we need bloggers with large online presence, reach and influence. But we also need them to be good writers too. If bloggers want to take their rightful place in the marketing mix they need to upgrade the professionalism of their output.

How Do We Improve Innovation?

A second surprise was the anaemic level of innovation on display by many of the big-ticket speakers. Although “monetization” was the undisputed buzzword of the conference, the reality is that many of the big personalities in the travel blog world are locked in to an out-dated model of mass user generated content (UGC) publishing.

Many of the speakers represented sites that have followed the traditional route to online travel publishing success: pack a site with vast quantities of UGC that is either produced for free or for pennies (usually between the $10-25 mark) and aimed at no real audience or purpose, and pursue a rapacious approach to social media follower building, regardless of the quality or value of your connections.

This quantity over quality approach to travel publishing is easily commercialised by showing naïve advertisers huge numbers of unique site visitors (but little qualitative visitor engagement) and selling Adsense, sponsored posts, text links or banner ads on a CPM model.

I should point out an honourable exception here: Ross Borden from the Matador Network was emphatic in his rejection of the CPM advertising model and called on bloggers to find more innovative commercial partnerships with the travel industry. But what are those strategies? No one seemed to know.

As it is, it’s the marketers who have to come up with all the new ideas. But why should it be that way? Why isn’t the innovation flowing in the other direction too?

How Do We Improve Value & ROI Measurement?

For marketers, entrusted to make significant decisions on the best use of our clients’ scarce budgets, the question of value and ROI is by far our most important consideration. What we do with those marketing budgets has an immediate and direct impact on bottom lines, and if we screw up we’re in trouble.

But in the blogging world ROI seems to be a secondary concern. The most interesting comment I heard all weekend was an exasperated request from one of the ski resort’s PR guys: “How do I put a value to all this? Do I give a blogger a free day pass, or do I put them and their entire family up for a week?”

I share that guy’s pain. If pro travel bloggers want to be treated as equals by the industry they need to learn to play by the rules. As a marketer I don’t only care how many uniques per month, subscribers, Facebook fans or anything else your site has. I also want to know about your engagement rates and ROI. I want to know what you can do in exchange for my client’s money.

That I didn’t hear the phrase “ROI” once this entire weekend suggests how far we have to go.

In summary, none of the above is intended as blanket criticism levelled at the community as a whole. Overall the blogging community is doing great things and has deservedly earned the industry’s respect. But from my perspective I would like to see more leadership on the issues that really matter, and much less emphasis on the fluff. Travel blogs have a bright future in the industry ecosystem but after TBEX 2012 it’s clear that we’re not quite there yet.

*I’m definitely claiming that phrase in the unlikely event that someone else hasn’t already invented it.

**I’m choosing my words very carefully so as not to tar all bloggers with the same brush: many of the bloggers who write for us are excellent travel writers.

Originally posted on the Hit Riddle Travel Marketing Blog

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.

Are you getting serious about the new search marketing?

Search Engine Watch published a great article this week written by Jeff Slipko, SEO strategy manager at Expedia, specifically relating to the travel industry, with some stark warnings about the changing landscape of search marketing, many of which dovetail with what we’ve been saying at I&I Travel Media for some time.

The article takes a broad view of all the recent and ongoing developments in SEO, including:

  • Google’s recent Penguin algorithm update which targeted link spam,
  • The previous Panda update which targeted on-site content quality,
  • The ever stronger competition posed by the major brands (Kayak, Expedia, Google flight & hotel search, etc),
  • The ever decreasing margins available from relying on PPC advertising.

Based on all of these long-term processes, Jeff argues that:

Looking at online marketing as just PPC and SEO isn’t enough anymore. In a post-Panda and Penguin landscape, sites need to be better than that.

Successful travel sites will look at online marketing as a holistic effort that includes as many pieces of inbound marketing as possible – SEO, content, social media, conversion, user experience, on-site merchandising, just to name a few.

And, because a picture always speaks a thousand words, SEW also gave us this handy graphic which encapsulates the idea of a broader approach to online marketing:

Image credit: http://www.seomoz.org/ugc/what-to-charge-for-seo-and-inbound-marketing-services-14703

At I&I Travel Media we always like to see someone else banging the same drum as us, especially when what we’re saying has so much overlap. Here’s a passage from our recent ebook “A New Paradigm For Search Marketing In The Travel Industry

But times are changing. The most recent changes made in search engine and social media technology has signalled that the future of online marketing lies very much with the development and creative deployment of smart and innovative content. More than ever, it is content that will underpin success in search engine rankings, social media visibility and reach and brand development. The days of cheap content written for search engines are over, and online travel businesses of all shapes and sizes will need to consider investment in professional, quality content as important as their other online marketing channels.

So, the question is: are you getting serious about these real and rapid changes? Do you have a strategy in place? Are you ready to take advantage of the opportunities, or are you more likely to be caught off guard and get caught up in the risks?

 

Yet more algo updates, yet more emphasis on “quality”

The SEO community is abuzz with Google’s latest updates, released in a barrage of announcements over the past few weeks. The updates target different aspects of overall search quality and include targeting “over optimization”, i.e. link spam.

Since named the “Penguin Update”, the change has drawn most attention for its focus on unnatural link practices, and for casting a very wide net around link building practices that until very recently were considered fair game. For a quick refresher: links have long been seen as SEO fuel: generally speaking, the more links a website had, the better it would rank in the search engines. SEOs have built an entire industry out of generating links for paying customers, many of which used methods which are now extremely dubious and risky:

  • Subscribing to expensive but (formerly) effective “Private Blog Networks” which have since been nuked by Google.
  • Paying cheap outsourced labourers in developing countries to manually build links in blog comments, forums, discussion boards, etc. Often on websites that were unrelated to the target website.
  • Using article marketing sites to “spin” multiple versions of thin content in order to auto-publish multiple links across various sites.

Since Penguin was implemented, a large number of site owners have received warnings in Google Webmaster Tools about “unnatural links”, and will have seen their rankings & search traffic plummet.

Meanwhile, SEO experts worldwide have been busy churning out their responses and action plans. Of all the articles I’ve read (and there have been plenty), this piece from Search Engine Watch seems to be the most useful, if only because it is focused on ideas for SMBs to move away from constant “algorithm chasing” and put their business on a long term and sustainable footing. Take a look at the advice – does it sound familiar?

3 questions to determine the “link risk” to your travel business

If you’re fortunate enough to not have to spend a large chunk of every week sifting the latest coming and goings in the SEO news you probably missed this story – that is, unless your business was relying on private blog networks (PBNs) for inbound links and therefore your search rankings. If that’s the case, you’re probably trying to work out where the hell all your search traffic has gone.

Either way, all online travel businesses need to be aware of Google’s latest move against low quality links, in its ongoing war to clean up the web.

For the uninitiated, private blog networks are large collections of blogs and sites all owned and operated by a single entity for the sole purpose of publishing low grade “content” accompanied by large numbers of links to member websites. Members pay a handsome fee to join the network and in return they enjoy automated link building to their website, which contributes to improvements in rankings and therefore search traffic.

Last week Google completely de-indexed the entire network operated by one of the largest PBN’s, BuildMyRank, causing the value of all its backlinks to vanish, which in turn undid any ranking benefits that they had passed on to its members’ sites. For any sites that had been using BuildMyRank as their sole source of links, the results would have been disastrous.

Rumour and conjecture on the SEO blogosphere abounds, and current chatter suggests that this marks the start of a concerted new effort against blog networks and other “black/grey hat” link manipulation schemes. With that in mind, now might be a good time to review your link development strategy and make sure you’re not exposed to any unnecessary risk. The following questions may help for online travel businesses:

#1) Are you relying on automated link schemes? Automation is the operative word here. Anything that automatically publishes links to your site from other sites should be viewed with a healthy amount of caution. Google (and the other search engines) place emphasis on the value of quality links published by human-controlled editorial processes, i.e. someone creates a link to your site because they specifically think your site fits the editorial nature of their site. Any links that are created by automated processes are by definition low value, and may become the target of algorithm changes in the future.

#2) Are you relying on low quality content? Low grade, thin “space filler” articles, or articles that are “spun” beyond recognition using automated re-writing tools and then mass submitted to hundreds of article directories do not count as a legitimate linking tactic in the eyes of the search engines, and are likely to be targeted or at least devalued in the future.

#3) Do you have an editorial linking strategy? “Editorial” links are the opposite of the above. They are links that have been deliberately placed on a website by an editor because they are deemed to be useful and valuable for site visitors. These links are massively important for travel businesses as they offer huge opportunities to connect with the travel blogs and publications that match your destinations, services and audiences. These are the links that Google, Bing etc are searching for and these are the links that will help secure long term rankings in the search results.

A healthy link development strategy would avoid #1 & 2 like the plague and would place priority on #3, to build up a strong and diverse link profile that is future-proofed against any more algorithm changes targeting low value, low quality links.