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.

Timeline for Facebook pages is coming

In the ever shifting sands of online marketing, only one thing is certain: no matter how hard you try, by the time you figure out how something works, it will have changed.

In fact, Douglas Adams could have been talking about Facebook when he wrote:

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened”

You guessed it; there are more changes on the way for Facebook Pages and they’re going to require a significant re-think on how you use your Facebook profile and what resources you dedicate to it.

On March 30, all Facebook Pages will be converted to the new Timeline format, whether you want it or not. Before that deadline you will be given some time to experiment with your page and see how it appears to the public and to your followers. You should use that time to make sure your page is ready and to familiarise yourself with some of the main changes:

  • Cover photo: This space gives you an opportunity to grab attention and make an impact with some great photography. The recommended image size is 851 X 315 pixels, and you will also get a smaller space for a profile photo, which should be 180 X 180 pixels. Unlike previous profile photos, these are not allowed to contain promotional text, company details or contact information, references to Liking your page or any other Facebook interactions, or any call to action such as “Get in touch” “Tell your friends” etc.
  • Default landing tabs: Whereas previously you were able to create custom tabs and set them as the default landing tab for your Facebook Page, or specify certain landing tabs for specific sources of traffic, this functionality will now be removed. All visitors will land on your main Timeline page. However, you will be able to create up to 12 custom tabs or apps for different groups, audiences, products or promotions, and place them at the top of your page, next to your Photos tab.
  • Star/Pin important content: Any important content can be “pinned” to the top of your timeline for a maximum of 7 days, which means it will remain conspicuous and will not be buried under subsequent posts by you or your fans. This is especially useful for promotions or other time-sensitive posts. You can also widen important posts to occupy both columns of the page, by clicking the star button in the top right corner.
  • Direct messages: This is a new feature to Facebook Pages and it allows your fans to contact your page admin in private. This presents a new customer service opportunity, but if you choose to enable the private message function, be sure that you have the time and resources to properly monitor and reply to your messages.
  • Friend activity: The new layout places additional emphasis on how a visitor’s own friends have interacted with your Page. If they have several other friends who have liked, commented or shared your Page’s content, that will appear prominently on their personalised view of your Page, and presumably will help drive their own interaction with you and your Page.

Facebook has provided an interactive guide to the changes, but your most effective learning curve will be to get stuck in and have a play around with the new format – and remember to give yourself plenty of time for the 30 March deadline.

Some ideas for how travel businesses can take advantage of the latest changes:

  • Be visual: Photos and video are both given extra emphasis and are known to be effective in driving user engagement. Aim to share extraordinary, inspiring and creative images and video of your destinations, activities or attractions. The better they are, the more likes and shares you will generate.
  • Make best use of custom tabs: Although a lot of functionality has been removed by removing custom landing pages/tabs, you should make full use of the new spaces for custom tabs at the top of the page. Use effective content and calls to action in these tabs and on the pages themselves to drive leads, newsletter signups and other engagement. Fill these spaces with messages that are likely to resonate with your target audience: featured tours, offers/promotions, travel guides, newsletter registration, you could even embed full itineraries complete with contact forms into the new pages.
  • Publish and “pin” weekly messages: Create a weekly message and pin it to the top of your Timeline. It doesn’t need to be a promotion or offer, it could be a giveaway, a contest, a poll, a great new blog post, or any other piece of content. Whatever it is, make sure it is compelling, inspiring and uses jaw-dropping imagery.

Given all the investment and fanfare that has gone into launching Timeline, the format will hopefully be around for the foreseeable future and there shouldn’t be any more major changes for a while. But don’t get too comfortable: at some point it will change again, and all those engineers at Silicon Valley are doubtless already plotting the next bizarre and inexplicable replacement.