The travel sector continues to be highly competitive in the digital landscape as consumers flock to search engines to book travel plans. In 2012 comScore reported online travel spending surpassed $100 billion for the first time, a 9 percent increase over the previous year. The big booking winners aren’t just airlines and hotels, but also online travel agents (OTAs) such as Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity. Currently the OTAs dominate the search engine results pages (SERPs) when popular non-branded keyword phrases are searched. However, travel brands can take back some of this business by adopting paid, earned, and owned media strategies to compete head-to-head with OTAs.
Non-branded searches are queries where a consumer does not have a brand preference, such as “Denver hotels” or “flights to Denver.” If a sale is captured from one of these phrases on either the organic or paid sections of the SERP it is considered incremental revenue. Phrases like these are gold for travel marketers, because consumers without a brand preference start their path with an open mind.
Google has recently become an OTA itself, which makes this vertical even more competitive. The search giant purchased travel software company ITA in 2010, but just recently won a ruling that allows it to have a similar engine used by the OTAs right inside the search results. Consumers can now find fares right on the Google results page.
Major travel brands pay a high price to have their reservations come through OTAs. Brands pay approximately 20 percent in commissions, and in some cases have to guarantee a large sales volume for exposure on OTA sites. An even bigger downside is the fact that the brand doesn’t capture any consumer information that would allow them to build consumer loyalty with personalized offers, display retargeting, or other strategies.
Travel brands have a huge opportunity to circumvent the OTAs and connect directly with consumers searching for their products and services through paid, earned, and owned media strategies.
SEO and Content
Many travel brands are missing basic SEO strategies that would help them compete with OTAs. These include creating individual location pages cross-referenced with local attractions, tagging pages by interest, and creating onsite content specifically for high-volume search phrases.
Hotels and airlines can benefit from storytelling through videos, blog posts, testimonials, and resources for travelers both on- and offsite. These content pieces help increase search engine ranking in many ways. They provide additional opportunities to use SEO keywords, generate backlinks, and can increase search engine ranking if consumers find them valuable enough to share socially. This is how a brand should live in today’s digital world.
Travel brands must invest in non-branded keyword phrases and build quality content around those terms. They must also dig deeper into keyword targets and get a better focus on the query strings – a one-to-one match with actual consumer search phrases.
Lastly, brands should build a first-party cookie data pool to remarket to those prospects. Say a consumer searches “Denver to Vegas” and clicks on a Southwest Airlines ad. She browses several pages, selects a ticket, but abandons the cart. A thorough display advertising program will show a Southwest ad featuring deals on flights from Denver to Vegas as she browses the Internet, reminding her to book the ticket.
There’s no doubt that online travel is big business, but for travel brands to claim their fair share, they need an integrated digital media roadmap.
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