A guide for travel website operators on structuring their website and content for success
1. What do we want the site to do?
- A travel website is a brand ambassador. It sets the official story for the destination and is the trusted source of factual content. This differs it from user-generated content (UGC) sites like TripAdvisor or social media sites like Facebook, which consist of users’ opinions.
- It uses the funds from local businesses, through their taxes, membership in chamber of commerce or other organizations, or direct sponsorship, to attract visitors to the destination. It should be able to show these local businesses an ROI on their investment.
- It is a portal to the destination and surrounding area. It should at the least give visitors enough information to plan their trip and support their information needs during the trip.
- It should also create fans of those visitors, encourage them to come back again, and turn them into evangelists for the destination who will tell their family and friends, thereby encouraging more visitors to come.
- It should provide information in visitor’s native languages where possible, especially taking into consideration the needs of non-English speakers.
- It should be easily manageable by the tour staff. This often means a team of only a few people, who will need to manage content in their native language.
- This team’s native language should be the parent language from which translations are created, to make it easiest for them to manage.
- This site needs to meet basic needs for usability. This includes site speed (page load time), mobile friendly (responsive) architecture, and optimized user interface (UI) and user experience (UX)
2. How will the site be used before, during and after travel?
- The site should, first of all, provide users with enough information to attract them to the destination.
- It should contain enough info for them to effectively plan their trip.
- It may also provide links to booking systems or an in-site booking system to allow them to both plan, book, and undertake their trip.
- It should allow them to arrive empty handed with no plan and plan their trip from there.
- It should provide enough information for them to find any additional information they forgot during the planning stage.
- It should allow them to research info and make adjustments to their plans.
- It should provide emergency info in case of any trouble.
- It should allow them to share their experiences with friends and family.
- It should attract them back again and encourage repeat visits.
- It should turn them into fans and evangelists for the destination.
3. What do we want visitors to the site to do?
- It’s important to think about how we expect users to arrive at the site, where they will go in the site, how they will leave, and how they will come back again. This is also known as the customer journey.
- First of all, where do we expect users to land on site? Will they always land on the top page? (Most likely not)
- Where do we want them to go next? There needs to be a clear navigation menu so that they can land on any page, then easily navigate throughout the site finding additional content.
- What should their final action on the site be? This is also known as a conversion goal. Should they click a link to contact a booking agent? Should they call a local business to make an enquiry? Should they simply get tired of looking at the site and drop off? (Hopefully not!)
- What do we want them to do after their visit? Do we want them to tell a friend about the site? Share it on social media? Email a site page to a friend?
- How do we get them to come back again?
- Where do we expect them to land on their next visit? The top page, or a content page where they left off on their previous visit?
- These subsequent visits are a chance to make them into true fans of the site who come back regularly to interact with the site and share site content with others.
- It’s also a chance to implement personalization and recommendation strategies (i.e. Amazon, Rakuten), showing content targeted to their past activity and possibly future interests, using tools like Optimizely.
4. How can we structure it to achieve these goals?
Content is King
- It’s important to understand just how important content is. Without quality, original content there is no website. How should this content be structured? This is known as information architecture (IA).
- The first point to consider is content granularity. To what level should content be broken down? For example, if we introduce a specific area in the destination should we create a single page with a list of recommended things to do, see, places to stay? If we introduce a category, such as restaurants, should that be an overview page of local food, or a listing page of excerpts from shop pages, each with a “read more” link to their own detailed content page?
- The best model is a granular content model, where each shop, beach, hotel, tour, etc., has its own content page. In a CMS like WordPress each of these pages are Posts. These content pages can then tagged with different category tags and linked together in category defined listing pages. This model allows the most flexibility and efficiency, with the ability to repurpose content on multiple pages without duplication concerns (an SEO issue). Additionally, each piece of content can be optimized for search engine traffic, inbound links, and social network shares. Finally, this model allows translations to share media such as images.
- Once we’ve built our individual content pages our next step is to tag them and organize them into category defined listing pages. With a granular content model this is very flexible. We can create any category, such as restaurants, areas, itineraries, etc., and display these categories in the navigation menu.
- Because there can be many categories, and they may change as the site evolves, we might not have space to list them all in the global nav menu. How do we decide the priority of the main categories to list here? One way is to let users tell us what’s most important to them by looking at analytics data to see what content is most searched for and visited, or at social media to see what’s most often shared and discussed. If analytics data is unavailable we can refer to other, award-winning travel sites to check best practices, or we can do a rough analysis of relevant search keywords.
- Another point to consider is how to manage translations. The best model is to have each content page linked to its language pairs. This allows the translations to to be managed from a single dashboard, and for them to share media such as photos. With content pages linked users can stay on the same page and pull they language they want from the database without being redirected to a different website for that language.
- Finally, the website must be mobile friendly (responsive). The site structure needs to be adaptable to different screen sizes.
- It also needs to be fast and light enough so that mobile users don’t get frustrated and leave. A 3 second page load time is the standard to aim for.
5. How do we get traffic to the site?
- How will users come to the site? The primary ways are from search engines, referrals from other websites, shares on social media, and online advertisements.
- Where do they arrive on the site? You might think that would always arrive on the top page, but actually, that’s not the case. In fact, they might arrive on any page of the site, which means every page needs to be optimized as a landing page. This is another reason why the granular content model is strong because each piece of content in the site can be optimized for SEO, conversions, and shares. For example, a user might search Google for “Okinawa beaches”, and land on a beaches category listing page. They might then see an excerpt from a dive shop on that page, click the “read more” link, and go to the dive shop’s content page. They might then send that page URL to a friend. Their friend would land on that content page when they come to the site.
- The most cost-effective way to get site traffic is through search engine optimization (SEO). It’s the best use of time and available resources for building traffic for most travel websites. Search engines look at many factors when evaluating a site to decide what priority to list it in their rankings. Google’s algorithm has over 200 variables which are always evolving to decide this Page Rank (named after Google co-founder Larry Page). But their primary goal is simple: show site visitors quality content. How do they determine quality? It needs to be useful, informative, original content (not copied from another site), it needs to be well structured and user friendly, it needs to be mobile friendly, it needs to have a fast page load time, and it needs to be validated by other people thinking it has value – meaning others sites link into it and gets shared on social media.
Content is King
- Again, Content is King. Carrying on from our IA discussion, we must again realize the importance of content. A travel site needs to be the official source of info for the destination, the content that users can trust. Without quality, original content users will not find the site useful, search engines will push it down in their rankings, and there will be no incentive to share it on social media. Content marketing is the best return on investment in the world of digital marketing.
UGC, links, and social media
- Creating original content can be hard. So is it possible to take shortcuts by creating a page made from links to other sites, by pulling in content from other sites such as TripAdvisor via an iframe, or copying and pasting content from other sites? Sorry, but no. Search engines devalue such sites. Trying to take such shortcuts lowers the site value for users, and the search engines will penalize accordingly.
- What if you don’t have enough content, or don’t have the resources to manage existing content and keep it up to date? In this case, the only option is to purchase content using online banner ads, paid search engine rankings and social media shares. Unfortunately, this method is not very cost effective. The cost of paid advertising generally outweighs the cost of creating content. Paid advertising is a good strategy to boost traffic further after a good base of content has already been created and optimized, but it’s not a good lead strategy without good content already in place.
- What about social media? Isn’t it possible to get big boosts in traffic if a content page posted to Facebook etc. goes “viral”? Yes! It’s possible, but only if you have something special to share. Again, quality content is required first.
6. How can we best manage available resources?
- So we understand that Content is King. But isn’t it very time consuming to create and maintain content? How do we manage a site for an entire destination, often in multiple languages, without an entire team of people working full time? One way is to adopt an evergreen content strategy. That means creating content that doesn’t grow old. Just like a pine tree that keeps its leaves in all seasons, we try to write content that doesn’t change too much.
- For example, for a shop, we would try to list things that don’t change too much, like address, phone number, URL. But we shouldn’t list hours of operation, menu items, seasonal offers, promotions, etc.
- We need quality content, but we need it to be useful both today and three years from now.
- You can also include a disclaimer on the page saying that users should contact the shop for up to date information.
Outsource to the community
- Although this strategy has to be carefully considered and managed to maintain quality control, it’s possible to incentivize local businesses to share their content and assist with keeping it up to date.
- An email address or contact form can be provided for them to send updated photos, content edits, etc.
- A style guide/manual should be created so they know what size images can be used, etc.
- How can a travel website manage content in all their target languages? Travel sites may be responsible for content in a dozen different languages.
- It’s not realistic for most travel websites to have that many native speakers of each language on their staff, so they need a way to manage content in one parent language and have all the child language translations outsourced. These translations need to be automatically synced with the parent.
- Resources such as photos should be shared between language pairs whenever possible.
- Linking all language pairs helps solve this.
- Utilizing a translation dashboard also helps. A translation dashboard is a way to edit just one part of a content page and have only the edited part sent for translation, either via email or by the translators logging in to a translation dashboard.
- Yet another advantage of the granular content model is that it allows us to recycle and reuse content throughout the site. A shop content page can be tagged with a category tag that pulls it into an event listing page, an area description page, a listing page for shopping, etc.
- In this way we can write it once and use it over and over for maximum efficiency.
7. How do we measure the success of the site?
Conversion goals and analytics
- In section 3 we discussed conversion goals and how it’s important to decide what we want users to do after coming to the site. For example, if we want them to come to the site, find a hotel, then exit the site to visit the hotel’s website, how do we know they’ve done that? Or if we want them to come to the site, view beaches, restaurants, itineraries, and then call their travel agent to book their trip, how do we know they’ve done that?
- Also, how do we know the site is attracting new visitors, increasing in traffic, and bringing in repeat visitors?
- How old are those visitors? Are they male or female? What languages to they speak? Where are they from? What do they like?
- The answers to all of these questions can be obtained through analytics data, using tools like Google Analytics. However, specific information like conversion goals can only be tracked by first identifying the goal, setting a conversion point, and creating a custom event in the analytics tool. This is why it’s so important to set conversion goals for every page on the site.
Shares and popularity
- Visitors to the site are important, and help us understand our audience. But incoming visitors are just one element. We can also measure the success of the website through its popularity.
- How many people share site links with their friends (not just the top page, but individual content pages as well)?
- How many bloggers are talking about the site?
- What other sites link into the site (this is necessary for SEO)?
- How often is the site shared on social media?
8. How do we adjust site performance to meet goals?
- Once the site has been carefully designed, built and launched, our work is done and we can sit back and relax, watching site traffic increase and our conversion goals hit, right? Sorry, but no. A website is like a living, evolving organism, and it needs to be treated like an ongoing science experiment.
- All of the data used to create the initial design makes for a data-driven decision-making process, but it’s still all a hypothesis. Once the site is launched it’s time to test our hypothesis. How do we do that?
- Again using analytics data we need to monitor site traffic flow to ensure our conversion goals are being met. This data will confirm which content is popular, what users are searching for and sharing, what they really care about. If we find that users are searching for something but dropping out before they find it, we should reorganize navigation to make it more visible.
Testing new ideas
- What if we find that a conversion goal isn’t being met? For example, we expect users to click a button to go to a shop’s website, but they’re dropping off the page without doing that?
- The answer is to use tools like Google Optimize 360 or Optimizely to A/B test new ideas, new hypothesis.
- In the case of the conversion button, we can create a B variation of the page with a larger button, or a more visible colour, or different button position. We can then measure traffic to see which variation performs better. The test results will allow us to confirm our hypothesis or else form a new one. This is true data-driven decision making, and it eliminates the need for guesswork. It allows us to base all our decisions on facts.
9. How do we use the site to gather intelligence and set future goals?
- The true power of a fully optimized website is not only the traffic it attracts but the insight it gives us into this traffic.
- Reports created from site traffic become extremely valuable business intelligence data. These reports are generated by analytics and optimization tools and can be used to guide destination promotions both on and offline, tell local entrepreneurs what type of services visitors are looking for, and drive government policy.
- For example, if the data shows a growing interest in a particular type of culture, such as traditional song or dance, it tells us that visitors would be interested in an event or festival that showcases this culture. If we also see search data indicating interest in a particular type of local food, we can tell vendors that they should serve that type of food at the festival.
- If we see that interest in diving is declining in favour of snorkeling because of traveler’s budget concerns, we can advise dive shop operators that they should probably not invest in purchasing new diving equipment, but should instead make sure they have plenty of snorkels and swim fins.
10. How can the site be used for additional promotions?
- A properly structured website fully optimized via ongoing A/B testing provides a solid platform on which base further promotions. A travel site is the official database for that destination, the official source of truth that visitors can trust.
- Content from the website can be used to promote offline events and festivals, data can be shared with local businesses, and the site provide the branding for the entire destination. It’s important for travel site operators to realize their responsibility as brand ambassadors.
- Travel sites also provide the information necessary for a destination to receive UNESCO World Heritage Site classification, Geopark status, and assorted tourism destination awards.
- In addition site content provides the basis for email newsletters, downloads such as white papers, pamphlets, maps, etc., and other tools which can be used in a marketing automation process.
- Furthermore, the site should be used as the source for content shared to social media sites such as Facebook. Rather than posting about an event on the site’s Facebook page, which will keep users on Facebook, the event information should be first written as a content page on the site, then shared on Facebook with a link back to the site. This will pull users into the site from Facebook, where they will be able to learn more about the event and continue on throughout the site learning more about the destination.
- Tourism benefits the local economy. A successful, correctly performing travel site attracts tourism dollars which benefit the local economy, and this increase to the local economy should be invested back into the site. In this way, a properly structured travel site is, in fact, self-funding, just like any profitable business.