We're in the middle of summer now, so you've probably toned your body to prepare for swimsuit weather. But what about the fitness of your web site? With more than 80 percent of Internet traffic coming from search, it's time to whip that web site into search shape. Here are some tips—search engine optimization (SEO) 101, if you will—designed specifically for travel agents; a guide to techniques that form the foundation to an advanced SEO and search engine marketing (SEM) campaign. I am writing with a few assumptions: Your site is a single, small-business travel agent web site; it's written using a fairly standard mark-up language such as HTML or PHP; and you are not using a Content Management System (CMS).
Focus Your Keywords
One of the common misconceptions of SEO is looking at optimizing your site for broad terms like "travel agent." The problem with this philosophy is the term is just too competitive.
Instead, focus on your specialty, what you know the most about, such as family vacations in the American South or riverboat cruising in Europe. As you get more specific with your terms, you narrow your competition and create a niche audience that is more likely to convert to a lead. Wouldn't you rather have someone visit your site who has a set destination in mind as opposed to someone just shopping around for the best price anywhere?
One tool you can use to do this is a program called Wordtracker (www.wordtracker.com). You can sign up for a year for $274.75, or pay $27.47 a month. This option is great for sites that are not constantly being updated, and gives you ample time to get some keyword research done. As for keywords on your site itself, use two- or three-word phrases that are likely to be searched for by users. This should be around 3 to 5 percent of your page text. To check this in Word, go to Word Count, note the number of words and then go to Edit, Find and find the number of occurrences of your keyword. Wordtracker will help you focus your keywords to get quality leads
Once you have that, divide the number of occurrences by the number of words and you have your ratio. Keywords should appear in line content as well as keyword title, keyword phrase in description (first line) and internal navigation keyword links.
Create Unique, Relevant and Quality Content
The content on your site and the frequency with which you update it are essential for search engines as well as visitors. Web crawlers (programs or automated scripts that browse the World Wide Web) come back to visit if you provide them with fresh content. If they come to your site and find updated content on a regular basis, they will continue to navigate throughout your site via the proper navigation we will cover below. While writing new content can be time consuming, it is worth the effort to distinguish yourself from your competition. Take some time to think of ways you can create a community on your site—maybe have visitors post hotel reviews or give tips on restaurants and attractions.
Cultivate Incoming Links
Inbound links to your site from related and trusted sites can greatly increase your site's visibility. Sites linking into yours with a page rank of four or better are ideal. In addition, look to gain incoming links from .gov, .edu, and .org, which are often more trusted sites and hence provide more valuable links. The more related the site's links to yours, the more weight they hold with search engines.
Imagine you are at a networking meeting and you posed the question "What is the best resort in Cabo San Lucas?" and everyone in the room referred you to Paul, with the same response "...Oh, Paul's an expert on that." Wouldn't you feel that if all these travel agents were suggesting you talk to this one guy, he might know something on the subject? Search engines work the same way. By becoming a site everyone refers to on a specific subject, you gain credibility with search engines. So how do you know if a site is credible? If you do not have it already, download the Google tool bar. The tool bar will bring up the rank of any site you are on. It's that easy. Download the Google tool bar at toolbar.google.com.
Creating Titles and Descriptions
This is what you see in the blue bar at the top of Internet Explorer. Does yours say Home Page? Title tags are how search engines compare the relevancy of your page in a search query to another site. In addition, if you are doing a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign, it can effect your placement as well, so it certainly pays to edit your title and description tags.
Examine Site Architecture and Navigation
Create a site map for your site and what actions you would feel the viewer might take to make a decision to request more information. Looking beyond your top and left navigation, create a set path for your viewer to follow. Offer hyperlinks at the end of a page that lead to the next page and the next action. Consider how your pages interlink with one another and use keywords in those links. Including internal navigation within your content provides search engines with keyword-rich paths through your site.
Understanding Site Maps
Providing an XML site map is a quick and easy thing you can do to help search engines understand the important pages of your site. Google, Yahoo and MSN all accept XML site maps. Having a site map and then submitting it through WebmasterCentral (www.google.com/webmasters/sitemaps) will provide not only valuable insight into when your site was crawled, but also any errors on your site causing problems with the crawl.
To create a site map page, ensure everything is neat and relevant across your site; irrelevant links and content could be detrimental. Map your entire site in a handwritten tree and link content accordingly. Then use this to create a site map. Add a link to the site map from both your home page and your navigation.
Pay Attention to Blogs and Community Sites
Utilizing blogs and forums can improve your site's overall visibility. Sites such as www.flickr.com, www.myspace.com and www.technorati.com offer community outlets and promote a sharing of information. Also put these "public bookmarks" buttons on your site and your articles. If you want to start a blog, WordPress offers a free blog tool that is easy to set up. Although blogs do take time to maintain, they also offer unique and relevant content that is user generated and offer you the ability to get viral links into your site through the open dialogue they promote.
Track Your Efforts and Your Competition
Both Yahoo Site Explorer and Google Webmaster have free tools that let you see how many pages of your site are indexed, who's linking back to you and if there are any errors on your site. Knowing how many pages are indexed is another important stat you can retrieve from Yahoo Site Explorer. This data indicates how good your site's internal structure is and whether your site is crawled extensively. This is the key to the deep indexing of your site.
By looking at your site from your visitor's perspective, you will appeal to both search engines and your potential customers. By focusing on your specialty for search, you can target your audience to increase your conversions and become an expert in your field. And by taking time to implement these guidelines, you will increase your visibility for search, insure all the steps to convert your web site into a lead are there and get your site in shape this summer for those 460,906 million annual unique searches worldwide. — Alison McPartland