Matthew Barker is a managing partner at Hit Riddle, an internet marketing consultancy specializing in the travel industry. He also shares his expertise as the author of the Hit Riddle travel marketing blog.
In the world of online marketing, search engine ranking is the 800-pound gorilla, hogging all the limelight and most of our budgets.
That’s not without reason: the average difference in click through rates (CTR) between ranking first and second on a search result is estimated at around 25%. In the travel industry, if you can rank on the first page for a couple of high-volume search terms you’ve got a viable business.
No one disputes the importance of search engine rankings – that’s why marketers and business owners in our industry make considerable investments to rank well for key search phrases, and then fight to maintain their hard-won positions.
After you get there
However, other key issues that are equally important receive much less attention. These include what all that traffic does once it actually gets to the site, how the traffic navigates and interacts with different pages before eventually becoming a lead (a series of steps collectively known as ‘the conversion funnel’), and how that entire process can be optimized.
When you think about it, it’s wacky that so much money gets spent on search engine optimization (SEO) but there is very little consideration of whether the extra traffic actually delivers a worthwhile return on the investment.
If traffic is being lost at a certain step in the conversion funnel, it doesn’t matter how well you rank for your trophy keywords – you’re basically wasting money and potential leads.
The process of conversion optimization takes time and effort. However, by applying the correct approach it is possible to analyze your site’s functionality and run experiments to test potential design changes so you can make informed, data-driven decisions on how to improve the conversion rate.
This process removes the guesswork out of site design and allows you to continually improve your site’s usability based on a scientific and empirical approach.
Many roads lead to Rome
The first step is to recognize that your site does not have just one conversion funnel. Different people will be interacting with your pages in different ways, depending on what they’re looking for and what psychological stage they are in during the purchase cycle.
For example, someone doing initial research into potential vacation destinations worldwide will be looking for something entirely different than someone who has already decided that they want a five-day luxury-class cruise to the Galapagos and are ready to part with their cash to pay for it.
Determine what’s working
Using Google Analytics you can identify what search terms are bringing your site the most traffic, and which page that traffic lands on. Don’t assume that everyone starts at your home page; in fact the opposite is often the case with well designed and properly optimized sites.
Using Analytics’ funnel tracker you can track the progress of traffic on specific pages throughout your site. This is a tricky function to set up and use, but once you have the tracking function in place you can begin to build up a picture of how people are navigating your key conversion funnels, where they are converting, and where they are leaving before completing your desired action.
A comprehensive travel website will have multiple conversion funnels depending on what the visitor is looking for, where and how they arrived at your site, and how they want to interact with your business. (Please note: the diagram below is deliberately simplified. Ideally, traffic entering the site via those search terms would go direct to relevant pages, making conversion rates higher and exit and bounce rates much lower.)
The point is that different people are looking to complete different actions on your website, any one of which could be considered a conversion - completing a contact form, making a phone call, signing up for a newsletter, liking your Facebook page, forwarding a page to a friend, etc.
Lower exit and bounce rates
Likewise each individual conversion funnel carries its own potential for exit and bounce; it is these two factors that testing and re-design can lower.
Once you know what people are looking for you can think about what you are going to change on your page(s) in order to make things easier for them. The list of potential design changes is huge, from reordering your navigation and improving your contact forms, to making subtle tweaks to headline text or changing a particular image.
But this is not simply a case of tweaking a page and hoping for the best. Using the latest optimization tools it is possible to have two versions of the same page online at the same time and gather hard data on which page is more successful. Tracking cookies ensures that users will only see one version of the page, which guarantees continuity for your visitors.
At the end of the test (hours, days or weeks depending on your traffic volume) a quick look at the results will show which design should be promoted and which should be ditched.
Using A/B split testing to test and optimize your site like this is the key to making sure that your investments in search engine optimization are not being wasted. If at all possible, you should be running these tests continually, on multiple elements of multiple pages, and implementing changes on an ongoing basis.