Posted on 30 October 2013.
I conducted a survey among my several thousand subscribers at the beginning of this year, and one of the most popular themes of interest was SEO or Search Engine Optimization: the science of making your rental page pop up in Google searches for any traveler searching a relevant phrase.
When you have good SEO, travelers find your vacation rental organically (and for free). It’s perhaps the most natural and powerful method of online marketing today.
But it is also the most controversial, most evolving, and least understood topics of them all.
And because of this, vacation rental owners/managers are at the mercy of experts: desperate to get the knowledge, but unable to pay for the advice.
Fortunately for us, I am pretty good at it.
SEO makes up about 75% of my rentals’ bookings and it is mostly on autopilot (which is to say, I don’t maintain it too much anymore). When people type in any relevant phrase, my website pops up and travelers make inquiries about my rentals.
Now, this is not to say that SEO doesn’t take lots of work to get set up…
In fact, in our recent jam-packed Q&A session, several SEO questions were very poignantly posed!
But in this primer, I’m going to distill the millions of crazy SEO articles on the web down into 3 essential and fundamental points that every vacation rental professional needs to know. Before you hire any expensive SEO expert or try to make this journey on your own, read and understand the following.
I beg you.
Since we’re all busy, I’ll be skipping anything too complicated, irrelevant, or detailed that doesn’t directly impact your results.
Reading this piece should take about 8 minutes. But the contents are extremely valuable and so I am asking everyone to share the page as a favor to gain access.
Disclaimer: By embracing these three points (and only these three points), you will not become an SEO expert, but you WILL be far more advanced than your competitors. Since part of the mystique of SEO is that experts withhold the vital information for beginners to learn, consider this guide as a safe yet honest primer that will save you plenty of money/time in getting started.
1. The Technical Foundation
To have your listing page or website “optimized” is to be technologically organized and relevant enough for the moment when Google’s robots come to analyze what your pages have to offer. You see, Google’s ‘bots’ will visit your page (unbeknownst to you) and determine whether or not it’s worth showing to interested searchers. The way I see it, the “organization” and “relevance” that Google is looking for here can be broken down into three pretty simply categories…
A) Keyword Focus: Everyone should be familiar with the Keyword Selector Tool, which allows us to identify the exact phrases that users search surrounding our rental property. The phrase “Aspen vacation rental” might be searched 100x more than the phrase “Aspen’s best vacation rental,” which is why it’s important to know this tool very well. Precise details are everything in SEO.
The perfect phrases to target are the ones with low competition, high search volume, and (most importantly) tremendous relevance to your property. If you think about it, ranking #1 for the phrase “Aspen rentals” might be far less profitable than ranking #1 for the phrase “Aspen vacation rentals” seeing as the former covers a gamut of rentals (car rentals, ski rentals, snowmobile rentals…etc.) and the latter is like a laser beam of interest.
Identify and implement the right phrases keenly on your page (sprinkle them in the text and use them in your meta tags – below) and you’ve fulfilled the keyword element of a strong SEO foundation.
B) Meta Tags: What might seem like Latin to the newcomer is actually really simple stuff. You’ll want to make sure every single page has a unique Title Tag and a Description Tag, known collectively as “Meta tags.”
Found typically in the back-end of most custom website platforms (sorry, listing site users don’t apply here), these are the identifiers that allow you to dictate to Google what each individual page on your site is all about (beyond just the text and images visible on the front end).
(Note: To see what these tags look like, they are the blue headline and the following 1- or 2-line description for any given result on any given Google search like the one above.)
Forget to create these relevant tags — most often just fields to fill out in the backend of your website — and you’ve forgotten to communicate your page’s theme with the biggest search engine in the world. It’s like showing up at a convention without a nametag or business cards!
C) User-friendliness: Aimed again mostly at individual website owners, Google’s ultimately aiming its SEO standards in the direction of the user, which is to say, if you are ever in doubt of how to structure your website, put yourself in the shoes of your potential guest and make sure your site is laid out in a methodical and accessible way.
This short article explains hierarchy and layout concisely. In short, if you put the user first when designing the layout of your site (think of your website layout like grocery store aisles so everything is easy to find) you are on the right track. Try to make any sneaky or overly-creative shortcuts and you’ll likely be hurting your SEO potential.
2. Building Links
We’re all beginners here. So forget all the hubbub around alt tags and Page Ranks and Webmaster tools…
Because in my opinion, what search engine optimization is really about is credentials or online social proof. You must demonstrate to Google that your vacation rental page is authoritative: that you are among the best in your niche at what you do.
And the way you do this online is not unlike the way an expert does this in real life: testimonials or getting others to tout your wares.
That’s right: you’ll want as many people online conveying your prominence as possible.
If you have your own website, GREAT. If you are using a listing site only (shame on you), this tactic works as well.
Of course, just mentioning your property (like, let’s say in a blog post or on Facebook) is one thing, but actually inserting the live link to your property is what really matters. These live link plugs are referred to as “backlinks” and in short, you want lots.
There are a million ways to go about this process of acquiring links (read Guest Blogging and How To Use Press Releases and 5 Ways To Generate Bookings While You Sleep) but the general gist is this: the more (quality) links you can get, the better. If some backlink offer sounds too good to be true (“Pay Just $25 To Get 1,000 Backlinks!!!”) it most probably is.
Now, besides just sending wonderful traffic to your site, backlinks act as online street cred. Google analyzes which pages/sites have the most street cred and organically places them higher in the search results: a fantastically advanced way of providing the most useful information possible to its users.
Advanced Note: When you are out acquiring these backlinks, it’s always preferable to have them in the form of link text (such as this Vacation Rental Marketing Blog) than in long-form (such as http://www.vacationrentalmarketingblog.com). This often takes some finagling with the partnering website owner. But relevant link text links is about the best “word of mouth” online marketing credentials you can get.
3. New & Original Content
I say it all the time: that owners and managers need to become authorities in their destinations in order to draw true loyalty. And so it’s no secret that new and original information is one of Google’s most relevant factors in determining who gets priority placement in the stream of results.
The good news is that those of us who work hard to Help, Not Sell are rewarded by Google handsomely. They know the legwork required to share our expertise takes time and energy. You can take a look at my rentals’ blog – a very powerful SEO example – here (http://www.loscuatrotulipanes.com/index.php/casco-viejo/).
The bad news is that you can’t fake or fast-forward this process. Just like solid vacation rental marketing as a whole, being consistent with new and original content about your area takes patience. It’s a long play. Not for overnight success.
That means that you can’t copy or paste any pre-existing content and call it yours (you’ll get penalized for what they call “duplicate content.”). You also won’t be rewarded for publishing garbage that doesn’t help people.
Perhaps bigger than the individual components of SEO that you can be enlisting, please understand that SEO is more of a sum of the parts: it is a culture, a process. It is not done over night.
As with almost everything in online marketing, the theme is this: don’t try to take shortcuts because you’ll be penalized. Do things diligently and the right way, and you’ll be in good shape.
If you are interested in more SEO info, I highly recommend you read www.SEOMoz.com. It’s as authoritative as they come.
And if you’re feeling a little restricted because you only have a listing site membership (and not your own website to invest in SEO) then you know you’ve got a lot of work to do!
I promised that wouldn’t hurt too much…
If you don’t study or research ANY other information about SEO, embrace these three fundamentals.
I have spent years piecing through the hubris and have come to master many more tricks of the trade. But as I tell anyone who will listen, without these three main understandings, the rest of the stuff is practically useless.
Of course, this article should not be interpreted as a bible by any means. But after having read it, you’ll know what — in my humble opinion — are the most important factors of a solid vacation rental SEO effort.
And with that, I’d like to invite any providers out there who offer SEO-related services to vacation rental owners and managers to use the comments section below for a brief marketing plug…