About a month back, an article on Skift made a little noise by becoming the 500 millionth article ever written to declare-and I quote, though the phrase is at this point something of a background noise emitted involuntarily by the digital marketer whenever his mouth isn't busy pronouncing something intentional-"the death of search engine optimization." SEO has been pronounced dead so many times in its brief life that when I searched "seo is dead" in my email in order to find the link to the Skift article, I got that plus two entirely different discussion threads from the past few years concerning other articles on the exact same notion. Alas for SEO: it is sad for a person to die before her twentieth birthday, and yet this discipline has expired dozens of times before that milestone.
You can hardly blame the digital marketing blogger on a deadline for turning to the phrase (and, to be fair, the article in question was merely quoting Priceline.com CEO Paul Hennessey, although to continue in fairness, this is an awfully big meal made out of what appears to be a casually dropped crumb). After all, as the collection of dusty links in my email attests, declaring SEO dead always gets the conversation going no matter how many premature funerals the reader has been to. And, who knows, maybe this is the time that the statement turns out to be true rather than traffic chum.
Let's look at the claim in more detail and see. Simpleview works with hundreds of DMO clients, and we have access to hundreds of their Google Analytics accounts. This allows us to keep good industry averages of web statistics. So I pulled all visits from November for this year and last, then did the same for organic search visits. We keep a carefully managed list of active accounts of live sites, and it has 285 DMO responsive, desktop, and mobile sites in it right now. This November, they generate about 14.7 million sessions, versus 13.3 million a year ago, for 10% growth. Looking at just organic search traffic, we find 8.2 million sessions this year against 8.05 million last, for an increase of just 1.6%. Another way to look at it is that organic search traffic constituted 60% of all DMO traffic last year, and just 56% this year.
Why might this be? Let's turn to the full Hennessey quote:
"As far as SEO is, my view on that is it's more of a desktop thought because as the devices get smaller and smaller and smaller, the number of choices from an SEO perspective on mobile decline dramatically. And so I believe it is a paid world. Google is an advertising engine and they drive paid traffic to advertisers. And I think that's going to continue for quite some time. We will do our best to play in that environment."
Despite my chuckles up above, I agree that this is what's happening to some extent. Google really has, starting in about April of this year, started larding up some critical DMO search engine results pages with links and widgets and maps that divert people into new searches on Google. Let's take "events", which is a keyword that DMO's typically do very well on.
Look at that, local DMO and Simpleview-constructed site VisitTucson.org in the #1 position...right under a large box of links that, if clicked, lead to a new page of search results for the name of the event the user selects. The DMO is ranking as well as it can for this very popular keyword and is halfway down the page (on mobile, as hinted in the quote, it's below the fold).
Let's check a "shopping" keyword:
Different type of widget, same effect. Restaurants?
It's the same story for a great many of these keywords. DMOs have gotten huge proportions of traffic from them for years, and now they're losing significant chunks of it. In fact, the better you were ranking before, the more you're suffering now, because you had more to lose.
Why does Google do this? Because keeping users on their site encourages greater engagement with a wider range of Google products, like local business pages, which brings businesses further into Google's orbit and encourages them to spend money on Google. Of course, adding more paid spots to the results also does this more straightforwardly. One of our clients went to a workshop with Google employees recently in which the new events listings in the results were discussed. He asked whether Google might consider rolling it back and letting the real local experts provide the information. He was told no.
In all likelihood, this is our new future, where Google has horned in on a major piece of real estate that our clients' sites used to own. And yet...organic search traffic is still 55% of overall traffic! For sites that don't do a lot of paid traffic generation, that figure might be more like 70%. No other type of traffic comes close to providing the buckets of eyeballs that organic search does, so a 1% improvement there is more valuable than a 1% improvement in any other type of traffic. You're still going to be losing ground if you ignore a stream of traffic that provides over half of your visitors.
Where the quote above doesn't apply so much to DMOs as it does to OTAs is in its claim that paid search is the way to go. For an OTA, paying several dollars for one click on a keyword that consists of a city's name plus the word "hotels" makes a lot of sense if you have a finely tuned conversion engine to drive the user to. After all, he's probably about to lay out a few hundred dollars. But DMOs, even the ones that run booking engines on their sites, are not finely tuned engines for converting individual tourists into two or three roomnights on their own sites.
DMOs instead have a powerful role to play as inspirers of travel intent. Most tourists know that they can get great deals by booking with OTAs, and they may have established accounts with them that make the sales process much faster. But no OTA is going to show tourists why, say, the beautiful street murals cropping up all around downtown Phoenix will make their vacations memorable even as they ride from their hotels to restaurants, or why a drive on the endless, stone-free beach of Daytona is a unique experience unavailable elsewhere in the United States. That sort of intrigue comes from seeing beautiful images on a well-designed, informative DMO site, or reading a blog post about the top ways to enjoy a night out.
And that takes us to where DMOs should turn if they want to replace the traffic lost due to the factors above. DMOs are experts on their destinations like big national sites can never be, and they should start to think of themselves less as phone books and more as glossy magazines piquing the appetites of their potential visitors and promising to sate them if they just come. Generate content that tells newcomers how to experience all the charm of your destination when they arrive, or that shows loyal visitors why new developments make this a better time than ever to come back. People search for this kind of information all time, and you need to have it ready for them when they do so. SEO is not dead, not for the DMO, anyway. It just requires a new approach.