Each year, Simpleview issues a State of SEO report for destination marketers that analyzes search traffic trends. Our most recent report reveals that while destination marketing organizations (DMOs) saw significant gains in organic search when people began traveling again after most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the DMO search traffic climate has calmed considerably.
In the summer of 2022, overall sessions began to weaken in year-over-year comparisons. This weakening signaled a true return to normalcy, in which economic and market factors can push growth up or down from time to time, with new developments always waiting to change the trends. Let’s explore how they’ve been going in detail.
Overall Trends in Site Sessions
All Sessions to DMO Sites by Year
DMO site sessions went on a winning streak from Memorial Day 2021 to Memorial Day 2022, reaching close to the levels they would have if 2020 had been a typical year. With travel demand, particularly to outdoor destinations, pent up from the pandemic travel restrictions, traveler interest in DMO content exploded and drove record session levels for more than a year.
However, that trend gave out in the late spring of 2022. While “All Sessions” have remained largely ahead of 2021 levels, the lead narrowed dramatically over the summer. And as we’ll see, that’s more a product of strong DMO digital marketing spending than organic traveler interest.
Organic Search Sessions to DMO Sites by Year
The weakening of DMO site reach becomes apparent when you drill down to organic search sessions, which provide over half of all site activity. By Memorial Day 2022, they had fallen even with 2021 and would lag the previous year significantly throughout July. The industry drew nearer to parity in August, but a small gap remained.
These trends have covered various content topics and keywords, suggesting that larger trends are at play. The most obvious are macroeconomic, as inflation, oil scarcity, and labor shortages have pushed up the cost of everything, including travel. In the face of these headwinds, and having drawn down the cash balances that accrued during the pandemic, travelers seemed to express less interest in DMO content over the summer.
Paid Search Sessions to DMO Sites by Year
Here we see how overall sessions have remained so strong despite the weakness in organic search traffic. In 2022, DMOs have invested more in paid search traffic than ever. And they’ve done it with reasonable prices and clickthrough rates.
Paid Search Cost-per-Click to DMO Sites
Despite bidding at higher volume than ever, DMOs have not had to pay higher prices for their increased traffic.
Organic Search Rankings Trends
We covered some of the macroeconomic reasons why tourism audiences might’ve been smaller this year above. There appear to be technical factors at play as well, which we can see when we look at data on how DMOs have ranked on relevant searches throughout the period since traffic began to recover. To do this, we’ll introduce a new kind of chart, a Search Rank Delta visualization.
DMO Search Rank Delta
This chart may be a little confusing at first, but it allows us to survey a great deal of information quickly and flexibly. Let’s explore what it means. The data comes from Google Search Console and covers almost 300 DMO sites. From the set of all keywords for which DMOs rank, we’ve filtered it down to those meeting these conditions:
- Earned at least 10,000 impressions
- Entered the top 10 of the rankings for at least a day
- Has at least three weeks of consecutive data
These conditions allow us to filter out keywords too small to have stable rankings and for sites that never ranked high enough for it to matter. The restriction on the consistency of the data allows us to focus on more stable keywords.
With that set of over 100,000 keywords in hand, we go day by day calculating the change in that keyword’s rankings from the data two weeks prior, averaging both current and past rankings over a seven-day period. This calculation is useful because it allows us to look at short-term changes in rankings without getting distracted by day-to-day rankings noise. Individual keywords may still be volatile, but with over 100,000 of them, we can see clear trends emerge.
We take those two-week changes (or deltas, to use math jargon) in rankings and drop them into buckets depending on how large they are. Large negative deltas (which are good; we want our rankings to go down towards 1) are colored dark green, and smaller ones are colored light green. Keywords within 0.2 average positions of their previous rank are put in the pale yellow bucket, and keywords that have lost ranking position are colored red.
Keywords that join the set on a given date are marked “added,” while those that depart the set are marked “dropped.” We also order the bands so that the best, darkest green ones are at the bottom, and the worst ones are at the top. Thus, trends in overall ranking improvement or decline become easily visible. The higher the peaks of the green area climb, the better DMO sites are ranking.
The first thing this chart shows us is how much rankings naturally fluctuate. On a given day, over half of all DMO keywords (even in this dataset that filters for relatively more stable ones) will have shifted more than half a position over two weeks. In the top five, even a shift at the bottom of that range can significantly affect a site’s clickthrough rate. DMOs and their competitors are constantly changing their content tactics, and Google is always tweaking its algorithm. The result is that rankings frequently shift.
DMO Search Rank Delta, 2/4/22 to 4/23/22
Moreover, the degree and direction of rankings shift constantly fluctuates. Focusing on this 10-week period makes that clear, with a half dozen different ranking trends materializing as it goes along. Barely a week after February 25, the number of keywords that have improved by two positions or more nearly triples, with a smaller corresponding rise in the number of keywords losing at least two positions. During that period, we would say that overall ranking volatility is increasing. Meanwhile, the next bump in growing keywords a few weeks later has no matching increase in keywords that are losing rankings, so DMO fortunes are unambiguously improving in that period.
You can visually identify many of these little trends by exampling the full dataset. What causes them? Most are minor fluctuations that arise and seem to give way to an opposite trend immediately after. As we’ll see, they often occur across many sites in many markets and affect content addressing a wide variety of tourism topics. This makes it seem most likely that the source of these shifts is the Google ranking algorithm itself. If it were individual DMO strategies or those of their competitors, we would expect more variation across destinations than we see.
DMO Search Rank Delta, March 2021 to April 2022
Three general periods in the full Search Rank Delta chart are worth discussing. The first goes nearly a year through early April 2022. During this period, throughout which DMO organic search traffic grew very strongly, rankings went through little ups and down but always returned to a stable trend, with about a third of keywords growing each day and about a third dropping. Overall, rankings got slightly better, and the industry reaped the rewards in traffic.
DMO Search Rank Delta, April 2022 to August 2022
The next period is much shorter, and it’s grimmer. DMO rankings fell, with 40% of keywords losing rankings versus only 30% gaining them by the time summer set in, and some dips worse than that. Again, this drop is visible across destinations and topics, suggesting that Google tended not to like DMO sites during this period. The result, along with the negative macroeconomic factors, was the drop in organic search traffic described above.
DMO Search Rank Delta, August 2022 to September 2022
After all that decline, though, comes good news. DMO sites grew strongly through the first few weeks of August, only returning to stasis for a couple of weeks while Google’s Helpful Content Update rolled out. Growth seems to return toward the end of the dataset.
DMO Search Rank Delta for “things” Keywords
We can also filter this dataset for particular keyword pieces, here the word “things” so that we can look at performance on the popular “things to do” keyword set. We’ve also added a dark grey line that represents the overall trend in DMOs’ clickthrough rates for these keywords over this period (not its absolute value, which does not correspond to the axis on the left).
We would expect CTR to rise when the green rankings growth areas are larger, and that’s generally what we find, though some short-lived spikes seem to come and go with little impact. Some of the big shifts follow those seen in the overall chart (see those in late-March 2022, early-April 2022, and mid-Augst 2022), but some, such as the one in late July, are specific to the keyword. Overall, the clickthrough rate has declined more from last year than the rankings changes would seem to merit.
DMO Search Rank Delta for “event” Keywords
In contrast to the “things” keywords, “event” keywords are much more stable. Most likely, this results from fewer sites competing for this traffic (TripAdvisor, in particular, fights for every “things to do” ranking it can find). In 2022, much has changed, but DMOs still dominate search traffic for topics related to local events.
Search Rank Delta for “park” Keywords
The last subset we’ll look at is keywords that include “park.” For many DMOs, state and national park names are major traffic sources, and they became especially important in the outdoor-focused tourism market in the summer of 2021. This year, they’ve acted like the overall dataset, with extra volatility around March 2022 and extra growth in August 2022. Many DMOs that gained a great deal of traffic from this source in 2021 have suffered by comparison in 2022, and because Google has added many new features to the search results for parks, it will be an interesting indicator to watch.
Based on traffic patterns to date in 2022, we advise DMOs to expect weak organic search traffic as long as poor economic conditions persist. That said, the declines experienced by many DMOs throughout the summer have been exacerbated by changes in Google’s algorithm that seem to have demoted DMOs for a few months. The trend has reversed recently, and many rankings have begun to recover. Organic search traffic is running only a little behind trend now and has the legs to recover fully when the economy does.
Download the entire State of SEO report here.