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SEO: Is It Really Just Three Simple Letters?

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The following is a post from The Inner Circle entitled Vacation Rental Search Engine Optimization 101, which I’ve re-published here on the blog with the Conrad’s permission.

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SEO.

It’s three simple letters.

And, yet, it can be the most vexing and confusing element of marketing your vacation rentals online.

There’s a lot of fuzzy logic, misunderstandings and confusion about SEO in the vacation rental space. It is pretty clear that the constant changes from search engines like Google, Bing & Yahoo has left lots of old, dated misinformation out there for consumption. Or, business owners may have learned about a SEO tactic that worked well six years ago and no longer does today (or could even get your website penalized).

Hi.

I’m Conrad O’Connell and by day I’m the Search Engine Marketing Director at InterCoastal Net Designs, a vacation-rental focused web and design agency in North Carolina. We work with large vacation rental companies in some of the most competitive U.S vacation destinations to do custom web design and internet marketing to get them more bookings online.

Today, Matt has asked me to offer up some current advice about SEO in the vacation rental industry.

While I’ll do my best to stick to long-standing ranking factors that should be fairly sticky (effective for a long time), the reality of the situation is that search engines are constantly updating their guidelines. What works well today may not be as effective months or years from now.

I’ve traded a few emails with Matt and have spent some time here in the Inner Circle and realized that most vacation rental managers understand why SEO is important: it can send tons of qualified traffic to your website that’s ready to pull out their credit card and book.

Given you know it’s important, let’s break down two important factors to get you started on the right path to SEO success.

Full disclosure: some of the below is based on my success and opinion, not Google-given gospel. If you’re looking for the most official source of information straight form the horses mouth, check out the Google Webmaster Course.

Domain Level Factors

Exact Match Domains?
Put simply, this is your street address of your website.

yourdomain.com

First, up, let’s tackle how you should choose your domain.

It was very popular a few years ago to have a keyword (or, a phrase that your guests are likely to search) in your domain. If you were offering vacation rentals in Timbuktu, your domain may look something like:

timbuktuvacationrentals.com

After a few updates from Google, the effectiveness of exact match domains dropped a bit. Today, I’d say that it still has a minor impact on your search results, but it’s not the end all be all. Perform some searches around the Outer Banks (a very competitive area) and you’ll find a small percentage of exact match domains. Likewise, similar searches in Big Bear, CA will yield lots of exact match domains.

Point is, having a keyword in the domain can offer a small boost, but don’t stress too much about it. Finding brandable domains about your area can offer up more benefits than trying to find a very-long keyword stuffed domain. I have seen more than a few vacation rental websites with pretty silly domains like:

timbuktu-long-term-vacation-rentals.com

I don’t recommend anything that you cannot easily remember or doesn’t fit on a business card.

After you’ve chosen a domain, there are a few other factors that relate to domain-level SEO metrics.

Domain Age
Older domains tend to perform better in search in my experience. While this may just be due to the fact that older domains have had a longer time to acquire links, there are other factors at play.

Older domains do offer a very slight boost in search results — so if you are just starting up, it may take a few months to see any organic results. I’ve seen the “sandbox” effect where a brand new domain may not rank well for competitive keywords right away — don’t worry if this is the case. Keep plugging away and working on your SEO and you’ll see results.

Blog As Subdomain
If your website has a blog, and it’s running under a subdomain, that’s far from optimal for SEO. In the past, you were able to rank very well using a subdomain strategy for different areas and blog posts.

Not any more.

If you have a blog running under blog.domain.com, then I’d highly recommend switching it to domain.com/blog/, where it will perform better in search. You can use WordPress as your blog CMS (my personal favorite) to power this portion of your website.

Domain Extensions
Given Google’s minor preference over having keywords in the URL, many vacation rental managers I deal with are eager to scoop up domains that have the keyword in the URl, regardless of the extension. New extensions have popped up that are relevant to the vacation rental industry like:

  • .travel
  • .voyage
  • .community
  • & a lot more…

My feeling here is that consumers are going to have a hard time for quite a while remembering all of these new extensions — so be careful. Choosing a trendy-sounding domain name like www.newyork.travel may sound cool, but if your guest doesn’t remember the domain when it’s time to confirm, then you may just lose the booking.

I recommend you pick up any domains that bear your brand name and redirect them to one, canonical and single-effort domain.

On-Page SEO Markup

Phew.

Let’s say you’ve picked a domain name (or already have one that’s performing) and you’re ready to get started. You’ll need a great website, of course. One that offers an amazing experience, top-notch photos and prominent call to action buttons.

Good.

The next step (and one that often yields the quickest wins and results) is implementing basic on-page SEO.

All I mean here is adding in a few things that impact your abilty to rank well in search engines. Let’s go over four easy to understand and optimize page elements.

Title Tags
The title tag is probably the most important on-page SEO factor, and luckily it’s very simple to update and change. Simply put, the title tag is the blue document title that a user sees when in the search results. You’ve probably seen a thousand title tags in your time as a regular internet user.

http://d.pr/i/1byyQ

The key here is to pick a clickable title tag. It should contain the keyword a user is likely to search for, like our example before of Timbuktu Vacation Rentals. Keep in mind that Google limits showing a title tag to a width (in pixels) to about 512px. While you can write a longer title tag, it may not show up in the search results very often.

If you want to check your title tags out, download the free program (for up to 500 pages) Screaming Frog and check out this area:

http://d.pr/i/1c5sa

For any missing, very short or poorly optmized titles on key pages. I wouldn’t worry too much if your “about” page has a shorter page title, but I’d make sure every property, category page and homepage had a keyword-rich and clickable title. Check with your website CMS to see the easiest way to do this. If you’re on WordPress, the easiest way to change page titles is with a plugin called Yoast SEO.

Meta Descriptions
While the meta description doesn’t add any ranking value in terms of keywords, it’s critical to have a well-thought out meta description that explains that page content and encourages users, again, to click through.

http://d.pr/i/1eFuw

Again, using the free Screaming Frog tool above, look for pages with missing or poorly formatted meta descriptions and rewrite them to make them much more user friendly.

Meta=Keywords? Nope
I’ll keep this short — if your CMS is still using meta keywords, it’s outdated. Google doesn’t use this tag in rankings (and hasn’t since 2009). Save some time and don’t fill it out.

Free tip: if your competitors still have their meta keywords tag filled out, then you can quickly find out what keywords they are trying to rank for. Crawl their website with Screaming Frog and look at this tab:

http://d.pr/i/iECN

H1 Tag
The next strongest on-page ranking factor is the H1 tag. In simple terms, if the \<title\> tag was the cover of your book, this would be the heading of the first page. Creating a keyword-rich H1 tag is very simple:

  • Browse Myrtle Beach Vacation Rentals
  • Find The Perfect Big Bear Cabin Rental
  • Search Our Outer Banks Rentals

It’s important to make sure that your title is still very legible and useful — user experience is not at odds with a SEO-friendly on-page markup.

Again, checking your H1 tags is very easy with your Screaming Frog website crawl under the H1 tab.

Did you enjoy this post? 

I plan to share some select threads from the Inner Circle here on the blog, both to spread valuable information and to subtly promote the style of community we are building. If you are already an Inner Circle member, you can read the post and comments here.

About the Author Matt Landau

Matt Landau is the Founder of the Vacation Rental Marketing Blog and the Inner Circle, two online resources dedicated to helping vacation rental owners and managers generate more bookings. Google+ | More Posts (230)

  • Matt, thanks so much for sharing this with the community. Happy to answer any questions.

    • Matt Landau

      Thanks to YOU for sharing it with us!

    • Borja Rodriguez

      Hi Conrad,

      My website is ready and I might need your help, could you contact me at:

      info@vacationmarbella.com

      Thanks!
      Borja

  • rentmoreweeks

    Thanks Matt and thanks Conrad,
    It’s so nice to see some straightforward advice concerning SEO.
    So many, so called, experts try to paint a complex picture with smoke and mirrors just to justify their hefty hourly fees.
    Big thanks to you both.

    • Matt Landau

      All Conrad!

  • Excellent article Conrad, thanks a lot to you and Matt for sharing on such important topic.

    I’d like to share a few personal tips regarding Page Title and Meta Descriptions. While softwares like Screaming Frog provide lot of great features, one other simple way is to use our loved search engines directly. You can use one of their advanced search capability to do so.

    Example, searching for “site:bookingsync.com” in Google, Bing or Yahoo, would return only results from the given domain, bookingsync.com here. This technique make it really easy to view your Page Titles, Meta Descriptions as well as ranking between all your pages. Which makes me realize we got work to do as well ;P

    Regarding the length of them, here’s recommendations to consider http://moz.com/blog/new-title-tag-guidelines-preview-tool . I personally like to keep them rather short while complete enough and avoiding to go over 55 characters.

    In the end, if you see a page title shorter, you’ll give more value to each word. (Same for a book, you hardly see a book with a 200 characters title 🙂 )

    For the Meta Description, I limit myself to 160 characters here and a recommendation on it http://moz.com/learn/seo/meta-description

    For the one looking to dig further, I would recommend on this exact topic https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/35624?hl=en or more general about SEO https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/35769

    @Conrad, regarding subdomains, how do you manage to host a blog under “yourdomain.com/blog” while using different hosted services for your website and your blog engine? I’ve yet to find a way to do this nicely.

    Thanks again for this great tips!

    • Hey Sebastien,

      The site:domain.com query is very useful! I still prefer Screaming Frog because I can analyze a few thousand page website in minutes, but spot checking the visual layout on the SERP is still very important.

      On the blog question, it’s going to depend on your main platform host and what they allow. There are a few companies in the industry that do not provide the ability to host a blog under a subfolder, hindering SEO efforts. Some may have the ability to do so — I’d ask your host or platform for more detail or clarification.

  • Matt and Conrad, that you for being so generous with your information. Does this apply to a template website as well?

    • Hi elijahhhallhouse, yes this would apply to everything on the web actually. Template websites can be done a little to fast sometimes or without thinking of your particular case, so I would highly recommend to follow Conrad tips and make the best out of them if they don’t already.

  • All of this awesome information leaves me wanting more — to keep learning! So, thank you for sharing and inspiring! (and for those of us that want to keep learning – any suggestions for more reading material?)

  • Thank you Matt. I am quite surprised to see the lack of interest of websites owners for backlinking which is paramount for good ranking. I approached some of them and got no answer

    • Matt Landau

      Backlinking is definitely a science too. Stay tuned for a Session focused on it for the Makeover with Holly and Alanna.

    • Agree – in the another post in the future I’d love to cover lnikbuilding!

  • Dear Matt and Conrad… thanks so much for sharing this… always great to have information on how to better serve the industry… SEO for us is a big deal, and learning from anyone who has advice to offer is always welcome! Trying to be industry leaders here in Buenos Aires… Thanks once more!

  • Again thank you for sharing this, Matt. For us, individuals homeawners SEO is just another planet.

    In addition, we haven’t te atmospheric budget required by SEO companies.

    I’m looking forward to read details of the SEO for the Makeover with Holly and Alanna.

  • Peter Torres

    Matt & Conrad, simple language, step by step, Thank you. More please.

  • I will start with that and look forward to learning more. Thanks!

  • Great post and always work in progress for all of us.

    More thoughts on the bytes of influence and effect on search from social marketing are of marked interest to many of us as well.

  • Ashley Katz De Jong

    thank you!

  • Jula

    Do you still think we have any chance against Booking.com, Expedia, Hotels, not to mention TripAdvisor, AirBnB, Trivago and 50 or so more? I feel like plying against Gulliver. How about you?

  • Hello Matt,
    The choice of domain name has another important angle – brand recognition. We have so many owners and agencies who have tried to fit the local area name into the URL but they don’t have any part which is brandable and recognised as such.
    Thank you for a great article
    Colin

  • My website also ask for a SEO page title sufix and prefix, a Meta description and a Meta sufix and prefix. What is a prefix and sufix?

  • Thanks so much for your information. I will now try to improve my site.
    Enjoyed the read!