The Importance of SEO to Your Vacation Rental Website and Marketing Strategy
When I tell people I’m a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist, I see their eyes glaze over. I often resort to a short response of, “I get companies to show up at the top of Google.” We all know SEO is a vital part of every vacation rental company’s marketing strategy, but due to its technical nature, it is often left out of the water cooler conversations. Cut down to its basics, SEO is the discipline that increases your website’s visibility in search engines for terms that are relevant to your product. When executed properly, it will increase qualified organic traffic, which will contribute to a higher click-through rate and more conversions.
With over 3.5 billion Google searches per day, we know SEO is important. We know it drives traffic to your website “naturally.” However, the mystery is the how. SEO is not an exact science. It’s a compilation of experience, algorithms, and adapting to feed Google the right information so it favors your website. There are many misconceptions about SEO, and I’m here to answer the how (and how not) for vacation rental companies to help you evaluate your marketing efforts, both internally and externally.
You Can’t Rely on Tools to Do Your SEO
The vacation rental industry is a unique niche when it comes to proper SEO practices. It does not follow the same road map as, say, a clothing company or restaurant, because the product being purchased is more of an experience than a tangible good, and its value is more heavily reliant on the demand of the consumer rather than the value of the product itself.
However, no matter what type of product you have, we consistently see PMs and other agencies rely on “scores” scores for page speed, scores for site audits, and scores from Google Search Console. These scores are guides. That’s all they are. They won’t make you rank better.
Site auditing tools are extremely valuable to help you pinpoint your website’s strengths and weaknesses. However, fixing errors alone cannot make your site rank better. They should be used as a helpful guide, nothing more. It’s the interpretation of that data by a seasoned SEO specialist and the application of those methods to your website that increases your rankings.
Think of it this way: you are improving your “score” in order to pass a test. However, that “score” may only constitute 20 percent of your overall “grade” with Google. There are many important items to work on to rank.
This website, with all its “errors” and issues, is one of the highest-ranking websites in our arsenal for a very highly competitive area. It not only ranks in the top three positions for the destination itself (many number-one rankings), but it also ranks for individual communities, condo complexes, and other areas—aka the money keywords, as we call them.
Action Item: Challenge your agency when they are solely working on “getting you a better audit score.” These are vanity metrics. Solely increasing your score is a waste of time and money. While audits are important, chances are, SEO pros should be working on something else to better your ranking unless they can specifically tell you why that particular item is important. For more info, check out http://www.icnd.net/scaretactics.
The Old Tactics Still Work
When optimizing a vacation rental website, there are three key factors: content, links, and accessibility but it all starts with keywords.
Define a Goal, and Start with Keywords
The first question to ask yourself is this: What is the intent behind my website? For vacation rental companies, it is to see conversions through bookings. The second question is this: How do I achieve this goal? The answer is by defining your audience, developing a strategy to attract them, and making sure your site is set up to allow for a seamless booking transaction when they do find you.
Although “rentals” or “vacation rentals” may be the biggest terms, they are market-dependent. For example, if you have a rental property with a water view on the Gulf Coast, it’s a “beachfront rental.” If it’s on the east coast or west coast, it’s an “oceanfront rental.” What about finding a rental in the mountains? That term is “lodging.” More quaint mountain town? “Cottage.” Let’s not forget about “cabin.” Are you Australian or trying to appeal to the Australian market? You use “accommodation” as opposed to “vacation rental.”
Each of those terms has a different intent behind it, and each term has a different conversion rate. Finding the right one for your niche is vital.
These seem like small changes, but if your primary audience is searching for an “Oceanfront Beach Condo,” and you’re optimizing for “Beachfront Villa,” you will miss out on that traffic because you have it labeled differently. Yes, these terms all mean “vacation rental,” but keep in mind that the way travelers search largely depends on both the destination and where THEY are from.
Finding the perfect group of keywords to optimize your site for is potentially the most important component in your SEO strategy.
When your marketing agency provides you with a list of keywords, make sure they are focused on your audience and what your brand is selling and not just your brand name.
For smaller companies, the best strategy is to find a specific niche in the market (also known as long-tail keywords) that you can rank for, rather than focusing on broad, highly competitive words.
Once the niche is defined, create a dedicated landing page on your site. As an example, if you have several houses with private pools, build a page dedicated to that. Use tools like SEM Rush, Ahrefs, and Keywords Everywhere to create a list of long-tail specific keywords that carry a high search volume.
For example, “large vacation rentals that sleep 30 or more” is extremely specific, but it has as much volume as some of the broader terms and optimizing for these keyword phrases will get yield high conversion rates.
When creating site content and doing keyword research, consider both desktop and mobile users. Long-tail keywords are becoming more valuable as speech-to-text technology becomes more popular.
Action Item: Ask your agency what keywords they are focusing on and “why.” Are they going after any long-tail keywords? Ask them to research those you think would be good and report back with the search volume and your brand’s current position.
Link Building: External and Internal
In the world of SEO, the one thing that shows a search engine crawler the value of your website is links from other high-power authority sites pointing back to your site. Each quality link counts as a “vote.” The more quality “votes,” the higher you will rank. Creating diversified backlinks from various websites can sound like a grueling task, but it is not impossible.
External Linking: A great way to build domain authority and increase your Google ranking is to develop relationships with local businesses. Find local businesses where your content and audiences overlap, such as attractions, shops, restaurants, and so forth. Reach out to them to establish a mutually beneficial relationship where both websites and audiences benefit from the exchange of an external link. Your SEO agency should be working on establishing links to your website from other avenues such as articles and large publications, but local external link building can be done in-house and is extremely beneficial for your website’s growth.
Internal Linking: Internal linking is vital to show search engines what content on your website is valuable. It is also important to keep users clicking around on your site, which increases session times and helps with ranking. With the right internal linking strategy, you can guide Google and your site users to your most important pages. In addition, interlinking can also increase the SEO value of pages. Many times the homepage of a website carries the highest link weight because it has the majority of backlinks. When you add internal links to a page that has a high link value, that value is shared between all the links found on that page, and the link value inherited from that page will then be shared with all the links on the next page. Interlinking helps search engines (like Google) and users navigate your website to find the most valuable content.
In the era of misinformation, EAT is quickly becoming a top-ranking factor in the Google Algorithm. EAT stands for “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness” and is referenced in the Google Rater Guidelines numerous times.
Satisfy “expertise” by creating quality content users want and need. Answer all the questions they may have about your company or your rentals.
Satisfy “authoritativeness” by building internal and external links. Remember, these links count as votes. The more votes you have, the more authority you have.
Satisfy “trustworthiness” by getting reviews on your website, reviews on Google, reviews everywhere you can! Diversify your review portfolio as well.
Properties Themselves Need SEO Love, Too
“Because it is MY name!” Arthur Miller, The Crucible
This is crucial and can make or break a booking. First things first: naming the vacation rental home. Over the past two years, we’ve seen an increase in property pages as organic landing pages. This happens when potential guests type the property name into Google. Consumers are learning to Google the home names they see on Airbnb, Vrbo, and other OTAs. The #bookdirect education is working, and it’s important to leave breadcrumbs within your OTA listings to help potential leads find that book-direct connection.
Action Item: Google the names of your properties (with and without your destination name) and see where you stand. Your property pages should always be first. If they aren’t, you may need to structure those pages better or work with your agency to get them to rank better. URLs, meta titles, and page content (and plenty more) all play a role in ranking your property pages. Discuss these with your agency.
OG (Open Graph) Tags Optimize Your Social Channels
OG tags are specifically important for property description pages because they are shared on social media. These tags can be found in the source code and control how URLs are displayed when shared on social media. Have you ever shared something and seen the wrong photo come up or that the title is incorrect? That’s because the OG tags on the page are misconfigured or just plain missing. When you share a property page through your social channels, and the preview image pops up, showing consumers the content in an eye-catching glance, that is due to the proper OG tags. Without OG tags on your property pages, there is a good chance that an unrelated image will appear when your website is shared on social channels or that the description will be inaccurate, decreasing your click-through rate.
If you want to test your OG tags, you can use the Facebook debugger tool: https://developers.facebook.com/tools/debug/.
Proper Niche Keywords with Property Results Pages
If done correctly, custom property results search pages within your website will become your main source of organic traffic. To rank for anything, you need to have a dedicated landing page. Remember how it all starts with keywords? Creating dedicated pages for popular search terms like “Pet Friendly,” “Oceanfront,” and “Ski-In Ski- Out” will not only strengthen your site for those keywords but also give your website more authority as a whole.
Creating multiple search results pages for high-volume keywords is the ideal strategy to rank higher organically for those high-volume keywords. For example, if you have a lot of pet-friendly homes, you should have a dedicated search results page geared specifically to pet-friendly homes. Within this page, you will want to create pet-friendly specific content and link out to other popular amenity pages or helpful pet-friendly vacation landing pages you have created on your website.
Action Item: Make sure you have dedicated pages with related content for your top keyword variations.
Not All Traffic Is Created Equal
We’ve seen agencies in the past tout the increased traffic numbers they have achieved, sometimes doubling or even tripling the organic traffic from the previous year. An increase in traffic does not always mean an increase in conversions. Ranking for “Best Ice Cream Shops in <your area>” or “Weather in <your area>” is great, but it does not bring in qualified leads to your website or increase your conversions, which is the goal. Think of the user who is searching for these queries: they are likely already in your destination and don’t need a vacation rental. It is important to create content for your guests’ experience, but keep in mind that this type of traffic does not equal more bookings.
More site traffic doesn’t always equal better rankings. In 2021, all traffic is up everywhere. Evaluate your traffic-to-conversion ratio to determine how qualified and engaged your traffic is with your product.
Blog posts are an excellent source of traffic and help build up authority, but looking at bounce rates and conversions, they aren’t breadwinners. If you look at the property search results pages for condo rentals and oceanfront, you will notice a higher conversion rate.
There is also an argument out there that “content is king,” and having a lot of it strengthens your website as a whole. This is true; however, it needs to be the correct content. If your blog posts are primarily about attractions, for example, you are sending mixed signals to Google. We once removed an entire blog for a client as it was filled with short blog posts that weren’t related to the rental industry. Without any other work, within a few weeks, rankings started improving for rental-related terms. The website “as a whole” is more about rentals now.
Action Item: Ask for a year-over-year (YOY) landing pages report, or get it yourself in Google Analytics. Head over to Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages. Look through what is there. You will see a mixture of blog posts (with no bookings) and your top search results pages (with bookings). You can do a YOY comparison as well. If most of your traffic comes from blog posts, look at the transactions you received from those posts and decide if it’s worth the effort.
Does Having More Inventory and Availability Affect Your Ranking?
This is a great question, and like most SEO questions, the answer is, “It depends.”
Post-COVID-19 travel has shaken up the vacation rental industry, and we can see those changes firsthand within the search engine results pages (SERPs). Every search engine has unique algorithms, but they all revolve around the same ideal, which is to provide the most accurate and actionable results to a searcher using their platform. Pogo-sticking is a coined marketing term that refers to a searcher quickly hopping back and forth between the SERP and the results it provides.
In 2018, this ranking metric was debunked, but more recently, UX, or user experience, has surfaced as one of the top-ranking factors for 2021. One way for Google to quantitatively measure this metric is by collecting data on whether the user’s query has been successfully met by measuring how many times the user returned to the SERP to find a better source.
A recent trend we are seeing within the industry is volatility within the SERPs, which could be due in part to a rapid shift in rental availability on vacation rental websites. Google’s crawlers are not intuitive enough to know if your calendars are full, but they are intuitive enough to use contextual clues to determine if you have low inventory. This means if a consumer clicks on the link in the SERP to go to your website and hits the back button to go back to the search results page to continue searching, Google records that interaction as one wherein the “content/products” on your page did not satisfy that searcher’s query. We see this primarily in larger, competitive markets. The underlying ranking factors are still there and play a large role, however; with users bouncing back and forth between sites constantly, the “intent” algorithm is shaking things up.
Although we can’t say that having more inventory will affect your rank on Google, we can say that longer session times and satisfying the searchers’ query do contribute to your rank.
It’s important to keep this in mind when looking at your data. If you have a large amount of organic traffic coming to your website but no conversions, first look at your availability. If everything is booked, do some comparative analysis with your competitors to isolate the variables.
Action Item: Make sure your marketing agency is focused on both prongs of your business from generating vacation rental leads to property management leads. Work on optimizing your site for UX; these action items include page speed, a variety of well-organized inventory, an easy online booking experience, and an interactive live calendar that shows availability. Think of ways to keep them on the site, rather than pogo-sticking.
Google My Business and Maps
Google My Business can be the first impression a consumer has of your brand, which makes it an extremely valuable tool. Optimizing your business listing on Google should be in the top five in the “How to Optimize Your Vacation Rental Website” handbook. To optimize your Google My Business listing, add geotagged photos, fill out all your information, post regular updates, and use keywords when possible. Google My Business is often overlooked but can increase your ranking to page 1 by earning a spot in the local map pack.
If you have reviews that use keywords you’re trying to rank for, you will show up higher in the map pack. Solicit Google reviews by adding links in your email exchanges with previous guests.
The Technical Stuff
We have only scratched the surface of SEO, but trying to explain the following items would require a much larger article.
Here are just a few technical items that your SEO specialist should apply in the strategy:
Core web vitals
301s, 302s, and 404s
If I’ve already lost you, that’s okay; these things are boring, and you don’t need to know how to fix them, but your marketing agency should. We have seen websites tank due to one single line of code on a page that made Google think twice about its decision to serve it up as a top result.
SEO Is Like an Onion
SEO has many layers, from creative to technical. Each business is unique, with multiple variables that affect its success online, which is why there is no one-size-fits-all digital marketing strategy.
Don’t let a site audit that emphasizes one small negative aspect of your site scare you. It’s perfectly fine to have errors (as long as the important ones are corrected).
Question everything from every angle and more importantly, ask why. Why is the traffic like that? Why did you change that? Why do we need to focus on x instead of y?
Want to vet your potential marketing company? Ask them how much time they spend in Google Webmaster Tools (Google changed its name to Search Console a few years ago). Veterans in the industry should know that.
If your agency doesn’t allow you access to your own data, that is a red flag!
There are multiple factors that play a role in the optimization of a website, including website health, page speed, keyword usage, useability, location, linking, meta tags, site structure, and domain authority. A good marketing agency will handle all aspects of optimization from the technical to the creative.
The Bottom Line
Everyone wants to show up on page one of Google, but as the market grows more saturated, that goal becomes more difficult to achieve.
By knowing these basic SEO tips and knowing what to ask your marketing agency, you increase your chances and give your prime audience a better chance at finding your products.