What short-term rental managers need to know about SEO

US: Jared Alster and Tom Buckley, co-founders of Wildebeest, a strategic digital marketing agency for “travel and tourism brands on the move” [including in the short-term rental space], address what short-term rental property managers need to know about search engine optimisation [ SEO ] to maximise bookings and visibility.

As a business owner, property manager, or both, you have likely heard about the importance of search engine optimisation [SEO]. But do you know why it matters? How it works to drive traffic and bookings to your properties? What measures can you take to optimise your SEO and promote visibility of your website[s]?

Why SEO matters

According to short-term rental data platform Transparent, 40 per cent of 2019 bookings can be attributed to the ‘direct’ channel. This represents a 25 per cent increase over 2018 and a share of bookings that is larger than Vrbo, Expedia and Booking combined.

SEO
[Credit: Transparent]
Direct customers are any bookings sourced via your own website, versus a marketplace or OTA. 

This is not a post about direct vs. indirect but it is widely known that direct bookings usually equate to higher profit margins and guest loyalty over time.

For most property managers, direct means a combination of SEO, performance marketing [Google Ads, Facebook] and perhaps some email marketing. However, unless you have a massive paid marketing budget to run ads on Google and Facebook, the lion’s share of your direct bookings likely comes from organic search, or SEO.

Organic traffic is highly valuable, in that leads via SEO tend to convert into bookings at a very high rate, compared to other channels. 

How does SEO work

The first thing to know about SEO is that although you are not paying Google per click, SEO is not free. Gaining organic visibility and traffic through SEO takes time, effort and budget. But once you have a solid foundation, SEO is a channel that can pay dividends in perpetuity, as long as ongoing optimisations are made.

There are two main areas of SEO that provide ‘signals’ to search engines:

  • On-page and technical: refers to the way in which your website is built, structured, and optimised so that your content is recognised, crawled and indexed by search engines.
  • Off-page: means elements of SEO that occur off your website directly, such as links into your site from other authoritative websites. These links could be obtained in the media via digital PR or through mentions of your company by other authoritative sites in your industry.

On-page and off-page SEO strategies are complementary. The companies that win in SEO have sound fundamentals in both. However, this post will focus on the technical and on-page aspect of SEO.

Key on-page SEO elements

An organic search listing on a search engine results page [SERP] looks something like this:

seo

Here’s a breakdown of the anatomy of an organic search result and best practices to optimise each piece:

  • Title tag [also known as ‘meta title’]
  1. Include important keywords and highlight what the page is about. Important keywords should appear near the beginning.
  2. Should be unique per page on your site
  3. Could include business name, but not required for all pages
  4. Directly influences both ranking on SERPs as well as CTR [click-through rate]  
  5. Optimal length is 50-60 characters 
  • Meta description
  1. Does not directly influence ranking, so keyword use is optional [however, keywords that match a user’s search do appear in bold, as seen in example above]
  2. Well-written description of what page is all about. Think about it as an ad for a specific page – goal is to write compelling copy to encourage a click
  3. Should be unique per page on your site
  4. Optimal length is 160 characters
  • Site link
  1. Google rewards you with these secondary links as it learns what your site and individual pages are about
  2. Website owners cannot choose what pages receive sitelinks
  3. Adding a sitemap to Google Search Console and having a clear site architecture are ways to increase your chances of receiving sitelinks
  4. Sitelinks build trust, credibility, and increase CTR

Other on-page elements:

Page headings use heading tags such as H1, H2, H3, to organise your page content. Many years ago, Google’s algorithm actually took heading hierarchy into account, but this thinking is now outdated. For example, it used to be that an ‘H1’ tag was seen as more important than an ‘H2’ tag. You want Google to understand your content, especially for longer posts, such as on your blog. This is where page headings come in handy.

Image alt text – you likely have hundreds or possibly thousands of images on your site, based on how many properties are in your portfolio. Alt text is a bit of copy that describes what an image is all about. It isn’t seen all the time by users, but plays a huge role in website usability, and to a lesser extent, in SEO. For example, if an image is slow to load, your site often shows the alt text so a user can understand the page context. When possible, try to use descriptive keywords for your alt text.

URL structure – make your URLs as short as possible with descriptive keywords. Exclude dynamic parameters such as extra letters and numbers. Also, use subfolders instead of subdomains e.g. https://bestvacationrental.com/blog instead of https://blog.bestvacationrental.com 

Other technical considerations

Page speed has become a key ranking factor for Google’s search algorithm. Everyone loves lighting-quick websites, and Google knows this. Depending on your site, there are lots of ways to decrease page load time, including compressing your code, using caching, using a CDN to serve images, and reducing page redirects. Tools such as GTmetrix and Google Page Speed Insights are simple tools to test page load speed.

As with page speed, mobile friendliness is also paramount when it comes to SEO. With more consumers than ever searching on their phones, Google is rewarding sites with best practice mobile formatting and usability. Responsive web design is a term you might have heard. In general, this just means designing a site so that its contents automatically adjust based on screen size. Designing your pages using the AMP [Accelerated Mobile Pages] framework can also make your site super speedy. Here’s a great tool to test the mobile friendliness of a webpage. 

Last but not least, website security is very important in the eyes of search engines. Obtaining an SSL certificate for your website is a must these days. How do you know if your website is secure? If the protocol in your URL starts with ‘https’ then you’re secure and all set! However, if you’re still on ‘http’ then it’s time for an upgrade. When migrating from http to https, it is very important to have an expert on hand, as there are important SEO implications to consider. 

It’s worth mentioning that many technical and on-page considerations are already taken into account if you use a common CMS, such as WordPress, or a VRM site builder such as Lodgify. There are also easy-to-use plugins such as Yoast and RankMath that do a lot of this technical work for you. 

SEO
[Credit: Wildebeest]
Wildebeest is a digital strategy agency working with short-term rental brands and SaaS companies to grow their revenue through SEO, content marketing, Digital PR, and brand strategy.