Reprinted by the Honolulu Advertiser
Story By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer
Do a Google search on "Hawaii vacations" or "Hawaii packages" and you'll likely find Bruce Fisher's company listed at or near the top.
It's a prime piece of marketing real estate that Fisher, founder and co-owner of Hawaii Aloha Travel, monitors closely so it doesn't slip away.
"Ninety-nine percent of our business comes from the Internet, and it all comes from those Internet searches," said Fisher, whose company arranges travel packages to Hawai'i. "Without search-engine rankings, you just don't have it."
The advantage of being on the first page of a Google, Yahoo or MSN search is undeniable. The search engine, which barely existed 10 years ago, now plays a dominant role in the travel industry.
More than half of American travelers use the Internet to plan their trips, and more than 40 percent book their travel online, according to a 2005 Travel Industry Association of America report.
The key to reaching these customers, business owners say, is appearing near the top of the "unsponsored" search engine results. That's the list of Web sites the search engines serve up based on a formula that seeks out the most popular and useful pages.
Businesses can always buy space, or "sponsored" links, on search engines, but those get less attention.
Reaching the top of the unsponsored list is no easy matter. Search engines rank sites using their own complex algorithms. They generally take into account factors such as links from other sites and page content.
"Ranking high on natural links is very important for marketers because people's attention tends to wane the farther down the page that they go," said Noah Elkin, vice president of communications for iCrossing Inc., an interactive marketing agency headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The click-through rates are much higher, the higher up on the page your site appears."
Search engines are more important than other types of media — including TV, magazines, radio and newspapers — in driving consumers to travel sites, according to Jupiter Research.
Roger Parsons, owner of A Wedding in Hawaii, has a spot near the top of Google's unsponsored results for "Hawai'i weddings." He's been in the visitor wedding business since 1980 and used to advertise in Modern Bride magazine and a couple of local publications. Before the Internet, Parsons was happy to do eight or 10 visitor weddings a month.
"But when I went on the Internet ... it was just incredible," Parsons said. "Business has jumped like mad, and it has gone up every year because more and more people feel comfortable ordering and buying on the Internet now."
Parsons is now averaging about 35 visitor weddings a month. Virtually all of his customers find his company online, and about 30 percent book wedding packages on his Web site before they even talk to him, he said. He also noticed that the few times his rankings fell, so did his business.
Parsons said he has dropped traditional advertising and doesn't advertise on bridal Web sites, such as the popular theknot.com. Instead, he pays an independent contractor to maintain his Web site, "which keeps me on the first page" of search engine results.
"My theory is ... (a bride) might go to theknot and work her way through that to find me, but most often, I think, she'll just type 'weddings Hawaii,' and there I'll be."
Parsons said he dropped out of the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau, so he will no longer appear on its Web site. "I've never had somebody say, 'Oh we went to the Hawai'i Visitors Bureau, and that's where we found you.' It's: 'We found you on Yahoo or Google or whatever.' "
But other local companies like Bike Hawaii Tours say linking with tourism sites like the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau site helps drive traffic to theirs.
"If you're specifically looking for biking in Hawai'i, we're easy to find. We're on the first page," said Bike Hawaii Tours owner John Alford.
Being a member of the HVCB is also "a must," he said. "So many people will go to the visitor bureau Web site before they go to a destination," he said. "It's a great resource of information, and it's also trusted."
His company also links with tourism site Alternative-Hawaii "because some people don't know what they want to do; they just know they want to be active, and they might just look up 'active Hawaii,' and they might find other links that are linked to us."
A few of Alford's customers book tours on his Web site, but many research his site, which gets about 250 to 300 visitors a day.
Some of those will phone his company to book a bike trip.
"A lot of times, people will actually, while they're waiting for our tour bus to show up, have my Web pages in their hand. They've printed it out. A lot of people do their homework before they come."
Alford's company — which has six employees — doesn't limit marketing to just the Internet. He also advertises in various activity magazines in Waikiki, and Pleasant Holidays sells his tours.
Outrigger Enterprises Inc. spent virtually nothing on Internet marketing 10 years ago, but now it makes up about 25 percent of the hotel chain's marketing budget, said Barry Wallace, executive vice president of hospitality services.
Outrigger monitors its unsponsored search-engine rankings and works with a searchengine marketing firm for paid search links as well as ads on other Web sites, said Bill Sthay, Outrigger's vice president of interactive commerce.
About 35 percent of Outrigger's referral traffic to its Web site is from search engines, Sthay said. About 15 percent of Outrigger's nongroup customers book online, up from 10 percent in 2004.
Internet marketing has become a key element to the visitor industry, and search-engine rankings are a large part of business strategy, said state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert.
"We all know when we Google something the first one we go to usually is the first one" listed, she said. "That's human nature."
But a company's not necessarily in trouble if its site doesn't appear on the first page of a Google search, Wienert said. Many companies also get referrals from visitor-bureau sites.
"Most of the small providers don't have the marketing dollars to get their Web site out there at the level that the destination does," Wienert said. "So they rely on the destination to drive traffic to their site."
Cherry Fu, owner of the nearly year-old Girls Who Surf, said she's working to improve her unsponsored search-engine rankings. Her site can be difficult to find using general keywords, so she buys paid search advertising on Yahoo and Google and even uses Craigslist.
Fu also said surf sites and others like HVCB help direct consumers to her Web site.
"I'm trying to make myself most available," she said.
She said about a quarter of Girls Who Surf's advertising is Internet-based, and about two-thirds of the customers reach her via e-mail or through completing a form on her Web site. But she noted that customers usually book lessons after seeing the company's name or logo from more than one source, including online and magazines.
Improving natural search rankings is equal parts art and science, said iCrossing's Elkin. Google, Yahoo, MSN and other "crawler-based" search engines visit sites regularly and rank them.
Each search engine has its own criteria for ranking a page's value.
But generally, search engines consider links from other sites, with highly relevant, in-bound links counting as "votes" for a site. They also analyze the location and frequency of keywords in the link text and site content to gauge a page's relevance, Elkin said. It's vital to obtain links only from trusted sources, he added.
"Search engines generally place more emphasis on links from trusted sites, which is an earned attribute based on the lifespan of links from other trusted sites," he said. "Links placed on .edu and .gov domains, for example, are seen as trusted and authoritative in their respective fields, so it is a good idea to obtain links on these domains whenever possible."
Natural search links usually absorb about 80 percent of clicks, while sponsored links get about 20 percent, Elkin said.
Still, for many companies, it's not a question of using one over the other, Elkin said. Paid search links have still gotten a lot of attention and can complement natural search links by providing marketers immediate placement for campaigns such as special offers, he said.
Fisher, of Hawaii Aloha Travel, occasionally buys sponsored links for the company's cruise Web site, but because of the cost of such "pay-per-click" advertising, he relies mostly on unsponsored or "organic" searches. That means being especially diligent.
"We're constantly watching it on a daily, hourly — we're watching it by the minute," Fisher said. "I can tell you right now on the Web site which keywords they're using."
While Fisher's company enjoys high rankings on certain keyword searches, he's working to raise his placement for others, such as "Hawaii cruises."
"We're working our way up on that one," Fisher said. " ... It's not just by chance you end up on the top of the page rankings. I don't know anybody who's gotten there just by chance. They've got to have a good content page, and they've got to know what the search engines are looking for."
Reach Lynda Arakawa at email@example.com.