This turbine has me thinking search engines (courtesy swissrolli at Flickr CC)There have been some big changes in the world of search engines, and it’s important for the average CVB (Convention and Visitor’s Bureau) and tourism person to understand them, not just “the IT guy” or your hired gun marketing agency.

Google’s site ranking formula is a closely-guarded item, but fundamentally, to rank higher in search engine results you need lots of high-quality sites linking to your site.

Additionally, from Google’s Webmaster Central:

“One of the most important steps in improving your site’s ranking in Google search results is to ensure that it contains plenty of rich information that includes relevant keywords, used appropriately, that indicate the subject matter of your content.”

See how this works?

  1. You create quality content, using the same words (called keywords) that visitors use to find you in search engines (i.e., “family vacation packages Toledo”) and….
  2. Because your content is high quality and helpful, the humans who run the good sites eventually link to you.  Then….
  3. When visitors search, your site comes up at the top of the search results because its content matches what they’re looking for AND your site is seen as having credibility and authority because others have linked to it.

Yep, that’s pretty much the big search “secret.”

It’s all still true, no question, but now there are new elements to consider.

Bing as a Google alternative

Microsoft’s Bing is now the third-largest search engine, behind Google and Yahoo. It’s gaining traction among users partly because of some extra marketing hype, and also because it is now Microsoft’s default search engine and even the default in some Blackberry smartphones.

So what if it’s the default?

Well, how many users change their computer software defaults, and how many take whatever they’re given out of the box?

In a move for more relevancy and cutting-edge “oomph,” Bing was also the first to cut a deal with Twitter and Facebook about featuring their previously-walled-off content in general search results.

There are deep pockets at Microsoft; I would never totally discount them.

Google featuring tweets and Facebook data

Hot on the heels of Bing, the 800-pound Google search gorilla is now also showing individual tweets in search results, and publicly-available Facebook data (meaning mostly Facebook Fan Pages) is coming soon.  You may hear it referred to as “real-time search.”

So what?

So tweets and Facebook chatter suddenly matter beyond simple community- and brand-building and “rainbow Skittles and unicorns.” They matter in how masses of people find information about your destination on Google.

So if you aren’t visible and participating on Twitter and Facebook, you’re missing a newly-significant way of being found by prospective visitors.

From the Tnooz post Twitter, Google and Bing: The Perfect Storm of travel search:

“In one quick stroke the search engines will be including the Zeitgeist of travel:  the here and now of the travel conversation or what the web community is saying about destinations, airlines, hotels, tour operators, agencies and, most importantly,  the reaction to it.

If this is the case, Twitter becomes a powerful channel for travel companies and can no longer be ignored.”

Plain-vanilla Google search isn’t so plain anymore

Until, oh, a month or so ago, you typed in your search terms and waited for the deluge. Anyone else who typed in those same search terms got the same deluge (with some small adjustments based on your geographic location.)

Then came this month’s Googlebomb.

Google now offers search results that are “personalized,” or tailored to your previous personal search patterns (back to about 180 days.) This technically means that 28 people typing in the same search terms might get 28 different search results, based on their previous usage patterns.  The user, by their own history, somewhat controls what he/she sees in search results, which are no longer “neutral” across all searchers. Users can turn off the pattern-tracking cookies or opt-out of this, but I defer to my point above about how many people ever change default settings on things.

So what?

So how do you achieve search engine prominence for your site when the search results are now fractured to match a gazillion different users in “the new normal?”

There is some skepticism that Google is as smart as it thinks it is.  Will the personalization/customization be helpful, or encase searchers in an echo chamber of their own making?  Will serendipity be lost?  Are all of these “helpful” initiatives making Google searches too complex and therefore possibly less trustworthy?  Does traditional SEO even matter in 2010?

So What?

So here’s my advice….

  1. As always, produce interesting and helpful content for visitors to your destination or attraction, but don’t produce it just for a Web site.
  2. You’ve got to be “out and about” – searchable and findable in more than one way (including mobile, where Google also made some significant search strides.)
  3. You need to consider not only the customer relationships and awareness benefits of your Twitter stream, but also the use of keywords in your tweets. Yes, search engine optimization (SEO) has come to Twitter.
  4. A Facebook Fan Page, which I recommended recently as a good first step into social media, has now become more than a nice-to-have.  The question should not be “do we need it,” but “why shouldn’t we have one?”

If I missed any significant issues or implications of the many recent changes in search engines, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.