Turbulence in the Travel Sector – UK Search Assessment

Steve Paine
Steve Paine
10. October 2019
Steve Paine
Steve Paine
Steve 'Chippy' Paine is the UK country manager for SISTRIX. "I've been working with the Internet for over 30 years. From copper, to Chrome."

If you’re working in the UK travel sector, you'll know about the Thomas Cook story. But what you might not know is that Google rolled-out a core algorithm update in exactly the same week. In this article I’ll summarise what happened among 70 selected travel domains including taking a look at a significant visibility loss.

It’s important to know that the total search visibility for the domains has remained quite constant over the last 12 months, but it’s what happens within the sector, with the individual domains, that is important. Domain-level changes can impact business and since the 25th September there have been two big changes for travel brands to consider.

Impact 1 – Thomas Cook

At the Leaders in Travel conference a few weeks ago I spoke about the expected fallout that closing a big website will have. There are many cases in our historical data that we can call on and I gave a few examples.

From the electronic retail sector: Superfi. 5 days after closing the website down, Google started to remove the URLs from search results. The graph above shows the weekly development as the domain was removed.

From the travel sector: Superbreak, part of Malvern. Google started removing the URLs from search results 4 days after the site was closed. The graph above shows the daily development of the losses.

It’s no surprise then, that thomascook.com follows the same path. In this case it took Google just 3 days to start removing the website.

Analysing the losses

High volume keywords at position 1 on the 25th Sept that have been lost from the top 10, as can be seen in the table above. Let’s look at one of them in detail to find out who’s benefiting.

The daily rankings for 4 domains, for the search term “city breaks europe” are shown above. On the 5th day after closure, thomascook.com was no longer ranking in the Top 100. At the same time, expedia.co.uk, lastminute.com and britishairways.com increased 1 position.

As SEOs know, there’s often a big difference between the click rate on position 1 and the click rate on position 2 . British Airways have benefited greatly for this search term.

Unlike a high street, you won’t find graffiti sprayed over a shuttered location in the SERP, Instead, the results act like liquid, and fill any gaps, at least in the short-term.

An analysis of the close competitors, in terms of ranking keywords, to thomascook.com reveals two domains that may have benefited the most. The closest match is tripadvisor.co.uk and the second closest is tui.com.

One week after the removal of thomascook.com and a loss of about 18 points, tripadvisor.co.uk has gained 16 points of visibility, which is equivalent to the total visibility of virginholidays,co.uk.

Unfortunately, something else happen in the same week that prevents us from working-out exactly where the visibility was redistributed; The September Core Update.

Impact 2: Google September Core Update

The update had an early affect on some travel-sector domains in the German search results. In the UK it took a little while longer to see the effects but today, they are very clear.  Here’s a list of the biggest winners from the sample of 70 travel domains.

DomainVisibility Index 25th SeptVisibility Index 6th OctChange (VI)
tripadvisor.co.uk292.13306.0313.90
lonelyplanet.com65.1669.604.43
tripsavvy.com22.0126.354.34
skyscanner.net25.6928.192.50
virginexperiencedays.co.uk7.338.991.66
travelsupermarket.com19.6421.091.45
onthebeach.co.uk12.2413.621.38
dealchecker.co.uk4.535.871.34
sunshine.co.uk2.293.401.12
lastminute.com28.7629.781.02

Where there are winners, there are always losers. Here are the top-10 domains from our selection that lost visibility.

DomainVisibility Index 25th SeptVisibility Index 6th OctChange (VI)
booking.com127.23108.60-18.63
thomascook.com20.342.61-17.73
tripadvisor.com69.5662.06-7.49
hotels.com25.7423.12-2.62
kayak.co.uk31.4230.01-1.41
agoda.com13.7912.49-1.30
kuoni.co.uk8.307.48-0.83
loveholidays.com9.598.79-0.79
hotels.uk.com2.101.34-0.76
expedia.com7.797.10-0.69

While we can’t tell if the gains are from the Core Update or from the loss of thomascook.com, we can clearly see which domains have been negatively impacted by the core update. 

Booking domain losses

The table above shows 10 of the 152 keywords lost from Top 5 positions, to page 2 and beyond (mobile) With generic terms like the town-name ‘taunton’, there’s a question of intent. The current SERP is informative and in no way related to hotel bookings.

If we analyse all 152 of these lost keywords [list analysis tutorial] to see what features the SERP contains, we find:

  • 61% of the SERPs have an image box
  • 49% have a Video Result
  • 39% have a Knowledge graph

Wikipedia features heavily in these types of SERPs and, after running an analysis on the competitors that rank for the 152 keywords we find Wikipedia appearing in the Top 10, 102 times for the 152 keywords.

This is useful information for the SEO. If Google has changed the ‘intent’ of a SERP, booking.com may not fit there any more and in that case, there’s nothing they’ve done wrong and nothing they can change on the URL that would help them in this SERP in the future. This aligns with Google’s Core Update advice:

Summary

The UK travel sector’s visibility in Google search was affected by two events in the last 2 weeks. While both played-out at the same time, it’s clear to see who’s won and lost at the end of it.

Thomas Cook’s main domain has been largely removed from Google Search in the UK now and most of the space appears to have been filled by tripadvisor.co.uk. There are many other beneficiaries though.

The Core Update affected booking.com and by analysing the lost keywords we get useful information about the intention of the search result. This information can be used by the SEO to find out of the keyword ranking is recoverable.

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