the cottage, merricks north

The Cottage, Merricks NorthI don’t mind having the occasional wrestling match with search engine optimisation and search marketing, but when a long term client said they had a vacation property on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula they wanted to promote with a website, I wasn’t initially enthusiastic.

That’s a tough market, with some unfair advantages built in for certain players – not including my client.

It was easy enough to build a site for The Cottage, but I knew I was also taking on a serious search challenge.

In order to spend some real time studying the metrics, selecting keywords to target and deciding on their optimal placement, I deliberately kept design and development time to a minimum.

For a project like this, that’s no too difficult, for two reasons.

First, this kind of website lives and dies according to how many site visits turn into bookings. The website itself does not take bookings; they come through either a third party online booking service or by contacting the owner or agent.

The website’s main function is to make the site visitor want to make that booking. It requires good writing: a sales spiel that doesn’t come across like a sales spiel; stunning photos beautifully rendered; site structure that is easy to navigate; page layouts that enhance the content; and a clear call to action.

Based on the content I had to work with, I looked for a WordPress theme that would give me 90% of what I wanted in terms of structure, layout and visual design AND one that provided at least some search engine optimisation in its theme management options. I settled on Colorway from InkThemes.

As often happens (to me, anyway) when there’s a free and a paid version of a theme, it quickly became obvious that what I wanted would require an outlay of US$45. Given that this would give me just about all I was seeking, it seemed a worthwhile investment. The visual design was close enough to what I wanted to require only minimal customisation, theme management options provided a lot of flexibility (I know we can just edit stylesheets and php files direct, but it’s much easier for clients and with regard to theme updates if the theme provides an admin interface for it) and, importantly, the theme was optimised to respond to different device, screens and display options.

As far as responsive web design goes, Colorway Pro is about the most impressive WordPress theme I’ve seen – so far, at least. It’s not perfect, in that some browsers do some odd things with the menu in certain screen sizes, but by and large it displays the right content at sizes best suited to various screen dimensions. That’s important for this project, as people searching for short term vacation accommodation are just as likely, if not more likely, to be searching the web using a phone or a tablet as a laptop or a desktop computer. In this case, responsive design isn’t for show, it’s acknowledging user behaviour.

Given that this was a new website going up on a new domain, I set up a placeholder HTML file and worked on WordPress behind. That way, pages would start being indexed as soon as they were created, while actual visitors would only see the placeholder page. I do this because if I prevent robots indexing the site until its official launch, my clients are always disappointed that they have to wait to see their site appear in search results. For me, by the time a site launches it should have been indexed by Google.

I won’t go into too much detail about the SEO research, strategy development and implementation plan – not because it’s secret business or anything, only because I wouldn’t want anyone drawing conclusions or making comparisons to their situations. One thing I have found is that no two SEO projects are alike, or even similar. Whatever success I have is down to me understanding my client, their clientele and how to bring the two together. It’s different every time.

I will say that in the month or so that the site has been live, it has started to rank well for key terms.

We come in 6th at Google for “cottage merricks north”. The five sites ranked higher are a listings site (including my client’s property), a listings site (including my client’s property), a listing site (NOT including my client’s property), a competitor (which is not a cottage: hiss, boo), and another competitor (which IS a cottage). More listings and competitor sites follow my client in the search results (NB this order can and does change more often more fluidly than you might think).

I will also share with you one specific element of our strategy. It comes from my being aware that I’m the type of person who would look for accommodation like this by searching the web. It’s exactly how we found brilliant, inexpensive, privately owned and run holiday accommodation in South Australia recently. This is a double-edged sword, of course: yes, I have intimate knowledge of one consumer’s experience but is that necessarily representative of others’ experiences?

Anyway, one of things I found when looking for accommodation that the results became much more intelligible and appropriate the more specific I became with my search terms. This would only work up to a point, however. Become too specific, or add too many qualifiers, and I might well miss a good option that didn’t happen to mention the one term I specified.

What I found was specifying the accommodation type, the location and one or two additional must-haves or selling-points gave me the best set of results.

Now, if you Google “merricks north cottage stove”, for example, my client’s site ranks first. Not because it’s the only one with a stove, or because it has the best stove, but because I’ve made it easy for search robots to register that the property has a stove and thus give this site a better ranking for that term when it’s used in searches – in association with and in relation to the other terms used (very important to understand that last bit).

Where it gets interesting is in predicting what potential customers will search for. What qualifiers will they add to “cottage merricks north” or “mornington peninsula weekend cottage” to give them a list of search results that is manageable? Terms that I found came up often included pets, children/kids, pool, patio/verandah, microwave – all of which you’d expect. Less common, but clearly important for some searchers were beer fridge, fishing gear, corkscrew and internet.

Even harder, how will they spell their keywords? Currently, my client’s property ranks as follows at Google:

“cottage merricks north barbecue”         8th

“cottage merricks north barbeque”          4th

“cottage merricks north bbq”          7th

I don’t think any of the competing sites rank top 10 for all three variations of the key term, so at least we’re covering the bases.

I hope this gives you some idea of the detail I go into on SEO projects. It’s a fascinating set of tasks and extremely gratifying when you get it right, judged by search rankings for key terms, subsequent clickthroughs and eventual bookings (or whatever your target outcome is). I’ve never felt tempted to indulge in dodgy SEO tactics (like putting “cottage” in your meta data but not in your visible content when you’re not a cottage), as the penalties are potentially so devastating.

Of course, getting good search ranking placement is only part of the story. The text that you ensure is displayed on those search results pages must so entice the searcher that they click through. That can easily happen if your pitch is significantly better than competitors that may rank higher.

And then, once they do click through, they have to be so enchanted by your client’s site that they make a booking.

Let’s hope it works for The Cottage.

 

1 thought on “the cottage, merricks north”

  1. A few people have questioned my point about the placeholder page.

    “Given that this was a new website going up on a new domain, I set up a placeholder HTML file and worked on WordPress behind. That way, pages would start being indexed as soon as they were created, while actual visitors would only see the placeholder page. I do this because if I prevent robots indexing the site until its official launch, my clients are always disappointed that they have to wait to see their site appear in search results. For me, by the time a site launches it should have been indexed by Google.”

    With impeccable timing, Matt Cutts has validated this approach:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eF8i6rKojXQ

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