There’s no doubting that SEO has certainly become harder over the years. The updates Google’s pushed through over the last few years, including Panda and Penguin, have fundamentally changed the way travel publishers and affiliates work. It seems a long time ago when publishing skinny content and building masses of inbound links was the acceptable norm.

Travel publishers have to work considerably harder now to rank naturally in Google SERPs, avoiding the penalties and second-guessing where natural search will move in the future. The ‘smoke and mirrors’ that’s often the way SEO’s portrayed was darkened even further this summer when Google made a major change to the algorithm itself.

The Google Panda update focused on penalising duplicate content, while Penguin targeted dodgy and spammy link-building. However, the new algorithm, called Hummingbird, has had a slightly different impact and is the biggest change to Google’s algorithm since 2010.

Hummingbird was a total replacement of the organic search algorithm which, according to Google, affected 90% of search results. Google is always looking to improve the natural search results, but the new algorithm also focuses on being more ‘conversational’ with semantic search at the forefront.

The problem that travel publishers now face is understanding how changes to Google impact on the content they publish.  Because what goes on within the Google algorithm is essentially a ‘black box’ there is a certain amount of trial and error in SEO. Here are my top tips for how travel publishers should approach SEO:

1. Content will always be king

Content has long been king, however, now it’s important to structure content around user intent. So travel publishers should use phrases that match how people think and search. Always make content interesting and engaging as this will help with its ‘shareability’. It might be obvious but bad spelling and poor grammar are real turn offs. Focus on good quality targeted content.

2. SEO targets: be realistic and choose your battles wisely

Travel publishers often go after search terms that they are never going to rank for. I’ve certainly noticed Google putting a lot of weight on established brands even if they don’t necessarily have the best content. Target the ‘low hanging fruit’ of long tail search terms, as these are often missed by travel brands and will be easier to rank for. It’s also important to consider the purchase funnel and the intent of the user when identifying keyphrases.

3. On-page SEO and site maps

On-page SEO is still an important factor in ranking, although you shouldn’t over-optimise your content. Always make sure titles, descriptions and headings are meaningful and natural, along with image names and alt-tags. Site structure and internal linking will always be important, so get this right too. Make sure all XML site maps are submitted to Google and others.

4. Social media and social signals

This almost needs a separate article as social media and SEO are now so intertwined that they need to be considered together. Social signals, or the social shares your content gets, are one of the most important ranking factors. Travel publishers should focus on whatever social media platform engages their customers best. It will certainly benefit search ranks.

A recent report on SEO ranking factors by Search Metrics clearly showed how social media was a growing factor in natural search. Making your content shareable and providing social bookmarks on your site is now essential for travel publishers.

5. Google+

No matter what social platforms you choose to share your content, Google+ has to be included in your plans. As search becomes more personal and social signals become more influential, interacting on Google’s social network is a no brainer.

6. Keyword Tool

Another change that Google has made this year is to replace the Keyword Tool with the Keyword Planner. This is more than a name change, as it means that you need to be logged into a Google account before you can use it, but don’t be put off: the Keyword Planner is still a useful tool even if the numbers don’t always seem realistic.

7. Other  free tools

There are still plenty of useful tools available to help travel publishers. The free toolbar offered by Moz, formally known as SEOMoz, is extremely good when it comes to checking domain and page authority. Xenu’s Link Sleuth is also a great tool for checking your website and your competitors. There are of course many other free SEO tools available online.

8. Link building

Link building has certainly become harder since Google Penguin, although there are still opportunities out there. Although social shares have grown in importance, naturally occurring links will always be worthwhile pursuing. Never has there been such a complicated blend of signals and influencers in natural search, but travel publishers should still be careful who’s building links for them so they can remain in control of their backlinks. You never know when Google will move the goal posts.

9. Build the brand

Traditional marketing in the form of building the brand of a travel publisher will be the best way to secure its future in natural search. To do this, traditional PR can be used in partnership with social media and more traditional SEO techniques. There are no certainties in natural search, however, brands will always be given a voice in SERPs.

10. Look beyond Google

Sometimes the obsession with Google takes over travel publishers’ SEO, but we mustn’t forget that Bing and other search engines can also bring in good quality traffic.  Webmasters will also be watching the likes of Apple, Facebook and Amazon to see how they plan to eat into Google’s dominance on natural search. Competition can only be good.