After taking a prolonged wait-and-see attitude toward social media, Expedia executed a coup of sorts nine months ago when it signed on about a dozen well-known travel bloggers to contribute to its new Expedia Viewfinder blog.
These bloggers and blogs, including Midlife Road Trip, Kara Williams, Captain and Clark, No Vacation Required, Spencer Spellman, Beth Whitman, The Planet D, Hip Travel Mama, Trip Styler, Matt Villano, Sarah Gavin, and Carol Cain, have openly served as brand ambassadors for Expedia in various social media and advertising campaigns, on the Viewfinder blog itself, and through their own blogs.
Expedia’s relationships with the bloggers give it social media cachet, sway with influencers, the ability to attract these bloggers’ readers, and the wherewithal to address their diverse audiences, which may range from honeymooning couples to adventure seekers, single moms, and baby boomers.
Although the quality of these bloggers’ contributions about popular destinations runs the gamut from inspirational to promotional pablum, SEO experts give Expedia credit for publishing quality content.
The issue of quality content at Expedia comes to the fore because Google recently spanked Expedia for a paid links scheme, and Expedia’s organic search results subsequently took an approximately 25% hit.
Expedia, or perhaps an SEO company that it used, allegedly enlisted a vast network of sites to post spammy links to Expedia to boost the online travel agency’s SEO stature. Expedia’s stock took a nosedive in late January when the first reports came out about Google’s penalty.
Expedia recently wouldn’t comment about the specifics, and that’s fairly outrageous since the incident impacts investors.
In a Link Research Tools case study about the Expedia paid links scheme, SEO consultant Bartosz Góralewicz turned his attention to Expedia’s travel bloggers, although he didn’t tie these bloggers to the incident.
“After taking a closer look, I think they really focused on quality there,” Góralewicz wrote. “Hiring really good guest bloggers, creating interesting articles and offering good terms for new bloggers. Unfortunately, many things lead me to believe Expedia’s Marketing and SEO team are in two different buildings or even states.”
“There are a lot of great articles,” Góralewicz adds, referring to the Viewfinder blog. “However, they are filled with keywords. Too many keywords. While reading such a ‘stuffed’ article, you start to think this article was written as a result of an SEO saying ‘write an article on: Romantic winter experience, New York City, Big Apple, Jacques Torres Chocolates, La Maison du Chocolate and Pairing Classes.'”
Indeed, if you peruse the Viewfinder homepage and consider a blog post such as Upscale ski hotels near Denver by blogger Kara Williams, you can see there are a dozen links in the post, seven of which went to Expedia.com hotel, vacation package, or flight pages while two pointed back to the Viewfinder blog itself.
For example, the word “Denver” in the post linked to an Expedia.com vacation package page and not to something more informational or insightful about the city. However, you can’t begrudge Expedia too much for this practice. The Viewfinder blog, after all, clearly exists to promote Expedia.
Where things get more interesting, though, is how some of the Expedia bloggers go to great lengths to promote Expedia on their own, independent blogs.
For example, Expedia Viewfinder bloggers Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil can be the most boosterish. Writing in their own The Planet D blog, the bloggers placed two big, fat promotions for an Expedia.ca and Travel Alberta Elevate Your Winter Facebook contest into the middle and at the bottom of a February 4 post about the wonders of Winter activities and vacations in Alberta.
In total, this Planet D post had two links to Expedia Canada’s Facebook page, one link to Expedia.ca, one link to the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog, and two links to Travel Alberta, among other links that weren’t Expedia-related.
From an SEO perspective, Dave and Deb, as they are known, followed best practices and designated these links as “no-follow” so Expedia wouldn’t inappropriately get its page rank artificially bolstered as it did from other links elsewhere in the paid links scheme.
But, seeding a post with so many promotional links still raises concerns even though Dave and Deb have a badge on their blog touting the fact that they are Expedia Viewfinder Official Bloggers.
Dave and Deb promoted the Expedia Canada/Travel Alberta Elevate Your Winter Contest in a January 29 blog post, as well.
Many of the Viewfinder bloggers are transparent about their ties with Expedia, similarly displaying the “official blogger” badge that points to the Expedia Viewfinder blog, as Dave and Deb do, or disclosing the partner relationship with Expedia and others.
For example, Anne Taylor Hartzell, a ViewFinder blogger, author of the Hip Travel Mama blog, and owner of a public relations agency, writes that current Hip Travel Mama partners include Expedia, Starwood, Disneyland, Alaska Airlines, Bing, Walt Disney and Willows Lodge.
“We seek out and work with brands that hold the same values , commitment to quality and passion for travel that we do,” Hartzell writes.
Hartzell is one of the three bloggers, along with fellow Viewfinder bloggers Spencer Spellman and Trish Friesen, who cost-host weekly #Expediachats that often include prizes and dovetail with Expedia announcements such as the launch of new Expedia Facebook and iPad apps.
The most recent #Expediachat revolved around questions about favorite spring break destinations, and offered a chance to win a $500 voucher.
— Spencer Spellman (@spencerspellman) February 5, 2014
A6: Spring break tip: Consider leaving and returning mid-week for more affordable spring break fares for the family! #ExpediaChat
— Hip Travel Mama (@hiptravelmama) February 5, 2014
— HipTraveler (@hiptraveler) February 5, 2014
In an interview several months ago, Sarah Gavin, a Viewfinder blogger who’s director of public relations and social media for Expedia, talked about the genesis of @Expediachat.
“Spencer Spellman is the one who said ‘you need to take my call,’ and proceeded to tell me everything we were doing wrong,” Gavin said. “Our strategy up to the point had been cutting and pasting our Facebook strategy.”
“We started it as an experiment for three weeks,” Gavin said, adding that then-Expedia.com general manager Joe Megibow was “hooked when he saw the results,” and Scott Durschlag, formerly president of Expedia Worlwide, was on board, as well.
The #Expediachats often attract travel tweeters with large followings who engage with the Expedia brand for the weekly 90 minute sessions.
“It’s less about raw numbers and more about whether influencers are engaged with our brand,” Gavin said.
Some of these social media/advertising campaigns that the bloggers participate in can be especially effective for Expedia.
“It’s crazy to me how this little town at the top of Baja, Mexico, could change how I want to live my life,” says Expedia blogger Trish Friesen of Trip Styler as part of the #ExpediaFindYours campaign.
Friesen talks movingly how a trip to a Mexico town to do volunteer work changed the way she takes vacations, and altered her life.
The video, which follows, is inspirational and effective, and of course also has a couple of shots of Friesen carrying her Expedia travel confirmations.
So how does Expedia compensate the bloggers?
Gavin said the contracts with the bloggers are covered by nondisclosure agreements, and can include monetary payments as well as compensation in the form of trips, depending on the blogger.
“But, you’ll note that we explicitly have disclosures on all blogs noting that compensation has occurred,” Gavin said. “It is, in fact, impossible to publish a blog without a notice as we built it into the tool to ensure our readers are always informed and empowered about the content.”
Expedia embraced social media later than a lot of travel brands, but now it is all-in, and its travel bloggers are a huge, and mostly effective, part of the mix.
If you have any doubts about how Expedia feels about these blogger relationships, just consider the precious homepage real estate it periodically reserves to tout its in-house blog team.