Search engine optimization (SEO): What is it and how can it result in more phone calls or online reservations for your independent auto rental business?

Keywords on your website — among a long list of 200 or so other factors — determine what page you land on in Google, Bing and Yahoo. And to make it more complicated, the way these search engines determine what is most relevant to any given search constantly evolves. Web experts even have a hard time following all this noise.

There are general principles, though, that small operators like you can keep in mind that will drive your websites higher in relevant online searches — ultimately improving your bottom line. One of the most important points lies in your website’s keywords, or words on your site that a person might search for, such as “Los Angeles car rental.”

“Who cares if you have a great website  — or a poor one — if no one can find you?” asks Roger Laurendeau, owner of The Web Guys, a web design and search marketing service company that has helped numerous small auto rental companies optimize their websites.

Greenberg Rent A Car, owned by Matt Holowinski in Chicago, is one of them. Holowinski says that previously his online marketing focused on being an affiliate in order to get listed on Orbitz and Expedia, “but the charge is so high that I couldn’t compete with the major car rental companies, so automatically I was not able to gain any reservations.”

The intricacies of online marketing and using search engine traffic to gain leads and reservations is why many companies opt-in to web service companies like The Web Guys. “I needed help getting to the front page of Google and Yahoo — I couldn’t get there,” says Kelly Spirra, owner of New Jersey-based Value Auto Rental. “I had competition in the area that was dominating the first page of Google organically and I didn’t know where to begin or how to improve our site to get it to the first page.”

Ranking on page one takes a much larger effort than just making sure you’re using the right keywords. “Some of it is local SEO, and some of it is directories and Google Places optimization. There are just so many things,” Laurendeau says. “That’s why we wrap up everything we do and call it ‘Internet marketing.’” Other efforts include using social media, email marketing and interactive customer service to manage a company’s online reputation.

But before any of this can happen, one of the first tasks The Web Guys embark on is identifying the client’s target market.

Using a Target Market to Boost Your Page Rank
What’s your specialty: van rental, luxury rentals, economy car rental? As small operators, owners might want to hone in on what makes them unique to the bigger brands in their area.

“Everyone we’ve encountered wants to be first for car rental,” Laurendeau says, adding that “car rental” and “car rentals” are the top searched terms for the industry. But this means that every car rental operator in the area is competing to land on page one of a Google search for those keywords.

“In term of volumes in search, without question ‘car rental’ is king of the castle, but there are many other search terms — 92 exactly as far as we can tell — that drive quality search traffic,” he says. “So we go through all those words and tell the customer, ‘hey there are some wins to be had here without being first for ‘car rental.’”[PAGEBREAK]

Spirra and Holowinski had to do just that — and it’s proving to be successful. Before hiring The Web Guys more than two years ago, Spirra says she began to copy everything her competitor did in hopes of bringing her company higher in car rental searches for her two locations.

While she says she knew her specialty is 12- and 15-passenger van and SUV rentals, the keywords she tried weren’t getting her anywhere. “Some keywords I thought people would be searching for, well, they’re not searching for,” she says. “I was stuck in a box of thinking that these are the keywords I think people would be searching for.”

After The Web Guys optimized her site, Spirra says it took between three and six months before she began to see her website inch closer to page one on Google. “Now I show up on the major search engines for my important keywords, which is the most important thing,” she says.

And the numbers show: In comparing monthly data, in July 2009 Spirra had less than 4,000 website visits and about 1,300 of those were gained from Google. By July 2011, her total website traffic was close to 9,000 and the referrals from Google totaled almost 4,600. The total increase in traffic represents 2.5 times more potential business Value Auto Rental is now exposed to.

Holowinski, a customer of The Web Guys for only a few months, says his company is already showing up on page one since having the “face-lifted” website up for the past month or so.

Screenshot of www.greenbergrentacar.com Now that he has his own reservation system on his website, Matt Holowinski, owner of Greenberg Rent A Car, is able to ask customers for their cell phone number and arrival flight number. He uses this to send customers a text message, giving them directions to the shuttle bus and arrival time as they reach the airport.

Screenshot of www.greenbergrentacar.com

Now that he has his own reservation system on his website, Matt Holowinski, owner of Greenberg Rent A Car, is able to ask customers for their cell phone number and arrival flight number. He uses this to send customers a text message, giving them directions to the shuttle bus and arrival time as they reach the airport.

What’s his specialty service? SUV rentals and car rental with a debit card and no credit check. Now, when you search for “SUV rental ohare,” there’s Greenberg listed on the first page of Google. He says he has seen an uptick in online reservations and an increase in traffic to his website. “It takes time,” he says.

How ‘Relevant’ Are You?
Besides keywords, Google looks at your website’s “relevancy” to search terms. Laurendeau says it’s akin to giving a potential employer your resume. “Google is doing the same thing with your website,” he says. “It reads your website, indexes it into its vast database — digests it — and Google then looks for ‘similar references’ to your website everywhere else on the Internet. Much like the way a potential employer might call your references to check out that you can actually do what you say you can do.” 

Proving yourself includes making sure your company is listed in online directories, such as Manta, Merchant Circle, FourSquare, City Search and hundreds of others. The Web Guys submit clients to roughly 400 local directory listings, which helps with “local SEO” — another factor in bringing your site to the top.

“Search engine marketing is a process and not an event — a marathon and not a sprint,” Laurendeau says, adding, “We understand that everyone wants immediate results, and there are some of those, but mostly we’re looking for medium- to long-term market positioning on behalf of our clients.”

The Interactive Space
“Social media is a major undertaking, and unless you’re willing to really commit to it, you might be better off not doing anything at all,” Laurendeau says. Having stagnant Facebook and Twitter pages can have a negative impact on bringing in a potential customer. Social media profiles, and individual tweets even, are now incorporated into Google searches.

If you’re not active on your social media profiles, you should consider making a social media marketing plan and be sure you’re using the correct hash tags and keywords in your posts. “If you build it, they won’t necessarily come, unless you are in it for the long haul and with a strategic vision,” Laurendeau says.

One way to use social media, for example, is to use Facebook as a way to thank customers for reserving with them and as a way to recognize customers. Laurendeau says you can affordably do this by starting off with a “thank you” email to customers, encouraging them to “like” your company on Facebook or to follow you on Twitter for a discount on their next rental.[PAGEBREAK]

The Web Guys also blog for their customers, in which they integrate the blogs onto other social media platforms. “That’s the coolness of social media,” Laurendeau says, and if you can get every person who rents from your company to “like” you on Facebook, “imagine how powerful that would be,” he says.

Getting 1,000 “likes” or Twitter followers doesn’t happen overnight though, and getting them has to be done through positive online customer engagement. As well, your posts need to help your relevancy.

“Don’t just go up there, willy-nilly and say stuff,” Laurendeau says. “Google sees that activity, especially if it’s two-way; if there are discussions or a lot of people following you, then Google deems you to be more relevant. They even look at the influence of the people who like you.”

Email marketing is another way to interact with your customers. But like anything else, the email needs to look and feel professional and be visually appealing.

Using email allows you to keep in touch with your customers — not to spam — and manage your online reputation. “If you just let people go and say whatever they want to say, it’s often only the people who are upset about you that are going to say something,” Laurendeau says. “Then, if some customer looking to rent from you sees seven reviews and five are negative, they are going to go look for another rental car agency.”

He recommends keeping track of negative reviews, to reply immediately and to ask them to contact you so you can discuss the complaint further. This small reply will show other readers that your business is attentive to upset customers.

The Web Guys also tell clients to encourage happy renters to write a positive review on user-generated review sites like Yelp. Again, you can use this interaction as a way to give a customer a discount if they do write the review. “Stack the deck in your favor,” Laurendeau says. “It’s about getting people who love your service to speak up a little.”
Services such as Customer Lobby, used by The Web Guys, can help you keep track of and manage online reviews.

Development and Tracking: What to Expect
Spirra says it took about three months when she started to notice she moved up on popular Google searches. Before changes in your ranking occur, though, it takes The Web Guys, for example, about three to four months to optimize a site. SEO and online marketing, however, are never-ending processes.

How quickly you see results is highly dependent on whether a company is starting a website from scratch versus rebuilding one that has been online for years. Not surprisingly, the brand-new website is going to see slower results compared to a revamped site.

Tracking data — the follow-through stage that’s just as important as optimizing your site — can also get tricky. For example, what is a “bounce rate” and how high of a bounce rate is bad?

A bounce rate, which tells you that someone came to your site and realized immediately it was not what they were looking for, gives you a clue as to the status of your online relevancy, and if you’re using proper keywords and visual cues on your website. It’s generally agreed upon by web experts that anything above a 50% bounce rate is not a good sign.

Staying well-informed of changes in SEO and tracking your website’s data is practically impossible, Spirra says. “It’s a part-time job. You really need to employ someone to make sure you’re where you should be — and who knows what Google is looking for and the other search engines,” she says. “Google changes all the time.”

Holowinski has the same sentiment, “I know a lot about a rental car business, but the Internet is a bit of a different field.”

On top of it all, the online customer segment is only growing. “The Internet is it now — the Yellow pages are done,” Spirra says. “You have to constantly stay on top of how you’re doing and performing.”

As reservations increase for her and  Holowinski, both are expanding: Spirra is taking on an online car rental campaign now that she is top for van rental, and Holowinski is opening a new location in Florida.

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