Ask Check-in founder Simon Isaacs about his business’s greatest asset, and top of his list will be in-house knowledge of which tools drive the web. He tells AMITA TANDUKAR how Check-in – and how your business – can thrive online.
By Amita Tandukar
Ask Check-in founder Simon Isaacs about his business’s greatest asset, and top of his list will be his business’s in-house knowledge of which tools drive the web. He tells how Check-in – and how your business – can thrive online.
A smart online marketing strategy has allowed Check-in.com.au to attract internet traffic and prosper in the competitive online accommodation market.
Simon Isaacs, founder and managing director of Check-in, knew from his experience as a manager of budget hotels that there was room for alternatives to the upstarts Wotif and Last Minute. For instance, those two sites did not allow bookings beyond the two week or one month discount window.
Check-in.com.au went live in March 2003 with offers from 450 hotels. Its automated quoting system allows users to gain quotes from hotels for dates beyond one month. Isaacs says this delivers a higher proportion of leisure travellers than its rivals – 40% business, 60% leisure.
The website became profitable 18 months after its launch and has not used any external investment to fund its growth. Check-in currently lists 3000 hotels, employs 25 people and expects to take $30 million in bookings this financial year.
Until two years ago, Check-in only used online marketing tools to build an audience of Australian users that ranks fifth among accommodation websites, according to online rating firm Hitwise. (Check-in now spends 10% offline on travel magazine ads.)
Isaacs tells SmartCompany how to attract clicks:
From the beginning, Isaacs started a weekly email newsletter to advertise special offers and encourage return customers. A simple link on the homepage and tick box on the booking form allowed Check-in to build a base of 180,000 subscribers.
In-house search engine optimisation
Isaacs ranks specialist knowledge in search engine optimisation (SEO) for accommodation sites as one of the company’s greatest assets and vows to maintain control of the process himself.
He says the company would no longer consider outsourcing SEO for free search engine listings. In the beginning, however, it was a financial decision. “It was a very big job and with $30,000 of my own money as capital, I didn’t have a lot of choice.”
It was a steep learning curve. Isaacs then read as much as he could about SEO on the internet and learnt basic programming skills with the help of his part-time technical director.
His simple SEO tip is to give people what they want. First, research offline industry statistics to know what categories are likely to be popular. Second, make sure your landing page shows a genuine product for the search term, otherwise people will bounce off and the brand will be damaged.
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Tailoring each landing page with specific keywords is the hard part of the equation. “It is one thing to attract traffic with general search terms; the job is tenfold to be specific.”
Check-in has invested $100,000 since 2002 in building a management system to cope with the enormous task of monitoring which terms convert to sales. Isaacs must still constantly monitor new SEO developments, but is happy to devote the time because the knowledge now constitutes a large proportion of the company’s intellectual property.
Monitoring the online marketing spend
The second, under-rated part of SEO is search engine marketing – paying for search engine ads and monitoring the results – according to Isaacs.
Check-in gains 15% of its internet traffic by closely monitoring its keyword library for paid ads which contains more than 100,000 keywords. The tricky part is that the accommodation industry is tied to seasonal demand and, in the case of the main search engine Google AdWords, the price changes according to how many other customers are bidding.
This dynamic situation led Isaacs to create a second sophisticated system to automate the marketing decisions that need to occur each day. He says: “It is about thinking through a business problem once, using all the tools available and not needing to rethink it again.”
The next big thing – map-based searching
The advantage of Check-in being a new entrant into a market is the ability to adapt systems to new ideas such as map-based searching.
Isaacs claims the flexible nature of the website’s architecture has made it easier to alter the site’s pages to be compatible with new systems such as Google Maps. The company’s ads on Google Maps are triggered by region, rather than individual hotels, leading to more results. The one-off alteration cost $50,000 and Check-in pays per click.
Check-in has also invested in two other mapping search engines – Whereis and Multimap – with a traditional link at the bottom of each map. Isaacs believes map-based searching will be important in the future as mapping websites improve and other websites design systems to integrate the large amounts of data needed to create intelligent maps. “It is more in tune with the way people’s minds work because it is a visual process.”