Airports have a new tool in their arsenal to keep off-airport parking providers at bay: search engine optimization (SEO), a method of improving an airport’s website performance by improving the order in which it pops up during “natural” or unpaid Internet searches. Generally speaking, appearing as early and as often as possible increases an airport’s chances of potential customers clicking on its website instead of a competitor’s.
SEO specialists work to improve an airport’s position in Internet search results by analyzing how specific search engines work and learning what travelers search for, the specific keywords they use, and which search engines they prefer. The consultants then “optimize” an airport’s website by tweaking its content, HTML and associated coding to match the most commonly used search words and to eliminate obstacles to search engines’ indexing processes.
Project: Search Engine Optimization
Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) in New York is using the relatively new Internet marketing process with the help of its parking management contractor, SP+ (formerly known as Standard Parking).
“Organically, the website has done well on its own, but adding SEO capabilities was a smart move for us,” reports Pascal Cohen, the airport’s senior marketing manager. “Standard helped us direct our online strategy to streamline our site, and allowed us to easily translate to a mobile platform, which is important to travelers.”
The geography of BUF’s customer base helped drive the decision to improve how the airport interacts with customers via the Internet. “A lot of our customers are Canadian, and many don’t come to the airport often,” notes Cohen. “So it’s very important for us to be as highly-ranked from an SEO standpoint as possible.”
With Toronto, the largest city in Canada, only a 90-minute drive away, BUF is an attractive option for Canadians looking for low fares and fewer government-imposed fees for travel to and through the United States. Almost one out of four Canadians lives within 90 minutes from BUF, notes Cohen.
“Over 40% of our customers are Canadians, so they come from across the border; and we want to make it as easy as possible to park at our airport,” he explains. “We have a section about border crossings (on the website), and we want to ensure we are easy to understand.”
With flight prices as a primary factor driving Canadian travelers to BUF, airport officials extrapolate that they are also attuned to parking costs. “Our competition has been trying to promote specialty and promotional rates to show that they are cheaper; but we have a seven-day specialty rate, (two days free after five),” relates Cohen. “Many regional travelers park for a week or more, and our weekly rate is better than the off-airport competition. They are trying to use our daily rate against us. The off-airport sites charge a fee that they don’t advertise; with our site, we illustrate those fees in an easy-to-read table.”
Pam Brown, vice president of airport business development for SP+, is keenly aware of the role websites and search engines play in the competition between on- and off-airport parking operations. SP+ has 40 employees in its airport services division and serves more than 80 airport clients.
“The way we got information 10 years ago is so different than we do now,” Brown explains. “Traveler patterns have changed significantly — the airlines have effectively trained air travelers to look to the Web for information.”
New Internet dynamics inspired Brown to study SEO in detail, and now she advises airports about how to re-tool their websites to increase parking revenue and compete more effectively. According to Brown, off-airport parking operators are ahead of the curve when it comes to boosting website visibility to capture customers.
SP+ consequently developed a new strategy to help its clients produce parking guides — websites with multiple pages designed for organic and paid search traffic. Market by market, they evaluate search activity and look at website key words, search volume, top search words, and develop a custom plan for individual airports.
“We take many of the retail tactics and techniques in the marketplace and use them for airports, because the competitive nature of airport parking is similar to retail, where it is critical that these tools be mastered,” explains Vincent Raguseo, senior vice president of marketing for SP+. “Airports compete with aggregators and off-airport parking companies that understand SEO; so we’re helping them fight fire with fire. We can demonstrate what is going on in their market and show them where they are losing market share and the ways competitors are intercepting customers and stealing them away.
“We also focus on the destination,” adds Raguseo. “We understand that people don’t go someplace to park; they go someplace to attend an event in their life. In other words, people begin their search with information on the destination, and then extend that search to include parking. It’s a natural add-on. That is why we’re focused on user behavior and understanding the user experience.”
At BUF, Cohen describes SEO as a way to keep on-airport parking options on top. Parking accounts for about one-third of BUF’s total revenues — far more than car rentals, concessions and other all other non-aeronautical sources — so it can’t afford for off-airport competitors to capture market share, he explains.
So far, Cohen has been pleased with the results: “On the SEO side, it’s relatively new — less than a year, but we think it’s a sound defensive strategy.”
It’s also spurring related refinements. “We’re working toward a fully automated parking rewards program, in which people will be able to earn points and see everything online,” Cohen reports. The official launch is scheduled for December 2013, pending the installation of new servers and activation of security measures.
Brown is encouraged about the impact SEO is having for clients such as BUF and T.F. Green Airport in Providence, RI. “We know a well-informed traveler is a happier and more efficient traveler; and if we can help our airport clients be the source of the information travelers need, that benefits all of us,” she explains. “The airports count on parking revenue, and they need to continue to focus on it. Using their websites and SEO to their maximum capabilities brings passengers to their doorstep and leads them in with keyword searches that (direct) them to the site and applicable coupons. It’s critical to their market.”
Building a Better Website
Pam Brown, vice president of airport business development for SP+, analyzes websites and search engines to help her company’s clients increase parking revenues and compete with off-airport operators.
Here are a few of her top tips for effective airport websites and improving search results: