Inviting a select group of the world’s most established and elite travel bloggers, journalists and digital specialists, the annual Social Travel Summit was this year hosted for the very first time in the UK. With a repertoire of innovative work in the sector, we were asked along to share our expertise on the future of search marketing and UX design at the 3-day event, held between the 19th and 21st of September.

Bringing together the world’s top online travel influencers and leading industry decision-makers, the annual conference aims to share learnings and knowledge through keynote speakers, workshops and panel discussions, developing best practices for travel marketing and publishing.

This year’s event was a true showcase of what Scotland has to offer, welcoming delegates from far and wide to explore the future of travel marketing within the beautiful surroundings of Inverness. From bagpipes and haggis to excursions Nessie-spotting on Loch Ness, host iambassador and main partner Visit Britain ensured that delegates got a real taste of the local culture, as well as gaining access to insights and trends in digital marketing.

Our Managing Director, David Johnstone, was invited along to join an exclusive panel of experts to discuss ‘The Future of Search: How People Will Engage’. With technological advances, new devices and shortening attention spans, people are interacting with the online world in different ways and with new expectations. The panel were asked to provide insights into changes in search marketing and design and how these will impact future user behaviours.

Meet the panel of experts

Moderated by globally renowned travel expert Michael Turtle (boasting a 38k+ Twitter following) of Time Travel Turtle, David was also joined by experienced Product Designer Jonah Jones (formerly of Google, where he led the redesign of Google Maps and contributed to the development of Material Design, and now Product Design Manager at Facebook). David brought over 15 years of digital experience, working with major travel brands and destination management organisations (DMOs), to the panel in order to answer questions on how online content has changed and is changing, and how the design of this content will play an increasingly pivotal role in the retention and engagement of users.

Key themes of discussion centred on search marketing, Material Design, multimedia and virtual reality. We go into each in more detail below, but for those looking for a quick-fix, we think this gorgeous live illustration captured by Berlin-based designer Nina Hupen-Bestendonk says it all!

Social Travel Summit - illustration by Nina Hupen-Bestendonk

What’s the future of search marketing?

There was no denying the ongoing importance of Google as the globe’s ‘most popular’ search engine, with the largest market share. Constant algorithm updates and new search products have created an increasingly intelligent search engine, which has a large focus on personalised search (with developments of note particularly in geolocation and conversational search). The panel advised attendees to focus on creating quality content, which is uniquely designed for its online audiences. The very nature of the content being produced by these well-established bloggers and travel influencers, responds to the shifts being implemented by the major search engines. You need to be able to ‘supply the demand’, so delivering content that answers questions and real-time needs is key. We explored micro-moments and how growing global connectivity has meant consumers now expect personalised responses that answer their immediate requirements. For example, looking ahead, a search for “best places to eat near Colosseum” would prompt search engines to attempt to comprehend the context of this search - location to identify which Colosseum and nearby facilities, timing to dictate relevant opening hours, previous searches and browsing history to present options in line with favourite cuisines, etc.

The key takeaway: There will never be a substitute for quality content.

“The way Google is going with more human-friendly, conversational search, it is clear that this human element is central to effective search marketing. Voice search has rapidly become the fastest growing type of search, but we’ve gone beyond simple voice recognition and entered an era of ‘voice understanding’, with machines and algorithms being created to translate the context of the search beyond the words themselves.”

David Johnstone, Managing Director at After Digital

An interesting point raised was that as people increasingly use voice search on their mobile phones, other search engines will gain prevalence. To illustrate this, David used an example of a search on Siri (iPhone) that pulled Bing results. Google may be dominant but it has little influence (currently) on non-Android devices’ central functions.

What’s the future of content marketing?

Much of the conversation surrounded  Google’s Material Design and how this way of creating more dynamic and meaningful interaction design within your content can massively bolster engagement. Jonah gave a ‘behind the scenes’ insight into why Google created Material Design in the first place (and how this was the evolution of Google’s lesser known Project Kennedy), whilst David gave a technical overview and explored the practical applications and results achieved by our clients through the adoption of these design standards. At its heart, it’s all about facilitating the user’s journey with purposeful design, user-centric features and meaningful motion.

In response to the question posed “has video reached its peak”, the panelists agreed that video is far from over. Video content will continue to grow and remain central to content strategies for both major brands and smaller players (especially with technology for easy video creation and editing becoming increasingly accessible). What will take things to the next dimension (both figuratively and literally) is virtual reality (VR). Consider the advances from panoramic images to full 360 virtual reality images, just think what VR video will be able to do - creating a unique sense of ‘being there’. David posited that, with VR being used within popular social channels and to revolutionise the design and pre-build of things like hotel rooms, then why shouldn’t it be used to give audiences an insight into global locations.

Of growing concern amongst the community is the friction between owners and distributors of content - the battle of the “walled gardens”. With evolving platforms and constant algorithm updates, questions revolved around how creators can safeguard their own content moving forward. The likes of Facebook with Instant Articles, LinkedIn Pulse, SnapChat, Wikipedia’s advanced search and Google are all creating so-called walled gardens, whereby content is embedded directly into their platform (with the aim of keeping the user there), rather than facilitating publishers in pushing visitors back to their content hosted within their own website. The panel advised that publishers need to “learn how to climb these walled gardens and enjoy the fruits within”, by leveraging these new and exciting formats as distribution channels to enhance your reach. Your content will always be your content, so you just need to learn how best to take advantage of new platforms to achieve your goals (whilst avoiding duplicating content).

What would the panel’s vision of the future be?

Jonah’s experience at Google means his future predictions have been informed by exclusive insights into Larry Page’s vision for Google and search marketing, in which you are served the single most suitable result for you as a user (based on a combination of the systems knowing you so well and the context of your search). This would see SERPs largely become a thing of the past with individual results served to you, often before you’d even thought to have asked for them. There are inklings of this already with customised results embedded directly into SERPs, such as local weather.

Meanwhile, David’s vision has grown out of childhood dreams...

“Growing up (as a big geek) I watched every episode of Star Trek - The Next Generation probably five times over, and I always dreamed of the day when I could have ‘casual conversations with a computer’. This no longer feels that far away. Voice search and, more importantly, understanding is moving at such a pace, that although Star Trek is set in the 24th century, we will not be waiting anywhere near that long to see many of these futuristic technologies come into effect.”

David Johnstone, Managing Director at After Digital

Fittingly, on the morning of the international Social Travel Summit kicking off, Google announced the launch of Google Trips, a new app set to revolutionise the online and offline travel world.

Top tips from the panel discussion:

  • Make use of schema markup
  • Apply principles of Material Design
  • Make use of Google AMP
  • Think about micro-moments and how you can best respond to users in the moment of intent
  • Don’t be afraid of Walled Gardens, embrace and leverage them - Facebook Instant Articles, for example, have far higher conversion rates than most publishing platforms, so take advantage of this!

A massive thanks to the team at iambassador, Visit Britain and all other sponsors for putting on such a fantastic event, and a special shout out Janice and Tracey for their incredible organisation skills. For more help with your search marketing or UX design, please don’t hesitate to get in touch on [email protected].