By Naguib Toihiri, head of marketing, RBBi
In recent years, traveler behavior has shifted dramatically with the Internet, especially when it comes to booking a trip. The digital space is now considered by many to be the main arena where airlines, online travel agencies, travel bloggers and airline review sites compete with one another for top ranking positions.
Over the past 10 years, search engines such as Google have evolved with newer and more engaging ways to access information, especially for the airline industry. For example, they have made it easier for users to obtain real-time pricing for individual routes or use flight comparison websites such as Expedia or ClearTrip, comparing flight prices across a variety of airlines so users can benefit from the most competitive fares.
The majority of travelers in the region use a search engine as their first starting point for travel information.
60% of leisure travelers, for example, use search engines to initiate their search for travel information
The online customer experience has been dramatically enhanced over the last five years through the development of new services and features. These updates have a significant effect for airlines, with features such as Google Flights, the Knowledge Graph, and Google City Guides, making it easy for travelers to quickly access all the travel information they need.
As there is no recent research into search marketing for airlines in MENA, Red Blue Blur Ideas (RBBi), an agency based in the GCC, conducted a case study called the State of Search in MENA Airlines Industry, which for the first time analyzes the GCC’s major air carriers in order to assess the overall organic visibility online and whether the increasingly positive passenger experience offered by these carriers is replicated online.
The study has revealed some really interesting data that can help players in the aviation industry as well as other brands improve their online visibility and create a strong online presence for marketing success:
- Majority of all travelers in the MENA region (60 percent of leisure and 55 percent of business travelers) use a search engine as their first port of call for travel information. Brands that are not present at this crucial stage of the user journey risk losing out on bookings.
- When looking for travel information, approximately 60 percent of searches for destination information come from mobile devices. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have some of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world, so having a mobile-friendly website will offer brands there a better user experience, and will allow users to engage more naturally with their websites. Any airline with a responsive, mobile-friendly website will have a clear competitive advantage. The reality is that only two out of the ten MENA airlines have fully mobile-friendly versions of their website now, while others only have mobile-friendly versions of their homepage.
- At the moment, only one out ten airlines in the MENA region has Arabic-specific pages detailing the destinations they are flying to. According to a 2017 study by Internet World Stats, Arabic ranked as the fourth most used language on the Internet, behind English, Chinese, and Spanish (Internet). So, one significant opportunity for Middle East airlines is to localize their content towards the audience they are actively targeting. The practice of directly translating content from English to Arabic is not enough as well; it is essential to localize content using a native speaker so to reflect all cultural and grammatical differences.
- A content analysis by RBBi also showed that only a few airline brands have optimized their URLs using Arabic characters. This represents a significant missed opportunity for Arabic keyword searches online, especially from those searching from the GCC region.
- Optimization of physical stores’ locations online (through Google Map) is another feature that will enable users to find the nearest airline ticketing office based on their geolocation, in addition to providing up to date working hours and physical address. Proper utilization of local search will significantly increase the visibility of brick-and-mortar ticketing offices, which in turn may increase foot traffic and revenues by enabling potential customers to locate their nearest office to take advantage of their first-hand information and services. Utilization of local search is markedly lower in the MENA region as compared to Europe and the United States, which indicates that brick-and-mortar airline ticketing offices are not benefiting its implementation.
Middle Eastern airlines that want to improve their online visibility and build strong customer relations should take advantage of SEO opportunities such as a mobile-first approach, Arabic content localization, local search optimization as well as optimization of their video presence online.