Ski Utah Plans Search Engine Strategy to Push Its Slopes

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Think skiing and Vermont, Colorado and even California likely come to mind before Utah, something that the Utah Ski and Snowboard Association wants to change through an online marketing effort.


"Our biggest problem is the perception of ski destinations," said Tristan Webb, marketing and sales manager at the association. "Utah is way down on the lists, if it's on the lists at all."


That little thing called the Winter Olympics certainly moved it up a few notches. To raise Utah in the skiing public's consciousness, the association's Ski Utah marketing and promotion arm is working on a search engine strategy to put skiutah.com on the map for consumers seeking skiing options. Skiutah.com offers information on mountain resorts, lodging, ski area maps, weather conditions, events, real estate, dining and reservations.


"In order to become an option, we have to be in front of the customer, and another reason we're aggressively trying to improve our ratings on Web sites and search engines is that the booking window this year has gone from four to six weeks to about a two-week booking time," Webb said. "We really think that they're impulse buys and that people are searching deals and vacation information rather than sending for brochures and things like that."


Salt Lake City interactive agency Cogbox has been charged with developing a search engine strategy for the 27-year-old association that promotes Utah's winter sports industry.


"[Results from searches have] the most far reaching impact for the least amount of money and gets the clients ongoing momentum without the ongoing payment," said Michelle DeCol, creative director at Cogbox.


Identifying words and phrases people often use to search online for ski-related information is key.


However, Ski Utah was unable to fully capitalize on the world's biggest winter sports event taking place in its own back yard - the Winter Olympic Games that ended yesterday in Salt Lake City. The restrictions particularly apply when Ski Utah has to buy keyword-related ads that lead to skiutah.com. Plus, Cogbox has no control over what goes on the Web site, which did run some Olympic-related content.


"Promoting a lot of sites in terms of the Olympics has been difficult because there's been so many restrictions on the use of the trademark 'Olympics,'" said Chris Eaves, executive producer of Cogbox. "For instance, you can't say 'Olympics' or 'Winter Games.' So if you can't say it on your site and you can't purchase words like 'Olympic ski rentals' or Olympic-anything ... really the rules and regulations have locked out a lot of local sites competing for that information."


Still, Cogbox has found that about 500 phrases are used that are ski-related. Phrases punched in include skiing Utah, ski packages, ski conditions, lodging and ski reports.


Some obvious words, often bought by sites to push up listings on search engines, are extremely popular. "Snowboarding," for instance, was searched 220,000 times per day in the last 60 days. "Skiing" was searched 120,000 times a month in the same 60-day time frame. In the same period, "snow reports" garnered 26,000 searches.


As Cogbox works on the Ski Utah account and implements strategies, keywords ideally should pull up skiutah.com as one of the listings in future searches. But for that to happen, the site has to work better with search engines like Google, AOL, Yahoo, and MSN.


"These are really the top 20 [search engines] in terms of volume," Eaves said. "And the reason we focus on those is that the whole search business online is very incestuous. So if you actually do well in these top 20 sites, you end up doing well on the several thousand sites that follow those and share a lot of information."


Though full of content, skiutah.com has not worked well with the crawling process used by search engines. In crawling, an automated program goes through text on a site and incorporates it into its search engine.


"Our job is to take this site and then match up all the searches throughout the Web with the actual content skiutah.com has," Eaves said. "So one of the things we've done is take the site and make a few modifications to try and make it easier for a site to crawl it." That means an automated program is going in there and scooping up the text on the site and incorporating it into their search engine.


Once the keyword research is completed and roadblocks removed for searches, Cogbox will recommend a search engine strategy for optimizing searches.


The agency then will suggest registrations on search engines or pay-per-click or pay-per-inclusion buys and even reciprocal linking campaigns. Finally, it will monitor the response to searches.


"This is not just a site placement problem, it is an overall awareness problem of what Utah has to offer in the ski industry to begin with," DeCol said. "So there are two opportunities - the need for skiutah.com to become well-positioned, but also accomplish awareness in the process." n


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