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How Airbnb Used Their Brand To Sustain Organic Traffic During A Pandemic

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When Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb went on record and said:

“What the pandemic showed us is that we can take marketing down to zero and still have 95% of the same traffic as the year before.”

Every single SEO from coast to coast screamed off the rooftops:

Look! Look! Look! Look what we can do!

Truth is… I was one of them.

I was quick to point out that last year I wrote a piece talking about the unshakeable SEO moat that Airbnb has created over the years. The SEO moat that Airbnb built is quite impressive. They have millions of backlinks. Generate millions of visits. And didn’t see traffic drop by more than 5% while putting their paid efforts on pause. In fact, since February 2020 (even amidst a global pandemic) Airbnb generated more than 713.5M visits.

For comparison…

  • VRBO had an estimated 387M.
  • Homeaway had an estimated 34M.
  • Hotels dot com had an estimated 346M.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

According to SimilarWeb only 24% of all Airbnb traffic is organic (ie. SEO).

So while SEO clearly played a massive role. It’s not the end of the story. In fact, in a Twitter thread started by my friend Brendan Hufford, the former head of design at Airbnb, called out a traffic chart that he shared saying:

Your chart correlates with the org structure and there being a team specifically focused on growing organic traffic. For example, we began working on SEO Jan 2017. The team was then disbanded in Jan 2018 only to restart in June 2019.

You read that right…The conviction that so many SEOs had about the SEO prowess at Airbnb is only somewhat true.

Airbnb didn’t start with SEO excellence. Airbnb is a brand that has evolved into one that recognizes and embraces the power of SEO as it matured. While Brian Chesky pointed to their ability to maintain and sustain high levels of traffic with paid media off — he didn’t point directly to SEO as the reason. In fact, yesterday he sent out a tweet (wildly ignored by the SEO community) that read:

“SEO was not one of the top growth drivers for Airbnb, and most of the SEO that we do have is branded SEO (people Googling “Airbnb”)”

Did you hear that?

It’s the sound of 415 SEOs unsubscribing from this newsletter because of my narrative violation.

Hear me out…

In my original post, I talked about some of the successes that Airbnb has had in SEO. In particular, I talk about how they rank pretty much #1 consistently for “Airbnb in [City]” thanks to a great programmatic SEO strategy. A quick Google search for “Airbnb in Manhattan” will take you to a page that looks very similar to the page you would find if you typed “Airbnb in Rome”.

This is programmatic SEO in action.

I’ve HUGELY bought into the idea that programmatic pages developed for SEO purposes are going to be the future of most highly visited websites. The approach that you take for creating a programmatic SEO driven campaign is straightforward and a page out of Airbnb’s book.

First…

You need to do research.

For Airbnb, the research was actually quite straightforward. Airbnb as a brand has evolved over the years. It’s evolved to a point where Airbnb is no longer just a brand name…

It’s become a verb.

Each month more than 27,000 people look for an Airbnb in Ireland. In comparison, only 14,800 people go to Google looking for a hotel in Ireland each month. The demand is real.

So recognizing this… It makes sense for Airbnb to develop a series of programmatic landing pages that focus on people looking for “Airbnb’s in [city]”. It turns out that millions of people are conducting searches for variations of that phrase every single month.

And that’s where the SEO strength of Airbnb comes in.

BUT…

SEO can’t take ownership over the fact that people are more likely to look for an Airbnb in Ireland than they are to look for a hotel in Ireland. That’s good old fashioned branding.

Uh oh. Did you hear that?

It was 540 self-described growth hackers unsubscribing from this newsletter because of my narrative violation.

Hear me out…

Airbnb is now a verb. It’s rare that a brand crosses the chasm from noun to verb. But when it does; it’s a sign that the brand has accomplished something special in the sense that it’s now a household name and very likely a leader in the space.

For example…

Kleenex. Jacuzzi. Hacky Sack. Vaseline. Play-Doh. Frisbee.

All of these ‘verbs’ are actually brands.

And Airbnb has quickly become one as well. When you think about getting an Airbnb — you’re really just thinking about getting a short-term rental or home owned by a human (and not a huge hotel chain). This is where Airbnb has actually built the strongest element of their moat.

The brand.

How do you build a brand like Airbnb?

It starts by having a somewhat interesting product. It’s easy to get high on your own supply and think your product is interesting but it’s actually quite boring. This isn’t to say no boring industry can create a successful brand moat. It’s happened time and time again. Kleenex for example…

Isn’t that interesting.

Neither is petroleum jelly.

The truth is… The idea of ‘being interesting’ is what happens when you come up with a novel way of talking about your value proposition. Couch surfing was a thing for years before Airbnb. But it’s Airbnb that had a vision that people connected with and a story that generated lots and lots of press over the years. In fact, the Airbnb website has had more than six hundred and forty MILLION backlinks since its launch.

Airbnb has been covered by New York Times, Huffington Post, CBC, Techcrunch, Fox, MSN, Time, Bloomberg, CNN and more. It was linked to as a place to stay on the official Tokyo 2020 Olympic site. It’s linked to by thousands of universities and government websites. It’s collected some of the most valuable ‘links’ available online organically and through public relations.

In the same earnings call that made SEOs excited — Chesky states:

“Our marketing plan, therefore, our strategy is the following: a full-funnel marketing approach. The top of the funnel is actually PR… We got more than 0.5 million articles in the last year, in 2020, and we had as much share of voice as most of the other major travel companies combined.. And that’s how we really built the brand of Airbnb – more than anything, probably, is PR. Second is brand marketing. We think of brand marketing as education and as an investment.”

This shouldn’t surprise you.

It also shouldn’t get any SEOs angry.

Yes. SEO is playing a role in the way Airbnb generates customers.
Yes. PR was a key factor that led to SEO actually working for them.

Two things can be true at once.

The basics as we know them in SEO is important. But so are the basics as it relates to generating PR and buzz. The old way of doing SEO is no longer enough. It’s not just about a couple links here and there along with a well optimized title tag… You also need to build a recognizable brand.

You need to build trust.

And it just so happens that generating a bit of buzz is a great way to do exactly that.

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