Optimize Your Destination Marketing: Secrets We Learned From Analyzing 221 US City Websites

by Olga Zheliabina
16th Nov, 2018

As an international digital marketing agency, DesigningIT frequently partners with clients in the highly competitive tourism industry. As part of our efforts to provide the very best SEO service, we conducted research into the most popular US city websites.

About Our Research

We've evaluated a litany of SEO metrics to establish strengths, weaknesses, and opportunity gaps. Then we turned our data into actionable SEO strategies essential for destination marketing.

Our research encompassed 221 US city websites and yielded an immense amount of highly valuable data. To simplify our findings, we leveraged complex formulas to give these websites the following scores:

Domain Authority

Domain Authority (DA) is a score that measures the strength of a domain or URL. We determine that score by evaluating the domain or URL’s linking root domains and the number of total links. The resulting score is less a measurement of SEO strength and more of a metric that weighs your website against the strength of other websites.

It follows that the website with the highest DA score is more likely to rank higher in the search engine results page. This is because higher scores mean more quality backlinks, which lend your site more credibility in the eyes of the search engines.

Through our research, we calculated the average DA score for city marketing niche, making it crystal clear what number you must beat in order to outpace the competition.

Domain Authority Score Research Data

We used a combination of Citation Flow and Trust Flow to compile DA scores and find trends.

Citation Flow

Citation Flow, a trademark of Majestic, is a score between 0-100 that helps measure the link equity - or "power" - a website or link carries. It represents an evolutionary leap from the old metric, ACRank, and predicts how influential a URL is based on the number of sites that link to it. Links are not all created with equal weight, and because a strong link will have a relatively stronger influence on URLs, Citation Flow is based on stronger, more iterative mathematical logic than the old metric of ACRank.

Trust Flow

Also a trademark of Majestic, Trust Flow is a quality-based score between 0-100 and is used in conjunction with Citation Flow. Majestic collated many trusted seed sites based on a manual review of the web, a process which forms the foundation of Majestic Trust Flow. Sites closely linked to a trusted seed site have higher scores, whereas sites that may have some questionable links have lower scores.

Together, the Citation Flow and Trust Flow form the Majestic Flow Metrics algorithm.

The average DA score for US city websites is 46.3

(score range is 0-100, the higher the score the better)

Winners

Losers

Top 1

gohawaii.com

65.0

Bot 1

thisiseverett.com

12.5

Top 2

choosechicago.com

62.5

Bot 2

cwcinlandempire.org

modestocaonline.com

13.5

Top 3

travelportland.com

denver.org

visitphilly.com

62.0

Bot 3

oceanside.com

14.0

Chart:

Column chart with Domain Authority scores of US city websites

Figure 1: Domain Authority of US city websites.

gohawaii.com

choosechicago.com

You might have noticed that the top cities are also some of the most popular cities in the country, which leads to the obvious conclusion that a city’s popularity is solely controlled by its DA score. I mean, no one ever heard of Portland before the Internet.

Ah, if it were only that simple. The average DA score for the 221 city websites is 46.324. The majority of the 221 cities scored a 30 or higher. Only 13 city websites achieved a DA score lower than 30. In comparing the DA scores with the most visited cities in the US in 2017, we found that almost all the most visited cities had a stronger DA score than average.

There are a few exceptions, however. The relatively small cities of Richmond, CA and Lancaster, CA scored a 33,5 and a 39 respectively. Richmond is home to a little over 100,000 people, and Lancaster has 156,000.

visitrichmondca.com

destinationlancasterca.org

Why should destination marketing professionals pay attention to DA?

The answer is pretty straightforward. Raising your DA score greatly influences your search engine ranking. The figure below shows a clear correlation between Domain Authority score and Search Visibility score, proving again just how huge of an impact backlinks have on the amount of traffic and ranked keywords for city websites.

Chart:

Domain Authority and Search Visibility scores comparison of US city websites (area chart)

Figure 2: Domain Authority and Search Visibility comparison.

Key steps to improve your website DA score

Quality Backlinks

We cannot stress enough how vital quality backlinks are to your DA score. So when trying to improve yours, evaluate your website’s backlinks for quality. If you find that many of your backlinks come from less than credible sources, work with your marketing team to put your URL in the hands of better, more credible websites. Get backlinks from relevant websites with high DA scores of their own.

Technical SEO

If someone audited your site’s SEO, would they find a clean, error-free technical infrastructure? Or would they find broken links and unorganized metadata? Precise technical SEO is crucial for high DA scores. And don’t forget to build strong internal linking.

Content Quality

Content low on good keywords can affect a DA score. So can content stuffed with too many keywords. It’s also smart to diversify your content. Don’t harp on just one subject. Regularly add useful, engaging, and informative content on a variety of topics. And make sure it’s shareable.

Search Visibility

A website’s Search Visibility (SV) score is the percentage of clicks it receives due to its search engine ranking among other websites from our research (competition). It determines how each city website is organically ranked, as well as the results of any Adwords campaigns, and how much organic and paid traffic they receive.

Two major components of your SV score are organic rankings and pay-per-click advertising, which can boost website traffic and conversion opportunities through keyword rankings. To maximize their impact, both organic rankings and PPC content should be high quality and built around niche concepts and phrases that website target audience use or search for.  

The average SV score for US city websites is 6.67

(score range is 0-100, the higher the score the better)

Winners

Losers

Top 1

nycgo.com

66.6

Bot 1

exploreelkgrove.com

modestocaonline.com

0.01

Top 2

gohawaii.com

66.3

Bot 2

oceanside.com

0.02

Top 3

washington.org

56.5

Bot 3

visitcarrollton.com 0.04

Chart:

Column chart with Search Visibility scores of US city websites

Figure 3: Search Visibility of US city websites.

nycgo.com

washington.org

Yes, the gap between the top and bottom websites is massive. This is because the city websites maintain large differences in traffic size and number of ranked keywords. The bottom websites, as you might have guessed, receive incredibly low amounts of traffic.

Some cities such as New York and Los Angeles will always garner large swaths of traffic. Competing with them is nearly impossible without a huge offline promotion. But there are opportunities for websites with low SV scores to increase traffic, namely: building a strong digital city marketing strategy and investing in offline promotions.

Furthermore, the correlation between Search Visibility Score and DA Score is clear. The bottom websites have very low DA scores, and the top websites have very high DA scores.

  • exploreelkgrove.com (SV = 0.01, DA = 15)
  • modestocaonline.com (SV = 0.01, DA = 13.5)
  • oceanside.com (SV = 0.02, DA = 14)
  • nycgo.com (SV = 66.6, DA = 61.5)
  • gohawaii.com (SV = 66.3, DA = 65)
  • washington.org (SV = 56.5, DA = 61.5)

exploreelkgrove.com

Improve SV score through Paid Advertising

While SEO can take months to see a return, paid advertising can quickly and significantly affect the Search Visibility score. Since organic traffic depends directly on the DA score, the only way to achieve a near-immediate improvement to SV score is by promoting a city website through ads.

For example, experiencescottsdale.com has an average DA score (47.5), but its SV score (23.459) is much higher than average.

experiencescottsdale.com

Thus, if you want to improve your Search Visibility fast, implement paid promotion. But don’t neglect SEO. While paying for traffic can provide immediate gain, good SEO will bear fruit long after a promotion has ended.

On-page SEO

The On-page SEO score reflects how well meta tags, headings, content, and page loading speed are optimized. These key metrics are strong indicators of your competitiveness in Google, and websites optimized to Google’s liking are more likely to rank higher.

Title Tag Optimization

The website title tag is by far the most important website optimization element. A title tag should be short, yet descriptive enough for visitors to identify you and your business. Since title tags are the first element search engines see and index, they carry tremendous value. After all, one title tag is competing with thousands of others, so it not only has to be attractive to search engines, it must also appeal to users and entice them to further exploration.

Description Tag Optimization

The meta description should include a brief description of your website, focusing on the areas and services your business specializes in. And because meta descriptions pop up under a site’s search engine listing, try to think of them as small snippets of content. When a user scrolls through search engine results, your meta description can act as a selling point by grabbing their intention, addressing their query, and whetting their palette. But users might dismiss your website if the meta description is too generic or written poorly.

Headings Optimization

Good On-page SEO shows visitors what you want them to see, and guides visitors where you want them to go. This is accomplished in part by emphasizing certain areas of your website through various HTML tags, such as header tags [h1] [h2] [h3], Bold [strong], and Italic [em]. These tags tell search engines to consider the content within the tags important.

Content Optimization

A page’s main body content should provide users with capacious and comprehensive information. Therefore, it is vital for you to create unique content targeted at a specific audience. Headings and pictures alone will not win over the search engines.

Page Loading Speed Optimization

Page speed influences visitor behavior and search engine position, so compress your images, improve your hosting plan, and do whatever else you have to get those numbers down.

The average On-page SEO score for US city websites is 75.2

(score range is 0-100, the higher the score the better)

Winners

Losers

Top 1

visitwichita.com

shreveport-bossier.org

visitfortwayne.com

96.2

Bot 1

visitjackson.com

25.6

Top 2

newport-news.org

catchdesmoines.com

sunny.org

96.0

Bot 2

boise.org

28.8

Top 3

visitspokane.com

95.8

Bot 3

cwcinlandempire.org

35.0

Chart:

Column chart with On-page SEO scores of US city websites

Figure 4: On-page SEO of US city websites.

visitwichita.com

shreveport-bossier.org


visitfortwayne.com

An average On-page SEO score of 75.240 is pretty great, and only 14 sites have a score below 50. It follows that most city websites care about thoughtful, well-formatted titles, descriptions, H1 heading presence, content, and page loading speed.

The On-page SEO score directly impacts the number of ranked keywords and organic traffic, because the more your site is optimized for users (and search engine robots) the higher it will rank in the search engine results.

To put these insights into perspective, just look at Oklahoma City’s website, travelok.com. It has an On-page SEO Score of 95 and is ranked organically by 107,799 keywords, meaning it should rank pretty high ... and would you look at that! It currently maintains eighth place in the rankings of best websites (by the number of organic keywords), right after Philadelphia, San Diego, and Chicago.

travelok.com

visitphilly.com

sandiego.org

Correlation between On-Page SEO score and Search Visibility score.

The figure below depicts the influence of on-page optimization on search visibility (aka the amount of traffic and ranked keywords). While there is a clear dependence, one major defect is that popular city websites like New York City receive large amounts of traffic and rank for many keywords simply because they are very popular destinations.

Nevertheless, there is a visible score dependence, so it's safe to say that SEO optimization levels directly affect a website’s traffic amount and ranked keywords.

Chart:

Search Visibility and On-page SEO scores comparison of US city websites (area chart)

Figure 5: Search Visibility and On-page SEO comparison.

So when promoting a city website that lacks intrinsic popularity, it is crucial to emphasize SEO in order to drive traffic.  

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Mobile Optimization

The Mobile Optimization (MO) score reflects both mobile friendliness and mobile speed. A mobile-friendly website is one which displays correctly on mobile and hand-held devices, such as an iPhone, Android, or Blackberry, as well as iPads and tablets. Also known as responsive web design, these mobile-friendly websites “respond” to any device or display, making for a streamlined web-viewing experience.

Earlier this year Google rolled out the mobile-first indexing, meaning that Google will first use the mobile version of the website for indexing and ranking.

And since Google wants to provide its users with the best experience, they rank websites based on how mobile-friendly they are. The mobile experience of your website is now a key factor in this evaluation.

The average MO score for US city websites is 71.0

(score range is 0-100, the higher the score the better)

Winners

Losers

Top 1

visitknoxville.com

visitmilwaukee.org

87.5

Bot 1

visitglendale.com

33.5

Top 2

explorewesternmass.com

minneapolis.org

experiencegr.com

86.5

Bot 2

highpoint.org

35.0

Top 3

newport-news.org

86.0

Bot 3

visitrenotahoe.com

45.5

Chart:

Column chart with Mobile Optimization scores of US city websites

Figure 6: Mobile Optimization of US city websites.

visitknoxville.com

visitmilwaukee.org

Our research reveals that the average MO score just isn’t good enough to provide users with the best mobile experience. And while the importance of mobile optimization has been widely understood for some time (In 2018, 52.2% of all worldwide online traffic was generated through mobile phones), even some of the top city sites still have low MO scores.

Just look at:

  • discoverlosangeles.com 48.0
  • lasvegastourism.com 59.00
  • washington.org 60.5
  • visitphilly.com 65.0

discoverlosangeles.com

What’s even more concerning is that the tourism market targets users who typically rely on their mobile devices while traveling.

Overall Rank

The overall rank score combines Domain Authority, On-page (SEO) optimization, and Mobile Optimization.

The average OR score for US city websites is 64.2

(score range is 0-100, the higher the score the better)

Winners

Losers

Top 1

sunny.org

78.7

Bot 1

cwcinlandempire.org

32.7

Top 2

visitknoxville.com

78.3

Bot 2

visittyler.com

37.7

Top 3

bostonusa.com

78.1

Bot 3

thisiseverett.com

39.5

Chart:

Column chart with Overall ranking scores of US city websites

Figure 7: Overall ranking of US city websites.

sunny.org

bostonusa.com

The research shows that the most popular cities don’t necessarily achieve top OR scores. This is because their on-page SEO and mobile optimization are average, if not below average.

The table below displays the scores of our winners. While they all have very low Search Visibility scores (meaning they lack significant traffic and high search engine positions in comparison with sites like washington.org, gohawaii.com, nycgo.com), each excelled in optimizing their websites for users and search engine robots.

Overall Rank (OR)

Mobile Optimization (MO)

Domain Authority (DA)

Search Visibility (SV)

On-page SEO

#1

sunny.org

78.667

81.00

59.0

15.75

96.00

#2

visitknoxville.com

78.333

87.50

55.5

5.45

92.00

#3

bostonusa.com

78.133

81.00

60.0

9.78

93.40


Average scores according to our research:
  • Domain authority 46.3
  • Search visibility 6.7
  • On-page SEO 75.2
  • Mobile optimization 71.0
  • Overall Rank 64.2

Key Takeaways:

  • Out of 221 city websites, the winning cities are the ones that display the strongest SEO optimization, not the ones pulling in the most traffic and ranked keywords.
  • Such a high average On-page SEO score means that nearly all the city websites care about SEO elements like titles, descriptions, and page loading speed.
  • The low average Search Visibility score tells us that many cities still aren’t putting enough work into their digital success.
  • Domain authority score maintains the greatest influence over city site rankings, and websites with high search visibility scores have high DA scores.
  • Most of the 221 city websites score poorly in Mobile Optimization. Even the most popular US cities have lower-than-average MO scores.

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Organic Keywords and Paid Keywords (AdWords)

In addition to our scorecard, we researched a few more metrics that you might find useful:

Organic keywords

An organic keyword is a keyword used to attract free traffic through SEO. Organic keywords contrast with PPC keywords, which are bid on via paid search marketing campaigns. Organic keywords research identifies how many keywords are ranked organically.  

Paid keywords

By determining what keyword searches are most relevant to your business's offerings, you can bid on where to place your ads in the search results for relevant keywords. For example, if you sell footwear, you can ensure that people searching for keywords like "sneakers" or "women's boots" see your advertisements.

The average number of ranked keywords per website is 22,617

Winners

Losers

Top 1

nycgo.com

297,711

Bot 1

exploreelkgrove.com

83

Top 2

discoverlosangeles.com

205,695

Bot 2

modestocaonline.com

103

Top 3

washington.org

132,562

Bot 3

oceanside.com

229


The average number of paid keywords per website is 2,291

Top 1

gohawaii.com

89,461

Top 2

experiencescottsdale.com

36,909

Top 3

lafayettetravel.com

21,559

We don’t have statistics for low scoring websites because many city websites don’t use paid ads.

Charts:

Column chart with Organic keywords of US city websites

Figure 8: Organic keywords of US city websites.

Column chart with Paid keywords of US city websites

Figure 9: Paid keywords of US city websites.

lafayettetravel.com

Our research into organic keywords shows that a sizable number of city websites are ranked with a small number of keywords. On the flip side, half of the websites ranked up to 10,000 keywords. The best-ranked website is nycgo.com, which comes in 297,711 keywords (WOW!). To put this into perspective, the NYC website eclipses other city websites to such a degree that it has twice as many organic keywords and ranks as the third top website of Washington, DC.

Our research into paid keywords concludes that only half of the destination websites actually engage in paid advertising with Google Ads. It’s a mistake to underestimate the benefits of a paid advertising strategy, as Google Ads will help increase your city’s brand awareness while marketing and remarketing to high-quality audiences. Plus, with paid promotion you’re able to see results as soon as you configure the ads. Just look to top city websites like Seattle, WA, Indy, IN, and Independence, MO, which are integrating paid keywords into their digital promotion strategies and seeing fantastic results.

seattlesouthside.com

visitindy.com

visitindependence.com

Bonus

Domain authority based on geographic location

Another area of focus was the geographic locations of the city websites. Red dots represent a high DA score with a high concentration of websites while green dots represent a low DA score with a low concentration of websites.

Map showing geographic location of city websites’ Domain Authority scores

Figure 10: Map showing geographic location of city websites’ Domain Authority scores

Search visibility scores based on geographic location

We also reviewed the geographic locations of city websites that have low Search Visibility scores. Green dots represent a low SV score and red dots represent a high SV score.

Map showing geographic location of city websites’ Search Visibility scores

Figure 11: Map showing geographic location of city websites’ Search Visibility scores

All the cities that were part of our research:

Map showing geographic locations of all city websites included in the research

Figure 12: Map showing geographic locations of all city websites included in the research

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