A Look at U.S. Visitation to Canada Using Google Trends

Tourism Marketing organizations, like most marketers, have spent a lot of time and effort of late on search engine optimization strategies.  But a quick look at

Google Trends

shows that there may be a couple of counter-intuitive yet very valuable keywords that the tourism pros are ignoring.  And within the trends are some interesting insights into how Americans perceive Canada and how they go about planning their vacations.

Google Trends is most commonly used to fine-tune keyword selection for websites.  But it also provides an interesting glimpse into what and when people are searching and offers broader insights for tourism marketers.

If you’re not familiar with Google Trends, here’s an example showing the volume of people searching for the keywords “American Idol” in January 2007.  Notice how the trend line is flat at the beginning of the month (when the show was off air), then spikes mid-week when the show airs before declining again until the next week’s program.

While Google Trends is useful in selecting keywords, other tools like Trellian’s KeywordDiscovery application provide a faster way of narrowing down your search.  I needed to figure out whether to use words like “tourism” or “travel” in order to find the most relevant searches.  KeywordDiscovery gave the following results for “Canada tourism”:

And these results for “Canada travel”:

“Travel” was clearly the dominant search term.

So what are Americans searching for when they consider a trip to Canada?  My first instinct was to check for searches involving a few of our major centres.  A Google Trends query on “Toronto travel”. “Montreal travel” and “Vancouver travel” yields the following graph (isolated to show only searches originating out of the USA):

There are a few interesting points here.  All three centres enjoy roughly the same volume of search activity.  Search activity peaks in July, suggesting there are more last-minute vacation decisions than previously thought.  The Canadian travel industry traditionally focuses its marketing efforts earlier in the year (and that may be appropriate in terms of building consideration, but the timing of online efforts may need to be re-evaluated).

As shown on the lower part of the chart, the majority of this traffic is coming from border states (primarily those near Ontario and Quebec).  This makes sense as these areas have traditionally yielded the highest volumes of visitors and it may explain the last-minute planning behaviour as most of these travelers will drive into Canada.

When you include the keywords “Canada travel” in the query, the seasonal swings remain consistent but the city-based travel searches are dwarfed:

The top 10 originating cities also changes dramatically, with more mid-haul centres appearing on the list.

At one point, I thought the superior performance of “Canada travel” might be a quirk in how Google Trends does its calculations, or the aggregate effect of Americans adding “Canada” to a more specific search (i.e. travel banff canada), but the results are confirmed by KeywordDiscovery.  One would also expect the aggregate effect to boost the results of provincial names, but that isn’t the case (provincial names paired with “travel” in Google Trends don’t even yield enough data to display results).

We’ve often seen in research that Americans tend to view our country as a single block called “Canada” and that there is relatively (ok, very) low awareness of provincial names.  The trends in search habits are yet more proof.  All of which points to the importance of having a very strong web offering at the national level (The Canadian Tourism Commission’s Canada.travel is the #1 result for a search on “Canada travel”).

But here’s the real interesting bit, and the part that seems to have been largely overlooked by the Canadian tourism industry: the highest volume search relating to Canada among Americans isn’t “Canada travel” — both “Canada weather” and “Canada map” outperform the travel query.  Most importantly, all three queries produce the same cyclical pattern and originate from the same US centres, suggesting a relationship between travel, weather and maps (ok, not rocket science, but a massively overlooked factor in keyword selection in the industry).  Here’s the chart for weather:

And here’s the chart including “Canada map”, which in turn dwarfs both “Canada travel” and “Canada weather”:

If you search for “Canada map” you get a series of sites offering maps, but nothing relating to tourism:

Searching for “Canada weather” yields a similarly travel-free result.

A search of Google Adwords’ keyword analysis tool shows that both Canada Weather and Canada Map have higher search volumes than Canada Travel:

Best of all, the cost per click for a campaign using Canada Weather and/or Canada Map is less than a third that of Canada Travel:

You can debate whether a consumer is too far down the purchase funnel to be influenced by a destination by the time they start to investigate weather and maps, but the two areas offer a wealth of opportunities for local attractions, hotels and other players in the tourism industry.  More fishing around with Google Trends might yield even more interesting opportunities.

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