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How To Create Engaging Content That Users Really Love (with Todd Sarouhan from GoVisitSanDiego.com)

Ben Aston is joined by Todd Sarouhan, Owner of GoVisitSanDiego.com. Todd lived in San Diego for the last 25 years. He has a deep passion for the area and everything it has to offer locals and tourists alike. Listen to learn how to create engaging content that users really love.

Interview Highlights:

  • Todd Sarouhan is a destination marketing champ who’s the founder of Delfina Travel Group, and he has cracked the nut when it comes to creating engaging content for destination marketing. He successfully started, he grew, and then he developed Go Visit Costa Rica. That was 18 years ago in the early 2000’s. And then just to prove to everybody that he knows what he’s doing, he’s done it again. You can go to GoVisitSanDiego.com and see how he’s done it a second time around. [0:28]
  • Todd went to college and graduated in 1998. He studied Chemistry and when he was three quarters through it he realized that’s not what he wanted to do. So he finished his degree and decided to go backpacking and went to South America. [1:27]
  • Todd fell into the travel websites space and decided to do it for Costa Rica since he’d spent quite a bit of time there. Prior to the year and a half backpacking trip, he studied abroad in Costa Rica in college. [2:08]

“I love traveling and I love sharing my stories with everybody, and what a better way to do it than on the web.” — Todd Sarouhan

  • The Go Visit Costa Rica website has been live for 18 years. It’s one of the top sites in Costa Rica right now. [4:04]
  • Diversification is something that’s very necessary. Todd’s site got hit by various algorithm updates over the years, Panda being one. They lost a lot of traffic, so diversification is huge. [4:41]
  • Todd started building Go Visit Costa Rica in 2002. They had a small team and so they had to automate things. With Go Visit Costa Rica, there was a lot of learning, a lot of missteps. In Go Visit San Diego, they took everything they learned and put it all together in one big chunk. It took a year and four months to actually launch the website. [5:56]
  • Go Visit Costa Rica was built from scratch. In 2002, technology was much different than it is now so they decided to build a site in .net and build their own custom CMS. They wanted to make sure that people entering things into the site had the ability to do that, to do it easily, to do it efficiently. [7:04]
  • From day one, they started planning the content. The content they’d launched has about 500 pages on the site. Their average word length is about 1700 words. [8:12]
  • Todd launched Go Visit San Diego in January 2020. He did the actual programming and coding of the site. [9:20]
  • Todd’s biggest screw up was, in terms of content, they had it written by a company. Todd gave them very little direction on how to write the articles, so they are going to rewrite some of the hotel content to bring them to the level that the rest of the site is. [10:34]
  • One of the offerings on Todd’s site is hotels. They have about 230 dedicated pages to hotels on their site. They also have pages where people can book tours, a surfing lesson, or rent gear, and things like that. They also have information on Go Passes. It’s basically a pass that gets you into places like SeaWorld, zoos, museums, surf lessons, and all this stuff that people can visit. [17:09]
  • Over the years with Go Visit Costa Rica, Todd went through many different writers and never really gave them clear direction. And so for Go Visit San Diego, their whole content first approach was needed to make sure the content fit in their CMS. [18:53]

Even if you have an average writer, you’re going to make your average writer a good writer by just giving them what you expect.” — Todd Sarouhan

  • Another tool that Todd uses is Screaming Frog. It’s for finding issues with the site, like broken images, or broken links, and 404 pages. [28:00]

“Creating your own site is just better. You get to do exactly what you want. You don’t have to rely on plugins and things like that.” — Todd Sarouhan

  • Todd and his team are still adding new content to the site monthly. But their big project that’s up on the near horizon is a whole custom mapping part of the site that’s going to go on most of the pages. [30:07]
  • Todd took 18 years to launch his second site, which is the Go Visit San Diego. His next goal is to launch his third site in 2 years or a year and a half. [35:42]
  • The most challenging part of what Todd does is trying to get people. He’s good at managing people, but he had a hard time giving up the things he’s doing to hand it off to somebody else so they can do it a little faster. [36:59]
  • Todd’s personal habits that have contributed most to his success over the past two decades is keeping focused. [37:44]
  • Todd’s advice for someone at the beginning of their digital media journey is to have passion in whatever they’re choosing. [39:45]

“What’s really worked I think is having passion in whatever you’re choosing. If you don’t really like it, you’re not going to last very long.” — Todd Sarouhan

Guest Bio:

Todd founded Go Visit San Diego with the mission to connect travelers to different destinations as well as each other. An avid traveler himself, Todd has lived in San Diego for the last 25 years. He has a deep passion for the area and everything it has to offer locals and tourists alike. This drove him to create the site as a resource for others looking to explore the city he calls home and check out its many attractions.

Go Visit San Diego was born from a love of travel, which also previously inspired the creation of Go Visit San Diego’s sister site, Go Visit Costa Rica. With the Go Visit Costa Rica team, Todd has created a long-standing travel site, which sparked interest for creating a similar site all about his current home of San Diego, California.

photo of Todd Sarouhan

“I want to have a portfolio of travel sites of destinations that I love because you have to have the passion. You can’t just go and launch a site for someplace you’ve never been.”

— Todd Sarouhan

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Read the Transcript:

Ben Aston

Welcome to the Indie Media Club podcast. I’m Ben Aston, founder of the Indie Media Club. We’re on a mission to help independent bootstrapped media entrepreneurs succeed to help people who create, promote, and monetize through content — do it better. Check out indiemedia.club to find out more.

So today, I’m joined by Todd Sarouhan. He is a destination marketing champ who’s the founder of Delfina Travel Group, and he has cracked the nut when it comes to creating engaging content for destination marketing. He successfully started, he grew, and then he developed Go Visit Costa Rica. That was 18 years ago in the early 2000s. And then just to prove to everybody that he knows what he’s doing, he’s done it again. You can go to GoVisitSanDiego.com and see how he’s done it a second time around.

So, keep listening to today’s podcast to learn how to create engaging content that users really love.

Hey Todd, thanks so much for joining us today.

Todd Sarouhan: Cool. Thanks for having me. 

Ben Aston

So I’m curious, I was checking out, I was stalking you on LinkedIn before we met today and I always look to see, what do people do at university? And they, you went and did chemistry and I’m so really curious how you went from a degree in chemistry to becoming an internet entrepreneur.

What, what happened? Tell me about that journey. 

Todd Sarouhan

Well, when I went to college, I graduated ’98 so internet really, I mean, it was just starting very baby steps, so that really wasn’t an option at the time. I studied Chemistry on a, like three quarters away through it I realized that’s not what anything I want to do then. So I finished my degree and then I guess that’s not knew what I do, I decided to go backpacking. 

And so I went to South America, I was gone for about a year and a half. I came home twice, one for a wedding, mine, but the other one for a for Christmas with my family. Anyway, it was really awesome. I still, when I got home and had no idea what I wanted to do. After a year and a half I had a great time, I learned a lot. 

But I kind of fell into Costa Rica, well into the travel websites space and I adapted it to do it for Costa Rica since I’d spent quite a bit of time there. Prior to the year and a half, I did a study abroad in Costa Rica in college and back, I don’t know, three or four times. So it just kind of like morphed and it’s just kind of funny how things work out and, you know, I didn’t realize traveling would actually be my career, you know.

Ben Aston: Yeah. So, what drew you specifically to Costa Rica? 

Todd Sarouhan

I went on there in a study abroad, really knowing nothing about Costa Rica in 1995. Costa Rica was pretty unknown at that time Uh, but the forest and all the images, all that stuff, which, you know, I grew up in Southern California. We don’t have that kind of thing. That’s what really drew me in. And then my eyes open, you know, once I got there and like, oh, there’s this whole new world and languages do matter, like in high school, chicken Spanish I thought it was, you know, not useful until actually now I’m fluent in Spanish. But yeah, I, I just think that just traveling, in general, is just an amazing thing. It’s kind of like drew me to all that stuff in my career. 

Ben Aston

Awesome. And so you went from travel to writing about destinations or specifically Costa Rica. But in terms of like understanding your why and what gets you out of bed, the problem you’re solving, is it for you more about enabling that nomadic or what was about enabling that nomadic lifestyle?

What gets you out of bed now? Because you’re no longer in Costa Rica. What is, what is your, why?

Todd Sarouhan

I mean, I still do travel a lot, still go to Costa Rica a lot. We have a team in Costa Rica, so that’s definitely something that still happens. I just, in general, I love traveling and I love sharing my stories with everybody and what a better way to do it on the web, you know. So we can literally reach millions of people.

In Costa Rica we have, that site’s been live for 18 years. I have no idea total amount of traffic but it’s a lot. And we’re one of the top sites in Costa Rica now. So we, we can tell our story to people and we can have them not only enjoy but learn about the world and different cultures. So that, that’s what really I guess is my Why.

Ben Aston

Awesome. And obviously, you’ve transitioned from just being focused on one property, Go Visit Costa Rica to now Go Visit San Diego. Tell us about that shifting focus or the diversification. What led you to doing that in the first place?

Todd Sarouhan

Well, I mean, a couple of things — diversification, as I found out the hard way, is something that’s very necessary.

You know, our site got hit by a various algorithm updates over the years, Panda being one. Lost a lot of traffic you know, obviously if you have multiple properties that, not to say it couldn’t all happen at once, the chances are much less. So diversification is huge, right? But also I was kind of after running a site for 18 years and you can probably imagine things get a little dull. 

You know, even Costa Rica is awesome. I love it, right? But still, you know, it’s 18 years, right? So having a new travel destination, I was like, what a perfect way to build my passion back up, you know? And I live in San Diego, so it just seemed pretty natural. 

Ben Aston

Awesome. And I’m curious as to, when you look back and compare your day one of deciding, Hey, I’m going to make Go Visit San Diego versus your day one of Go Visit Costa Rica. What’s the, what was different about that first step apart from maybe buying the domain names, or maybe you’ve bought all the domain names already, but what, what’s shifted in the past 20 years from the way that you approach building them? 

Todd Sarouhan

It, it’s completely night and day difference. Like not even comparable. I, you know, I started building Go Visit Costa Rica in 2002. I hit, I knew nothing about internet marketing or any of that, right? Or automation or all of that, and we’re all about automation on the site. We have a small team where three of us, actually just added one, but we’re small, right? 

And we had to automate things, but with Costa Rica there was a lot of learning, a lot of missteps, a lot of things I wish I had done that. Maybe some things you can crack and some things you can’t technically wise, right? Technology wise. Where San Diego, we took everything. All, everything we learned and we kind of put it all together in one big chunk, I guess. That’s just how we launched it. It’s still extremely difficult process for San Diego, right? It took a year and four months to actually launch the website. 

Ben Aston

And so, tell me about that process. What, that year and four months, how can you break that down at a high level? What happened month by month and why it took that long?

Todd Sarouhan

Well, we wanted to rebuild the site from scratch. So Go Visit Costa Rica was, was built from scratch as well but as you can imagine, in 2002, technology was much different than it is now. So we decided to build a site in .net and of course that meant a whole new rebuilt. So we built our own custom CMS everything was custom, right?

So we really wanted to make sure that a) like, people are admin, people entering things into the site had the ability to, to do that, to do it easily, to do it efficiently, ’cause that’s a huge roadblock I, and I’m roadblock, but I guess, uh it just sometimes if you don’t do it right, it can take a long time for something that could be quicker, right? 

So we put a lot of thought into that. We’d also just thought straight into the technology of like how we’re going to do the CDNs and things that didn’t really exist in 2002, which now exists makes life easier on different formats of images, WebP versus JPEG. There’s all these different things, like there’s thousands and thousands of things. 

So, kind of from day one started planning the content. The content we’d launched with about 500 pages on the site. As you can imagine, it’s a lot of content. I think our average word length is about 1700 words and that’s 500 pages. And not only did we need written content, we needed images.

We needed videos. We needed all that stuff that goes into creating a travel site. So, I’m not a writer, but I was deeply involved in the strategy on that. And creating the briefs, which I think we’ll get into in a little bit which kind of setting up our writers for success. You know, we don’t want to have send articles back because we don’t like them.

We, we want to get what we’re looking for. And so that, that was something that put a lot of time into, in page design and usability and speed and you know, all kinds of things like that. 

Ben Aston

Cool. So when you, when you started the project though, did you have a plan for, Okay, month one to three we’re doing content strategy and we’re doing backend development months three to six.

Did it look like that? Or was it more organic?

Todd Sarouhan

I think kind of, kind of, but I honestly, so I started it in January 2019, no, 2020, or right before the pandemic, right? So January 2020 and I had a really unrealistic view that we could launch it in four months. Right? I mean, I’m not even talking about getting the content written in four months, right? 

But just launching the whole thing in four months, obviously that didn’t happen. It just kept being pushed back and back and back and things that I thought would be, you know, take a few hours, took a week, you know. In terms of content, we had to read all of our content and that took a long time.

The actual programming, I did the coding of the site. That wasn’t like crazy, but there is a lot of details too, you know. You have to make sure it works on all the devices, and spacing’s right. And the usability and all that fun stuff. So that was a huge learning, learning curve. 

Ben Aston

And in, in that process of, of building a new site, can you share perhaps what your biggest screw-up was? Something that even though you’ve done it once before and you know, iterated on it however many times during the past 20 years you still screwed up unexpectedly? 

Todd Sarouhan

I mean, I would say, I mean, in terms of content, I was probably, we started with hotels. We have about, I think we launched about 180 or so hotels.

We had those written by a company. I gave him very little direction how to write that. I think it was like just very briefly like three sections, and this is about this, this and this. It wasn’t enough detail to give a writer so, sometimes like right now on some of the hotels we’re probably gonna have to go and rewrite those to make them to the level that the rest of the site is. We found that out after about a hundred and, I don’t know, 120 hotels written. 

Ben Aston

Okay. So that cost a lot of time and I guess some money as well. 

Todd Sarouhan

Right. Well, yeah, it will cost money. 

Ben Aston

So, I’m curious as to, I mean, let’s kind of switch into this, cause I think this plays into what I want to talk about in terms of creating engaging content that really resonates with users.

Tell me, what’s your kind of high-level philosophy, like what is engaging content to you? What, what do you think content or the characteristics of content that, that users do want to engage with and that you do see them getting those repeat visits those long dwell times, those click-throughs those lower bounce rates.

Is that what engaging content is for you or does it, how do you understand it? 

Todd Sarouhan

So, I mean, I guess from, from the beginning we decided that it was best to not just have a straight template and try to fit the content in. We decided to look at the actual content, say for a beach page or a neighborhood page, and of course, those are two different things, right? 

And, and for say neighborhood page where like, look, this one’s going to have seven sections that there will be an overview, there will be like things to do, and so on. Right? Parking, getting their tips, and we came up with like these templates for each kind of page.

Right? Let’s say sections for each kind of page on templates, right? So we probably had, I don’t know, 15 different, 20 different templates like that, and then designed it around that. We didn’t send anything to the designer until we had all that done. So we told them, we gave the designer very little room to screw up as well, right? 

So we kind of like started on a very sort of mobile first, but now we kind of started with content first, you know, like let’s, let’s make our content really fit into the site. And that actually made the site really clean and it’s easy to understand. You can take it in chunks and, and word, I mean, in the end, we’re trying to offer what the traveler is looking for, right?

Ben Aston

And so how did you, how’d you know what a traveler’s looking for? 

Todd Sarouhan

I mean, well, we’ve been in the travel business for a long time, right? So for Costa Rica we know what worked there and what content pieces of work and what pages had longer dwell time. And so we borrowed a lot from that of course, right?

So Costa Rica was a really big learning ground for us. And, and we kind of like developed a website architecture similar to Costa Rica and the things that did work. And there was parts of Costa Rica that didn’t work, right? Or still are kind of broken, but it’s just too much to fix without a rebuild, right? 

Ben Aston

Right. Cool. So, in terms of, you know, actually then creating that engaging content so you’re, you’re drawing insights from things that you know have worked previously on previous sites, or you’re trying to build around the architecture around usability and simplicity and around the content itself. 

But in terms of actually that on-page content, that the content that makes a user stay on the page and click through and properly then you getting paid. How do you, how do you do that? What’s your, what’s your, what’s your plan, your master plan for making sure that content is good? 

Todd Sarouhan

So yeah, so kind of started, like I said, and with the content and saying, okay, this will be six sections or this temple will be eight sections.

Then put that into kind of a design where between say each section, we would have a widget. That widget could be anything, right? It could be an image. It could be featured hotel. It could be popular activities. It could be a map. It could, all kinds of things. So for each one we kind of inserted these maybe dozen or 15 or so different widgets, the ones that made sense for that particular page, right?

For like a beach page, we’re going to feature some nearby hotels or some beach activities that can be done or a map, right? That shows where you’re at. It really wanted to not just have a wall of content, right? We wanted to break that up, break that experience up, but also use things in the, on the page, like all of our left-hand navigation is page navigation. 

So it floats with you as you scroll down the, you know, the left hand navigation stays there and each section as you’re in, it highlights where you’re at. So it’ll say overview or it’ll say I don’t know, get your gear. And that’s a little widget for this city pass that we have. 

Things like that so it kind of goes down, so the users really can see where they’re at. Some of these pages, I mean, I, like I said, it’s average content length is 1700 words, but a lot of them were in the two thousands. That’s a lot of words, right? And then we start to add images on that and you start to add other widgets.

I mean, you’re talking thousands, tens of thousands of pixels high, these, these pages and on mobile as well. It gets long. So we really want to engage the user and show them where they’re at and what they can do and how they can get there and things like that. 

Ben Aston

And so your, I mean, it might be worth talking about monetization.

So can you talk to me a bit about how the monetization works? Is it affiliates based on hotels, primarily? And attractions? I mean, you mentioned your past. Tell me about your monetization model and how that feeds into that kind of user engagement, because ultimately, you know, you want the user to do something but you want to help the user at the same time.

How does, how do they, how do you marry those two things? 

Todd Sarouhan

Well, we know that when people are looking, doing that from the research phase on traveling to a destination, they need, they need a couple of things. They need knowledge about the destination. That’s where our content site comes in. They need places to stay, or even suggestions.

People don’t know where to stay. People might have an idea of types of hotels they liked, but they don’t know where to say. So we’re offering our hotels. We have about now about 230 dedicated pages to hotels on our site. So when you go there and it’s a feeling, right? 

So we’ll, we’ll be like the Hotel del Coronado, we have a whole page about that, that we wrote the content that we took some of the pictures, some are taken by the hotel give us some of those pictures and, and of course we get paid when somebody books a room there, right? We also have tours. You can book tours, one day tours, or, you know, a surfing lesson, or you can rent gear, things like that.

There’s this thing called the Go Pass. That is basically a pass that they’re in, like, I don’t know, it does the major cities around the world, San Diego is one where you can buy this pass for 1, 2, 3, 4 days, five days and it gets you into like SeaWorld and the zoo and museums and gets you surf lessons and all, all this stuff that you can, as much as you can sit in in those number of days you’ve purchased. 

So that, that’s a big thing we push on this site. Then of course, we’re going to have display ads once we get to the traffic levels needed for that. 

Ben Aston

Awesome. And so in terms of, so you, you basically thought out the kind of the wireframes that architecture of the page that are going to be most engaging that users are going to resonate with. Talk to me about then briefing in the content to get that content created. Do you, did you need content briefs? It sounds like you alluded to the fact that you tried with a, you know, a very light brief, and then changed your mind and headed in a different direction.

And so talk to me about the writer content briefs, and how you develop them. What’s important in a, in a good writer brief?

Todd Sarouhan

Alright. So, I mean, over the years with Costa Rica I went through many different writers. Never really gave him clear direction. We’d get the topic and the word count, right? Really not much information past that and the stuff you get back is as expected, right? 

Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s just like wrong format, you know. Sometimes it’s good, it’s just things are in the wrong order or it just doesn’t fit into your site. And obviously for San Diego that this whole content first approach, it needed to fit in, like in our CMS, you have to put the content in by section.

So there’s a six sections on the site for that particular page, then you put it in by six sections, that’s how we put widgets in between. So that made it really necessary that each section was about the right thing that was consistent, you know. It’s all about consistency too, because we want the user to know what to expect once they’ve been on our website, then they’re going to know like, Oh, look in this section, I’m going to find the tips or parking or whatever, right?

Really necessary, create those really detailed briefs. And most people I’ve talked to, they don’t do that, but I have to say, like, even if you have an average writer, you’re going to make your average writer a good writer, like just giving them what you expect.

Ben Aston

And so talk to me through the process of creating those brief, so you’re detailing section by section, here are the things to include and these are the keywords to include within those sections or how to, what level of, what level of detailed are you going to them?

Todd Sarouhan

So we did divide section not by page, right? So say like the parks and nature section, which has all the different parks and hiking trails and stuff like that in San Diego. The brief is for the section, not for the page.

Right? So you’d say, okay, so the first one would be like the overview of the park. So you’re going to talk about, you know, just the general information about the park, maybe when it was created kind of maybe the anything general about it, right? And then the next section would be the history.

So a little bit about the, you know, we’re talking like, I don’t know. So we actually put the word count in there as well. You put, so, okay a section about history and then the next one, that type of nature you’ll encounter at this park or in the next section, what it’s known for things you can do there, ’cause all of them are a little different. 

They’re not all the same, of course. Right? So you want to give them a little bit of room to write about it, but these are the general topics. So the fifth section, like Getting There and Church and the last section is Know Before You Go & Tips, which actually that’s the last section of almost all of our pages.

Right? And parking was a big one too depending on what kind of page it is, right? So once you get that there, then it’s like per, like, I don’t know. You, you give them two or three, like additional things and say in the overview or in the history and you kind of give them like the right direction to go.

We don’t give any keywords at this point. We do throw onto some of the higher volume pages. You know, we’re not writing for volume, right? We’re not creating a page based on volume, search volume. But on the ones that do have high volume, then we use tools like MarketMuse, right. Which then gives them extreme detail on exactly word count different sections, all the words you can mention and so on, right. 

But that’s kind of a an add on thing to the brief, the brief is the real, what they have to go by. 

Ben Aston

Okay. So you’re, you’re predefining section by section, here are the things to include and you’ve made those sections uniform across the sites so writers know what to, what to expect and you know what to receive. It all fits in well with your CMS and then in terms of like managing that process then so you’ve got here hundreds of pages. You’ve got hundreds though of different sections of content, which is you’re developing them section by section. How did you manage that process of, I mean, each page has got multiple sections in it. We’re talking about probably thousands of different sections and being written by different people.

I’m curious how you manage, how you manage that kind of whole process? 

Todd Sarouhan: Like the actual writing of it?

Ben Aston

Yeah. How did you manage the, all those thousands of pieces? The moving parts. 

Todd Sarouhan

I mean, the, we had to read the content, you know, and luckily there was very little edits. Every now and again you get some small, you know, maybe like on directions or things like that, but there was very little edits to them because we gave him so much detail.

It was really high level. I don’t know-how about the low, low level, I guess. They just knew exactly what to write about. And if you put MarketMuse on top of it, I mean, it is, it is a whole proof article that, and some things that we didn’t even realize dimension. We were like, oh yeah, you should talk about that. You know? 

Ben Aston

Yeah. And so you’re bringing together these thousands of little nuggets of content in sections talk to me about visuals then and, and were they part of the brief to find, to find interesting visuals that bring this section to life? Or how did you deal with that and, and use visuals to break up the content?

Todd Sarouhan

Yeah. So I actually laid that out, right? In fact, not graphically, but in a, like a spreadsheet, you know? So you have like content 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and in between that, depending on the page type, you’re like, okay, under here, let’s do a feature of hotel. Or here let’s do main image collage or under here, and let’s do you know, popular activities and things like that, right? 

Or the Go card feature. And so that was based on type of page and what we, what we think people are looking for, right? So if it’s under Parks & Nature, they’re probably not looking for a hotel, right? So we did feature hotels as much there. We’d feature, you know, maybe outdoor tours, things like that, things that we think that they’d be interested in.

So that was a section by section. And like I said, there’s about, I don’t know, 15 to 20 of those. Right? So it did take time for sure, but in the end that really, it really pays off just getting the usability down. 

Ben Aston

Cool. So one of the things you mentioned is MarketMuse. I’m curious what other tools you’ve used and liked or not liked as part of that process of creating all this content and optimizing the content. What is in your, what is in your toolkit?

Todd Sarouhan

Well, now that the site’s launched, of course, we use like Ahrefs, and I rely pretty good on Ahrefs. MarketMuse is still really big. MarketMuse has a lot of different things to it. I really liked that tool. It’s a little expensive, but I think it’s worth it, you know. 

Ben Aston

What are the, what are the tools in the market, what are the tools in MarketMuse that you find most useful?

Todd Sarouhan

Well, to begin with is I think, I think they call them their Briefs, right? So that’s when you give them a topic like San Diego zoo and they give you back this, this list of things like, okay, here’s what your title should be. Here’s what your first section H2 should be. And here’s all the things to mention in there.

And here’s the actual word count, the percentage of word count for this section and section two. And they actually give you the names, right? If they give you the content or like the titles, right? And then it says, mention these 30 words or things like that. Right? Word count and percentage of sections worked for the word count.

Those are amazing when you give that to a writer and that writer uses them, which is another issue right? You’re going to make sure you’re using all this stuff, right? Then that’s when you start to get these really, really awesome articles. So, but once we launched, then MarketMuse will actually index your site.

And they’ll start to tell you where you’re like, what pages are starting to get more topical authority than other pages and where you can start to, like, okay it’s going to be easier to rank on this page for this particular topic. So that’s really been helpful. 

Ben Aston

Cool. 

Todd Sarouhan

And shout out to Jeff Coyle on that one. He’s awesome.

Ben Aston

Yeah. So you’re using MarketMuse for that content optimization and Ahrefs for tracking keywords and keyword research. Any other tools that you’re using as you develop content? 

Todd Sarouhan

Well, I use Screaming Frog, but that’s not really for content. That’s for finding issues with the site, you know, broken images or broken links, 404 pages.

You know, hopefully, you don’t have any internal error pages, but it’ll find that as well. So that I always like to make the site super bulletproof where there’s just, there’s really nothing that’s broken on the site, right. So we use that as well. Of course, Google Search Console is nice tool to use and analytics, of course. Right? 

Ben Aston

And I, I’m curious, going back to their technology, you talked about you, you develop your own CMS in .net. Was there a reason you went for that rather than WordPress?

Todd Sarouhan

So I really don’t like WordPress. I don’t like how, it’s not just WordPress. I’m not picking on it. It’s like Drupal’s the same way.

It’s just out of the box, try to create this out-of-the-box product that for millions of sites to use that, of course, it’s going to be overkill for anyone site because there’s going to be many sections aren’t used and things like that. So speed’s always been a big factor in my new sites and obviously in search now.

So just being a developer on, I don’t know, it’s, it’s something that creating your own is just better, you know. You get to do exactly what you want. You don’t have to rely on plugins and things like that, you know. It’s also pretty good with security too, because nobody knows your code. For WordPress they know your code.

Ben Aston

Yeah. Cool. That, yeah, that’s interesting. And so in terms of the, what you’re trying to build and how you’re trying to develop the Go Visit San Diego site, what’s, what’s on the roadmap for you as you, you know, you you’ve pumped out a ton of the content to launch the site. What are you trying to build now?

Where, where do you hope to see it in the next year? The next five years? What’s your, what’s the roadmap there?

Todd Sarouhan

So, so right now there’s still things that we’re missing upon launch that we’re adding. Of course we’re, we’re adding new content, from day one we started adding new content, right? So we’re, we’re doing that monthly, adding new content.

But the big project that’s up on the near horizon is a whole custom mapping part of the site that’s going to go on, on most of the pages, where basically it’s going, we’re using Esri Maps, which is like a Base Map that Google maps uses, right? And then you put layers on that so you can put it like a layer of hotels.

Let’s say we have downtown San Diego in the map, you put your layer hotels that, and then when people move the map, they’ll actually be able to move all the way up to ocean side and still see all those hotels, right? So I’m going to have to reload them. Everything’s done in the background. But we’re going to, you know, add breweries and hotels and beaches and attractions and all kinds of things, just so people know where they’re at, right? 

Because that’s another thing, just trying to find places that you don’t know and just, just not knowing is Maps are huge. Google Maps are great, but unfortunately, anybody but Google can’t use it. The rich features they have, they do have a very paired down version of the Google map, which is very expensive to use if you have a lot of traffic.

So that’s why we decided to create our own. So that, that’s I’m super excited about. 

Ben Aston

That’s cool. And then in terms of the roller, I’m curious about that as well, because your approach was, you know, build a foundation of content before launching rather than just drip feeding as you went. Talk to me about the strategy around that big release and, and how you went about that. What happened on launch day?

Todd Sarouhan

So a lot of people talking about this. The thing is the site’s not a blog, right? So it’s not just content and you’re not like adding content chronologically. It’s a destination site, so it’s really centered around neighborhoods. We have about 47 neighborhoods right now in San Diego.

Sit around neighborhoods around beaches, which every beach is about 75 beaches we have here. So we couldn’t just launch it halfway, you know, like it’s like buying a guidebook that half of it’s just blank, you know. We had to have like the major stuff in there, like the neighborhoods and the beaches and the things do their hotels, but we’ve added some hotels since, right?

But we, we had, I think about 180 at launch like 230 now, right? And of course, we’re adding more articles. For sure there’s more things to add, but we needed that base in there upon launch. That was something that was super important. 

Ben Aston

Awesome. And then in terms of in terms of users and repeat users you know, we talked about the on-page interaction about, yeah, in creating an engaging layout and then thinking about the content strategy and how that translate onto the page to make this really engaging. In terms of your user acquisition strategy, I mean, do you do, did you combine that with any social media email list building how are you driving traffic to the site on launch to make sure it gets picked up so that it starts indexing so people start going and coming back. What was your plan around that? 

Todd Sarouhan

So we of course we have social, we’re actually starting a really big push on YouTube right now. Where we’re going to start launching like four or five videos a week. I’m trying to get some really big push on YouTube Instagram and Facebook and all that.

But YouTube and Instagram are kind of the focus right now. I mean, we, we had a pretty authoritative site for Costa Rica. So of course, you know, sister site linking over, but you know, it takes some time too, right? Nothing’s going to happen immediately. Do a little bit of paid ads and tried it, just try to get that initial push that we need, you know? So that part for sure is a little frustrating ’cause you want your baby to go, right? But you got to, you got to walk before you run, I guess. 

Ben Aston

And so, yeah. How has the traffic matched or not matched your expectations and how is that developing? 

Todd Sarouhan

I mean, my expectations? I had no idea.

I hadn’t launched a site in 18 years, you know, and of course 18 years ago is much different than it is now. So it’s going slower than I want it to go, but it’s still, I mean, it’s, we’re, we’re ranking. We have some number one keywords that we rank for, you know. We’re doing awesome on beaches right now. It’s just about building, building this topical authority.

Again, MarketMuse is a great resource for that showing us like what is really gaining authority and what is isn’t, you know. So we, we need to just continue to do that. I think I have a lot of confidence it’s not going to be a problem. 

Ben Aston

Awesome. And so, I mean, you’ve talked a bit about what’s on your roadmap with literally creating maps about doing more on social, creating, you know, building out your video, what, what as you’ve kind of looked back on the past 20 years and now, you know, look ahead to the next 20 years, what are you trying to get better at as a site owner, as a site operator? What are the things that you are trying to become even more expert in? 

Todd Sarouhan

So, you know, it took me 18 years to launch site number two.

I want it to take like two year, a year and a half to launch site number three, right? Not, not 18 again. So I want to have a portfolio of travel sites of destinations that I love, because you have to have the passion, you know. You, you can’t just go and launch a site for someplace you’ve never been. There’s a lot of local knowledge in these sites so that, you know, I want to in the next year and a half to two years launch another site and, and do it again.

And I think as we continue to do it, we’re going to get better and more efficient. Maybe the launch will take a year instead of a year and four months right? Or maybe we can get it to 10 months, right? I think that that’s kind of like for the future I know I love doing this stuff, so it’s, it’s awesome to wake up and you’re doing research on stuff you love.

Ben Aston

Yeah. 

Todd Sarouhan

That’s great. 

Ben Aston

Definitely. Well, what are they, what are the worst bits of it though? I mean, it, you’re clearly passionate about creating content, you’re a bit of a geek building stuff out, and you let the technology side of it as well. Well, what’s the worst, most challenging part of what you do? 

Todd Sarouhan

Trying to get people. So we have a small team, right? And managing them, which is great. Everybody, you know, we’re super small and super close, but you know, you’ve got to manage people. That’s, I mean, I’m okay. I don’t, I’m not bad at that, but I have a hard time giving up things I’m doing, you know, to, to hand it off to somebody else so we can maybe do a little faster.

So that’s something I’m working on, trying to let go a little bit, right? 

Ben Aston

Cool. 

Todd Sarouhan

Finding the right things to let go on. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. Well, let’s close out with a lightning round and I’m curious to know what of your personal habits do you think have contributed most to your success over the past two decades? 

Todd Sarouhan

That’s a tough one, right? But I think keeping focused is a really, you know, especially working at home you’re, you’re alone. I mean, we have a team, but we’re all remote. So you just really have to keep focused. So I love to surf and I think that’s something that’s, that helps me out. So it’s kind of my zen, you know. 

Ben Aston

Awesome. Can you share an internet tool or resource that you use regularly that you love? 

Todd Sarouhan

Well, I mentioned MarketMuse site. That’s one of the new ones I, you know, I’ve been using that for the past year and a half and I, I really like it. The more you dive into it, the more useful it is, and that’s something I’m really into right now.

Ben Aston

Cool. What book have you read recently that you’d recommend, or that’s really influenced your thinking or your approach to, to the way you do business?

Todd Sarouhan

So I’m finding like, I love reading nonfictions stuff, right? So I’m always reading about like business stuff or, and I have, I seriously have stuff like this because I love buying the books and I read the first chapter and I, you know? But one book that really stands out, which I actually was at a conference, a search conference.

And it was just given to you, you know, it was like on, on the table and you walk in I cracked it open like two months after I went to the conference, but it’s called “Making Websites Win”. And it’s about usability. It’s awesome. It’s a great, great book. And I actually, well, I haven’t read the hundred percent, but I’m probably like 80% of the way through it, which is what, which is really good for me.

Right? But it’s a great, it’s a lot of, of just kind of hands-on how you, how you do usability tests and, and design, and UX and all that stuff, you know. It’s, it’s kind of geeky, but it’s awesome. 

Ben Aston

Awesome. And for someone at the beginning of their digital media journey, maybe they are thinking about starting their first site what piece of advice would you, would you give them? 

Todd Sarouhan

I would say for me, what’s really worked I think is having passion in whatever you’re choosing, right? I don’t think if you don’t really like it, you’re not going to last very long. You’re not going to last those ups and downs that unfortunately entrepreneurship has.

Sometimes a lot of it, right? So you really need to pick something you have a lot of passion. I think that will help even out those down times, you know. 

Ben Aston

Definitely. Cool. 

Well, Todd, thanks so much for joining us today. Where can people find out more about you and what you’re doing? 

Todd Sarouhan

So of course they can visit our site at Go Visit San Diego and we have a contact form on there and also Go Visit Costa Rica, a contact form on there, but I’m on LinkedIn as well. So I’m an open book, so if anybody wants to get ahold of me can either write on either of the sites in the contact form or go to LinkedIn and I’d love to help anybody. 

Ben Aston

Awesome. Well, Todd, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been great having you with us. 

Todd Sarouhan

Well, thank you so much. This has been awesome.

Ben Aston

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