Here are 10 techniques that can be used to drive a lot of traffic to a hostel's Web site. It's not a comprehensive list, but just a quick introduction to some effective Internet marketing techniques. If you have an enthusiastic, tech-oriented employee(s), many of them can effectively be done "in-house".
(These techniques also work for hotels and any kind of Web site.)
1. Search Engine Rankings
Many hostels try to rank well for their main keywords like "[city] hostels" and related keywords.
There is much more that can be done though. A hostel's Web site can rank for thousands of destination-related keywords. The extra rankings bring a lot of additional traffic, as well as make the site more useful to visitors.
An example of a way to expand on a basic SEO effort on a hostel's site is to systematically build destination guides that target keywords that relate to the hostel's city. A hostel can rank for many event and attraction keywords in their city. Travelers are looking for things like "hostels near [famous attraction]" and "cheap accommodation for [Festival X]" and "memorial day weekend in [city]".
Systematically build a page about each [famous attraction] and optimize it as mentioned in my free online marketing ebook. Each well-designed page should attract traffic hundreds of new keywords related to [famous attraction]. This is only limited by the number of pages you create.
Online travel guides for a specific city or cities makes the site useful to backpackers also. They will appreciate that the hostel's site is more useful and more current than their printed guidebooks. Travelers could also download a hostel's PDF versions of city guides onto their portable devices. (PDF versions should have different content though or else be blocked with robots.txt to avoide duplicate content.)
Tip: don't link directly to external Web sites. Link to pages on your own site about the external attraction that then links to the external Web site. This will pick up a lot of additional search engine traffic.
If your hostel is in one of those cities that almost all backpackers go to when they visit your country, you can use this technique to greatly increase the chance that a backpacker will view your site during their trip planning.
Landing pages can be designed to help lead the visitor to either make a booking (e.g., special offer for limited time) or to become a repeat visitor (e.g., content is comprehensive enough that they will bookmark it as a top resource to your destination).
2. Hostel Blogs
Adding blog software is one way to build out content like the above-mentioned travel guides in steps so that there is not too much pressure on hostel resources. (Even enthusiastic front desk staff can be used to help write the content.) The project can start small and grow as more content is added in stages. (More content ideas here)
For maximum effect, each blog post should be as carefully crafted as any other page on the site. A catchy title that includes a keyword or two is very effective.
A blog is the method for adding social media optimized content to a site (see below).
3. "Blog & Ping"
The technique called "blog & ping" works well. It could be called "Feed & Ping" because it doesn't require a "blog".
It just means to create an RSS or ATOM feed for all new content and ping Pingomatic.com and Google Blogsearch when a new page is added.
This gets content indexed almost immediately when new pages are added and also gives additional listings in specialized search engines.
An introduction to the technique is in my free ebook.
4. Local Search Optimization
Optimizing for local search is mentioned on the site in a few places already. It's a killer technique, though only works in major cities.
Also be sure to list a telephone number on the pages like this in Skype format:
Telephone: +1 (xxx) xxx-xxxx
The keyword "telephone" will pick up additional search engine traffic, and the Skype-formatted phone number will allow people with a Skype toolbar to click on the number and immediately call the hostel to make a booking.
Put your address on your Web pages in a format that Google Maps can read:
Address: My Hostel, 123 Main St, Boston, MA 02129
It increases the chance that Google and other search engines will read the address out of the Web page and give you an extra address feature in the search results:
You can also markup the addresses with Microformats which is a way to give machine-readable data to search engines and other machines -- but that technique is slightly more advanced.
5. Social Media Optimization (SMO)
The social media sites ("Web 2.0" sites where users share content) are a way to get a hostel's brand virally passed around from user to user. If a site can develop viral content that users like, users will share it with other users and send avalanches of traffic to the Web site. The traffic can be targeted to people that are interested in your travel destination.
Once a page of content goes viral, it naturally attracts more inbound links which then boost the overall rankings of the site for its main keywords. It is not uncommon for a good page of viral content to quickly get 10,000 to 15,000 (or many more) visitors and some new inbound links.
Social media optimization is mentioned in my free ebook.
6. Piggyback Search Engine Rankings
There are many ways that this can be done. It's mentioned in my ebook and this page.
7. PPC Marketing
It can be expensive, but as long as there are empty beds in a hostel PPC advertising can help fill them.
All the hostel booking engines are using Google Adwords, and it can be effective enough that even the affiliates of the hostel booking engines (who are only making 2% to 5%) are using it.
If the hostel runs its own system for taking bookings it can use conversion tracking to measure the exact cost per booking on PPC advertising campaigns.
8. Link Building
In the eyes of the search engines, a link to a Web site is considered a "vote" for the quality of the site. The more high-quality, relevant links that point to a site, the higher it will rank.
Link building requires a lot of creativity. The ebook has a link to a page with some ideas.
9. Keyword Tracking With Web Analytics
If a hostel's Web site has a visitor tracking system (Google Analytics or AW Stats will do), the keywords can be monitored to help expand the keyword net.
The keyword net is a big net that you throw out in the search engines to attract visitors. The bigger the set of keywords targeted, the more visitors it brings. The destination guides mentioned at the top of this page are one way to expand your keyword net. Analyzing your keyword referrers is another way.
Example: looking at your keyword referrals shows that 10 visitors per months are coming from "keyword X". You then go to the search engines and see where the site ranks for "keyword X". If it's not in the top 5 in Google and it looks like a keyword that might attract bookings, then you can optimize the site to get into the top 5 (or #1) in Google.
10. Hostel Videos
If you make hostel videos and publish them on the major video sharing sites, Google and other search engines may embed your videos in the search results like this:
In Google's case it's called "Universal Search". The larger hostel booking engines publish a lot of videos...