SEBRING — Almost 40% of internet searches will not result in an external click, which means people look, but may not buy into an advertisement.

That’s a problem for a place like Highlands County, where internet searches remain one of the best ways to get the word out to out-of-area and out-of-state visitors about the things to do and see in the area.

According to information presented Wednesday at a county and tri-chamber sponsored event, nearly half the locally-based websites are incomplete, more than half don’t say when to call and more than 90% need better photos.

That’s what C.A. Clark, vice president of Digital Marketing for Miles Partnership, told to a room of local business owners/leaders and public officials about his Google.com audit of local cities and attractions.

Clark said that after a thorough look at the sites used to promote local events/attractions and to introduce people to the area, he found 47% of sites were incomplete, 64% have unverified information, 64% don’t tell the hours stores/attractions are open and almost all need better photography to attract those wanting to find a place to vacation.

The event where he spoke — the Tourism Industry Insights Luncheon on Wednesday in Seven Hotel at Sebring International Raceway — also had him give a seminar after the luncheon on how to better use free tools provided by Google.com to improve traffic to websites.

Another presenter at the event — Brian London of London Publications — is an economist who spoke about the perceptions people outside the Highlands County area already have about the area. He found many had no knowledge of the area at all:

• Of Sebring, 25% didn’t know.

• Of Avon Park, 38% didn’t know.

• Of Lake Placid, 43% didn’t know.

People did not find the area “hip or thrilling,” “adventurous” or “artistic,” London said.

Though, 25% did not find the area appealing, but 6% did. They saw Highlands County as tropical, scenic, historic, affordable, memorable, safe, a place for “foodies” and a source of “country living.”

It’s good to have such news “pierce our echo chamber,” London said, because a destination “cannot be all things to all people.”

Some basic rules or implications of tourism branding, he said, include “amplifying a known brand” versus an unknown brand.

“It’s easier to do because it’s already in the mix,” London said.

Visit Sebring’s logo utilizes a checkered flag, a brand of Sebring International Raceway and the annual 12 Hours of Sebring, an international event for more than 65 years.

Tying local lesser-known entities to such a brand helps give a potential visitor a broader connection to the area, London said.

Secondly, he said if other brands are less well-known, they should never be discarded; they should be enhanced.

A third implication, London said, is to “deliver what (people) want while remaining true to who you are.”

People want genuine experiences, he said: At old Spanish forts, they don’t want to watch a cannon get fired; they want to fire the cannon.

He cautioned tourism industry members, however, that “destinations” change. The Spring Break spot of 20 or 30 years ago is not that today.

The 12 Hours of Sebring, once like Mardi Gras and Spring Break, combined, is now a family-friendly event.

Clark said Google.com has tools to help spread the word about a place and promote their destinations. He trains people how to use those tools.

He planned to provide the Tourist Development Council — which sponsored the event along with the three local chambers of commerce — with a report on the audit and a work plan to improve those results; “content activation,” meaning placing content on Google to improve search results, and education/training in the Google tools immediately after the lunch.

Clark said he does dozens of such trainings, flying across the country and the world, but said the things he finds in the audits are amazing, and sometimes scary.

“Sometimes we find things that look great,” Clark said. “Sometimes we find weird things.”

The top 10 things the audit showed as attractions in Highlands County were:

• Highlands Hammock State Park

• Henscratch Farms

• Lake Jackson

• Highlands Art League (Artists’ Village)

• Harder Hall

• Dinner Lake

• Children’s Museum of the Highlands

• Bonnet Lake

• Little Red Water Lake

• Lake Lotela

His work plan, he said, would verify the online information for those top sights and local businesses, update missing information, add new photos — including 360-degree panoramas — and optimize results by tweaking keywords and tags in the website code to make sure they place well in Google searches.

Clark said some “content activation” would include uploading photos and videos to appropriate places in Google’s products, also to ensure good search results.

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