How real are the challenges to dethrone Google?

For years now hotel marketers have claimed that search engines are on the way out as a viable marketing and distribution channel in hospitality.

These claims, of course, have been followed with boasts of “the next big thing” to save hotel distribution – from social media to retargeting to the mobile channel. Some search engine sceptics point to the “declining” number of hotel and travel searches, supposedly evident from Google Trends, as the ultimate proof of the demise of the search engines.

Regardless of what some in the industry say, the search engines are still alive and well. There is a reason why the search engines are travel consumers’ favourite travel research and planning tool. Google in particular dominates hotel search; results provide deep and relevant information, the best mapping and directions, extensive customer reviews via Zagat’s acquisition and now provide real-time hotel availability and pricing via Google Hotel Finder. No other meta search or travel site comes even close to match the richness and relevancy of hotel information provided by Google.

HeBS Digital’s own experience categorically shows that more than half of website booking revenue across our client portfolio comes as direct referral from the search engines, including organic and paid search.

Case study:

Hotel search engine revenues – In spite of all the new and trendy digital marketing initiatives and formats that overwhelm hoteliers nowadays, the reliable old search engines generated over 55.6% of website revenue for HeBS Digital’s client portfolio consisting of thousands of hotel properties.
Here is the search engine (Google, Bing and Yahoo) year-to-date contribution as percentage from the total website revenues, as of November 30, 2012:

  • SEO revenues: 32.7%
  • SEM revenues: 22.9%

There is a direct correlation between the quality of the website SEO and the results from your paid search (SEM) campaigns. The better the SEO on the site, the better the quality index assigned to your paid search campaigns by Google, which means higher ad position, better conversion rates, higher ROIs and lower cost per click. A robust content strategy, supported by adequate technology and marketing funds, can make all the difference and allow the hotel to maximise its revenues from the search engines.

The misinterpretation of Google Trends – Google Trends is a public web facility of Google Inc based on Google Search that shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world and in various languages.

I believe that the search engine sceptics are seriously misreading the data and misinterpreting the graphs from Google Trends. To begin with, Google Trends merely depicts the searches for hotels as percentage from total searches on Google. The horizontal axis of the main graph represents time (starting from 2004) and the vertical is how often a term is searched for, relative to the total number of searches, globally. If there is any drop in the horizontal axis, it is due only to the fact that hotel searches now constitute a smaller percentage from the total queries on Google, compared to 2004.

This is it! The main reason for travel searches to have smaller share is the rise of other categories of interest to the increasingly Internet-savvy users.
Google’s own comment on such claims is as follows: “The assertion that hotel searches are down is not true. The numbers on the Google Trends tool are not absolute growth numbers. Rather, interest level in particular keywords is indexed against the growth of overall search volume. One keyword does not represent an entire category, nor does it represent a fair assessment of hotel search demand on Google as compared to any other search tool. To put it simply, growth in hotel searches may just be lower than that for other high-growth categories. Our internal data shows growth in search interest for hotels.”

Overall hotel searches on Google have never stopped growing – So what is the real situation as far as growth or decline in the number of hotel searches on Google? Total hotel-related queries on Google have never stopped growing, but there is a well-defined re-distribution of queries across the “three screens”: desktop, mobile and tablet.

According to Google’s data, 7% of all searches already come from tablets versus 14% from mobile devices and 79% via desktops (2012).
Google dominates search on the three screens – For all practical purposes, the desktop, mobile device and tablet address different user needs at different times of the day and week. This is why Internet users exhibit different behavioural patterns when browsing the Internet. According to Google, users searching Google utilise:

  • Desktop during the day (office)
  • Mobile during lunch break and happy hour
  • Tablet later in the evening when lounging – the tablet is a “lounging” device

Google has reported different search dynamics across the three screens: desktop, mobile and tablet for some time now, but there was a noticeable and dramatic increase in hotel queries in the mobile and tablet channels in 2012:

  • Overall (desktop, mobile and tablet): +34%
  • Mobile devices: +120%
  • Tablet devices: +306%

For 2013, Google projects an overall 24% increase in hotel queries:

  • Desktop queries will be down by 4%
  • Mobile queries will be up by 68%
  • Tablet queries will be up by 180%

More mobile and tablet searches = more hotel bookings – Technology has enabled travel consumers to become increasingly mobile and desktop-independent.

When on the go, they use their mobile devices to get concrete information such as hotel location, driving directions and pricing information. Due to usability and security issues, six of every ten mobile bookings actually happen via the voice channel. Very few people are comfortable entering their credit card information into their iPhone in a public place. Very few hotel mobile websites provide an alternative to guaranteeing your booking without entering your credit card. This explains why true mobile bookings (via smartphones) constitute a smaller percentage from overall online bookings.
In contrast, tablet users have no issues booking a hotel via their device. A well structured, highly visual tablet-optimised hotel website can generate conversion rates several times higher than those of mobile devices. Across HeBS Digital’s hotel client portfolio, tablets generate 200% more room nights and 430% more revenue than the “pure” mobile devices:

Apple’s iPad rules the tablet world: Over 91% of tablet visitors, 96% of tablet bookings and 98% of tablet revenue come from iPad devices.

Sources of traffic and bookings by device category
January-November 2012


HeBS Digital’s top ten recommendations for maximising your search engine presence:

1. Redesign your website

“Fixing” the hotel website remains of paramount importance to hoteliers. Anything you do online today – from social media to banner advertising to email marketing – leads back to the hotel website. The ongoing Google Panda updates (Panda 3.9 just launched) have made many hotel websites obsolete and have raised the bar for hotel websites, demanding not only deep and relevant, but unique and engaging copy. Redesigning your site allows you, with the help of analytics, to develop an intuitive site structure that organises relevant content. Additionally, this is the time to button up things on the back end: XML site maps, canonical tags, robot.txts on minor pages, site load speed and so on. Install a state-of-the-art content management system on the website.

Another important reason for the hotel website re-design is the growing need for centralised website content and digital marketing asset management technology. Hotel marketers are challenged to create and manage fresh content; store and distribute the hotel digital marketing assets; and circulate special offers and packages as well as events and happenings, all through several distinct channels. Managing a desktop website, mobile and tablet websites, and social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ can become overwhelming without a content management system.

Obviously, hoteliers need more than just a simple website CMS capable of adding and editing textual and visual content. For example, HeBS Digital’s CMS Premium offers all of the above capabilities and was specifically developed to accommodate the Google Panda and Freshness updates by allowing hotel marketers to maintain fresh content on the hotel website with no programming knowledge required.

2. Create engaging content on the hotel website

The ongoing Google Panda updates mandate that website content be not only deep and relevant, but also unique and engaging. Search engines are now looking for strong editorial content. Web content has always been the king of SEO – the recent Google Panda algorithm updates turned website content into the emperor. Each of the updates that punished poor practices ultimately underscored one thing: unique and engaging content is here to stay. Quality content has taken centre stage over the past 18 months, making it imperative to have strong copy supported by a focused SEO strategy.

Any hotel website without sufficient depth of content and without unique and engaging content, would have hard time with search engine rankings. HeBS Digital recommends a minimum of 25-40 content pages for a select service property, and 35-50 pages of content for a full-service property website. A big full-service hotel or resort’s website should start with 75-100 pages of content. Utilising the website’s CMS platform, create landing pages for each hotel special offer, package or promotion, as well as for events and happenings at the property or in the destination.

3. Use professional copywriting

You get what you pay for – cheap copywriters typically provide thin, lifeless content that does little more than take up space on a page. Take the time to find professional copywriters with both SEO and hospitality experience that can be called “travel writers” in their own right. These writers will be able to not only generate unique, engaging and quality content but also help you brainstorm ideas and provide guidance on how to best present the hotel product online. Money spent on lasting content is money well spent.

4. Develop a content creation plan

Building additional content does three things for your site. It creates deeper content, gives you more real estate to target segmented keywords and it increases your PPC campaigns’ quality scores and lowers their cost per click. Capture incremental revenue by targeting events such as nearby college graduations or upcoming sports games. Knowing these events ahead of time will allow you to post them far enough in advance to gain traction by the time the event happens and will prevent a last-minute rush. Develop content based on special offers related to local attractions, such as theme parks, museums and sporting venues. Ultimately, the goal is to allow the website content to grow by hundreds of content pages every year.

Now that you have done all this work on your website and its off-site extensions, set aside some money to maintain it. Having the flexibility to tweak your SEO strategy throughout the year is a great thing. Anticipate minor content changes, new landing pages, linking incentives and other recommendations your SEO team may have.

5. Implement mobile SEO

Quality content is the biggest “must-have” for a mobile site. The Google Panda algorithm updates favour mobile websites with rich visual and textual content that is fresh, engaging and optimised for the search engines. Having a hotel mobile website – even if developed according to industry’s best practices – is only the beginning. The mobile web abides by different rules that require mobile Web-specific marketing initiatives. Mobile search engines favour and predominantly serve local content; therefore, hoteliers need to optimise their local content and listings on the search engines, main data providers, and local business directories.

6. Create a blog on the hotel website

 The Google Freshness update values – you guessed it – fresh content. This can sometimes be difficult to do for a static product such as a hotel, which is where a blog comes in handy. A branded blog can keep followers up to date on the latest happenings at the property as well as area events and, for strong brands, include a lifestyle element. Keep in mind that a stale blog is worse than no blog it all.

7. Bring local search listings up to date

Since the Google Venice update, local presence has become more of a focus. Over the past year or so, the SERPs have changed to allow for more local results, meaning that it is even more important to have strong local search listings. Be sure that you have uploaded quality photos, included accurate information and written an optimised description.

All of this information will help you build a strong local presence and increase your performance in mobile searches, which are increasing annually.

Creating and maintaining a Google+ page is a vital component of any hotel’s SEO strategy. While Google+ may not be the sensation that Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are, it is the most important social medium when it comes to SEO. Google+ essentially gives Google direct access to your browsing habits, what results you find useful and what sites you give your seal of approval to. Once you create a page, put relevant users in your circle and interact with them. This will give you an opportunity to take up more real estate on the SERPs and show up more often in “personal results”.

8. Devise a quality inbound linking and citation strategy

The Google Webspam update further penalised link farms and purchased links. Generally speaking, paid links have very little SEO value. Go for unique “organic” links with relevant anchor text, such as editorial links and mentions of the property, listings on local CVB websites, local colleges, and nearby convention centres, theme parks and attractions. Remember: bloggers are your friend, so work with local bloggers to have your hotel mentioned and linked to in their blog postings.

9. Utilise online press releases to promote special offers

Press releases in the form of travel consumer deal alerts are an important tool for increasing traffic, awareness, and quality inbound links and citations. Use a distribution system that allows you to target specific geographic areas for the most impact, and don’t forget to include a few links back to your site. However, keep in mind that press releases should still be “newsworthy” items – announcing that your hotel is great for group travel does not warrant a press release.

10. Implement high-powered analytics and search ranking technology

Search engine result page (SERP) rankings are just one measure of success. Organic performance can also be measured by revenue, bookings initiated, time on site, and other metrics.

Platforms such as Adobe Omniture can give detailed metrics on each keyword such as pages viewed, entry points, and revenue to help you make tweaks to your SEO strategy. Revenue attribution SEO analysis, complemented with search ranking and recommendation technology such as BrightEdge, provides hoteliers with a concrete action plan to improve SEO results. When possible, analytics should be implemented prior to SEO work so you have a baseline to judge success against.

There are certain digital marketing initiatives which are proven winners, no matter what the state of the industry is or what the latest trends are. The good old search engines Google, Bing, Yahoo are an example of these fundamentals. Contrary to what some hotel marketers may be saying, search engines are not dead and are still the key driver of direct online hotel distribution. Hotel marketers should not dismiss search engine marketing since it generates more 56% of the hotel website revenue today.

With the search engines maintaining such an important role in the direct online channel, marketing on the search engines: paid search, search engine optimisation, mobile SEO, etc continues to be the most efficient means of delivering a targeted marketing message via the online channel, in terms of both traffic generation and revenue production. Search engines continue to dominate the desktop channel, as well as the new emerging mobile and tablet channels where the growth of hotel queries is staggering.  

Max Starkov – is president & CEO of HeBS Digital, amg43-mkg-max-starkov-setthe hospitality industry’s leading full-service digital marketing, hotel website design and online channel strategy firm, based in New York City. Max is a recognised “thought leader” in Internet marketing strategies in hospitality and is a frequent guest speaker and presenter at industry events and conferences. HeBS Digital has pioneered many of the best practices in hotel Internet marketing, social and mobile marketing, and direct online channel distribution. The firm has won over 230 prestigious industry awards for its digital marketing and website design services.



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