Ciaran Rowe in Bookassist’s Dublin office pointed out a nice piece of research from Google UK and comScore that highlights the online search habits of buyers and bookers at the moment, and particularly shows the importance of search engines and therefore the importance of your visibility online as a seller.
From the report:
“On average, customers make 12 travel related searches, visit 22 websites and take 29 days from the first time they search until they make a purchase. Forty-five per cent of transactions occur four weeks or more after the first search.”
“38 per cent of transactions happen at four weeks or more after the first visit.”
It’s interesting that in Bookassist, because of the large number of hotels using our system with thousands of bookings logged daily and the detailed tracking we deploy, we can see very similar long-term behaviour from users and the idea that online users are doing a significant amount of pre-booking research is very clear from our tracking statistics in house. We regularly track bookings many weeks after the initial viewing of properties. Of course this shouldn’t be surprising, people often take a long time to plan and make up their minds about trips so it should be no different on the internet. It does mean that careful tracking is very important though when trying to assess the true effectiveness of, for example, pay-per-click campaigns.
The article is well worth the read.
Ciaran Rowe is Senior Search Engine Marketer at Bookassist’s Dublin office and is a Google Adwords Professional
Blog category: seo
Ciaran Rowe in Bookassist’s Dublin office pointed out a nice piece of research from Google UK and comScore that highlights the online search habits of buyers and bookers at the moment, and particularly shows the importance of search engines and therefore the importance of your visibility online as a seller.
Labels: seo, sem
Bookassist clients represent the majority of the Irish hotel industry. Our feedback indicates that many hotels are experiencing a downturn in overall business in recent months, and recent news articles and industry press are saying the same (see Sunday Business Post July 20th, 2008).
But other hotels have genuinely been able to boost the online portion of their business by having a strong proactive internet strategy. Our experience shows that you can give yourself a competitive advantage if you act quickly and decisively, and we want to remind you of some tips to achieve this.
THE REAL ISSUE
Firstly, focus on the real issue. If total bookings have changed, it is not a problem with your booking technology. The problem in economic uncertainty is less bookers due to less discretionary spend, not a “booking process” issue. Sure, each booking engine provider has a different angle on the customer interface, but the technology from the main players all pretty much “works” and mostly they’re just differences in approach, not serious flaws that prevent booking on a massive scale. The bigger weaknesses with online revenue generation lie elsewhere in online strategy but were perhaps less noticeable when customers were spending more. Bookassist handles tens of thousands of bookings monthly on behalf of our clients and we continue to see this volume increase not just in Ireland but in many countries. So don’t waste time on small detail issues - look at the big picture because there is still room for growth.
Secondly, we see that overall booking volume online is still on the up so the key is to get a larger slice of that pie. Make no mistake, some hotels are feeling the pinch right now but others are generating more online business and with proper strategy you can certainly seek to improve your income. Since Google search is the primary storefront for your offering, you need to look very carefully at how that operates for you. In short you need to be as visible as possible, you need to be as clear as possible about what you are offering and your offer needs to be as compelling as possible for the online customer.
It is vital that you have your website regularly (not just annually!) analysed and optimised to ensure that it has the best possible chance of getting high up on the Google rankings, the natural listings, for the typical search phrases that your customers might use. You need to have a carefully orchestrated pay-per-click advertising campaign to complement that natural listing and you need to be prepared to budget for it. Tracking and analysis of spend on pay-per-click is so clear now that there is no need to be wondering whether it is working for you or not - you can see at a glance at any time. But you must act on the information and continually adjust strategy. You also need strong analysis of visitors and trends on your website so that you can act decisively to clear any bottlenecks and provide your visitors with exactly what they are looking for. These are continual and expert tasks that your online partner company may be better equipped to handle for you.
You can also broaden your visibility by ensuring that you tap into other new markets. Have multiple languages, promote your hotel in specific language target areas on Google. Bookassist clients have seen significant new business by focusing new multilingual websites on different untapped geographical areas and the Bookassist engine already operates in 9 languages so there is scope to unify your website and your booking process for a number of different foreign markets. But you must ensure that this is not a token effort that is done once and sits there - ensure that you have special offers etc regularly translated and perhaps targetted uniquely at specific markets based on what those markets might want.
From looking at Bookassist reports throughout Ireland, with hundreds of hotels, after Ireland, UK, US and Northern Ireland, the next 20 countries that generate business are displayed on the pie chart below. These are markets you can target to get more business (click the image for a larger view). If you need more localised information for your hotel, contact your Bookassist account manager.
Many hotels for example have foreign nationals working with them and this is a major advantage for visitors from their home countries who would feel much more comfortable dealing with a native speaker. So why not highlight the languages your hotel staff can offer on your website? It’s one advantage over a competitor hotel who doesn’t. Also, read our recent blog entry by an industry expert on why translation is so important in the wider marketplace.
You want to stand out from the crowd and you want the customer to click on your link. Look at how your hotel is displayed in Google results. Is the simple website title, page title and description good enough? Can it be tighter, more to the point? Is it clear to a customer who you are and what you are offering immediately, not muddied by having other similar websites with similar names appearing to offer similar offerings on your behalf? Do not confuse the customer at this vital search results stage. See for example Bookassist’s opinion on operating multiple websites - you can’t stand out from the crowd if you yourself create a crowd.
Focus on the quality of your online presentation and on differentiating your offering. Do the obvious stuff, like making sure the best prices are on your website, but look at other things like even seeing if you can reduce prices or have particularly good value specials where you might be able to offset that rate reduction against potential higher booking volume. Package more - engines like Bookassist allow you to have add-ons and room variations at booking time so consider better virtual packaging to have a stronger offering, perhaps partnering with local amenities to offer tickets or bundles with them.
You have to sell better and dispel any doubts, so ensure good quality photos for all room types offered, not just photos of your one best room. Engines like Bookassist allow you to have room specific photos built right into the booking process, so use those facilities. Consider more customer generated content, reviews online or video reviews which you can also post on YouTube. All of these things will enhance Google’s opinion of your website, pushing you upwards, but they will certainly enhance your customers’ opinion of your offering also and make it far more compelling than your competitors.
Hotels should consider exchanging links with other hotels who are not direct competitors to boost online traffic as well, featuring such hotels in a section of their website as a preferred or recommended partner.
At Bookassist we pride ourselves in getting it right, and we consistently do, for our clients (see some Bookassist testimonials). We can see clearly from our client base that those who listen to our advice and respond quickly and decisively are increasing online revenue right now.
Des O’Mahony, Roshan McPartland, Mary Collins, Christina Roche at Bookassist’s Dublin office.
We all know that Adobe’s Flash can be used to make great looking sites, with cool animation and interaction. We “humans” love this. But the problem is that search engines aren’t human, and the spider programmes they use to crawl and index the internet often have no idea what the purpose or content of a Flash-based site is. This can be a critical flaw if you are relying on search engine rankings, which most businesses do.
Getting a Flash-based website indexed properly and search engine optimized is a difficult task, far more difficult than a standard HTML-based site.
Google’s online help specifically state that their search engine is text based (see http://www.google.com/support/). In order to be crawled and indexed, your primary content needs to be in text format. Of course you can include images, Flash files, videos and any other media you wish – but any content embedded in these included files should also be available on your site in text or description format or it probably won’t be crawled.
Last month, Google with the help of Adobe began a project of spidering the content of Flash Shockwave files insofar as it could in order to try to properly index such sites (see http://www.adobe.com/devnet). In a press announcement that effectively admits to a serious problem with search engines and Flash sites, Adobe said it is “providing optimized Adobe Flash Player technology to Google and Yahoo! to enhance search engine indexing of the Flash file format (SWF) and uncover information that is currently undiscoverable by search engines. This will provide more relevant automatic search rankings of the millions of RIAs [rich internet applications] and other dynamic content that run in Adobe Flash Player.” Google doesn’t appear to be as optimistic as Adobe though (see http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com). Yahoo! hasn’t yet committed to a similar spidering project. There is no indication at all that Microsoft will ever follow suit, being a less than enthusiastic supporter of Flash, so it is likely MSN will never spider Flash-based sites.
Also, all of this new search engine aware technology still relies on the designer getting it right with the back-end content. Flash designers need to become much more search engine savvy, since up to now many have tended to not be too concerned with this and concentrated mostly on the look. So we may see improvements for future Flash-based sites designed in this new way, but existing Flash-based sites are unlikely to gain much.
Things are certainly improving, but the potential for trouble remains. For now, best practice is to avoid Flash as the basis of critical information and use alternate, text based information if you do have Flash so that search engines can spider and understand your site.
Bottom line: If you are that individual or business that does not care about web rankings or search engine optimization, but just wants an eye-catching presence, then Flash is certainly a good option for you. But bear in mind that unless you are using some method other than search engines to get your web address in front of your desired audience, chances are few people will ever lay their eyes on your creation. Or if they do, it may be because they were searching for something else entirely.
Dr Des O’Mahony is co-founder and Managing Director of Bookassist
Optimised web pages are far from the only way today of cruising to the top of the listings thanks to the increasing trend of blended search results
Google Universal Search, an approach also termed “blended search”, is about mixing sources in search results listings - for example giving you image search results and video search results in with traditional relevant website search results. Yahoo! and MSN do this too. To a large extent, the potential for optimising for such blended search has not been seized upon by the marketplace. Launched in May 2007, the second anniversary of Google’s Universal Search is fast approaching and in that short time some very interesting user patterns have emerged which should prompt online marketers to wake up to the very real opportunities being presented for getting your listings in front of customers.
First, some background. Google and other such search engines are broad-based search engines which are not so good at zoning in on relevant information for more generic searches. Users regularly get a Google results page which states that millions of possible results exist for their query - for example a search today for the term “harmony” yielded the statement “Results 1 - 10 of about 72,200,000 for harmony [definition]”. Often, we have to think hard ourselves about how to narrow down the search to make Google perform more accurately for us.
To counter this problem for users, and to promote its own offerings more, Google continues to launch a number of so-called vertical or specialised searches to allow people confine their searches to certain criteria or avenues of interest. Examples of such vertical searches are Google Image Search, Google Blog Search, Google Local & Maps, Google Patent Search, Scholar etc. You can find these searches in the tabs bar at the top left of the Google home page. There are many other such searches which are proving increasingly useful and gaining in popularity for sophisticated targeted search (Google Accommodation as a vertical may not be that far off, who knows?). But with the exception of Images and Maps, none of these are reaching mainstream searching volumes.
Because many people still don’t use these vertical searches, Google is increasingly promoting results from these verticals in the standard Google results listings by folding in images, videos, books and of course local map results right into the standard search results. Web search is no longer simply “web” search.
An edited example of this is shown in Figure 1. A search for the term “galway” shows the standard results but it is highly mixed - label 1 in the figure shows Google Local & Maps results which might be relevant, placed right at the top. Natural listings of web results start at label 2 but are again interrupted by the insertion of YouTube relevant video results at label 3, before the results revert again to natural listings below the videos. You can do this search a number of times and find that the map or video results may not always appear so the approach from Google is not rigid.
Figure 1: (click image for larger view) Google’s approach to blended search results in its Universal Search interface, which is now the standard. Areas 1, 2 and 3 here show Google Local & Maps, natural listings and YouTube results respectively.
Often, for more specific searches relating to businesses, the Google Local & Maps area will concentrate more solidly on Google Local and show a series of relevant businesses related to your search, such as the Google Local listing shown in Figure 2 for the search term “Berlin Hotels”.
Figure 2: (click image for larger view) Google Local shows relevant businesses related to a search term on an interactive map embedded in the standard search results listings, in this case Berlin Hotels.
How people interact with search results
Probably because images, maps, and videos are more visually striking on a results listing than just plain old natural listings, their influence is far higher in terms of click through rate. Bookassist recognised this early on and has long advocated the use of such media for hotels to promote their business more effectively online and has been at the forefront of Web2.0 implementation in the accommodation sector, not just in Ireland where it is the market leader, but in all its marketplaces abroad.
Research in 2008 by iProspect(1) attempted to quantify what users are doing with these blended search results on Google, Yahoo! and MSN. A diverse user base of just over 2400 was surveyed, which in an ideal world gives an error margin of about 2% and, to be fair to iProspect, their methodology for balancing the backgrounds of the respondents brings them to a conclusion of a slightly wider error margin of about 3%. Some very interesting trends emerged. Summarising the results for users surveyed:
* 68% of users clicked a result on the first page of results, and 92% of users clicked a result within the first three pages of results.
* 36% of users clicked on a “news” result within the blended search results page, and 31% of users clicked on an “image” result within the blended search results page, while only 17% and 26% respectively click a “news” or “image” result after using the news and image vertical searches directly.
* 17% of search engine users surveyed click on a “video” results on a blended search results page, while only 10% click on a “video” result after conducting a video-specific search on the Video tab.
Basically, the research indicated that a user is around twice as likely to click on a specialised search result in a blended listing than on that same results in the vertical search results themselves.
Web 2.0 shines
There are two important lessons here. Firstly, we can get more clicks with good content in the images, news, maps, video, blogs and other “verticals”. But secondly, and more importantly, is that while an enormous amount of blood, sweat and tears is spent by search engine experts in optimising web pages for natural listings - getting keywords right, keyword densities, meta tags, image alt tags, incoming links etc. - the criteria for getting local business listings, videos, images, or other vertical search results into the first page of search results are far more lax at the moment.
Put simply, because there are less videos about “hotels in Berlin” than there are webpages, it is relatively more easy to get your services towards the top of a relevant search by using well-tagged videos, images, blogs etc than by optimising web pages. This is a great opportunity for Web 2.0 content to shine.
A recent Forrester research paper(2) highlighted this current advantage: “On the keywords for which Google offers video results, we found an average of 16,000 videos vying to appear on results pages containing an average of 1.5 video results—giving each video about an 11,000-to-1 chance of making it onto the first page of results. By comparison, there were an average of 4.7 million text pages competing for a place on results pages with an average of just 9.4 text results—giving each text page about a 500,000-to-1 chance of appearing on the first page of results.” This statement indicates that an optimised video could be about 45 times more likely to appear in a search result for a particular keyphrase than an optimised webpage. While these figures are again not strictly scientific and should be treated with caution, any user who has seen blended results would see the clear advantage to be had by having additional media available to reflect your business. This advantage clearly won’t last forever.
What to do
Here are some basics that will help you capitalise on these opportunities. Start by registering as a user with Google, then:
* Go to Google Local (local.google.com), and use “My Maps > Create new map” to get your business listed and positioned on the map so that it appears for search results on Google Local & Maps. Use good keywords and descriptions in the business description as you would with regular search engine optimisation.
* Get good quality videos, preferably entertaining and not just brochure-ware, and host your videos on YouTube (youtube.com). Give them keyword optimised titles, tags and descriptions, then use YouTube’s embed feature to embed the videos in your website as a video gallery.
* Get an image gallery of high quality pictures onto Google’s Picasa photo service (picasa.google.com) and embed the image gallery into your website, again with each image having keyword-driven titles, descriptions and tags.
* Go to blogger (blogger.com) and set up a blog and begin to write content on a daily or weekly basis ensuring you always have something relevant to say about your business. You can use basic blogger templates to link your blog to your website and ensure you also link your website to your blog.
Blogger in particular is so simple and effective to use. It is free and easy to set up and, in a hotel’s case for example, can be used for advertising special events and other events that change on an ongoing basis rather than the traditional approach of just putting a paragraph on the hotel’s events page or special offers page every once and a while. Good URLs are also easier to get with Blogger, for example hotels could set up a URL with prime keywords such as patricksdayindublin.blogspot.com or easteringalway.blogspot.com. Hotels could then create relevant content about such events, but in parallel push their own packages and websites as examples. For annual events, the blogs can remain up all the time, and they should generate more traffic year after year. Good URLs can be worth their weight in gold, figuratively speaking, if used properly.
The key here with all these opportunities is not just to get other vertical searches populated with good information about your business, but to also use these to pull your regular website up through embedding and linking with quality content.
You win on both fronts with your regular website and your new Web 2.0 content.
Dr Des O’Mahony is co-founder & Managing Director of Bookassist, Ciaran Rowe is Senior Search Specialist at Bookassist’s Dublin office.
In this economic climate, it is even more important to know exactly where your marketing money is being spent, what return on investment you are getting, and how you can maximise it.
What is clear is that the medium that is most easily analysed and maximised in terms of return on spend is the internet, specifically direct selling on the internet. Moving budgets now from offline to online is not only smart in terms of watching budgets, but it affords an opportunity to tap previously untried markets, lower costs per acquired booking, and even generate income growth through promotion of a mix of offerings.
The good news is that bookings online are continuing to grow. Bookassist figures across all our markets have shown a growth in the number of bookings year on year. Many current studies are continuing to show a growth in direct online bookings at the hotel website, at the expense of offline and indirect channel bookings. This is probably because the economic climate is causing people to look around more: the simplest way to look around is online, not offline, and the best chance a customer perceives of getting value is directly at the hotel. So hotels need to tap into this marketplace.
Here are some pointers.
1. Don’t cut your marketing budget. You need it now more than ever. But redirect your marketing spend to online now.
2. Get rid of your hunches, suppositions, feelings. You need facts. Don’t make sudden changes, for example switching suppliers because of a perceived better deal or trying completely new advertising approaches. Sudden changes are the result of panic - you need to hold your nerve until you have the facts. You may well lose the position you have in such a switch, rather than building on your position. Perception needs to be replaced by fact leading to informed rather than rash decisions.
3. Concentrate on direct booking. Be careful how you are using third party intermediary sites. They can commoditise your hotel in simple lists based on price, start rating etc which eliminates your unique qualities. They may be sending you lots of business, but these online customers can be yours directly if you adopt a proper direct booking online strategy as outlined below. The margins of third party intermediaries compared to direct booking on your own website means that you are losing 20% to 30% revenue per booking for each booking received from them. This makes no sense in today’s climate and some of that business can certainly be diverted directly to you with proper planning. And above all, ensure that the rate on your own website is always the best rate. Otherwise, you might as well close down your website.
4. Analyse. Analyse. Analyse. Ensure that services such as Google Analytics work for you by tracking all website usage. Have a clear picture of usage patterns on your website before you rush into changes. Use Google Analytics to analyse your online user base, in terms of their origin for example. It may surprise you and alter your strategy. Use a booking system that can integrate directly with Google Analytics Ecommerce, like the Bookassist Booking Engine. With Bookassist’s Ecommerce integration, every single booking is transferred to Google Analytics and linked to the customer’s path through the website and through the booking process. Any single booking can be directly linked to a specific cent spent on a specific pay per click campaign or email marketing campaign. This is very powerful data and shows instantly where your money is being spent most effectively in terms of return on investment measured in actual booking value. It eliminates the hunch and shows you the bare facts. Google Analytics for web usage is great, but it lacks the real meat: full Ecommerce integration goes way beyond web usage and is critical for optimising ROI.
Bookassist’s ECommerce integration with Google Analytics gives valuable strategic information and allows for fine-tuning of online advertising spend resulting in much higher conversion rates, 5.24% in this example from a Dublin hotel.
5. Act on information you glean from Google Analytics and Ecommerce integration. The conversion figures for lookers to bookers are your key indicator. All the visitors in the world are useless to you if they are not converting. Using Ecommerce integration you also get a much deeper insight into conversion in your target segments. For example, with a recent Dublin-based hotel of ours, visitor numbers alone in Google Analytics showed that the vast majority of the website visitors were UK based, with other countries being far down the list. The traditionalist would therefore target the marketing budget at the UK. But the Ecommerce integration showed us that conversion rates for German visitors to the website were a factor of 4 higher than the UK visitors. So targeting spend at the German market and using German language package descriptions in the booking engine resulted in higher bookings online. It was a safer bet. Only Ecommerce integration can give you this kind of analysis. Using this type of analysis has allowed Bookassist marketing teams to drive conversions on pay per click adverts to over 4% in many cases, a massive increase over industry norms.
6. Analyse your web presence holistically. Remember there are two users of your website, firstly the search engines who will analyse and position it based on its content, and secondly the customer who will use it. The customer won’t come if the search engine hasn’t been targeted. So be smart, you have two jobs to do. Invest your budget into ensuring that your website is optimised for search engines AND ensure it is easy to navigate and booking-friendly for customers and never loses an opportunity to convert. Do not waste your budget on rushing to build a new site just to give yourself a fresh look - remember, you see your website every day and customers see it once or twice a year, so fresh is relative. Be sensible about your spend, target improvements for measurable return on investment reasons, not aesthetics.
7. Structure your online pay per click advertising campaigns so that they promote key attractors and differentiators for your property. Advertise your name as a keyword so that customers who search for your name will get your advert. Advertise your location as a keyword, but be as specific as possible to avoid catch all phrases that are expensive like “Ireland”, “Dublin”. Promote unique qualities in your Adwords text. Alter them frequently and track their conversion to tweak their effectiveness.
8. Combat competition online. Search for your hotel name and see who is using your name to capture your customers. If third parties are using your name to capture search results position, then tell them not to. If competitors are using your name to leapfrog above you in search results, then trademark your name and take action to stop it. Adopting this approach will ensure that people searching for your name, those who are already your customers, will see your website first and
9. Use email marketing effectively. It takes time to build a proper (legal) opt-in email and phone list of customers, but the best way to do it is not to abuse the channel - always give something genuinely special and new in an email blast and use a booking service such as Bookassist’s which allows you to embed links in emails that bring people directly to the booking page for that special, not just to the website or to the general booking page. Use Twitter services to remind users of new offers via mobile phone. Think strategically - for example, advertise offers for this coming weekend so that a sense of urgency is created for the customer who feel they must act now or miss their chance. “Offer ends at midnight, unique offer available for this weekend only!”. Sounds familiar? Airlines have been doing this with a lot of success for some time now.
10. Listen to your online customers and correct issues quickly. Remember that over 80% of travel planning is now done online. Even if people are not booking, they are looking. This colours their future choices. Make sure that you are on top of social media sites such as TripAdvisor and others - be registered with them and monitor your property. Make use of your own customer comments on your website, for example availing of Bookassist’s automatic review system where customers who have booked online and stayed at your hotel are given a follow-up opportunity to submit their views. Above all, always respond to online reviews, whether positive or negative, so that potential customers see that you care. We all know that correcting a fault graciously often engenders more loyalty and satisfaction in a customer.
Be aware that the habits that customers are now learning could well become the norm for the future. Why? Because the approach is yielding value for the customer. Shopping around online, doing research online, making price comparisons online, reading reviews, going directly to source to book. These are all things that may have been enhanced by economic necessity, but are likely to stay as the norm as we exit recession.
Hotels that have tackled this climate constructively and strategically will likely emerge stronger and will be well positioned to capitalise on the upswing that will invariably come.
Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO and Founder at Bookassist, the leading technology and online marketing supplier to the hospitality industry.
It’s not rolled out across all searches on Google in Ireland, but it is certainly alive and kicking for hotels.
Google recently enhanced their search results pages with the addition of local business results (Google Maps) to searches targeting locations within Ireland. While these results have been available for some time in other locations such as the US and UK, this is the first time that searches for Irish locations have triggered maps as well as web links.
The implications for website owners are that the nature of the results page on Google has changed dramatically. It is no longer sufficient to list highly for location searches in the standard results, if you do not perform well in the map results. The figure below shows the results for a search using the phrase ‘hotels in Dublin’. The clear winners of this change are the sites that appear high in the map listing, as the previous first web listing has now been relegated from first to eleventh place on the page.
Google Local in action today for the search “Dublin Hotels” with the top six hotels availing of Bookassist’s Traffic Builder online marketing service
The blended search results are also triggered by property name searches (see below), so it is important to ensure that your listing in Google maps is well managed. We’ve previously highlighted the usefulness of Google Local as part of Google’s drive towards blended search in this blog entry: Get high search ranking through blended search results.
A property name search on Google Ireland today, now showing Google Local information
To maximise the benefits of this change, go to http://www.google.com/local/add/ and log in with a Google account.
You can then claim your map listing by going http://maps.google.com/ and searching for your property by name. Click on the “more info” link and then on the “Add or edit your business” link. From here you can confirm your web and email addresses as well as your physical address and phone number. You can also correct any errors in the map location for your property. When all the important details are correct, you can the concentrate on enhancing your entry by adding a good description, uploading photos and videos, as well as other details such as free wifi or parking.
Online marketing for hotels is quite different from online marketing for other products. For example, a hotel is in a fixed location, so marketing to those to whom the location will appeal must form part of the strategy. Hotels have quite individual character, so finding something unique to ensure you stand out from the crowd in the busy hospitality storefront is also crucial. The hotel is rarely the reason for traveling (except for a lucky minority who manage to make the hotel the destination itself), so the choice of hotel is ancillary to the primary travel purpose and this must be factored in by trying to determine the most likely reason your guest are searching for a property like yours. And on and on it goes.
This sounds like a lot of work to get right, and it usually is. But Web 2.0 tools help get to the bottom of this quite quickly if you use them effectively. Fundamentally, the tools of social media online can not only help you market your hotel effectively, but their use can wake you up to how your customers perceive your business. The valuable and free information gleaned can allow you to rapidly improve customer satisfaction. Be prepared to be humble - the customer’s perception is often quite different from yours, but remember it is only theirs that matters.
Everyone and their dog is saying that social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and other Web 2.0 platforms such as YouTube, Picasa are increasingly important. But important for what exactly? Before jumping in, it is important to step back and appreciate what exactly you are trying to achieve by using such tools. Put simply, when you have a particular purpose in mind, you choose a tool or approach that best suits the purpose. You don’t find a tool and then look around for something to do with it.
Not the forum for the hard sell
With social networking, you are basically trying to build or enhance your brand through engaging your customers, and you are aiming to build deeper relationships with them. While the reason for this ultimately is to raise your profile and build potential future custom, this is not a forum for the hard sell. If you want the hard sell, invest in advertising. After all, social networking is “social”, meaning people-oriented, community, common interests, like-mindedness, and “networking”, the intercommunication of those people on a voluntary basis.
Social networking is all about being part of a conversation. To be successful with social media, just like in a conversation, you have to be prepared to listen, you have to have something interesting to say, you have to contribute something new so that people are bothered to listen, and you have to engage on the level of everyone else and avoid preaching. Sticking to those rules will ensure success in social media either personally or as a business.
Charleville Lodge Boosts Business by 59%
As an online strategy partner for hotels, Bookassist (bookassist.org) has been engaged in the social media and web 2.0 arena for some time and in recent years has been strongly encouraging their hotel clients to be proactive online. Following a Bookassist seminar on web 2.0 tools in mid 2008, owner/manager Paul Stenson of Charleville Lodge boutique hotel in Phibsboro, Dublin (www.charlevillelodge.ie) decided to focus on interacting with his customers via TripAdvisor and Facebook, as well as providing a richer web experience to them via Youtube and Picasa.
According to Stenson, they’ve seen “over 8000 views on the Youtube account in that first year. We can see that people move from there to the website and vice versa so it’s definitely something people are interested in seeing.” While he acknowledges that directly attributing bookings and revenue to his use of web 2.0 tools is hard to track, he has no doubt about the success of the strategy. “We’ve had a successful website for many years, but used Bookassist for a new website in 2008. We worked with them also to set up Youtube, Facebook and other tools. In the year since we started, we’ve seen a 59% increase in direct booking income through our website compared to the previous year. Bear in mind that this is in the middle of a recession and our booking value has been forced downwards also with increased competition”, says Stenson, “so we consider that pretty strong proof of the power of social networking”.
Stenson is also rigorous in his approach to TripAdvisor, ensuring that he deals with issues that may arise as quickly as possible. “There is no doubt that guests are cross-referencing TripAdvisor content with our website, our Facebook pages, the reviews we publish on our own website in the Bookassist booking engine, all of these things. People clearly want assurance before they book and we have to be sure we keep on top of it all.”
Using Facebook to talk with customers, answer queries and provide information is something that has become routine in Charleville Lodge, with staff always online to field queries. With hundreds of followers, tracking of incoming bookings for his hotel originating from Facebook hits is on the rise, according to Stenson. “The interest via Facebook is strong, but the drawback is that customers have to request to be a friend first before we can interact. We’re now working with Bookassist on a Twitter strategy so we can converse with potential customers in a more immediate and natural way and be even more proactive in getting the news out there about our property and getting guests’ views. It’s early days but Twitter seems the way to go.”
“Getting” or “not getting” Twitter
Stenson’s experience highlights one of the key differences between sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and the Twitter service. While Facebook and the others are largely about keeping in touch with people you know, in a leisurely way, Twitter is about finding people you don’t know but who have information you need or questions you can answer. Twitter is extremely immediate, reflecting what’s on people’s minds right now.
Twitter is undoubtedly becoming more and more important, but it is still a mystery to most business owners in terms of where it sits in their online strategy. Bookassist’s view is that it can sit dead-centre if handled properly.
There’s a typical evolution that people go through in embracing the Twitter platform. They first see it as a useless fad and ignore it, but they eventually try it out to see what the fuss is about. At this stage they don’t quite “get” it. If they persist, then they get comfortable posting tweets but even now are really just using it “one-way” to make observations or statements. This is as far as most businesses go. But moving beyond this to a real “two-way” conversation is the real hard part. Persistence pays off.
Hotels should set up Twitter accounts and use tweets to advertise special offers or events they may have. Tweets should contain keywords that others may be searching for to improve your chances of being read, (“hotel”, “special”, “dublin” book”) and the offers should be immediate, for tonight, tomorrow etc., since Twitter is so immediate. This is the basic approach of using Twitter in an advertising strategy.
But hotels should also pose questions to their guests using Twitter, to try to get conversations going. For example, “do you think our atrium dining room is the best feature in the hotel?” might elicit responses where people say they didn’t realise you had an atrium and something else was far more important to them in their stay. You now have valuable information about what is important to your guests. You can ask if guests would like to see any other kind of events, or ask how specific services can be improved. Rather than waiting for comments or fielding complaints like in TripAdvisor, you can get into the driving seat with Twitter.
Going beyond this, the open approach of Twitter where your tweets are published to the entire world by default, as are your guests tweets, means that anyone can search for all conversations that involve your hotel and can therefore see an entire history of what you say online and how your interact with your guests. And how quickly you resolve issues. Likewise you can jump into conversations involving your competitors and legitimately highlight how you would have done it differently, or offered better service, giving you a marketing advantage. Once you tweet honestly, are not overly commercial in pushing your business, and remember that everything is public and forever, then you have nothing to fear from being part of the online chat.
Undoubtedly, time commitment is an issue for hoteliers. Once you begin with Twitter, you need to continue to do so or your lack of interaction itself becomes a negative. Because it is fundamentally “personal” in its approach, it puts you the business owner at the front line. But there is no better way to engender trust in your customer base than to interact with them on a personal level, with immediacy, and to show through your public interactions with others that you actually care.
According to Stenson at Charleville Lodge, “it all really just boils down to service. If you can show high service levels online before they even arrive at your hotel, which these tools help you to do, then you are already winning”.
Charleville lodge is online at www.charlevillelodge.ie, and is on Facebook, YouTube and just beginning to take the plunge on Twitter. —- Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO and Founder at Bookassist, the leading technology and online strategy partner for the hospitality industry.
In late September, Google finally confirmed officially what many of us have suspected for years - that the tag attribute (hereafter simply “the keywords meta tag”) in web pages has no effect on Google search results rank.
Fundamentally, what this means is that attempts to tell Google what your web site is about don’t work - Google will figure this out for itself thank you. Pretending to be something you are not won’t work. Tricks to make yourself look better than you are won’t work. Google of course uses various methods of its own to determine where you should rank in search engine results and will largely see through attempts to spoof it. Primary among those methods is to ascertain what the content of a website really is. Getting the content right is the single best way to ensure Google’s approval - plus it serves to entice and engage online readers, and to build quality incoming links.
Some Tags Are Better Than Others
There’s a bit more to the tags issue though. Web developers/designers insert various tags and tag attributes into web pages that are either necessary or useful and that are used by search engines, but not necessarily for search rank. For example, if you choose “View > Page Source” for a web page in Firefox, for example, the code behind the page you can see will contain entries like:
The keywords meta tag has traditionally been applied to inform search engines of the primary focus of the website. This is the one Google doesn’t read anymore, saying that “Because the keywords meta tag was so often abused, many years ago Google began disregarding the keywords meta tag”. a tag”.
On the other hand, Google is not the only game in town, and Bing has a slightly different approach saying that the keywords meta tag “is not the page rank panacea it once was back in the prehistoric days of Internet search. It was abused far too much and lost most of its cachet. But there’s no need to ignore the tag. Take advantage of all legitimate opportunities to score keyword credit, even when the payoff is relatively low.”
Search results do make use of other tags however, at least for result display purposes. The page title and description meta tags are used by Google directly in displaying its search results - for example the first result in the figure below (click to enlarge) shows the title and description meta tag that we “fed” to Google using the code shown above. While the effect of the title and description meta tags on the actual search result position is not clear, it is certainly important to have them correct and meaningful for the user who ultimately looks at those search results since they must create an impact and give immediate information if you are to capitalise on your search ranking. At least this is one area over which you have definite control.
The Dual Online User
This highlights one key tenet in getting your website just right online. It needs to be right for dual users - firstly, for the search engine that has to read and assess the site and determine how to return the address in search results, and secondly for the viewer who will click on results and ultimately interact with your site. The approach to optimising for these dual users is quite different but there are overlaps, content being the primary one.
What Search Engines Like
Google works very hard to make sure that its search results are as relevant as possible to the search phrase used. The more accurate Google is, the more likely people will continue using it and the more money it will make from displaying relevant adverts. So Google really needs to get it right.
The Google webcrawler program trawls the web and reads the code behind web pages, attempting to categorise the sites in its database. While the algorithm it uses to assess websites is no doubt complex, it is basically a dumb machine and must make judgement calls only on what is presented to it in plain text. The domain name, page title, the description tag are a starting point, but unless the information and wording contained therein are backed up by solid content on the page that reinforces the title and description, then the Google webcrawler feels that something is amiss and the ranking of the site will suffer.
To take an extreme example, suppose your page title is “Boutique Hotel in Dublin”, and your description tag is “We are a boutique hotel in Dublin”, but then your entire page content is about dog kennels. Then the Google webcrawler won’t consider your site a good result to show to anyone who is searching for information about “boutique hotels in Dublin” or about “dog kennels” for that matter. The structure and the content are simply not matching up. A web page has to do exactly what it says on the tin or it will be punished.
When a person searches for a specific phrase, like “boutique hotels in Dublin”, then Google really wants to display information about “boutique hotels in Dublin” and about nothing else. The likely best candidates are websites that have domain names that use the terms “boutique”, “hotel” and “dublin” AND page titles that use the terms “boutique”, “hotel” and “dublin” AND page content that makes regular use of the words “boutique”, “hotel” and “dublin” (preferably repeated use to up the keyword “density” of the content, but not too much use so that Google again is suspicious of your motives!). If external websites have links to this site that use the terms “boutique”, “hotel” and “dublin” in the text of the link, then Google further approves since other websites appear to be sending people to the site based on the same search terms, so the external link endorsement is worth something to Google.
Getting To The Top
So it is clear that the content of your website really needs attention to ensure that any search terms you want to be found for are targeted in your copy and are matched with page titles, descriptions and where possible web domains. For example, if as a hotel, your location is a key issue for your business, then refer to it at least four or five times in the content on your home page. Likewise for any other issues important to your business: if your spa treatment is a primary earner, then have a spa treatment page, with a title referring to spa treatment, a file name referring to spa treatment, content mentioning the spa treatment a number of times, images with file names relating to spa treatment and image alt descriptions referring to spa treatment and so on. Remember, the webcrawler that is trying to assess your page has no interest in colour schemes, Flash content, text rendered as images, photographs or aesthetics - it can only read information clearly presented to it in text form, so you need to get every element of the page “singing off the same hymn sheet” in order to make your point.
Writing good content that can target keywords of the right density to Google but still be interesting enough to catch the online user’s eye is a difficult task. But it is also important that the content evolves as far as Google is concerned. Continually refreshing content is therefore critical also for search ranking, and one of the best ways to tackle the content issue is through the use of blogs.
Blogs are an easy and natural way to write content. Hotels can write on specific events, festivals, nearby attractions, recipes from their kitchen, unusual guests requests, all sorts of things, and use the blog simply as the newspage for the site. These entries make for interesting reading and are naturally full of good keyword content about your hotel and your area. It is also a way to involve more of your staff in contributing content and give them more ownership of the customer experience, as well as inviting customers to comment also.
There are many hotels who now build their entire web presence around a blog and booking engine only, eliminating completely the static brochure approach that typifies many hotel websites. For a good introduction to what blogs can do for your hotel and for your hotel website’s content, check out the video Interview with Juli Lederhaus of Hawthorne Hotel in Massachusetts available on YouTube.
Get What You Deserve
The bottom line is: the best way to get to the top of the search engine results listings is to deserve it. Forget the tricks and instead strive to give information that people are actually looking for and are interested in. With the recent launch of Google’s Sidewiki, people will increasingly pass public comment on your website in any case, so chances are you will begin to get feedback that you must tend to through dynamic content whether you like it or not.
Content of websites continues to be king. In the end, for search engine position and keeping users interested, there really is nothing else to beat it.
Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO and Founder of Bookassist, the leading online strategy and technology partner for the hotel industry. Follow Bookassist on Twitter at twitter.com/bookassist
Some third party channels suggest that hotels link back to them in a reciprocal link exchange and that the hotels will benefit from this. True, there is certainly a benefit. But there is also a cost that may outweigh that benefit.
Hotels may consider that displaying a link to well known third parties will make them look good in the eyes of a potential customer. But hotels need to be very careful about who they link to or they may end up damaging their direct business by doing so.
The issue relates to what the search engines think, not what the online customer thinks.
Links between websites are important not just for the convenience of users but because they allow search engines such as Google to determine the relative importance of websites for users.
There are two kinds of links to consider - inward links that link to your website, and outward links from your website to another site. When inward links are matched with outward links between sites, you have reciprocal linking. However the benefit may not be evenly balanced in reciprocal linking.
PageRank (or PR) is Google’s numerical value of how important a web page is and therefore its search results positioning. PageRank is calculated for a site by looking at the quantity and quality of all inward and outward links. The actual way that Google determines relative importance, and therefore position in the search results, is complex. But for the purposes of this article we will take a simplified view and think of every link you make to another site as a vote for that site (though not all votes carry equal weight).
If a search engine like Google sees many different sites all linking to a particular site, then that site seems to have a lot of independent votes and therefore seems to be more important, more relevant, than sites that have less incoming links. It begins to win in the search engine results election. Its PageRank is enhanced.
Little Things Add Up
If every hotel makes a link to some particular third party site, say a booking channel or a review site, then all those hotels are implicitly voting for that third party site to rise in the search engine results.
The third party therefore gathers many small votes together for its single website and significantly enhances its PageRank. But even when it reciprocates links back to the hotels it is spreading the links out across all the different hotel websites, donating just a small share of its vote, or PageRank, back to each individual hotel.
Therefore each hotel is gaining a small slice of PageRank from the third party channel (a small vote), but the third party channel gains all the slices of PageRank from all the hotels (all votes). Even if each of those votes is pretty insignificant, taken together they can add up to a very significant endorsement indeed.
The benefit for the third party website in terms of PageRank is therefore far higher than the benefit for each hotel in receiving a reciprocal link.
Are You Helping Your Competitor?
Whether it is a booking or review site, the third party site is likely to be a competitor of direct business on the hotels’ websites. Hotels are therefore actually enhancing competition for their own sites by linking to such third parties, pushing them up the rankings, and ultimately contributing to diverting more business from their own websites to the third parties.
From an online customer perspective, hotels linking off to third parties makes the hotel site less “sticky”, in that it presents the online customer with an array of options for booking nearby or similar properties even though your hotel may be quite bookable. It also presents your customer with the convenience of booking through a third party that may already have their details saved from a previous transaction. Either way, you are simply reducing your chances of successful direct bookings.
There are many ways to link to other sites without transferring your page rank. You may want to do this because you want to display a link that benefits your online customer, but does not give a PageRank vote to that site. This can be done for example by using links that include the attribute rel=“nofollow” such as:
But if the external link is to a third party booker or review site that advertizes booking, then the value of the link to a direct customer of yours is minimal anyway. Reciprocal links are important, but they are best if they are non-competitive.
Should You Vote?
So should you vote? The moral of the story is that you need to be very careful who you give your vote to. Just like democracy, you may think that one vote doesn’t really make a difference. But if everyone votes it can make a very big difference indeed, and how you choose to vote can have significant impact, one that you may regret.
In the current economic climate, customers are still spending but are far more value-conscious. Special offers and deals are appealing, and represent a strong incentive for customers to book. A competitive and attractive special offer can positively boost your online direct sales. Whether it’s a seasonal offer (St Patrick’s Day, Easter, etc.) or special package (spa, golf, etc), setting up special offers in your booking engine always serves the purpose of giving your potential customers more options and opportunities for making a reservation.
However, just setting up a special offer is not enough in itself to generate conversions. The special offer needs to be communicated, needs to be prominently visible and needs to be found by potential customers. The following five steps are what we recommend in order to get the most out of your special offers.
1. Create a proper Special Offer Page
It might seem a simple and obvious statement but the most effective way to promote offers is through your own website. The individual special offer needs to be made clearly visible on the hotel’s homepage through a banner or visual advert, and via a link in the main navigation that brings the customer to your special offers page. Keep in mind that your special offers page is the bridge between the potential customer and the reservation. The page therefore needs to be optimized with a specific purpose in mind: converting visitors into paying customers.
A special offer page optimized for conversions is relevant to the deal/offer promoted, makes use of attractive and high-quality photography, features a keyword-rich title and text for increasing visibility on search engines, includes a strong call-to-action (book now!) and a link which sends visitors directly to your booking engine, and creates a compelling reason to book. Advertising specials that are for a limited time only or that relate to an immediate upcoming event is critical. Finally, it’s important that your special offer page is easy to navigate, runs smoothly, and doesn’t take too long to load the content, so that it can create an immediate impact. (Users of Bookassist’s Sitebuilder website technology get automatic dynamic special offers pages and functionality built into their hotel websites, with updated information being automatically fed form the Bookassist database each time a special offer is created or changed.)
2. Bring Qualified Traffic with Google Adwords
With your compelling page of offers in place, you need good traffic. Running a Pay Per Click (PPC) campaign on Google Adwords can dramatically increase the volume of qualified traffic (people actively searching for a hotel/special offer) to your site.
Campaigns on Google’s advertising circuit are very cost-effective. Your advert can be seen thousands of times by an audience in over 180 countries and 40 languages. However, you pay only for the clicks your advert receives, and those who click are doing so because the find the advert appealing. You have full analysis of your campaigns, including your spend, your revenue generation and your return on investment, through Google Analytics. To be even more effective, you can have specific revenue analysis for each type of special offer and each type of advert if your booking engine provider has full integration with Google Analytics Ecommerce, as Bookassist does.
Promoting your special offers through a PPC campaign is now more effective than ever thanks to Ad Sitelinks. This feature, which was launched by Google last year, allows you to extend the value of existing ads for your hotel website by providing up to four additional links within the advert that can point to specific sections of your site, such as your special offers page (see figure 1). By availing of Ad Sitelinks in your PPC campaigns, you will make your advert more visible and eye-catching to potential customers, resulting in an increase in qualified traffic coming from PPC that varies between 10%-30% in our experience.
3. Promote Specials on Social Media
Social media is a powerful tool for promoting your special offers and your website. Social media was until recently considered a less-than-serious channel but is today recognised as being critical for business. They have become a crucial part of a hotel’s online strategy, second only to search ranking in Google and other search engines’ natural listings (eg Microsoft Bing social search).
Social media offers a free yet effective way to increase brand awareness and to build the image of your hotel online. Promoting special offers through social media such as your blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare can strongly increase the exposure of your packages and can indicate to potential future customers the value that can be found in your hotel offerings. You can, for example, write a descriptive and relevant blog post about your offer, post a short entry on the hotel Facebook profile’s wall, write a 140-long message on Twitter. While Facebook and Twitter are all the rage, blogs have another key advantage: blog entries are time-stamped content, so that even after an offer has lapsed (for Valentine’s Day for example) people who are searching next year will find the old offer and therefore anticipate that you will have a new one in the coming year. Blogs are like having a keyword-rich history online of the kinds of offers that you run and the kind of service that you offer.
In all of these social media entries, it is important that you paste a link to the special offer page on your site so that potential customers who have come across your offer through social media they can read more details on the dedicated page. Links are sometimes long and cumbersome, so use a URL-shortening service like bit.ly to create short versions of your links for space-sensitive services like Twitter. If you wish to build an loyal audience among local customers, you can reach them by setting up a special offer on Foursquare, a location-based social network catching potential customers as soon as they check in at your hotel.
4. Avail of Google Offers and Google Places
In late January 2011, Google moved into the local deals arena by launching Google Offers. The service follows Google’s well known attempt to buy Groupon (groupon.com), the very successful local offers site. Google’s move aims at bolstering the search giant’s local advertising business.
How it works is very straightforward. A user who enters a search query on Google (e.g. ‘dublin hotel offer’) is given a number of related offer results. By clicking on one of the offers, the user is taken to a dedicated page with details of the package, map, and printing options (see figure 2). The service is still in its initial phase of launch and is currently available in the United States.
Hoteliers can also dramatically increase visibility of their special offers by adding them to their listing on Google Places. Google Places is an online service that allows business owners to update and manage their physical business location information (you will see it appear as a small map and business listing on search results from time to time - see figure 1). Hotels can claim ownership of their business listing and can update their details so that it appears correctly within Google Maps and lists their offers. Once set, offers are visible on Google Maps for a period of 30 days. Do a search on Google for Places and for Offers to get more information and help on how to set these up.
5. Blast an Email to Your Client List
Email marketing can be considered as an old-school marketing technique but, when used properly, it is a highly effective one. Provided you don’t over-use the medium, you can further increase the exposure of your special offers by sending an email to guests who stayed at hotel or to prospects that didn’t convert in the past. A personalised letter explaining what the offer is and including a link to the special offer page on your site, as well as a call-to-action, should do the trick.
It is important to make the offer time-sensitive and time-relevant - this offer “must close today” or this offer is for the coming weekend. We all have experience of how the airlines have used this sense of urgency to great effect. It’s also a good idea to promote your special offer by adding it to the email signature of all the staff in the hotel so that every communication helps to build the potential audience.
Pasquale Mellone is Search Engine Marketer in the Online Marketing Division of Bookassist (bookassist.org), the technology and online strategy partner for hotels.
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