Blog category: metasearch

​The Rise of the Meta Search Opportunity

By Des O'Mahony & Ciaran Rowe | On Wed, October 02, 2013

The demands of the online consumer for a more efficient way to assess multiple sources of information, for example comparing lots of sites for the best price for a specific hotel on a specific date, has directly led to the recent rapid rise in meta search websites and technologies of late.

Meta search for travel has actually been around in various formats for quite some time, particularly for flights, though airlines like Ryanair have taken considerable steps to thwart them. Recent news shows that Skyscanner, for example, is expected to massively grow and also expand into hotels.

The first model in the meta search arena was introduced by Sidestep in 1999, in the format of a downloadable widget. The basic comparison principle has remained much the same since then, but the model is becoming ever more sophisticated as technology develops and meta search presence is now becoming an integral part of customer acquisition strategy for hotels.

The most popular sites for accommodation at the moment include Google Hotel Finder, TripAdvisor, Kayak & Trivago, all of whom offer real time availability and pricing from multiple sources to their users, thereby allowing the user to make an informed decision with minimal effort. Consolidation in this space has been rife recently, with smaller sites being acquired by some of the bigger players, and new entrants to the market quickly grabbing a huge presence in the consumers’ decision making process.

The Third Way Online for Hotels

For consumers, the development of meta search was clearly a useful tool in their search process, but for hotels the advantages weren’t initially so clear. The rates and availability being displayed were usually taken from OTA sites, so although the hotels might be getting bookings through meta search, they were coming at a high price - up to 25% commission in some instances.

This all changed recently as the meta search providers allowed for integration with the hotel’s own inventory, thus enabling direct contact between hotels and consumers. The introduction of this integration changed the meta search model from being just another distribution channel to becoming a key marketing channel for hotels. Note that hotels can’t directly integrate themselves with most meta search sites - they need to be using a hotel representation service, such as Bookassist, that can manage the data and integration for them in a structured and automated way.

Hotel representation companies such as Bookassist have integrated with Google Hotel Finder, TripAdvisor, Trivago and others to allow Bookassist client hotels’ inventory and rates to be fed automatically and dynamically to the meta search sites, allowing hotels to compete head to head with the OTA pricing on those sites.

For hotels, meta search can therefore be viewed as the “third way” online, sitting right in the middle between the direct model on the one hand, where the customer books directly on the hotel’s own website, and the indirect online travel agent (OTA) model on the other hand, where the customer browses and books on a single branded OTA platform such as Expedia or Lastminute.com. Meta search can hold back the OTA influence a little, and drag the hotel directly in front of the consumer.

Game-Changing Marketing Opportunity

As a marketing channel, meta search interacts with users at most stages of their research and decision making process. So whether a user goes directly to a site such as Trivago, or if they are doing a general search in Google, or even if they are looking at reviews in TripAdvisor, there is an opportunity for hoteliers to be directly present with their live rates, and the chance to bring the user directly to the hotel website booking page.

Once a hotel is working with a company such as Bookassist, pages on TripAdvisor where they can expect their rates to appear include their own hotel page. They will also appear on generic location pages on TripAdvisor, for example ‘Paris Hotels’, but the level of exposure on these type of pages will depend on how highly ranked the hotel is in within TripAdvisor itself. Ranking is always king on TripAdvisor.

Google offers a bewildering array of placement opportunities once your hotel is using an integrated service like Bookassist. Rates can appear on Google’s Hotel Finder, on Google Maps, on Google+ Local, and in Google Universal searches. In this case the ranking of the placement relative to the OTA offerings will specifically depend on the price of a double room for the dates chosen by the customer, and on the bid placed for the potential click by the representation company managing the listing on the hotel’s behalf.

This has the potential to be a game-changer for hotels - why would a user go to an individual OTA website when they can check multiple OTA offerings in one place using meta search?

Hotels can now compete on an equal footing with OTAs, particularly when it comes to users specifically researching the hotel brand, but they need to understand the medium first and partner with an experienced provider such as Bookassist.

Practical Details

Getting set up to appear on meta search sites is relatively straightforward, but as mentioned, needs to be done via a representation company that has established a trusted integration with the meta search site. The system generally works on a pay per click model, with the hotel charged every time a user clicks through to their booking page, similar to the Google Adwords PPC model. If a user does not click then there is no charge for the exposure. So it’s still valuable free advertising.

Managing these campaigns is a skill that requires experience in the online marketing area, in particular with meta search marketing, so we would advise partnering with a provider that offers a robust integration as well as marketing expertise to get the most from your marketing budget.

Budgets for meta search marketing vary significantly by property, but the costs are not prohibitive. A budget of €500 each per month usually provides good exposure on Google Hotel Finder and on Tripadvisor. However, participating in meta search marketing is not something you should set up and forget about. In order to generate a good return you need to ensure good availability and rate parity or better, as well as a good user experience when they arrive at your booking page or landing page. The click delivery is the meta searchers’ job, but conversion of the customer is still yours.

Try your hotel's numbers in this calculation.
TABLE 1: Try your hotel’s numbers in this calculation.

When looking at the return on investment, it is also critical to factor in the commission costs that were saved by diverting a user from booking through an OTA to booking direct on the hotel site. For example, through an OTA your booking may have been at something near 20%, while through your website it could be at 5% or less depending on your service levels, plus the click charges you incur. As an example, enter your own figures in Table 1 and see what can be achieved. The savings of course need to also contribute to website costs and management fees, but it still is significant. Getting this right on a regular and consistent basis means that there is a considerable ongoing benefit to be had.

What’s more, since the customer converted has booked on your own website, you now have their details for future marketing. This customer is now your customer, not an OTAs customer, which presents further opportunities for brand building and re-marketing in order to capitalise on life-time value.

Bottom Line

Meta Search marketing is a great opportunity for hotels. To ensure you get clicks, you need to be focused on pushing the best rates and always having last room availability. Remember that a click is wasted unless you can work hard on ensuring conversion through proper website design, specific targeted landing pages, and a booking engine layout designed to convert.

Returns are still low compared to PPC, but this will inevitably build. Right now we are seeing returns of about €5 per €1 spent, far short of the PPC ROI we typically achieve for our clients. But it is early days and the trend has been continually upward.

Meta search is one of so many online marketing approaches, all of which need to be tackled and optimized. It is important to partner with an experienced provider, with a proven track record in online marketing and strategy, in order to really maximise the returns on your investment and to be kept informed of the latest trends and opportunities in the area.

Ciaran Rowe is Senior Search Strategist, and Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO and founder at Bookassist (bookassist.org), the award-winning technology and online strategy partner for hotels worldwide.

Labels: tripadvisor, sem, metasearch, kayak, google hotel finder, google

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Google Hummingbird Update and your Hotel website

By Ciaran Rowe | On Thu, October 10, 2013

Recent updates

News that Google has updated their search algorithm tends to cause confusion and fear. Confusion as nobody really understands how the updates work, and fear about what the impact on ranking might be. Recent updates such as Panda & Penguin were seen as punitive, with accounts of sites losing ranking and some even disappearing completely. The purpose of these updates was to clean up the results pages and get rid of sites that tried to game the system by using tactics such as buying links or generating multiple keyword stuffed pages.

How is Hummingbird different?

Hummingbird is not such an update - it is a whole new system that changes how Google parses search queries. Instead of looking just at certain keywords within a query, they are now attempting to understand the context of the query in a conversational sense. Providing solutions for semantic search and long tail queries have always been a goal of search engines as they attempt to answer questions posed by searchers with the best possible results, and it seems the Hummingbird is a successful first step in achieving this goal.

Why now?

Part of the incentive for pushing through this update was the increase in conversational queries coming through from users on smartphones which can accept spoken queries as well as written. This means that many people are creating more intricate search queries than in the past, so Google needed to find an intelligent way to respond to these spoken queries.

What should I do next?

The Hummingbird update prioritises sites that provide answers to queries posed by users, instead of simply matching keywords from the search phrase with the content of the site. This provides a good opportunity for site owners to update their content to take advantage of this change.

We have long promoted good, relevant & fresh content as the cornerstone of a successful SEO strategy, and so far it looks as if this update will reward sites that provide such content. The key step to be taken next is to analyse your content and see does it answer conversational queries. So instead of trying to just add keywords to your content, try to put them in context. If for example you are near a convention centre such as the ExCel in London, think about the queries that might be searched such as ‘what hotels are the nearest to ExCel London’ or ‘where can I stay near the ExCel London’. Try to cover as many contextual options as possible in your content, and as always, keep creating blog entries, which give a great opportunity for your site to be found for very specific long tail queries. Look around to see what users might be searching for and try to answer those queries in your content.

Ciaran Rowe is Senior Search Strategist at Bookassist (bookassist.org), the award-winning technology and online strategy partner for hotels worldwide.

Labels: sem, metasearch, hummingbird, google

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Search is Dead

By Des O'Mahony | On Fri, April 11, 2014

We are in very turbulent times for search. Specifically, natural search has been strongly eroded and is losing relevance in certain business sectors, travel being a key one. While this represents a threat for those with reliance on organic search result methods, it is by no means the death of search opportunity.

The search landscape has changed quite dramatically recently and will continue to do so through 2014. Should hotels be worried about this? Definitely. Can they make strategic changes to actually capitalise on the rapid change in search? Most definitely. But they need to understand that benefit comes at a price.

Search Engine Optimisation Relevance

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a strategy and technique to improve traffic to websites by deliberately targeting a high position on search engine results pages (SERPs). SEO could be viewed as an effort to ensure your content and relevance is properly recognised in SERPs for relevant searches (which is a good and fair marketing effort, though difficult). Or, SEO can also be an attempt to rig the game by getting exposure you don’t justly deserve (which is a disingenuous marketing attempt, and bad for everyone in the long run).

Search engines of course want to always be relevant with their natural results, and not look like they’ve been rigged. Relevance is critical, and search companies work hard on complex algorithms to ensure, essentially, that SEO becomes redundant. In other words, to improve their indexing technology so that it makes its own decisions about relevance for the searcher regardless of what the website owner has tried to do.

To quote moz.com (http://moz.com/google-algorithm-change), “Each year, Google changes its search algorithm around 500-600 times”. Search engines make these algorithm changes to make deliberate SEO more irrelevant. Websites therefore more than ever need to ensure they have good content, relevant content and accurate content relating to their services. To justify a good position in SERP, you need to deserve it. You need to invest properly in website design and content on an ongoing basis to have a chance here, before you even consider the issue of your website’s impact on conversion, which is another story.

So while SEO may not be dead, the simplistic approach to SEO that yielded results years ago is certainly of little use today. SEO needs to focus far more on relevance and freshness and not just keyword stuffing.

Competing Space

However well you achieve optimisation, the bottom line is that your site is effectively listed once in a sea of results and products on a SERP. And that sea is getting extremely complex. If one looks at Google search results alone, you can see that it is increasingly dominated by Google products. To get more visibility, you need to play their game and use their services effectively.

The company is pushing hard on Google+, its social “network”, to the extent that optimising your Google+ page is arguably far more relevant for SERP positioning in Google than anything else. Google does stress that it sees Google+ more as a layer to bring all its various products and services together for you the user in a personalised way, and that it’s not a stand-alone social network in the way we view Facebook and others. Of relevance for hotels, Google is gathering reviews rapidly, and via Google+ is using them to influence search relevance. More and more, your hotel’s Google+ page content, the freshness of your interaction there, and your review rating, are influencing your hotel’s SERP position.

With the advent of Google Hotel Finder (GHF), the company began to gather availability and pricing from hotels (via the Online Travel Agents and also from direct representatives of hotels such as Bookassist), effectively becoming a meta search player within its own search results. The result of that effort so far is that for accommodation searches, Google now presents its pay per click (PPC) advertising (indicated by the little yellow “Ads” sign), its Google+ local results, and now its GHF integrated results that hotels (and OTAs) bid for. Google search results have it all - why go elsewhere? At least this appears to be the plan.

If you look at Figure 1, the block headed “Hotels in Berlin on Google” has appeared after the PPC adverts in a search I’ve done for “hotels in berlin”. Here, you can see directly not just the pricing for hotels being fed by GHF, but also the Google+ reviews and ratings taking prominence. Interestingly, even if you click on a specific hotel in this listing, you will be brought to a full listing of hotels in GHF, as Figure 2 shows, not to that specific hotel you clicked.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Google search results for “hotels in berlin” showing Ads, Google map results, and the Google Hotel Finder and Google+ influence on results, injecting ratings and prices.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Google Hotel Finder as accessed from the search results in Figure 1.

GHF functionality is also integrated into maps and other areas of Google and taking more and more precedence and real estate on the screen, along with Google+. The result is that your natural listing is moving further off the page, and the money you are required to spend on PPC and on bidding within GHF is becoming more and more relevant to your prominence.

The industry expects this trend to continue, with the move of technologies like the Google carousel (Figure 3) inevitably into accommodation. Typing a search like “things to do in London” shows the carousel of points of interest, and will display prominently on the right of the page the associated Google+ page when available. When a carousel is used for hotels in a city, you can see just how relevant the GHF bidding and the Google+ page content will be for a hotel.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Example of Google’s carousel and the dominance of Google+

for elements of the carousel on the lower right of the page.

The Continuing Rise of Meta Search

For hotels, the opportunity presented by meta search sites like Trivago, Hotelscombined and many others is a second wind on the internet. The dominance of OTAs over direct booking on hotel websites can now be mitigated by hotels using meta search sites, which can show the hotels’ own website and pricing via representative companies such as Bookassist, along with the OTA pricing. This levels the playing field somewhat for hotels and is a positive development.

Likewise, high-traffic sites like TripAdvisor have seized on the opportunity presented by their qualified users and have moved to offer meta search services that combine OTA and hotel direct pricing, via the TripConnect service. Hotels’ own websites and pricing can again be listed along with the OTAs via representative companies for hotels, such as Bookassist, presenting TripAdvisor users with little reason to leave TripAdvisor when doing their research.

However, when you now look at Google Hotel Finder, TripConnect and Trivago, you see quite different approaches to optimising the opportunities for your hotel.

For example, on Google Hotel Finder, it is often best to focus on your hotel’s website having the lowest price, and not focus on just bidding highest. You may be outbid by an OTA that grabs the first position, but the prominence of your lower price will win out in many cases. On Trivago, the layout of their results favours the highest bidder, and the process is extremely dynamic. When you are searching on Trivago, you can see results and prices literally changing before your eyes. Meanwhile over in TripConnect, the push for the best TripAdvisor ranking is no longer as relevant as it was, since your availability and pricing will drive how TripConnect returns your hotel within its metasearch. And even these observations about best approaches have changed in recent months.

Managing all of this is critical, and is not an easy task, especially since it must be done virtually in real time.

The Mobile Challenge

Mobile search remains the key entry point for mobile hotel customers, despite the prominence of specific branded apps for last minute booking. With smaller screen sizes, the limited real estate on a mobile SERP means that natural is even less relevant here and the battle for the first page is extremely significant.

Google is injecting GHF panels directly into mobile search also, following relevant PPC ads, pushing down natural search. The inclusion of mapping results further relegates natural results. All of this is good for the user, but makes it difficult for the hotel.

Figure 4. Google SERP on iOS showing PPC advert and GHF panel
Figure 4. Google SERP on iOS showing PPC advert and GHF panel

Interestingly, as internet usage on tablets and mobile phones becomes more the norm, usage patterns have quickly changed. Not that long ago, bookings on mobile and access to accommodation websites was dominated by last minute users. The average lead-in time however has now lengthened. We see it in Bookassist data, and recently at the EyeforTravel Mobile Web Congress, Carlson Wagonlit Mobile also indicated in their data that hotel booking lead-in time is indeed getting longer on mobile.

Where To Next?

Just understanding the fast-changing nature of the search space and meta search in particular is a very difficult task. The pace of change is quite breathtaking as the competition hots up between OTAs and meta search. Google is innovating fast, but must be mindful of treading on its paying advertisers’ toes too - it cannot afford to annoy OTAs too much with the hundreds of millions of dollars they literally spend per year on PPC. Likewise, OTAs and meta search are pushing their own brands so they can reduce reliance on Google, and we see Trivago and Booking.com investing hugely in offline advertising like TV to get customers to bypass search and go directly to them.

Everyone wants to be the one stop shop gathering as much diverse info in one place as possible, which is a direct result of the increasing trend of online users to want to shop around.

As a supplier, monitoring the dynamic nature of all of this is complex in the extreme and poses a significant challenge for the individual hotel, let alone those hotel groups with more resources. But this is the reality of where we are in search today. Increasingly, your direct traffic must be bought. And this makes margin all the more relevant as the key issue to track in your business.

Hotels must invest even more strongly in PPC, and in meta search bidding, while making sure they are watching and measuring the real ROI. Since both these approaches deliver qualified traffic, but not actual bookings, hotels must invest ever more in website technology and have world class booking capability to ensure that this hard-earned paid-for traffic actually converts. This may be daunting, but those hotels who move fast in this area can benefit significantly

Expect the search space to be radically different by this time next year. Search today is nothing like the game we played just two years ago, and to compare then and now displays bewildering differences, with threats and opportunities.

To say search is dead may be an exaggeration. More appropriately, to borrow from Star Trek, “It’s search Jim, but not as we knew it.”

Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO and founder at Bookassist (bookassist.org), the award-winning technology and online strategy partner for hotels worldwide.

Labels: trivago, tripadvisor, strategy, seo, metasearch, google+, google hotel finder

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Metasearch is not about connectivity, it’s about strategic management

By Des O'Mahony | On Thu, May 22, 2014

​It’s Just Wires

With so much noise about metasearch being the big thing for hotels in online distribution for 2014, many providers are jumping on board touting their connectivity to metasearch platforms. Booking engine suppliers are connected, and even channel manager companies are now pushing their connectivity to metasearch as another distribution path as if it was a genuine solution to the issue. Seems everyone is shying away from the main point and hotels are being misled if they are being told that connectivity is all that is needed.

Connectivity is just wiring - it’s what you do with it that matters.

Bid Management And Strategy Are Key

Bookassist has connectivity with all the main metasearch players and continues to develop the integration technology with our metasearch partners as they evolve. For hotels, the key issue that Bookassist’s Digital Marketing team can address professionally is the management of strategy on each metasearch platform. This is how a real return-on-invesment (ROI) is assured.

If you consider Trivago, TripConnect and Google Hotel Finder, the approach to maximising your return is completely different on each platform. Bidding for positions takes quite a different strategy on each, and there are additional factors associated with each that critically influence success.

On Google Hotel Finder, for example, an optimised Google+ presence for your hotel is extremely important and no amount of channel manager “connectivity” is going to make up for a poor Google+ page. On the other metasearch platforms, there are considerable differences in bid strategy that you can adopt in order to minimise your spend while maximising return, and aiming for the top spot is not always the smartest thing to do. Additionally, approaches change again on mobile and there is simply no single approach that can be used across all platforms. This is not distribution in the “just send rates and availability to OTAs” sense.

Make The Right Decision

Metasearch is a fast evolving space, and expertise is needed to stay abreast of changes and to manage strategy accordingly. If your supplier has connectivity, that’s great. But be aware that connectivity is not a solution without strategic backup, bid management, and ongoing support. This is the expertise that Bookassist’s Digital Marketing team will bring.

After all, there’s been a free interface to pay-per-click advertising on Google for years, but everyone accepts that it takes considerable expertise to maximise its use. Why should hotels think metasearch is any easier to optimise?

Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO and founder at Bookassist (bookassist.org), the award-winning technology and online strategy partner for hotels worldwide.

Labels: trivago, tripconnect, metasearch, google hotel finder, distribution

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