Blog category: web2.0

Get high search ranking through blended search results

By Des O'Mahony | On Thu, January 22, 2009

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.

Vertical searches

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.

References
(1) iProspect
(http://www.iprospect.com/premiumPDFs/
researchstudy_apr2008_blendedsearchresults.pdf)
(2) Forrester
(http://blogs.forrester.com/marketing/
2009/01/the-easiest-way.html)

Authors
Dr Des O’Mahony is co-founder & Managing Director of Bookassist, Ciaran Rowe is Senior Search Specialist at Bookassist’s Dublin office.

Labels: web2.0, travel2.0, seo, sem

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Using social media to build customer relationships

By Des O'Mahony | On Wed, August 12, 2009

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.

Labels: youtube, web2.0, twitter, tripadvisor, tips, strategy, seo, sem, facebook

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Five steps to engaging online with your customers’ conversations

By Des O'Mahony | On Wed, January 20, 2010

It seems odd to have to make this obvious statement in 2010, but hotels’ behavior still indicates that they are not seeing the obvious: Customer reviews are one side of a conversation - hotels need to answer back. Hotels not dealing with this are going to be increasingly in trouble when trying to build their online and offline revenue.

In the last number of years, the hospitality industry has witnessed an explosion of customer-generated content. Ask any average person what they think the highest-trafficked sites in travel are and you will generally get a list of high profile third party hotel booking sites. And of course there are plenty of big brand names dominating booking. But they are not dominating travel. Any ranking of travel sites by traffic will show you that bookings sites are nowhere near the top of the pile, but rather review sites and customer generated comment are the leaders in capturing people’s eyeballs online.

What this tells us is that booking is the end point of a process, and that this process is increasingly dominated by online research. Potential customers want to explore, to read and to be informed before they eventually settle on the target for booking.

Yet a cursory look at some of the dominant online players in hotel reviews reveals the fact that hotels are still not engaging with this. Time and again we see review after review by guests online with no response or input from hotels. As a hotel, think about what this means to your potential customers: if a customer stood in the lobby and either complained or praised your staff or hotel, would you let them stand there without even acknowledging their presence? At the very least it would be rude, but more likely it would result in you losing that customer for life, as well as anybody that he might talk to. Your repeat custom would suffer rapidly.

The startling absense of hotels from the online conversation is very visually highlighted in Bookassist’s recent launch of an iPhone mobile hotel app platform. Customer reviews that have been automatically collected by the booking system for hotels over the past number of years are displayed as a key feature of the iPhone app, and are represented by conversation “bubbles” coming from the customers. Yet many hotels have never used the system’s opportunity to respond, leading to the iPhone app’s review display looking like an unanswered conversation of one-sided bubbles, which of course is exactly what it is. Where hotels have responded, such as that shown in the image, the positive impact on the potential customer browsing the reviews is clear - this hotel cares, this hotel takes me seriously, this hotel fosters customer relations.

Hotel Webapp with Online Booking and Reviews by Bookassist
Hotels that respond to comments, such as ARCOTEL Kaiserwasser staff in the image above, are engaging in a conversation that speaks volumes about their commitment to customer relations.


Hotels, make it a resolution now to engage online with your customers in 2010. You need to put interaction with your potential online customers to center stage and not just treat it as an inconvenience. There is no hiding online and there’s no point hoping it will all go away.

1. Set Google Alerts on your hotel name and variations of it so you can instantly see if someone is referring to you online. Make sure someone in your organisation has clear ownership of monitoring this.

2. Register with the major online review sites such as TripAdvisor and, again, make sure that someone in your organisation has ownership of the reading and responding process.

3. Get on Twitter, monitor Twitter for comments about your hotel, and assign that task to someone in your organisation as a primary role, not just something to do when they find a minute here and there.

4. Remember it is a conversation - you must respond to positive as well as negative comments just as you would if the person was standing in front of you. Refusing to make eye contact or ignoring the person talking to you gets you nowhere in real life, and if anything makes matters significantly worse. It is exactly the same online - except that this time the whole world is gauging your refusal to interact and what it might mean for them as a potential customer.

5. Get proactive, not just reactive. Conversation is a two-way street so instead of just responding, get out there and have your say first. Get online and tell people about new developments in your hotel, tell people about events, ask your guests their opinions. Use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other approaches to get your name and your opinions out there. Remember, all of these have the added advantage of being found in the search engines when someone is looking for information about you.

Labels: web2.0, tripadvisor, travel2.0, iphone

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Four tips for hotels on better Twitter use

By Des O'Mahony | On Thu, April 22, 2010

Here are four points to help your hotel be more effective on Twitter and build followers naturally.

Get A Handle On Who Follows You
Knowing the interests of your followers allows you to be more relevant. Look through your followers list regularly and look for trends. Read or follow their timelines so that you understand better where they are coming from. Go to twittersheep.com and enter your twitter name to get a visual cloud of the kinds of keywords relevant to your followers. Act on this information to ensure relevance in what you are contributing.



Use Retweets
If relevant news about your location or your business that might be of interest to your customers comes up in your timeline, then retweet it. Make sure you credit the original tweeter and not just copy and paste. Retweeting shows that you are engaged in Twitter and are tracking interesting tweets from others and acknowledging their online input. You are filtering the Twitter universe to ensure relevance for your followers. Plus, retweeting others means that the original authors can see your interest and may retweet you in the future. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Look Beyond Your Own Twitter Account
Take the time to use the advanced search on Twitter at search.twitter.com/advanced. Generate searches for your location and for services being tweeted such as “hotel”, “room”, “dinner” etc. Set up searches for phrases such as “recommend” or “looking for”. You can even target “attitude” in searches to see if people are asking questions. Over time, revise these searches to be more and more relevant to you, and then save these searches for future use so you can check them regularly. You can use them to track if people are looking for such services nearby so you can jump into the conversation and offer your services as an immediate solution for them. This is pre-emptive customer service!



You can use tweetbeep.com to automatically send alerts to you when new information arises.

Don’t be pushy
Constantly pushing your brand and your “great hotel” is not going to influence anyone and is not going to help your online conversion. Your followers know you have a great hotel, that’s why they are there with you online. Now make it interesting for them.

Twitter is about being able to easily converse with your followers and potential customers, it’s not about the hard sell. Your posts need to be relevant and interesting beyond just a constant promotion of your hotel. Sure, you should post novel special offers or last minute deals, but you should also ensure that your posts are continually good enough that people will want to come back for more on a regular basis. If you don’t have something interesting to contribute, don’t tweet.

Labels: web2.0, twitter, tips

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Social Media and the Fan Phenomenon

By Des O'Mahony | On Fri, June 04, 2010

People are constantly asking us at Bookassist what they should use social media for, which social media channels are the most important, how can they build their fanbase, or even at a most basic level, what is social media and do we really need it? We thought it was a good time to bring back to the table those issues related to social media that are particularly important for hospitality.

Ask Why? Not What?

When the web first started up and businesses began to contemplate a web presence, much the same questions were being asked in relation to websites. It took time for many companies to even realise that they had to engage with the web, that there was no choice if they were to survive. A website was about presenting your brand and offering, about projecting your image. It evolved into a marketing and commerce machine, about making existing sales efforts more efficient, about new capturing sales, and about generating revenue with better margin. It took time for that progression from static to dynamic to occur.

We know that social media is about conversation, it’s about listening to what is being said about you and engaging in that conversation with other businesses and with your customers and potential customers. But why is this conversation important? The why needs to be addressed before the what and how.

Customer Service

Social media gives you, in hospitality, an ideal opportunity to project your customer service outside your establishment in a way that you could not do before. By engaging in a more casual way through channels such as Facebook and Twitter, it shows that you are interested in your existing and potential customers, that you are willing to listen to them, and that you are open to converse.

This does not mean that you must always agree with their comments! But it does afford you a clear opportunity to clarify issues promptly and fully should they arise. For others to see that public engagement between you and your customers or reviewers is a clear sign of your commitment to customer service.

To put it another way: your customers are already online and talking about you, or commenting on you, whether you like it or not. To not acknowledge that through engagement means losing an opportunity to control the conversation, to be factual, and to demonstrate customer service. If nothing else, it is not polite to have positive customer comments online met with silence on your part.

Quality, Not Quantity

When hospitality businesses do engage online, particularly through Facebook and Twitter, there is often initially a naïve drive to simply work up a bigger list of fans and be a top ten player in fan count. While having followers is obviously important, the quantity in itself says nothing about your success on the ground, about your revenue or reputation.

What is the point in having 2000 Facebook fans who have never actually visited your premises and probably never will, but are there because their hip and cool Aunty Muriel asked all her fans to follow you? What is important is the level of engagement that you have with your fans.

How many of those fans visit your page regularly? Do you actually know? How many of your fans actually comment back to you when you post something? How many respond to questions you may pose online? How many avail of any special offers or competitions that you might run? Are you tracking that? These at least are metrics that you can use to try to gauge success, and to gauge how many of that fan base actually matter.

In many ways, the fan base can be like the huge email list of old, before privacy legislation made pruning the list an urgent necessity. An often inflated list that was regularly bombarded with emails but whose recipients rarely engaged or generated revenue. Far more important to have 100 solid emails that want to regularly receive your information, than 1,000,000 that are disinterested and bin your email immediately.

Focus on serving those who have opted to follow you for a reason, and you will naturally gain more loyal fans organically. Good customer service is always talked about and builds brand ambassadors. This is no less true online.

Des O’Mahony

Labels: web2.0, twitter, strategy, social media, facebook

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