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.
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.
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.
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.
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.