For years now hotel marketers have claimed that search engines are on the way out as a viable marketing and distribution channel in hospitality. These claims, of course, have been followed with boasts of "the next big thing" to save hotel distribution – from social media to the mobile channel and wearable devices.
Why are we even talking about SEO in this day and age? HeBS Digital’s own experience categorically shows that more than half of website booking revenue across our client portfolio comes as direct referral from the search engines, including organic and paid search.
At the same time, there is a direct correlation between the quality of the website SEO and the results from your paid search (SEM) campaigns. The better the SEO on the site, the better the Quality Index assigned to your paid search campaigns by Google, which means higher ad position, better conversion rates, higher ROIs and lower cost per click.
Regardless of what some in the industry say, the search engines are still alive and well. The importance of the search engines as marketing and distribution channels are not diminishing, there is simply a shift from desktop searches to mobile and tablet searches.
For example, in the first half of 2014, the massive shift from desktop to mobile and tablet devices continues its rigorous pace and now over 42% of web visitors and nearly 38% of page views were generated from non-desktop devices (mobile and tablet), while nearly 16% of bookings and 19% of room nights came from tablets and mobile devices.
There is a reason why the search engines are travel consumers’ favorite travel research and planning tool. For example, Google provides deep and relevant information, the best mapping and directions functionality on the Web, extensive customer reviews via Zagat’s acquisition and now real-time hotel availability and pricing via Google Hotel Finder.
A robust content strategy, supported by adequate technology and marketing funds, can make all the difference and allow the hotel to maximize its revenues from the search engines.
Every year, Google’s algorithm changes more than 500 times. Many of these changes are incremental and affect ongoing relevance of search engine results, but once in a while, a biggie rolls in and SEO experts everywhere devise new strategies in response. For hoteliers looking to stay ahead of the game and keep ROIs climbing, it is not just recommended, but necessary to implement an SEO strategy that’s active, not fixed, mercurial, not static. We’ll tell you how this can be done very soon, but first let’s break down why.
The most recent Google algorithm update was Panda 4.0, announced in May 2014. Its main aim being to filter out "thin" content from top rankings, the most affected sites were top press release sites.
The initial Panda update was released in February 2011 and focused on lowering the rank of "low-quality sites" or "thin sites" to promote sites with high-quality content. When evaluating the quality of your hotel site’s content, you now must ask yourself:
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping or redundant content on the same or similar topics?
- Does this content have spelling, stylistic or factual errors?
- Does the content provide original information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Was the content edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
You can read a detailed overview of the Panda Update "How Can Hoteliers Stay Ahead of the Latest Google Panda Update?"
Along with Panda, Google also launched their Penguin update in April 2012 to punish sites that were spamming search results, in particular those doing so by buying links or obtaining them through link networks designed primarily to boost Google rankings.
The second coming of Google Penguin – Penguin 2.0 – addressed bad link-building and linking practices, penalizing sites that use unsavory techniques to help improve visibility within the SERPs. Google’s team evaluates in real time a huge amount of data to learn more about "bad" – or non-organic – links, combing through the mountains of data on the Internet to locate the spots where bad links live.
Once Google locates these suspicious links, it devalues them and negates whatever positive impact they had on search results. The links that stand out to Google as bad either come from locations on the Internet that Google deems untrustworthy or in places with high "link velocity" – the rate at which a site acquires inbound links.
The best way to attract quality inbound links is through the creation of quality content. Ideally, the hotel website is a collection of linkable assets. A linkable asset is defined as a piece of content that will generate inbound links through its uniqueness, relevance and informative nature. This doesn’t mean hoteliers must resort to gimmicks such as viral content creation to stand out online. In fact, several rather straightforward ways to attract links exist:
For more details, please read our article "Preparing for Google Penguin 2.0: How To Protect Your Hotel Website."
In September 2013, the Hummingbird update’s mission was to allow the Google search engine to better do its job through an improvement in semantic search. As conversational search becomes more popular, Hummingbird lends understanding to the intent as well as the contextual meaning of terms used in a query.
The Hummingbird rollout was more than just an adjustment to the search engine’s formula (like the many prior algorithm updates issued over the past several years). Instead, it is a complete retooling of the Google search algorithm with wide-reaching effects.
Hummingbird’s main intent is to deliver more accurate answers to conversational search queries. In short, the search engine’s results will better answer questions like the following: "What is the best hotel rooftop bar nearby?" Using your current location, Google will deliver the most relevant results for the query in a more precise manner than it did pre-Hummingbird. These geo-targeted, conversational, query-specific results are meant to help users find the results most relevant to them.
In a more general sense, this algorithm change reinforces Google’s continuing shift toward rewarding quality content instead of keyword-centric content. As noted in a recent HeBS Digital blog post – "The End of an Era: Google Says Goodbye to Keyword-Centric SEO" – the content-focused age is upon us. Low-quality, keyword-stuffed content is prone to punishment at the hands of Google, while high-quality, helpful, engaging and relevant content is rewarded with high search engine results page placement.
The latest Google Hummingbird algorithm update simply underscores the copywriting strategy we have utilized for many years here at HeBS Digital – generating high-quality content that engages and informs users. Make it a priority to overhaul your current website by adopting the latest CMS technology and by creating quality content that accurately represents your property and its destination, and Google will reward you.
The Hummingbird change is the most robust update of the past decade, meaning hoteliers should be spurred out of complacency and into action.
Read a complete overview of the far reaching implications of Google’s Hummingbird Update in our blog article on the subject "Hotelier’s Action Plan to Benefit from Google’s Hummingbird Algorithm."
In July 2014, Google’s latest algorithm change, dubbed the "Pigeon" update by Search Engine Land (in absence of an official name from Google), was aimed at improving local search results with enhanced distance and location ranking parameters. According to Google, the new algorithm delves deeper into the site’s web search capabilities, influencing hundreds of ranking signals, as well as search features like spelling correction capabilities, synonyms and Google’s knowledge graph. Action steps that can help clients maintain/improve with this update include: making sure Google MyBusiness listing is claimed, verified, and complete, submitting to main data providers (InfoUSA, Localeze, YP), and maintaining an active presence on Google+.
Making an SEO Plan
So, what do all these algorithmic updates mean for hotel marketers? They mean that we have to be flexible and proactive when devising an aggressive and efficient SEO strategy. Below are some tried and tested methods for which we have found continued success.
Redesign Your Website
Bolster SEO performance by developing site structure that organizes relevant content into easy-to-follow funnels, leading to bookings. Redesigning your site allows you, with the help of analytics, to develop an intuitive site structure that organizes relevant content.
The property website should serve the right website content (textual, visual, pricing and promotional content) in the right device category (desktop, mobile, tablet) while ensuring the maximum user experience, relevancy of information and conversions. Technology available today, like HeBS Digital’s award-winning CMS Premium 6.0, allows for any property or hotel chain to manage all digital content in one place, yet still provide a customized user experience for each device. This technology—adaptive web design aka Responsive Design on Server Side (RESS)—does the work for the hotelier, meaning they don’t have to manage three different websites. Additionally, this is the time to button up things on the back end: XML site maps, canonical tags, schemas, robot.txts, etc.
The hotel website should also load quickly – download speeds factors into the hotel’s SEO performance. Here at HeBS Digital we utilize secure, enterprise-level "Cloud" hosting with built-in redundancy and load-balancing, and CDN (Content Delivery Network) platform enabling distributed content delivery of the rich media content, both of which dramatically increase download speeds on our clients’ websites, improve user experience and conversions, and improve search engine rankings that are increasingly dependent on fast download speeds.
Employ Professional Copy and SEO Specialists
In the world of content creation, you get what you pay for. Cheap copywriters and interns typically provide thin, lifeless content that does little more than take up space on a page. Take the time to find professional copywriters with experience in both technical SEO and hospitality marketing that can be called "travel writers" in their own right.
Develop a Content Creation Plan
Google’s ongoing algorithm updates mandate that the website content must be deep, relevant, unique and engaging. Search engines are now looking for strong editorial content, as quality content has taken center stage over the past 24 months, making it imperative to have strong copy supported by a focused SEO strategy.
Building additional and quality content does three things for your site:
- Creates deeper, more relevant and engaging content in tune with travel consumer preferences.
- Gives you more real estate to target segmented keywords to support organic search rankings and SEM/paid search campaigns.
- Increases your SEM/paid search campaigns’ effectiveness and revenues by improving quality scores and lowering cost per clicks.
A structured content creation plan can help you capture incremental revenue by creating pages about events such as nearby college graduations, annual happenings or popular sporting events.
Implement Mobile SEO
Having a mobile website – even if developed according to industry’s best practices – is only the beginning. Quality content is the biggest "must-have" for the mobile version of the property website. Search algorithm updates favor mobile websites with rich visual and textual content that is fresh, engaging and optimized for the search engines.
The mobile web abides by different rules that require mobile Web-specific marketing initiatives. Mobile search engines favor and predominantly serve local content; therefore, hoteliers need to optimize their local content and listings on the search engines, main data providers, and local business directories.
Manage SEO Within the Framework of a Multi-channel Marketing Strategy
Multi-channel marketing should become the centerpiece of every hotel marketer’s overall strategy. In today’s multi-device, multi-touch world, digital marketing must be handled in a multi-channel campaign fashion to reach consumers at every touch point. All three screens (desktop, mobile and tablet) must be integrated in the hotel’s marketing strategy. These campaigns utilize the right combination of online channels effectively (SEO, SEM/paid search, online media, dynamic rate marketing, social media, email marketing, etc.) to promote one campaign theme. This strategy is the most effective way to increase reach and boost revenues for a need period.
Devise a Quality Inbound Linking and Citation Strategy
In addition to high quality content, inbound links are the number one factor in Google’s determination of your website’s search engine ranking. Google’s Penguin update further penalized link farms and purchased links so that paid links now have very little SEO value. It is imperative that hoteliers pursue unique "organic" links with relevant anchor text, such as editorial links and mentions of the property, listings on local CVB websites, local colleges, and nearby convention centers, theme parks and attractions. With BrightEdge, we can also gain insight into what sites link to competitors to pursue opportunities we may have previously missed.
To combat the Penguin Update’s punishment of poor links, it is crucial that hoteliers disavow links that may come from "spammy" sites. With BrightEdge, we can view all inbound links currently leading to the hotel site and then take necessary steps to remove the ones that may cause harm.
Implement high-powered analytics and search optimization technology
Search engine result page (SERP) rankings are just one measure of success. Organic performance should also be measured by revenue, bookings initiated, time on site, and other metrics. Platforms such as Adobe Analytics can give detailed metrics on each keyword such as pages viewed, entry points, and revenue to help you make tweaks to your SEO strategy. Revenue attribution SEO analysis, complemented with SEO optimization and recommendation technology such as BrightEdge, provides hoteliers with a concrete action plan to improve SEO results.
SEO optimization and recommendation tools like BrightEdge are designed to ease the transition from keyword-specific strategies to content-specific strategies. As a Certified BrightEdge Partner, HeBS Digital uses this advanced tracking technology to support all of our clients’ SEO efforts by tracking our current rankings for a list of keywords, assessing performance against the competition, looking into inbound link growing opportunities and more.
Assess the Competition
Monitoring the comp set’s SEO achievements and failures could provide the property with tremendous competitive advantage. For example here at HeBS Digital, by using BrightEdge, we can get an in depth look into competitors’ SEO strategies, track their performance, see what inbound links lead to their site and more. By keeping an eye on the competition at all times, we gain invaluable insight into how to forge ahead.
Refresh SEO on an Ongoing Basis
Our experience shows that it is impossible for hoteliers to stay abreast of the search engine algorithm changes and new requirements on their own and manage their ongoing SEO efforts in-house. Team up with a hospitality-focused, full-service digital marketing firm with robust SEO practice.
Consider subscribing to an ongoing SEO package that offers at least three levels of ongoing SEO optimization and strategic consulting services.
For example here at HeBS Digital, we offer our hotel clients comprehensive ongoing SEO packages that are custom-tailored to each site’s needs. By including BrightEdge, a cutting-edge SEO optimization, monitoring and recommendation technology, our team gains and delivers invaluable insights into the competition, the property’s own keyword rankings and inbound link opportunities. These packages allow our team to fluidly apply an evolving SEO strategy as opposed to delivering an arbitrary number of pages or links per month. The results of these ongoing SEO services are a fresh supply of quality content pages, valuable inbound links, higher search rankings, and best of all, more organic search revenue and ROI.
Minimum every quarter, a hotel should consider refreshing the SEO keywords currently implemented on their website. Consider swapping out keywords that are too general and underperforming and re-optimizing for more appropriate keywords that can lead to conversions faster.
Choose Your SEO Marketing Partner Wisely
We know the above list of search engine algorithm updates and action steps is a lot to take into account, so consider teaming up with a full-service digital marketing and website revenue optimization consulting firm, which offers multi-tiered SEO services as well as integrates SEO into the property’s multi-channel marketing campaigns and initiatives.
Many interactive and digital marketing agencies outsource their SEO services, quite often abroad, resulting in subpar SEO practices as well as delays that will cost your business precious traffic and dollars. With today’s complex, three-screen (desktop, mobile, tablet) digital environment that integrates social media and must adhere to the constant changes in best practices, you need a partner who fully understands these complexities and knows how to maximize revenues from every angle of the property website.
You should choose a full-service digital marketing partner that has in-house expertise in everything digital, including experienced in hospitality SEO practice. For example, here at HeBS Digital we do not outsource any of our marketing efforts. From website design and development to paid search, social media and, of course, copywriting and SEO, we have complete control over the entire project from start to finish and can implement best practices and latest technological innovations throughout the whole process.
In the following article we have summarized "The Top 10 Questions Hoteliers Should Be Asking Their SEO Vendor."
Empowering hoteliers to maximize revenues from the direct online channel i.e. the property’s own website, requires the ability to utilize the full digital marketing "toolkit" available (SEO, SEM, Dynamic Rate Marketing, Meta search marketing, Online Media and Retargeting, Email Marketing, Multi-Channel Marketing, Social Media, Mobile Marketing, etc.), and knowledge of how to grow the direct online channel.
About the Author and HeBS Digital
Max Starkov is President & CEO and Erica Garza is Senior Copy + SEO Specialist at HeBS Digital, the hospitality industry’s leading full-service digital marketing and technology, website design and website revenue optimization consulting firm (www.HeBSDigital.com).
HeBS Digital has pioneered many of the best practices in hospitality digital technology and marketing, and direct online channel best practices and strategies. The firm has won over 250 prestigious industry awards for its digital marketing and website design services, including numerous Adrian Awards, Davey Awards, W3 Awards, WebAwards, Magellan Awards, Summit International Awards, Interactive Media Awards, IAC Awards, and others.
A diverse client portfolio of hospitality clients: from restaurants to major hotel brands, luxury and boutique hotel chains, resorts and casinos, hotel management companies, franchisees and independents, and CVBs are benefiting from HeBS Digital’s direct online channel strategy and digital marketing expertise. Contact HeBS Digital’s consultants at (212) 752-8186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.