Driving Custom to Your Website

31st August 2006 (Last Updated August 31st, 2006 18:30)

Many hotels are losing online custom because they are not ranking highly enough on the major search engines. Peter O'Connor, from IMHI and the Essec Business School, explains how hotels can ensure that consumers find them before the intermediaries.

Driving Custom to Your Website

As more leisure travellers plan their trips online, search engine ranking is becoming increasingly important. Research indicates that more consumers are searching for destinations, activities or even hotel names on major search engines. A recent study by DoubleClick placed this figure at nearly 70% of travel purchasers.

However, few hotels are actively managing how they are positioned in such searches, and competitors and unscrupulous intermediaries are hijacking their custom. Although most major hotels rank well, they are often beaten by internet-savvy companies, even when a customer types in the name of a particular hotel.

THE ONLINE TRAVEL MARKET

Travel is one of the most popular products sold online, with internet analyst company PhoCusWright putting the size of the US online travel market at over $50bn. While Europe, Asia and the Middle East lag behind the USA, they will soon catch up. Internet-based (or at least internet-influenced) sales are becoming more important and maximising the potential of this medium is key to future sales and profitability.

“Organic search engine optimisation is like public relations: you can invest heavily over a long period of time, but there are no guarantees.”

Today, more and more consumers looking for a travel product are making search engines their first port of call. The major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, AOL and MSN) maintain massive databases of sites, placing them into categories and providing consumers with results for their searches.

Website visitors who have come via a search engine are generally more valuable because they have already shown interest in your product and such traffic converts well into sales. It is therefore essential to secure a high ranking in the search results. If your site does not come up when a potential client searches, you may well lose their custom.

ORGANIC SEARCH ENGINE MARKETING

For search engines to become successful, they must give their users relevant results. They use software programs, known as spiders, to crawl the web, following links from site to site and using a complicated algorithm to categorise each page they find and add it to their database.

Each search engine uses a different algorithm that places emphasis on different issues, and each one is updated regularly to prevent anyone from manipulating them to gain better placement (known as spamming).

However, by having a basic idea of what the spiders are looking for and designing your pages accordingly (a process known as organic search engine marketing), it is possible to achieve a better position. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes a developer can make is to design a site without taking the requirements of search engines into account.

One of the most important things is the content of the individual pages. The search engine spiders are trying to figure out what each page is about so that it can be classified correctly. Therefore, anything that assists them should help your ranking.

Each page should be clearly focused and concentrate on a single subject (for example, one for the bar, another for the restaurant, another for the menu and one for each room type). Consequently, the entire site will be made up of many pages, each linked to the others.

Each page should contain meta-tags – hidden code with carefully selected keywords suggesting how the page should be classified. The keywords should also be liberally sprinkled throughout the text on the page, particularly towards the beginning and in headings. This will convince spiders that the page is focused on the specified topic.

Encouraging other sites to link to your pages is also important. Not only do spiders crawl such links to find new pages to add to their index, but having other sites pointing at your pages is interpreted as a vote of confidence. This will improve your position in the rankings.

Links from popular sites are considered more important while links from topical sites (whose content is related to yours) help the spider to classify you. However, any link from any site is beneficial and may be the one that alerts a spider to your existence in the first place.

Organic search engine marketing has the advantage of being relatively cheap – all it requires is minor tweaks to the design and content of your website – and it can be hugely effective. Experience shows that when a hotel starts actively managing its positioning – by monitoring its ranking for selected keywords, making adjustments to improve positioning and evaluating the results – it can make major improvements with minimal effort.

Organic search engine marketing remains to a large extent a ‘black art’. The algorithms are secret and continually evolving. One day you may be in first place and the next day on page 12 where no one will ever find you. Your site’s position must be continually monitored and adjustments made to keep it in the best position.

PAYING FOR BETTER RESULTS

Organic search engine optimisation is like public relations: you can invest heavily over a long period of time, but there are no guarantees. Even if you do everything possible to make your site attractive to visiting spiders, you may find that others continue to hog the top spots. Their success may not be because they are doing a better job than you; they could have paid to have the top position.

In many search engines, advertisers can bid on particular keywords or phrases and come up first – before the results of the organic search. While some sites clearly list sponsored matches others simply integrate them into their normal results.

In any case, searchers often fail to differentiate between organic and sponsored results. This represents another opportunity to get online visibility, one with advantages over organic search engine optimisation.

With a paid search result, the advertiser writes a short advert (a headline and a piece of text), specifies which webpage someone should be taken to if they click on the advert and bids per click for the relevant keywords.

The bidding process is relatively simple: the higher the bid, the higher the ranking. As advertisers can see how much others are bidding for a keyword, they can tailor their bid to appear first, second or wherever they wish in the search results.

When paying for search engine marketing, you can be sure where and when your site will be displayed, what message will appear and where someone will end up on your site if they click on the link. New adverts appear in hours (as opposed to the days or weeks needed for organic search engine marketing to work), a fixed budget can be set and adverts are instantly changeable.

In addition, your efforts are measurable, as the search network can report how many times an advert has been displayed, the percentage of times that someone has clicked on it and even the percentage of people who make a purchase.

Most search sites now incorporate at least some paid search results, Google being the exception. The latter has developed its own version, preferring to include clearly identified adverts at the side rather than above or integrated into its search results.

“Organic search engine marketing has the advantage of being relatively cheap and it can be hugely effective.”

In keeping with its philosophy of providing the most relevant results, simply paying the highest amount per click does not guarantee first place. Google uses a complicated formula that links the bid per click to the popularity of the advert, so a highly relevant advert (one that lots of people click on) will be displayed before a less popular one.

And Google, through its AdSense programme, syndicates its adverts to a massive number of other sites, giving an advertiser wider reach.

A key question is how much to bid per click. Since paying for performance means that more success will translate into higher costs, getting this decision right is important. The maximum amount should be determined by the conversion ratio of such traffic on your site and the value of the average sale.

Paid search results are extremely good at generating qualified leads, but each site has different success rates at converting these prospects into sales. Similarly, sites that have higher average sales can afford to bid more, even with similar conversion rates.

These two factors help explain how online intermediaries can afford to spend so much on keyword bidding. As they sell air, car and destination services in addition to hotel accommodation, and use highly effective merchandising techniques to convert lookers into bookers, they can outbid most hotel companies in keyword bidding wars.

A CALL TO ACTION

Managing one’s position on the search engines requires time, attention and a little knowledge. Within a small hotel chain responsibility for developing expertise on this area, monitoring the company’s position and engaging in organic search engine optimisation and paid for search engine marketing could easily be assigned to someone within the marketing department. Indeed, all of these efforts work best when integrated with the company’s off-line sales and marketing efforts.

You can also outsource to an internet marketing agency, which gives you access to dedicated expertise. This can be contracted on a pay-per-performance basis, with compensation levels linked to the improvement in placement for organic search, the number of visitors or even sales for paid search results.

Whichever strategy is chosen, hotels need to pay more attention to their positioning on the major search engines. In a recent KPMG survey, 92% of hotel websites were listed in the top five search engine results. However, almost all were preceded by a link to one or more of the online intermediaries.

Customers are being diverted towards expensive third-party channels and hotels could make major cost savings by more actively managing their search engine presence.