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Planning for Search Marketing in 2012 as a Hotel Marketer;
Interview with James Harrower of Hilton Worldwide


By Ritesh Gupta
February 3, 2012


IN-DEPTH: With TripAdvisor becoming less dominant/ reliable, brands are beginning to regain some lost influence and the correct management of both mobile and mapping technology will be key to increasing any brand’s online reputation, says James Harrower, search marketing manager, International at Hilton Worldwide.

Savvy travel marketers acknowledge challenges emanating from the evolving search landscape, with algorithms, interfaces and social-driven personalisation keeping online marketers busy.
 
The release of Google + was a big indicator of Google’s desire to take social signals into account. Marketers are thinking of this more in terms of greater levels of personalisation that Google can offer users based upon their social networks and activity. Businesses have long had the option to take advantage of social networking and SEO to increase their online visibility and indeed many have been doing this for years; what Google+ has done has made this relationship so obvious that SEO and social media marketers must now ensure social networks are a driving factor in their activities.
 
Considering the changes in the marketplace, EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta spoke to James Harrower, search marketing manager, International at Hilton Worldwide about the major developments pertaining to search marketing.

(Harrower is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Travel Distribution Summit Europe 2012, to be held in London (April 17-18) this year).
 
Excerpts:
 
What do you think were the major developments for SEO and PPC in 2011? What should the hotel industry watch out for when it comes to search marketing in 2012?
 
James Harrower:
 
For me it’s a close battle between the Google Panda update and the increasing impact of social within search results. The introduction of Google Plus was significant, not only due to the on-going and increasing influence that social networking has, but to see which strategies Google would put behind a product that they’ve launched knowing they are chasing the field as opposed to leading it.
 
In terms of 2012 and the hotel industry, it’s about mobile and OTA relationships. I also think that we haven’t even touched the surface in terms of what we can do with maps. With TripAdvisor becoming less dominant/ reliable, brands are beginning to regain some lost influence and the correct management of both mobile and mapping technology will be key to increasing any brand’s online reputation.
 
The continued roll out of Direct Connect, which makes it easier for users to find and follow brands using Google Plus and search together, will bring search and social closer than ever before, which needs to be approached correctly by brands to avoid getting left behind.

What do you think are the major challenges for travel marketers at this stage when it comes to SEO and PPC?  
 
James Harrower:
 
Competition forever plays a large part in revenue challenges year on year, particularly now when it’s not just other brands that we are competing against. With additional OTA coverage / expansion, Google’s Hotel Finder and now the likes of roomkey.com, our costs are forever climbing with the potential for booking expansion declining.
 
A company of the size of ours will always need continuous knowledge sharing, especially when you are talking about such an ever changing environment such as digital marketing. It’s something that is part of the culture at Hilton; very rarely do I find someone not eager to know more about what we do and how we do it.
 
I would say a major challenge for many travel marketers, which may come as a surprise to some as it’s not a new channel anymore, (it) is the synergy between more traditional digital marketing channels such as SEO, PPC, display and affiliates with social media. Social media, with Google Plus, the Twitter test within search results and an inevitable strategy from Facebook to contend with Google, shows the need for social media inclusion as part of any digital marketing strategy. Google Plus will certainly bring search and social much closer together.
 
The factors that impact search results have changed drastically. The best search results are not just the ones which have the right content and meta-tags and relevant links pointing back to them. One also need to focus on several ranking factors such as the ones that are related to your website, content, relevance of business in online world, social circle and online reviews, search categories saturation etc. How should one approach the same as of today?
 
James Harrower:
 
You can easily be out of the SEO market for six months, come back and need to attend endless seminars and conferences just to get up to speed, let alone begin future proofing. The industry moves that fast, which is 99 percent down to Google and their grand plan to speed up the Internet.
 
The need for dynamic content is here to stay and ties in well with all other requirements. Business relevance, social relevancy, online reviews and all other leading factors stem from on-site dynamic content, which makes it an easier site to market in traditional channels and furthermore, through social channels.
 
The development of social in the search space will continue to cause Google to tweak their algorithm over the coming months, so definitely an area to keep up to date with.
 
Google clearly has the potential to alter the dynamics of how people shop for hotel rooms. Being on the supplier side of the industry, how do you think hotels need to be in the sync in the manner in which customers are shopping, and how to market to attract those customers directly to brand websites, which is what Google Hotel Finder can do?
 
James Harrower:

Traditionally with hotel chains the size and quality of Hilton Worldwide, Marriott, IHG, Accor, etc, it’s quick and easy to market quality and quality alone, marketing how good a product is to a customer regardless of spend.
Nowadays and it has been the case for a while, hotels, like airlines, have no frill type / economy brands, such as Premier Inn or for Hilton Worldwide, Hampton.
 
Marketing quality hotel rooms, turned into marketing price led hotel rooms, which is where these hotel types benefited. With OTA’s and resellers easily outnumbered hotel brands by at least three to one and the inclusion of sites such as Groupon or Quidco that offer more than the brands can, the next step is personal service.
 
Tying in with social media and digital channel retargeting, personal service is where the future of hotel online bookings lie. Offering a customer, the right room, in the right area at the right price, for the right reasons, is where the advantage lies over a competitor.
 
Brands need to be more in touch with the customer as opposed to the sale, by that I mean look beyond flexible prices and dates and reference in both creative examples and on site activity the reasons for that individual to book with you and you alone.
 
Referring to Google’s foray into the meta-search space, recently a hotelier told me the concerning part is that they intend to charge a  percent of potential revenue as against a fixed click cost for every click that they send to the advertisers page. It is expected that the cost of acquisition through Google places and hotel finder is going to be driven up exponentially. How do you assess the situation?
 
James Harrower:
 
Well, it depends on how you classify Google Places and their Hotel Finder product based on this, are they another search avenue or, a meta-search site with strategies and budgets differing between them as there is an argument for the categorising of each.
 
It goes without saying that Google know their product will be an important inclusion to many brands, based on traffic levels alone, regardless of booking and revenue potential, meaning if they classify the product as a foray into the meta search space, then why shouldn’t they market the product as such.
 
Whilst we’re able to prepare for inclusion in the product in EMEA and Asia Pacific, it’s much more advanced in the US where strategies are being developed on how best to use the product. Unfortunately, at this stage, with the product having the eventual potential to become the most used hotel meta search site there is, brands will just have to play alone and adjust their strategies and budgets accordingly.
 
Social relevancy will continue to strongly influence search rankings.  Likes and dislikes of customers in social circle will impact the search results.  How should hotel marketers focus on this?
 
James Harrower:
 
This isn’t new to the hotel industry; it’s effectively the next step from the reviews ideology instigated by TripAdvisor all those years ago. The inclusion of brands in Google’s product search to enable reviews in paid search listings is a perfect example of how that idea has moved on.
 
More and more websites are including Google Plus and Facebook like buttons onto their pages, but not giving a thought past including them, just because they feel they should. A lack of foreseeable strategy, or certainly the implementation of which, across many travel sites, will give any brand with a suitable strategy an advantage in an industry whereby social relevancy is becoming considerably more important.
 
I would not go as far to say that the majority of digital marketing strategies, regardless of travel should begin with social relevancy or influence in mind, but it should certainly be a factor. Social media is like SEO, building up influence and reputation across a period of time, which many brands seem to disregard in exchange for real time channels, such as PPC, display and affiliates.
 
While SEO continues to be a significant strategy with high return, a successful online marketing strategy needs to have other key marketing components such as SEM (paid search), social media optimisation, online reputation management, and ways to generate authoritative trusted links. What do you recommend when it comes to planning and budgets for search spend this year?
 
James Harrower:

As ever, SEO is integral to any digital marketing strategy, more so in the US where the more tech savvy online shopper is more sceptical about PPC creative, although due to the large traffic levels out of the US as a whole, the importance of that could be considered negligible.
 
On site development, especially with elements such as dynamic content, the use of flash and the use of non-readable languages need to be built with SEO in mind. It’s very easy for large companies to have no knowledge of SEO, let alone the level required to successfully build a website that can be used constructively with SEO.

Paid for channel budgets are likely to increase and with budgets beginning to appear for social media, SEO budgets are likely to be cut across many industries, but it’s important to keep strategies up due to the volume and quality that SEO can provide, as well as aid in synergies between paid search, which if managed correctly can save those costs that could have been incorporated into an SEO budget.

About EyeforTravel
EyeforTravel is a leading business intelligence provider for the online travel and tourism industry. As well as providing some of the most in-depth research into global online travel markets and trends, EyeforTravel produces a series of senior executive travel conferences on a diverse range of topics including travel distribution, online marketing, social media, mobile and revenue management.  For more information visit www.eyefortravel.com.

 
Contact:

Rosie Akenhead
EyeforTravel
rosie@eyefortravel.com
London, UK: +0044 207 375 7229
US Toll Free: 1 800 814 3459


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