By Matt Tutt
Organic search is a field that is constantly evolving—and quickly too. The speed at which Google and other search engines roll out and test new search features can make it difficult to plan your hotel’s search strategy for the next few months, let alone the entire year.
This post highlights the state of organic search for 2018, looking at some of the impacts of the biggest recent changes by Google, both algorithmic and feature specific. We’ll also try to estimate what’s in store for hotel SEO throughout the rest of the year and beyond.
The current organic search environment for hotels
It’s probably easiest to summarize the state of organic search for hotels in one short GIF. See this screen recording below of a typical hotel search made from a mobile device, and note the amount of scrolling required to reach the first organic result (and this is with just one PPC search ad visible!).
Note how many swipes are needed to bypass the Google sponsored ads from a mobile device. On top of this, adverts have become far less obvious within search results, both for desktop and mobile users.
Contrast this to a typical search results page from just a few years ago:
A typical non-branded hotel search within Google on desktop (source).
Ads were previously highlighted yellow and demarcated from the organic results. The design meant that users could easily ignore the ads, but nowadays we’re not so sure if people can distinguish the ads from organic results.
Screenshot from the Travel Tripper eye-tracking survey carried out last year.
This brings us on to Google’s Hotel Ads—how many people would realize these are also a paid-for feature? These work in a similar fashion to the Google AdWords product whereby hotels and OTAs are bidding against each other for visibility to show their date-specific rates.
Screenshot showing the Google Hotel Ads in action for a typical hotel search, with the official hotel’s website returned as one of the results (The Gates Hotel Diagonal Barcelona).
Out of all industries, hotels in particular (and some travel companies) do have a bit of a rough ride. Search advertising competition is extremely fierce, and organic search results from hotels for non-branded searches are minimal. For generic hotel searches (e.g. “London hotels”), the organic search results on the first page are nearly all owned by the likes of Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Trivago, and Hotels.com.
It seems that Google is forcing hotels to invest in sponsored ads of some kind if they want to have any kind of visibility in their search results, especially on mobile devices.
The importance of Google Business listings
Nowadays we’re seeing many cases of the hotel’s Google Business listing providing over 50% of the organic traffic to their website. This has been a huge shift in recent years.
We’ve been tracking visits from our hotel’s Google listings for a while now, and the trend to us is clear: more and more mobile users click the website button before proceeding to book their hotel stay.
It’s vital that you’ve taken ownership of your business listing on Google, Bing and all other search engines and that you’re segmenting this channel as part of your organic search strategy.
The website link from Park Regis Birmingham‘s Google business listing, responsible for a large percentage of organic search traffic
Google Business Listing management is therefore a vital part of your hotel’s search marketing activities. We’ve seen several cases where third parties try to hijack these listings, switching out the hotel URL for their own (via an affiliate link for Booking.com, or linking to some other OTA), or even switching the phone number. Be very mindful of competitors (or unhappy guests) looking to sabotage your efforts by tactically “suggesting” updates to Google. If you’re not careful you may accidentally approve these incorrect edit requests.
How to edit someone’s Google Business Listing (without ownership) – only if the business listing owner “accepts” the suggested edit, of course.
Major Google Search updates during the past few years
There have been big Google search changes during the past few years, affecting both the paid search and organic search results for hotels. Here we’re going to go through these and list a few of those particularly major updates. We’ve included those that relate to paid search (PPC) because PPC and SEO are so closely intertwined.
Personalized and localized search results
Personalised search results within Google began over 10 years ago around March 2004, rolling out in November 2005 to users with Google accounts. This “personalisation of search” was based on your previous search history, your own interests, your location, social network info, and many more factors.
When it comes to hotels and travel, one obvious way you might notice it is by searching for and clicking on a particular search result. Say you search for “hotels in downtown Miami” and you clicked on the eighth result, a listing for YVE Hotel Miami. If you repeat this search/visit a few times, you may find that the ranking for the YVE hotel increases. This is simply because Google believes it’s a more relevant result for your query, because you’ve visited that site several times before.
This brief study by Moz back in 2013 showed that 64% of participants were unaware that search results were personalized by Google.
It’s of course a bit more complex than that, but the overall impact is clear: Google was trying to provide a more personalized search experience to the user. The more impactful change here was the localization of results, which is now extremely pertinent considering the rise of mobile search.
Google now serves results based on your own location. Search for “restaurants” in Google and you’ll likely see a list of nearby restaurants based precisely on where you’re searching from (unless you’ve disabled your location access in your browser or on your phone). Again, this is Google trying to understand the exact search intent and to provide a more useful search result.
The above changes on Google have made it much more difficult to track the organic keyword rankings for your own website. While it’s still possible (and we do still do this as part of our own Travel Tripper SEO services), we now need to do so from a specific location, normally a city where a hotel’s largest market exists (such as from New York for hotels in America).
Organic search rankings for specific keywords are now be a very difficult metric to measure, and so we’d instead recommend that hotels start focusing on ranking for topics instead. Don’t focus all your SEO efforts for “hotel in New York” searches, but instead look at tailoring your strategy around your hotel’s own unique selling points.
Perhaps your hotel is located a few minutes from a popular attraction, or maybe it’s one of a few pet-friendly hotels in your town. Optimizing for topics (distance from attractions, specific amenities, groups catered for) will likely bring an improved search ranking while also allowing you to more easily convert the visitor from browser into booker—note how difficult it’ll be to convert a “hotels in New York” type search, vs a “pet friendly hotel near Big Ben” search.
The Knowledge Graph was introduced by Google in 2012, initially just in the English-speaking markets, before being rolled out in various other languages. This is the “sidebar column” you notice on the right side when searching within Google on a desktop device, or at the top of mobile searches.
The aim of the Knowledge Graph was clear: provide users with information quickly, without having to enter other websites within Google’s search results. This information is obtained from the crawling and scraping millions of websites across the internet.
Screenshot of the Google Knowledge Graph in action (the entire column on the right-side) for a specific hotel search.
When you search for a hotel by its brand name and location, you’ll often see the Knowledge Graph picking up the hotel’s official name, logo, photos, address, reviews, amenities, and lots more. Some of this is taken from the Google business listing, while some of it is obtained from other sources across the web. It’s always a good idea for hoteliers to read this info and check it for accuracy.
Featured Snippets in Search is the highlighted section at the top of all search results, where Google will again try to return info that helps to answer a user’s search query. This information is again found during the crawling of a website, with those that seem to meet a particular search intent to a particular extent deemed worthy of being returned as a Featured Snippet.
The featured snippet displayed when searching for a specific hotel question (checkout time at Hampton Inn, in this case)
These snippets within the SEO industry are often coined as position 0, because technically they’re not actually in competition with the other normal search results. Often you may see a site returned as a Featured Snippet, and then see it listed again as the first or second result on the search page. As you can imagine, these snippets will help to increase organic traffic to a website, but some critics argue that by Google returning this content directly within the search results they’re effectively “stealing” their content and the website may lose out on the visit.
Dan Barker’s infamous Tweet aimed at former Google Head of Search Matt Cutts, calling out Google’s own “scraping” service, or Featured Snippets.
Introduced in early 2014, Featured Snippets have since grown to become a big part of Google’s offering. They typically answer very clear-cut questions, where there isn’t often room for debate, such as “What time is It in London?” or “What currency is used in Australia?”
For hotels there’s not often been a clear opportunity or benefit to trying to obtain Featured Snippets, unless of course you’ve got some kind of information-based content that has a high search volume and is also from a relevant audience of people (who may be looking to travel).
An extremely popular example of a featured snippet for weather related searches (this snippet is taken from weather.com, which also ranks here in the first organic position).
Google Hotel Ads (Metasearch)
Google introduced Hotel Ads initially as Hotel Price Ads back in 2010 after the acquisition of travel data company ITA Software. Hotel Ads are a form of metasearch, whereby hotels and online travel agents and other third parties can all bid against each other in an auction to show their room rates within Google’s products (Search and Maps, mainly).
Placement of these Hotel Ads have varied during the years, but they’ve finally settled in a very prominent position within the Knowledge Graph. These ads are especially visible on mobile, and as a result they pushed the organic search results far further down the page.
Nowadays if you want your hotel to remain visible throughout the booking journey, you must find a further marketing budget to participate with Hotel Ads, else you risk having the likes of Booking.com, Expedia, Agoda, Priceline and more all pinching your bookings, right towards the end of the booking funnel!
The AMP Project
AMP was initially seen as a platform solely for news publishers and sites that generate a lot of content, but it has since been adopted by various other types of sites, including various large ecommerce sites. Although it’s not been adopted yet by many independent hotels, Airbnb did invest heavily in launching on the platform.
Screenshot of AMP search results within a typical Google search on Mobile
Using AMP has been a controversial topic amongst web developers, as it’s seen as a way for Google to dictate and control web standards. Perhaps even more controversially, AMP sites aren’t necessarily faster than other platforms; it’s just that Google is saving these sites to their cache, thus enabling them to serve them at near-instant speeds to mobile users. As a response to the criticism, Google announced that in the future they’ll allow the same search visibility benefits to other non-AMP sites, if they’re also able to load very quickly.
Mobile first index
Probably the biggest change to Google’s organic search results will be the rolling out of its mobile-first index, having first been publicly announced by Google back in November 2016. Google’s search results index will now be based on the performance of your hotel’s mobile website version only, whereas previously the results were based on how your hotel’s desktop website performed. If you have a slow mobile site, or your site is not fully responsive, then you may have big SEO issues when you do get switched over to this index.
We wouldn’t worry too much about this for now though. Google stated recently that they’ll only switch you over if they can detect that your mobile site is indeed ready (for now, at least), and will send out notifications within Google Search Console when the switchover does take place.
Google’s John Mueller confirming the next steps for mobile first indexing at SMX Munich.
Again, Google is almost forcing websites to comply with their relentless urge to push everyone onto mobile devices, first with AMP, now with the mobile-first index. The likely overall reason is that it’s far easier (and cheaper, fewer resources needed) for them to provide a search service with just one index based on mobile devices as opposed to constantly having to provide a separate desktop index too.
Extended metasearch descriptions
At the end of the previous year a few SEO specialists started noticing extended meta description texts showing in Google search results which appeared to be auto-generated by Google. This extended meta description was confirmed by Search Engine Land via Google, apparently in a bid to provide more descriptive and useful snippets within search. The previous meta tag description length was around 160 characters, but it now can be as long as 320 characters (although this is shorter on mobile devices, at about 280 characters).
At Travel Tripper we’ve seen a slight CTR boost by introducing our own extended meta search description. The clear benefit of this is that you can prevent Google from automatically populating this text and fine tune your meta description to exactly what you desire.
Google Travel Guides / Destinations on Google
Destinations on Google started appearing on mobile searches in Google during 2016, and according to Google the product may never actually make it over onto desktop, simply because they feel mobile is where most travel research is happening.
As is the trend so far with Google, these travel guides have been created by making use of information from other websites, as well as information from other Google Local Guides, where any Google users can contribute to Google Maps and other products in exchange for virtual points.
Again, as a hotel (or an OTA), this feature would be another cause for concern. Google is clearly making big strides towards offering a more interactive, all-in-one search solution that cuts out the need to visit several sites as part of a traveller’s booking journey.
First appearing on the Google Maps app for Android users in August 2017, the Google Q&A feature added the ability to ask and answer questions about businesses within the Google search results. This area appeared at the bottom of the Knowledge Graph section and has since also rolled out to desktop users too.
Screenshot showing Google’s question and answer feature live for the New Yorker Hotel. It’s important for hotels to keep tabs on what people are asking (and answering!) about your property
The feature went relatively under the radar within the search industry, and we’re not sure whether it’ll remain in its current form permanently, but it appears to be another attempt to collate FAQs (and answers) across all businesses on the web.
TripAdvisor has had a similar feature in place for a while now, where users can ask and answer specific questions about a hotel. The obvious advantage of Google’s feature is that it’ll get a lot more visibility, and it is likely that questions will be answered much quicker too.
Being proactive vs reactive when it comes to hotel SEO
Although it’s important to stay abreast of the latest search algorithm updates across the industry, it’s also a good idea to refrain from being too reactive with your hotel’s search strategy. It may ultimately prove to be resource intensive without providing long-term SEO benefits.
When Google rolls out a new feature, it’s always good to take note, then sit back and reflect. The company is well known for making seemingly game-changing announcements, only to have the feature disappear a few days later.
When it comes to SEO strategy, it’s important to look at the big picture—what do Google’s latest changes say about where they think search is going? (The trend for the last few years has been a dramatic shift to mobile optimization.) By doing so, you can predict where the industry is moving, and what you will need to prepare for in the future.
So where is search going to go from here? Advances in technology (such as voice search) suggest we’re on course for an even more technical and highly personalized search landscape. Big data and AI is the order of the day, and with Google’s RankBrain and machine learning algorithms being scaled up (see the news that Google is splitting off its AI division into its own business unit), it’ll be interesting to find out how exactly this will impact upon hotels.