SEO in the hotel sector

SEO Team Leader Gareth Evans looks at how layout changes have made organic search more competitive than ever

SEO Team Leader Gareth Evans looks at how layout changes have made organic search more competitive than ever, especially within the hotel and travel sector.

The search landscape has changed. There has been quite a dramatic shift in the way search engines display information within their results pages. One thing that’s clear is that the shift gives an increasing prominence to paid search ads and in many cases, organic search results are below the fold.

One of the verticals most impacted by these changes is the hotel and travel industry. It’s something we’ve been talking about regularly as a company, looking at ways in which we can maximise the opportunities these changes have created to get the greatest return for our clients. But first it makes sense to have a bit of a look at some of the most important factors we’ve seen impacting the hotel sector.

Local Pack Results

Historically the Local Pack/Map Pack/Snack Pack (whatever you want to call it) has been a real opportunity for brands to leap ahead of the competition – by appearing here and enticing users to click through to the site based on where they appear within the map results. However, several recent developments have shown that appearing within the Local Pack is even more competitive.

In August 2015, Google moved from showing 7 results as standard, to 3. It goes without saying that with only 3 results now in this space, ranking within the default map listings is more challenging than before. Further to this, in June of this year, Google started rolling out paid ads within the Local Pack so only two organic listings may appear for some search queries.

The value of local results and user interaction with geo-specific queries are integral to Google’s user experience – and the company has released a number of fairly substantial algorithm updates specific to how local results are handled. In 2014, its Pigeon update was released to tie local results more closely to traditional ranking signals. The biggest change was how distance and location parameters were handled to present results to the user with improved relevance. September 2016 saw the release of Possum, which mainly focussed on filtering results and the way it managed local results outside of city limits.

PPC Layouts

Google regularly makes changes to the layout of its ranking pages, however earlier in the year there was a dramatic change that resulted in the removal of the right hand side paid ads. This an area we’ve talked about historically but the main takeaway from an organic perspective is that the increase in paid ads at the top of the page means that organic results are being pushed further down the page and below the fold. This throws out previous assumptions around organic ranking Click Through Rate (CTR) modelling, making it even harder to gauge expected traffic for keyword rankings at specific positions.

Knowledge Graph and Schema Markup

Again, this is another area of focus for those in SEO looking to strengthen their clients’ presence across organic search. Having a well optimised Knowledge Graph result across brand terms helps to strengthen brand awareness and encourages improvements in CTR across both brand and non-brand search queries.

Enter Hotel Price Ads (HPAs). All that hard work you’ve put into ensuring that your clients’ Knowledge Graph results are detailed and informative in the hope that users use the big ‘website’ button to enter their site. You’ve now got this appearing alongside it:

Branded search queries often have high CTRs because of the intent behind such keywords – now you’ve got people searching for your brand and OTA offers are being very clearly highlighted, diverting your users to sites where you are likely to pay a commission on a booking you would have received anyway. But HPAs aren’t purely restricted to the Knowledge Graph results – they are also now appearing on the Local Pack amongst the map listings so they are also impacting the performance of non-brand keywords as well. While HPAs are largely dominated by the OTAs, there is a real opportunity for brands to incorporate them as part of their PPC strategy, as touched upon in Stuart’s evolution of PPC post. This and some of the above challenges really help to highlight the importance of an integrated search strategy that maximises the strengths of both PPC and SEO to drive real revenue gains across search engines.

Mobile Search

Mobile search is especially prominent within the travel and tourism industry – with users looking for the best results to match their queries quickly whilst on the move. The use of mobile has become increasingly popular as user behaviours shift, however in terms of actual conversions it is still lagging desktop. One area that is picking up is same day reservations, with 65% of these bookings made on a smartphone. So you want to have a strong presence across organic search on mobile. Unfortunately for organic, there has also been a shift in the way that results are served on mobile devices, with Google offering several mobile ad extensions and four ads appearing at the top of the page, you need to do a lot of scrolling before you can find the organic results.

Enough doom and gloom…

OK. So there’s been some considerable changes that are impacting organic performance. But if you check any client analytics, the chances are that organic search is still making up a significant portion of the channel split.

Fortunately, there’s still some great ways you can utilise organic search to push high levels of traffic and conversions to your website, using tactical optimisation strategies to fight against the OTAs and recent search landscape changes.

Book Direct Messaging

Getting customers to book direct is a challenge following years of OTA dominance and shifting user behaviours. Highlighting the benefits of booking direct is a very important element of changing this and there have been some great campaigns focusing on doing just that.

From an organic search perspective the best way to do this is through your meta data – highlighting any booking direct incentives within the search results to encourage clicks. Of course, having further information within your page copy about the booking direct incentives will also help conversion once the user enters from search. Using enticing messaging within your meta data to encourage clicks isn’t something new – but when you’re up against the likes of OTAs your benefits and messaging really need to stand out.

Local SEO

Despite the challenges we’ve seen in the way the Local Pack is displayed, local SEO is still a hugely important part of any SEO campaign in the hotel and travel industry because it encompasses so many other factors. You should be ensuring that you are targeting relevant directories and listing sites with consistent N.A.P. (name, address, phone number) details to aid your local relevance. It’s important to consider the quality of sites you’re targeting as part of this work. They should be relevant to a particular brand/hotel location for maximum impact and be of actual use – not just a directory built for SEO purposes. If targeting the right kind of sites, you can often see substantial amounts of referral traffic on top of the SEO benefits – win, win.

Google My Business Insights is also a great tool for tracking how you’re performing for particular locations, analysing the level of clicks, calls and other features you are receiving. To be most effective you should verify all your Google My Business listings for every location to give you a wealth of useful information that can help with your local strategy and reporting on success.

Matching content to user needs

We all know the importance of content and the role it plays for any brand. In terms of page copy, this includes providing the relevant information that users want to find out before booking – is the check out time clearly visible? Is there free wifi available? Can I bring my dog? By surfacing information that is useful to a customer you stand a better chance of converting them. There are loads of ways you can uncover this data, including looking at your keyword data, analysing site search reports or even usability testing.

On-site imagery is also a crucial element of content. Customers want to see what your hotel rooms look like, if the bathrooms have good showers, what the restaurant looks like. These are great for helping users convert on-site, but they can also be used to aid SEO if optimised correctly. One thing we’ve noticed is the amount of users that click through to the images from your Google My Business listing and go on to the site – you’re missing a trick if you’re not incorporating the use of images into your overall search strategy.

Of course, SEO like any other marketing channel offers many ways in which to drive performance improvements, however these are a couple of areas that we’ve seen real success. In terms of ways in which you can future proof your SEO efforts, we will be discussing this in more detail in the coming weeks.

By Gareth Evans, SEO Team Leader