NB: This is a guest article by Max Starkov, president and CEO of HeBS Digital, a US-based full-service digital marketing, hotel website design and online channel strategy firm.
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 â€“ from social media to retargeting to the mobile channel.
Some search engine skepticsÂ point to the “declining” number of hotel and travel searches, supposedly evident from Google Trends, as the ultimate proof of the demise of the search engines.
The King is dead, you might say…
…but long live the King?
Regardless of what some in the industry say, the search engines are still alive and well. There is a reason why the search engines are travel consumersâ€™ favorite travel research and planning tool.
Google in particular dominates hotel search; results provide deep and relevant information, the best mapping and directions, extensive customer reviews via Zagatâ€™s acquisition and now provide real-time hotel availability and pricing via Google Hotel Finder.
No other meta search or travel site comes even close to match the richness and relevancy of hotel information provided by Google.
HeBS Digitalâ€™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.
Case study: Hotel search engine revenues
In spite of all the new and trendy digital marketing initiatives and formats that overwhelm hoteliers nowadays, the reliable old search engines generated over 55.6% of website revenue for HeBS Digitalâ€™s client portfolio consisting of thousands of hotel properties.
Here is the search engine (Google, Bing and Yahoo) year-to-date contribution as percentage from the total website revenues, as of November 30, 2012:
- SEO revenues: 32.7%
- SEM revenues: 22.9%
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. 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.
The misinterpretation of Google Trends
Google Trends is a public web facility of Google based on Google Search, which shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world, and in various languages.
I believe that the search engine skeptics are seriously misreading the data and misinterpreting the graphs from Google Trends.
To begin with, Google Trends merely depicts the searches for hotels as percentage from TOTAL searches on Google. The horizontal axis of the main graph represents time (starting from 2004), and the vertical is how often a term is searched for, relative to the total number of searches, globally.
If there is any drop in the horizontal axis, it is due only to the fact that hotel searches now constitute a smaller percentage from the total queries on Google, compared to 2004. This is it! The main reason for travel searches to have smaller share is the rise of other categories of interest to the increasingly Internet-savvy users.
Googleâ€™s own comment on such claims is as follows:
“The assertion that hotel searches are down is not true. The numbers on the Google Trends tool are not absolute growth numbers. Rather, interest level in particular keywords is indexed against the growth of overall search volume.
“One keyword does not represent an entire category, nor does it represent a fair assessment of hotel search demand on Google as compared to any other search tool. To put it simply, growth in hotel searches may just be lower than that for other high-growth categories. Our internal data shows growth in search interest for hotels.”
Overall hotel searches on Google have never stopped growing
So what is the real situation as far as growth or decline in the number of hotel searches on Google?
The following graph clearly shows that total hotel-related queries on Google have never stopped growing, but there is a well-defined re-distribution of queries across the “three screens”: desktop, mobile, tablet:
According to Googleâ€™s data, 7% of all searches already come from tablets versus 14% from mobile devices and 79% via desktops (2012).
Google dominates search on the three screens
For all practical purposes, the desktop, mobile device and tablet address different user needs at different times of the day and week.
This is why Internet users exhibit different behavioral patterns when browsing the Internet. According to Google, users searching Google utilize:
- Desktop during the day (office)
- Mobile during lunch break and happy hour
- Tablet later in the evening when lounging, ie., the tablet is a “lounging” device
Google has reported different search dynamics across the three screens: desktop, mobile and tablet for some time now, but there was a noticeable and dramatic increase in hotel queries in the mobile and tablet channels in 2012:
- Overall (desktop, mobile and tablet): +34%
- Mobile devices: +120%
- Tablet devices: +306%
For 2013, Google projects an overall 24% increase in hotel queries:
- Desktop queries will be down by 4%
- Mobile queries will be up by 68%
- Tablet Queries will be up by 180%
More mobile and tablet searches = More hotel bookings
Technology has enabled travel consumers to become increasingly mobile and desktop-independent.
When on the go, they use their mobile devices to get concrete information such as hotel location, driving directions and pricing information.
Due to usability and security issues, six of every ten mobile bookings actually happen via the voice channel.
Very few people are comfortable entering their credit card information into their iPhone in a public place.
Very few hotel mobile websites provide an alternative to guaranteeing your booking without entering your credit card.
This explains why true mobile bookings (ie. via smartphones) constitute a smaller percentage from overall online bookings.
In contrast, tablet users have no issues booking a hotel via their device. A well structured, highly visual tablet-optimized hotel website can generate conversion rates several times higher than those of mobile devices.
Across HeBS Digitalâ€™s hotel client portfolio, tablets generate 200% more room nights and 430% more revenue than the “pure” mobile devices:
Sources of traffic and bookings by device category – January to November 2012:
Source Page views Visits Bookings Nights Revenue
Mobile 10.46% 13.98% 2.64% 1.79% 1.11%
Tablet 8.75% 8.52% 5.52% 5.24% 5.84%
Desktop 80.79% 77.50% 91.84% 92.97% 93.06%
Total 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
Appleâ€™s iPad rules the tablet world: Over 91% of tablet visitors, 96% of tablet bookings and 98% of tablet revenue come from iPad devices.
There are certain digital marketing initiatives which are proven winners, no matter what the state of the industry is or what the latest trends are.
The good old search engines Google, Bing, Yahoo are an example of these fundamentals. Contrary to what some hotel marketers may be saying, search engines are not dead and are still the key driver of direct online hotel distribution.
Hotel marketers should not dismiss search engine marketing since it generates more 56% of the hotel website revenue today.
With the search engines maintaining such an important role in the direct online channel, marketing on the search engines: paid search (SEM), search engine optimization (SEO), mobile SEO, etc. continues to be the most efficient means of delivering a targeted marketing message via the online channel, in terms of both traffic generation and revenue production.
Search engines continue to dominate the desktop channel, as well as the new emerging mobile and tablet channels where the growth of hotel queries is staggering.
NB:Â This is a guest article by Max Starkov, president and CEO ofÂ HeBS Digital, a US-based full-service digital marketing, hotel website design and online channel strategy firm.
NB2: In the next article, Starkov will outline recommendations for maximising a hotel’s search engine presence.
NB3: All charts supplied by HeBS Digital. King image via Shutterstock.