bali
884 days ago
 

Madness of search engine results in travel – The Bali Edition

Search engine results in travel, like the products themselves, are often far from perfect. But sometimes the results are just beyond any rational explanation.

Often it is difficult to understand whether it so-called gaming of SEO by websites or if the search engines themselves are just not practising what they preach.

One of the more bizarre examples (and there have been many over the years!) came this week by way of TravelFish CEO Stuart McDonald, who chanced across a rather peculiar set of SERPS when looking for “temple lodge agoda” on Google.

Some background: the Temple Lodge is a rather nice hotel located in the Bali region of Indonesia. McDonald wanted to see if it is listed on the Priceline-owned Agoda site.

This is what he found [notes on the screengrab belong to McDonald]:

McDonald says despite the word “tripadvisor” not even featuring in his search query (and no Google Plus action coming through as he rarely uses TripAdvisor), the results saw the user review monster grab:

  • Six of the top 10 results
  • 15 of the top 20
  • 25 of the top 30
  • 35 of the top 40
  • 43 of the top 50

Poor Temple Lodge and its official site doesn’t feature until the fifth page of results.

McDonald says:

“As you may have gathered, Temple Lodge is not listed on Agoda — but I’m not sure why Google felt compelled to tell me that while it wasn’t listed on Agoda, here are 43 links to a site (which you could argue is an Agoda competitor) I didn’t even search for.”

So what is going on here? It is difficult to tell precisely, in some respects.

TripAdvisor results for that hotel are mostly coming from multiple domains – ie. it’s localised websites around the world, where the hotel will be listed with a different domain extension each time.

What is wrong with that?

Well, as anyone with a smattering of knowledge about SEO and the Big G will tell you: Google doesn’t particularly like duplicate content.

So perhaps TripAdvisor has worked out a smart way round it, or Google has yet to crack down on it?

Either way, as McDonald says later:

“The bigger question I guess is who on earth is this actually supposed to be useful for?”

NB: This is McDonald’s original article.

 
 
Kevin May

About the Writer :: Kevin May

Kevin May is editor and a co-founder of Tnooz. He was previously editor of UK-based magazine Travolution for nearly four years and web editor of Media Week UK from 2003 to 2005.

He has also worked in regional newspapers (Essex Enquirer) and started his career in journalism at the Police Gazette at New Scotland Yard in London. He has a degree in criminology and a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism.

 

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  1. Ray Horsfall

    My website http://www.balidreamtours.com used to rank on the first page for the search term bali accommodation, i then went to page 5 after after doing no seo for a number of months but now am not even listed on google? Still rank on bing and yahoo ?

     
  2. Becky

    I am also have the same problem. Until recently we were on the front page of google results for the term ‘club med’ and now at least the first 3 pages of google are dominated by results from trip advisior! Any thoughts of fixes would be good to hear!

     
    • Chris

      Well you could complain to fairsearch.org… but then that is run by tripadvisor :)

      My opinion is that in the long term, building links and “brand” to your site may help. But if Google has decided (perhaps correctly) that only large sites should rank for destination keywords the only option is to buy more Google adverts, or post content on these large sites. Google’s properties such as YouTube also seem to be ranking very well recently, and posting videos to YouTube and content to Tripadvisor forums may be an option.

       
  3. Chris

    Just searched Google for “hotel reviews” with a hundred results.

    The first 80 were ALL Tripadvisor.

     
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  5. Gus

    Another thing to consider is that the screenshot that Stuart provides is based on a personalised SERP (he’s logged to either gmail, G+, analytics or other G’s property) and he might be visiting a lot Tripadvisor sites.

    I do agree though, that some results are by far optimal.

     
  6. murray harrold

    Hello! Mr Travel Agent here! Well I must say, it seems like someone should have gone to see their local agent. Unless of course you want to rely on someone who knows about SEO to make your travel arrangements rather than, say, well …. travel. Firstly, if you wanted to do this, contact Kuoni. What they don’t know about this neck of the woods is not worth knowing. There are some other rather good operators that cover this area but you do need to speak to some. After all, Bali is to the Australians what Benidorm is to the Brits so one does want to be careful, otherwise you make wind up up in a hotel with a load of drunken butchers from Melbourne – drinking Fosters but the gallon from Party 7′s (Ooops! Showing my age there!).

    Could check the hotel on the GDS – but it’s not there at all – which rings all sorts of alarm bells by the way (but that’s a travel agents alarm bells, which may not be on the same wavelength as the expert SEO person whom you prefer to have make your travel arrangements) Now, let’s check Google. I will give you a (free) tip. With Google, always check page 8. Generally, by then, Google has got over what it thinks you may like because you happen to live in Much Binding in The Marsh, have 2.7645 children, a wife who likes a Martini cocktail on Thursday, just after 8.00 o’clock in the evening and have (for some inexplicable reason) just bought a Porsche Cayenne which is the car that says: “I only bought this car because I have not got a very big appendage” – and Google finally gets around to actually providing some information that may be relevant. Then works backwards a bit. If you have not found a sensible website by, say, page 5 – there is a problem (with the hotel). So checkout the actual hotel website. Usually, with a bit of wrangling, Google can be forced to give you what you want rather than what it thinks bec…. Oh! I did that bit, didn’t I?

    Now, your travel agent (in the case of this hotel) would be hearing more alarm bells than you would get from an unexplained aircraft over an Olympic stadium. It’s not on any reputable operator’s system, it’s not on a GDS Hmmmm…. Well, Sir, I can make arrangements direct with the hotel, if you wish but you pay them direct. I don’t want to know. If the arrangements goes pear shaped and if I had booked it, I would have to pay you back. We are bonded, insured and a few other things to make sure that what we book, says booked (Which is more than we can say for some website which, for all you know, is run by a nice chap called Tom who has a dog called Fidget and runs the whole show from a laptop based in the saloon bar of the Fox and Pheasant: opening hours: Friday lunchtime.

    Tripadvisor? Oh, well it has it’s uses. Generally speaking, though, for hotels which are not branded. I mean, with a Holiday Inn Express, you know what you will get. So too with a Hilton or InterContinental or Mercure or Best Western. Unaffiliated hotels, well, we agents do scan through the results on TripAdvisor; because what we are good at, is reading between the lines. Knowing, from side research, what is worth noting and what is a load of trollop. Believe me, given that, by the admission shown above, results are geared by these highly-travel-knowledge bound (Ahem!) SEO types, you need a travel agent more than ever. Go down your high street and look for one. Best are usually older types, no dis-respect to the younger ones, but older ones have generally been to more places. I used to have two ladies in the shop, they would have come out with “Bali, yes, just come back form there… what I suggest is…”

    Oh! Sorry, yes, technology. Let’s rely on that, shall we?…. after all first hand knowledge? Rubbish! I am going to Bali, call me SEO expert!

     
    • Stuart McD

      So take it you were attracted by the “madness” part of the title?

       
      • murray harrold

        Yes, I suppose. Because it is correct. “Travel tech” has become a misnomer – it’s all tech and not much travel; for the technology which is coming into travel is more important in it’s own right, than the idea. It’s all about the execution thereof rather than the end result. In a way, travel technology did more for the client 10 or so years ago, than it does today.

        Every so often I read about (yet) another travel startup which has raised x million and does such-and-such. It is invariably nothing new as 1. it’s just something which takes the same information and chucks it out in a slightly different format and 2. Any self respecting travel agent has probably been doing whatever the new thing purports to do, ever since Mr Cook first said “…anyone fancy a coach trip?”

        This (above) is a good demonstration of how far travel technology has removed itself from travel. It is no longer about the customer and their actual needs; it’s all about a perceived need which a particular piece of technology wishes to address. It’s the hands-free, self pumping soap bottle saga – We have this bit of technology, there must be something we can do with it.

        Technology needs to go back to the high street and think about the customer. Not “think about the technology and then see if we can convince the customer this or that tweek is a good idea”. Or, to put it more crudely, travel technology has disappeared so far up it’s own backside, it has lost all sense of direction. The Google results, shown above, prove that. I wanted to book this Temple what-not-hotel – not a single entry on Google would find me a site that could do that. Agaoda came up in the results – but they do not sell the place. So, my Google search was pointless, inaccurate and simply an advert for a rather spurious travel advice operation. This is why I say, travel tech needs to take a step back. It is the tail, not the dog.

        But why do we need so much technology anyway? What is this rabid fascination with travel that techys have? Many do have GDS-itis, they look at a GDS see it works, bitterly resent that its 1980′s technology that’s not broken and set out to fix it. Many are transfixed by the glamour of travel. Whatever – it is certainly not the money you get for selling a seat on the 06:05 London to Amsterdam.

        What does the customer get from technology that a travel agent does not do better? Let’s look at two responses to solving a problem:

        1. The X-million dollar travel website: “We are sorry to hear of your problem. We are raising a further 10 million dollars on the market to put in place more robust systems to ensure that this sort of error is identified early and to make sure a resolution may be set within our operational parameters”

        2. (the old fashioned travel agent/ tour operator way): “Hello I am your holiday representative. I am sorry you are not in the sea-facing room you requested. I have made arrangements for your luggage to be transferred to a sea facing room. Please go to the bar, have a drink and I will bring you your new room key”

        Dunno about you, but I know which option I would prefer.

         
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  8. David Urmann

    Google should actually show a little diversity in the results. I think the fact this is happening shows how powerful branding is now in the algorithm. My bet is that this is the extreme and Google will be trying to move away from results like this to better serve searchers. Bing is doing a better job currently of showing a more diverse group of websites and always has but at the risk of showing occasional spam. Search engines are always trying to balance spam vs. branding.

     
  9. Rob Bucci

    It looks like these screenshots are from 100 results per page. Google always groups together multiple results from the same domain when you request 100 results per page. To get a true feel for what a user experience is, you have to analyze a 10 by 10 SERP (10 results per page for 10 pages).

    Nitpicking aside, I enjoyed reading your post!

     
  10. RobertKCole

    An excellent illustration of TripAdvisor’s clever (and highly successful) strategy to maximize its search engine rankings.

    The combination of having high traffic, fresh content, regional sites and authoritative backlinks is not sufficient. TripAdvisor leverages its architecture to provide the Googlebot exactly what it wants – unique, relevant pages without duplicate content.

    For Temple Lodge, Bali, try this advanced Google web search: https://www.google.com/search?num=100&hl=en&lr&safe=off&as_qdr=all&q=%22temple+lodge%22+bali+site:tripadvisor.*&pws=0

    This created a Google SERP with 476 results – omitting 32 pages that Google felt were too similar out of the 6,160 total references found in its index for the query.

    Temple Lodge, Bali has only 45 reviews – just imagine the options increasing for a hotel like the Sofitel New York with 2,800 reviews…

    What TripAdvisor is doing is really no worse than what Tnooz or any other WordPress based blog is doing to optimize its exposure in the search engines. A single post will have its own page, be featured on the home page, or viewed under variety of tag or category archives in full, as a snippet, or as an excerpt.

    If properly structured, a good design can eliminate duplicate content issues. That is exactly what TripAdvisor does. They fall short of making every review a separate post (like Twitter), but offer various pages (main hotel page, traveler reviews page, photos page, pictures page, etc.) review categories (Family, Couples, Business, etc.), author pages, and so on.

    As Stuart pointed out, even the names of the search engines used for meta-search get indexed – even if they don’t offer that hotel.

    Most cleverly, they have an excellent method to internally-link all the hotel pages. On the Temple Lodge page, there are outbound links to 3 other hotels travelers viewed, 5 links to hotels rated by Facebook friends, 4 top rated Bali hotels, 4 popular Bali hotels, 15 other hotels in Bali, 6 hotels from around the world, 4 alternate travel destinations. Temple Lodge receives similar treatment from the other 732 hotels in Bali.

    That is a massive number of highly relevant internal links originating from a site with high authority. TripAdvisor isn’t cheating, they are just doing a very good job of following Google’s advice on how to design a website to be highly relevant.

    Competing sites lack the scale, authority, links and freshness of TripAdvisor – that makes it difficult for Google to apply penalties for what is essentially good behavior.

    Of course, the issue of TripAdvisor getting maximum mileage out of 45 reviews through various juxtapositions can be called into question. However, this is purely because TripAdvisor understands that the web is currently page-based and search is keyword oriented. Those pages have portions of content (the reviews) that are duplicated, but out of the many reviews on each page, the ratio of duplicate content to total content is relatively low. Google focuses on duplicated pages, not duplicated reviews.

    That will certainly change in the future as the semantic web emerges to evaluate the relevance and relationships between individual components making up a web page. Schema.org tagging to derive meaning from reviews will help.

    Until then, the TripAdvisor team are the smartest guys in the room – playing by the rules (exploiting the rules, perhaps) to win the battle of long-tail, and to a good extent short tail web search.

    Genius or creepy? It’s hard to say. In my opinion, it is the former. They may be getting pretty damn close to the creepy line, but based on current “rules” they don’t appear to be crossing it…

     
    • RobertKCole

      Not sure if I have ever directly commented on one of my Tnooz comments before… Sorry Kevin, I won’t make a habit of it…

      One additional item – If one enters “temple lodge” (without the quotes) into Google with personal web search turned off, the hotel’s website is listed first. The TripAdvisor page is listed fourth after a spiritual publishing company and the Temple Lodge Club in London.

      Ideally, semantic search might eventually bounce out the publisher’s listing, but to a good extent, this is a pretty rational result for a search that 33,100 consumers make globally each month.

      As a point of reference, “temple lodge bali” is globally searched 480 times monthly, where as “temple lodge agoda” does not register any global searches per month.

      True, an example of a nasty SERP was found, but all-in-all, Google’s Web Spam team seems to be doing a pretty good job of ranking more relevant results at the top of the list and filtering out cleverly designed SEO-friendly content for the more broadly searched terms.

      The same goes for a “Sofitel New York” (no quotes, pws off) search. Despite 2,800 TripAdvisor reviews, listed #1 is the property, #2 the brand and #3 TripAdvisor (followed by Wikipedia, Kayak, Yelp, Expedia, Hotels.com, Frommers & TVTrip.)

      Interestingly, for a destination search lacking a specific hotel, once one passes through all the Google Adwords, Hotel Finder & Local/Maps results, the first page of a “New York Hotels” (no quotes, pws off) search yields the following list: Expedia, TripAdvisor, Kayak, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Hilton (New York City page), Marriott (New York City page), Sheraton New York (Starwood), W New York (Starwood), Paramount Hotel.

      Yes, Expedia, who once owned TripAdvisor, also learned a few tricks about winning top rankings in organic web search.

      FYI – For a generic “Bali Hotels” (no quotes, pws off) search, TripAdvisor ranks #1. The Expedia Australia site ranks #6. More evidence that good SEO performance results from design, strategy & focus.

       
      • Stuart McD

        Thanks for the in depth reply Robert.

        Regarding dupe content, when 9 of the 10 reviews are the same, with half just hidden by Js (as mentioned in my comment above) I think you’re skating pretty close to the line — the pages are nearly identical. “Nearly” I guess being the most important word.

        Are those two pages provide a sufficiently different experience to a user? I think not.

        I find I can reproduce these kind of results fairly easily using “X agoda” (no quotes and where X is a hotel that Agoda doesn’t list). If I try “X expedia” the results are also bad, but not quite as painful as the above example.

        What would have been a better result? Obviously less TA results, but also perhaps the assumption that I got the hotel name wrong and showing me results for (say) Travel Lodge, Temple Inn, Temple Hotel etc — Google does this for Expedia — not for Agoda.

        Odd.

         
    • Durant Imboden

      I don’t think the issue is whether TripAdvisor is being smart or creepy–it’s whether such results are helpful to the user. I can’t imagine that the search gurus at Google would think so. (As a searcher, i certainly don’t.)

       
  11. Dan Patterson

    I’ve seen this going on since about the time Penguin rolled out, but never this bad. What’s sad is that now people will look at this and think “Oh, I really should just set up a bunch of pages that are all just slight variations of a phrase because I’ll get more results in the SERPs.”

    Sad, because the whole point of Panda/Penguin was to reduce spam, but IMO having the same site listed 20 times is pretty spammy looking. I’d much rather see more diversity.

     
  12. Pete Meyers

    Quit your whining Stuart and buy some links. :)

     
  13. Lee

    This is widespread and has been ‘in the wild’ since around 4/5 June – its across verticals other than Travel is dubbed ‘Bigfoot’ by some SEO’s. The net effect is rather masked by the fact that a lot of the rankings that have been dispersed where not page 1 therefore not referring traffic – but as far I’m concerned is does two things:

    1) As a user of search engines it gives me less choice and may force me to look elsewhere
    2) As a marketer i would certainly be changing direction in my SEO strategy

     
    • Stuart McD

      @Lee, it’s been like this for at least 18 months. This is not a new thing.

       
      • Lee

        I’d have to disagree with last point Stuart (dates) but its developing and i think there is more to come!
        @Stuart take a look at something like Sistrix or Searchmetrics and do chart of distribution of keywords over SERPS – compare sets of weekly results before and after early June, you will see what i mean.

         
  14. Dave

    I used 4 different proxies and got the same result. Minus a Euro one that brought up a single result of a Temple Lodge in the UK via Agoda.

    Aside from serious wondering about the TripAdvisor bias going on (1 result please Google, or two if you insist on a off white ad) having that many results is utterly useless to an end users search.

    Would be nice to get a Google stance on this. Aside from a “we’re constantly updating our algorithm …”

     
  15. DJBorkowski

    This is scary stuff. I just tried the search and it seems some things might have been tweaked since Agoda holds the top 4 BUT then followed by pages and pages of the TripAdvisor sites. Time to go back the age of using multiple search engines for the same search……

     
  16. Stuart McD

    @TravMonkey Just on the duplication side of things, 1st & 3rd examples are the same reviews, save one. There’s a one review offset and the latter has the full review while the former has half the review hidden with JS. It’s essentially the same content and gets #1 and #3.

    Sure agree different data centres can yield diff results — who do I call to get this one disconnected?

     
  17. TravMonkey

    This is personalised results (logged in) so not everyone will see the results like this and also varying depending on which Google datacentre you’re hitting… from my own view of the search I see no TripAdvisor duplication. They have 2 (different) results at the top followed by Agoda, then Tnooz article. TripAdvisor are probably ranking top in this case due to the number of backlink they are likely to have and because they have temple lodge on their site.

    Having said that Stuart’s personalised results are pretty strange, for one site to be so dominant is pretty poor.

    TripAdvisors content here doesn’t look like duplication as the content seems to be unique for each entry… just writing about the same topic. That’s not duplication.

     
  18. Stuart McD

    @Steve I see results like this All The Time. This isn’t a particularly unusual result — what was unusual was that I bothered to screengrab it and post on it.

    @Tempodulu Think you mean Temple Lodge ;-) My query isn’t so much why TripAdvisor is above Agoda on page 1 (Joel points to a reason why that may be) but more why TA is somehow deserving of 43 of the top 50 results for a query like this. If I’d queried “Temple Lodge TripAdvisor” perhaps — but Agoda?

    @Joel Yes fair point.

    As has been pointed out on Twitter I was logged in to Googletron when I took the grabs, so that may have influenced the result, but I am not a TripAdvisor user, but am a heavy Agoda user (born out by my web history) so I’d have thought, again, that would have influenced this in the reverse.

    Why is this happening?

    Think TripAdvisor’s country specific domains probably contribute, but I think also TA’s very aggressive SEO re it’s reviews help. Check the following two results for the same search now:

    Result 1: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g294226-d1122064-Reviews-The_Temple_Lodge-Bali.html
    Result 2: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294226-d1122064-r20678193-The_Temple_Lodge-Bali.html
    Result 3: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294226-d1122064-r128198259-The_Temple_Lodge-Bali.html
    Result 4: Some scrappy travel tech site…

    Now these are essentially two pages, for the same property, showing user reviews in a slightly different format and reordered. If that isn’t duplicate content I don;t know what is, yet here it is with the top three results.

    I’m sorry but the above are simple rubbish serps and would love to hear why Google reckons they’re good fare.

     
    • Martin Macdonald

      Hi Stuart,

      Thats a very interesting find – organic SEO is my main area of interest and cases like this are intriguing, it certainly seems something has gone wrong somewhere.

      Could you let me know any other examples of search results you have seen like this so I can compare them and possibly have a chat with some others if I cant find a reasonable explanation?

      Thanks in advance,

      Martin Macdonald

       
      • Stuart McD

        pinging you on twitter @seoforumsorg – assume is you – if not, let me know :) . It’s easy to gets stacks of results like this — has been like this for at least 18 months.

         
        • Martin Macdonald

          nope, thats actually my old account sorry! Im on @searchmartin but will ping you on twitter directly as well, thanks!

           
  19. Joel

    If you check the Trip Advisor “Temple Lodge” page detail there is an “Agoda” checkbox in the page so the answer may be considered as relevant because the Agoda term is in the answer.

     
  20. tempo dulu

    Yes, but Travel Lodge is NOT listed in Agoda.

    Google: “Hyatt Bali Agoda” —- for a comparison and you will see Agoda comes out on top.

     
  21. Steve

    Well spotted by Stuart! I have never seen a set of search results so dominated by a single domain before. Very strange. I do wonder whether this is down to the amount of changes Google have been making lately and this is an edge case that has slipped through, or been magnified by their changes.

    It certainly shouldn’t be like this. You should see one or two from Tripadvisor. Worth telling @mattcutts about this one I reckon.

    However what is really funny about this is that when I reproduce this search the first Agoda result I get is for the Temple Lodge Hotel in Lyndhurst, UK. Not quite so sunny as Bali :-)

     
 
 

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