6 years ago
 

Are we witnessing the death of the natural search ecosystem in travel?

NB: This is a guest article by Eric Bjorndahl, co-founder of TravBuddy.

Google Panda, a large update to the search algorithm released five months ago, is supposed to be about surfacing quality and original websites.

Unfortunately it has utterly failed in the travel niche, to the great cost of the consumer.

Why should you or anyone else care? Because if you ever want to research your travels online (and almost all travel searches still start at Google), results are going to be littered almost entirely with homogenous, duplicate content or low quality websites, and it will be harder for you to find information and advice from independent sources.

Homogenous, duplicate content

One of Google’s stated goals with Panda was to reduce “duplicate” content and promote sites that “provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis”. Five long months later, here is the kind of diversity and original content we can find on the first page of the results:

travbuddy grab1

TripAdvisor is a good website with tons of original content, but there is no reason why Google should rank three of their domains that have the EXACTLY same content (Tripadvisor.co.uk, Tripadvisor.ca, Tripadvisor.com.au) and two of its domains (Holidaywatchdog.com and Virtualtourist.com, both owned by TripAdvisor) that have almost exactly the same content – all on the front page.

What this means to the consumer is almost half of the results on the first page of Google effectively point to exactly the same exact content. Users are getting less useful information than ever before.

Low quality websites

Also, consider the fact that two of remaining results are occupied by Google owned properties that provide no additional value to the user. They are exactly the type of websites that Panda professes to destroy.

Result #2: The Google Places page – a mish-mash of ads, booking links, and scraped photos. Plus a short, unhelpful review from a Google User named “Marketing Concept”, which is most likely spam.

travbuddy grab2

Result #5: A link to a video on YouTube (which, as we all know, is owned by Google) that is nothing more than a slideshow of low resolution, scraped images found on hundreds of other sites. Hardly original or providing substantial value.

The end result for the user, for the traveler looking for useful or helpful information about this hotel, is that 75% of the content/links on the front page are spam. Unfortunately, this is not a unique example and can be repeated across many hotel/travel related queries on Google.

Why brands are not always best

Google has been trumpeting “brands, brands, brands” for the last year as a solution against declining search quality. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach, but taken to its extreme it results in less relevant, spammy results.

Taking the query above for “Riad Dar Najat Hotel Marrakech”. The first result is a link to the official hotel website. Here is an example of the brand emphasis working. I think most people would agree that a brand should rank first for its name.

Next, nearly half of the results are from the TripAdvisor brand. As previously said, TripAdvisor is a good site and a strong brand, but here the emphasis on brands has gone incredibly wrong. We have five links to the exact same content, providing no additional value to the user. Looks spammy to me.

Then, two of the results are for Google’s own properties. No brand is stronger than Google on the Internet but, just looking at things from the consumer perspective – how does linking to a Google Places page with no helpful or original content, or a YouTube video with no helpful or original content, ever help the end user? Looks spammy to me.

The slow decline of the web ecosystem

When Google unveiled Panda it stated:

“Google depends on the high-quality content created by wonderful websites around the world, and we do have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem. Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that’s exactly what this change does.”

In fact, I would argue that Panda, combined with Google’s insistence on brand hegemony, is in fact causing tremendous damage to the web ecosystem.

The search results are now dominated by powerful brands, often with low quality or duplicate pages, often at the expense of search quality and user experience.

Independent sites and personal blogs with unique information are much more difficult to find now. The first page of results now has up to four real results, when before it would have ten.

The travel searcher loses out because 75% of the results they are getting are basically spam or regurgitating the same information.

The web loses out because thousands independent websites honestly attempting to provide unique, high-quality information are not getting any feedback on why their sites were penalized. They are going out of business while Google turns a deaf, hypocritical ear, and brand spam continues to pollute the results.

The future

Google faces a tremendously difficult problem with spam, and I don’t claim to have any easy answers. I wish I could say “Just use Bing”, but its results often suffer from the same brand blindness (ten out of 20 of the first results link to the same content).

What I do know, though, is that brands are not always the answer, especially when they crowd out a diversity of independent, higher-quality information.

The message that Google is sending is that “duplicate”, “unoriginal” and “low quality” content will get you penalized – unless you are a large brand or Google itself.

I also believe that the web-ecosystem is suffering tremendously as a result, because, like it or not, for most people the web is Google.

NB: This is a guest  article by Eric Bjorndahl, co-founder of TravBuddy.

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Viewpoints

About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries.

 

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  1. Expedia: 6 ways for affiliates to combat Google Panda spankings | Google Panda

    […] high-quality content to the fore and to penalize sites of lower quality, especially when they are merely regurgitating content from other […]

     
  2. (Englisch) Tips and Tricks: TrustYou’s Weekly Digest // Week of July 25th 2011 | TrustYou

    […] web presence is) How Google Will Reshape Search, Social Media, and Travel (by Giles Longhurst) Are We Witnessing the Death of the Natural Search Ecosystem in Travel? (by Eric Bjorndahl) Google Panda, along with Google+, are poised to change the way consumers go to […]

     
  3. Amarpreet Kalkat

    As co-founder of a recently launched travel site, I see myself greatly agreeing with Eric here. We are starting out and are growing in general, so I am not talking about from a “affected” perspective here.

    For a while now however, I have found myself repeating “Damn it Google, these are not the best results to show here!” when we are looking around Google trying to benchmark/improve things for our product. I have been trying to find time to write about it, I guess I am going to do it now and share it here, given the already initiated discussion on the topic.

     
  4. Havayolu 101

    Google; the new Microsoft of 2010s.

    🙂

     
  5. Luke Ford

    whl.travel runs quite a few hundred travel websites around the world with local partners in each destination to manage and process bookings. It’s a way to keep booking revenues in destination. Many sites rank very well on Google but with this latest update things are changing, especially with their local Google domains (which should all be about driving traffic to local and relevant sites).

    For example, if you go to Google.com.br and search “Florianopolis Hotels”, our website http://www.florianopolis-hotels.travel appears in position 1. However, despite our website being a hotel booking website you’ll also see within our actual search result field a link to the same properties on Booking.com and TripAdvisor. Not local search at all, or maybe I am overlooking something?

     
    • Sam Daams

      That’s a Google Places result. Google basically thinks that site is an actual hotel and is linking it to reviews it sees on those two sites. Google Places can be a bit of a mess… There’s a post somewhere here on tnooz about one of the big chains and how much they struggle with this.

       
  6. Eric Bjorndahl

    @Stuart – Hmm, yea, it could have been our stub/location pages (we got our location info from a giant govt database). Not all were linked to, but if a random member signed up from a random, small town, it would generate a link to that location from the member’s profile page. So perhaps enough were linked to to trigger some sort of penalty.

    Our photo pages were actually the hardest hit post Panda, much worse than other pages. Hopefully, it won’t affect your site similarly.

    We’ve had both sets of pages noindexed for months, in an effort to appease the fickle giant, but no signs of recovery. If the results were much better that would be one thing, but the fact that they seem much worse to us only makes it all the more aggravating 😉 In any case, I don’t want to get too far off topic in the comments, but will certainly continue posting more technical details about our efforts to recover on my personal blog.

    I didn’t know that TA removed a bunch of stubs pre-Panda. Do you know when they did that?

     
  7. Stuart

    Think more likely the stub pages which you deindexed and those with no content that you 404’d are one of the causees of your woes – I certainly hope the pics are not the problem as we have something similar, albeit on a far smaller scale.

    It’s not clear from your blog post if you had all 1.3m locations on tb, but think TA’s move to remove their gazillion stubs pre Panda has turned out to be a very good move.

     
  8. Eric Bjorndahl

    Sam – I absolutely agree – duplicate content created by affiliate feeds was a huge, spammy problem. To some extent that seems fixed, but now we often see duplicate content from the same brands, or low quality content from smaller domains that probably haven’t been assessed by Panda.

    Stuart – (off topic, but in reference to your comment about my other blog post) As mentioned in the blog post, most of those “millions” of pages that we noindexed were perfectly fine. They were original, user submitted photos of travel destinations. They certainly provide more original information than a YouTube video with a slideshow of affiliate feed images. We noindexed them because 1) they didn’t bring much search traffic/value anyway and 2) we didn’t know whether or not these pages were being perceived as “thin” by Google. If you think that makes us “deserving” of a “Panda bite”, then you are confusing cause with effect.

     
    • Sam Daams

      I think the tripadvisor thing will prove temporary, as G will certainly realize that isn’t in their best interest. In the meantime we can learn from it as to why those *are* ranking when others aren’t. Clearly different domains targetting different languages currently still works. This would be fine, except that in English it ends up causing a lot of duplication (why can’t everyone just stick to ‘real English’ anyway?! :)).

      Didn’t you use to have a feed from Hotelscombined including all their reviews showing on your hotel pages? They seem to now only be your own, but that might be a recent change? Already back in 05/06 there was a theory that G targetted hotel sites a lot stricter for rankings. A lot of affiliates lost their rankings for specific hotel related terms then, a few years later another accommodation group was also hit quite hard. I’m not saying that’s your problem, just that ranking something that is based off affiliate content that Google has specifically targetted in the past is quite difficult.

      My experience is that if a few large sites all start adopting a similar strategy that is relatively easy to reproduce that 1. competitors react by ‘outing’ them and 2. Google tries to make it a lot harder to rank using those tactics.

       
  9. Stuart

    Eric’s blog entry is far more interesting than the above. 

    Gotta say though, having someone who has deindexed north of five million pages in an attempt to redeem themselves of (probably a very deserved Panda bite) write a piece on why Google is broken seems a bit odd! Think a leading par explaining the author’s pov would have been a welcome addition to this story!

    Google has plenty of pages oddly awash with duplicate TA listings, I saw one recently where 28 of the first 30 went to TA. So yeah agree there us scope for improvement in that regard.

    Don’t agree with the “can’t rank for #1” you must be doing it wrong. Longtail searches in travel can still be quite easy to rank highly for.

    Is Google broken? No. Is there scope for further improvement? Yes.

     
  10. Sam Daams

    A lot of the travel sites that got hit in Panda had it coming. Most engaged in reciprocal deep linking with other ‘partner’ sites for the sole purpose of gaming Google. Those sites are probably seeing rankings now more akin to what they should have been all along. This has also been common among travel startups for the past 5 years or so, tons of which essentially have no content, except what affiliate partnerships threw their way in terms of dup content.

     
  11. Tech geek

    Seems there’s become a niche for a new search engine. I NEVER thought i’d say that/see the day

     
  12. Andybush

    This is a great analysis and it has lots of facts that are absolutely true. The only thing that I might think of is maybe Panda did not touch on the keywords you covered here. They did onbly 12% of the searches so long-tail phrases that you used may not be a good indicator. Did you try short tail or medium tail keywords as well?

     
  13. Dan Taylor

    I would agree we are witnessing a slow death in travel search on Google. As they become more and more a content publisher it will be a closed loop of their products with users leaving on a paid click.

    In all fairness your search result is pretty obscure. If you were to use a mainstream search result you would see a much more balanced search result “on average”

    Yes brands are favored some good, some bad. Welcome to a new reality I expect Google search only to become more difficult for “free” organic search results why its imperative to build a brand and not rely on Google giving us traffic.

     
  14. Murray Harrold

    … could always simply go to a travel agent, of course 🙂

     
  15. Rodrigo Dauster

    In addition to the impact on users, Panda has hit travel start-ups hard.

    It used to be hard to rank on the first page. However, with concerted (white-hat) SEO tactics one had a hope.

    Now it’s nigh impossible.

    As a result, I argue that innovation in the travel space is severely curtailed. I will go as far as to say that no consumer-facing travel start-up founded after 2009 will have a significant exit (over $100m)–Airbnb is the exception that proves this rule.

    See the full reasoning on Quora: http://b.qr.ae/oLgfgd

     
    • Alex Edlund

      It’s not impossible, it can be done but the space is getting more crowded and it’s taking sites longer time to get to the top.

       
  16. Eric Bjorndahl

    Here’s another example I just picked at random:

    “Comfort Inn and Suites Overland Park”

    Results #3, 11, 12, 13: TripAdvisor.com, VirtualTourist.com (Same exact content as Tripadvisor), TripAdvisor.ca (same), TripAdvisor.in (same).

    Result #4: kansascity.citysearch.com – absolutely no content at all, but citysearch is big brand so it’s OK!

    Result #5: Youtube/hoteloogle.com – another slideshow video with images stripped from affiliate feeds, providing no “original” value.

    Result #10: yellowpages.com – absolutely no content at all, but yellowpages.com is a big brand so it’s OK!

    Result #11: The SAME EXACT link to the SAME EXACT YouTube video in #5, just in case you forgot to click on it before.

    I’m only listing the results I see on my first two pages. But if you are bold enough to continue browsing you can also peruse duplicate content from tripadvisor.co.uk, expedia.co.nz, tripadvisor.com.my (just in case you speak Malaysian), no.hotels.com (or Norwegian), tripadvisor.com.au, tripadvisor.de, expedia.ca….I think the only question here is why EVERY OTA/brand isn’t getting in the game!

     
  17. Andy

    I have said for some time Google is a giant that needs felling. They are killing the internet and the constant blurb about ‘We’re doing it to improve the users experience’. I’ve never heard such insencere sh1t in all my days. Why do we even debate it? Google are interested in Google. Nothing else. The only way they will improve search for the benefit of their users is to maintain their dominance as THE engine out there, something that currently they have to put very little effort into because of a lack of any real competitor. They change the algorithm for an altogether different reason and anyone who thinks otherwise is an imbecile. They change it to try and stop SEOs being able to defeat their algorithm and get their clients page one, number one. Why? Because they don’t earn any money out of that do they? They couldn’t give a sh1t if the content is original or not. The fact is they’re not earning any money so they don’t want people defeating their system, they want business to advertise not defeat them. Full stop. Or Period if your reading from the US!!
    The sooner they fall from their perch, which I hope someday will happen, the better.
    Times are changing my friends. Microsoft selling only half connected devices now, down 33% in three years and MS Office in danger from people starting to keep docs in the cloud, who needs Office on their PC? Giants can and do slip. I just have this hope that one day we can say…Google who?

     
  18. Eric Bjorndahl

    Hi all,

    Stuart – Yes, it was affected. I mentioned this at the top of my original post (linked from my name), not sure why it wasn’t included here.

    Hanette – Same query with “reviews” tacked on the end returns 6 / 20 “duplicate” results across different “brand” domains.

    And finally, in response to all those saying “But this is just one, specific, narrow search”:

    This example was taken at random to illustrate exactly this point. Many travel related searches are for long tail destinations and queries (http://seekingalpha.com/article/164692-the-long-tail-of-travel). They are narrow and specific by definition. But in aggregate they still account for much search volume.

    The results are probably “better” (or at least more stable) for broader, more popular “head” queries simply because (let’s be honest here), most of those terms have been won by paid links, and the online travel industry is among the spammiest around.

    The problem arises when you have a long tail search for a term that hasn’t been bought. In that case, when Google has fewer external factors to consider, it appears emphasize “brand” too much, to the exclusion of a more diversified set of search results.

    I would argue that this is a fundamental problem with the algorithm, not with any particular query.

     
  19. Tony

    That’s a very limited type of search, one specific hotel, and you are writing off Google Panda and Google on that basis?

    I think you may well make some valid general observations, but to be honest, using such a restricted example tends to weaken your case.

    And “results are going to be littered almost entirely with homogenous, duplicate content or low quality websites” is just going overboard. I venture to suggest that most travel searches are not at all similar to your specific hotel name example, and neither are the results.

    Nobody’s saying that there aren’t too many poor quality results in the SERPs, but let’s not get over dramatic about this.

     
  20. plz

    This is exactly what Goog want to provide – sh!t, duplicate results… When they fully pump out their hotel vertical search (Place pages++), consumers will absolutely love it (because it seems needed). If they had good results in the first place it wouldn’t be.

    Genius tactics, albeit at the current expense of users.

     
  21. Ciaran - Meetingsbooker.com

    interesting article

    sure TripAdvisor are appearing because they have user generated content?

    So how are you going to promote TravBuddy using SEO??

     
  22. Martin Soler

    The example you show is quite shocking I agree. But what is this example you took, it’s a BnB in Marrakech, nothing against that (we have many Riads as clients) but it’s a long way from a hotel in a major city. Try doing the same with a registered hotel in a major city, the results are quite different. However your point is interesting and you are right that there are some stunners in there with duplicate content such as Tripadvisor appearing multiple times etc.

     
  23. matt

    How about viewer created hostel video reviews pulled from youtube and mapped geographically like ‘London Hostel Video Map’.
    Anyone care to comment on additional added value here..?

    http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?msid=203152887950095642443.0004a85de374e489f6132&msa=0

     
  24. Michael

    I find it odd that you took this hotel, it has a fraction of popularity like other hotels. What about more popular ones? Why did you choose this one?

    I like it that I get Tripadvisor German as well as English results. It’s not the same content btw. The Forums are separated and being German I might be biased towards German reviews (as in “think alikes”)

    What you might also consider is the language barrier. So for users from English speaking countries you might have a point there but for non English speaking countries, leave the users the choice if they want to go to the English or the native version.

     
  25. Hanette

    If you wanted reviews of the hotel, rather than its own website, wouldn’t you put that term into the search?

     
  26. Stuart

    Was Travbuddy adversely affected by Panda?

     
 
 

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