Expedia Inc’s Hotels.com regrets its SEO email to travel bloggers

Earlier this month, some travel bloggers received a message from a person with an e-mail address at the online travel agency Hotels.com.

It had an intriguing offer. The final sentence, including its lack of grammar, was this:

“If you agree with partnering with us on helping us acquire backlinks, I would like to discuss a package or how you wanted to compensated to perform this assignment.”

(The full message is reprinted below, in context.)

Search engine giant Google has issued guidelines for best practices. Offering compensation in exchange for links is generally considered to be a no-no.

A backlink is typically understood to mean an inbound direct link back to an original site, in this case Hotels.com. The more such incoming links, the more favorably Google’s search algorithm looks upon a website.

In this case, the poorly worded email gives the regrettable appearance that Hotels.com may have been soliciting backlinks in exchange for “compensation.”

That’s a worry because backlinks might be intended to boost a brand name’s visibility in the top search results for certain queries.

But appearances can be deceiving.

Tnooz asked Hotels.com, a brand owned by Expedia Inc., about the message.

A Hotels.com spokesperson consulted with top people on Hotels.com’s search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) teams and then gave us this statement:

“We work hard to adhere to the guidelines which search engines have put in place. The email is not aligned with our program and was the result of an internal misunderstanding that has been quickly identified and resolved.”

“Compensated” is an awkward word

The original full message is reprinted below. Tnooz has redacted parts of the email, out of courtesy to those involved.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: [Employee name redacted] <REDACTED@hotels.com>
Date: October [XX redacted], 2014 [redacted] To: [redacted] Subject: Blog posts for Brand marketing- [redacted]

Dear Sir or Madam,

I work for hotels.com and I was reading your [Redacted] blog posts and I was wondering if I could get in touch for some brand promotion for our hotels.

I would like to know if I wanted to feature some of our properties or destinations. I’m looking for hotel reviews, or even a more neutral content such as “brought to you by Hotels.com”.

Having 1 post a week would be great for us. I’m expecting amplification through other channels like Twitter, Facebook, etc. Just wanted to promote our hotels and brand through blogging.

If you agree with partnering with us on helping us acquire backlinks, I would like to discuss a package or how you wanted to compensated to perform this assignment.

Thank you so much for your time.

Best Regards,

[Redacted] SEO Manager, Hotels.com Americas
Hotels.com – an Expedia Inc Brand

Unnatural links, or brand outreach?

One of the interesting aspects of the message is that it comes from a Hotels.com address but its writer seemed careless about basic grammar. Also notable is that the message wasn’t reviewed before being sent out.

The message was infelicitously worded. Its timing was also unfortunate.

It was only last January when sister site Expedia.com‘s visibility in American and Canadian Google search results was estimated to have been reduced by a quarter.

It was rumored that that event was the result of “a major penalty” by the search giant for what was alleged to have been a paid linking scheme by Expedia, according to Search Engine Land.

Expedia Inc’s stock (EXPE) fell 4% on the news, though its share price later recovered. Google never commented.

During a quarterly conference call in February, Expedia Inc CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said that the company looks at all its search engine marketing (SEM) and SEO procedures in Google, adding:

“We’re constantly auditing them and making sure that our practices are industry leading.”

Extra leeway for big brands?

The owner of a long-established travel website claimed to Tnooz that tactics like these are an open secret in the industry. Speaking anonymously, they said:

Assuming the purchased links are not nofollow, this is definitely and 100% a black hat tactic. These are very common. I get these regularly (though not always from hotels.com).

Expedia is very aggressive in this area, and many of the second tier OTAs are at it as well.

Common now is dressing it up as a PR. For instance, if the link is in-body, they build the relevant language around the link to try and game Google’s natural language.

Travel blogs, etc., are awash in crap like this.

“Hotels.com” is a common search term on Google. In the US, it appears in organic search results a million times a week on average, says research firm SearchMetrics.

The brand is not alone. In the US, travel keywords are the second most popular after finance ones, says research firm WordStream.

Whether big brands like Hotels.com have more leeway to make SEM mistakes than smaller brands do was reviewed in depth in this article: Three years on from Google Panda, many travel sites struggle with traffic

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Sean O'Neill

About the Writer :: Sean O'Neill

Sean O’Neill had roles as a reporter and editor-in-chief at Tnooz between July 2012 and January 2017.

 

Comments

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  1. Rakesh

    Hello Sean,

    So you caught one more… You know they think (Big Brands) that we are too big, and Google can’t hit us as we are spending so much in Adwords. At the time when you posted about ChecpOair.com I was recently hired by FarePortal India Pvt Ltd as an “Link Builder” and we used to find out bloggers and mail them in the same manner.

    Higher Management always denied this, said we are not doing this. And finally what they do? — Fire the guy who shoots the e-mail off.

     
  2. Dave

    I imagine the careless grammar comes from the following scenario. Big company contacts SEO company for help. Either for genuine help or for nefarious reasons. SEO company outsources the work to cheap labor or another SEO company overseas. The outsourced work gets botched.

    I often get emails from big USA / UK companies with IP addresses coming from India or Eastern Europe looking for partnerships or “compensatory links”.

    I don’t reply, I just hit delete.

     
  3. Paul Bennett

    Sean, I’m curious about your assessment of the careless grammar. Are you suggesting that this was done by a third party rather than in-house? And, does that make a difference in a situation like this?

     
  4. Mike Shaw

    I have worked with several large and small travel companies and trying to collaborate with travel bloggers on different projects is becoming harder. Large companies like Expedia are offending travel bloggers who have an important influence in travel industry.

    Not a very smart move. Build relationship, not links (let the links develop naturally).

     
  5. Jackie Hole

    Ahhhh a shocking story about ‘someone’ who wants to build links using a tactic that isn’t actually illegal and still common practice in many verticals – normally I would be outraged but seeing as Google don’t stick to their own rules and are charging people every minute of every day to place links for them around their own content – (ahh actually no it’s not their content is it – it’s scraped content but we’ll just call them search results for now) – Hell they even phone you up and send you post to see if you’d like to buy their relevant links – now THAT’s what I call aggressive and brazen…

     
  6. Leo

    “We work hard to adhere to the guidelines which search engines have put in place. The email is not aligned with our program and was the result of an internal misunderstanding that has been quickly identified and resolved.” … fired? hmm tough day for the seo guy.. cheers up, lets restart the hide and seek game again

     
  7. dudung rahmanto

    As SEO manager you should use smart tactic, never use company email as guest post offer ..

     
  8. Johann Thorsson

    Very interesting. The most interesting travel news I’ve read in a long while, actually.

    Two things surprise me regarding the actions of Hotels.com; first, how brazen the tone of the letter is and how they outright say that they will pay for backlinks. You’d think that by now they would have more, erm…. tactful ways to reach out to bloggers with a similar request.
    Secondly, that they are emphasizing SEO at all with the way Google is step-by-step taking away all the search-result real estate (a quick search gives me ads, a box of Google hotel results (is that new, by the way?) then three natural results before a listing of actual hotels).

    p.s. Dear Google, the results for “hotels in [city]” are a mess right now.

     
    • Peter Daams

      Wait, are you suggesting they shouldn’t be investing in SEO at all? If so, I think you’re grossly underestimating the value of Google search traffic to a hotel site.

       
      • Johann Thorsson

        No, not really. SEO is clearly important. But they seem to be in a mad rush for it when Google will strip away more and more of the top space of natural results. It seems they should be putting more emphasis on customer retention and outright branding (not buying backlinks like it’s 1999).

         
        • Peter Daams

          Oh, I don’t think it’s a case of one or the other. They should absolutely be investing in building backlinks (not as it was done here obviously) AND they should be investing in customer retention and branding. I’m pretty sure Expedia is quite aware of this need to be active on all fronts.

           
        • eldy

          Google has no way to know the links are bought or natural.. don’t use gmail or cooperate email.

           
  9. Adam

    Why are we assuming that they wanted nofollow links? Anyone who received the email could’ve easily replied with advertising rates and specifications according to ad regulations. Plus they’re clearly asking for *how* such an arrangement would work. This is silly news.

     
 
 

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