5 years ago

How real are challenges to dethrone Google as king of hotel distribution?

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 – from social media to retargeting to the mobile channel.

Some search engine skeptics 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 consumers’ 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 Zagat’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 Digital’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 Digital’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.

Google’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 Google’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 Digital’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:

SourcePage viewsVisitsBookingsNightsRevenue

Apple’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: 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.

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail to someone

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. The views expressed are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of his employer, tnooz, its writers, or partners.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Trisna

    Hi Pedro,
    In your scenario generic keywords mostly assist the branded keyword. I agree with it as this is what I also found in GA MCF report. But this data can only be shown if it is tracked within 30 days (cookies life span). Wonder if you have data how many percent of people come back beyond 30 days.

  2. Arke Enge

    Thanks for this article Max. There is just a small point I really don’t understand in it. Your proof that SEO isn’t dead is, I quote:

    “To begin with, Google Trends merely depicts the searches for hotels as percentage from TOTAL searches on Google.”

    “I believe that the search engine skeptics are seriously misreading the data and misinterpreting the graphs from Google Trends.”

    For you this is the proof that SEO isn’t dead. But when I use Google Trends to look for keyword like “Trivago” or “Tripadvisor”, the trends are going very up since 1 year and half (up to x4).

    So from what you are saying, this would mean they didn’t just made x4, but as Google is getting more and more search, they have maybe did x8 or x12 ?

    I have the same effect when I look at keyword such as “booking.com”.

    The point I don’t understand is the following : you say SEO didn’t went lower, it is just a misunderstanding of Google Trends. Alright, this may be true (I don’t know). But if this is true, this means that review site like “Tripadvisor” has maybe x12 their amount visitors since 2010. And so, it finally means that SEO is dead… replaces by review sites…

    Could you clarify me this please ?

    • Max Starkov - HeBS Digital

      Arke, the proof is in the pudding as they say. The fact is that 56% of website revenue across our hotel client portfolio comprised of several thousand hotels comes from the search engines in the form of organic and paid search bookings.
      As for Google Trends: I do not even want to start beating a dead horse again. Google themselves provided comments that I recited here.

      I would recommend for you to check the polularity of search terms and actual number of searches using the Google Keyword Tool.

  3. Marc

    Hi Max, thanks for an excellent article.

    Can your company guarantee certain keywords that we would like to be on? Such as Boutique hotels in Dublin? or better yet hotels in dublin. Are these good keywords to target? what is your take on how to determine the keywords to target.

    • Max Starkov - HeBS Digital

      Marc, If your property is a boutique hotel in Dublin, and the content on the website supports this “claim” and you have inbound links and citations to that effect, then yes, you can “own” this keyword term on Google.

      In my view, Dublin is a big enough city (I love the Temple Bar!) and people are very smart travel researchers, indeed, so using broad terms like “Dublin Hotels” is against best practices.
      For example, last month there were 450,000 searches for “Dublin Hotels” on Google: Obvioulsy the competition for this term is severe. In the same time there were 4,400 searches for “Dublin Boutique Hotels” — more than enough to fill your property. My advice? Stay focused on very narrow keyword terms that are extremely relevant to your hotel e.g. “Dublin Boutique Hotels”, or “Hotels near Temple Bar”, etc and own them.

  4. Martin Kelly

    Accommodation SEO has changed but it is not dead.

    I recently interviewed two of Australia’s leading online marketing experts – one a Director of Bruce Clay, the other MD of Expedia Australia – following the initial RIP story on Tnooz and they each emphatically rejected the claim. Subsequent conversations with hoteliers have reinforced that fact.

    You can see the story here if you’re interested: http://www.traveltrends.biz/ttn555-this-little-box-the-death-of-hotel-seo/

  5. Pedro Colaco

    Great article Max. I wonder of the SEO/SEM revenue that you mention above, how much is from generic keywords and how much is from the property name, and how that has evolved over the years. That would be interesting data to add to the article.

    @pete Wouldn’t agree more. Your point is exactly right, we also see SEO losing traction (based on many factors) and SEM prices are increasing, so new platforms will emerge. And hotels need to be prepared for it, diversify their approach to digital marketing. They can continue the tried-and-true SEO/SEM game, but they need something above and beyond.

    • Max Starkov - HeBS Digital

      Generic keyword terms and branded keyword terms work hand in hand and quite often you cannot clearly separate the contribution of each one to a particular booking. We perform detailed attribution analysis for all of our clients, including Adobe Omniture’s Stacking Report functionality. What we see is that most of the branded keyword term conversions have had “assistance” from generic keyword terms. The typical path is as follows:
      * People type “Downtown Houston Hotels”
      * Then identify one or more properties that fit the bill
      * Visit the property website: read, check rates, availability, etc
      * Shop around: OTAs, other hotel websites
      * When ready to book, and if you have done a good job convincing them that your property is best suited to meet their needs and provides the most attractive value and pricing, etc., they go back to Google, type in the name of the hotel (branded keyword term) and book.

      In a case like this, 50% of the above booking is attributed to the generic keyword term (Downtown Houston Hotels), and 50% to the branded keyword term (e.g. Alden Houston). We constantly see scenarios like the above and many more complex cases where the attribution is 40:40:20; 33:33:33; even 20:20:20:20:20.

  6. Pete Meyers

    Very interesting article, Max. Particularly appreciate your transparency with revenue breakdown by SEO / SEM.

    My “take” is that most of the industry hub-bub concerning the ripples (nay, tidal wave) Google is causing in the travel search ocean is much less due to search volume erosion. Let’s all agree that was a case of misinterpreted data and leave it there.

    The larger issue is this: achieving the hallowed ground of a #1 ranking in SEO generates about 1/5 the traffic it did in years past. This is due to Places / Hotelfinder and prioritization of other internal products.

    This causes the perceived value of SEO to shift, if the larger present opportunity is primarily acquiring lower quality traffic now that Google products dominate higher value search terms.

    This also means if a travel supplier is seeking to fill in the SEO traffic gaps, their most likely tactic will be to buy SEM keywords. This inflates the prices, drives budgets haywire and causes a natural advantage for global OTAs.

    In turn, this does open the opportunity for other platforms to emerge that can efficiently deliver new customers. However, this will require scale that few can achieve, although the retargeting networks out there are starting to provide a compelling UVP.

  7. Marshall P. Nut

    “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.”

    While PPC quality score is determined by factors which also affect organic ranking, it’s not correct that better SEO causes better PPC. Yes, sites with the best SEO often have the best PPC but that doesn’t imply a causal link.

    And better quality score doesn’t lead to better conversion rates. It may lead to a higher ad position that leads to reduced conversion rates.

    • Max Starkov - HeBS Digital

      Our experience from being actively involved in hotel and travel paid search (SEM, PPC) since 1997 categorically shows that there is a sirect corelation between PPC RESULTS and SEO.
      * SEO directly affects your Quality Index, which directly affects your PPC campaigns: rankings, CPC, etc.
      * SEO also directly affects conversions on the site: the more relevant is the on-page content of the landing page to the marketing message of the PPC listing, the higher the quality of the on-page content, the higher the conversions on the website.

      Example: if you are running a PPC campaign around “Hotels near Central Park New York City”, you better have a dedicated landing page on the subject (at least 1, better 2-3 pages), which describes in a highly editorial-quality language optimized for SEO the association of the hotel with central Park, its proximity to the park; all the activities your guests could experience in the park, etc.

      Without this rich, SEO-optimized editorial content on the site, your PPC campaigns will suffer big time, and generate paltry ROAS.


Newsletter Subscription

Please subscribe now to Tnooz’s FREE daily newsletter.

This lively package of news and information from Tnooz’s web site provides a convenient digest of what’s happening in technology that drives the global travel, tourism and hospitality market.

  • Cancel