SEO alert: Google overhauls its travel search interface for mobile
Another day, another search engine optimization (SEO) wobble. In late January, Google released a major re-design of its mobile search interface for trip planning.
NB: This is a viewpoint by Matthew Barker of I&I Travel Media.
With this change, searches on Google for various destination keywords, such as “where to go in Thailand” or “Thailand destinations”, trigger a knowledge-graph result that leads users into a rabbit hole of Google-controlled content and travel-planning tools.
The move further de-prioritizes once-sacrosanct “organic” placements, causing yet another SEO wrinkle for travel marketers.
Google’s mobile trip planner
The interface looks like this:
Users can filter destination results by “interests”, such as architecture, beach, culture, fishing, and Scuba diving.
From there, users can dig deeper into whatever location or point of interest piques their interest.
For instance, doing a mobile search on “where to go in thailand” leads to a horizontal carousel of Thai destinations, with the capital city on top. It pulls a representative airfare by pulling the nearest major airport geo-located to your phone for sample upcoming travel dates — along with benchmark lodging costs.
Clicking on the Bangkok “location card” leads to incredibly long and detailed information. The card links users to other points of interest, maps, info on climate and when to travel, and YouTube videos — all hosted exclusively on Google-controlled digital properties.
Most importantly – for Google, at least – is the prominent “Plan a trip on Google” section, which allows users to book flights and hotels and find restaurants, again all via Google’s pay-to-play platforms. (Still a bit rough around the edges but I bet that major OTA and metasearch brands that advertise on Google won’t be thrilled…)
It doesn’t take a Sherlock to figure this out. Google makes more money when people stay on its properties and click on its ads. And these knowledge graph results are presumably a highly effective way of retaining users and channeling them towards ads and paid listings on hotel and flight search.
Google of course is crafting a broader, more altruistic, narrative around this. They’re talking about mobile usability and “micro moments,” i.e. customers using their phones in many, short sessions while searching for “immediate answers” in the journey to purchase. In a recent report, it said:
“Today’s travelers are turning to the web to be inspired and take action—and the brands that help them at those moments will win hearts, minds, and dollars.”
The author forgot to mention that increasingly, the only way for brands to reach these travellers through Google properties is by paying for ad listings.
So what does it all mean? Is it yet another nail in the SEO coffin? Well, not so fast.
The biggest losers in this particular update are likely the top-tier sites and publishers who’ve dominated destination search for a long time: TripAdvisor, Yelp, Lonely Planet, major news and travel sites, etc.
More than anything else, this is a play against the short-tail or “head” keywords that hoover up the lion’s share of individual queries and have long been dominated by the biggest travel sites.
The other losers are likely the OTAs and metasearch sites competing for big flight and hotel queries. With this new interface, Google is channeling more users directly to its own paid hotel and flight search tools.
At the very end is a very inconspicuous link to organic (i.e. non-Google owned) results: (Blink and you’ll miss it…)
Where this doesn’t necessarily impact is further down into the longtail of search queries. A query like “Things to do in Bangkok” may be off limits, but for anyone outside of the top-tier that has long been the case anyway.
On the other hand “Visiting Bangkok with young children” and any of the infinite number of longtail keywords are still fair game.
These aren’t always purchase-intent queries and you might not convert them into bookings on the first visit, but used strategically within the rest of your marketing strategy they can be an important top-funnel source of traffic and prospects.
If this interface change has hit mobile share for short tail results, then I’m sure the big beasts will be smarting.
But for mid- to small-tier players, long-tail SEO as a traffic acquisition tool remains reliable, provided it’s used strategically and in conjunction with other conversion channels.
FOR MORE: To track developments at Google, keep tabs on the blog at Koddi, a provider for tools related to Google Hotel Price Ads.
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