Monday, 19 September 2016 01:33

Google’s SERP Changes: A Watershed Moment for Hotel Brands


David Collins, columnist and Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer at The Great National Hotels and Resorts Group discusses how things are about to become equally challenging and interesting for hotel marketers.

Earlier this year, Google ‘unveiled’ plans to change the layout of their search engine results pages (SERPs for short) whereby no longer would they feature ads on the right hand side of your desktop results page. In truth, this was by no means a sudden change; Google had been testing this revised layout as far back as 2010. The impact however has been nothing short of transformative since this took effect globally from mid-2016.

I’ll explain this more below but first let me tease out what exactly Google have done in the interest of ‘improving user experience’.

So basically Google have unilaterally decided that paid search ads will no longer appear on the right-hand side of search results for desktop users, and that up to four paid search results will instead appear at the top of the page. This was a maximum of three previously and the new format mirrors the mobile search experience which has obviously grown in relevance in recent years.

By the way, paid search ads that fall below the 4th rank now appear at the bottom of the SERP which in itself is also a big deal in terms visibility and capturing traffic.

The rationale cited for all this is that it will allow Google to provide more relevant results for end users and also provide better ad performance for advertisers by delivering a more dynamically intuitive search/shopping experience. Users have an increasingly lower tolerance for fruitless searches and this is aimed at targeting consumers during what Google terms as ‘micro-moments’ … a fancy term for where someone may be on the sales curve.

So far so good. Getting users to the information they’re looking for faster and more efficiently is a good thing. No argument there.

The problem however is simply this: organic or naturally occurring rankings are getting less and less of a look-in. Why? Because paid search ads are taking up more space on SERPs with the result that hoteliers have to spend more on paid search to maintain prominence above the fold and also become more sophisticated in their approach to site content so as to hold onto organic traffic and rankings.

Eventually it is likely that organic listings will simply disappear – this is already happening on mobile SERPs – and desktop will follow as sure as night follows day.

In the absence of any real competition (BING, Yahoo, etc. … really?), the temptation for Google is simply too great to monetise completely all search activity and whereas you can’t blame them, after all they are in the business of business, they currently enjoy a virtual monopoly and this might be construed by some as an abuse of their position. In fact, I am staggered at the lack of concerted, coherent objection from the travel and hospitality industry to this latest move but equally don’t be surprised when FaceBook wade in to carve out a piece of this increasingly lucrative ‘search’ pie.

So what can be done to avoid having to jack up your PPC budget? In truth, very little. Unless consumers suddenly change their behaviour from depending on Google for search, hotels are going to have to buckle up for the ride: your competitors will be doing everything they can to ensure visibility and you must do the same. Only better.

And that also means retaining customers better than ever before; you’ll be paying more to get them to your site as a result of changes to search so it’s critical that you maximise your ROI. Which is why content marketing is now coming into it’s own.

Typically we as hoteliers tend to see loyalty schemes and reward programmes as the solution to retaining clients. In truth whereas these may have worked in the past, end users today seem to prefer instead to be engaged by brands in a more intuitive, personalised way, one which recognises their likes, dislikes, preferences, etc.. This in turn makes for a more meaningful, robust relationship and digital enables this thankfully in spades.

Just a word of warning here however, what content marketing is not is excessive promotional messaging. Instead it should be relevant, meaningful communication with your customer base – a short video piece, a personalised landing page, an engaging blog – that sets you apart as a brand and connects with your audience …

Things are about to become equally challenging and interesting for hotel marketers.

About David Collins: David draws his expertise from an intimate knowledge of the Irish and UK hotel industry with a proven track record of over 25 years in brand development, digital distribution and channel marketing. David’s work is well known in both Ireland and the U.K. where he has been instrumental in building some of the largest hotel brands, most recently the Great National Hotels and Resorts Group, currently one of the fastest growing hospitality groups in Europe.

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