Industry Update
Opinion Article 2 October 2020

Can Hoteliers Afford to Ignore Google in the Post-Crisis Era?

By Max Starkov, Adjunct Professor NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Hospitality & Online Travel Tech Consultant

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With all the heated discussions about Google dominating travel and increasing calls by industry pundits and experts to lessen hospitality's dependency on the search giant, one thing is for certain: cash-strapped hoteliers today simply cannot just pause or abandon their marketing presence on Google. Today, despite the crisis and all the industry sufferings, hotel marketers cannot ignore Google in the same manner as they could not have done this in any of the last 20 years.

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On average, Google directly contributes, in the form of organic referrals (SEO, AMPs, Schema, content marketing, etc.) and paid/performance marketing referrals (SEM, GDN, GHA, etc.) to over 50% of direct online roomnights for most hoteliers. This does not include OTA roomnights, the bulk of which come as a result of the OTA performance marketing on Google to the tune of $11 billion a year. During the pandemic, Google has not only maintained but increased its search market share and in August 2020 Google controlled 87.3% market share in the U.S., 93.24% in Europe and 91.5% in Asia.

There are two major developments at Google that directly affect hotel marketers:

  • Google is the Shepherd of the Digital Customer Journey: Google has become increasingly adept at positioning itself at and making money in the form of referral and CPA (Cost per acquisition) fees from each of the five phases of the Digital Customer Journey: Dreaming, Planning, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing Phases. Google now "owns" the customer in the Dreaming and Planning Phases and directly influences conversions in the Booking Phase, as well as increasingly controls customer engagements in the Experiencing (on-property) and Sharing (post-stay) Phases via Google My Business, Local Experiences, Google Reviews, etc.
  • Google is an Integrated Advertising Ecosystem: Google has become a fully integrated advertising platform - an advertising ecosystem - where all advertising formats are intertwined and work in concert. User engagements in the upper funnel (SEO, content marketing, YouTube TrueView, Gmail Ads, etc.) influences conversions in the lower funnel (Google Ads, Google Hotel Ads, Google Display Network, RLSA, Customer Match, etc.), and a campaign in one advertising format directly influences the results from all other formats. Add to that the first-party user data Google accumulates, refreshes and enriches on a daily basis from any user interactions, search, communication and intent signals on Google and Google App, Chrome, Android, Gmail, YouTube, etc. and you get the full picture: Google knows more about any given Internet user and online travel consumer than NSA, FBI, CIA, DHS, Interpol, KGB and Mossad combined.

These two key developments should determine how hotel marketers budget, plan and execute their Google marketing strategy in the Google Ecosystem and what initiatives they should use to reach travel consumers throughout the Digital Customer Journey and how, hopefully, turn them into hotel guests in the post-crisis era.

Hotelier's Action Plan to Maximize Revenues from the Google Ecosystem post COVID-19:
Here are some concrete action steps to help hotel marketers make the most from the Google Ecosystem in these dire post-crisis times, increase occupancies and generate the highest returns and ROIs:

1. Preparing for your post-crisis Google marketing strategy:

There are several steps you must undertake before you even start strategizing, budgeting, planning and launching any campaigns on Google. Many of these steps should have already been addressed by your digital marketing partner agency before the COVID-19 crisis, and would require now little or only moderate updates, which means small budget. But if you fail to implement these steps, your investment in Google campaigns will be cost-prohibitive and the bulk of your marketing dollars will be wasted with little results to show for your ad spend.

  • Review your property website. Does it have a mobile-first design? Mobile-friendly content? With nearly 70% of website visitors now viewing your website on mobile devices, mobile-first website design and mobile-friendly content are a must. No ifs or buts.
  • Are your property website download speeds across various devices up to par? With its Mobile Index algorithm update, Google started punishing websites with slow download speeds. According to Google, 53% of website visits are abandoned if a mobile site takes longer than three seconds to load. In addition, slow download speeds inevitably affect conversion rates on the hotel website: fast download speeds drastically improve the user experience and increase the user's desire to purchase on the site. Mobile-first websites with cloud hosting and CDN (Content Delivery Network) provide far better server response times and faster download speeds across geographies.
  • Review your website SEO: Google has frequently stated that it is using more than 200 major ranking "signals" with many thousands of sub-signals and variations. Finally, make sure your agency can deliver Google-specific ongoing SEO services and can handle very complex Google-specific technical SEO requirements including schema.org, Google AMP, Google Sitemap XML, Google Search Console dashboard management, and more. The following three categories are well within hotelier marketers' control, and if the hotel website is optimized to communicate these signals to Google, will achieve a higher ranking in SERPs and reward the property with significant organic revenues:
  1. Content: unique, highly relevant and enticing website content that is professionally written, informative, useful and of travel guide-level quality
  2. Inbound Links: links to the hotel website from highly authoritative non-paid websites like CVBs, online magazines and newspapers, blogs, social media, etc.
  3. Technical SEO: an ecosystem of technologies, configurations, and processes implemented to the website and server designed to optimize the hotel website and enable the search engine bots to access, crawl, interpret and index your website, which ultimately results in increased search traffic and revenue.
  • Do you have Automated schema markup on the hotel website? Schema markup helps search engines understand the content and intent of websites, especially dynamic content elements such as events and happenings pages, special offers, opening hours, and star ratings. These rich snippets make hotel webpages appear more prominently in Google search engine results pages (SERPs), thus improving the visibility of a hotel website's overall SEO performance. One of the important benefits is the Featured Snippets, which Google creates dynamically based on the content of your website and places on top of the search results.
  • Does your website feature Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) pages that download fast on mobile and wearable devices and are featured as news and info "teasers" in the Google AMP teaser section in mobile SERPs. This works to increase hotel visibility and create another entry point to boost mobile visitors and bookings, as well as provide another opportunity to outshine the competition.
  • Does your property have a robust Feeder Market Channel Strategy vs the usual market segmentation channel strategy? Are you focusing on your short-haul feeder-markets and especially on your drive-in feeder markets? People are already traveling and will continue to do so in the post-crisis period, especially on short-haul and drive-in trips.
  • Do you have weekend specials, coronavirus de-stressing packages, spa packages, family packages, activity packages, special occasion and F&B packages and promotions, work-from-hotel packages, etc. that you can use to target your local, short-haul and drive-in feeder markets? Be creative: it is not difficult to figure out what customers that have been locked at home for 6 plus months - we have all been there - would love to experience at your property and its surroundings.
  • Have you retained a relationship with your digital marketing partner agency throughout the crisis? If yes, then ask them to take care of the above action steps that are within their area of expertise, and to help you tackle the rest. If not - find a good hospitality-trained digital marketing agency - they are all eager for your business!

2. Launching your post-crisis Google marketing strategy

In these difficult times with low occupancies, catastrophic ADRs and RevPARs and staff operating on a skeleton-crew fashion, launching elaborate and expensive Performance Marketing campaigns to acquire new guests on Google Ads (GA), Google Hotel Ads (GHA) and Google Display Network (GDN) is out of the question. Therefore, with your post-crisis marketing strategy, the goal is to achieve maximum returns with a minimum budget. Here are some of these initiatives that will help you achieve that:

  • Content Marketing: Content marketing is neither new nor free and has ways been an integral part of the hotel digital marketer's toolbox. All segments of content marketing cost marketing dollars since someone has to create the content and creative, set up and manage the campaigns, monitor analytics and prepare reports: SEO, enticing website content, social media posts, B2B marketing initiatives via LinkedIn to reach corporate travel directors and meeting planners, PR, blog articles and posts, white papers, B2C podcasts, webinars and streaming casts on hot issues (Ex. Spa and Wellness Destressing Tips, etc.), case studies, influencer marketing, new/renovated amenity announcements, etc. Content marketing, when done well, is much cheaper than Performance Marketing. It engages and entices the travel consumer in the Dreaming and Planning Phases and creates ready-to-book customers for the Booking Phase of the Digital Customer Journey.
  • Review and update your Google My Business (GMB) listing - your property's local business listing on Google. Make sure your Google My Business Listing is fully optimized, and your property listing on all local search engines, directories, and main data providers is uniformly optimized. When was the last time you updated your property hotel information, amenity and services descriptions, business hours, you COVID preparedness and cleanliness programs, hotel images and videos, etc. When was the last time you responded to Google Reviews? Google has more hotel customer reviews than all of the review and OTA websites combined! GMB directly influences travelers in Planning Phase and creates a powerful word-of-mouth effect in the Sharing Phase.
  • Launch small-budget hotel-branded keyword terms campaign via Google Ads (GA) to target past guests in the short-haul and drive-in feeder markets. These past guests already know your hotel brand name, they know your hotel product, all you need to do now is to convince them that your property is safe to stay at and that you have packages and promotions that address their current needs. Google Ads is perfect as a "deal closer" ad format to convert past guests as well as new customers already exposed to GDN ads and for customers who know exactly where they want to stay.
  • Launch a small-budget Google Display Network (GDN) Retargeting campaign to communicate your property's value proposition to users who have visited your website and are already familiar with your product, offerings and location. GDN Retargeting serves as a great "reservation abandonment recovery" and "brand reminder" tool.
  • Based on your budget, launch a GDN Targeting campaign, focusing on your most important short-haul and drive-in feeder markets. GDN offers a direct-response type of targeting capabilities: Location, Keywords, Audiences, Similar Users, etc. GDN Targeting is the perfect solution to expand your hotel marketing reach and attract new customers at the top of the funnel.
  • Use marketing creative with "It Pays to Book Direct" messaging and offer perks or value ads to close the deal, such as "Book Direct and Get Free Wi-Fi" (or free breakfast, free parking, and et cetera). Offer some form of exclusivity to direct bookers to help increase perceived value.
  • Make Google Hotel Ads (GHA) (metasearch) part of your must-have Google marketing initiatives. Avoid the expensive Cost-per-click (CPC) GHA program and join the Pay-per-Stay GHA program instead. Google launched this program recently, understanding well that a) hoteliers do not have much advertising dollars, and b) travel consumers often cancel their hotel reservations due to the volatile COVID-19 situation. The Pay-per-Stay program uses the CPA (Cost-per-acquisition) model - and charges a referral CPA fee (commission) only if the guest books via GHA and ultimately stays at the property. Work with your CRS, Channel Manager or digital marketing partner to enable your property on GHA.
  • You should no longer be fixated on the results (ROI, bookings, roomnights, revenues, CPC, CTR, Conversion Rates, etc.) from stand-alone advertising initiatives on Google (example GHA - metasearch or Google Ads - paid search, etc.), but rather focus on the blended results from the entire Google Ecosystem, including Google Ads, GDN, Google Hotel Ads, RLSA and Gmail Ads, among others. In other words, you should ask yourself: "If I invest $5,000 in the Google Ecosystem, what would the return be? 5 times? 10 times? 12 times? 15 times?"
  • Do not split various advertising initiatives on Google among different agencies and vendors. This is a sure way to waste precious advertising dollars and achieve mediocre results. Utilizing a single partner to manage your Google Ecosystem allows for higher conversions, better analytics, and attribution tracking.
  • Make sure you utilize the services of a Google Partner Agency whose employees are certified by Google to manage all of the ever-evolving and increasingly complex advertising formats in the Google Ecosystem, as well as handle ongoing, Google-specific SEO services and technical SEO. Ask questions like: "How many of your employees are Google AdWords certified? Can your agency manage GA, GDN targeting and retargeting, GHA, YouTube ads, Gmail Ads, etc.?"
  • Employ the Google Ecosystem as an integral and indispensable component of any multichannel marketing campaign where a consistent marketing message or promotion is pushed across all marketing channels and devices to achieve maximum engagement and bookings.

An important question in hoteliers' mind is whether Google is transforming itself into an OTA? In my view, categorically no! Getting involved in transactions (hotel bookings) is a very labor-intensive, hands-on and asset-heavy business, all of which is contrary to Google's MO. It requires a very expensive technology investment: building from scratch a massive OTA type of a CRS capable of handling at least 2.5 million hotels and over 6.5 million alternative accommodations just to match Booking.com; building and maintaining thousands of APIs, designing AI-powered RMS and CRM platforms from scratch, hiring thousands of hotel savvy revenue managers, area directors and sales executives (Booking has 15,000 plus of those); opening expensive support and sales offices in 200 plus countries and territories around the world, and getting ready to spend $5+ billion in advertising a year to convince the traveling public that Google is a booking channel for hotels.

Conclusion:

The answer to the question of whether hoteliers can pause or abandon their marketing presence on Google is a resounding no! Today, despite our industry's worst-ever state-of-affairs, hotel marketers simply cannot ignore Google - in the same manner as they could not have done this in any of the last 20 years.

Not only Google controls 87.3% search market share in the U.S., 93.24% in Europe and 91.5% in Asia and is the single most-productive source for direct bookings, but it has turned itself into the Shepherd of the Digital Customer Journey
and its five phases: Dreaming, Planning, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing Phases and to a great extent controls the online travel consumer's behavior.

In the same time, Google has become an Integrated Advertising Ecosystem, which requires hotel marketers to use sophisticated technologies, know-how and expertise to manage all of the ever-evolving and increasingly complex advertising formats in the Google Ecosystem to achieve any meaningful results. The most important novelty in this fully-integrated Google Ecosystem is that all advertising formats are intertwined and work in concert, user engagement in the upper funnel (SEO, content marketing, YouTube TrueView, Gmail Ads, etc.) influences conversions in the lower funnel (Google Ads, Google Hotel Ads, Google Display Network, RLSA, Customer Match, etc.), and a campaign in one advertising format influences the results from all other formats.

In these difficult times with low occupancies, catastrophic ADRs and RevPARs and staff cuts, launching elaborate and expensive Performance Marketing (paid) campaigns on Google is out of the question. Therefore, with your post-crisis Google marketing strategy, the goal is to achieve maximum returns with minimum budget. This is why I have outlined above concrete action steps that are grouped in two distinct and logical categories: Preparing for your post-crisis Google marketing strategy and Launching your post-crisis Google marketing strategy.

Max Starkov

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