Industry Update
Opinion Article30 March 2021

Is Google’s Zero-Click Search a Threat or Opportunity for Hoteliers?

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

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Last year 64.82% of searches on Google ended up with "zero clickthroughs" to websites, blogs, articles, etc., because Google provided all the answers a user would need on the search results page itself, making a click to the underlying content unnecessary (SimilarWeb/SparkToro). This was a significant increase from the 50% "zero click searches" back in 2019.

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The remainder of the searches on Google in 2020 resulted in organic clickthroughs - 33.59% and only 1.59% - in paid clickthroughs (Google Ads, Google Hotel Ads, Google Product Listing Ads).

This analysis is based on SimilarWeb data from about 5.1 trillion worldwide Google searches in 2020, and combined mobile and desktop devices, including iOS devices.

On the surface, zero-click search looks counterintuitive as it deprives Google, a $1.36 trillion public company, from much needed paid clicks and revenue. So why is Google allowing zero-click search to become the predominant result in the search engine results pages (SERPs)? On one hand, it is in line with Google's core mission to provide answers - ultra-fast, relevant and straight to the point - to any question a human may have. On the other hand, this shift is inevitable as the advance of mobile and voice assistants creates the need for immediate answers. All of this means that more and more information is being delivered in the form of relevant zero-click answers and summaries provided by Google via voice or right at the top of the SERPs.

Where does Google get the answers in its SERPs that provide users with sufficient information so that they do not click further i.e. the search ends up with zero clickthroughs? The answer is very simple - website content and content marketing.

So how can hoteliers benefit from Google's new "zero click" reality?

Hotel Website Content:

Review the content of your website. Is it unique, relevant and of editorial quality? Does it answer the crucial question of "Why would I choose this property?" Does it address all important questions and concerns of your key customer segments: leisure, business, corporate groups and SMERFs? Do you have detailed descriptions of your property's services and amenities? Do you provide information on local events, attractions and points of interest?

By indexing your website's rich and deep content Google will find many of the answers for its zero-click SERPs.

A word of caution: unique content on the property website means exactly that: unique content! Avoid duplicate content - Ex. Having the same content (property, amenities, rooms descriptions, etc.) on your website and the OTA websites. Google and the search engines consider duplicate content (similar content under two different URLs) as spam and will rank the website with higher authority, in the case the OTA website and ignore the other - your website.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

FAQs are part of the website content that have gained importance in the age of mobile search and mobile voice assistants. FAQs is structured content on the property website about the property's location, services and amenities. Both Google and potential customers love this collection of valuable information about your property since it allows them to find a quick, well-formulated answer to questions they may have about the property's location and product and help potential guests make quick booking decisions.

Content marketing:

Review your property's broader Content Marketing, whose role has been highly elevated by the current crisis and depleted marketing budgets. Content marketing is much cheaper than performance marketing: paid search, metasearch, display and paid media.

Many of the content marketing initiatives extend the reach of your property's answers to pertinent questions online users may have. These initiatives include: brand positioning announcements (ex. Green Hotel Certification), SEO, website content, social media posts, B2B marketing initiatives via LinkedIn aiming to engage corporate travel and group planners, PR, blog articles and posts, white papers, webinars, case studies, influencer marketing, expert knowledge marketing (spa and wellness-related posts, chef recipes, wedding tips, etc.), award announcements, new services and amenities announcements, etc.

Content marketing 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.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO):

All 33.59% of organic clickthroughs on Google plus most of the answers on the zero-click SERPs are directly influenced by the quality of 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. When the hotel website is optimized to communicate these signals to Google, it will achieve a higher ranking in SERPs and reward the property with significant organic revenues and zero-click views.

The following three main SEO categories are well within hotelier marketers' control, and should become top priority in the post-crisis era:

  • Website Content: unique, highly relevant and enticing website content that is professionally written, informative, useful and of travel guide-level quality.
  • Inbound Links: links to the hotel website from highly authoritative non-paid websites like CVBs, online magazines and newspapers, blogs, social media, etc.
  • 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.

Make sure your digital marketing agency can deliver Google-specific ongoing SEO services and can handle the very complex Google-specific technical SEO requirements including schema.org, Google AMP, Google Sitemap XML, Google Search Console dashboard management, and more.

Schema Markup:

Do you have automated schema markup on your property 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.

Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP):

Does your website feature Google AMP pages which download fast on mobile and wearable devices and are featured as news and info "teasers" in the Google AMP teaser section in mobile SERPs? AMPs increase hotel visibility and create another entry point to boost mobile visitors and bookings, as well as provide another opportunity to outshine the competition.

What happens to paid search?

As mentioned above, last year only 1.59% of searches on Google resulted in paid clickthroughs (Google Ads, Google Hotel Ads, Google Product Listing Ads), yet Google made nearly $147 billion from paid search in 2020, an increase of 9% over 2019.

So, with over 98% of searches resulting in zero-click page views or organic clickthroughs, should hoteliers abandon their paid search campaigns on Google? Though paid search is evolving, it is not going anywhere anytime soon. In "normal" years, 20%-25% of hotel website revenues still come from Google paid search campaigns (Google Ads and Google Hotel Ads).

In the post-crisis, hoteliers realize that the era of big paid search marketing budgets and elaborate campaigns is over in these times of struggling occupancies and depleted marketing budgets. There are smarter ways of utilizing Google's paid search formats and here are just a few of them:

Google Hotel Ads (GHA)

Make GHA - Google's metasearch program, part of your must-have Google marketing initiatives by joining the free hotel listings program Google introduced recently. Google has resorted to its masterful freemium model by giving every hotel a free booking listing in GHA, thus attempting to flood each destination with booking options and forcing hotels, OTAs and other booking sites to compete for visibility by buying sponsored listings.

If your property is located in a competitive destination, invest in the sponsored listings program via pay-per-stay GHA program, which charges a referral fee in the form of moderate 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.

Google Ads:

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.

In this new zero-click search reality, the marketing message of your Google Ad sponsored listings has gained an increased importance. It should now be able to answer user questions like "Why should I stay at this hotel?" Identify the core value proposition of your hotel and use it in your Google Ad messaging. If your hotel is next door to a theme park, say it! If you are the only spa hotel in town, advertise it!

Google Ads is perfect as a "deal closer" ad format to convert past guests as well as new customers already exposed to your property's content marketing or zero-click search result information, and for customers who know exactly where they want to stay.

Google Display Network (GDN) Retargeting

GDN display retargeting helps 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, also consider launching a small GDN Targeting campaign, focusing on your most important short-haul and drive-in feeder markets. GDN offers 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.

Max Starkov

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