By Stuart Butler, CHDM, Chief Operating Officer at Fuel, and member of HSMAI’s Marketing Advisory Board
Google is one of the biggest tech giants in the world, accounting for 94 percent of all Internet searches. But what does that really mean? How is the company evolving, and how will that impact the hospitality industry? HSMAI’s Marketing Advisory Board (MAB) discussed Google on a recent call. Here are some takeaways:
1. Organic Search Results
Though organic SEO is far from being dead, it has most certainly reached its peak value. The reality of Google is that organic results are continuing to appear lower in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP), and in some cases, they don’t appear until several pages into a search. What come up first are mainly paid placements, such as Google Ads or Google Hotel Ads, or other Google-owned assets, such as YouTube, Google News, Google Images, or answer boxes.
2. Google’s Ranking Algorithm
Google has continued to perfect its ranking algorithm. In the past, its updates were focused on closing loopholes that sites were exploiting to “game the system” and gain unfair rankings. For the most part, Google has overcome this problem and has spent the last five years iterating and improving upon its methodology to ensure that sites are ranking fairly based on merit. This really began with the rollout of Google’s machine learning component, RankBrain. What makes RankBrain unique is that it looks at things like an individual consumer’s behavior on a website and determines how much weight to give to that specific listing. This places an increased emphasis on the need for a blazing fast website and a frictionless UI.
3. Conversational Queries
As Google gears up to become the dominant player in Voice Search, it is investing heavily in the ability to better understand the context and the semantics of a consumer’s query. Last year, Google launched a new update to how they interpret a keyword search. Google named the update Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, more commonly referred to as BERT. This is a neural network-based technique for natural language processing. It can be used to help Google better discern the context of words in search and will lead to content publisher changing how they structure their written content. Ultimately, we will see a shift away from keyword targeting and a move towards richer, more conversational content.
When a user asks a question to Google — for example, “Is the Metropolitan Hotel Pet Friendly?” — instead of taking them to a separate page with the answer, the answer appears automatically with the source, so the user doesn’t have to click through to a separate website. More than half of all searches on Google now result in zero-click, meaning no one clicks on anything. They get the answer they want right from the search engine. Of the clicks that do occur, about 14 percent are going to a Google asset such as YouTube or Google Images. This is another part of Google’s voice strategy, as the answer box results will likely become the primary response to voice queries. The company believes strongly that voice is going to be the future of how people interact with computers
5. Impact on hospitality
Google’s plan is to tackle specific industries and change the experience to better cater to the consumer. As a consumer, that’s great, but for someone in the industry, it might be a concern. The restaurant industry is one area where the implications may be different for companies like Yelp or TripAdvisor, for example, as Google is a key source for that sort of information.
With regard to travel, Google is trying to make a better planning experience, which could be problematic for OTAs. There has been a significant drop in stock for Expedia and TripAdvisor in the last few months because of the fear of what’s happening. However, that’s not happening on the hotel side, where companies are seeing an opportunity to increase branding and trying to get more direct consumers by bypassing Google.
6. Discussion questions
MAB members answered several questions via a live poll near the end of the call. When asked how they see Google’s current direction, 57 percent of respondents said they see it as both a threat and an opportunity, while 14 percent said they see it as just a threat, 14 percent see it as just an opportunity, and 14 percent are unsure. In the next 12 months, 54 percent of respondents said they plan to spend more with Google than last year, while 31 percent plan to spend the same as last year and 15 percent plan to spend less than last year. “We had a large budget for bidding on search terms,” said one respondent whose company plans to spend less next year, “and I think we’re focusing more on building our organic brand this year.”
When asked what strategic or tactical adjustments MAB members were making to their marketing efforts as a result of Google’s changes, the answers were varied. One member said they planned to focus on Google Hotels and Google Reviews, another said they would focus on voice optimization, and another said they planned to invest in organic rank and focus on YouTube instead of similar non-Google-owned platforms. Two members said they planned to add FAQs to all pages. Another said they planned to create a new website guided by some of the changes, and add more relevant content, and rebudget.