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This article is from the upcoming Fall 2004 issue of Hospitality Upgrade magazine.To view more articles covering technology for the hospitality industry please visit the Hospitality Upgrade Web site or to request a free publication please call 678-802-5307 or e-mail.
by Dr. Matthew Dunn, August 2004

Go to your favorite search page and query on “New York hotels.” Scan the results.  Is your hotel (owned or favored) on the list?   How high up?  Whether you own a hotel in New York or not, if you get customers through the Web, read on.

On the surface, the biggest IPO of the year — Google — has little to do with hotels and hospitality. Google and other search engines help people find Web page data. But Google is a viable $2 billion public offering because search is a business.  Let me put it more controversially —­­ Web search is becoming a business channel.

Consider these statements:

  • “More than 90 percent of visitors now reach Web sites through search engines, rather than typing in the URL.” (Sally Falkow, quoted on BTB Online)
  • Less than 20 million hours a month are racked up in Web searches (Neilsen/Netratings)
  • “Hotels” routinely ranks among the top-few-hundred terms searched on the general-purpose engines.
  • Google alone responds to over 100,000 queries per day for the term “hotel” alone, not including variations like “hotel in.”
These suggest the emerging reality of search:  if customers don’t find your site, they won’t find you. If they don’t find you, they’ll likely book elsewhere.

In broad strokes, Web search works like this:

  • Bits of Web site content are read by automated programs—labeled ‘spiders’, ‘crawlers’, ‘bots’ and other appetizing things.
  • These bits are analyzed and correlated (continuously) to produce an index of the Web
  • People inquire about specific words or phrases
  • Search engines return matching results, ordered in some meaningful way
It’s anything but that straightforward, of course.  What does ‘matching’ mean? How do bits from different sites relate to one another?  And most importantly (from a business perspective) what determines the order of results?

Order of search results is a business issue because people act on what they see.  If your site link does not show up in the first 10 to 20 “returns” from a search, potential customers will probably find a satisfactory alternative within the first page or two.  So if you do have a hotel in New York (or elsewhere), and a Web presence, and you can’t be found in a reasonable search, you should look into search engine optimization (SEO).

SEO is a relatively young niche industry, sprung into existence by the popularity of search coupled with its immaturity. The Web wasn’t designed around search engines, and search engines’ spiders and indices handle Web content in divergent and mysterious ways. It’s a perfect cottage industry for consultants and startups; knowledge of search engines and rankings is a valuable commodity.  What this cottage industry realizes is that search results drive business.

Before delving into the SEO world further, it’s important to understand how SEO fits in with the world of paid advertising on the Web. There are companies that provide search services and sell ads.  Your search on “New York hotels” would likely turn up one set of pages in search results, and another in sponsored results or banner ads.  Consumers are astute about the difference, though. In general, paid-for links do not have the same effect as high search rankings.  If you have concentrated your search engine investment solely on paid-for links, you’ve missed out on more than 75 percent of your potential search engine traffic.  That’s a lot of beds that never got booked.

What might a search engine optimization company do for you? Within their niche, the more successful (and mature) SEO companies provide assistance with the range of issues that affect your search rankings. These include:

  • Validating the HTML structures in your critical search pages. (Spiders are fussy)
  • Managing the key content tags (e.g. <meta keywords>) which affect search result ranking
  • Managing the submission processes that make search engines ‘aware’ of your site
Some of these look to be straightforward technical tasks — things your Webmaster should handle. For several reasons, they’re not.

The search-engine phenomenon has evolved rapidly, and each of the major search engines has its own quirks and sensitivities.  The raison d’etre of the SEO industry is to stay abreast of the evolution of the search engines, and bring that knowledge to bear on their clients’ sites. Balancing the marketing strategies of your company against the idiosyncrasies of the search engines is an ongoing task, made trickier still by changes in consumer behavior.

If those factors weren’t complicated enough, the Web itself is a dynamic construct, with 10 million new pages every day. The search engine companies themselves are cranking out innovations as rapidly as possible to keep up with their mission. Case in point: Google (by far the largest engine) updated the method by which it calculates page rank some months ago. The rankings of many companies in key search results changed overnight — causing, no doubt, both consternation and billable hours in the SEO business.

Looking at search engine optimization companies is kind of refreshing, in a way; they have the feel of the Web companies from a decade ago.  There are grandiose claims, secret formulas, outsized egos and exorbitant rates — hyper-lubricated by their own profession.  (How do you keep secrets in the search business? Interesting paradox.)

Should you invest in search engine optimization? That’s not a question to be answered in an article, of course, but it is reasonable to urge you to understand the search engine channel and its effect (actual and potential) on your business.  Are you getting business because you’re getting found?  Are you missing business because you can’t be found? The answer to both is likely ‘Yes’; optimization has the potential to change the ratio between them.

How do you go about choosing the right SEO partner?  Well, hopefully most of us learned a bit about hype-deflation in the last few years. Evaluate SEO partners as you would others. Look at the company, people and mission; force quantification and validation of everything; delve into references.

Let me go out on a bit of a critical limb, though, based on experience.  While consulting on search optimization may have short-term value, it isn’t a long-range solution. The environment is too dynamic; the adjustments required to manage rankings, too arduous and repetitive for hand-crafted solutions. Manual search optimization makes about as much sense as coding Web pages by hand.  The firms most likely to stay the course here, in my opinion, are those that provide a customized-but-automated solution, based on SEO expertise, rather than continual, expensive advice.  One firm worth pointing out here, Metamend, is the only one that appears to combine set-and-forget SEO services with a hotel focus. Try their freebie optimization test to get a snapshot of your SEO opportunity at http://hotels.metamend.com/.

Search is a young and raw phenomenon, an evolution necessary to make the overwhelming Web accessible.  It seems unfair that only the top 10 to 20 rankings matter, but it’s also natural.  Our customers are overwhelmed with choices, and will take the most accessible route to meet their needs. They’ll act on what they see—perhaps even more than what they remember, despite our attempts to make them brand loyal.  Search results are the brand of the Web.

An in-depth white paper titled “6 Steps to Search Engine Bookings” is available at  http://www.socratech.com/whitepapers/.

Dr. Matthew Dunn is principal of Socratech, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in Internet strategy for hospitality and other industries. He can be reached at 360-543-7914 or matthew@socratech.com.

 ###

©Hospitality Upgrade, 2004. No reproduction or transmission without written permission.

Contact:

Geneva Rinehart
Managing Editor
Hospitality Upgrade magazine 
and the Hospitality Upgrade.com website
http://www.hospitalityupgrade.com
grinehart@hospitalityupgrade.com
.
 
Also See: Instant Messaging: Age Is Everything - Expectations of Immediacy, Productivy and the Rise of IM / Elizabeth L. Ivey / August 2004
Baby It's Cold Outside the Firewall / Michael Schubach / April 2004
High Wired: The Hotel Room of the Future / Kelly Stanford / April 2004
We're Not In Kansas Anymore; Differentiating your hotel through technology / Mark Haley / January 2004
Understanding the Power of Customer Relationship Management / Neil Holm / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / November 2003
The Case for Self Service in Hospitality / Marvin Erdly and Amitava Chatterjee / Hospitality Upgrade
Magazine / October 2003
Five Questions to Ask Online Distributors / Michelle Peluso / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / October 2003
Surf's Up - Internet Marketing for Destination Properties / Marvin Erdly and Amitava Chatterjee / Debra Kristopson / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / October 2003
Wireless Changes Everything; So, do ya want a latte with that or what? / Jocelyn Valley / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / June 2003
Customer Awareness or Customer Beware? Data Security in a CRM-Obsessed Industry / Elizabeth Ivey / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / June 2003
Your Magnificent Selling Machine Would you Prefer Your Hotel to Get: the Web Hit or the Phone Call? / Robert Camastro / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / June 2003
Tradeshows & Economic Soldiers / Dan Phillips / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / April 2003
Hotel Telecommunications in the 21st Century / Geoff Griswold / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / March 2003
The ABCs of CRM  / Mark Haley & Bill Watson / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / March 2003
Getting the Most out of Your IT Investment / By: Clay B. Dickinson / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Fall 2002
The Role of Paper in a Digital World / By: Bill Fitzpatrick / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Fall 2002
The Rotten Pineapple (international symbol of hospitality) / By: Steve D'Erasmo / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Fall  2002
Focusing on Labor Can Improve More Than Just Cost / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Summer 2002
Attention Hotels - An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure / Elizabeth Lauer Ivey / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / May 2002 
HOSTEC - EURHOTEC 2002 - Room for Improvement / Christel Dietzsch / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Feb 2002 
Technology and the Human Touch / Dan Phillips / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Spring 2002
Wireless Technology:  Where We Have Been, Where Are we Going? / Geneva Rinehart / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Spring 2002
Effective Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Implementations / John Schweisberger and Amitava Chatterjee, CHTP / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Fall 2001 
What's Up With Call Accounting Systems (CAS) / Dan Phillips / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Fall 2001
Technology Dilemmas: What have IT investments done for you lately? / Elizabeth Lauer / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Summer 2001
Full Circle from Centralized to ASP - The Resurrection of Old Themes and a Payment Solution / Gary Eng / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Summer 2001 
A High Roller in the Game of System Integration / Elizabeth Lauer / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Spring 2001 
CAVEAT EMPTOR! Simple Steps to Selecting an E-procurement Solution / Mark Haley / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Spring 2001 
Your Bartender is Jessie James and He Needs to Pay for College / Beverly McCay / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Fall 2000 
Choosing a Reservation Representation Company / John Burns / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Spring 2001 
Understanding and Maximizing a Hotel’s Electronic Distribution Options / by John Burns / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Fall 2000 
The Future of Electronic Payments - From Paper to Plastic and Beyond / J. David Oder /  Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Summer 2000
Timeshare Technology Steps Up / by Elizabeth Lauer / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / July 2000 
Biometric Payment: The New Age of Currency / by Geneva Rinehart / Hospitality Upgrade Magazine / Mar 2000 


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