On March 16, 2015, Google announced another update to its ranking algorithm. Like many of these updates, the search behemoth set its crosshairs on one of the many forms of webspam known to plague search results: doorway pages. Rest assured, this is a good thing. Doorway pages clutter search results with worthless, low content web pages and should be removed. There was no question that Google’s doorway page update was unleashed with noble intent. And, in fact, most scrupulous digital marketers welcome this kind of spam cleansing by search engines. Many a ne'er-do-well of the SEO world, on the other hand, use tactics like doorway pages to game the search engines and get higher rankings. It's those sites that are the target of Google’s update.

The Doorway Dilemma

Nevertheless, confusion and controversy arose when legitimate business owners across the globe attempted to understand exactly what Google considers to be a doorway page. Google gave some basic guidelines and even gave their definition of this offending content, but it was still difficult to say where the fine line was drawn between doorway pages and legitimate content, like, say, landing pages. In the past, Google has occasionally been pretty heavy handed in its updates, and unfortunately legitimate websites of many a business had been struck down by Google’s aggressive execution of that update--collateral damage in the search engine’s quest for a cleaner web. And now with the doorway page update, many site owners--still reeling from the aftermath of similar updates in the past--worry that the Sword of Damocles once again sways ever-so precariously above their domain.

Hotel Brands React To the Google Update

It wasn’t long before many large hotel brands caught wind of this update. Most brands reacted calmly, realizing that it was prudent to keep an eye on the impact of this update, but premature to make any assumptions about what Google may or may not deem a doorway page. One major brand, on the other hand, went into panic mode. "What if Google sees our secondary, independent hotel websites as nothing more than a doorway page to the hotel’s official brand website!" the brand exclaimed, wringing their hands in nervous anticipation. For hotels within that brand, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Soon, a great panic had swept across the hotel brand, the impending doom of Google placing a pox on their pure brand rankings. The brand saw this update as a zombie bite and feared that soon the infection of poor Google rankings may spread from hotel to hotel within the brand like the plague of the undead. So, in response, just as any sensible person would do with an extremity that suffers a zombie bite, the hotel brand decided to sever their seemingly diseased independent website limbs in order to save their official brand website body. Their thought being that by removing the independent websites from the web, Google would no longer penalize the brand for being infected with these alleged doorway pages. Problem solved, right?

Zombie Bite

Of course, on the other hand (literally speaking, assuming said anti-zombification measures were taken), if the limb wasn’t really plagued with the infection, then you’ve clearly just lost a perfectly functional and valuable appendage for no good reason. Case in point, many of these independent hotel websites produce approximately 20% of the property's total online reservations. Hopefully this hotel brand has some good first aid training, because there will be a lot of blood lost when it needlessly removes those revenue-producing independent site limbs.

While this particular brand has already made its decision based on specious evidence, the ultimate question is: Will Google penalize the website of a hotel or its parent brand for marketing a secondary, independent website in addition to the official brand website? First, it helps to understand what Google classifies as a doorway page.

Google's Definition of Doorway Pages

In typical Google fashion, the definition of a doorway page has been about as clear as a photo of the Loch Ness Monster. Most people know that Nessie is supposed to be interpreted as some sort of aquatic dinosaur, but both mythological creature experts and laypeople alike still argue over whether the creature in the photo is really just a goose, a stick, a smudge on the film...or, hell, maybe it is a dinosaur! Google tried to help clarify its assessment of doorway pages by offering up five questions a webmaster should ask themselves in order to determine if their site would be affected by this update, and we'll address those questions as they pertain to the hotels' independent websites a little further down in this post. But ultimately, even with those supposedly clarifying questions, most of us are still left wondering whether Google will see these sites as a goose or a dinosaur or a smudge.

Loch Ness Doorway Page

Google has defined doorway pages as pages that "maximize [the business’s] “search footprint” without adding clear, unique value." In other words, doorway pages are spam. They are cluttering up the search results with worthless content. They are not good for users, which means they are not good for Google. This update simply seeks to improve the quality of search results for Google’s users by ridding the search results of this content. Fortunately, the hotels' independent websites do offer clear, unique value beyond what that official brand site provides.

The Anatomy of the Common Doorway Page

The most obvious doorway pages just look like spam. Take the following page from CarGurus.com, for example. The only way this could be more spammy is if they were selling Hormel precooked meat products in little tin cans.

Still, you may be asking why this qualifies specifically as a doorway page instead of some other kind of other average, nondescript spam. Well, let’s say you live in Bismarck, ND, and would like to purchase a used car. Your first instinct might be to head to Google for a quick query on "Bismarck used cars." Before the recent Google update, running that query you’d likely stumble upon this page (also shown below).

Car Gurus

If you were to land on this page, I imagine your frustration levels just got dialed up a notch. Not only are you pissed at CarGurus for tricking you into visiting such a worthless webpage, but you’re a little miffed with your ol’ buddy Google for leading you astray in the first place! Why would Google even rank this page anyway? It's worthless to just about everybody! You were looking for a used car in Bismarck and all you got was this crummy page with no valuable content and a ton of links. Is Google punishing you? In addition, it looks like the links and other text on this page were purely written to target as many keywords as possible. Just look at it: Used Buick, Used Hyundai, Used Cadillac, Used Jeep, etc. It’s a who’s who of spammy used car keywords. Massive spam.

CarGurus’ goal was likely to rank this page for as many of these car-related keywords as possible and then funnel users back to more useful pages of its site. And that is why it’s considered a doorway page: it’s a spammy, low quality, keyword-focused page that serves as a doorway to more important pages on a site. It’s not a landing page. Landing pages contain content that is valuable to users of a website. Doorway pages (ahem...CarGurus page above) are not valuable.

Clearly this CarGurus page isn’t doing you any favors, so let’s see what happens when you click on the Used Toyota link on that page. Maybe that will get you to the used car info you are seeking.

Car Gurus

Son of a...just another spammy page with more keyword-laden links! "Why do I keep playing right into their game?!" you scream in frustration.

Finally, your patience nearly exhausted, tears welling in your eyes as you beg this site for mercy, you click on the phrase “Used Toyota Camry Bismark” and it actually takes you to a page that might be helpful.

Car Gurus

But in reality, I know if that were me conducting the search, I’d probably never even get to this page because my frustration dial has been cranked up to eleven long before this. Instead, I’ve now abandoned my search efforts to go add both Google and CarGurus to my Big Bad Blacklist of Businesses That Have Wronged Me, which includes the likes of Blockbuster (not a problem anymore--the blacklist works!), AT&T (how is it even possible that I can have crappy mobile phone service in a major metropolitan city like Chicago?!), and SunTrust Bank (why am I being forced to use Internet Explorer to access my bank info when it’s 2015? C’mon!).

Big Bad Blacklist of Companies

That foolish soul who did decide to brave doorway page after doorway page to finally get to actual content on CarGurus.com has now been reduced to a broken, shell of a human being, hunched in a corner of a dark room, arms wrapped tightly around their body, gently rocking back and forth.

That is the type of doorway page Google is trying to eliminate from its search results. It really rubs searchers the wrong way when they encounter useless search results like that. User frustration is then directed at Google for displaying crappy results in the first place. That's not good for Google. Google wants you to like them. They make more money through advertising when you like them and use their services. Hence, the Google doorway page update.

Will My Hotel's Independent Website Face Google's Wrath?

No. Well, not due to the Doorway Page update anyway. If your site is built in a search engine friendly way and provides valuable content to its visitors, then you should be totally in the clear. And most major hotel brands see it that way too. Unfortunately for some hotels, one major hotel brand has never really supported their franchisee hotels investing in these independent websites, and in some instances, has even taken measures to discourage such sites. Cue Google’s Doorway Page Update--the perfect guise under which to terminate independent sites once and for all.

Why does this brand oppose independent sites? Well, it’s a tale of two websites, both serving the same hotel: one website that’s officially sanctioned by the hotel’s parent brand, and one in which individual hotels invest to better market their specific property beyond the capabilities of the brand site. The questions is: will Google view one of these two sites as a doorway page since they both promote the same product?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at how these two sites function.

The Limitations of the Official Brand Website

The first site we’ll look at is the official brand website, hosted on the brand’s official domain, like Marriott.com, Hilton.com, or Hyatt.com, to name a few. This is the site that is fully authorized, endorsed, and supported by the brand. It adheres to brand standards, allows guests to book their room directly within the site, and creates a consistent user experience across all hotels in the brand. Regardless of whether a guest is looking for a hotel in Honolulu, New York, Bangkok, or Paris, every single hotel’s site is identical in form and function. Each individual hotel property in the brand exists as but a subsection of the greater Hilton.com or Marriott.com website. Only the copywriting and photos change as you browse from hotel to hotel.

Furthermore, many official brand websites are limited in scope as well. In fact, many of the individual property website templates simply don’t allow for the creation of new webpages beyond the standard hotel web page fare like guest room and dining pages. If the brand sites allowed for more robust and flexible content, hotels would likely not need to invest in a separate, independent platform to fulfill their marketing needs. Blue Magnet has always felt that the ideal situation is marketing one website rather than two; however, in light of the limitations of the brand site, the supplementary independent site is the only way to acheive the full marketing potential that many hotels need.

Can you spot the differences in these websites? 

The Opportunities Available Through the Independent Websites

The second site, on the other hand, provides a much more flexible marketing opportunity for many hotels. It goes by many names--independent website, vanity site, microsite, standalone site, etc--but the purpose is the same: expand the hotel’s marketing opportunities beyond the limitations of the official brand website. By creating this secondary website--one that lives on its own domain, independent from the brand--many hotels are able to capitalize on rich, new, niche content, that would simply be unable to reside on the official brand website. The official brand site gives its visitors the basics: amenities, rooms, special offers, dining, and things to do pages--but the content is often sparse, limited by the restrictions of the brand's content management system. Conversely, the opportunities available through an independent website are limitless.

The official brand website describes the hotel in its most basic form. But travel is rarely just about where you hang your hat for the night. It’s about the city. It's about the experience. It’s about dining and attractions and exploration of a new town, with the hotel at the hub of it all. The independent site is that hub. It describes the hotel in great detail, and then takes it one step further to explain what you can do once you are a temporary denizen of this new destination. The independent site is the concierge of the hotel. It enhances the guest (and future guest) experience by explaining in rich detail how the hotel is connected to the rest of the city. The independent sites don’t existing simply for targeting keywords--that’s just a welcome byproduct of the content written for the future hotel guests. Instead, they sell the hotel as part of a greater, local experience. You don’t just sell Hyatt New York; you sell the Big Apple with the hotel at the core! You’re not just promoting Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa; you’re promoting the entire island of Maui! The independent sites do that, whereas most official brand websites fail to make that same impact.

Discover Walnut Creek Marriott

Fortunately, today’s digital marketing landscape goes far beyond the limitations of a business’s own website. There are countless channels and opportunities that savvy marketers may choose to integrate into their campaigns, and this multi-channel integration strategy is crucial to remaining competitive online. Just as your hotel should serve as the hub of your city, so should your website serve as the nexus of your online presence. Regardless of where hoteliers chooses to focus their marketing efforts, the website should tie all these elements together. For example, many hotels have recognized the importance of social media marketing for customer outreach, customer service, public relations, and general promotions. Those important social channels should then be integrated into the hotel’s website, so visitors may benefit from the seamless stream of information from these platforms. Rather than having each channel floating as its own island across the endless sea of web, the independent site has always served to anchor these kinds of complementary marketing together. Unfortunately, many official brand websites do not allow for this kind of flexibility, and as a result, the marketing efforts and supporting channels feel disjointed, distant, and ineffective.

The Consequences of Terminating Independent Websites

Most major hotel brands have reasonably deduced that their hotels’ independent websites simply do not fit Google’s definition of doorway pages. The sites provide unique content beyond what is offered on the brand sites. They see the benefit of these more flexibly marketing channels and they realize the revenue produced through these extra efforts. Unfortunately, at least one major brand has decided to terminate these independent sites against the wishes of its own franchisees.

The actions of that brand and justification for those actions seem shortsighted and disingenuous for the following reasons:

  1. Independent sites generate revenue for hotels: Most of the independent sites that Blue Magnet manages for hotels average to generate about 20% of the properties’ total online reservations. Are hotels prepared to see a drop in revenue? Even if hotels point their Google+ Local URL to the brand site instead of the independent site (which undoubtedly represents a significant chunk of traffic), there is still value in the additional incremental revenue produced outside of the hotel’s local listing.
  2. Arbitrary site evaluation criteria: Interestingly enough, this major hotel brand isn’t eliminating ALL independent sites. Instead, it’s selectively choosing which ones stay live and which are terminated. Some of their assessment is based on the revenue or reservations that an independent site produces. However, if that’s their criteria, it’s meaningless in Google’s interpretation of those sites as doorway pages. Regardless of whether an independent site is producing 90% of a hotel’s bookings or 2%, a doorway page is a doorway page. And Google will take an axe to either site if it feels either one is in violation. If this brand truly felt that independent sites were doorway pages, then all sites would be removed, instead of just cherry-picking the winners.

    Interestingly enough, this same major hotel brand did happen to provide an example of an independent site that has met the approval of the brand’s senior SEO leadership team. The hotel in question is a historic 4.5 star property in Manhattan. Its independent site that is being permitted a stay of execution is dedicated solely to a very focused niche: weddings. According to the brand, this singular focus, coupled with the assertion that this wedding information does not duplicate content that already exists on the brand site, is the reason this site does not violate Google’s Doorway Update policy. However, upon closer inspection, it seems that much of the wedding content that resides on the independent site also exists on the brand.com site as well. In fact, in my personal opinion, this independent wedding site for the hotel fits a more accurate description of a doorway page than any of the sites this brand has flagged for 301 redirects. Is it possible this hotel’s independent site just received a second lease on life due to its 4.5 star reputation?
  3. Franchisees have invested significantly in their independent sites: The major hotel brands have the final say in how their brand is represented by its hotels, after all the franchisees signed a franchise agreement. So if a hotel brand tells its franchisees that they have to destroy their new $10,000 independent website because studies have shown that viewing the site causes cancer in lab rats, the franchisees would still have to smile and comply. Unfortunately, many franchisees have seen the need to invest in their digital marketing way beyond what the official brand is able to provide, and so the shuttering of these independent sites is a significant blow to their marketing potential.
  4. Independent site traffic won’t automatically flow to Brand.com: Once the independent sites are destroyed, there seems to be a misconception that all traffic will simply flow back to the official brand site. As mentioned, independent sites tend to carry more more content and much richer information than the official brand sites. Eliminating that additional information means that those users will no longer find the hotel for relevant local area searches. All that opportunity for additional traffic will be lost.
  5. Terminating sites creates poor user experience: The brand even recommends 301 redirecting the independent site domain to the official brand site. The 301 redirect is code that essentially sends a visitor to the offical brand website even though the user thinks they are clicking on a link to the independent website to the brand site. Basically, the user thinks they’re clicking on IndependentHotelSite.com, but they’re actually being taken to OfficialBrandSite.com.

    The problem with this theory is that the independent sites have significantly more content than most official brand websites. Let’s say a potential guest is searching for a hotel in Chicago. In their search they come across a landing page for Navy Pier on your hotel’s independent site. Unfortunately, the major hotel brand has 301 redirected all the pages of the independent site to the brand site. This means that when the user clicks on the hotel’s former Navy Pier page, they are instead taken directly to the homepage of that hotel’s official brand website. No Navy Pier content exists there. The searcher, not seeing any of the Navy Pier content they thought they had clicked upon, decides to leave the site completely and try a new search. Another lost piece of business that may have otherwise been claimed by the independent site.
  6. The impact won’t be immediate: The 301 redirect is a way to signal to the search engines that a web page has permanently moved. In this case, it’s telling Google that the hotels' independent sites have permanently moved to the official brand site. Once Google picks up this signal, it will drop all records of the independent site from its search results. At that point, the pages of the brand site will be the only ones found in Google. Once the independent site pages are eliminated, some of the traffic and revenue they once produced for the hotel will be gone too.
  7. Poor mobile experience on brand site: Currently, one major hotel brand has a single web page to represent the entire hotel website on a mobile device.  In contrast, the responsive independent websites that Blue Magnet creates provide the exact same, rich content on mobile devices that visitors would find on desktop computers.  On these responsive sites, the visitor encounters a consistent, robust experience regardless of the device used to view the hotel's website.  Unfortunately, the brand's official mobile site is unable to offer more than a single summary page for the hotel at this time. This means that any user who arrives at the official brand site from any other page within the site--be it the dining page, local attractions page, or weddings page--will end up being redirected to the summary homepage when visiting the site on a mobile device. This isn't great for customer usability. Don't expect your potential guests to stick around long if they thought they were clicking on a wedding venue page but were instead taken to a general hotel homepage without a single mention of weddings.

    brand mobile site vs independent mobile site
  8. Loss of indirect revenue and customer service: Often, the value of any hotel's website--be it brand site or independent site--is measured in bookings that it produces. The hotel reviews how much revenue is produced through the booking engine and it's clear whether or not there is value in that online platform. However, this doesn't factor in other benefits of the site.  As one hotel's DOS put it: "If [the brand decision makers are] only focusing on revenue that the Independent Site is bringing in then they are missing the big picture. The amount of leads we receive from our Independent Site is astounding and these are the types of things Brand doesn't consider." In addition to lead generation, this hotelier also identifies the customer service need that the independent site fulfills:"I get several contact form submissions daily asking whether we have dvd players etc. This adds a lot of value for the user." Unfortunately, the brand does not consider the added value of lead generation nor do they see the customer service role that these independent sites can play. These elements are greatly reduced or eliminated altogether once the brand eliminates the independent sites.

Input from Other Search Experts

Many concerned hoteliers have reached out to the SEO community for answers. Google won’t give a clear answer, but what about other industry experts? What do they say?

One hotelier that is part of a third party management company posted a query on the Moz Q&A Forum. Moz is one of the most well-respected resources for all things SEO. He asked:

I work for a large 3rd party management company and we use vanity websites to help us market our hotels. They provide us the ability to better manage our content as well as provide value to our customers versus the brand site. An example would be

[Vanity]
[Brand.com]

Based on my reading of Google's guidelines I am concerned that our vanity site may be interpreted as such. Please advise if this is the case.

SEO consultant Alan Bleiweiss replied:

If a "vanity" web site is high quality, offers unique content, and that content is relevant to the specific search queries most accurate to the content provided on that site, it's a perfectly valid site.

The same question about vanity sites and doorway pages was also posed on Google’s Webmaster Central Help Forum. In response, user ets writes:

Those aren't doorways, no. There's nothing deceptive or manipulative that I can see. An example of doorways is when you have a website with 200 pages on it, all of which have the same basic text but with place names switched out on each page ("Find a taxi in London"/"Find a taxi in New York City"). The pages are designed to rank separately, catch keyword searches, but funnel all the traffic to one destination.

Furthermore, that response provided by commenter ets was marked as “best answer” in the forum by Google employee Eric Kuan, who is a member of the company’s Search Quality Team.

Even Blue Magnet’s competitors at HeBS Digital have composed an argument for why hotels should not be concerned about their independent websites being classified as doorway pages, highlighting one major hotel brand’s attempt to use “this new Google Doorway Algorithm Update to try and discourage its franchisees from operating vanity websites.”

In fact, HeBS Digital sums up that hotel brand’s impetus for this decision perfectly:

“This attempt is nothing new for this major brand. The brand has devised a new strategy every several years to dissuade its own franchisees from undertaking valuable digital marketing efforts. Despite its best efforts, neither the brand – nor any major brand – has succeeded in shutting its franchisees out of this valuable revenue stream. These tactics haven’t worked in the past, and there remains no reason for branded and franchised hotels to be intimidated in the present.”

Eeny Meeny Miny Moe

In response to Google’s doorway page update, one hotel brand has established somewhat arbitrary criteria to determine the fate of each hotel’s independent website. Some independent sites will be allowed to live, while others must die, to allegedly save the brand from Google's wrath.

Just enforcing the rules

Specifically, the criteria the brand uses to determine the value of the independent websites focuses on two areas:

  • the independent site’s organic search visibility in relation to brand.com
  • the independent site’s percent reservation contribution to the hotel's total digital direct reservations

But if this major hotel brand has determined that any secondary website is a doorway page, then why does it matter whether the site has organic search visibility? Surely even the few independent sites that have been given brand approval still appear for at least some of the same search queries as their brand site counterpart. Why did they make the cut? And who cares how many reservations the independent site drives? If this brand considers any independent site a doorway page, then it would be considered a doorway page regardless of how beneficial the site is for the brand.

This arbitrary criteria and odd logic make it seem as though this evaluation is aimed at snuffing out independent sites the brand doesn’t like rather than staying true to any Google quality guidelines. Hotel franchisees have long struggled with restrictive brand marketing policies and have often bumped heads on issues like independent sites, which are beyond the brand’s capacity to fully monitor and control. While franchisees still need to abide by brand marketing and trademark standards, severing franchisees from an entire marketing outlet seems like overkill.

In the end, these franchisee hotels have entered into agreements with their parent brands, and, therefore, the hotels are bound to the terms of those contracts, including any policies concerning independent sites (if there are any). But whether there exists a policy that specifically addresses these sites or not, the question remains: why would any brand want to shut down a marketing channel for its hotels that is only serving to supplement the marketing of its official brand website? 

How To Tell If You're Dealing with a Doorway Page

Hotels’ independent websites are not considered doorway pages--not based on Google’s definition, nor based on Blue Magnet’s understanding of the update. If you still don’t believe me, let’s see how these independent websites stack up against Google’s own questions to test whether or not a site has been masquerading as a doorway page.

  • Official Google Question #1: Is the purpose to optimize for search engines and funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site, or are they an integral part of your site’s user experience?
  • Blue Magnet Response: In most cases, the independent websites provide a much better user experience than the official brand site: greater opportunity for local area content, richer detail, better functionality, and a better mobile experience. The independent sites do not exist solely to funnel traffic to other content on the brand site. The only time users leave the independent site is to book their room, which typically must be done through the brand’s official booking engine. Other than that, the sites exist as independent entities.

  • Official Google Question #2: Are the pages intended to rank on generic terms yet the content presented on the page is very specific?
  • Blue Magnet Response: Our independent sites are optimized for keywords specific to the hotel, as well as outlets and events related to to the property. Because the hotel is a local business, the content is often geographically targeted to the property’s specific location. Pages are never created to simply rank for generic terms. Our content is specific and relevant to the users of the hotel’s independent website.

  • Official Google Question #3: Do the pages duplicate useful aggregations of items (locations, products, etc.) that already exist on the site for the purpose of capturing more search traffic?
  • Blue Magnet Response: The independent site is not simply a duplicate of the official brand site. Yes, both sites provide information on the same product. Many sites have pages dedicated to this same hotel product too. Just look at any hotel page on Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz, TheKnot.com, or any other site that promotes these hotels. It would be ridiculous for Google to consider all those sites doorway pages. Yes, some information will be similar because the same product is being marketed via different channels, but good marketing isn’t reliant upon a single channel. These independent sites do not just duplicate the content of the brand website. The independent website provides a much better user experience, through more valuable content, better functionality and navigation, and greater variety of relevant information. We build sites for users, not search engines.

  • Official Google Question #4: Are these pages made solely for drawing affiliate traffic and sending users along without creating unique value in content or functionality?
  • Blue Magnet Response: Nope. Not even close.

  • Official Google Question #5: Do these pages exist as an “island?” Are they difficult or impossible to navigate to from other parts of your site? Are links to such pages from other pages within the site or network of sites created just for search engines?
  • Blue Magnet Response: The pages of our independent site never exist as “islands.” The web pages of the independent site all work together to form a comprehensive hotel experience almost entirely self-contained within the site. Each page provides useful content and interlinks naturally with other pages within the site. The only reason a visitor to the independent site would ever leave that domain is to book a room, which must be done through the brand’s official website. If hotels were able to employ a separate booking engine entirely, then the official brand website would become completely unnecessary.

Despite the clear marketing value that many franchise hotels see in their independent website, certain brands are now hamstringing their hotels' opportunities under the guise of compliance with Google quality guidelines. These independent sites are not doorway pages. Instead, they offer a flexible platform that allows for ever-expanding, relevant content, immediate updates, local information, promotional opportunities, hotel personalization, and incremental revenue. Even if the brands feel these independent sites are providing very little return on the hotels' investment, the fact that there still is at least some incremental return means that these sites are still beneficial to the hotel's marketing efforts.

The Google Mind Reading Game

Every single Google update is wrapped in at least a little fog of ambiguity, including the doorway page update. There are no clear cut answers from the search giant. And that's ok, because if Google ever gave an exact formula for how it determines the winners and losers in its rankings, spammers would make full use of that information to game the search engine results for their financial gain. The best way to approach an analysis of a site to determine if it meets Google's Web Quality Guidelines is just to simply assess whether the site would be valuable to you as a consumer.  If you were conducting research for an upcoming vacation and you arrived at an independent hotel website, would you feel like you got the information you were seeking? Or would you feel deceived? Is there rich, quality content? Or is the content pretty sparse and worthless? Most hotel independent sites are capable of providing more valuable content than their brand website counterparts, so why would Google consider penalizing those sites? The good news is, it won't.

Google's spam policies, when aggregated together and reduced to their simplest form, are really just the Golden Rule that you learned back in grade school: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In webspeak: build websites for others as you would have others build them for you. No one likes to visit or navigate crappy websites. Google wants us to pay it forward and simply build good websites for others. If businesses follow that one simple rule, they're be in the clear for not only this doorway page update, but just about any Google update that comes along.

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Put on your party hats and crank up the jams! Blue Magnet Interactive just turned eight! We’re super excited about our birthday, and like any eight year old, we can’t wait to celebrate (we really hope there’s cake). We are extremely proud of our team and of our accomplishments over the years.

Happy 8th Birthday, Blue Magnet Interactive!

…Come to think of it, Blue Magnet pretty much is an eight year old - a big, weird eight year old. Consider it. The company is experiencing a growth spurt, adding team members and clients on a regular basis. Internal improvements display heightened awareness, organization, and maturity. Blue Magnet’s commitment to ongoing training and education fosters the skills and knowledge to achieve excellence every day. And, as always, Blue Magnet plays well with others. Baller’s Ballers tee-ball league, anyone?

Look at me. I’m rambling again.

To commemorate our eighth birthday, our amazingly talented Executive Team has composed a series of reflections on why Blue Magnet Interactive is such a truly special place. We hope you enjoy.

Sharing Knowledge Fosters Better Teams & Stronger Partnerships ~ Matt Bitzer, CEO

There is a lot of darkness across the web. Unscrupulous marketers peddle snake-oil SEO solutions, digital deceptions, marketing myths, and pipe dreams of first place Google rankings, hoping to cloak the world of digital marketing in their debilitating haze of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. In my 8 years with Blue Magnet I’ve learned that education is a powerful guiding light against this sort of ignorance and misinformation, and I believe it’s one of the most important tools we currently provide to both our team and our client partners. We’ve always found that the more educated our partners are about our services and about the web in general, the better questions they ask, the more open they are to experimenting with new digital opportunities, the more engaged they are in their own success, and the better their campaigns perform overall. It doesn’t help anyone to lock this information away. In fact, we often share our knowledge freely across the web--as we do in this very blog--with the understanding that by cultivating a more knowledgeable community everyone wins. Not every client partner wants to know the intricate details of how we optimize a title tag, but understanding why we do it goes a long way in deciphering our efforts behind the scenes, thereby fostering the strong partnerships for which we have always strived.

That Blue Magnet Burning...No Need to See a Doctor, That's Just Our Passion ~ Chris Jones, CMO

I’ve come to realize that passion can breed greatness in every facet of what we do at Blue Magnet. The amazing team members of Blue Magnet Interactive have a unique spark which shines throughout all aspects of the company. Team members not only have passion for their individual accountabilities, but also for our company as a whole. Each day, our team members embody our mission statement, vision statement, and our company values. They have passion for this great industry, which is easily identified through their contributions to the Blue Magnet blog. They exhibit passion for our clients, which I see daily when I overhear monthly status calls. I express my passion every time I speak to a hotel interested in Blue Magnet services. I always make an effort to avoid coming across to a potential clients as “that sales guy.” Just last week I met with a hotel partner to discuss our company and how we can help achieve their marketing goals. I stopped at one point, and flat out asked if my excitement for Blue Magnet was perceived as salesy. His response: “No, what you just expressed was beautiful!”

You’re Only As Good As The Team Around You ~ Kim Amour, Executive Director of Services

I literally cannot say enough about the incredibly talented team I am lucky to surround myself with at Blue Magnet Interactive. In my near four years with the company, I have realized that all my successes and the successes of others have been accomplished with the support of fellow teammates. Our office is a collaborative workspace where everyone on the team is happy to join a last-minute brainstorming session, pitch in on a project to meet a deadline, or help find the answer to a client’s question asked on the spot. Our training program is on-going and constantly evolving, as our team is hungry to learn and become the most knowledgeable digital marketers in the industry. That being said, no one withholds their knowledge, but rather shares all findings, interesting articles, creative ideas, and constructive feedback so that everyone on the team is able to improve and do the best at their jobs. All of our successful campaign performances and superb client satisfaction are attributed to a collaborative team, each person accountable for his or her own responsibilities. Each month, we recognize the accomplishments of our team members and select a winner of the Blue Magneteer Award. It’s no secret that behind every victory is a supporting cast of remarkable, collaborative, brilliant team members.

It’s Nice to be Nice ~ Patrick McCarthy, Director of SEO

A drunk old Irishman named Gerry once told me, “It’s nice to be nice.” At the time, I thought he was just being a drunk old Irishman (which he most certainly was), but after working at Blue Magnet Interactive for over 3 years, I have realized that Gerry was not just drunk (although he was drunk…so drunk) - he was also right. I love what I do at Blue Magnet, but for me the single most important facet of the company is the simple and genuine niceness of everybody who works here. Our team members get along, treat each other with kindness and respect, and are always happy to help each other. The pure niceness of everybody at Blue Magnet is arguably our secret to success and is something that I believe every company could benefit from regardless of the industry. So the next time a drunk old Irishman gives you some words of wisdom, don’t immediately discount them; he might be right (but he probably won’t be. You should have heard the other stuff Gerry told me…).

Just Say No ~ Katharyn Vera, Director of Design & Development

As someone who loves a challenge and strives to accommodate the most unpredictable of requests, saying "yes" often has created many new, exciting opportunities. While this has certainly been the case in working at Blue Magnet Interactive over the past three years, I have also learned that carefully saying "no" is crucial in setting your company and team up for success. If the partnership isn't the right one or if the additional business will be burdensome to an already-busy team, then it may be time to gracefully say "no." No business is worth sacrificing excellence and balance, and when the right opportunities come along, you will know that they are right for your company. Best of all, you won’t have to say “no.”

My Eyes or Your Eyes - Sometimes You Just Need a Fresh Pair ~ Abby Heft, Director of Hospitality eMarketing

I love brainstorming. I love bouncing ideas back and forth. I love teamwork as much as the next gal, but at Blue Magnet Interactive I’ve learned to take it to a whole new level. What I’ve discovered over the past 3+ years is that better ideas come with an extra set of eyes. Every once in a while, a client gets so involved in providing excellent hospitality and maintaining his/her property that he/she overlooks unique perks that make the hotel truly special. The same goes for us Blue Magneteers. We may be looking at an idea through the lens of a technical SEO magician on any given day, but when sending it to our more creative workspace neighbor, the idea can really blossom.

Oh, You Have a Plan? Throw It in the Trash. ~ Stephanie Hilger, Director of Social Media

In the online marketing industry, things change as much as I change my clothes before I leave the house (read: a lot). While it is great to have a game plan, it is important to understand that it is okay to stray from that. Google routinely updates its algorithm, causing us to revise our SEO strategies accordingly. When new technology comes out, our websites must adapt. Do not even get me started on social media… Odds are, once you are used to Facebook’s layout, they will change it again. As soon as you are comfortable in Facebook’s Ads Manager interface, another update is made. New channels pop up out of the woodwork. Twitter incorporates new technology, and Pinterest adds analytics. The list of changes and updates to social media in 2014 alone was miles long. Working at Blue Magnet, I have learned that being able to adapt to clients’ needs--as well as whatever the internet throws my way on any given day--is an important skill to have. Our plans and processes are just a guideline for success, but welcoming change is what keeps our marketing efforts flexible and effective, and it’s what keeps things fun and exciting for our team.

We’re Not Perfect, and That’s Okay! ~ Kelsey Nupnau, Assistant Director of Accounts

One of the best parts about working at Blue Magnet Interactive is the fact that our team is not afraid to try new things. Whether we succeed or fail, we always build off of our experiences. The Blue Magnet environment is built for brainstorming sessions (we have a lot of them!) and encourages team members to test out new ideas; whether we’re creating a fun and crazy Facebook promotion or playing with a website to find new ways to enhance user experience, our team is full of creativity and ready to take on new challenges. There are a lot of online marketing companies that get stuck in the same day-to-day services, and often are afraid of thinking outside the box, fearing failure. Our team would not be as successful as it is today if we operated in that way, which is why we continue to challenge ourselves, try new things, and embrace failure as a new opportunity!

In Conclusion...

It’s only natural to step back and think, “Wow. Eight years. I can’t believe it.” Eight years is a long time, and Blue Magnet has come a long, long way, but really we’re just getting warmed up. Our company has grown up from two fresh-faced youths with a vision - instant messaging each other from the comfort of their apartments while crunching on Doritos - into one of the most trusted names in online hospitality marketing. Blue Magnet’s services have expanded and matured, even earning the company a cherished Outstanding Website Award in 2014. The company has moved, moved again, and expanded its offices. While faces have come and gone, our team continues to elevate our strategies and standards. Our portfolio of hospitality partners is ever-growing. Sometimes it’s hard to fathom how far we’ve come.

So it’s easy to think, “Eight years, I can’t believe it.” Well, buddy, you better believe it. When you consider the dedication, passion, comradery, talent, and quality of our team, there is no reason for disbelief. Blue Magnet’s collaborative, genuinely supportive, and deeply knowledgeable team embodies Blue Magnet’s core values and pushes the company forward every day. Eight years is no fluke. When you surround yourself with great people who really care, adjust with an ever-growing knowledge base, and have fun while doing it, you can get a whole lot done in eight years. Here’s to many more.

Happy Birthday Blue Magnet Interactive! Boom.

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In a previous blog post, my colleague drew a unique parallel between SEO and mowing the lawn, now I'd like to present to you why maintaining a Google+ Business Listing is like babysitting a toddler in a glass menagerie. Google is the toddler and your data are the adorable figurines that are on a low, easily accessible shelf and are twinkling in the sunlight. You tell the toddler not to touch them. You double check the locks on the display cases, and you keep a watchful eye as you try to distract the toddler with other games and tricks. And still, when you turn your back for a split second, the toddler has managed to open the case, remove the figurines, and wreak havoc! (Disclaimer: I love kids. This is not a commentary on tiny humans being the worst).

Let's step back for a minute and answer the question "What is a Google+ Business Listing?"

Your hotel's Google+ local listing, now called "Google My Business," is a one-stop shop to get your business information on Google Search, Google Maps, and Google+. It is of the utmost importance that businesses ensure their listing is active and up to date so your guests and customers are presented with correct information.

This is what Google My Business looks like in action:

callaway-google-lettered

A. Google+ Page is connected to your website in organic search results
B. Google Map pin is connected to your website in organic search, presenting searches with a quick view of your address and phone number
C. Your business displays in the Google Knowledge Graph

This information above also populates business listings in the new Google 3-Pack Display and through Google Map results.

How Does Incorrect Information Get to a Google My Business Listing?

Google’s mission is essentially to give searchers the most accurate data at any time. They created Google My Business so business owners have the option to input their correct business information and control how their business displays when users are searching for them on Google.

You may be thinking, “I updated my Google+ Local business listing last year, so Google already has all of my correct information. I guess this article isn’t for me after all.” WRONG. There are a number of reasons your business data could be incorrect on Google, without you even knowing it.

A quick peek at the Local Search Ecosystem from Moz shows that Google is being inundated with data from many outlets.

moz-local-search-ecosystem

Google sifts through all of this data (specifically looking at: Business Name, Address, Phone Number, and URL) and ultimately displays what it sees as the "official" business information. If a hotel has incorrect or differing information across any of these sites, this information could eventually make its way to Google. Not only does an incorrect phone number or address create a confusing and frustrating customer experience, but it also negatively affects your local SEO.

There was also a change behind the scenes at Google recently that could have affected your hotel listing on Google. They recently finished transferring the final group of listings from Google Local to the new Google My Business platform. This transfer caused some issues of old data rising from the dead, pages being marked as duplicates, or pages that were once verified and updated becoming unverified.

Hotel brands can sometimes throw a kink into this local search ecosystem as well, making the information confusing or inconsistent. For example, a brand could push out the brand 800-number instead of a hotel's local number. If that new phone number reaches Google, it would likely update that information on your hotel's Google+ listing. Like we mentioned before, this could lead to a negative customer experience if the guest is just looking to speak to your front desk and not the call center, but it also negatively affects SEO to have an inconsistent business name, address, phone number, or URL on the web.

Although it can be frustrating to have to continually check your Google+ Business listing, it is important to do so regularly so you can proactively take steps to update any incorrect information or fix any issues.

If you haven't checked your listing recently, go ahead and check it now….I'll wait….. If your Google+ Business listing displays incorrect information, read on.

Here are four tips to fix incorrect business information on your Google My Business Hotel Listing

Tip #1 - Check Your Verified Account Listing

If you have incorrect information displaying on your listing, login to your Google+ Business Manager account and check your business information. If something is incorrect, edit it and save. It could take a couple of days for the information to go live on your public listing, so set a reminder to check again in a few days.

Is the information correct in your account, but still displaying incorrectly on your public Google+ Business listing? Jump to Tip #2.

Is there a message about your listing being de-activated or marked as a duplicate? Jump to Tip #3.

Tip #2 - Update Your Business Information in Google Map Maker

Google Map Maker is a wonderful and under-utilized tool for businesses and marketers. It allows users to add and update geographic or business information, which is then reviewed by Google Listings Editors. It's important that you use the same Google account for all of your Map Maker edits as your credibility grows the more your edits are approved.

If your hotel has incorrect information on your live Google+ Business page but correct data in your verified account, check your Map Maker data. Follow the steps below to make edits:

  • Search for your hotel at google.com/mapmaker
  • Click "Edit" below your business listing
  • Select "Edit this place" from the drop-down menu
  • Submit changes to your business information

google-mapmaker-edit

Is your business information correct in Map Maker or are your edits being denied? I invite you to join me at Tip #3.

Tip #3 - Contact Google Local Help

Google has actually ramped up their help team over the past year. Gone are the days of help tickets going unanswered for months or being ignored altogether. You can either email or call Google Support, and they're actually very helpful! This is the best option if your listing has magically become unverified or if there is data that you can't seem to get updated.

Did you work with Google Local Support and are still having issues with bad data on your listings? My friend, you have one option left…..on to Tip #4!

Tip #4 - Do a Major Local Listing Audit

Typically bad data shows up on a listing because that data exists somewhere out there on the internet. When a hotel partners with Blue Magnet Interactive for SEO services, we begin by performing a full local listing audit. This ensures that all the major data aggregators (anywhere from Acxiom to Yelp) are claimed, updated, and consistent. This grueling, often mundane task is crucial to the success of your hotel. As seen in the local search ecosystem matrix above, it is very easy for incorrect information on one local listing to spread through the tangled web of listings like wildfire. Soon enough, your hotel will have incorrect information listed everywhere.

If you regularly have issues with your Google+ Business Page, complete a major local listing audit and make any necessary updates across the web. Check all listings for accuracy and consistency on things like:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Phone
  • Website
  • Categories
  • Descriptions
  • Photography

If your information is correct and consistent across the web, chances are it will stay correct on Google. If there is one rogue YellowPages.com listing with an incorrect phone number - Google could once again prove to be the metaphorical toddler in the glass menagerie and overwrite your correct Google My Business information.

In Summary

Hopefully, these four tips will help you navigate any Google+ Business issue you run into. If you've never done a full local listing audit, you're in for a real treat. But we promise, the payout is well worth the effort. Guests will be able to find correct information about your hotel and easily book a room.

If you're still continuing to have issues after following the four steps above, then I'd like to chat. At Blue Magnet, we love Google. We (well, I'll speak for myself) love cleaning up bad data through local listings, and I'd love to get your Google+ Business listing in tip top shape.

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Recently, Blue Magnet Interactive attended a Webinar hosted by Leonardo titled Big, Bold, Visual: What You Need to Know About Hotel Marketing in 2015. All of us at Blue Magnet Interactive have a passion for using our digital marketing expertise to assist our hotel partners. We develop a strategy and focus our marketing efforts to ultimately drive revenue and engagement for our clients, whether through organic search, paid advertising, or social media. Keeping up with marketing trends is valuable not only for our own knowledge but also for executing innovative and successful strategies on behalf of the hotels we work with.

The webinar speakers included Darlene Rondeau, Vice President of Best Practices and Online Merchandising at Leonardo; Tim Peter, Digital Marketing and E-commerce Expert & President; and Christine Beuchert, Senior Director, Marketing and Ecommerce Strategy at Marcus Hotels. They discussed the most anticipated marketing trends for 2015 which include:

  • Visual storytelling in the online shopping journey
  • Rise of content marketing
  • Power of video for a hotel's bottom line
  • Multi-screen, multi device connectivity

The webinar presented a range of valuable information, so I have highlighted three takeaways to serve as the keys to your hotel's marketing kingdom in 2015.

1. Content is King

Improving hotel websites and creating a content marketing strategy tend to be the main concerns among hotel marketers. That being said, it is extremely important for your hotel website to tell a story that cuts through the clutter and is consistent across all platforms. If your hotel has an idea of what your brand experience is and it does not align with your guests' view of what your brand is, then you are not executing your content strategy successfully. Combat the trend of declining organic search traffic by telling an awesome story about your hotel.

Great content leads to product differentiation, more inbound links to your website, and engaged customers. Make your hotel's independent website engaging, decrease its bounce rate, and turn visits into bookings! Content should follow three criteria; it should be snackable, shareable, and sharp.

  • Snackable: Your content should be easy for a reader to glance at quickly and understand. The best way to execute this is by formatting simple text into bulleted lists and incorporating a lot of relevant imagery. Not only can a viewer process an image 60,000 times faster than reading a snippet of text, but images are also a more concise way to deliver your hotel's message. For example, if a potential guest is browsing hotel rooms, they can easily understand the atmosphere, quality, and size of each room type by viewing photos and scanning a few bullet points rather than reading a wordy room type description. As users of the internet, we no longer read everything we see but skim for highlights and clear identifiers. Although it is still important to use text to tell a story, a website no longer requires as much text as it once did to attract search engines.
  • Sharable: A great way to expand your hotel's reach is making the content on your independent website sharable. Make the photo gallery, wedding gallery, restaurant images, and accommodations images "pinnable" so that users can add them directly to their Pinterest boards. Creating a cross-channel strategy allows your hotel to get exposure on multiple platforms, ultimately reaching a new audience of potential guests. We all know that photos sell hotel rooms, so utilize short videos on YouTube and let your high-res imagery convey your brand story.
  • Sharp: Let your guests see what they want to see. The web is a visual channel, and sharp content and imagery is what users want to look at. Incorporate a "book now" button and make it easy for users to view the hotel's policies that they are curious about (e.g. check-in time, pet-friendly fees, Internet availability). When creating a content strategy for your independent website, your mission should be to give potential guests the best user experience possible!

2. Context is Queen

Segment your guests' behaviors by context. What kind of people does your hotel attract and where are they using the Internet? Observe, measure, and learn your guests' pain points in each of those contexts. Improve your site, brand, and experience by aligning the user experience with that context in mind.

Make sure your site is convenient for them! Frustrating the user during the shopping process will inadvertently send them to another site to complete the transaction on an OTA, or worse, at a different hotel. By showing users exactly what they want, they are more likely to book directly on your hotel's independent site.

Tim Peter provided a perfect example of understanding your guests' behaviors with an airport hotel scenario. Imagine you work at an airport hotel and many of your guests book rooms when their flights are cancelled and they are running through a busy airport with suitcases in hand. Nearly every guest in this scenario will be looking for a hotel room on their mobile device. So ask yourself, is your hotel's website mobile optimized? Is there a button users can press to call the hotel's front desk without having to write down a phone number to then dial into the phone pad? Does your mobile website easily coordinate with Apple Pay or Google Wallet, or are guests able to make a reservation without typing in their credit card information? All of these things can help improve the user experience and make hotel guests stay on your website and book a room on-the-go. Mobile is frequently used for last minute bookings and 61% of users will abandon sites that are not mobile friendly.

3. Data is the Crown Jewels

Lastly, it is important to gather data to better understand your guests' behaviors, wants, and desires. These should lead your product, promotion, placement, and pricing efforts and decisions. Make sure your strategy is unique so that it cannot easily be duplicated by your competitors. Be willing to start small and remember that you have the ability to know your guests better than anyone.

Make sure your hotel's independent site integrates Google Analytics or some sort of website tracking that allows you to understand users' interests and movements across your site. Implement event tracking on all calls-to-action on your website to give you more insight into what links, images, or buttons users are clicking. If you see people are clicking on a certain special offer frequently, but that offer isn't bringing in any more revenue than usual, evaluate what the problem may be. People are clearly curious about the special offer and want what it includes, but it may be priced too high. Perhaps the allotted booking dates or minimum night requirements are not ideal for travelers. Data like this can be particularly valuable for creating new pages and specials on your hotel's website.

Now that you have the keys to effectively market your hotel online in 2015, go forth and implement these strategies! Use content, context, and data to gain a competitive advantage over other hotels in your market and increase your direct bookings and revenue.

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The holiday season, one of the busiest times to travel, is right around the corner. This holiday season is the perfect opportunity for your hotel to exercise its creativity by showcasing your jolly spirit on your social media channels and independent website. By participating in the holiday season, your hotel will evince a cheerful personality, which will allow guests who are excitedly preparing for the holidays, to identify with your brand. To help you get started, I have outlined several ways to naturally integrate the holiday season into your hotel’s online marketing strategy, which will help humanize and enhance your hotel’s online presence.

Integrate the holiday season into your hotel’s social media strategy

Posting relevant content about the holidays on Facebook or Twitter can increase fan engagement, post reach, and even page likes. Fans, especially those who are in the holiday spirit, will enjoy seeing what types of seasonal activities are going on at your hotel, which will then lead to interaction with the posts. Below are some creative suggestions to help your hotel post effective and engaging social media content leading up to the holidays.

Host a holiday-themed contest on property and ask Facebook fans to vote

Encourage your team to become involved in the holidays by announcing a company-wide competition, which you can then transform into a Facebook contest. Whether you ask your team members to wear a festive outfit or have each department decorate their office or a section of the hotel, take photos and post them on your Facebook page in a designated photo album. Then, announce the premise of the contest with a Facebook post and ask fans to “vote” by liking, commenting, and sharing, which will increase your page’s engagement. Make sure you establish the time frame and clarify the points system so you have an easy way to determine the winner. Incentivize your hotel team to participate by providing a winning prize for the team member or department with the most votes at the end of the contest.

During the 2013 Halloween season, Hampton Inn & Suites Nashville Downtown encouraged their Facebook fans to vote for their favorite pumpkin, all of which were carved by the hotel staff. Fans that participated were entered into a drawing for a chance to win 5,000 HHonor points. Getting fans get involved in selecting the winner helped the hotel increase their Facebook reach and post engagement.

Hampton Inn & Suites Nashville Downtown Pumpkin Contest

During the 2013 holiday season, Embassy Suites Denver Southeast hid an Elf on a Shelf doll around the hotel common areas. They then asked guests to take a picture of the doll when they saw him around the hotel and post it on the hotel's Facebook page. The hotel marketed this imaginative campaign through Facebook posts, flyers on the front desk, and table toppers in the dining area. The hotel organically gained 21 new fans throughout the short campaign, and the Elf on a Shelf posts increased their reach to 2,669 people (an increase of 669% YOY when compared to holiday posts in 2012).

Embassy Suites Denver - Southeast Elf Contest

Post photos of your hotel’s holiday décor

Keep your social media content relevant by posting photos that show your hotel’s holiday decorations. This will help your future guests imagine what it would be like to stay at your hotel during the season. Here are a few fun ways to create quick and interactive content:

1. Leading up to Halloween, post a photo of pumpkins and a bowl of candy sitting on the front desk.
2. Around Christmas time, use your smart phone to take a short video of your team decorating the Christmas tree.
3. During Hanukkah, display a menorah in the lobby and take a photo of a team member lighting one of the candles.

During the 2012 holiday season, Radisson Hotel Fisherman’s Wharf helped their fans imagine what it would be like to stay at their hotel during the holiday season by posting a picture of their festive lobby. The spirited post received both likes and comments from their Facebook fans, including one fan who admittedly wished he was there. 

Radisson Hotel Fisherman's Whaf festive lobby

Post your hotel restaurant’s seasonal specials and events

Sharing your holiday menus and on-property events on Facebook will increase engagement among local fans and bring in more foot traffic, which will translate to more food and beverage revenue. Here are a few ideas for relevant posts to help boost your local food and beverage traffic:

1. Post a photo of your hotel’s seasonal cocktails (e.g. Egg-nog, Candy Cane Martinis, or Gingerbread Cocktails) alongside the recipe.
2. Post a photo of your hotel’s Christmas day dinner menu with a link to your hotel’s dining page for more information.
3. Post photos of other seasonal specials as they are added into the menu mix.

During the 2013 holiday season, Embassy Suites Brea – North Orange County shared their special holiday delights with their Facebook fans. With the menu posted on social media, more fans were aware that the hotel was offering seasonal specials during Christmas and New Years.

Embassy Suites Brea – North Orange County holiday specials menu

Integrate the holiday season into your hotel’s independent website content strategy

Refreshing your content strategy regularly can improve your online presence by showing that you are keeping your site current and relevant. This should naturally have a positive impact on your hotel’s SEO. Below are some unique ways to seamlessly weave the holiday season into the content strategy on your hotel’s independent site.

Audit your current photography to ensure it includes seasonal imagery

In recent years, people have begun booking flights and hotel accommodations closer and closer to their actual travel date. This means that a guest shopping on your hotel’s website is likely looking to book a hotel for a stay that’s within the next 30 or 60 days. By keeping your photos fresh and seasonal, you will be able to better manage guest’s expectations. For example, if your hotel is located in Kansas City, a place where the scenery changes with the seasons, make sure your hotel’s photography incorporates blue skies and sunshine, red and yellow fall foliage, and sparkling white snowcapped buildings.

Add new or rephrase current special offers and discounted packages

Brainstorm new special offers that integrate a seasonal event or holiday. For example, if your hotel offers a complimentary shuttle to the nearby mall, create a holiday shopping package targeting moms who need to do their holiday shopping. You can also take your current offers and tailor the copy to reflect the holiday season. So, if your hotel already offers a shopping package, add some seasonal verbiage to the package description so that it appeals more to guests booking a stay around the holidays.

In the screenshot below, Hilton Bellevue is offering discounted guestrooms during Magic Season weekends, as that community event incorporates kid-friendly activities, so it draws families into the city to celebrate the holiday season.

Hilton Bellevue holiday and magic season events

If your hotel has a spa, create a seasonal-inspired spa deal. For example, The Lodge & Spa at Callaway Gardens offers a “Purifying Pumpkin Facial” for the 2014 fall season, and they promoted a “Jack Frost Spa Treatment” for the 2013 winter season. Adding a spa deal that reflects a particular season or holiday creates the illusion that the offer is only available for a limited time, so guests are more likely to book the treatment.

The Lodge & Spa at Callaway Gardens purifying pumpkin facial

Share local community or city-wide holiday events

If your hotel is located near an area that does something special for the holidays, share it on your independent website. Write a landing page featuring well-known holiday events. Those events that are expecting a large turnout will already have a lot of awareness and, therefore, more search volume.

Create a seasonal events calendar on your independent website to list smaller or more locally-based, seasonal events, as this will serve as a helpful guide for things to do in the area around the holidays. Having this information readily available on your hotel’s website allows guests to see that your hotel is located near fun and happening events. It essentially creates a “one-stop-shop” for guests so they don’t need to do additional research after booking their stay. They can see what events are happening in the city right on your website and begin planning their itinerary. Make sure to ask the event host to link back to your hotel’s site too, especially if they have an accommodations page!

In the screenshot below, The Lodge & Spa at Callaway Gardens promotes Fantasy in Lights through an informative landing page that ties in a seasonal “Fantasy in Lights" package.

Fantasy Lights at Callaway Gardens

Ready to get into the holiday spirit?

It’s time to spice up your holiday marketing strategy. Sit down with your hotel team and begin making a list of events, brainstorming special offers or contests, and going through your photo library. Then, work with your hotel’s marketing manager to seamlessly integrate these seasonal strategies into your existing social media and independent website strategy. Bust out your Santa hat, relax with a cup of eggnog, and watch your fans engage with your jolly hotel!

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ClickZLive-Chicago

This past week, the Blue Magnet Interactive team was fortunate enough to attend ClickZ Live in Chicago, formerly SES Conference & Expo. Our digital marketing team explored various session to hear industry leaders insights on topics such as paid advertising, email marketing, social media, data & analytics, and user-experience. Read our key takeaways from some of these educational sessions and discover how these insights can be applicable to the hotel industry. 

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What session did you attend?

Winning Email Marketing Strategies: Improving Opens, Clicks, Conversions and Return-on-Investment presented by Jeanne S. Jennings, Consultant on Email Marketing Strategy at JeanneJennings.com.

At this session...

Jeanne reminded the audience that email marketing is not dead. Following ecommerce websites, email marketing is the second highest ranked marketing channel in providing effective results. Jeanne noted that 74% of marketers who test their email campaigns report that email marketing results are “excellent” and “good”. She then introduced several email marketing elements that are crucial for improving opens, clicks, conversions, and return on investment, which are:

1. Subject Lines: one of the most important parts of any email marketing campaign. Your subject line often determines whether your email is opened and read or deleted and forever forgotten. Throughout the years, there have been many beliefs on what makes a good subject line, and Jeanne shared her opinions and personal studies on a variety of these trends.

    • Special Characters: Less than 10% of email subject lines contain special characters today. As Jeanne and the audience agreed, a subject line, such as: “Enjoy an Exclusive Holiday Offer ★” appears to be spam, since the star is not directly related to the product. In order to keep your subject lines clear and concise, it’s best to avoid using special characters when writing subject lines.
    • Long Subject Lines: It’s important that subject lines are long enough to engage the reader and get them to open your email, but don’t make your subject line longer than it needs to be. Always make sure everything you are writing in your subject line is of value to the reader.
    • Short Subject Lines: Sometimes you can get a lot of impact and value with a short, concise, and straightforward subject line. An example from the presentation was an email from New York & Company with “100” as their subject line. It was relevant and exciting because everything in the email was $100.
    • Personalization: In a 2014 study, MailerMailer found that personalizing the subject line and body of the message is the key to optimizing email campaigns. This study showed that users were more likely to purchase more items, more willing to receive promotional emails, and more willing to share personal preferences when they received a personalized email campaign.

2. Content Strategies: Even though over 90% of marketers are utilizing content marketing today, successful execution may be more difficult than originally assumed. In a study by The Content Marketing Institute, lack of time, producing enough content, producing engaging content, and lack of budget are the top challenges of content marketing. Creating an editorial calendar, polls and surveys, videos, and promotions, are a few ideas to create engaging and original content.

3. Landing Page Optimization: Since conversions happen on landing pages, an email campaign is only as effective as the landing page it is linking to. It is critical that your landing page has a clear and concise headline, is directly related to what your email campaign is promoting, and has a strong call to action.

One of the most interesting things I learned at this sesson is...

Making the effort to personalize email campaigns can have a huge impact on results and ultimately lead to an increase in ROI and overall revenue-per-email. Using revenue as their key performance indicator, Jeanne helped a client test personalization in their email campaign. Through their intricate testing, Jeanne and her client found that using the recipient’s first name to personalize both the subject line and the body of the message boosted revenue-per-email by 160%.

How can a hotel ensure their email marketing campaign is successful?

Email marketing strategies can help hotels increase occupancy by generating new guests and improving guest retention. Email campaigns allow hoteliers to visually and descriptively explain why their hotel is the best place to stay in their city!

A few tips for hotels to increase ROI on their email marketing campaigns include:

  • Send an eNewsletter. This is a perfect way to share all the fun happenings at your hotel. If you recently participated in a charity event or had a fun staff outing, share it in your eNewsletter! While eNewsletters are a fun way to stay in contact with your guests, it’s important that they are also promotional. In order to be an effective email campaign, eNewsletters should be 60% editorial and 40% promotional.
  • Maintain a consistent email marketing campaign schedule. Boost your email frequency by sending a series of email campaigns. By doing this, you are more likely to see a higher ROI than a one-off email campaign.
  • Promote hotel specials, especially limited time offers. Whether they are seasonal special offers such as a holiday shopping package or a year-round offer you want to promote, an email campaign is the perfect way to get the word out to a targeted audience.
  • Target past guests. After guests check out of your hotel, it’s important to stay in the minds of those customers. Sending past guests a variety of email campaigns is a great way stay in touch and ultimately improve guest retention at your hotel.

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What session did you attend?

12 Tips for the Perfect Email Campaign presented by Sundeep Kapur, also known as the Email Yogi.

At this session...

Kapur walked the audience through his tried and true email marketing processes. He recommended learning as much as possible about your email subscribers through surveys, so you can send them the most targeted campaigns possible. He also suggested connecting stories across campaigns, rather than sending out unrelated blasts every day/week/month. For example, if you send out a quiz in one eblast, send out the answers in the next. One of Kapur's other key takeaways was to always send out a relevant campaign. Even if you're sending out an email wishing your subscriber a happy birthday, find a way to connect it back to your company so that it is relevant to both parties.

One of the most interesting things I learned at this session is...

How effective real-time response can be. Including buttons to request a download, whether it be a coupon or a whitepaper, can create a back and forth email chain that makes ESPs (email service providers) think subscribers are actually conversing with you, which helps to keep your account in their good graces. Automatically sending the download immediately after it's requested has also shown to have a very high open rate - averaging 95%! Moral of the story, finding a way to make campaigns interactive can help to boost engagement. 

How can a hotelier make the most of their email marketing campaign?

With so many people coming in and out of a hotel, from corporate conferences to weddings, family vacations to high school reunions, email marketing provides a way to reach each of those groups with a specific, targeted message. Since brides-to-be don't want to book your family fun package, and parents traveling with their children really aren't interested in your wedding packages, segmenting your subscriber list is one of the best things a hotelier can do to increase their open and click through rates and decrease their number of unsubscribes.

One thing to remember: Even a segmented list can have a high unsubscribe rate if hoteliers are buying their lists. It's important that hoteliers never resort to buying a list - it could get your email marketing account shut down all together!

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What session did you attend?

Ad Optimization Best Practices: Create, Test, Convert presented by Frank Palmieri, Manager of Creative Strategy at Yahoo, and John Gagnon, Bing Ads Evangelist. Both speakers focused on the importance of strong ad copy in PPC campaigns.

At this session…

The speakers shared top four tips for compelling ad copy, which are:

1. Appeal to Emotion

Online users’ purchase behavior is strongly influenced by their emotions. The words and phrases used in ad copy should jump out at the users, making them feel that they have a reason to click your ad. In an example from the seminar, Frank showed an ad for womens handbags. Rather than the headline of the ad simply saying, “Buy Our Great Handbags”, it appealed to the users’ emotions with a headline saying, “Splurge On The Perfect Handbag This Holiday.” The action word “Splurge” denotes the idea of, “I’ve earned this handbag!”, compared to the more generic, non-emotional word “Buy”, which most likely doesn’t evoke any particular emotion from the user.

Hotel Marketing Tip: In ad copy, use emotion-evoking action words like “Indulge”, or “Nourish”. You can also try stressing time sensitivity with phrases like “Don’t miss out on ____” or “Limited time savings.”

Optimized Ad Copy

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Unoptimized Ad Copy

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2. Use Colloquial Language

In simple terms, speak the users’ language. It is easy for advertisers to get caught up in industry terminology that often doesn’t mean the same thing to an online shopper that it does to the person writing the ad. It is important to understand how your target audience refers to your product or service in casual conversation since online users typically type in search queries in the same colloquial language that they use with friends.

Hotel Marketing Tip: Imagine your property is what many people consider a “Bed and Breakfast” (say, for example, a converted Victorian home with 10 private bedrooms, and home cooked breakfast each morning for guests). You and your staff may refer to your property as an “Inn”, but after doing keyword research, you notice that there are four times as many monthly Google searches for “Bed and Breakfasts” than for “Inns”. With this knowledge, your ad headlines should use “Bed and Breakfast” rather than “Inn” to make sure that your ads are appealing to searchers in terms that mean something to them.

3. Be Credible

This idea is often undervalued and overlooked when developing ad copy. The speakers discussed how both Bing and Yahoo have performed various ad tests proving that the more believeable your copy is, the better your ads will perform. Words like “Official” and characters like the “Trademarked” or “Registered” symbols are authoritative in the eyes of searchers, and have proven to drive higher click through rates. With this concept of credibility and transparency in mind, some PPC platforms have even implemented rules preventing advertisers from using vague or gimmicky terms like “Best” or “#1”.

Hotel Marketing Tip: If your hotel is part of a large and well know brand like Marriott or Hilton, use those branded terms in your ad copy. Even if your hotel is independently owned, use phrases such as “Official site of [your hotel]” to capitalize on the credibility associated with the word “Official.”

Optimized Ad Copy

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Unoptimized Ad Copy

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4. Promote Lists

From 140 character tweets to 70 character ad descriptions, online searchers are increasingly used to short-form content. Rather than reading through paragraphs of content, modern consumers can’t seem to get enough of short and precise lists. The speakers discussed how frustrating this phenomenon has made some classic journalists who prefer writing in depth news articles, as their articles are often being passed up for “Top 5 Breaking News” segments, each with 3-4 sentence summaries rather than lengthy analyses. The good news is that ads promoting “Top 5” or “Top 10” content tend to perform incredibly!

Hotel Marketing Tip: Build a landing page on your hotel’s website that outlines a “Top __” list, then create PPC ads that highlight and link to that page. Some great ideas for hotels include, “Top 6 [City] Attractions”, “Top 10 Restaurants in [City]”, or even “Top 5 Reasons To Get Married At [Your Hotel]”.

 

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What session did you attend?

Next-Generation Website Usability: How to Optimize Your Site for the Best User Experience presented by Shari Thurow, Founder & SEO Director, Omni Marketing Interactive

At this session…

Shari reminded the audience about the importance of creating a positive user experience by paraphrasing Peter Morville, founding father of information architecture – users can’t buy what they can’t find. She then introduced several site elements a website developer or project manager must test and measure to ensure a satisfactory user experience. These elements include:

  • Learnability
    • Can a user easily learn how to use the site?
    • Can a user quickly understand how to navigate the site?
    • Can a user tell what parts of the site are clickable and what has been clicked already?
  • Efficiency
    • Can a user achieve their objective on this site?
    • Can a user check out and complete their transition or is there a high abandonment rate?
    • Are users spending an abnormal amount of time seeking help on the site (reading FAQs, using site search, using the live chat feature)?
  • Memorability
    • Can a user remember how to use the site upon returning?
  • Error Prevention
    • Can a user easily recover from errors they make on the site?
  • Satisfaction
    • Would a user recommend the site to another person?

One of the most interesting things I learned at this session is…

Your site design should consider usability for disabilities as well. Make your site more accessible to people who are color blind by using a high color contrast throughout the content to help distinguish among the various site elements. Try a color contrast checker like this WebAIM resource. Underline clickable text to make it obvious that it is a hyperlink. 

Also, a usability best practice is to use a three color scheme for all clickable elements – active, inactive, and visited. Make your active color a warm color – coolor shades of gray tend to recede and are better suited for inactive elements. Use Adobe Color CC to find a palette that works for your site.

How can a hotelier ensure their website provides a positive user-experience?

If a user can’t figure out how to check rate on your hotel’s website, continually encounters an error, or has to create some sort of user log in to proceed, chances are, they will bounce off the site and book elsewhere. So, when designing a new website for your hotel, gather 30-40 people (demographics of test subjects should vary) and run a usability test to work out any issues or kinks prior to launch.

Also, try to think like a guest. What are the top “make it or break it” criteria a guest may want to know about when selecting a hotel? Some of the most crucial decision-making amenities include free WiFi, pet-friendly rooms, proximity to public transportation, etc., so make sure that information is easy to find and the policies are clearly presented. Ask your front desk staff or phone operators what questions they receive often, whether during the booking process or a guests stay. Include answers to those commonly asked questions on your hotel’s site where applicable. If you don't know where to place the information, create an FAQ or Q&A page that serves as a customer service resource.

You should also devote some time into researching your target audience and determining your site’s color scheme. Different colors have different meanings and those meanings also vary among different cultures. Thurow mentioned that a majority of women make travel decisions for their family, so your hotel's website may benefit from a neutral color palette, or perhaps, one that is slightly more feminine. She suggested using purple for travel related sites.

Read more highlights from other ClickZ Live Chicago 2014 session

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