Most people who work with hotels for any substantial period time inexorably come to understand two major things – First, the hospitality industry is not like other industries. It presents a set of challenges (such as running a 24/7/365 business, dealing with OTAs, managing a dynamic pricing system, and more) that, when combined, demand unique strategies and solutions. Second, when it comes to technology and e-commerce, hotels are definitely on the later end of the diffusion curve. Certainly, there are some exemplary hotels that have been pioneers in the realm of online marketing and technological innovation, but taken as a whole, hotels and major hotel brands have largely been cautious in their embrace of the internet and still lag behind other businesses in the extent and effectiveness of their e-commerce efforts. As a result, hotels that are willing to put some time and resources towards e-commerce are, for the most part, going to be able to dominate their competition; however, the question remains: How?

In my humble estimation, the answer is search engine optimization (SEO); however, it has been my experience that many hoteliers are somewhat daunted and confused by SEO. This is understandable because while there is an overabundance of information and articles about SEO in general, there is a paucity of content specifically dealing with SEO for hotels and the hospitality industry. As a result, hoteliers who try to learn about SEO have difficulty separating the big, important strategies and general themes from the very specialized, nitty-gritty strategies that are only necessary for businesses in industries with more advanced and competitive e-commerce fields. Therefore, they either become so bogged down by info that they give up or become fixated on unnecessary advanced strategies while neglecting the essentials.

To rectify this situation, I want to clearly lay out the SEO strategies that hotels really need to know. As I mentioned above, the hospitality industry is unique; it has many opportunities and challenges that other industries do not have, and if hoteliers do not use the same offline business models as tech companies, why should they use the same SEO strategies? In many ways, SEO is just a new form of the sales and marketing techniques that hoteliers have been using for years to sell their hotels, and the simple fact is that hotels in general do not have highly developed SEO campaigns; therefore, by implementing the following basic but essential SEO strategies, many hotels will see drastic improvements in search rankings and site visits. Forget about what non-hospitality focused SEO experts have told you, these are the SEO strategies that hotels really need to know.

SEO is not a trick

The first and most important thing that hotels need to realize is that despite what they may have heard, SEO is not about “tricking” search engines. Rather, it is a series of practices by which websites tell the search engines who they are, what they do, and why they are relevant to searchers. If hotels implement these practices, the search engines will rank them well in search results. That’s it. The hard part of SEO is knowing what those practices are and resisting the urge to lie to the search engines in order to try to get them to rank you for keywords that are not very relevant to your hotel. If you want to appear for non-relevant keywords, you can pay the search engines for ads, but don’t lie to them.  Even though you can pay your way to the top of the PPC game, irrelevant keywords can negatively affect your PPC campaigns too. As for knowing what practices to implement, just read on!

What language does Mrs. Bing speak?

The first step in telling search engines what your hotel is all about is to make sure you are speaking their language. If the search engines can’t understand your website, they can’t judge its relevance and quality. To make sure the search engines can easily crawl and parse your website, you need to ensure that your site has a search engine friendly structure and is properly marked up. Unfortunately, this is such a basic element that many designers and developers overlook it in their pursuit to design and build fancy websites.

Now, I don’t expect hoteliers to go out and start learning how to build websites, but if you are looking to update your hotel’s website or build a new one, make sure that whoever is developing your website understands SEO and search engine friendly site structure. No matter how great the rest of your SEO efforts are, if your site structure is not search engine friendly, it will never rank as high as it should.  This is very important for independent hotels and branded hotels with standalone sites. If you are a branded hotel, your brand site is probably decently structured, and there is nothing that you can do to improve it, so that is one thing, at least, that don’t have to worry about.

Dear R. Google, My name is Hotel Blue Magnet

Now that you are speaking the search engines’ language, you have to introduce your hotel.  How do you do that? It’s simple - Take a second and think of the three best ways to describe your hotel Good, those are your main keywords. Keywords are simply the phrases that best describe your hotel. Some keyword variations are better than others and some keywords are more competitive than others, but there is no real deep secret to choosing keywords.  Once you have your phrases, go to Google’s Keyword Tool, type them in, and then Google will tell you what variations of those phrases have the most search volume.  There is all manner of research you can do for keywords, but for many hotels, it will do wonders just to choose keywords that are relevant and that people are actually searching for. Once you have your keywords, you need to write your Meta Title Tags. To do so, use this simple formula:

Main Keyword | Hotel Name | Secondary Keyword (Optional)

Meta Title Tags should be under 70 characters, so if adding in the secondary keyword makes it too long, save that keyword for another page. You’ll want to write one Meta Title for each one of your pages and include your main keywords on your most important pages and relevant pages (Home, Accommodations, etc.). For your less important or more specialized pages, you can do more keyword research to find relevant keywords that have search volume, but simply including a descriptive phrase that reflects the content on the page will be better than a generic page name. Once you have these written, give them to your website developer or brand contact, and they will be able to add them to your website code.

What’s your line, Master Yahoo?

Now that your Meta Title Tags are in place and you have introduced your hotel to the search engines, the next step is to tell them what your hotel does. This is probably the least technical part of SEO, but it is massively important and will become even more important in the future. To tell the search engines what your hotel does, you need to write great descriptive content for your web pages. This is really as simple as it sounds. As search engines get more sophisticated, it will become harder and harder to trick them, and the quality of your content will become more and more integral to your SEO.  If you simply write great content now and keep it updated, you will not have to worry about the changes to search engine algorithms that are always causing SEO professionals to freak out; instead, you will have consistent and predictable search rankings.

So what is good content? Good content is not awkwardly stuffed with exact iterations of your keywords and lots of spammy looking links. Good content is well-written, natural sounding copy that clearly and concisely details the topic of the page. Your content should reflect the keywords in your Meta Title Tags, but it does not need to slavishly adhere to the exact phrasing of those keywords at the expense of readability This stress on the importance of content over keywords may sound a little strange coming from an SEO professional, but I strongly believe that at this point, especially for hotels, keyword heavy content will never get you better rankings than more natural content, and in fact, it could hurt your rankings, which is just what happened to a number of over-optimized websites after Google's recent Panda algorithm update. If the person who does your SEO says otherwise, you may want to rethink your partnership with that company. They are likely out of touch with SEO trends and could end up getting your site penalized with their unsavory tactics. When writing content or reviewing content that has been written for you, always remember, search engines will never penalize great content.

Why?

So the search engines know who your hotel is and what it does. All that remains is to tell them why your hotel is more relevant than competing hotels. Among websites in different industries, the why of SEO can vary hugely. The basic tactics are the same, but the relative of importance of those tactics changes depending on the nature of the business and the goals of the SEO campaign. Through my experience performing SEO for hotels, I have been able to discover what I think are the most important tactics for convincing search engines that a hotel‘s website should be ranked at the top of searches – Optimized local listings and unique, relevant links. That is not to say that other tactics do not work or are not important, but it is my opinion that these two are the most important and effective.

  1. Optimized Local Listings
    Hotels are local businesses by nature. Even if a hotel is part of a national or international brand, it has a location that is unique to that hotel. Being located in a specific spot is one of the best reasons for relevance a hotel can give search engines. You can and will include location-based information on your website, but that is not quite enough to convince the search engines. You need to establish your location on their terms by claiming, optimizing, and managing your Google +Local Page, Bing Local Listing, and Yahoo Local listing. If you have not done so already, stop reading this article and go to the links above to claim your pages. By claiming and optimizing these pages with the exact name, address, phone number, and website that is listed on your website, you are telling the search engines that the business located at the address of your hotel is the same as the business represented by your website. As a result, when a search engine detects a location-based search, they will include your hotel as a business located in that area, which might not happen if you just had your website. These listings are already massively important for hotels and are only going to become more important with the rise of mobile search. One more thing to note about these listings is that even if you have them claimed, the information displayed on the listing can change at any minute. As such, it is imperative to consistently monitor your Local Listings.
  2. Unique, Relevant Links
    Local Listings will ensure that search engines know where your hotel is located, but they will not convince them that your site is authoritative and trustworthy and that your content is of the highest quality. To do this, you need to show the search engines that other people find your content useful and trustworthy. How do you show them this? Get your site listed on sites that Google already knows and respects. In SEO parlance, this is called Link Building, and there are as many ways to link build as there are stars in the sky; however, I believe that for hotels, there is one form of link building that is most important – Building links from established local businesses and organizations. Any hotel can hire a SEO contractor to submit their link to every directory and local listing site, and the search engines know this and as a result they do not give much credence to such links, and, in fact, Google, with their Penguin update, has started penalizing websites with a lot of low quality, spammy links. It is much more difficult to convince other businesses and organizations to link to your site. Unlike directories, linking to other sites is not the point of these businesses and organizations’ sites. In order for someone to link to your hotel, you have to provide them with a good reason for it. Search engines also know this, and they give much more weight to these kinds of links. If owners of respectable businesses believe that their customers will want to go to your website, the search engines will conclude their searchers will also want to go to your website.

The great thing about this kind of link building is that it can be done by owners, GMs, and DOSs with little to no technical skill.  This is all about relationships between businesses and how well your hotel works with other businesses. For specific tips, I suggest that you check out these two blog posts from my colleagues Diana Friess and Kim Leveque, but what I really want to convey about this kind of link building is that it’s more of an attitude than a tactic. Too often, hoteliers think of the online and offline portions of their business as separate entities, and I’m suggesting that you start thinking of your website in the same way you think about your hotel.

On the internet, your website is your hotel. Just as you would want local businesses, colleges, convention centers, museums to recommend your hotel if someone asked in person where they should stay while visiting; you also want those same businesses to recommend your hotel online; and in the online world, that kind of recommending is done through linking to your site. Keep this in mind as you go about your daily on-site and offline tasks and you will start finding more and more opportunities to ask for and receive links to your site.  Just remember to always offer a link back in return if possible and make sure to always give out the same exact URL when someone agrees to link to your site.

SEO is just good business

One of the biggest points that I wanted to get across with this post is that at its core SEO is nearly identical to offline business and sales strategies. Too often people not in the SEO industry (and even many in the industry) think of SEO as collection of arcane, technical tricks and tactics that are only tech gurus can understand and implement. SEO can be different depending on your industry, but within each industry, it’s just a new way to do the same things that have always made businesses in those industries successful. If you know how to market your hotel offline, you already know how to perform SEO for your hotel – You just didn’t know that you knew. Hopefully, you do now.

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