What is user-generated content?

What do Wikipedia, YouTube, and Tripadvisor all have in common? They are all websites that rely heavily on user-generated content. I use the term "content" loosely, as it can vary from credible facts and creative media to opinion-based reviews and personal stories... you get the picture.

User-generated content can be advantageous for gathering information about a hotel's amenities and services or learning about a travel experience from a previous guest's point-of-view, but it can also be controversial because this information is provided by the public and is often uncensored. Does that mean that user-generated content is not credible? No, that is not what it means. It means that a reader or viewer should consider the source when determining whether or not to trust the recommendation or story. For instance, you may trust the Wall Street Journal with world news more than your friend. However, if you're seeking hotel recommendations in New York, you may be more likely to take your friend's opinion over that of Frommer's, even though that travel guide tends to be a very trusted source. Your inclination to trust a source will likely depend on the type of information you are seeking. Also, keep in mind that most UGC is regulated or edited to some extent to ensure that the content meets the site's standards, even massive sites like Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia, has created and successfully implemented a voluntary governing force of editors for the user-generated content site to combat those "party of jerks" that every so often intervene with the "party of thoughtful."

A penny for your thoughts?

…not so much in the world of user-generated content. No one is actually paying for the content; rather people voluntarily share it as a means of collaboration. There might be an explicit, tangible incentive, such as producing content for the chance to win a prize, but more often than not, people are actually providing their content for the greater good. Yes, those people still exist.

What motivates people to voluntarily provide this content for free? The internet is an open platform for people to share their personal thoughts and experiences with the public, and many people simply want their voice to be heard. In a world where ever-expanding social networks are the norm, people enjoy cultivating a sense of community online; connecting with others over a mutual interest (staying at the same hotel), sharing their wisdom to show themselves as the "expert", or receiving some sort of acknowledged "status" based on level of involvement, like Tripadvisor badges for active reviewers.

How can hoteliers benefit from user-generated content?

Hoteliers can reap huge benefits from integrating user-generated content into their social media strategy! We are all well aware that people these days are more connected to their social networks than ever before, especially with the ease of use and accessibility provided by mobile phones. Think about guests that pass through the lobby each and every day. How often are they jabbing away on their smartphones, swiping through their Twitter feeds and "muploading" (mobile-uploading) pictures to Facebook? According to an IDC Research Report, Facebook is the third most popular activity on iPhones and Android phones behind email and web browsing.

So, whether or not you ask your guests to share their photos on Facebook and Twitter, I guarantee that they are already doing it. When describing the 5 Stages of Travel, Google states that at least 53% of leisure travelers say they share pictures of their vacations online, so it's up to the hotel marketing team to strategically integrate, encourage, and help guide these positive guest experiences into their own social media marketing campaigns.

Guests are among the most powerful social influencers because people tend to trust and pay more attention to their own peers' advice and recommendations than they would to an advertisement, commercial, or even a credible tour book. Imagine a guest shares a stunning photo of the scenic surroundings at their hotel, tagging the hotel's Facebook page in the picture and adding a heartfelt comment such as, "WOW! The Team @MatakauriLodge took such wonderful care of us!" That is free PR! Plus, it's coming directly from the mouth of a previous guest rather than the hotel's own advertising campaign, which adds an element of credibility. The guest was not paid to stroke the hotel's ego, so the positive review came from an unbiased source.

For the most part, you will find that your guests are more than happy to share their experience on Facebook or Twitter, usually enhanced with visual documentation, for the pure satisfaction of "bragging rights" (and to evoke envy on all of his or her Facebook friends stuck in rainy Chicago).

Twitter-Honeytrek-042913

Ultimately, the hotel marketing team can create a dynamic strategy that encourages guests to share their own experiences, which will then become a promotional goldmine. Use these five helpful tips to make the most of user-generated content in your social media strategy.

1. Increase on-property visibility 

Firstly, make sure that your social channels are all visible on property. Do you have your Facebook URL and Twitter handle on business cards, keycard packets, welcoming letters, lobby reader boards, or any other marketing collateral? Showing your guests that you are social savvy will remind them to engage with you online, whether it's tagging your hotel in a photo, checking in on foursquare, or tweeting about the smooth sailing you experienced at check-in.  

2. Enhance on-property engagement

You can take your social visibility a step further by creating an interactive on-property element that directly asks guests to engage, usually with an incentive to do so. For example, you can mark an X next to your pool and ask guests to upload photos of them standing in that spot to the hotel's Facebook page to receive a free cocktail. Or you can create a scavenger hunt to pass out at the front desk, asking guests to tweet photos from various spots within your hotel. Exercise your creativity and ensure that your guests have fun with it! Make sure you choose your hotel's best assets to show off so that your guests' photos ultimately influence their Facebook friends to book!

3. Monitoring social media mentions 

Along those same lines, make sure that you are actively monitoring all social mentions of your hotel and any other keywords that might be relevant. It might be helpful to use a social media monitoring tool (such as Revinate or Sprout Social), which will funnel in mentions across all social platforms. You will see several photos being posted on Twitter or Instagram that mention your hotel but the user might not have correctly tagged your hotel; therefore you wouldn't have been notified of this mention without proactively searching or monitoring. Retweet these photos on Twitter or take a screenshot and upload them to your own Facebook page with a catchy one-liner that sums up the photo. These photos are on the Internet for anyone to see or use (otherwise these people would have their privacy settings higher), but if you want to ensure you are giving credit where credit is due, you can always mention the user's Twitter handle or provide the Instagram URL.

UGC-Monitoring

4. Ask!

If you're still a bit wary about using user-generated photos without an official consent, you can take a much more direct approach. If you have established a good fan base already, simply post a message to all of your Facebook fans or Twitter followers asking them to submit #FanPhotos to a specific email address or tweet them using a designated hashtag that you are actively monitoring. The photos will be collected and shared on the hotel's Facebook page. A lot of people will be excited to share their own memories, but if you want to add an incentive you can offer to highlight a select few each week in a Facebook cover photo collage.

 UGC-FacebookAsk

5. Host an interactive contest 

If you have the budget, one of the best opportunities to create user-generated content is to host a contest on social media where guests submit photos, videos, memories, or goals to the marketing team and the randomly selected winner receives a free 2 night stay at the hotel. Of course, this comes with stipulations! The winner must serve as your "brand ambassador" in exchange for the free trip, providing live Facebook and Twitter updates throughout their stay on behalf of the hotel, which the hotel marketing team can then share and retweet. You might learn a thing or two from Fast Company's recap of the amazing Tourism Queensland contest, which went viral for receiving such an overwhelmingly positive response. Of course, their contest was a bit of an exaggerated example and we don't expect most hotels to have such accommodating budgets... but you get the picture.

Hotel guests are already actively sharing their travel experiences online with their social networks, so hotels need to amplify their own marketing strategies by taking advantage of an effective, user-generated content strategy that highlights positive guest feedback and experiences!

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As a hotelier, it's difficult to know where to place your digital marketing budget for the best ROI. There are plenty of options, but none have the instant results quite like pay-per-click advertising (PPC).  Maybe you have heard that your hotel brand particpates in pay-per-click advertising, but you may not be certain of what PPC advertising means for your specific hotel. Here's a crash course on PPC advertising for hotels, why it is different than organic SEO efforts, and why your property should be investing in this channel.

Pretend for a moment that you are grocery shopping. You walk up and down the aisles, trying to find the perfect product for your dinner/meal/snack/weird late-night food cravings, "searching" through all the products, picking up packages and reading their descriptions, until you find the one that you feel is best for you. Purchase made.

Let's identify the steps here:

  1. You have a need.
  2. You, the shopper, the guest, the user, "search" for something to fill that need.
  3. The store lines its shelves with things that might possibly fulfill your need, and...
  4. You pick the most relevant "answer" to best fulfill this need. If you picked one brand, for example Special K cereal, from 100 choices on the shelves, this would represent an organic search.

Now let's say the Kellogg's brand paid for better placement of their Special K cereal in order to make their product stand out from their competitors. Maybe instead of the cereal appearing on the bottom shelf, Kellogg's pays to have their Special K cereal placed at eye-level in the high-traffic half of the cereal aisle. This would represent a paid search effort. Paid search efforts are a way to ensure that you are more visible than your competitors to shoppers.

What is PPC?

  • Pay-per-click advertising is exactly what it sounds like; you only pay for the clicks your ads receive. No clicks = No spend.
  • Cost-Per-Click (CPC): this is the cost incurred per click. CPC is a basic metric that is often used to set budgets and expectations for a particular account. 
    For Example: If your average CPC is $2, and you budget $1,000 a month, you can expect (roughly) 500 clicks a month from the ads.
  • PPC ads show up on the top and the right side of a search engine results page (in green in photo below) after a user has entered the query into the search engine. The ad will enter an auction for the position, and the winning ad will be shown.

SERP Example

As this photo shows, the sponsored placements (green) will always be visible on the results page, while the organic placements (blue) and the local placements (red) depend on ranking factors. This is where SEO comes in. 

Why Do Advertisers Need PPC?

  • The purpose of paid search is to capture traffic that might have otherwise been directed to the highest ranking site on the organic results page. It is one of the quickest and easiest ways to put your business on the top of the search engine results page, which can be especially beneficial for a site that does not rank well organically for certain keywords or search queries.
  • PPC enhances all other marketing tactics: social media, email marketing, SEO, local results.
  • PPC is easily customized to very specific products, promotions, or offerings.
  • PPC can send traffic to the most relevant page on the site, eliminating the user’s need for navigation (and eliminating chances to drop-off!). 
    For Example: if you want to drive more traffic for summer weddings in Sacramento, your ads can send the user directly to your weddings page that showcases pictures, floor plans, catering, etc.
  • Out of budget? **Click** Now your PPC advertising and spending is turned off until you turn it back on. Instantaneous.

Why Do Hotels Need PPC?

Nearly every business can benefit from PPC Advertising, whether in building brand awareness, selling a specific product, or even getting folks into a brick-and-mortar location. Every business should be utilizing this channel in their online marketing strategy, and hotels specifically can greatly benefit from PPC in a number of ways:

  • Hotels are constantly battling dependency on OTAs, like Expedia and Travelocity, which collect a hefty margin for each booking. PPC efforts allow hotels to capture some of the market that would have gone straight to an OTA, and encourages guests to book accommodations on their most profitable channel: their website.
  • Hotels can direct traffic to their specific property. This ensures that the conversion (and revenue!) stays with your property, not on a different property in the same area.
    For Example: if a search is done for "hotels in Oakland", there will be landing pages devoted to all of a brand's properties in Oakland. A hotel will face competition from its own sister properties. The goal of these pages is to elevate the brand as a whole, not the specific hotel.
  • SEO + PPC = page dominance. Hopefully, your SEO tactics have put you at the top for both organic and local results. Pair those efforts with PPC’s ability to show your ad at the top or right of the page, and you have now given your audience THREE different opportunities to come to your site and not your competitors’.
  • Special offers, events, wedding or restaurant pages: Brand.com will run ads for “Hotels in [insert big city here]”. While this does drive traffic to your property's home page, broad searches such as these indicate the user is likely just beginning their search and not ready to book. By running property-specific PPC, you can now send those seeking wedding venues, on-site restaurants, business meeting space, and anything else your property offers to a specific landing page.

What's The Catch?

A/B Testing to always be optimizing! While few and far between, there are some 'cons' of PPC advertising. With all the dynamic ads and automatic bidding that Google and Bing offer, it’s fairly easy to pick your keywords, set your budgets, and launch your PPC campaign. Here’s the part that’s not so easy: optimizing. Optimizing PPC campaigns, strategies, and budgets is literally a full-time job (thank goodness!). Optimizing and testing is not critical to running PPC ads, but it is absolutely critical to the success of these efforts. The most rewarding (and fun, if you’re as big of online marketing nerds as we are at Blue Magnet) aspect of PPC advertising is its ability to always be one-upping itself.

For Example: run ads A and B at the same time. If ad B gets more clicks/conversions/whatever-your-goal-metric-is than ad A, stop running A, and now try to beat B.

Finding the sweet spot for your bids and ad rank takes a lot of knowledge, skills, and many, many tests.

Catch #2: Without proper access to the HTML code that makes up your site, Conversion Tracking is pretty much impossible. Hotels that have standalone sites in addition to their brand site can track the shopper’s journey from PPC ad to hotel site to reservation page. Without a standalone site, you can only track the shopper coming to the hotel's site. Without this valuable data, it can be difficult to see the exact ROI of your PPC efforts.

With thant in mind, you may be thinking: “So, if I don’t have an independent site, I shouldn’t do PPC advertising?”  Wrong.

A traveler would not be searching for "hotels in ______" unless they were looking to book a hotel in the area they have designated. By simply showing up to the Search Engine Results Page party for your keywords, your specific property will be capturing valuable, relevant traffic that might have gone elsewhere. Miss out on this party/opportunity, and your competitors (or OTAs) may capture what you didn't. It’s not ideal from a tracking (and optimizing!) perspective, but it is still valuable traffic that you have taken away from your competitors.

In short, PPC is a valuable, extremely customizable marketing channel that allows hoteliers to compete with OTAs and their local competitors, even those under the same brand. You can run ads on any budget, on any schedule, and as often as you like.

PPC is a beautiful thing. 

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Recently, Pinterest gave business-orientated users the long awaited insights they’ve been looking for by rolling out “Pinterest Web Analytics.” The Pinterest facelift (which is still slowly revealing itself to users – Mark Zuckerberg style) was generated with users in mind and to differentiate businesses from individuals. Pinterest first introduced business accounts at the end of last year, along with tools to help expand their pinning presence outside of Pinterest (i.e. the “Pin It” button). The most notable changes in the “new look” are the larger pins and the greater accessibility to older pins. Pinterest already generates a large amount of traffic (see “Fast Facts” below), there is substantial room for growth, and the referral ratio is any advertiser’s dream.

Fast Facts: According to Pinterest Insider, as of April 2013, Pinterest has a total of 48.7 million users. In addition, Pinterest hit an independent site milestone, reaching 10 million unique monthly visitors in record time.

Pinterest Web Analytics to the Rescue

It’s clear that companies have long felt the need to be on this particular social media network, but never knew precisely why it was beneficial. Many questions remained unanswered: How do we measure the performance? How does this help my business? What’s the ROI?  While there are already some third party sites and tools available to help facilitate insight, the recent launch of Pinterest’s reporting tool was highly anticipated (and is free for users). Google Analytics can provide insight in regards to referral traffic from the channel, but couldn’t offer any details as to how people were interacting on the social channel itself. Pinterest Web Analytics yields a better understanding on how the users, aka pinners, are interacting with the pins that originated on your website. Not only will you have a clearer understanding of the amount of traffic being driven to to your site, you will know what pins on Pinterest are driving the most traffic. This new tool is an eye opener to companies, helping them to comprehend the type of content that is generating the most interaction and showing how many times a photo was clicked.

Not Just Numbers

Your results aren’t displayed in spreadsheets or tables; Pinterest, of course, ensured that their data was as visually fascinating as your “Places I’d Love to Travel to Board,” by providing engaging graphics pertaining to your content. If you are more interested in the numbers themselves and less in the flashy graphs, Pinterest’s new tool gives you the option to export the data into a CSV file.

Pinterest Analytics - Pins and Repins

Pinterest Analytics - Impressions and Clicks

The Freeway to Pinterest Web Analytics: Verification Lane

In order to take advantage of the renovations, you must (a) have Pinterest’s “new look,” and (b) a verified business account. In order to be considered a business on Pinterest, you must verify your website. Once your site has been verified, you’ll notice a white check mark in a red circle on your account (next to your URL). After you’ve verified your account, you can find the analytics tool in the menu on the top right of your account, or by visiting pinterest.com/source/yourwebsite.com. If you’d like users to be able to pin items directly from your site, be sure to add the “Pin It” button to applicable areas onto your website itself. Before diving head first into analytics, it’s a good idea to make sure your profile is optimized as well.

One Small Step For Pinterest, One Giant Leap for Marketers Everywhere

Analytics is a big step for Pinterest and adds additional value to your presence on the network. Still questioning why this matters to you? Instead of just pinning for the sake of pinning and appearing “active,” you can now pin according to what your target market interacts with the most. Get inside the heads of pinners who are likely to stay at your hotel! Which of your pins was repinned the most? Which pins are being clicked on? Was it the picture of the wedding you hosted last weekend? The beach located next to your hotel? That picture of the beautifully decorated tuna appetizer? Plan your Pinterest strategy appropriately. Web analytics allows you to choose timeframes you want to see too. If pictures of the sunny hotel pool are re-pinned more in the winter when people are day-dreaming of warmer weather, then you can tailor your content during that time accordingly. If you have the opportunity to tailor the content of your boards to what pinners love most – you should take the opportunity and run with it!

“But I don’t have a business account…”

No problem. Here's how to set up your Pinterest business account today:

  1. The first step is making sure you are switched to the new look. If you are not, this can be done by hovering over your account information in the upper right hand corner and selecting, “Switch to the new look,” then click “Get it now.”
  2. In the bottom right corner of your Profile box, click on the gray pencil icon.
  3. If your website is not in there already, type in the URL and click “verify website.”
  4. There are two ways to verify your website (you will need access to your site to verify the account).
    1. Option 1: Pinterest will prompt you to “verify by upload,” download the verification file, and then upload the file to your website.
    2. Option 2: Pinterest will provide you with a meta tag that you will then add to theof your index.html file.
  5. Hit “Complete Verification” and you should see the check mark next to your URL on your Pinterest page!

Pinterest Verified Website Example

Now that Pinterest has given us the tools to answer many of our questions users, we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What’s next?” Will Pinterest come up with ways for the site to create more revenue-generated opportunities? Paid advertisements? Sponsored pins? Stay tuned!

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Let me ask you something: As a hotel, why would you want links from irrelevant sites pointing to your website?

Exactly. You wouldn't!

Your goal should be to have reputable websites containing relevant, quality, informative content link to your hotel. Consider learning the basics of link building and also reading about strategies on building high-quality links to your website. Google and other search engines use these links as an indication of trust, or an "approval" of your website. As part of the Penguin Update, Google made it a priority to fight web spam, or low-quality links. Google has actually stated:

"Your site's ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links influences your ranking. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity."

For instance, you would want links from the following types of sites because it makes sense to have various travel agency and local business sites--both relevant in terms of category and location--linking to your hotel:

  • OTAs
  • CVBs
  • Local colleges and universities with "visitor" pages
  • Local businesses

For example, say you have a page linking to your hotel from a local university. On that page, the university suggests nearby hotels for families visiting students. Having this link is going to be a much better indicator of quality than a link on a link directory site displaying thousands of links (with yours lost in the mix) and which provides no value to anyone visiting the link directory (if there even is anyone). If search engines notice that the list of sites linking to you is mostly spammy and low-quality, they are less likely to take your website seriously, and will likely penalize you too!

So how do I get rid of these nasty low-quality links to my site?

To start with, you need to figure out who the heck is linking to you. One of the greatest tools out there is SEOmoz's Open Site Explorer. The free version will give you an idea of some of the links pointing to your hotel; however, having the paid version of Open Site Explorer allows you to download an excel file that contains all the information necessary for researching links pointing to your site. It even helps you categorize and track your links easily.

Now that you have your list of links, it's time to filter through them and figure out which ones are low-quality so that you can proceed in getting them removed. Below is a comprehensive list of the actions you should take in order to find and remove low-quality links to your website:

1. Categorize Your Links

categorize links to hotel

Categorizing your links will give you a clear snapshot of your link profile. Some of the category types I use include OTA, CVB, Travel Site/Guide, News, Malicious Site and Link Directory. When determining if a link is a malicious site, your browser will usually indicate that if you proceed further with viewing the website, it can contain malicious content. It is recommended to disavow these types of links.

Any links classified as "link directory" are the ones you will want to go after and request removal. Remember, links from link directories are extremely low-quality and offer no value. They often sit on a page and are surrounded by numerous, unrelated links and zero useful or informational content.

How will you know if the site is a link directory? Look for the following:

  • Lists of links all over the page (your head will spin just looking at them)
  • Strangely worded domain name/site names (i.e. anything along the lines of "link to me" or "123links" or "directory" or "web catalog")
  • Absolutely NO informational content. Think about the kind of websites you visit - why on earth would you have any interest in going through pages containing only links and devoid of information that can help you with your search?

2. Create a Link Removal Status Sheet

In order to stay on top of your link removal activities, you're going to need a document to keep track of all of the contacts, follow-up initiatives and other efforts that are part of your campaign. Below is an example of a link removal status sheet:

link removal status sheet

NOTE: It is important to first do what you can to request link removal directly from the site itself before using Google’s Disavow tool, which is a tool used to say "Hey Google, this is a bad link pointing to my website and I don't want it to count negatively towards the value of my site." It is crucial to understand that using this tool should be your absolute last resort.

3. Reach Out to Webmasters

One by one, you will need to go to each link directory site, look for a contact form or contact information, and kindly request that the webmaster remove the link to your hotel from the site. Can't find a contact form? Try finding the technical contact through Whois. Simply enter the domain name of the link directory site, and it will give you a list of contacts to whom you will want to send your removal requests.

4. Follow-Up: 3 Strikes, You're Out.

Once you have reached out, through all means possible, to webmasters and any other contacts that you were able to discover, AND have sent 2-3 rounds of follow-up emails, AND have attempted to call the webmasters, only THEN you can consider using Google’s Disavow tool.

5. Putting in a Disavowal Request

disavow-links-toolIt's important to note that when you put in a disavowal request, you are suggesting to Google that they ignore these links. It does not necessarily mean that they will choose to disavow them. Again, using the disavow tool should be your absolute last resort and should be carried out by a professional. Instructions for putting in a disavow request are available for Google and Bing. Be sure that you are submitting one request, versus numerous requests over time. This article from Search Engine Journal shows how serious the disavow tool is and gives good reasons on what can go wrong if you do not submit your request correctly.

In the End, It All Comes Down to Quality

Unless a high percentage of your link profile is made up of links from low-quality, spammy link directories, your number one focus should be seeking out and acquiring fresh, new, high-quality links. Links that will benefit your website the most will come from those websites that offer valuable information and are most relevant to your hotel.

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Recently, Mark Zuckerberg and his crew released their third pillar to the ever-changing Facebook platform with Graph Search. Joining the Newsfeed and Timeline, Graph Search was born into a lot of hype, questions, and concerns about its impact on online searches, marketing, and privacy.

Good people of the Hotel Industry, let me guide you through what this means for your business.

Graph Search Overview

First, let’s get acquainted with Graph Search. If there is one thing the Zucklehead wants you to know, it’s that Graph Search is not a search engine. However, Graph search does represent Facebook’s larger efforts to move from just communication sharing to information sharing. With Graph Search, searching for a term will generate relevant results from friends, places, and pages that already exist. For example: you can search something like “friends who like British Airways” or “people that like Florida and live in Chicago” and people that fit that query will appear. The thing that truly makes Graph Search interesting and important to marketers is that the searches being conducted on Facebook are chock-full of intent. The searches are basically polling their friends for suggestions on what to buy, watch, do, etc. This presents huge opportunities to advertisers that can now target audiences at incredible new levels. For example: Joe’s Bed and Breakfast could now advertise to current customers’ friends who are in the market to go on a vacation.

Why It’s Important to Hotels

If I didn’t hook you there, listen up because it gets better. Why should you care? Because Facebook cares. Facebook views travel as inherently social, and they plan on playing a larger role in years to come. They have already taken their first step by hiring the first Head of Travel, Lee McCabe.

Now, we’ve all seen The Social Network so we know Zuckerberg is a smart guy. He’s proving it here again by going after the travel industry with the Graph Search. Where the Graph Search fails with some industries, it fits perfectly with hotels. Google search is probably better suited for inquires about things like doctors or dentists, but hotels are a different beast all together. Graph Search works because people love to share pictures from vacations and talk about their stays. Therefore, finding a hotel based on your friends’ preferences comes naturally.

Here’s where Facebook gets a little creepy. Marketers can also use Graph Search to learn the likes and dislikes of their audience as well as their competitor’s audience. You can search what books they like, what kind of music they enjoy, where they have traveled recently, etc. Once that data is collected, you can base a whole social media strategy off it. Another thing Graph Search enables hotels to do is the see the “check-in’s” and photos tagged at the hotel. These used to be invisible to us as marketers, but by the mighty hand of Zuck, we can now see what kind of information is being shared about our hotel.

Finally, searching has become social. With Graph Search, a higher potential reach can be achieved through user searches. If you are still doubtful that people will actually use Facebook to plan their vacation, I’ve got news for you. It’s already the third most popular use for the Graph Search behind searching for friends and photos. So why is the Graph Search important to hotels? Because people are using it to find hotels. Facebook is right, travel is social, and travelers trust their friends’ opinions. The Graph Search can show them “likes” where search engines like Google can only show them links.

What Now?

Now that we have established Graph Search as a legitimate contributor to online hotel marketing, you may be asking yourself what your hotel should do. The main thing that you need to do is to make sure your page is categorized as “hotels.” It seems simple because it is, but without the correct category, your business won’t be showing up in searches for hotels.

Besides that, things haven’t changed too much in the Facebook game. You still need to optimize your page with cover photos, regular posts, and interaction, and you still need to create an active and engaged audience. Though, the Graph Search does give extra motivation to boost your page’s “likes.” To Facebook, the number of “likes” a page has is an indication of the business’s credibility. Think of it as the wisdom of the masses. Similar to a yelp listing with many positive reviews, pages with more “likes” will be given preference in the search results.

Wrap It Up

In conclusion, no, Facebook will not replace Google. Graph Search is Facebook’s long-term project aimed at bringing a social experience to online searches. Things aren’t very different yet, but that will change. Graph Search has given us a glimpse into the future and a new understanding of what direction the industry is heading. It seems inevitable that the social search will stick around, and just as many methods of online searching before it, it will evolve and take on more importance. As the online travel sector grows increasingly competitive, the more you know and prepare now to optimize your Graph Search visibility, the more successful you will be in the future.            

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It's been so long since we last contributed to the ever-expanding knowledge base that is the web that you probably assumed Blue Magnet had been the victim of a very localized 2012 Mayan apocalypse. Not so, my fellow digital denizens. Fortunately, 2013 has jump-started us into another great year.  So much so, in fact, that we've had to put the blog on hold while we manage the growth of our company--a welcome change, indeed, but I'm sorry to say it has come at the expense of our own blog contributions. In other words, we're preachin' but not practicin'.

Nevertheless, we're back and ready to dive right in with a topic almost as legendary and mysterious as the Maya themselves: SEO.  Specifically, I'd like to explore the core areas compose a given business's search engine optimization efforts.

Those outside of the search industry typically associate SEO with keywords...and only keywords. Their understanding of SEO is somewhere along the lines of optimization circa 1997, where simply stuffing your content with keywords alone may have bought you top rankings in Altavista or Hotbot. But in our brave new online world, keywords alone do not an effective SEO campaign make.  The way I see it, there are 3 keys to setting your website up for SEO success: building great site usability, creating relevant content and establishing your site as a trusted authority.

The Search Engine Raison d'Être

In order to understand the core components of SEO, you have to first understand the purpose of a search engine.  Like any major business, the end goal of the major search engines is to make money through a sustainable business model.  As you've probably figured by now, the model of choice for the search engines is advertising.  Just like the newspaper biz, search engines thrive on advertising revenue.  And the way you sell more advertising is by having a large, targeted audience viewing your product.  Google has just that.  The more users Google gets to adopt its products (like Google Search, YouTube, Google+, Google Maps and all their other products), the more consumer eyes are on Google.com--the perfect place to present targeted Google Adwords PPC campaigns.

How Do Search Engines Build An Audience?

This isn't the Field of Dreams, so building it does not necessarily mean they will come. Search engines create an audience by providing a valuable service to consumers: delivering relevant websites based on a search query. If search engines provided crappy results users would simply turn to other channels to find information on the web (see: social media). That's why it's in the search engines' best interest to provide customers with the most relevant information from the most trusted authorities on that subject. Search Engine Optimization is really just about making sure your website is providing the search engines (and ultimately the searching public) with the most relevant and trusted website content.

We Have The Same Goals!

This is great news! Our goal of providing relevant, trusted information to our visitors is the same goal that the search engines have.  In the end it's all about helping the customer find the information they need. When Google sees businesses providing this information on their websites, it rewards them by ranking them higher in the search results. It's so elegant in its simplicity, and best of all, everybody wins! And it makes sense.  Why would Google or Bing promote a site that uses spammy keyword techniques, has little relevant information to your search and is part of a sketchy link network?  Promoting a site like that is a good way to drive users to other search engines--one which would hopefully offer better results.

The 3 Pillars of SEO

Once you understand the search engine's goals, it becomes clear that SEO is more than just keyword and link building; instead, it's about improving the usabilty of your site, the relevance of its textual content to the searcher, and the level of authority your site has within its industry.  Ultimately, both you and the search engines want to create a better user experience (which means more conversions).  And, although there are MANY, MANY ever-changing factors that determine how search engines like Google and Bing rank your website for given keywords, for the most part those individual criteria all tend to fit nicely into these 3 high level categories:  

  1. Site Architecture (establishes your site's usability)
  2. Content Optimization (establishes your site's relevance)
  3. Relationship Building (establishes your site's authority)

I'll break it down even more so you can get a better understanding of what I mean for each category.  In addition, we'll explore a few good examples of the SEO work done for each.

Site Architecture (for Usability)

Site architecture, as the name suggests, is the foundation of your SEO--it's about creating a user-friendly website.  Any good SEO professional will tell you that before you even dive into writing optimized content or building links, you need to ensure that your actual website is built in a user-friendly way.  After all, what good is it sending thousands of visitors to your site if the site's webpages offer such poor usability that those same visitors leave your site in frustration? Overall, site architecture is about designing and coding your website in a way that benefits your visitors. The easier it is for your customers to find, access and navigate your site, the better you'll rank in the search engines.  

Site architecture is one of the more technical aspects of SEO and includes things like:

  • Site speed - The faster a site loads the better it is for SEO.  Google even stated that it takes page load speeds into consideration as part of its ranking algorithm.  Slow loading pages frustrate users and offer poor on-site experiences.  Search engines do NOT want to promote those kinds of sites.  In addition, with the proliferation of mobile devices, it's more important than ever to make your site as zippy as possible to prevent your webpage from taking 5 minutes to load on your mobile device.
  • File naming and structure - Your website is made up of many different files, including things like HTML, image files and PDFs.  All the files of your site should be properly named and organized in a logical way.  For instance, don't name the photo of your hotel lobby "IMG_2364.jpg."  Instead, name it something more descriptive, like "MarriottAtlantis-HotelLobby.jpg."  Even that small change gives your hotel a greater chance of appearing for the keyword you just included in that photo's file name. In addition, if your site's URL looks like this mysite.com/file123.html?tag=accommodations&special=523, you'd be better off having the URL rewritten as something that makes a little more sense to the untrained eye, like mysite.com/rooms/chicago-hotel-specials.html. Not only does that rewritten URL give visitors a basic idea of its content, but you can even fit a few keywords into the URL as well (ie, "Chicago hotel specials").
  • Canonicalization - Otherwise known as the dreaded "duplicate content" problem, fixing canonicalization or redundancy errors in your site can streamline how the search engines crawl your site.  This problem arises when two pages of your site have identical or nearly identical content.  When this happens, the search engines figure, "Hey, why do I need two identical copies of this page in my database.  What a waste!  I'll just keep one copy and drop the other."  The problem is, you don't get to decide which page Google keeps and which it drops unless you specifically tell the search engine what you'd like to do.  This can be done with canonical tags in the code or by setting up 301 redirects.  It's an important "housekeeping" item that goes on behind the scenes, which clients rarely know about or understand.
  • Server errors - Have you ever clicked on a link to a webpage that displayed a 404 error, stating that the page you are looking for cannot be found? While these pages aren't inherently bad, your site should be scoured for outdated or broken links that point to 404 pages within your own site.  Using a tool like Bing or Google Webmaster Tools can help you troubleshoot those pesky 404 and 500 errors and get your site back on the right track.  Again, although most clients never see this part of SEO, it's an important part of the clean-up process.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to optimizing your website's architecture, but it's crucial to understand that not all optimization is in plain view.  Some of the magic takes place behind the curtain. And while it's not nearly as visible or glamorous or understood by all clients, it's imperative to the success of your SEO campaign nonetheless.

Content Optimization (for Relevance)

This is what most people think of when they think SEO. Whereas site architecture focuses on the usability of your site, content optimization deals with the relevance of your site to the searcher. How relevant is your page content to the keyword query of your visitor?  

While keyword optimization can be an important part of site architecture (ie, for naming files and organization), much of your keyword research will take shape in the content optimization section of SEO.  It's the meat of the campaign and comprises the (mostly) visible content on the page.  Making your site more relevant to searchers through Content Optimization can be done in the following ways:

  • Meta Tags - This is SEO 101, but optimizing your Title and Description meta tags is one of the most basic things you can do to optimize your website.  While meta tag optimization alone won't rocket you above your competitors in the search engine rankings, it's an important step in the overall process.
  • Alt Tags - Similar to meta tags, alt tags are the alternative text attached to the images on your website.  Adding alt tags gives the search engines crawlable text in the code of the webpage.  Without alt tags the search engines will see a big, fat ___________ where some good, optimized text could reside.  It's an often missed opportunity.
  • Headings - Like any good publication, headings also play a big part in the usability of your site.  They are the titles and subtitles on the page that help break your big blocks of content into smaller, clearly labeled chunks.  Although they have less impact on content optimization, headings (like H1 and H2 tags) should nevertheless be optimized for the search engines.
  • Body Text - Keyword research should be integrated seamlessly into the body text of every page of your site.  Focus on 2 or 3 keywords per page and write for your users, not the search engines.  Your text should always be written naturally and should never become bloated with keywords. Don't write copy like this: "This beautiful Chicago hotel in Chicago is the ideal Chicago hotel in the city of Chicago."  Spoiler alert: You probably won't rank for the keyword "Chicago hotel" writing copy like that.  And even worse, your site will likely get punished for your keyword stuffing.
  • Intrasite Links - Links from page to page within your site are integral to getting search engines to crawl deeper into your site. This ties in with usability, but is typically part of your content optimization efforts.
  • Interesting Content - By making your content more interesting, you make it more likely to be shared, which is an important part of the next pillar of SEO: relationship building.  Not all your pages will have link-worthy content, but the more unique and relevant your copy is to your community, the more inbound traffic see coming to your site.

Relationship Building (for Trust)

It's great if your site is user friendly and the on-page content is optimized to the gills, but if those were the only factors that determined search rankings, there would be a tremendous amount of unscrupulous nogoodniks that could easily game the system. This is because the site owner has complete control over the site architecture and the content on the site.  However, the one thing that the site owner doesn't control is the public's trust in their site.  

The search engines needed a way to establish trust online.  Which sites should be considered an authority in their industry?  And how do search engines assign a value on authority?  Enter link building and social media.  Google and Bing decided that the best way to determine the trustworthiness of your site is by evaluating it based on the company you keep. Which sites link to yours? Who shares your links on social media?  These social cues are indicators to the search engines that your content is a trusted source of information.  It's also why search engine optimization can take so long to impact your site. Trust isn't something you earn overnight; you become an authority through consistent leadership over time within a given field.  

With that in mind, here are some ways that the search engines establish trust:

  • Link Building - Having trusted websites link to your own is one of the best ways to build up authority in a given niche.  The search engines consider every good link a "vote" of trust for your site.  Conversely, links from poor quality sites or spammy sites can negatively impact your authority in the eyes of the search engines.  As someone's mom always said, "Mind the company you keep, and always steer clear of the misanthropes."  Same goes for websites.  Hang with the good crowd and get their links. Don't associate with sites of ill repute.
  • Social Networks - While link building is still an important part of SEO, social sharing is quickly becoming an indicator of both trust and relevance for the search engines. It's all one big popularity contest, and if people are sharing your content on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, then the search engines take this as a cue that your site must be pretty relevant. Social networking actually comes in to play within all three pillars of SEO.  It's important to build social sharing features into the architecture of your site to allow users to share your content. In addition, the on-page content has to be share-worthy enough to pass it along, so content optimization is crucial.  And finally, by building relationships through social networks you increase trust and authority in your brand, making it more likely that customers will spread your content to the own communities.

Making The Web A Better Place To Search

The good news is that you and the search engines are both working towards the same goal!  So build your site with usability, relevance and trust in mind and watch your site climb the search rankings. These lists are by no means exhaustive, but they should give you an idea of why SEO is such a time-intensive undertaking any why the search engines promote sites that benefit their users.  By improving your site content and how your users find information on your web pages, not only will you see an increase in traffic to your site, but you'll also see an increase in those visitors converting to paying customers!

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trapped in a contractWe've recently heard many stories of hotels that feel stuck with their current emarketing provider.  Sometimes hoteliers are immobilized by ironclad contracts that give all website rights to the emarketing vendor. Other times a hotel is locked in a perpetual relationship with an emarketing provider due to proprietary technologies and accounts.  Of course, these types of lock-ins are never a problem when the customer is happy, but when things go south that's when the swords come out and the legal dogs are let loose.

Nobody likes to be locked in a partnership, particularly with a business that has let them down. Maybe the product you purchased didn't live up to the marketing hype. It could be that the customer service just stinks. Or perhaps the quality of the service provided is the pits.

Regardless the reason, you're disappointed. You paid the big bucks and you've got nothing to show for it but frustration.  In the best case scenario, you complain directly to the company via social media or navigate the dreaded automated phone maze in order to reach a live human being, only to get platitudes about "quality" and that company's commitment to "service." Most of the time though, you make a mental note of the offending brand and vow never to support their evil empire of shoddiness again! Unfortunately, in some instances you're met with a dead end: you've purchased a product or service that locks you into some sort of agreement that you are unable to break without some sort of severe psychological or financial cost.

How To Trap A Client

Here are just a few examples that we've seen of hotel clients who have been locked into unhealthy relationships with other vendors. The hotel names have been removed to protect the innocent.

  • Trapped by a Contract:
    Hotel 1 had signed a contract with a vendor that provides emarketing services but was interested in switching to a new emarketing vendor. The old vendor had built their independent website and provided some dubious ecommerce services. Understandably, the hotel was unimpressed with the performance and the company's overall attention to detail.  Since the hotel entered a contract with the vendor, the General Manager was simply waiting for that agreement to expire before moving on to Blue Magnet.  Unfortunately, upon further review of the vendor's contract, the hotel came to realize that the vendor actually owned the domain name and the design of the site!  This meant that even if the hotel let their contract with the vendor expire they still would not be able to take their website with them.  After all, according to the contract, it was property of the vendor! As a result, the hotel would basically forfeit their entire website and any search engine performance earned by the site thus far. Essentially the hotel would have to rebuild their site if they wanted to change vendors. They were trapped, just as the vendor had planned. They wanted out of their contract, but doing so would financially harm their hotel in the short term.
  • Trapped by a Proprietary Product:
    Hotel 2 had paid an emarketing vendor to create their website, but had since decided to go with a new emarketing vendor. Part of that transition from one emarketing vendor to the next involved the management of the hotel's independent website. Unbeknownst to the hotel, the site was developed on the vendor's proprietary content management system (CMS).  This was fine while the hotel was working with the vendor because they managed all the content through the proprietary CMS.  However, the hotel soon discovered that it would be unable to migrate the site away from the old vendor without breaking all the code that tied the site to that vendor's proprietary CMS.  As a result, the hotel had to invest additional funds into rebuilding the broken site in an open, non-proprietary format with the new emarketing vendor. The open format would allow the hotel to freely move the site to whichever vendor they chose without the headache caused by the old vendor's system. Although the proprietary CMS may have offered slick features and options unique to that platform, it needlessly bound the customer to that provider.
  • Trapped by Proprietary Information:
    Hotel 3 had an independent website that was being tracked with Google Analytics tracking software. This tracking provides a wealth of historical information about all kinds of user behavior on the website. The vendor set up the hotel's Google Analytic profile (as well as those of their other clients) on their own central vendor account. This meant that when it came time for the hotel to switch online marketing providers, the vendor told the hotel that they would be unable to give them ownership of the data because it was tied to their own corporate account.  The hotel could create their own Google Analytics account, but they would lose the historic data tracked across the previous years. As a result, the hotel was forced to abandon all their old historical data that helps to analyze and improve future site performance, all because their previous vendor held their data captive.

It's clear why these companies choose to do businesses this way. They assume that trapping customers with contracts, proprietary formats and locked data is a way to ensure continued revenue streams. Let's face it, new business acquisition is challenging and comes at a significant cost to any business (time and money). It's tempting to lock someone into your services. But forcing customers to stay with your company against their will is a shortsighted solution. Once that barrier is removed, that customer is going to bolt, spewing obscenities about your company in their wake. Putting up false obstacles is never good for customer satisfaction either. Blue Magnet was founded on the idea that customers would want to stay with our agency because we've become a valuable part of their team, not because they've been trapped by a proprietary product or slick contract that grants us rights to all their website content.

How To Protect Yourself

There are a lot of sketchy characters out there, and not all of them conspicuously don the Snidely Whiplash mustache with matching "bad-guy" cape. In fact, many vendors appear to be acting in your best interest, and for the most part they are. You just have to make sure you read the fine print on the agreement. The best defense against getting trapped with an unscrupulous emarketing vendor is the same in any industry: do your homework! In addition, these simple tips will help keep you free from the shackles of an unhealthy business relationship.

  1. Call vendor references - Investigate the company with which you are considering doing business. And don't just call the clients the vendor provides you. Snoop around the internet. Google's great for sleuthing! And because many vendors will place a link back to their own company website in the footer of their clients' websites, you have an easy way of tracking down potential references (even ones they may not want to explicitly advertise).  Another good tool for investigating this beyond the search engines is to run a search for the vendor's website in OpenSiteExplorer.org.  Here are the results from a search for BlueMagnetInteractive.com. You can see many of the sites we built for our clients.
  2. Use open source solutions - If you think you may switch emarketing vendors at some point, make sure your website isn't built on that vendor's proprietary framework. Some examples of content management systems that are open source are Joomla!, Drupal and Wordpress, among others.  Unless you really need a custom CMS, many of these open source solutions will be able to accomplish the same goals. More importantly, they can easily be transferred from one vendor to another without having to worry about breaking the system.
  3. Purchase your own domain - Make sure that when you purchase your domain name (examplehotel.com) that the WhoIs information (contact info for the domain) is in the hotel's name. There is no reason for the vendor to own this. In addition, the contract that the client enters into with the vendor should clearly state that the domain is property of the hotel, not the vendor.
  4. Request full access to the hosting - Many vendors will host a client's website on their own servers. This is fine, as long as the client is given access to manipulate content on the back end of the system.  Some vendors prevent outside access to their systems.
  5. Set up accounts in your name - Should you ever choose to leave your current vendor, you're going to want to take all your hard earned data with you. Otherwise, how will your new vendor know how to benchmark your performance? Let's take Google Analytics as an example. The vendor should set up a separate Google account in the hotel's name in order to track your website. Vendors that insist on setting up the account under their own vendor profile are only setting you up to lose all your historical web data when the day comes that you choose to leave that vendor. Ask that any new accounts for your hotel be set up independent of the vendor's other clients, for portability's sake. Also, make sure you request admin access to any accounts they set up for you.
  6. Own all creative rights - This should be a given for any kind of work-for-hire, but ensure that when your vendor builds your website that they transfer ownership rights of all design and development work, all copy on the site, all images to you. The vendor is building the website for you. You should not need to license the site from them. If you paid them to build it, you should own it. Make sure the contract says as much. There's nothing quite like spending thousands of dollars on a cool new website, only to find out that you're not the real owner--the vendor is.
  7. Review the contract carefully - This tip covers many of the items above, but it's important to list on its own. Many clients who think they're free to leave with everything they've already paid for are often shocked to find that the simple agreement they signed states otherwise. Have your legal team review the terms before you give the final sign off on any vendor contracts, particularly if you're unfamiliar with the technologies referenced in the document.
  8. Ask questions - There's a sucker born every minuteGrill your vendor with some hard hitting questions. This is your money! Make them work for it. It's harder to walk all over a client when they're knowledgeable about the emarketing industry. When I bring my car to a mechanic they look at me and see a sucker. That's when their eyes quickly flash dollar signs, a cash register chime is heard, and with a wry smile the mechanic assures me, "We'll take it from here, chump." A little knowledge goes a long way in showing the vendor that you'll call them out if they try any funny business. You don't have to be a jerk about it--just be knowledgeable and ask questions based on the list in this blog post.
  9. Understand what you're purchasing - Finally, just make sure that your vendor tells you, in plain English (not legalese), what your business has purchased from them. What do you own at the end of the day when you decide to walk away? How long are you in the contract? What does the vendor own? How easy is it to migrate the website, hosting, domain, services and accounts over to a new vendor? Even if you're on good terms with the vendor now, always make sure you have an out.

Most client/vendor problems can be avoided by simply understanding what you're buying into as the client. Admittedly, emarketing can be a confusing industry; there are a lot of technologies, intellectual property rights and participating parties involved in website development and marketing the site online. Keeping it all straight can be exhausting. Just be sure to use these tips as a guideline so you can understand what your hotel will walk away with after the relationship has ended. Contracts in themselves aren't inherently evil, and in many cases should serve to protect both parties; However, as identified above, when put into the wrong hands they can certainly be used for nefarious purposes. The more you understand before signing the contract, the less pain you'll experience when you and your vendor decide to part ways. Fortunately, most reputable emarketing vendors won't need to rely on underhanded contracts to secure their business model. Vendors that rely on the strength of their performance and the quality of their support will never need to rely on fine print agreements to lock in their clients. Quite the contrary--those clients will never want to leave!

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LinkedIn is often overlooked as a great online sales and networking opportunity for hoteliers. In a recent blog post, I outlined how to begin using LinkedIn as a sales tool. Now that you are aware of several lead generation techniques afforded by this social network, it’s essential to build engagement and enforce your new strategy. But how? For your convenience, I have created a checklist in the form of an infographic that will help hotel professionals effectively utilize LinkedIn and engaging target audiences. Make sure to save this on your desktop, email it to your sales staff or post it on the cork board in your office. Some of these overarching tactics will also be of value to your hotel’s other social media strategies. Now get out a pen, start checking...and selling!

LinkedIn Infographic

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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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You already understand the importance of link building for search engine optimization purposes, so it’s time to take your link building to the next level. Obtaining links from quality websites can help raise your hotel’s organic search rankings. In addition, by creatively utilizing some of your current sales strategies you can obtain links on sites that encourage extended stays, which in return can help you increase your hotel's average length of stay (LOS).

Start by talking with your sales team and asking a few questions: Who are they already reaching out to for sales leads? You may find that just by having this simple discussion you can already come up with a list of new sites to target for link building. Your sales team is probably already in various discussions with a variety of companies attempting to negotiate group rates for upcoming conferences or meetings near or at your hotel. Work with your sales team to build each group a specific booking code to place on their company site to make it easier for attendees to book their stay at your property. Link building can be as simple as that!

Then, build upon the list they provide to you. Consider this: Why would someone want to stay at a hotel for longer than a few nights? In what situations would be a potential guest need week-long or month-long accommodations? Below are a few suggestions to help you brainstorm:

  • Partner with local area realtors and ask them to refer house hunters to your hotel verbally and on their website. When a family is relocating, typically one or more members of the family will do the majority of the house hunting. Since this can be a longer process, this family member will typically need to stay close to their new location. Offer a local realtor an incentive for referring clients to your hotel, and be sure to ask them to link from their site to your hotel sites. You could even set up special rates for “house hunting” family members looking for accommodations for 3+ days. Work with local moving services to explore opportunities for marketing on their sites.
  • Stay current with construction plans in the area. Any time there is construction happening in the area, there will be a need for housing and opportunities to book extended hotel stays. If a new neighborhood is under construction in the area, new residents may need a temporary housing solution until their new home is complete. Ask for links from the new neighborhood’s informational website to the hotel’s website to get in front of the new residents. Likewise, if a new shopping center or restaurant is opening in the area, you’ll want to be listed on these sites as well; many companies will send employees from different stores or restaurants to help open the new establishment and these teams will need somewhere to stay.
  • Contact local businesses to discuss relocation for employees. For example, if you have any family members that work with an airline, you may know that airline employees frequently relocate. Work closely with the airline to form a partnership to become the referred hotel for extended stay while these employees search for permanent housing.
  • Work with local moving services to explore opportunities for marketing on their sites. Talk to moving van & storage facilities to ask for leads. Also, ask them to include a link to your hotel site to your hotel website.
  • If your hotel is located near a symphony or concert venue, work with the talent coordinator to secure your hotel as a preferred property for performers. Often, groups like symphonies or bands would prefer to stay in hotel accommodations while in your town than to try to sleep on a crowded tour bus. Although it won’t be a constant revenue-generator for your hotel, securing a partnership now could result a large group for an extended time period in the future.
  • Contact the webmaster at your local hospital and rehabilitation center. While the patient will most likely be staying in the hospital, friends and family may need a place to stay to be close to their loved one. Become a recommended hotel and ask the hospital to link to your website. If you can, offer a discounted rate to family members of hospital patients to encourage them to stay with you, rather than sleeping on a hospital chair.
  • Local police and fire stations may also be a good resource to acquire extended stay guests. When tragedies happen, like a house fire, people will need somewhere to stay fast, and for an undisclosed time frame. You may be able to speak with the Red Cross as well, as they are known for helping displaced homeowners after a disaster.
  • Reach out to local divorce attorneys. When couples decide to split, most likely someone is going to need some temporary housing. Ask local divorce lawyers to direct their clients to your hotel.

Even if you’re not technically an "extended stay hotel," partnering with local organizations that could help you attract guests with longer length stays. Depending on your property and market, some of the suggestions above may not work for your hotel. However, if you do end up with a guest with a 30+ night stay as a result, you’ll be happy you took the time to acquire these links.

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