By Dan Wacksman, CHDM, CRME, CHBA, Principal, Sassato LLC, and immediate past chair of HSMAI’s Marketing Advisory Board
During the last HSMAI Marketing Advisory Board (MAB) meeting, we tackled recent changes that Google and TripAdvsior have introduced. These changes have the potential to shake things up a bit for hotel marketers, and have been the topic of some heated debate over the past few weeks.
Google introduced changes to the meta-search display, and they are now offering organic listings below the paid listings. This means hotels (and third parties) do not have to pay to show up in the meta-search display. The new meta-search display shows the paid meta at the top of the results page, and then below that are the organic listings. It is still early days, so it is unclear what sort of click share the organic listings will get versus the paid, but some initial feedback indicates it is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 percent.
Tripadvisor is offering a new membership option called Tripadvisor Plus, which gives members savings and perks for a yearly fee (currently $99). Tripadvisor Plus is working to sign up hotels directly, but at the same time, in order to get inventory, they are working with third-party resellers and also getting inventory through GDS.
Are these overall positives or negatives for hotels? MAB members debated these changes. Here are key takeaways from our conversation.
ACCORDING TO GOOGLE
Until this change, the only way for hotels to show up in Google meta was by participating in the paid program, but now results can show up organically. The good news for those participating in paid meta is they will likely have two listings on the page. And those who do not participate in the paid model now have the opportunity to show up as an organic listing, albeit further down the page.
One MAB member was quick to point out that if you are currently not connected with Google through your brand or a Google-approved partner (https://ads.google.com/hotels/partners/), you will not show up.
“It’ll be really interesting to look at that short term versus long term,” another MAB member said. “I think in the short term you’re going to see less paid meta, because a lot of people will think it’s great, but I think in the long term, it’s going to end up being more. As people test out the organic and see good results, they will be very tempted to get greater click share by participating in paid as well.”
However, one MAB member pointed out that there are a lot of variables that will come into play beyond just money. “Even if you participate, your listing may not show up,” the member said. “If you don’t have things like free cancellation mapped and other things mapped, that could be a problem for you. You have to make sure you’ve fully mapped things correctly, so that you make it into the organic listings.”
Another member added, “The other thing to pay attention to is your rate feed. If your rates are showing higher than others in the feed, it will obviously generate less clicks from paid (or organic) and will impact your sort order as well as if you even show up in the organic listings. Rate parity is always important, but when it comes to meta, it is probably the most important aspect.”
One member said that they expect these changes to have an overall negative effect because they give Google more power. “We’re feeding the beast,” the member said. “We’re creating a problem that’s going to come later on down the road, as Google gets more strength and becomes a larger percentage of our overall mix.”
Others were more optimistic about the introduction of meta-organic. “At the end of the day, it is a listing on Google, and if you set things up correctly and manage your rates well, you will have another free listing in the world’s largest search engine,” one member said.
The general consensus was that hotels should do their best to ensure that they are able to be the number-one organic listing for meta, as there is really no downside to it. Whether a hotel plays in paid meta, that’s a bit more complicated and will be dependent on the hotel, its goals, and its performance in that channel.
TRIPADVISOR PLUS ADVICE
In order for hotels to be listed on Tripadvisor Plus, they have to offer a discount (X percent below what can be found on other non-opaque channels) as well as offer additional value-adds and personalization to Tripadvisor Plus guests.
“I think you need to have a lot of considerations,” one MAB member said. “You do get the guests’ data, but, because the guest has a sunk cost in that they paid Tripadvisor, are you likely to be able to have the mechanism in place to encourage that guest to come back and book direct the next time? If the answer to that is yes, then I think it’s a great program, but if the answer to that is no, then you may want to think hard before jumping in.”
Another member added, “I think you have to evaluate the long-term impact on your business versus the short-term potential for gaining new guests. I think everyone should evaluate what’s best for them, but I think you should go in with your eyes very open about what the potential upsides and downsides are. At the moment it can be turned on and off, so it may be good to test to see how it works and if it might be something that can get incremental business and not cannibalize existing business.”
Another member said that working with Tripadvisor Plus may be better for smaller properties, because it’s a way to get their name out there and gain customers, but larger, branded properties likely won’t want to participate. “If it’s a small or independent property that doesn’t have a huge marketing budget and they’re in a market where it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd,” the member said, “this might make sense to give up the profit margin because they’re not spending that margin on other efforts.”
While overall there was some skepticism to giving discounted rates to a closed user group that is not really closed (they expose rates to everyone, but you can only book if you join the club), like most marketing opportunities, the general consensus regarding participating in TripAdvsior Plus was “it depends,” and each property needs to understand the pros and cons to participating in this or any other marketing program.