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How to Top Expedia, Google Search Results

By now we all know that when would-be customers go searching for a hotel, they only consider the properties that appear near the top of the first screen of search results. Almost no one scrolls down the page, and it’s nearly unheard of for someone to click to the second page of results. This is true whether your customers are using a search engine like Google, or an online travel agent like Expedia or Travelocity. As just one example, Expedia’s vice president of supply strategy and analysis, Brian Ferguson, recently told participants in the Cornell Hospitality Research Summit that 95 percent of transactions occur on Expedia’s first page listing. Expedia lists well over 125,000 hotels at last count, so it isn’t difficult for a property to find itself marooned on page two of the search results.
A recent report from the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research (CHR) outlines the case of the St. James Hotel in Red Wing, Minn., which wanted to make sure that it appeared at the top of search engine listings for its vicinity. To do this, the St. James worked with a team of Cornell students, led by assistant professor Chris Anderson, of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. Team members were then-seniors Greg Bodenlos, Victor Bogert, Dan Gordon, and Carter Hearne. You can read the report, “Best Practices in Search Engine Marketing and Optimization: The Case of the St. James Hotel,” at no charge from the CHR. In brief, the Cornell team’s goal was to optimize the website by identifying the key search terms for the St. James and make sure that they appeared on the hotel’s website. In concept, that’s the “easy” part. However, the difficult part is making sure it happens, particularly if the website’s structure is not clearly logical in the first place.
Located not far from the Mississippi River in downtown Red Wing, the 63-room St. James Hotel is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. Built as a railroad hotel, the St. James now relies on different types of technology to find guests. The recommendations made by the student team resulted in making the St. James the most prominent property on a Google search of hotels in Red Wing, Minn.
Index, relevant and match
It’s true that the hotel could bid on keywords that would bring it to the top of web search sponsored links; that is a useful strategy in specific cases—particularly when you are introducing special products. However, Anderson and the student team were intent on finding the keywords that would put the St. James at the top of the organic results—in the so-called “Golden Triangle,” which is where people look first when they see a page of Google hits.
As explained in the report, the process of search engine optimization is based on an understanding of the techniques that search engines use to present the most relevant page hits for each search query. When a user types in a search term, Google looks at its index of relevant matches. Note that there are three key terms here: index, relevant, and match. You need all three. To make sure that your pages are included in the “relevant” group, your website must include a logical presentation of appropriate keywords on each page (preferably near the top), including tags and page headers. Other elements that make a page “relevant” to the search engines are a site map and incoming links from other websites. Google’s webcrawlers look at each site to assess how relevant its content might be, based on the proprietary algorithms. Relevant terms are indexed, and these are the terms that are available to become potential matches for keyword searches.
Page organization
As far as a webcrawlers are concerned, a logical page structure means that each page is coherently designed in terms of content and appearance (meaning the tags for images, since the webcrawlers can’t really see pictures). As an example of creating logical structure, the St. James had a page of special promotions, but they were not related (other than being some sort of package promotion). The webcrawlers would find this kind of page confusing, at best. So the Cornell team suggested creating a separate page for each type of package. That way, if someone searched “romantic getaways,” the page containing getaway packages might appear, without confusing the search algorithms by having the eagle-watching nature package on the same page.
When your website is logically organized, with clear paths and directories, then you can include a sitemap, which the webcrawlers will use to find all relevant pages on your site. One other point of web page design is to use a booking mask that appears on each page, to allow your guests to book on the spot, without clicking back to a registration page. Another strategy suggested by the Cornell team was for the St. James to take advantage of the Google local search, which allows a different level of interaction with potential guests.
Since we know that anything to do with the Internet is a moving target, it’s worth mentioning that many of your customers have already moved beyond searches on computers to using mobile apps. That’s one reason that Hilton, for example, has an app for each of its brands. This does not mean that web searches will go away, any more than the telephone has disappeared. Instead, this means that you must keep track of how your customers will find you, and make it easy for them to do so. Once again, the concept is the “easy” part, but the challenge is always in the execution.
Glenn Withiam is director of publications for the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research.
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