Max StarkovPresident and CEOHeBS Digital
Max Starkov is president and CEO of the hospitality industry’s leading consulting firm, HeBS Digital, which specializes in full-service digital marketing. His research and writing on hotel marketing strategies have been widely published, and he is a frequent guest speaker at industry events. He spoke to eMarketer’s Dan Marcec about the evolution of search for the hotel industry and how content optimization affects customer response.
eMarketer: In what ways has search changed in the past few years, and what does it mean for hotel marketers?
Starkov: The biggest change has been the major brands’ focus on the direct online channel. Especially with demand rising, they’re all in a fierce battle with the online travel agencies (OTAs). Paid search can be a major tool in the hands of hotel brands, but the fact is that Expedia is outspending all of them combined. According to their 2011 SEC filing, Expedia spent $796 million on advertising, and a big chunk of that was paid search. Major brands have an uphill battle.
For now, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and Marriott are outspending the other hotel brands approximately 3-to-1, but that means they’re all going in that direction, bringing more money into the marketplace. At the same time, you have a natural increase in the number of searches because more people are adopting search for research, planning and booking.
eMarketer: In what ways will Google’s semantic search affect SEO for hotel brands and properties?
Starkov: Google has always valued relevant and deep information, and the Panda update [which upgraded Google’s algorithm for higher-quality search] has thrown the marketplace a new challenge—and requirement. The content out there is good but not good enough.
The problem Google discovered with OTAs and hotel brand sites is that while their content is relevant and deep, it’s bland compared to what a particular hotel can say about itself. Search engines love content that associates a hotel with its destination.
eMarketer: With that in mind, how have hotel marketers responded in optimizing their content to meet changing consumer demands?
Starkov: Content isn’t just king anymore; it has become the emperor. A brand like Marriott or Hilton or Starwood has tons of content—there are 104 hotels in the New York City area for Marriott, with 20 or 30 pages per hotel. So they have deep content and relevant content, but the content is not unique or engaging.
For example, we did optimizations for a major Marriott franchisee with 130 hotels in the US. Our copywriting department rewrote content to put on Marriott.com, made it engaging, more appealing to consumers and more creative—not just bland bullet points and so forth. These hotels outperformed others on the Marriott site by 35%.
eMarketer: As you mentioned, paid search works hand-in-hand with content development. In what ways are hotel marketers attracting their target customers through search ads?
Starkov: Now more than ever, in 2012, website content affects the results from paid search. The time for performing general branding campaigns is over—paid search is a direct-response advertising tool.
Especially in the last four to five years—all hoteliers are starting to realize this, even though the OTAs knew it for a long time—one of OTAs’ main weak points is the inability to advertise a particular rate or package for a particular destination. The marketing message is deals. If you have a paid search strategy for every single hotel, you can be exceptionally targeted, and you can promote $300 spring specials in New York City, for example. Concrete offers see the biggest conversions.
Paid search can really turn lookers into bookers by directing them to supporting content on the web pages, and that’s why it works hand in hand with SEO. Being very specific, using concrete rates, a concrete call to action and a limited time offer—that’s what works. OTAs buy all the general search terms, but they cannot physically do this at the property level. They can do hotels in Houston, but they can’t do this particular hotel in Houston for $129.
A longer version of this interview is available to eMarketer Total Access clients only. If you’d like to learn more about becoming a Total Access client, click here.
Check out today’s other articles, “Marketers Use Growing Number of Tools to Spur Website Engagement” and “Men in Asia-Pacific Active on Social Networks.”
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