Google: you might have heard of it. The search engine giant, 20 years old this year, has become synonymous with the internet. The company is a household name around the world and even a verb.
It's impossible to overstate the impact this single company has and continues to have on the travel industry. As consumer behaviour changes and bookings and research increasingly shift online, the gatekeepers hold all the power. Google is the gatekeeper. The door through which the majority of western travellers find their information, discover trips they want to go on and complete bookings.
In turn, Google's dominance has forced travel businesses to adapt. Websites are now tailored to meet Google's everchanging SEO standards. Entire businesses are designed and adapted to suit Google's framework and take advantage of its peculiarities.
Google has always indirectly influenced the way travel businesses operate. But things have moved on in the past year or so. The search engine giant has shifted its business model. You know the established drill: Most of Google's revenue is through ad sales. Companies pay to get listed on Google and target certain search terms; Google charges a small fee each time they get found. There are plenty of businesses out there who bypass organic SEO and are happy to pay for easy traffic.
That translates as follows in the world of travel: Google makes plenty of money from travel companies, from hotels to ride-sharing platforms to OTAs. All have to fight for traffic. All are desperate to be at the top of search results for their chosen keywords and terms.
But now Google is becoming a travel agency too. The reason? Ad fees pale in comparison to referral fees. Platforms such as Skyscanner, Expedia and Kayak all aggregate search results and gain commission from completed purchases. So why shouldn't Google do the same, particularly when it has control over the flow of traffic?
And now it appears as though Google has started to use its muscle when it comes to search results, a development that shouldn't be of any surprise to travel industry watchers.
According to a recent study from Searchmetrics, travellers searching online for flights, hotel rooms and other related products using Google are now faced with fewer "organic blue links" on the first page or results. Instead, that space is being taken up by the search giant's own tools and services.
This is significant: the playing field is shifting. Google is using its power as a platform to boost the search returns of its own tools. Inadvertently, this means that travel companies with products to sell are further down the pecking order.
Searchmetrics' study looked at thousands of U.S.-based queries as part of a wider, cross-vertical analysis. The aim was to find out the extent to which search results are changing as Google introduces more of its own tool and services on search engine results pages (SERPS).
And this is what they found…
On average, 8.8 blue links were shown by Google to travel-related queries, down from the traditional ten. Google-created content shown in SERPS varies between desktop and mobile devices, but overall there is an increasing number of different elements served up instead of travel content, the study found.
Chief technology officer and founder, Marcus Tober, says: "Getting onto Google’s first page for important search terms is a necessary goal for all travel brands, and the universal search elements offer an additional way of appearing there.
"Travel marketers need to understand which universal search integrations commonly appear for the keywords and topics their target customers are searching for and optimize their web content to increase the likelihood that Google will feature it."
Searchmetrics disclosed that Google's own elements, which include news, maps and the knowledge graph (facts and details about a product or destination) were featured in most travel industry search results.
This is the quantified likelihood of each individual element appearing on page one of a desktop search engine result:
And here are the figures for mobile search results:
As we can see, the knowledge graph has become a recurring result for travel queries. The sources of that 'knowledge' are going to benefit hugely. So how can you become one?
Well, the study concludes that "As a brand, you need to be sure to have an up to date, active presence on these sites with good quality, relevant information. Information that is well structured, with headings and bullets is more likely to be used. Encourage reviews and ratings as they are often included in a company’s knowledge graph listings."
But what else can companies do to push up the rankings or hold on to their place on page one?
As we've seen, it seems as though travel companies should be worried about how Google is displaying search results and the amount of real estate left on the front pages after a query has been plugged in. But are there ways to get around these new challenges and continue to drive traffic through search engines?
Of course there are. And we'll come to those later. But right now would be a good time to think about some comments from travel industry leaders made at a recent EyeforTravel Europe. In particular, they were discussing the threat and impact of Google.
Attendees on the day were asked: what is the biggest threat to the industry right now?
Clearly, and as we have seen, one of the possible answers was the role of Google. However, it appears as though the rise of Google was way down the list of concerns of some delegates.
That outcome confused keynote speaker, chairman of Rome2Rio and former founder of Viator, Rod Cuthbert, who said: “With Google’s hotel product, they are now allowing hotels to advertise directly, and if a consumer chooses a particular property they can pay using Google Pay. So now they are [also] getting payment data, and they are at the top of funnel”.
In fact, Cuthbert has hopes that the European Commission will eventually get a grasp of Google’s anti-competitive behaviour in the travel industry.
A different view, however, came from Eurail CEO Brenda van Leeuwen who argued for the “need to play smart”. And that may well mean partnering with Google, and others like Skyscanner and Expedia, to put the rail industry on the map.
It might not be fair, but travel firms do need to keep on top of Google’s moves in search. So, if Google announces, as it did earlier this year, that sites which “follow the best practices for mobile-first indexing” will see significantly better results, then brands need to be on the ball.
So we know that the number of organic blue links that Google is placing on page one of travel industry search results has gone down from 10 to an average of 8.8 on mobile and desktop. We also know that the first results page is increasingly dominated by Google's Knowledge Graphs, as well as images, apps and maps - anything which leads to a higher clickthrough rate for searchers.
So how can travel companies address their own websites and content to meet these shifting requirements?
First up: Maps. The Searchmetrics study found that 23% of travel search results include at least one map on mobile phones and 17% on desktops. More often than not, this map data comes from companies’ Google My Business pages.
So how can your travel business work with that statistic? Here are a few suggestions:
The most important thing to note here is the presence of images in travel search results. 18% of desktop travel searches include at least one images box. 15% feature images on mobile.
So what should you do to make the most of this? Obviously, you want your images to be the ones that are featured. Which takes us back to an SEO basic principle: Use high-quality images and ensure that image file names, image titles and alt attributes include words that are relevant to the topics that are being displayed.
Google's algorithms can't identify images through pixels, so these references are your travel company's chance to show how relevant they are to a particular search term.
The harsh but siple truth about ranking in the top spot on Google is that you get what you pay for, to an extent. That's why 32% of travel searches on mobiles include at least one AdWords’ ad at the top of the page, compared to 15% on desktops.
So when putting together Google Ad Words campaigns, try to find search terms to bid on that are neither highly competitive or irrelevant. You want words and phrases that suit your audience down to the ground.
After that, it's a case of always working to improve your landing pages to make them as effective as possible. Aside from those details, you should also obviously have a big focus on coming up for organic search terms.
Holiday Pirates CEO David Armstrong recently shared a few insights at EyeforTravel Europe, as you can watch in the video below.
4. Knowledge Graphs
And now to Knowledge graphs, those pesky things that suddenly appear in 65% of travel search results on desktops, and 22% on mobile. Clearly, these represent an opportunity for travel brands to get right onto the first page of results.
Usually Google takes the information for the graph from sources such as Wikipedia. But the data can also come from an organisation’s own website or Google+ page. If it's a business that's been searched for, details from its Google MyBusiness listing, links to social channels and contact information will also be included.
So the obvious thing to do is to keep these updated for your travel business and play the Google game. If you're hoping to provide the information for a specific knowledge graph, be sure to organise your content in a way that encourages Google to use it.
For example, your website pages should be well structured, with headings and bullet points and easy-to-read content.
The last but not least factor you should consider is Google News, which aggregated breaking news stories from numerous sources around the web. When travel terms are searched on Google, the search engine displays news results 20% of the time on desktop and 16% of the time on mobile.
So what's the message here? Well, getting on the first page of Google doesn't necessarily mean you have to be killing ti with organic search terms or spending a fortune on Ad Words. Instead, travel businesses also have to realise that there's an opportunity to be discovered purely through being in the news.
So get involved with travel publications and other news sources that offer travel advice, information and analysis. If you develop a positive relationship with key media players in your chosen niche, you could find your company hitting the first page of Google for your chosen search terms - inadvertently through news articles.
Here at Travelshift we build travel marketplaces that get noticed. Our marketplace software is proven, adaptable and has a bunch of features to help you quickly scale in your chosen niche and compete with the bigger players in no time.
Crucial to that process is our focus on building a content-driven platform. We provide our clients with all the tools they need to become not just a booking platform, but a hub for all things related to their niche: a newsroom, a blog, a social platform, a community of tour operators, local guides and travellers.
This means that you're quickly building your Google ranking from day one with authentic, community-driven content that perpetuates sales and boosts your SEO.
As we've mentioned, Google is stepping further into the travel space and becoming its own OTA of sorts. This means that the competition is fiercer than ever for bookings and research. Particularly when Google could act in future as the gatekeeper to information and bookings.
However, as the large majority of Google's revenue comes through search, it remains in the company's interests to provide relevant results to travellers looking for inspiration and opportunities. For that reason, the foundation of Travelshift software - our ability to drive traffic and sales through the power of community building - is here to stay.
Want to find out more about how we can help you set up a travel marketplace in your chosen niche? Contact us today.