Hospitality businesses should understand how customers use web search engines to inform their decisions about where to stay or eat, and photographs and video clips are increasingly part of the equation. Ross Bentley reports
Hospitality operators eager to take more bookings over the internet will inevitably have to get to grips with how to obtain the best rankings on the major search engines.
This means they will have to dabble in search engine marketing, a form of internet marketing that is constantly evolving as the technology behind search engines becomes more sophisticated and the search habits of users develop.
By now most companies will be aware of the pay-per-click advertising model used by Google, Yahoo! and MSN. It allows advertisers to bid on keywords and terms to ensure a link to their website appears prominently on the results page, and they pay only when a user actually clicks on that link.
Typically this means advertisers pick a series of key words they believe best describes their operation and then factor in how much it costs to bid on individual terms. Keywords and bids can be tweaked over time as feedback reports from the search engines show how cost-effective campaigns have been.
But, says Mike Grehan, author of the bestselling book Search Engine Marketing, this approach has become more refined as marketers have better understood how people actually conduct searches.
According to Grehan there are three main types of search request. First, there is the navigational search, where the searcher knows exactly which site they want to go to, be it the Hilton or the Ivy website, but can't remember the exact address.
The second type is defined as a transactional search, where the user knows exactly what he or she wants to purchase and inputs precise terms in the search box, perhaps a specific hotel or location, or even price.
The third type of search is called an informational search, where the searcher has a vague idea of what they want to do - maybe a meal in the West End or a hotel in the Lake District - and they input searches with the intention of making comparisons. Grehan says this type of search is the most common.
"These guys won't buy anything straight away. Through different searches they will whittle down the options, making comparisons and looking for alternatives," he says.
Understanding the complicated search process that today's web-savvy consumers go through is vital if operators are to attract their fair share of online customers, says Lewis Lenssen, managing director at Netizen Digital, a new-media company focused on the travel and hospitality sectors.
Building a profile
He says his more progressive clients are tracking users' online activities over time and building up a profile of their habits and choices.
"It may not be as simple as them simply doing one search and then buying. A lot of users do five or six searches - refining it each time - before they decide to purchase," he says.
For example, someone may initially look for "hotels in the UK" and then, after they have decided where they want to go, input "hotels in Brighton". They might then leave it several days before returning to search for, perhaps, "hotels near the beach in Brighton" or "four-star hotels in Brighton".
Lenssen says travel companies equipped with this knowledge might decide to spread their bidding over a wider range of terms "to catch their customer early on".
But with web users demonstrating an unashamed lack of loyalty and blatantly searching for the best deal, Luke Mellors, a former head of IT at the Dorchester Group, suggests a company's resources might be better spent away from the search engines.
Mellors thinks there is more promise in advertising on popular travel sites and exploiting the potential of social networking sites to build up a brand that lifts your business out of the cut-throat world of search engine marketing.
"Web users have developed a comparative culture, so why not sponsor Flash advertisements where your customers go to compare, such as sites like Tripadvisor, Expedia and Laterooms," he says.
As for using social networking websites to create a brand and a following, Mellors is full of ideas. He suggests setting up and maintaining a blog and encouraging your customers to post reviews on it. Another idea is to ask customers to upload pictures of where they have stayed or eaten on sites like Flickr (www.flickr.com) - a popular website that allows users to share their photos with other members. Or how about setting up a group on "social utility" website Facebook.com, such as "We love the Dorchester", and inviting communication with others who have stayed at this well-known property.
"It is said there is no loyalty on the internet, but sites like these build communities and encourage loyalty," says Mellors.
He is also astounded that, on the whole, businesses have so far stayed away from arguably the most popular social networking site of the lot: http://uk.youtube.com" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Youtube.
He says: "Put a video on there about your hotel or restaurant and get people to comment. All these comments will help in your search rankings."
Indeed, images and videos have moved into the mainstream of internet search following the launch of Google's Universal Search system in May, which now recognises images and videos as part of a general search.
Whereas previously the world's most popular search engine would offer separate searches for news, video images, maps, etc, the universal search initiative offers one search that blends content from all these diverse sources.
For example, type "Darth Vader" into Google and you will be returned several pictures of the Star Wars baddie along with a few links to relevant websites as well as links to video clips hosted on Youtube.
"With universal search, we're attempting to break down the walls that traditionally separated our various search properties and integrate the vast amounts of information available into one simple set of search results," says Marissa Mayer, Google's vice-president for search products and user experience.
It's not difficult to see how hotels and restaurants could make the most of this by putting images and videos on their websites.
One interesting development from Microsoft might be a boon for hospitality companies looking to exploit this area. The software company is working on a modelling product called Photosynth, which allows users to upload numerous digital photos of venues and create a 3D version of the property or a walk-through experience.
Each photo is processed by computer vision algorithms to extract hundreds of distinctive features, such as the corner of a window frame or a door handle. Photos that share features are then linked together in a web. When the same feature is found in multiple images, its 3D position can be calculated.
At the moment, the product aimed at general web users, which was recently used on the BBC's How we Built Britain series, is still in development, but it's a sign of the huge strides that digital imaging technology is taking.
At a glance
Search engine marketing is about understanding the complex informational searches your customers make.
So far the hospitality sector has been slow to exploit the potential of social networking websites to build brand loyalty.
Products and services such as Google's Universal Search and Microsoft's Photosynth are underlining the growing popularity and importance of digital imagery and video on the internet.