As a growing number of people book their hotel rooms online, the importance of equipping your website to appear high on a search engine ranking has never been greater.
In fact, market research company Hitwise has found that one in three visits to travel and hotel sites comes via a search engine - making search engines the most prominent source of visitors.
Companies serious about appearing at the top of searches via leading search engines, such as Google, Yahoo!, MSN and Ask Jeeves, spend a lot of time and money honing their websites so they get picked when someone punches the right phrase or word into the search box.
According to Rowan Wilkinson, technical marketing analyst at travel website consultancy Netizen, this practice, known technically as search engine optimisation, works by creating a site that has enough popularity to get itself noticed while also maintaining relevancy to the searcher's query.
He says major search engines judge a site's popularity by the quantity and quality of other sites that link to it. Incorporating a link from a website that is popular in its own right carries more weight than having a link from a less popular site.
Incoming links can also have an impact on a site's relevancy. For instance, a link from another accommodation site will increase the relevancy of your website.
However, according to Wilkinson, unlike popularity, relevancy can be significantly affected by on-site factors such as quality, topical content with targeted keywords sprinkled throughout, and keyword-rich anchor text for internal links.
At new-media communications company Sense, which developed and manages the website for Travelodge (www.travelodge.co.uk) - the UK's most-visited hotel website, according to Hitwise - business development manager Emma Wensley says there are a number of things companies can do to make their websites appear higher in searches.
She also emphasises the need to keep updating your website, adding new features and fresh, original content and information, because search engines pick up on sites that are dynamic and constantly evolving.
But Wensley says the best bit of advice she can give is to make your site user-friendly. "We have put most of our energy into making the Travelodge site easy to navigate, and a happy side effect of this has been it has appeared higher on the search engines," she says.
Another happy side effect of making your website easy to use is that once someone has found your site and they like it, hopefully they will keep coming back - and bypass the search engines altogether.
At the Shire Hotels group, which manages nine hotels including the Stafford in London's Piccadilly, e-commerce marketing manager Paul Morris spends a lot of his time second guessing how search engines are evolving and changing their ranking formulas.
The way search engines work is based on highly complicated mathematical algorithms, which are being constantly updated as the search engine companies strive to make them more accurate and effective.
Away from the overly technical stuff, Morris recommends including accurate image tags (the text that pops up to describes each website image when you run the cursor over it) and plenty of relevant keywords.
By relevant, Morris says he means words that will differentiate your property from others. If you describe your property simply as "a great, friendly hotel", it will be drowned out by all the other great and friendly hotels on the web and is unlikely to get noticed.
But if you smatter your site with terms like, for example, "Leeds hotel", "four-star hotel in Yorkshire" or "luxury Yorkshire hotel", your site will appear higher on searches from potential customers running a specific search.
However, before you go out and write "luxury Yorkshire hotel" on every line of your website, Morris warns that overuse of this technique could get you blacklisted from search engines altogether.
Search engines are also programmed to pick up on websites trying to play the system. "It's a fine balancing act," says Morris.
There is another way to improve your search engine ranking and that is by paying to have your website put in a prominent position when a certain phrase or word is searched for. How much you pay depends on the popularity of a search term.
For example, the search term "cheap hotels in Edinburgh" will be far more expensive to buy than "hotel with spa treatments in the Outer Hebrides".
Sites that have paid for a prominent position are displayed on a separate area of the results page. In the case of Google they appear on the right-hand side under the heading "Sponsored Links".
Every time someone clicks on your sponsored link you must pay Google an agreed fee, which can be anything between 1p and 1. This business model is known as pay-per-click (PPC).
The merits of each approach were discussed last month at a meeting of the travel trade's technology standards body, the Travel Technology Initiative.
Len Wright, managing director of online travel website Openroads.com, said: "Pay-per-click gives me maximum control over the position of my site on search engines. I can decide where I want to be day-to-day."
However, Wright warned that PPC can get expensive and advised companies to use a mixture of both natural search and PPC.
PPC is most effective, he said, when used in small spurts. For example, a company running a promotion could use PPC to alert as many people as possible in a short time.
But, according to Peter Gould, CEO of the Great Hotels Organisation, which includes brands such as Great Hotels of the World, customers are much more likely to click on results thrown up by natural searches rather than paid-for results.
He is adamant that developing a search engine optimisation strategy based predominantly on natural searches is the only sensible long-term plan.
"Build your site with search as the first priority. What it looks like should be second," he said.
Top 10 hotel websites
(based on market share from UK visitors, August 2005)
|Rank||Name||Market share||Average session (mins)|
|2||[InterContinental Hotels Group](http://www.ichotelsgroup.com)||17.29%||8:47|
|3||[Premier Travel Inn](http://www.premiertravelinn.com)||15.97%||6:01|
|6||[Best Western Great Britain ](http://www.bestwestern.co.uk )||3.83%||5:51|
|7||[Marriott UK & Ireland](http://www.marriott.co.uk)||3.05%||6:06|
|8||[De Vere Hotels](http://www.devereonline.co.uk)||2.94%||5:58|
|10||[Best Western International||2.42%||7:19|