Google Carousel and the Future of Location-based Searches

Well it’s been a little while… which is putting it lightly. But with Google’s recent updates, now seemed like the perfect time to climb back up on my search marketing soapbox and grumble a bit about the big, bad Google machine – man, is the air up here thin.

So it’s mid-2013 and Google continues to be the dominant force in search. I’ve never been one to complain much about the inescapable fact that, with their market share, Google wields an enormous amount of power over the flow of traffic online (well, as far as you know I don’t complain much about… which is to say, you know I do, I just don’t take the time to type it up). However, Google seems to have a definite focus on driving searches to more Google, not necessarily to actual websites.

As an eCommerce/SEO manager for the past 4 years focused solely on hotels, I’ve noticed the significant increase in traffic flow from the maps.google.com domain. With travelers trusting more in these “local” results, it’s not surprising that Google would start to drive more traffic to those results as opposed to the broader natural results. The issue with this practice is that less and less of what is filling the pages for guests are actual organic search results. Essentially, the “top of the fold” are Google “properties”: Google Maps/Local/+, Google Hotel Finder, Google Paid Ads, and now the Google Carousel.

Google Hotel Search Carousel

Carousel, Paid Ads, Hotel Finder, Map… Check, check, check and check. Natural Search results? Not so much.

It really was just a matter of time before Google identified yet another way to increase clicks within their own site. For travelers, this new tool could be a godsend – photographs are a key driver for most travel destinations; whether it’s a small market business hotel or a high-end beach resort, no one wants to stay in a dump and photos can help quickly eliminate the garbage. But, for guests, there is more to finding the right hotel than just a single snapshot.

However, for marketers, the problems with this new tool are numerous.

First of all, those photos. If Google did a better job of allowing the OWNER OF THE BUSINESS the ability to completely control these, there wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but given that Google seems to decide almost at random what shows up plus allowing anyone with an internet connection the ability to add content to your listing, putting your best foot forward is difficult at best. The issues for those of us that work with larger hotel chains is that data is fed from the brands to these local pages and so even more of the control is lost (yes, part of the issue here lies outside of Google’s realm of control, just play along, I’m going somewhere with this). In any given search you’ll see hotel exteriors, pools, lobbies, local attractions, and God forbid some shirtless fat guy’s selfie in the bathroom mirror, all showing up as the image of the property in the Carousel. There has to be a simple way to say, “this is my hotel’s primary image”, and KEEP it that way until I decide otherwise.

The next issue is really the focus of all SEO; placement. Since these listings are basically the map results turned on their side, we’re back to worrying about optimizing a map listing in addition to our hotel’s actual website. While Google’s algorithm for map results has some of the same factors as natural search, there are more “local” factors that get involved (distance from city center comes to mind). Regardless of whether the proximity to an arbitrary longitude and latitude point on a map falls into the decision-making process of a potential guest or not, it is a significant factor in placement in the Carousel.

Wait, there’s more!

I’ve made it clear of the issues I have with TripAdvisor in the past, but at least this channel has become a consistent provider of feedback for all hotels. You know what isn’t a consistent driver of reviews; Google+. Care to guess which website’s reviews are a factor in your Carousel placement? (if you’re not sure, you’re probably not paying attention to anything you’re reading…) Google reviews! So now we have yet another channel to beg guests to leave feedback.

“Thank you for staying at our hotel, you’ll be getting a survey in your email about your stay. Oh and would you mind going to TripAdvisor and reviewing us there too? You know what; we don’t have many reviews on our Google+ local profile, could you go there and rate us too? And while I’m bothering you, I noticed you ate at our restaurant too. How’s about you head over to Zagat and tell everyone how wonderful the pancakes were?”

Lord knows when I go to small select-service hotel and spend the night, I want to get on 53 different websites and tell all 17 people I know how amazing the low-flow shower was.

Sorry, review-fatigue tangent… happens to the best of us (or at least me, anyway). Back at it…

One bigger factor here, that’s not even integrated into the Carousel, is the Google Hotel Finder. At this time, the results are not showing any rates (and aren’t yet set up to include any kind of paid ad placement). Given that the Hotel Finder IS integrated into the Local listing, there is no reason to believe that it won’t find its way into the Carousel itself. Presenting us with yet ANOTHER factor to muddy the waters – oh, and cost us money, as the Hotel Finder provides OTA listings as well as the hotel’s brand site room-rate (which would be great on its own, but since Google gets a commission on these bookings it makes perfect sense that they would want this front and center, NOT the organic link to the hotel’s own site). I’m trying my best not to gloss over this, but I really feel like the monetization of the Google properties really is the biggest issue and could have its own post. But, given my history of posting things, we’ll pick back up here sometime around Christmas maybe… ie: Don’t expect a post; just know that Google is GOING to make money off of this somehow, or else why build it.

Now that we know Google is serious about not just providing searchers with results, but also in KEEPING those guests within the Google “system” as long as possible, that huge market share starts to look a bit scary.

Travelers are making it clear that the location-based searches (ie Map listings) are a valid channel. And at the same time Google is making it clear that they are going to play heavily in that channel.

Essentially, that Google Local/Map/+/Whatever-they-are-calling-it-today listing has become another front door to your hotel. And frankly its a door that we’re forced to share the keys to.

Remember the days when keeping your own website up-to-date was enough?

Yeah, me neither.

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“Hotel Finder is Alive!” or “Who Stole My Natural Results?”

Finally, Google’s Hotel Finder is being inserted into results. I know what you’re thinking, “Hooray!” or “Who cares, its just another map tool” or even “Why do you keep writing things in quotes”…

All valid comments.

Personally, I think its a cool tool. The search function with Hotel Finder is pretty slick. Being able to search for a specific area within the map is cool. But I’m not so much concerned with Hotel Finder as a tool, but Hotel Finder as a result in search.

The real issue I have with this is not so much with Hotel Finder itself (though the fact that the OTA’s are given yet another place to stick their prices and links is troubling to me). My big issue at this point is with the clutter that exists on the results page because of it.

When performing a broad search for hotels, the results page is so weighted down with “Google” that you can’t even see results for your search. In the example image, notice how much of the page is covered with paid ads and Google Places (maps results)…. all items that on-page website SEO has NO impact on.

Hotel Results Page in Google

Ads, Places and Hotel Finder - Oh My!

So while on-page keywording and link-building is our day-to-day focus here for our hotels, buying an ad on Google and placement on their map are what fill the search pages.

I don’t usually have issues with Google’s results pages as a user, I can easily avoid the paid results and find what I’m looking for by scrolling through the page and subsequent pages.

What worries me is the inevitable day when there are no pages to click, just various Google Apps filling the web. Maybe its just me.

Why Does Hotels.com Feel The Need To Change My Google Places Number?

This blog began like so many other Social Media outlets for me, with high hopes for engaging commentary on life as I see it. Turns out, they have all followed a similar path… a couple of thoughts followed by months of neglect (Think I’m joking? Check my Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter feeds… sad, very sad). Hey, at least I’m consistent.

Speaking of consistency (killer segue!), it’s time for another rant on Google Places listings! You’re psyched, I know. But this post has a bit more focus, I promise. At this point I’m fine with the fact that Google has no regard for the business owners. It’s their database after all, so they’re gonna do as they please. And until some other amazingly functional search engine comes alone, it appears we’re going to have to play the hand we’re dealt – in this particular instance I mean that I’m going to have to verify the listings for a couple hundred hotels over and over again since the data is being changed.

No, this post is not about Google. It’s about Hotels.com.

We’ve seen phone numbers changed by random 3rd parties more times than I can remember over the past 3 years, but this week a curious thing happened; a supposedly reputable entity changed one of our hotel’s numbers to one of theirs.

I kinda expect garbage like this from stupidhotelaggregator.net sites… but to have a company like Hotels.com do this was shocking to say the least. Crazy thing is, I did a little digging and found some other hotel eCommerce folks who’ve run into the same issue with Expedia (who just happens to be the parent company of… wait for it… Hotels.com!). So, Hotels.com changes the phone numbers of a hotel’s Google Places listing and Expedia does the same thing. Hmmm. Makes you think.

Look, OTA’s are wonderful. People who are not loyal to a single brand get to view lots of options and in the end pick the cheapest place with the prettiest photos. Good for them.

The issue is that hotels have to pay a commission on that booking. All the while, they have a perfectly functional website where this guest could be booking (at a better rate to boot – cheaper for the guest and no commissions for the hotel, the proverbial win/win). So while it make be lousy for the hotel to have to pay a commission for a guest they could get for free, it’s the nature of the beast, a necessary evil that at times actually helps fill those last few available rooms for the property. It’s just business.

But having a traveler log onto an OTA and CHOOSE to book through them is 100% their prerogative. The issue is that changing information on the web to trick guests into booking through the OTA is well beyond being just business. We’ve entered the area that I like to call “being scum”.

Granted, there’s probably some moron with Hotels.com going rogue and thinking they are helping by changing info in Google to drive more business to them. But as a company, if actions like this are condoned, what other ethical gray areas does Hotels.com dabble in? Thing is, it’s not an isolated incident and the fact that it continues to happen points to some kind of larger issue. If you don’t have control of your employees, you’re condoning their actions.

I also wonder how the hotel brands themselves would feel to know that someone they pay commissions to and essentially partner with is ripping them off?…

As it stands, our only recourse is to continue to correct the issues created by Hotels.com as we find them and alert the brands to the fact that their partners are stealing their guests out from under them.

Oh, and launch a social media campaign with the sole purpose of utterly destroying their reputation. I’m thinking of a website like Hotels.com Changes Google Places Listings To Steal Guests dot Com… something along those lines.

It’s gonna be a busy year.