SEO: Modern-day snake oil?

SEO: Modern-day snake oil?

It never ceases to amaze me how many unsolicited emails my clients get from companies promising to do wonders for a hotel’s website in terms of search engine optimization. Usually, these missives are well written in an onerous tone that has GMs questioning their website, their web agency, their director of marketing and usually all of the above. What’s a GM to do? Just how important is SEO, and can a “specialist” company really help? Above all, is there any value to the whole exercise in terms of true revenue generation?

First, some notes. This article focuses on Google, which currently processes roughly two-thirds of all search activity. For those who purchase Google AdWords, these appear as sponsored links on the right-hand side or top of the page and are not influenced by SEO tactics. Positioning your product in this arena, combined with SEO, is called Search Engine Marketing, or SEM, and is a whole other discussion.

Why is SEO important? 

If a person is looking for a hotel in a foreign city, doing a Google search is the easiest way to find accommodations. Surely every GM knows that this is not the only approach that potential guests would undertake in their quest to find the perfect spot to rest their weary legs. But it’s typically the first. Other resources include travel agents, OTAs, Facebook, other social media, other travel sites, hotel chain sites and association sites such as Preferred, SLH or Leading.

With so many methods to find your hotel, being in first place for a broad Google search is far from being the panacea to your occupancy challenges. In fact, it may be almost insignificant depending upon how relevant new customer search is to your marketing strategy. Certainly, it cannot hurt to be in the top two or three as a matter of search results, but it is not Armageddon if you miss this spot. 

The rationale here is simple: The more “optimized” your site is, the more relevant it is within the Google search algorithm, resulting in a higher placement for all posted results. But Google rankings cannot be fooled! Don’t think that hiring some third-party sales company can take you from an eighth-ranked page to a top-three position in a matter of days or weeks. It doesn’t work that way. Moreover, Google is wary of some tactics that these proverbial snake oil salesmen utilize and likely has algorithms that negate such surreptitious strategies.

Take the initiative yourself

A basic optimization strategy is quite easy to do internally. Review your website as you do your property, both strategically and tactically. Here is a typical checklist of what you should look for before seeking any external help:

  • A flawless site, with clear text and no internal errors
  • Correct and accurate tags (title, keyword, page and headers)
  • Optimized images with photo alt tags
  • Fully linked and active blog (at least once a week)
  • Fully linked and active social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter)
  • Your URL registered for at least 24 months before it expires
  • Active RSS feed
  • At least one data collection form
  • Clear navigation structure of indexed pages with sitemap files
  • A number of quality inbound links
  • Functioning Google Analytics loaded
Of this list, the first nine items should be easily managed by your web agency. And yes, you must be proactive through social media, managed by either your agency or your staff. It is costly in terms of time required, but dynamically driven content is important for SEO, as it correlates how often your site is updated and therefore relevant.

The last item is more challenging. Inbound links are ones that come from other sites referring to yours. Within Google, however, not all links are considered equal. Those from high-traffic sites such as CNN are far more important that those from a “no name” URL. There are some proven approaches to garnish these quality inbound links; most reside outside of the realm of Internet marketing.

If it’s so easy, why do SEO specialists exist?

Well, if you don’t have a web agency, and you built the site yourself, then yes, the SEO work from these specialty teams might be useful. Furthermore, there is a definite skill in developing the appropriate tag sequences. Plus, some ad agencies are just weak in SEO, and thus, an outside firm might be an approach to consider. But, like anything sold in bulk over the Internet, caveat emptor!