Google made headlines again this week with the announcement of the latest update to its Travel platform: as of March 9th, hotels and other advertisers are eligible to appear in an organic ranking alongside the metasearch listings on google.com/travel.
It's a move prefigured by similar updates to Shopping and Flights last year, and another step forward in Google's efforts to get as many businesses as possible plugging their pricing data into the platform.
So does this mean the end of metasearch as we know it? Not remotely. What we're talking about is actually more akin to SEO vs SEM than 'free meta' vs 'paid meta'. But it's a great opportunity for those hotels who historically haven't been able to participate in meta and undoubtedly opens up new opportunities for hotels at large.
As with any announcement from Google, the launch of free hotel booking links has generated its fair share of hype - but what do hotels actually need to know?
Catch up with all the key info - including how these links work, how they're ranked, and how they perform - with this video from our Chief Tease Charlie Osmond and Senior Product Manager, Jonathan Hickford.
What's in the video:
- [00:00 - 00:40] What has Google announced?
- [00:40-1:40] How do hotels participate?
- [1:40-3:20] Where are these shown - and how often?
- [3:20-6:20] How are the organic links ranked?
- [6:20-10:28] What are the implications for metasearch as a whole?
What is a 'free hotel booking link'?
The combination of the words 'Google' and 'free' (coupled with several attention-grabbing headlines) has understandably led to confusion on the part of hoteliers about the specifics of what has actually changed.
So what actually is a 'free hotel booking link'?
Basically, Google is now supplementing the paid metasearch auction with a list of prices (from both hotels and OTAs) for which it won't charge - essentially they're organic results. There is no charge to the advertiser for clicks on these links.
Where do the links appear?
Google has been testing this organic list for quite some time now. It's appeared in a variety of different presentations over the testing period - and actually continues to do so.
Occasionally there will be a couple of organic links visible on the main results page underneath four or five paid meta links (we are currently only seeing this infrequently and on mobile). More often, there are no organic links visible from the main results. The organic list appears after the user has clicked 'view more rates', at which point it appears under the paid metasearch listings.
How do hotels participate?
Any hotel or advertiser with a live price feed is automatically eligible for the organic listings (depending on a few factors which we explain below). You also technically need an open metasearch campaign, although this could just have bids set at a token $0.01. So, anyone currently participating in Google Hotel Ads will also see their price in the organic listings.
It's these requirements which makes it misleading to claim that hotels can now participate in meta for free - remember, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Any hotel that wants to participate still has to be paying for connectivity in some way. That's what makes the organic listings an additive to, rather than replacement for, traditional metasearch.
Do I need to set bids to appear in the organic list?
Nope! The organic listings are not an auction, and you don't need to bid to appear. If you're currently using metasearch, your bidding strategy does not need to change; your bids there do not affect the organic list.
What determines my ranking in each list?
The ranking of the paid metasearch auction continues to be determined by bids: if you bid higher, you'll appear higher up the list.
The organic listings, however, are ordered based on a number of factors that Google has set out in its new documentation. The main factors are:
- Price accuracy
- Price parity
- Landing page experience.
That means your price feed needs to be high-quality, your rate needs to be competitive, and your booking engine needs to be high-performing. Let's quickly run through each of those in some more detail.
Google knows that it's a terrible experience for a user to click one price and then see another on the booking engine - so it places a lot of emphasis on high-quality pricing data. This can actually vary hugely from provider to provider, so if you're not seeing your rate appear in the organic listings, it's worth starting with some manual checks of the rates you're sending to meta and the rates on your booking engine to see if there are discrepancies. You can also ask your connectivity provider for their Price Accuracy Score from Google.
If you're a Triptease client, you're in good hands: our price accuracy is among the best on the market.
As Jon emphasizes in the video above, metasearch is a 'brutal auction' - there's no room to hide if you have an uncompetitive rate. And now with these organic listings, having the best price matters even more.
The competitiveness of your rate will be explicitly taken into account when Google decides where to show your organic listing, and it could be the difference between being seen and being hidden below the fold. If you want to make the most of these free clicks, you really do need to be on top of your parity and keeping your OTAs in check.
You can find out more about how to do that with Triptease here.
Landing page experience.
In the same way as page quality is factored into your organic ranking on SEO, it is now part of what determines your position in these new organic meta listings. Google wants to see that when a user clicks on your price, they are redirected quickly, the price they've seen on meta is clearly visible on the page, the page is fast and responsive, and overall provides a good booking experience.
What's more, Google have been clear for some time about the fact that they rank pages based on their mobile performance score, so it's more important than ever that your mobile booking experience is up to date.
A quick check you can do today is to run a Google Lighthouse audit on your mobile booking engine (you can find instructions and more info here). This will give you a strong indication of how Google considers your performance and how it's likely to rank you. And of course if you want to quickly transform your mobile booking flow into a best-in-class experience, get in touch to find out more about the Express Mobile Experience - it's specifically designed to boost your performance on mobile.
Does the launch of Google's free hotel booking links mean I should turn off metasearch?
We certainly wouldn't recommend it! While the new free booking links are a welcome additive to an existing meta strategy, they certainly aren't designed to replace it. After all, Google is still a business that needs to generate revenue from its advertising platforms.
Based on the performance of these free links during the testing period, they're definitely not enough to replace your paid campaigns. In addition, their placement and presentation is still very changeable; if, as seems to be the case, Google decide to mainly show them after the 'View more rates' click, their contribution is likely to be small (the majority of meta clicks come from the initial results page).
So - they're a great bonus, but we'd still recommend strong metasearch campaigns as the cornerstone of any direct booking strategy. And if Google's latest move tells us anything, it's that metasearch is only going to become more important as they encourage more and more advertisers onto the platform.
If you'd like to find out more about anything in this article, or try out metasearch using these new organic links, get in touch with our team below!