As digital marketers in the travel industry, most of our world revolves around watching every move that Google makes.
Even the slightest of changes to the search engine results page (SERP) can set off waves of discussion and debate.
So ever since Google began tinkering with the user interface of its hotel results pages a few years back, digital marketers have been following vigilantly to see what the effect might be for users, and consequently, those who advertise with Google.
NB: This is an analysis by Tristan Heaword, director of digital marketing at Travel Tripper.
One of the more significant changes in recent years has been the evolution of brand name hotel searches. When a user now searches for a specific hotel name, Google will display AdWords search ads on the top left, followed by organic listings.
On the right column, the page is populated with information from the hotel’s Google business listing, followed by a metasearch tool and links, followed by reviews and relevant searches.
To find out whether this change has had any effect on the way users interact with the page, Travel Tripper commissioned an eye-tracking study with biometric platform Sticky to run tests on three different Google SERPs using different hotel names.
A famous 2014 Google eye-tracking study found that most users looked at pages in an elongated “F” shape, with most users starting at the left and looking across and then down. Here is an example hotel search page from that time:
This new study sought to find out 1) if that F-model still held true, and 2) whether the new design would influence the links users wanted to click.
Across all three tests, the new eye-tracking study showed a considerable change in the way users viewed the SERPs. Consider the following heatmap:
On all three SERPs tested, users spent a significant portion of time focused on the top left and top right portions of the pages. The more ads there were on the page, the longer it took for users to see organic results.
With three to four search ads in the left column, users took approximately seven seconds to see the organic results. On a results page that only had two ads, users took only four seconds to see the organic listings.
Where are users clicking?
In the study, users indicated which link they would click on first after seeing the results pages. An aggregate of the answers showed that a total of 55% would click on the paid link first.
Approximately 28% indicated they would click on an organic listing, 10% on a metasearch link, and 7% elsewhere (i.e. hotel photos in the business listing).
Interestingly, when asked whether knowing a link was a paid ad would influence their likelihood to click on it, 44% said that they would be less likely to click if they knew it was an ad. This is compared with 24% who said they would be more likely to click if it was an ad, and 32% who said it would make no difference.
However, our research also indicated that many users simply didn’t realize when ads were ads. For the Google search ads, more than 1 out of 4 people (28% of users) didn’t realize that the top listings on the SERP were ads.
And even fewer people were aware that the links in Google’s metasearch tool in the right column were also paid ads. Approximately two out of five people (43%) indicated that they were not aware the links were ads.
The increasing importance of search ads and ad position
In two of our SERP tests, the overwhelming majority of users indicated they would click on either the first or second listing on the page, both of which are ads.
The first position ad slightly edged out the second in both cases. Third and fourth position ads received very few clicks, and the organic results received about half the clicks of the first-position ads.
In one SERP test, which only had two search ads (as opposed to three or four), the clicks were more evenly spread between the first and second (paid ads) and the third (top organic listing).
Because hotel brand searches are typically end-of-funnel searches (meaning that the traveler has completed browsing and is ready to book), these results show hotels just how important it is to own the top spot in Google Ads for their own brand name.
Counter-intuitive as it may be, allowing the top spot to go to an OTA can mean diverting away valuable traffic that is ready to make a booking.
Does that mean SEO is irrelevant?
At first look, the study seems damning: the more ads that appear on the page, the less people clicked on organic results. However, we’re not ready to discredit the importance of SEO.
First off, a large percentage of users still distrust ads, as indicated by the 44% of people who said they would be less likely to click on a paid ad if they knew it was an ad. Secondly, a significant portion of users (28%) indicated they would click on an organic link first.
For anyone doing digital marketing, PPC and SEO need to work together. It’s a real estate issue—simply put, the more space you own toward the top of the page (both search ads and organic listings), the better off the traffic to your site.
Lessons for hotel marketers
Our eye-tracking study confirmed something many marketers had suspected since Google switched to this new SERP formatting. The addition of the business listing box and metasearch tool appears to keep eyes focused on paid areas of the SERP for a longer period of time than with the old model.
Interestingly, although the heat maps seem to indicate that people are drawn to right side where the business listing and metasearch are located, only a minority of users indicated that they would click in that region first (17%).
Given that Google makes billions a year on advertising from the travel industry, it’s not surprising.
What this does mean, however, is that smart digital marketing is a necessity for hotels that want to stay competitive, especially if they want more people booking direct instead of third-party sites.
NB: For a detailed report on the data and findings, read about Travel Tripper’s eye-tracking study here.
NB2: This is an analysis by Tristan Heaword, director of digital marketing at Travel Tripper.
NB3:Eye-tracking image via Pixabay.