UPDATE: The new Google Hotel Finder ad format is called Promoted Hotels. Online travel agencies and hotels bid for the ads and pay for them on a cost-per-click basis, similar to AdWords. Details here.
The original post follows:
An advertising experiment in Google Hotel Finder enables Google and online travel agencies to blatantly and misleadingly cash in on hotels' intellectual property.
Google Hotel Finder is displaying hotel listings atop search results pages, labeling each as an "Ad" and then providing an online travel agency placement as the only practical booking link.
These type of advertisements may have a parallel to the days when OTAs were bidding on hotel keywords in Google and other search engines. Several major chains issued trademark standards and threatened to boycott any intermediaries who trampled on the hotels' intellectual property.
See what happens when you search for hotels in Chicago for a June 8 stay (you may or may not be able to replicate this). Here's a screenshot of an ad, highlighted in tan and displaying a listing for the JW Marriott in Chicago:
You'd think this is an advertisement paid for by the JW Marriott in Chicago because there is no indication to the contrary. But, you'd probably be wrong in that assumption because if you click on that ad, you'll see that virtually the only option for booking the hotel is with Hotels.com.
You'll see that in the following screenshot:
And, notice at right how Hotels.com has commandeered the hotel details page for JW Marrott in Google Hotel Finder.
Yes, "JW Marriott" in black lettering heads the page, but your eyes would probably first notice the bold, red box stating, "BOOK AT HOTELS.COM $309." And, the hotel has no booking link at the top of the page.
On a side note, in another showing of a lack of transparency by Google, the base rate of $309 is shown for the hotel in bright red, and Hotels.com's total rate of $360, including taxes and fees, is displayed, but barely noticeable.
When you click on the Hotels.com button, you'll get a deep link to Hotels.com, where you can book the JW Marriott in Chicago.
Oh yes, there is a link to Marriott.com on the very bottom of the Google Hotel Finder hotel details page and it's in a very small point size.
As you can see (or not see, actually) from the screenshot above, the link to Marriott.com isn't even visible "above the fold" when the Google Hotel Finder hotel details page for the JW Marriott first opens.
And, while Hotels.com gets a deep link from Google Hotel Finder, enabling the consumer to start booking the room immediately, the Marriott.com link on Google Hotel Finder would require the consumer to restart the search on Marriott.com.
Here's what the Marriott.com link looks like, almost hidden at the bottom of the page:
Google obviously is running a test with these OTA ads atop Google Hotel Finder search results pages as they appear and disappear sporadically.
I also found a Google Hotel Finder ad for the Parc 55 Wyndham in San Francisco leading to an Expedia link, and a San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina ad pointing to Hotels.com.
So what's up with these ads?
Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Did the hotels pay for these ads pointing to online travel agencies as the overwhelmingly predominant booking option? Highly doubtful.
Are they paid ads from the OTAs, which are brazenly hijacking the intellectual property of the hotels? That's a possible scenario.
Did Google place these ads for the OTAs on an unpaid basis merely to toy with how they will work? Possibly.
Hotels may already be angry at OTAs, sites such as TripAdvisor and Google for making money off their intellectual property, and this Google experiment will do nothing to soothe their angst.
Interestingly, Google is also using these type of ads on behalf of hotels.
Here's one such ad for the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco:
There is nothing misleading about the above Google Hotel Finder ad, as it points right to the hotel website, as shown here:
And, it's good to see hotels themselves finally getting some advertising real estate for direct bookings in Google Hotel Finder.
Meanwhile, Google has also altered the way it displays its Hotel Price Ads when the hotel listings in Google Hotel Finder at the left side of the page are organic.
The Google Hotel Finder hotel details page previously just had a Book button and didn't preference one OTA over another on the pages:
Previously, once you clicked the Book button, you saw OTA links and the hotel website, as well, like this:
But, all that has changed as Google Hotel Finder is now preferencing one OTA over the others by putting one's ad atop the hotel details page in a bright red box like the following example for the Amalfi Hotel Chicago:
The Google Hotel Finder listing for the Amalfi Hotel Chicago is not labeled an ad and EasyToBook.com gets the booking juice at the top of the hotel details page at right.
Unlike when the Google Hotel Finder top result is an ad on the left side of the pages, as discussed above, EasyToBook.com in this organic result for the Amalfi Hotel Chicago gets preference over the other OTAs, but not exclusivity.
However, you would have to click the More button to see the other OTA links, as shown here:
EasyToBook apparently is paying for this priority placement as Google Hotel Finder states on the hotel details page: "Booking links sponsored."
In typical Google style, these advertising modes may be experimental and subject to change.
It's all about monetization -- not necessarily the user experience -- and it looks like the hotels themselves, in large measure, are getting taken advantage of.