When it comes to the big search debate, two clichés seem to apply - you get what you pay for and if you put in the effort you will reap the rewards.
Still, whether you are shelling out or relying on the "do-no-evil" promise that great content will surface organically, the travel industry cannot live without the friend, enemy or "frenemy" that is Google.
I’ll try to avoid any clichés or jargon from here on in.
NB: This is a report by Pamela Whitby, editor for EyeforTravel.
Aside from the usual marketing activity, little is said about how Google is needed in times of real crisis, as Malaysia Airlines discovered after Flight MH370 disappeared without trace.
With over 67% of global search traffic originating via Google, the search giant was vital, as EyeforTravel reported in May, in helping the airline to understand what people wanted to know and enabled it to separate its commercial activity from managing disaster related communications.
In other words, in some respects, Google helped Malaysia Airlines to stay in business under extremely challenging circumstances.
But Google is also an essential partner for more mundane day-to-day operations and for companies with an online presence, a big part of this is ranking high in search.
And with the fragmented travel industry consolidating and becoming more competitive, things are undoubtedly becoming much tougher for smaller fry.
Andrew Leung, head of online marketing at niche online travel agency for upscale hotels, Mr & Mrs Smith, says:
"The big OTAs are increasingly cutting into our niche by bidding against us on terms that we own such as the word ‘boutique’".
"It’s had the effect of turning niche terms into a generic terms and that makes life quite difficult."
While Mr & Mrs Smith is always willing to outbid the big boys on key terms that impact the bottom line, that doesn’t always translate to higher booking values.
So not only is Mr & Mrs Smith having to pay more for cost-per-click, this has also had the impact of attracting the wrong customers.
Clearly not everybody sees ‘boutique’ in the same way and if you are catering to the masses – as the likes of Expedia or Booking.com are – then the word has very different connotations from how Mr & Mrs Smith want to frame it.
"This can create unrealistic expectations and causes confusion for customers arriving on our site."
Why great content matters
In this tough operating environment, the firm that began life as a publisher has found that its most powerful weapon remains the ability to produce high quality, focused content, with a recognisable tone of voice and strong insider perspective.
Other steps, like press partnerships with big names in travel like British Airways, Condé Naste and the Times, as well as differentiating from other smaller OTAs by offering mapping functionality through Google Price Ads have also helped.
The firm is also exploring other ways to diversify with a more aggressive approach to metasearch and display campaigns.
"We can’t tell what is relevant for Google from a search perspective but we are definitely seeing the benefits of having great organic content and we continue to look at other creative approaches to improve our search ranking."
A focused approach to organic content is also working for six-year-old Spotted by Locals, which aims to deliver non-touristy content and now has a presence in 56 cities.
Founder Bart van Poll says:
"Google’s goal is to filter the best content for users who are looking for up to date authentic, non-commercial tips, by real people.
"The proof for us that Google values this highly is that the more updates we publish on a blog, the higher the percentage of users find the blog via Google search. So they must be ranked higher."
And now that more of their Spotters' articles are connected to Google via Google+ authorship, more people find their articles via Google search.
Cause for concern?
While I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I’m delighted to hear that that Google may be working some magic for smaller companies, I can’t help wondering if it getting into flights and hotels is the least of our worries.
Perhaps we should be more concerned about what they are doing to dominate what we actually read and think through Knowledge Graph.
Lee Stuart, director of insight at SEO firm Caliber, is another with doubts.
"I believe that many people at Google really do still want to see value in search and are trying to stick the core values of ‘don’t be evil’ but Google is also a public company with shareholders to keep happy and quarterly revenue targets to hit."
"Call me a sceptic but in the ten years I’ve been in this business I’ve seen instability - with the announcement, for example, of an update to a core algorithm that affects organic rankings - created too often at certain key times of year."
In the absence of any hard data to back this up, it’s not inconceivable to imagine that one way for Google to hit targets would be to push firms with a great organic strategy, but faced with uncertainty at a critical time of year, to suddenly have to invest in paid search.
Okay, so this may just be sensible business practice, which would be fine if Google wasn’t such a monopoly and if Google always played by it’s own rules.
Stuart points to the fact that Google penalises firms for paid links, but then will happily distribute free Android phones for people to review.
What’s the difference? Somebody is still getting paid to do something for free.
Admittedly Google may wield plenty of power with politicians in the US but things could be becoming less straightforward in Europe, and rightly so. In the meantime, however, smaller and big players alike will have to be more nimble and more innovative.
On a philosophical note, Hugo Burge, CEO of the Momondo Group, says:
"Small companies can thrive and should have the advantage of being able to adapt more easily but they need to focus on being really good at the things they do. As Darwin said, it is not the big and the strong that survive but those that adapt."
I won’t argue with Darwin (or Burge). But let’s just say that is much easier to do if you have a bottomless marketing budget, deep pockets or insights into what nearly 70% of the world is searching for.
NB: This is a report by Pamela Whitby, editor for EyeforTravel. It appears here as part of Tnooz’s sponsored content initiative.
NB2: Join EyeforTravel in Berlin for Online Marketing, Mobile & Social Media in Travel 2014 (October 1-2) to hear more in depth insights on how to refine your search strategy in an increasingly competitive market place.
NB3: Catapult image via Shutterstock.