NB: This is a guest article by Rob Kost, a partner at US-based Thematix.
In June of this year, Google, Bing and Yahoo jointly announced – with little fanfare – a standard they call Schema.org.
Schema.org is modestly described as "on-page markup [that] enables search engines to understand the information on web pages and provide richer search results…", or in a word, metadata.
The low key debut of Schema.org belies its significance as a foundation for some truly extraordinary capabilities of both immediate and long term significance to every business with a web presence, and especially to the online travel distribution business.
When fully realized, the role of search engines and the websites they canvass will have substantially changed by making web structure explicit (by rewarding relevance and richness, as detailed below).
The search engines and other applications built on top of semantically-enriched websites stand to ascend a value chain –responding with answers rather than merely pages, synthesizing reports from latent associations in the data, and reasoning about our intent based on the meanings of our queries.
Fortunately the immediate value of Schema.org is of hard cash significance for travel marketers seeking to use search engines to expose their deep web data, to appear in more and more relevant contexts and to enhance their appearance amidst a myriad competitors vying to be clicked.
It is well established that sponsored links are at least six times less likely to be clicked on than organic results. So the real breakthrough in the world of search engine optimization comes in providing methods for affecting presence in organic results.
This is the narrow starting place of the present article.
Reservations at My http://schema.org/Hotel
Consider the use case of a hotel situated in the heart of the State of Virginia, an area rich in American history and scenic beauty.
The property is distinguished by its location in the Shenandoah Mountains and its proximity to battlefields, historic towns and homes and to recreation including hiking and boating.
Participating in these activities creates the demand for a room at the inn.
Being associated with these activities is critical yet difficult to accomplish within existing best SEO practices. Competing for adwords is expensive and of questionable effectiveness in gaining a top results ranking.
It’s crowded at the leftmost end of the long tail – say, "hotels in Shenandoah VA" or "Shenandoah vacations" and the property is up against aggregators, OTAs and purely informational sites.
Ideally, the hotel would like to appear in all contexts relevant to the purpose of its visitors’ visits. Certainly, it wants to be relevant to the mobile internet user – perhaps a motorist on the way through town.
The hotel would like to be able to state directly – in the search result – whether it has availabilities and what they might cost; it would like to be part of an “answer” to a question posed by a searcher. And, ideally the search result would be distinguished from the other search results, by color, text or even thumbnails. Ultimately, of course, the objective is more click-throughs and more bookings.
Long Tail relevance
Schema.org is designed to help accomplish all of these goals. Using it, a hotel’s website can establish relatedness to places and events – embed itself in a nexus of connections between a hotel, its location, its proximity to things and events and the offers it is making.
This is possible because a hotel is a kind of a “thing” which – in the schema.org taxonomy – is related to other specified and defined things.
Let’s suppose our Virginia hotelier provides discounts to its guests on a variety of local events and attractions. Though it hardly warrants an advertising budget for "local cavern tours", it certainly benefits the hotel to show up in a search for, say, "spelunking deals in the Shenandoah Mountains".
Schema.org allows the hotel to identify itself as a hotel, which is a kind of organization, which can in turn have a location, make offers and be associated with events or other businesses.
This is different from the indexing we have known so far. Though its algorithms get ever-so-smart, Google still doesn’t know that the number "$10.00" is the price of a ticket rather than the price of a room, a newspaper or a breakfast, unless we tell it: <itemprop name = “discount on luray cavern lightshow” price = “$10.00”>
By leveraging the features of schema.org that allow a hotel to designate the "Offers" it make as offers (rather than as just integers on a page), the hotel may find itself listed in conjunction with local "Events" related – in this case – to a lightshow at a local cavern location.
This is possible even though the keyword “hotel” never appeared in the search, because the association is a logical rather than lexical one.
For the first time the hotel has become relevant to search contexts other than lodging – not though any artifice or trick ("black hat SEO"), but by making connections to "neighboring" topics of interest. Our hotel simply leveraged a fact already in existence (its discount program) to point back to the context it was about.
This broadening of relevant search contexts gives rise to a greater incidence of displays searches that are too specific to recur frequently (commonly called the long-tail), but which are nonetheless numerous in the aggregate and over longer periods of time. Also once indexed, they can persist for a long time.
The search listing for our hotel as shown on Google might ordinarily look something like this:
Using Schema.org markup to our hotel site, it is possible to enhance and modify results (so called "Rich Snippets") with, for example, three second-tier links for rates, availability and discounts:
or perhaps stars for user ratings
or perhaps even ratings plus a video
As semantic metadata becomes more pervasive, we will increasingly find that search engines have built interfaces onto data that we supply.
Take, for example, the case of recipes on Google: the data themselves have allowed Google to build a faceted search engine, enabling the user to filter recipes by ingredients and other factors.
Though similar to the enhancements it has built on top of hotel feeds, the search is constructed entirely from the metadata the publishers use to describe their recipes, rather than from a prescribed, rigidly structured data file.
The web’s front door
For better or worse, the search engines are increasingly the “front door” to our customers, where they define a search goal and hope they get the correct answer. As we know it is often difficult to ask the right question, and increasingly difficult to filter and find the best answer.
Part of the problem is sheer volume – “About 187,000,000 results (0.33 seconds)” for Virginia hotel – and the other is relevance – a hotel central to my activities.
By adding more details in a well considered and structured fashion we do better by doing well for our customers and prospects. By anticipating their needs we are able to appear at the time and in the place where it most matters. If we act first, we’ll gain the advantage of time, knowledge and experience. Customers will tell us what works by booking our rooms.
Over time, we can try numerous alternatives to advance the benefits and appear in greater numbers of search results at a lower cost per sale.
NB: This is a guest article by Rob Kost, a partner at US-based Thematix.