It took novel coronavirus to see free organic links from Expedia, Tripadvisor, and Booking.com rise in prominence in Google Search. This isn't necessarily a game changer for the online travel agencies at a time when travel demand is in the tank. It's more like a temporary reprieve from the Google World Order.
Free links from travel companies are now appearing dramatically higher in Google Search on desktop and mobile — but it isn’t because regulators have clamped down on the search engine or Google has reformed its advertising-tilted business practices.
The dearth of travel advertising because of the coronavirus pandemic has made Google’s pages look almost unrecognizable. For example, Google’s one-box of hotel search results, wth its maps and reviews directing consumers right into Google’s own travel business, is now the highest search result in many cases.
With travel ads largely missing from Google Search, the silver lining is that organic links from the likes of Tripadvisor, Booking.com, and Expedia are newly visible right below the “fold” on desktop, and on the second page in Google results on mobile.
To appreciate the depth of Google’s changes in search, consider this screenshot from 2015 depicting a search for hotels in its headquarter city, Mountain View, California. The first three paid text ads on the left are from Expedia, Hotels.com, and Booking.com, and below that is the Google one-box of search results that take users into Google’s own travel pages. (Google discontinued the right-hand rail of ads in 2016.)
For travel companies dependent on search engine optimization, or maximizing their free links in Google, they are seeing their positions rise in Google’s search results. In this next screen grab of a search for hotels in Mountain View, California, performed Tuesday, you’ll see there are no paid advertisements at the top of page, which is now headed by boxed hotel listings leading into Google’s own travel business universe..
Beneath the Google one-box of search results are free search results from Tripadvisor, Hotels.com, and Booking.com, as seen in the next screenshot. Before the coronavirus outbreak, these free results might have been relegated to appearing in online travel purgatory, namely the third page or screen of results on desktop and mobile.
Travel companies from Booking.com to Marriott have publicly stated that they are either “dramatically decreasing marketing spend worldwide,” as is the case with Booking.com, or suspending brand marketing and advertising, as Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson spoke about in an emotional video for employees.
That advertisement abandonment among many brands has left paid marketing in Google Search — at a time when many countries have shut down travel or instituted bans —relatively wide open.
Still Advertising Online
Some brands are indeed still advertising in Google Search.
For example, doing a Google search for ‘new york hotels” on mobile Wednesday afternoon generated a text advertisement from Booking.com, which was the only advertiser we saw. The same search on desktop triggered no advertising — just Google’s one-box of mapped results, and then organic links from Tripadvisor, Expedia, and Booking.com below the Google box.
A search for “madrid hotels” on mobile and desktop saw no advertising, and beneath Google’s one-box of search results, were free links finally within view from Tripadvisor, Booking.com, and Hotels.com.
When users click on a hotel listing in Google’s boxed listings in search, they navigate to Google Hotels, where travel companies continue to run ads after bidding for placement in Google’s auction. Outside the auction, there are also some free links.
After doing a Google search on desktop for “paris hotels” Wednesday afternoon, and clicking on the first listing for Hôtel Europe Saint-Severin, it took the user into Google Hotels, where Priceline, Expedia, Tripadvisor, and Agoda (in that order) were advertising their $78 per night rate for the property.
If you clicked on a link, “View more prices from $69,” below the ads from the four online travel agencies, two additional advertisers, Otel.com ($69) and Destinia ($177), were advertising the property.
A Google search for “howard johnson flagstaff arizona” generated paid ads from Reservations.com and Howard Johnson Inn — Flagstaff.
So travel brands are still advertising within the confines of Google Hotels, albeit at lower advertising rates and volumes.
Globally, on metasearch platforms such as Google Hotels, Kayak, Tripadvisor, and Trivago, cost-per-click rates for the top position have fallen around 76 percent compared with the beginning of this year, according to metasearch marketing platform Koddi on Wednesday.
Koddi published the following chart a week ago showing the coronavirus impact on cost-per-click (CPC) rates through March 15.
“In response to advertisers turning down campaigns and lower demand, we’re seeing many publishers lower CPC floors —the minimum cost required to show an ad — to help provide more utility to users (bookable links instead of none) and to support advertisers and hotels as they look to build whatever business they possibly can,” Koddi stated.
Global cost-per-click rates on hotel metasearch platforms are currently averaging lower than $1 for the first time in years. That means online travel agencies can still participate in metasearch platforms, albeit at lower rates, and can still collect valuable data.
In the United States, for example, companies such as Koddi are still seeing some demand for roadside hotels, and bookings for stays within the next day or two, and likewise for stays 90 to 120 days in advance. There isn’t much travel demand for stays in the middle of these windows, or accommodations a few weeks ahead.
So why has travel advertising been so diminished in Google Search, but it is still showing some life in Google Hotels ad auctions?
Google declined to comment for this story.
But one theory is that Google can still provide some utility to travelers through organic links in Google search without many ads.
But travelers engaging with its Google Hotels platform show more travel intent that it needs to fulfill with advertising. In Google Hotels, if advertisers don’t show up, it may look like a hotel is closed or doesn’t have availability, when it actually does. After all, competitors’ metasearch sites are still operational despite the lower travel demand.
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Photo credit: This is the breakfast area of the Howard Johnson in Flagstaff, Arizona, which continues to advertise in Google Search. Howard Johnson