Pressure from regulators and maybe disgruntled partners prompted Google to add free booking links in search results and Maps in travel. Google certainly hasn't leveled the proverbial playing field among advertisers and non-advertisers, but hotels and smaller online travel agencies may see some benefit.
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Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, Executive Editor and online travel rockstar Dennis Schaal will bring readers exclusive reporting and insight into the business of online travel and digital booking, and how this sector has an impact across the travel industry.
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Google announced it expanded free hotel booking links from hotels and online travel agencies to Google.com and Google Maps, supplementing existing paid advertising, after giving similar treatment to its Google Travel portal last year.
Here’s what’s changing: Previously, if you searched Google.com for a specific hotel, such as “Westin Jersey City Newport,” you’d see in the right-hand column an information box with only paid advertising from the likes of Marriott, Expedia, Hotels.com and Booking.com with their rates and booking links to their websites.
However, what’s been tweaked is that below those “Featured options” — the ads — in the information box you will see rates and 22 free booking links under the category “All options” from the the Westin Jersey City Newport, ZenHotels.com, and FindHotel.net, as well as bigger names such Expedia, Booking.com and Hotels.com, which also happened to have paid ads displayed higher up, too.
Google gets paid by the click for the paid ads, but gets no compensation from these new free booking links.
To some extent, this democratizes the booking options in Google Search when looking for specific hotels because online travel agencies such as Expedia and Booking.com, each with billions of dollars in their coffers to spend on advertising to gain customers, have dominated travel advertising on Google, even making weak advertising competitors out of big hotel chains, which are certainly no slouches.
Smaller online travel agencies and hotels will undoubtably see their bookings sourced from Google increase, just as they have when Google similarly added free booking links to supplement advertising in Google Travel.
In its announcement Wednesday, Google stated: “For example, the booking engine myhotelshop used free booking links to drive 30 percent incremental bookings for their hotel clients during the summer of 2021.”
Google said adding the free hotel booking links to Google Search and Google Maps assists travel partners in extending their audiences, and provides consumers with an expanded array of booking options.
These free links, though, aren’t going to wipe out Google’s biggest advertisers, although the extent of the impact to them will be a work in progress. In addition, you can be sure that Google is not giving up on its travel advertising business, which is among its largest advertising sectors.
The revamped information box in the right-hand column in Google search places the paid ads for hotels higher than the free links, and consumers tend to select higher-place booking links. There are only four paid advertisements, and in addition to the premium placement in this hotel information box, some of the ads benefit from their marketing messages such as Marriott’s “30 Hotel Brands. Where Can We Take You?,” along with photos of the Westin’s guest rooms, and Priceline’s message, “Free cancellation until Mar 17.”
On the other hand, instead of just four paid ads in the Featured options, the free links under the category All options, have a crowded field of around 25 booking links — including the four advertisers above, which double dip because they are interspersed among the free links by default, as well. Some of the free links show marketing messages, too.
Big advertisers may have concerns that their power in Google advertising could face a challenge even though they still have a plethora of advantages over hotels and smaller booking sites.
When informed of Google’s expansion of the free hotel booking links — a move it is making in Google Shopping, as well — Kayak CEO Steve Hafner said: “Seems like an easy PR (public relations) move from Google and unfortunately consistent with their past opacity. Only Google will know what traction these free links will receive, and what impact they have on the ad auction. I wouldn’t expect much — especially if they start missing a quarter.”
The auction reference pertained to the fact that Google’s advertisers bid and compete for placement in Google’s paid search results.
“Google can easily tweak the number of results, and which ones are shown, to ensure the minimal impact on the auction,” Hafner added, referring to Google potentially manipulating the free links as to not disadvantage the paid ads. “It would be different if they were committing to a fixed number of free links, and to totally objective sorting.”
Asked whether Kayak offers free booking links, Hafner said the “vast majority” of the company’s flight booking links are free, as they are with most major metasearch sites. Hafner acknowledged that Kayak doesn’t provide any free booking links for hotels.
“Unlike Google, we have to spend money on marketing to attract users, including on Google,” Hafner said.
GuestCentric, a digital marketing company, welcomed the addition of free booking links to Google Travel when Google added them last year, seeing them as advantageous for hotels.
“Google’s Hotel Free Booking Links give hotels the opportunity to increase their visibility and subsequently increase direct bookings,” wrote Ines Barreiros of GuestCentric in a Hospitalitynet article last year. “Hotels now have a new free source of traffic. Hotel booking engines are now showing in one more place that used to belong to paid advertisers such as Booking and Expedia. This a new opportunity for hotels to compete with the big sharks and drive more direct traffic.
The tweaks to Google Maps have parallels to the changes in Google Search. If you search for a specific hotels in Google Maps, you’ll see four Featured options, which are the paid ads, as well as the crowded field of free booking links.
The addition last year of free hotel booking links to the other part of Google’s hotel business, Google Travel, came after Google faced years of criticism that its preferential treatment of paid advertising over free search results was anti-consumer and anti-competitive. Regulators in Europe and the U.S. are focusing on some of these practices, but mostly so far outside of the travel arena.
Google Wednesday announced other changes, including new reporting features for hotels and online travel agencies pertaining to the free booking links, as well as making it easier for hotels to add their rates and availability to their Google business profiles.
Note: This story has been updated to address the issue of whether Kayak offers free hotel-booking links.
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