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25 May 2018 / Opinion

Seven ways to compete against OTAs


One of the biggest challenges for established brands in the travel sector in recent years has been the growth of online travel agents (OTAs) and metasearch aggregators. They’ve taken a huge slice of market share and managed to position themselves at the forefront of customers’ minds.

But there are ways that your paid search strategy can help you to fight back.

OTAs and Metasearch

While at first glance these may appear to be the same, there are some important differences.

Online Travel Agent: An online platform where you can research and book - not just hotels and flights, but often also car hire, insurance, etc. This could be for a single-night stay, city break or two-week all-inclusive holiday - all in one place. OTAs rely on partners to provide them with inventory, such as blocks of rooms or seats to sell. Examples: Expedia, Booking.com, Lastminute.com.

Metasearch: Unlike OTAs, you don’t book via metasearch. A metasearch site will aggregate rates and information from a variety of channels (including OTAs, potentially) into a single location and then offer that up to users searching. A customer will click through to the partner’s website and book there, with the partner paying a fee to the aggregator (this could be on a cost-per-click basis, share of revenue, etc). The advantage that metasearch has is that it can look at more than the block of rooms that an OTA has been assigned; they have access to the entire inventory of the partners they work with - potentially allowing them to offer more options. Examples: Travel Supermarket, Skyscanner, Trivago.

The Challenge

If you’re an accommodation provider, having more places that offer your product sounds like a good thing. But many companies now have to rely on OTAs to move their inventory, while taking a big slice of margin. Things become even more complicated when you factor in competition from completely different platforms such as Airbnb, which is eroding the number of people considering traditional accommodation options.

Data from YouGov shows that when people plan their holiday accommodation, it’s only a minority who consider booking directly - whether that’s using a website (25.09%) or over the phone (10.64%).

If you are one of these accommodation providers, be it a boutique hotel or multi-national chain, how can you compete for direct bookings in an environment where everything appears stacked against you?

Here are Epiphany’s top tips for using your paid media budget and campaigns to help you stand out.

1. Check Your Auction Insights

The Auction Insights reports available in AdWords and Bing are a great way to understand exactly who you’re up against.

Try running this report twice - once for specific hotel/property names and a second time for any more generic terms that you might bid on. This will help you understand what OTAs - if any - you’re competing against, and to what level. You can take this further if you wish, digging into the results for specific properties or keywords.

What does this report mean? Overlap rate is how often another advertiser’s ad received an impression in the same auction that your ad also received an impression in - i.e., how often do you appear together?

Position above rate highlights how often the other advertiser’s ad appeared above yours, when both were shown together. This works on a percentage basis, so a figure of 23% would mean that the competitor appeared above your ad, 23 times out of 100.

Top of page rate takes this a little further, showing you how often your ad, or the other ads appeared above the organic listings.

Finally, the Outranking share - this is a little more complicated, so I’m just going to copy Google’s explanation here. It’s “a percentage defined as the number of times that your ad ranked higher in the auction than another participant’s ad, plus the number of times that your ad showed when theirs did not, divided by the total number of ad auctions that you participated in”- so the higher the number, the more you’re dominating others in the same auctions.

Now you’re armed with the details of who you’re competing against in paid search!

2. Being Smaller Is An Asset

In true David vs Goliath style, in some instances it can pay to be small. In marketing terms, this is because you can be more nimble and specific. Nimble, because you should be able to react to changes faster - capitalising on new features or betas before the competition. Specific, because whereas some corners get cut when managing things at huge scale, in terms of making ad copy or ad extensions super specific, you don’t have that problem. Every single ad or sitelink that goes out can be as tailored as possible - helping to increase the likelihood of direct clicks to your website.

For example, take a look at this ad for the Queens Hotel in Leeds, the venue for the 2018 Northern Digital Awards. The official hotel listing features a specific offer, location extensions and sitelinks tailored to the services you’re most likely to be interested in. The Booking.com ad is very generic - it could be an ad for any hotel anywhere in the world.

3. Make The Most Of Customer Data

Before we go any further, almost everything in this section is caveated by the need to ensure that any data you want to use is GDPR-compliant and that customers have given you permission to use that data for marketing purposes.

Understand Your Customers & Prospects If you don’t currently have access to Facebook Ads Manager it’s worth setting up an account purely to try and better understand your customer. If you combine the data you can get from Facebook with the insight you can get from Analytics and AdWords, you’ll have uncovered a goldmine of information. You can do all of this using customer email data.

Remarketing Lists for Search Ads

Commonly referred as RLSAs, these give you the ability to understand and track users who’ve been to your website versus those who are visiting for the first time. Why is this so powerful? You can adjust your bids, show different ad copy or even exclude a specific group of users if you want.

If you bid on keywords such as “[hotel name] expedia”, you can add all users who come to your website via those terms to a specific list. You can then bid higher for these users next time they search on relevant keywords, showing them an advert that promotes why they should book directly rather than via Expedia.

It’s also worth increasing bids for users who’ve been to your site at least once, making sure you show in top positions when they search for your property again.

If a user starts the booking process but doesn’t finish, you can serve them an advert that promotes “no booking fees”, “easy cancellations”, “instant book”, or any of your other USPs that could swing a user your way.

Customer Match

You can also access a lot of this same functionality through a Google feature called Customer Match, where you upload your email addresses and target those users (or customers similar to them) when they search for your keywords. This is also useful if you’re trying to target certain events. If from your data you’re able to determine that someone booked a trip for a birthday, or Mother’s Day, in 12 months’ time you can target those users again with a dedicated ad.

Try Paid Social

Facebook is a great platform for hotels thanks to interactive ad formats you can use to attract users. Anyone who clicks one of these ads can then be added to one of your AdWords RLSA campaigns and targeted next time they appear in search.

Carousel ads can be very eye-catching, and the canvas ad is a mobile-only ad format that is extremely immersive. If your hotel lends itself to customers with certain demographics or interests, paid social can often drive clicks at a cost-per-click lower than paid search. Make sure you follow through by being visible elsewhere though - you don’t want someone to fall in love with your hotel, only to then go and book it through an OTA when they search for you on Google!

4. Bid On Your Own Hotel Names

This isn’t something you have to do. If you search for your hotel and nobody is bidding on those keywords, then this is completely optional, like this example at W Barcelona; nobody else is competing against them, they have the number 1 organic listing and their messaging is exactly as they would want it to be.

Where brand bidding comes into its own is in two specific circumstances. The first is where you are using it to defend against other advertisers bidding on your hotel name - this could be competitors, it could be OTAs, etc - and you stand to either lose the booking altogether, or a big slice of margin. The second is if you need greater control over the message than you can get through organic search. This includes things such as limited-time offers, promotions you only want to offer to a certain segment of your audience, or greater control over your sitelinks.

It’s always worth testing in order to understand the cost and the return you receive on the investment. There’s also some data that shows improved brand awareness for advertisers who are present in both the paid and organic listings, but again that’s worth testing for yourself.

5. Press Home Your USPs

Ads & Ad Extensions

In paid search you have so many ways to get your message across about why booking directly with you is better than booking through somebody else. Make sure that you’re utilising the space available to you for ad copy in the best possible way, including all relevant ad extensions.

Below is a list of all available extensions that could be useful to a hotel, along with examples of real ads showing some of these extensions in practice:

Sitelinks - Additional links to your site that link users to specific pages. Callout Extensions - Promote USPs or features, such as free Wi-Fi, 24-hour service, airport shuttle, swimming pool, etc. Structured Snippets - Highlight specific aspects of your products and services. Choose from a set of pre-defined category headers such as Destination, Amenities, Featured Hotels, Types etc., and add your values. Call Extensions - Attach a phone number to your ad so people can call directly from the search results. These calls can also be tracked and counted as conversions if you wish. Message Extensions - Allow users to contact you directly via text message from the ad.

Location Extensions - Requires a Google My Business account, but allows to you show a hotel’s location within the search results, and trigger your ad for users searching based on proximity. Price Extensions - Show up to 8 cards that feature different options and prices. Helpful for showing packages, or other services that your hotel offers, e.g. spa. App Extensions - If you have a mobile app for either iOS or Android, you can provide a link to users that allow them to download it straight from the advert. Promotion Extensions - Allows you to share a promotion that might be relevant to specific times of year, e.g. Mother’s Day or Christmas. Check AdWords for a list of available dates for which you can run promotions.

Making good use of ad extensions has multiple benefits. Not only do you get your message across, but you take up more space on the results page and extensions usually drive a better click-through rate - positively impacting your Quality Score and Ad Rank.

Keyword Selection

Think a little outside the box and look beyond “hotel” keywords to the other things that your hotel is good for: is it a great wedding venue? Does it have an amazing spa or golf course? Would visitors recommend it for corporate events? Are you near a popular attraction?

Also consider the knowledge you have about your hotel and local area that makes you unique - what do you know that it would be impossible for Expedia to know? All of these can be used as keywords that form the basis of a campaign.

Tripadvisor is bidding on the right keywords, but the ad and extensions are not relevant at all. Farthingstone Hotel offers a much more relevant ad.

6. Show Your Ads on Maps

If you set up Location Extensions, you’re also eligible to show in Local Search Ads. These are ads that pop up on Google Maps and at the top of Google Search - on both mobile and desktop - when someone searches for a relevant business or need. You won’t have control over these ads (although making sure everything is as it should be in your Google My Business listing will help), so think of them more as a nice-to-have.

7. Google Hotel Ads

These are a little more complex and need to be set up with the help of an authorised integration partner. To understand how these work, think of Google as the metasearch aggregator - taking in API feeds from different hotel providers and using that to serve up results based on accurate pricing and inventory. Because customers book via your website you pay Google on a cost-per-click basis for the users it drives from Search and Maps.

In the above example “hotels in Leeds” is searched on Google. Clicking on “View All Hotels” on the box that appears in the SERP leads you here.

For every hotel, clicking gives you a number of different providers to book through. In this case of the Novotel, this includes OTAs as well as the official site. Novotel has the option of bidding higher, should it want to appear above Booking.com in the first position.

While setting this up with one of the integration partners would be a bit of work, for the reach that you can get and the ability it gives you to stand alongside the OTAs, it’s an option worth considering for hotel marketers.

So there you are! Seven ways to compete against OTAs in PPC

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