There is a strong argument that being #1 in the natural search engine results in Google for some industries is no longer what it used to be. I’m not arguing that search is irrelevant or that a site should not be built optimised for search engines, my argument is that the customer and how they purchase has little to do with being top of Google. Rather, it is how you are represented in terms of your online reputation. My argument is that online reputation management is fast becoming more important than search engine optimisation in service based industries. Better still, get your ORM right and the SEO takes care of itself.
Take a hotel for example. Many hotels work hard to be in the top page of a search result for most of the big search terms like “Hotel in [insert destination]”. The site is built optimised for search. The text is written with key words appearing frequently within the body of the text. Inbound links are generated artificially to make it appear that the site is relevant under key search terms and the hotel gradually floats north toward the top of the search charts. So how does Google reward these efforts?
Take the example search term “Hotel in London”:
- The first 3 links are paid for sponsored links and not influenced by SEO
- The 4th link is a local business directory link
- Links 5 to 11 are Google Local links based upon both geography, reviews and other non-SEO related activities
- Link 12 is a hotel resellers site
- Link 13 is the Ritz Hotel. At last a hotel that has focused on SEO! In SEO terms the Ritz is #2 in the natural SEO results. In real terms it’s not in the race.
I don’t have the conversation figures of lookers-to-bookers for the Ritz in London or how many people eventually convert from Google generic searches like mine. What I do have however, are the analytics results of many other hotels in different regions and the results show similarities across the regions and search terms.
Even though most of the hotels, restaurants, shopping centers or any service based destination clients we look after have good natural SEO results for generic terms, around 80% of the searches for their site include their brand name and not simple generic terms like “Hotel in London”. My guess is that the Ritz is no different and that the vast majority of bookers who find the hotel search for it by name. It has an enhanced reputation. This means the visitor is looking specifically for that destination. They have researched elsewhere and their decision on where to stay is already at a closing stage when googling the hotel name.
If you extrapolate this out further and take the amount of visitors to the site that search by brand name, have clicked on inbound referral links or visitors that have simply typed in the URL of the destination, it vastly outweighs the generic search term in the order of 95% to 5% of visitor traffic. Unless you have a really generic name like “Smiths of London” appearing #1 for your own brand takes little to no SEO effort.
The question then switches to being “Why do we spend so much time, money and effort on being #1 on Google when less than 5% of the visitors arrive at the site for generic terms?” Where is the customer taking their influence? Why am I only getting attention as part of their already filtered field of view? The answer is that the customer is taking the opinion of others that have used these services. They are reading the reviews of what other people say about the business and believing that before the businesses own marketing message.
If you are in the services industry this is happening to you. Regardless if you supply stag weekend clay pigeon shooting in Brighton or zorbing in Ballymena, your online reputation management and what is said about you on review sites, forums and blogs is having an enormous influence on your bookings. ORM takes effort and means focusing on leveraging customer’s good experiences and getting them to publish their positive experiences. It requires a deep understanding on where your customers or potential customers are taking their influence from and understanding how you can influence that process. A bi-product of good ORM is that your natural SEO will look after itself.
SEO is still a valid channel and shouldn’t be ignored, however its relevancy in converting lookers-to-bookers is weakening as Google restructures its results pages and customers become more informed and only Google your site as part of the decision making process. The pending introduction of Google Real Time search is set to further enhance the argument that SEO isn’t what it once was.