Your New Customer: The Web Crawler
By Rohit Verma Executive Director, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research | February 13, 2011
It's no secret that the internet has radically changed the way you market your hotel, just as it has changed the way customers search for rooms. For instance, we think of the internet as a force for disintermediation, because it has largely replaced traditional travel agents, as guests use search engines and online travel agencies to buy rooms. The middle person, the intermediary, has been cut out…or has it? Perhaps we've just replaced one set of intermediaries-the human travel agents-with another set, namely, the OTAs and, more generally, the many search engines that reside on the internet. Needless to say, if customers simply visit your website and book a room, you really have bypassed the intermediaries. Chances are, however, that to find your site, your customer has conducted a web search for "hotels in your town," or "hotels near the ocean," or "hotels near the theme park."
If your would-be customer has started her hotel search by typing in a query to Google, Bing, Kayak, or another search engine, you need to make sure that your hotel comes up near the top of the search engine's results page. As you probably can guess, the reason you need to be near the top of the results page is that searchers rarely scroll down the page. In fact, in a study of web searchers' eye movements, a team at Cornell University found that the "hot spot," where users focus most heavily, is an area in the upper left corner of the page-essentially the top two or three of the unpaid, or "organic" hits. The secondary location is the top one or two of the paid listings. These locations are sometimes called the "Golden Triangle." Users in that Cornell study spent less than six seconds looking at a particular hit before clicking on it.
Your goal as an internet marketer is to make sure that your hotel appears in the Golden Triangle, and to do that you need to make sure that your website is indexed by search engine web crawlers. For this reason, it helps to think of the web crawlers as customers, and to make sure that the hotel's website is as hospitable as possible to them. Now, the crawlers are nothing more than computer apps that are driven by each search engine's algorithms. But you still might want to think in terms of marketing to these "creatures," because those algorithms-those web crawlers-are the key to a successful web distribution strategy.
Ensuring that your property lands in the Golden Triangle requires you to optimize your website for the web crawlers. A new report from the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research discusses the basic principles of website optimization, using the example of the St. James Hotel, in Red Wing, Minnesota. Built in the era when successful hotels needed to be near train stations, the 63-room St. James is a member of Historic Hotels of America but is otherwise not a member of a hotel chain. Like many other hotels of this type, the St. James no longer relies on train engines to bring in guests, but instead needs to make sure that guests will "ride in" via search engines.
The report explains the website analysis conducted by a team of Cornell University students, led by assistant professor Chris Anderson. (You can read the full report at no charge on the CHR website, "Best Practices in Search Engine Marketing and Optimization: The Case of the St. James Hotel.") As we discuss here, the student team analyzed the St. James's website to see how to improve its optimization, in relation to the web searches for people thinking of traveling to Red Wing or vicinity.
The team began its analysis with the principles of search engine optimization, which takes into account the search engine algorithms, as represented by search engine web crawlers. These computer apps analyze each website they find according to how relevant it is to a particular search. In large part, web page relevance depends on how coherent your site is (meaning whether the pages are well organized and contain the critical search keywords), but is also depends on the number of inbound links to your website. The more closely related those links are to your site, the greater your site's relevance. You can arrange for reciprocal links, but that is not as powerful as inbound links themselves.
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