This morning a client came into our office for a meeting and actually showed me something new: Google’s Hotel Finder. Like many Google products, this tool didn’t launch with a huge amount of fanfare and, even now, it isn’t bold and in your face. The implications, however, could affect many businesses tied to the lodging industry.
What does the Hotel Finder do?
Similar to one of my favorite tools, Google Flights, when a user searches for a keyword string such as ‘hotels in Boston,’ they will see a typical SERP (Search Engine Results Page). Along the top and right side are advertisements sponsored through AdWords and a Google Maps layer in the upper right corner. Front and center at the top of the SERP is where you’ll find the Hotel Finder:
Below are plenty of search results from other Online Travel Agents like Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz. The clean, simple layout displays sample room rates, their Zagat score and the number of reviews on Google.
Navigating inside, the left side of the page displays all of the hotels in the area, which, for an urban area, is an overwhelming number of choices. On the right is the Google Maps layer with all of the hotels. The calendar on the top left defines the dates and length of stay. The search filters above the map help narrow down the lodging choices by price, star rating, user rating, amenities, and brand, making your search much more manageable. Not enough? The ‘Short List’ on the bottom is a convenient way to drag and drop the hotels that catch your eye.
Perhaps the best feature, though, is the ‘Custom Area’ tool. Using the handles on the corners, users can define specific areas close to downtown, transit lines, airports, colleges, or any other geographic feature to help their search. Previous incarnations of the Hotel Finder allowed users to apply map filters based on the distance of hotels from mass transit, but that isn’t found in this latest incarnation.
Google grabs the hotel information from “multiple data sources” including the Google + pages of hotels and Hotel Finder’s Application Programming Interface where Online Travel Agents and hotel chains can provide room rate information. Unfortunately for smaller lodging spots, unless they use a booking system that interfaces with the API, Google doesn’t post rates for and cannot be included as part of their Google + page. For travelers who stay exclusively in hotel chains, they won’t notice the difference, but in a place such as Vermont where a large proportion of hoteliers are independent this is a bit of a drag. Of course they can compete on price and offer more personalized service, but by not allowing manual input of room rates Google hamstrings the hotelier in this aspect of their search tool.
This same client asked if, like SERP’s, there is anything they can do to improve their standing in the natural order of the results. Nope. Although the top 2 results on the list are ads highlighted and presented the same as those above the SERP’s, Hotel Finder is independent of the AdWords marketing stream. Can an independent buy their way up to the top? Apparently not. Clicking on the ad bring you to a booking agent, NOT the actual hotel or chain website. These are big players with big money and it is unlikely any independent has a marketing budget to compete.
Although Google has worked on this tool for a few years now, tweeking it here and there, keeping a low profile, the Hotel Finder is now out in full force. The monetization piece is in place (6% of the room rate from the OTA’s) so Google will offer its service up right there on the front page of the SERP. As for the independents, we will have to wait and see if Google starts scraping hotel websites for rates or allows for manual entry. From an SEO perspective, I will be watching more closely to see how many visitors our client gets as a referral from Hotel Finder and what other adjustments Google quietly makes.