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Do keywords still matter in SEO for hotels?

In the last few years, digital marketers have debated the importance of keywords in an SEO strategy. To understand this debate, we’ll need to step back and briefly look at the history of SEO. The meta keyword tag was introduced back in 1995, first popularized by search engines such as Infoseek and AltaVista. Placed alongside the meta title and meta description tags in the <head> section of a website, the meta keyword tags were important indicators to early search engines as to what kind of content a webpage contained.

meta keywords tag example
Example of keywords used in meta tag

Back then search engines weren’t clever enough to be able to interpret such complex signals as their modern counterparts, which now use factors such as backlinks, anchor texts, and contextual linking to rank page content. Most early search engines could read just the meta tags and not much else. Simply by listing your target keywords in the meta tag, you could expect your website to rank quite well.

Fast forward to today’s hugely complex search engine algorithms, and you’ll soon discover that the meta keywords tag is all but extinct, only reportedly being referenced by a few search engines but not giving any SEO benefit. Google publicly announced that they no longer reference this tag back in 2009 (see video below), and it was even suggested by Bing that using the tag incorrectly on your website could result in your organic ranking being penalized within their search engine. So nowadays most people don’t even bother using this tag, for it brings about no discernible SEO benefit.

The decision to drop the keyword meta tag came as no surprise to anyone in the SEO industry; most had argued that the tag had long been overused by “black hat” (read: unethical) SEO gurus as an easy way to “keyword stuff,” a way of cramming specific target keywords onto a website even if they provide no real benefit to the end user.

Footer link spam
An example of a website making use of keyword-stuffing in their footer

Search algorithms have evolved significantly in recent years, with complex machine learning algorithms from search engines like Google making it much harder for people to game the system.

The evolution of search (and role of keywords)

Now that search engines have become smarter, what role do keywords have left to play? The traditional SEO strategy of identifying specific non-branded keywords (keywords that don’t have your hotel name in them, such as “family hotels in Barcelona”) and then using that exact phrase within the meta tags and text of the webpage is relatively outdated, especially when you consider how search engines have evolved.

Not only have most search engines changed their algorithms to give more emphasis on user relevance (i.e. “Does this page answer the user query and user intentions?”), advancements such as personalized search results (displaying results which have been tailored to your personal profile, as obtained thanks to Google’s “all-seeing-eye” which monitors your every move online), localized search (emphasizing the importance of mobile search optimization), and the rise of voice search have forced digital marketers to rethink their approach to SEO strategy.

On top of that, an increased emphasis from search engines on paid ads vs. organic search results means that big travel brands with big advertising budgets can own a huge amount of real estate on a search results page. Hotels hoping to rank for competitive non-branded keywords (“top hotels in Ireland,” “best beach hotel Miami”) have very little chance in making it to the first page of results, much less the top.

Overemphasizing keywords can backfire on you

Search specialists who have been too focused on ensuring the website ranks for just a few select non-branded keywords may have discovered that their obsession has incurred a real-time search penalty from Google. Other ways in which hotel websites could get penalized for their over-ambitious use of keywords:

  • Obtaining backlinks unnaturally that use only your keyword (for example, where the anchor text is always “best hotel in New York” and awkwardly placed);
  • Stuffing a specific keyword into your on-page content too often;
  • Being too keyword heavy in your page permalink structure (i.e. www.hotelname.com/london/5-star-hotel-in-central-london);
  • Stuffing keywords into your meta title or description tag;
  • Stuffing keywords in image alt or title tags;
  • Using an internal linking structure that relies only on your keywords as anchor texts.

There are many more ways that non-branded keyword usage can come back to haunt you; these are just a few of the common practices that you should avoid. Search engines have become cleverer at detecting ways in which websites try to manipulate search results to their benefit, so the best method of avoiding Google’s wrath (or that of any other search engine) is simply to employ common sense.

If it looks unnatural, sounds unnatural, or simply doesn’t feel right on the page, then it shouldn’t be implemented as a viable SEO strategy. The next Google Panda or Penguin update is always just around the corner, waiting to penalize anyone trying to cheat their way up the search rankings.

The best alternative to targeting specific keywords

SEO keyword research

We’re not saying that keywords are dead, just that it’s not healthy to become obsessed about ranking for specific ones. Instead, particularly when it comes to targeting non-branded keywords, the best strategy is to look at the broader picture of context and topics.

Let’s look at a typical 4-star hotel based in New York city as an example.

After their brand name keywords (which should be the most important organic keywords for all hotels), previously they might have also focused on keywords such as:

– 4 star New York hotel
– 4 star NYC hotel
– Hotel in New York City
– Luxury New York City hotel

This hotel is going to struggle ranking organically for the above terms without carrying out a monumental and costly marketing effort. Instead, why not diversify and target some more long-tail keywords, perhaps with slightly lower search volumes but that are more realistic, attainable targets. For them it may make more sense to look at topics (not keywords!) that are going to be based around the actual services, or service-differentiators, that they provide.

For example, on the topic “Luxury New York hotels near Broadway,” we’ll derive the following keywords to use within content on the page:

Luxury NYC Broadway hotels
– Hotels on Broadway in NY
– Hotel with Broadway packages
– NYC Broadway hotels
– Best hotels in NYC for Broadway

The SEO strategy for this targeted topic might include creating blog posts to talk about the latest Broadway shows in town, or discussing general news around Broadway. The hotel would also want to have some specific deals and packages based around Broadway shows, such as offering accommodation and tickets in a bundle.

On the topic of “New York City hotels with a rooftop bar,” we would derive some of the following keywords:

– Hotels in NYC with rooftop bar
– Hotel near me with rooftop bar
(for mobile searchers)
– NYC hotels with views
– Best rooftop hotels in New York

The SEO strategy for this topic would include having an attractive gallery page on the website containing stunning rooftop bar views, as well as posting cocktail recipes from the bar and encouraging readers to visit. When asking for backlinks, the hotel might ask the referring site to mention the memorable rooftop bar.

Keep in mind that reality must match what’s being said virtually. In both cases above, the hotel will only rank well organically if they do indeed have a great rooftop bar and are positioned close to Broadway. Such information not only needs to be mentioned within the hotel website, but also on other websites as well via backlinks.

Backlinks and mentions on other websites are how search engines can verify that your hotel is what it says it is. Good verification leads to higher search rankings. Online citations are important in this regard, so make sure your amenities are accurately and consistently listed across a range of sources (TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google My Business, etc.).

As mentioned before, search engines like Google place a high importance on user relevance for search queries, using factors such as click-through rate, bounce rate, and “dwell time” to determine how well a webpage answer the search query. If too many users land on your page after a search query and then immediately leave (an indication that the webpage did not answer the users’ question), Google will lower the page’s rank for this search term.

So, should keywords matter to hotels?

The SEO environment has clearly shifted its preference from specific keywords to topics and categories, and I think this shift makes good sense. It was unhealthy and unnatural to focus on a few specific high-search volume keywords, most of which are dominated by OTA sites, TripAdvisor, and other major travel brands. The drive to rank for a competitive keyword can also prevent hotels from seeing other great opportunities for organic traffic.

That being said, I also think it would be careless to stop tracking all of your hotel’s organic keyword rankings, particularly for those keywords that you know are still driving relatively large amounts of well-converting organic traffic to your website.

In short, keywords still do matter, but perhaps not quite as much as they once did a few years ago. But don’t forget—there are still many more organic opportunities to take advantage of, one key one being the rise of mobile search!

Nancy Huang

Nancy Huang

Nancy is the Senior Marketing Director at Pegasus and expert in strategic communication, brand development, and content marketing. She is an admitted travel junkie and loves finding amazing hotel deals when booking direct. Contact her at nancy.huang@pegs.com.

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