How hotels can play the digital marketing game against the OTAs

When it comes to digital marketing, OTAs have come to dominate the game. With vast budgets at their disposal—Priceline alone spent $2.8 billion on digital advertising last year—they have been able to gain a near-ubiquitous presence across the web.

But that doesn’t mean to hotels can’t compete.

Success in digital marketing can actually be achieved with a relatively modest investment. What matters is how and where that investment is spent, as well as understanding how different marketing channels can be leveraged for maximum gain.

The following article reveals the key ways OTAs are dominating three areas of digital marketing: search marketing, metasearch, and SEO, followed by a series of killer strategies hotels can apply to boost their own digital marketing efforts.

1. OTAs and search marketing

When it comes to search marketing, OTAs have pretty hefty budgets at their disposal. In fact, there’s a gaping chasm between what they spend compared with hotels. Expedia, Booking.com, Kayak and Hotels.com spend an average of $67,250 each day — just on Google AdWords.

While this level of investment clearly gives OTAs a distinct advantage in the digital marketing game, they’re also pretty savvy about how this money is spent. For instance, OTAs often bid on a hotel’s brand name to make sure their own PPC ad features near the top of the page—a somewhat dubious practice known as brand hijacking.

2. OTAs and metasearch

By pulling in rates from across the web, metasearch sites such as Kayak and Hipmunk (which also happen to be owned by OTAs) let travelers compare rates between all in one place, helping them to make an informed booking decision and get the best price. At least, that’s the theory.

In reality, strict rate parity laws (particularly in the U.S.) ensure that hotels can’t publicly state their rates are lower. The introduction of a bid-for-placement model also means that OTAs such as Expedia and Booking.com now use their considerable marketing clout to frequently outbid hotels, gaining the coveted top spots on metasearch sites.

This all means that hotels’ own website links are often forced down the results page with little chance of catching the attention of travelers. Much more traffic is driven directly to the OTA site, increasing their chances of capturing the booking.

3. OTAs and SEO

OTAs have become masters of SEO by obeying some of the guiding principles that lead to higher search engine rank. For instance, they pack their sites with tons of quality content including hotel room information, destination details, images, maps and reviews.

A website with quality content and good user experience is one of the fundamental principles to building strong SEO.  Search engines like Google and Bing want users to easily find what they are looking for, so they reward sites that offer optimized user experience by placing them high up on results results.

To expand their own content production, Expedia has looked to boost their own SEO by hiring bloggers to write posts for their Viewfinder travel blog. By working with prominent travel writers, Expedia can churn out a regular source of fresh and quality content to help increase their own search engine ranking.

How can hotels boost their own digital marketing?

Hotel digital marketing

The strategies outlined above offer a glimpse into how and why OTAs have managed to become so successful at digital marketing. But hotels can also find their own success by focusing their time and money in the right way.

Search marketing for hotels

With huge marketing budgets at their disposal, competing with OTAs in search marketing can seem daunting. But there are certain areas hotels can gain a distinct advantage.

When it comes to PPC campaigns, be sure to bid on your own brand name and destination. That way, when customers seek you out during a search, your hotel will feature near the top of the results page. Remember, bidding on your own brand name is especially crucial given the OTA practice of brand hijacking.

Of course, a lot customers don’t conduct a search with a specific hotel in mind. According to Google’s micro-moments research, a significant number of initial searches involve travelers looking for hotels in a specific destination, such as “hotels in Las Vegas.”  And mobile queries frequently include requests for specific amenities, such as “hotels with an indoor pool.”

So instead of trying to compete on popular search terms like “best hotels in x destination,” it pays to get specific.

If you have a unique service or popular amenity, you can use these phrases within long tail keywords, such as “pet-friendly hotel in New York” or “budget-friendly hotel near Shoreditch London.” The advantage of using niche terms is that there’s less competition, and you’ll also make it easier for customers to find you when they carry out a search.

Metasearch for hotels

By bidding for placement on metasearch sites, hotels can aim to grab a place at the top of the results page. But as mentioned, OTAs have the resources to dominate metasearch sites and often outbid independent properties and smaller chains.

So how can hotels compete? One way is by enrolling in programs like TripAdvisor’s TripConnect Instant Booking.

Through Instant Booking, travelers search and book directly on the TripAdvisor platform. While TripAdvisor charges a commission fee between 12-15%,  the hotel remains in full control of their rates, and they also own and manage the entire booking, from pre-arrival emails to post-stay communication.

In a similar fashion, Book on Google lets travelers find and book hotels through the Google platform, although unlike TripAdvisor, Google takes care of the credit card transaction. In both cases, hotels have far more flexibility than they would otherwise have on a traditional metasearch site.

SEO for hotels

As search engines evolve SEO is a constantly changing strategy, but there are certain core principles hotels should focus on to gain an advantage.

First, it’s worth investing in a mobile-friendly site. As a growing number of consumers rely on their smartphones to browse the web, Google recently rolled out a new mobile-friendly algorithm to give prominence to sites that make their browsing experience seamless on mobile devices. Website responsiveness and page load speed also have a determining factor on SEO, again this is based on Google rewarding sites that offer the best possible user experience.

But perhaps one of the most significant ways hotels can gain a major SEO advantage over OTAs is by focusing on “local SEO.” Google has different algorithms specifically for searches related to physical locations, and returns results in a different way than non-local searches.

So what should your hotel do to boost local SEO? Start by making sure your hotel details are accurate and consistent across the web. In particular, ensure your name, address and phone number are consistent (often referred to as NAP consistency).

You can also boost local SEO by populating your website with useful information related to your destination, whether that’s in the form of blog content or dedicated pages. By giving tips and resources on popular sights, landmarks and attractions in your local neighborhood, you’ll gain favor with the search engines and offer genuine value to potential guests searching for information and inspiration to help plan their trip.

Can hotels compete with OTAs in digital marketing?

There’s no question that OTAs have the upper hand when it comes to digital marketing. At first glance, the size and scale of their resources might make it seem like the hotels are fighting a losing battle.

But that’s not quite the whole picture. Winning every battle against the OTAs isn’t possible, but it also isn’t necessary. For hotels, success in digital marketing comes down to having clear goals, a focused strategy, and a constant awareness of the latest marketing trends.

If hotels are strategic about the way they approach digital marketing and invest their resources wisely, they can begin to see great gains in their direct booking channel, ultimately lessening their dependence on OTAs for business.


Interested in learning more about how to lessen your dependency on OTAs? Join our webinar on Oct. 26, 2016 hosted by Travel Tripper, StayNTouch, and TrustYou.

Break Away from the OTA webinar

Tris Heaword

Tris Heaword

Tris is the Senior Director of Digital Marketing at Pegasus with an extensive history in digital marketing and expertise in e-commerce, booking revenue maximization, and search network advertising and retargeting. Contact him at tristan.heaword@pegs.com

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