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Podcast transcript: Hotel SEO interview with Cyrus Shepard

Note: This is a full transcript of our podcast on hotel SEO with Cyrus Shepard. For a summary of the main points in the interview, please check out the article “Hotel SEO 101 with Cyrus Shepard from Moz.”

Nancy: All right. Hi everyone, this is Nancy Huang, Marketing Manager at Travel Tripper. I’m here today with Cyrus Shepard. He’s an Online Marketer and SEO consultant. And he’s also a Director of MOZ, which is one of the foremost authoritative websites on SEO. And I highly recommend reading their MOZ blog if you want to get some of the best advice and research on online marketing out there. So, welcoming Cyrus. Cyrus, hi there. How’s it going today?

Cyrus: Hi Nancy, great to be here. Great to be talking to your audience about SEO today. Thanks for having me.

Nancy: Yeah, we’re especially excited to have you, actually. We’re having Cyrus here today to talk about hotel SEO. And this is a topic that many of our hotel clients are always eager to learn more about. Especially since this one area of marketing that always seems to be evolving. So one day you’re told you have to do this strategy. Then Google changes something. The whole world freaks out a little bit. And then you’re told you to have to do something else. So, first I kind of want to start with the basics before we delve super deep into hotel SEO. It’s kind of said that SEO for hotels is a special field of SEO called Local SEO. Cyrus, can you kind of explain what that means and how it differs from non-local SEO?

Cyrus: Yes, absolutely. So, Google actually has a different algorithm for local SEO. And that’s important to understand because you need to optimize a little different for the local SEO algorithm. What is meant by Local SEO is any search query, when someone’s typing a question into a Google search box or saying the question aloud to their phone, that’s any query that has local intent. That means they’re searching for something in a specific place, whether it be Atlanta or Stockholm or nearby them. So that could be triggered by something, like when they list a specific city, such as best ice cream shops in Atlanta. Or they don’t even sometimes don’t have to name the city. Let’s say, for example, they’re in Atlanta, and they’re looking for an ice cream shop. And so they type ice cream shop. Google will assume that they’re looking for an ice cream shop near them in Atlanta. So that will trigger a local SEO query. And you can usually tell almost 100% what, and where constitutes a local SEO, is that you’ll get a map back. You’ll get one of the results back with a map and with little pins in it. That’s when you know that you’ve triggered a local SEO query. And that’s the gist of it.

Nancy: Okay and so are hotels a special case when it comes to local SEOs? I mean does Google treat hotels differently then say restaurants or dry cleaners, for example?

Cyrus: Generally not, except I will say that hotel SEO is one of the most competitive niches out of all of Google, whether it be local SEO or non-local SEO. Obviously we know that travel is very competitive. But hotel, in particular, is probably more competitive than just about anything else out there. So there’s not much really different that you need to do in hotel SEO as opposed to local SEO. But just the level of competitiveness is notched up so hard that it makes your actions a little bit more important in that area because so many people are trying to go for those queries.

Nancy: Okay, actually that brings to mind a recent story that I read in which Priceline CEO recently commented in a travel industry event that SEO essentially dead. Not exactly those words but I believe what he said was, “And so I believe it is a paid world.” And a lot of times now when you’re doing these hotel searches or travel queries is that you’ll do hotels in New York. And half of the first page is either paid results or Google’s own hotel finder now. So can you kind of comment on that? And what do you think? Has Google actually killed SEO for the hotel industry or how is it being done differently?

Cyrus: Well, there’s both sides of the argument. On one hand, it is so competitive. And aggregators such as Priceline, Expedia, Trip Advisor, they’ve ratcheted up a bidding war against each other, that so much of that space is taken up by paid advertising, that to a certain extent I can see where the CEO of Priceline is coming from. That SEO is much harder for him to compete in that area. But they’re two counter-arguments against that. One, even though it’s harder and more competitive, there are still million and hundred of millions, even billions of queries that are still organic that aren’t paid results. And if you can capture a portion of those, you know billions of queries that aren’t paid results, you can drive significant traffic to your website. So even though it’s more competitive, there’s still a huge amount of the pie out there left to be had for organic searches.

The second argument I would have is that people, those sites like Expedia, Trip Advisor, those are aggregators. They actually own no properties. So they’re not the ones when you have that local intent, they’re usually not the ones always showing up in that map pack. If you own a local business, you have a street address. You have people coming to your hotel. You have advantages that those aggregators do not with certain types of searches. And you can take advantage of that. You can show up in those map results and you can win searches that those people don’t. So I think there’s a different opportunity for actual business owners as opposed to the aggregators. And if you use that as best practices you can often beat them for many of the queries that they’re trying to go for.

Nancy: So what should hotels be doing? Is there a big difference in the types of queries that hotels should be going for? Or are there sort of standard best practices that hotels should be following?

Cyrus: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. And again I want to say there’s probably not a huge difference between whether you go in a hotel or a restaurant or an ice cream shop locally. But the local SEO things that you want to be doing are a lot different than the regular SEO things that you might to be doing. Like if you’re trying to rank for national terms. And if we have a few minutes, do you mind if I dive in some of these ranking factors?

Nancy: Of course.

Cyrus: Yeah, okay. So one of the major ways that a local SEO differs than regular SEO is Google looks at something called NAP consistency. Just like you’re taking a nap. It stands for name, address, and phone number. And this has been around for years and years and years. And this is just Google’s way of sort of verifying that you’re an actual legitimate business with a real street address and that you have a presence in your local area. So if you do a search for your business online, you’ll probably, you’ll often find dozens or hundreds of results of people that have mentioned you. These are people like…these are listings like the Better Business Bureau or Yelp or Yahoo Business or the Yellow Pages. There’s dozens and dozens of these out there. And one big ranking factor is Google will look at all these and see how consistent they are. Is your name, address, and phone number consistent across these dozens and dozens of sites? And that’s something that Expedia and the other places don’t have to deal with so much. So that’s one big ranking factor.

Another big ranking factor is how well does your website match the intent of the people looking for those local businesses. So if you’re trying to rank for something in a local area, say Atlanta again, is your address listed on every page of your website? Are you properly categorized within Google local results? And having a Google My Business Listing is really important for that. And that’s just your basic on-page optimization. Is your address, is your name, are those things matching up with what the people are looking for?

One thing that isn’t different, Nancy, from local SEO to regular SEO is the number of people that are linking to you online. So if you have a local business, having links from other local businesses, having links from national directories, those are hugely important. We call that the idea of domain authority. How popular is your domain online? How many times is it cited and referenced? And you can go a long ways with that just by seeking out links in your local environment and also your national environment. And those are some of the big things. We actually study these every couple of years. We have, not to call out our own website, but we actually have something called the Local Search Ranking Factors that we publish on our blog every couple of years. We just finished our 2015 study. You can Google it. Just Google, local search ranking factors. And it will pop right up in the first results. It will go through a lot of those ranking factors and what business can do to rank higher in local search results.

Nancy: So say a hotel has done all of these basic, local SEO best practices. So they’ve made sure to register with Google Business and they’ve made sure to have a consistency across all the listings including all of the online travel agency listings, I presume…

Cyrus: Yeah and there’s a difference. Some of those online travel places help you more than others. For instance, we think, we sometimes call this barnacle SEO. When you don’t rank so well for your own site but then you can latch on to other sites like Yelp or Trip Advisor. Some sites like Trip Advisor, Yellow Pages, Yelp, they actually, even though they don’t give you the direct booking or the direct listing all the time, they can actually help your SEO by being listed on there. Other sites such as Travelocity or Priceline, they may not help you as much in terms from an SEO point of view. So it’s important to go through them all and make sure you’re listed correctly on all of them, of course. But some are definitely going to help you more than others.

Nancy: Why would you say Priceline might not help you as much as say Yelp would?

Cyrus: It’s just a matter of how Google looks at it in terms of a, what we call a citation source. Those, they’re pretty close environments. They’re not as open for…they’re pretty profit oriented. They’re not as open to community reviews. So I can’t give you a specific reason, but Google just doesn’t weigh them as much as some of the more open community sites.

Nancy: Okay and so considering all those factors say a hotel has done due diligence and has the basics, what are some of the most important things that hotels can be doing to consistently improve their ranking? And perhaps it’s not very SEO specific, I mean we can go broader into the whole world of online marketing. But I kind of want to help hotels here by talking about what they could be doing once they’ve got the basics down.

Cyrus: So one of the…I hope this isn’t too obvious. But one of the most obvious things, biggest things that hotels can be doing is seeking user reviews. It’s a huge ranking factor, but it also helps with conversions when people click on your listing and see that you have positive reviews. Google will actually look at reviews from two primary sources. One being on their own site. So when you have the Google local listing in the Google results, and they have the users that review it, that’s a huge ranking factor. But also Google looks at reviews on third party sites. And this is Yelp, this is Trip Advisor, this is Yellow Pages. Having good reviews on those sites will also help. They’ll aggregate those and they…Even if they’re not listed in the Google search results, those reviews can lift your rankings higher than your competitors. It’s very easy to do, asking your customers for reviews. You want to make sure it’s not manipulated. You want to make sure that they’re not all submitting reviews from your hotel lobby using the same IP because that can look suspicious. You want to make sure you’re not offering incentives for reviews. That’s against Google’s terms of use, their guidelines. They can actually penalize you for that. But simply asking people for reviews, rate you well, Trip Advisor, Google, all of those other places, that’s going to probably go further and is extremely simple to do. And it will put you ahead of the competition probably more than anything else.

Nancy: Wow, that’s actually pretty interesting that reviews on other sites help your own ranking.

Cyrus: Yup, yup, absolutely. And it will help you get referral traffic from those other sites as well. So there’s probably no magic bullet more powerful than good reviews.

Nancy: That’s interesting. Actually…

Cyrus: Also, sorry Nancy. The other thing I wanted to mention is it’s not always necessarily the quality of reviews such as a lot of business owners are very scared of getting less than anything other than a five-star review. But one thing we’ve found in our studies is sometimes just the pure quantity of reviews is more important. So if you have 100 reviews that might lift you higher, that’s an indication that you’re a more popular business. And that may lift you higher in search results than having just a handful of reviews even though those reviews are all five star. So don’t be scared of the negative reviews. Respond to them appropriately. Try to get the best reviews you can. But it’s almost an instance where having more will help you than necessarily having the best.

Nancy: That’s interesting. This is one instance where you should aim for quantity rather than necessarily quality.

Cyrus: Yeah and I think there’s a human perception that if you see an online hotel with 1400 reviews, and it’s got a 4.1 average out of 5, you still know it’s a very popular business. Lots of people have visited. It’s probably a legit hotel site as opposed to a hotel that has all five-star reviews, but only four people have reviewed it. You’re going to be more suspicious of that result. And Google’s algorithm works the same way. They’re going to trust a lot more people than just a handful of people even if those handful of people say, “Hey, this is the best.”

Nancy: Right and on the flip side should hotels also be linking to their reviews on other sites? On their own?

Cyrus: That doesn’t hurt at all. There’s some indication that linking out to relevant results from the pure SEO point of view can help you. But also I think that gets more into a conversion issue, that if you can show your customers the positive reviews on other sites you’ll get the sale. But I don’t think it’s a huge SEO benefit, let me qualify it that way.

Nancy: Okay. Well, I actually want to ask you as well about some of the traditional SEO traffic that you might have heard about. So for example, sometimes you’ll hear that SEO experts will recommend that if you want to rank for something like “Best Boutique Hotel San Francisco,” you should create a page specifically targeting those keywords and use that specific phrase every hundred words or so. Do tactics like that, should hotels still be doing things like that?

Cyrus: Well, I want to say yes and no. It’s great if you have a page that talks about the best hotel in San Francisco and everything. If you were going to do something like that, I’d love it if you had quotes from you, customers that explained why you were the best hotel in San Francisco or…but what happens, the reason we hesitate to give that advice and the reason that we say don’t do that sometimes is two-fold. One, people abuse the heck out of it. So they’ll create pages like let’s say “Best Hotel in San Francisco.” And then they’ll create another page that says “Best boutique hotel in San Francisco.” Or “best hotel reviews in San Francisco” and that’s ridiculous. That looks spammy. Google considers that spammy and there’s absolutely no reason to do that.

But the second reason is to look at user intent because remember, Google’s job is to serve the best results to the visitor that satisfies that query. They want the visitor to be happy. So if someone is Googling “best hotels in San Francisco” and they land on your page, you have to ask yourself: are they looking for one result or they looking for something like Trip Advisor that lists the top 50 best hotels in San Francisco? Nine times out of ten they’re probably going to want that Trip Advisor result. So if you’re actually going to do a page like that you might want to list out some of your competitors. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it might be better to rank number one for that query and have some of your competitors on the page then give that traffic to Trip Advisor where you’re not even ranking at all. So you have to always think, “Am I answering the user’s question when I’m trying to write for this? Am I delivering the highest quality result possible?” And it’s not gaming the algorithm and creating multiple variations of the page. If you think you can honestly satisfy that query and deliver the best result possible, yeah go for it. Create those pages, put the keywords on the page, do all that. But if you’re trying to game the system, you’re probably going to lose traffic instead.

Nancy: Interesting and does that also maybe speak to the fact of maybe hotels should be pursuing not obvious keyword phrases like “best hotel San Francisco” but going more for long tail keywords?

Cyrus: Yeah, one of the biggest, again let’s go back to the idea satisfying the user. One of the biggest problems we see both in hotels and restaurants is websites that aren’t complete enough in answering basic questions about the hotel. One of the reasons that people like sites like Trip Advisor is because they answer all sorts of questions about individual hotels through user reviews, they have room pictures, things like that. Your website, as a hotel website, should be as complete as possible, with pictures, reviews, local information, check-out time, check-in time, directions, how to get there. And it’s okay to create a special landing page for every one of these because that’s something that we haven’t talked about today and that is user signals as a ranking signal.

And that’s when Google is looking at what it’s users are doing when they come to your page. And are they spending a lot of time there? Are they searching for your page again and again because they’re finding the right answers there? So I wouldn’t be so concerned about creating unique pages about your local area or things like that. That’s a more advanced technique and you should certainly do it if you’re ready. But first, I would look at every page of your website and make sure those pages are as rich and full as possible so that your visitors have absolutely no questions about your property or what to expect when they arrive. And reduce all those barriers to making reservations because those are the things that are also going to help you to rank in Google.

Nancy: And what about blogging? We hear a lot about blogging, in general, is good for SEO. And is that something hotels should be investing in?

Cyrus: It can be. The reason a lot of people talk about blogging is for two reasons. It creates an audience if you can get a following, people are actually following your blog, reading your articles on social media. The other way that blogging is good is if you can use it to attract links to your site. The problem with a lot of local businesses, the biggest mistake that you want to make is blogging without either of those goals in mind. You don’t want to write for the sake of writing because you publish something, you invest a lot of time into it and then you put it out in the world and then no one reads it. We see this all the time. So if you’re going to blog, that’s really great but you want to make sure you have those two goals in mind. Are you creating content that’s so great that other people are linking to it? And that could be in your local community or through other organizations. So like something that’d be pretty cool is a travel resource for the town that your hotel is in. You know, the top X things to do in Boise, Idaho that no one tells you about. If you can create a resource like that on your blog that’s so great that other businesses in Boise are linking to it, that’s amazing as long as you think the real visitors are coming. If that’s not the case and you’re blogging to just blog, I’d advise against it and find other things to do.

Nancy: And how can you measure whether the blog is being effective or not? If you’re say looking at Google analytics or should you be looking at Shares?

Cyrus: Yeah, both of those things definitely. Looking at your blog traffic. Are people actually visiting your blog? Looking at social shares, you can use a tool, a link tool. We make one called Open Site Explorer where you can check the backlinks to your blog. If your blog is earning no backlinks, that’s when you have to start questioning your tactics. Perhaps you need to start doing more outreach about your blog. When you publish a post, actually emailing people and telling them about your new post and why they should direct visitors to the post. Things like that, yeah. There’s a lot of honest to goodness elbow grease marketing involved in online marketing. Sometimes you just have to go out there and market yourselves.

Nancy: Right. And so what do you recommend then especially if you’re a hotel, an independent hotel with a limited budget, how would you allocate your marketing dollars then for online marketing?

Cyrus: That’s a very good question. So, first of all, I would…the simplest stuff that costs virtually no money is just making sure, what I said before, making sure your website is as complete as possible. Going through all your pages, thinking about any questions that you can answer; think about the questions that people ask you when they call online or when they submit online forms. Make sure all of those questions are answered and it’s as rich an experience as possible.

Secondly, I would, it’s so huge to do that nap consistency that I talked about earlier. Name, address, phone number. There’s a lot of this you can do yourself. Going through and making sure your address and phone number and name is consistent across all sites. And again, not to pimp my own company, we make a tool that is free actually that helps you find these. It’s called MOZ Local. You can Google that and it will pop right up. And what we found is that businesses do this get really good nap consistency. In about five or six months, their rankings shoot up across the board and it’s actually pretty incredible. It takes a long time. It’s a long-term investment because Google’s algorithm is sometimes very slow, but it’s really huge.

Third, what we call the barnacle SEO, I know there’s a debate. Hotel owners don’t necessarily want to promote themselves on the third party sites because they want the booking directly. But often times making sure your information is good on those third party sites such as Yelp, such as Trip Advisor can actually boost your own organic rankings. So it’s a dilemma but making sure you’re represented there well and on all those sites can actually help your local SEO. And fourth, is just making sure some of the basic SEO rules. That your pages are targeted for the local area. That you have your city and state listed in your title tags and on your website. That you’ve optimized your Google Plus listings. And finally, just getting as good of reviews as possible. If you have to invest some money, I’d invest it in just trying to get those reviews. Encouraging people to leave your reviews, through email or otherwise. And just trying to get noticed in your local community.

Nancy: Oh, that’s great. So it seems like there’s actually a lot you can do that doesn’t involve investing a huge heavy budget in SEO. A lot of it is really looking at the fine details and making sure everything is in order.

Cyrus: Right, it’s a lot of elbow grease but it’s not necessarily a huge investment in money, which is the good news. Sometimes people hire experts. If you don’t have a lot of time, there’s people who do local SEO for you for anywhere from, well there’s all kinds of budgets. There’s $500 to $2,000 a month. Or you can dive in and do it yourself. It’s confusing sometimes, but the good news is all the resources are out there for you to learn how to do it yourself. And it’s like a Superman skill once you learn it. So I think it’s totally worth it in the end to give your business that advantage.

Nancy: Right. So one thing I know hotels are always asking is what’s next? Is there anything that hotels should be aware of when it comes to mobile for example? Or apps or any new things that Google might be planning in the near future?

Cyrus: Well, that’s a huge question. I think the apps space…Google has made a lot of changes in how they handle apps really recently. And basically you don’t actually have to have the app installed on your phone anymore to see results. But unfortunately, most of the benefit of that is going to the very big publishers, the Expedias of the world because they can just dominate. So I think it’s going to be really tough for local businesses to compete in the apps space. And apps are taking over mobile to a certain degree. I think we are going to see a lot more apps in local results over the next year or so. That said, mobile results are more often than not local results and especially within maps. And in the map searches the aggregators don’t necessarily have advantage, the local businesses do. So even though the big aggregators are going to win in the app space, the smaller players can totally still win in the map space, which is going to be on the mobile phones. They’re doing all the things that we just talked about. Those are still going to apply and there’s nothing really change that you need to do. Just make sure you do them so that you can win the map app space and I’d have to say we’re going to have to concede a lot of the app space to the big players.

Nancy: Right. And in terms of a mobile friendly website you had, there was that algorithm that Google had announced, I think it was in April, that sort of gives favor to mobile friendly sites. Do hotels have to worry about that?

Cyrus: I don’t necessarily say it’s something you have to worry about. But do keep in mind that mobile friendliness is a ranking factor, has been since April 21 of this year. And we can’t put an exact number on it but I’ve seen as much as five or ten percent boost in traffic to sites that are mobile friendly. And especially consider how important this is to your local searchers that are on their phone, let’s say you pull into town at night and you’re on your phone, you’re searching for a hotel. And your website pops up and people can’t read it on their small phone. So Google takes that into considerations. So they’d rather serve up a site to the user that is mobile friendly that they can use. I know a lot of hotel sites, it’s hard to change your website. But going forward I think this is going to be a bigger and bigger ranking signal. So if you haven’t made your site mobile friendly now, it would be a good time to start considering that investment.

Nancy: Well, I am sure I have a thousand more questions and we could talk about hotel SEO all day long. But since we’re getting to about 30 minutes here, I just want to say that this has been an incredibly insightful conversation today. Thanks.

Cyrus: Yes. Thank you.

Nancy: Yeah, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom with us.

Cyrus: Thank you Nancy and I appreciate it. I hope that your audience is getting some value out of this.

Nancy: I hope so as well. So again Cyrus is an online marketing expert and authority on local SEO. You can learn more from him on MOZ or from his personal website, CyrusShepard.com. That’s C-Y-R-U-S S-H-E-P-A-R-D.COM. And if you have any further questions about hotel SEO or online marketing, in general, feel free to post them in the comments or you can email them directly to me Nancy@pegs.com. Thanks for listening everyone and don’t forget to subscribe to our blog at pegs.com for other research and articles on hotel marketing and distribution. Cheers, everyone!

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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