Hotels could benefit from more direct bookings thanks to a recent algorithm update by Google. While the OTAs have traditionally had their results appear within hotel branded search results, Google’s new “BERT” algorithm update has already decreased those appearances and had a significant impact on Expedia and TripAdvisor.
Both companies recently experienced a plunge in stocks, and Expedia recorded their worst single-day performance on record. Management at Expedia noted an “incremental weakness in SEO volumes and a related shift to high-cost marketing channels” — a comment that directly relates to the change in Google’s algorithm.
So what does this mean for hotels? In theory, it means that the BERT update will drive more organic traffic to the hotel website directly, assuming that the hotel website has a strong foundation in place. In the following post, we’ll discuss what BERT is in more detail and the simple ways to ensure your website is set up to perform.
What is BERT?
BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. According to the official explanation from Google, it’s a “neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training.”
Despite that rather complex description, the basic premise of this update is relatively simple. Essentially, BERT is designed to better understand context and intent behind conversational search queries.
It does this by looking at the content that comes before and after each word in a search phrase. This is a significant step forward: in contrast, standard NLP (Natural Language Processing) algorithms can only look at words one-by-one in order.
For the deep dive on how BERT works, check out this in-depth Search Engine Land article.
Why has Google updated its algorithm?
The intention behind BERT is to provide Google users with more accurate search results.
In the more recent past, Google prioritized websites based on “ART” or Authority, Relevance, and Trust.. While this approach was a large step forward from ranking factors like static keywords and backlinks, the problem with this approach was quality—even a website that checked the ART boxes may have been an undesired result or experience for the user making the search query.
Google has since refined its algorithm towards intent-based search. As a result, search results now more closely match what users are really looking for. The BERT update takes this development one step further, ensuring Google’s search results are even more closely aligned with the specifics of a search query.
How will this update impact search results?
Google has provided a series of examples to illustrate how BERT will better understand user intent. In this example from the Google blog, a user has searched for “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa.”
As Google points out, the word “to” and its relationship with the other words in the sentence are vital to interpreting intent. This search query is about a Brazilian that wants to travel to the U.S. Previously, Google’s algorithm would have interpreted this query the other way around — offering results for U.S. citizens wanting to travel to Brazil.
Suffice to say, BERT changes things in a big way. While seemingly small, the ability for it to detect how a word relates to the rest of the sentence radically changes the results a user receives.
How might the BERT update impact your hotel?
BERT has already had a noticeable negative impact on the volume of organic traffic for Expedia and TripAdvisor, and the implication is that hotels will benefit from this shift in search-engine dynamics. How might this happen?
Historically, the OTAs have been able to snap up a huge chunk of organic search traffic because nuances in search queries weren’t easily understood. A traveler might search for a hotel but receive results for an OTA. BERT will change this by detecting subtlety in language and factoring in the relationship of prepositions (such as “for”, “to”, “in”, and “with”).
This might be especially positive for hotels when travelers are searching during the awareness and consideration phase of their trip. Higher up the search funnel, typical queries (e.g. “hotels in New York”, “hotels in New York with a pool”), are more likely to be interpreted correctly, and provide a hotel as a result rather than an OTA based on alignment with user intent.
How can hotels take advantage of Google’s algorithm update?
BERT hasn’t been rolled out to penalize particular sites; it’s simply intended to provide users with more relevant search results. As such, there’s not really anything new your hotel should be doing. That said, if you want to take advantage of this update, it’s important to have a solid conversion-focused website and direct presence in place.
Structure your website and provide content that delivers a user experience that reduces friction from the customer journey. This should take into account the different stages of customer awareness and must prominently feature the information they are looking for during the browsing and booking experience..
For more practical tips on this topic, take a look at our previous post on how hotels should adapt to Google Travel and intent based-search.
Is your hotel optimizing for BERT?
Ultimately, BERT is the next step in Google’s continued focus on intent-based search. Conversational language and context are now a key focus in search, with more relevant results aimed at satisfying users.
As a result, hotels have an exciting opportunity to gain more traffic from organic search and drive more direct bookings. In terms of your SEO strategy, the takeaway message is simple: create informative and detailed website content and a simple user experience with your audience in mind. Don’t optimize for an algorithm, optimize for the user.
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