For many hotels, the profitability of direct website sales justify investment in website optimization. Fortunately, this process does not have to be difficult or expensive. It simply requires an understanding of recent changes to search engine algorithms and consumer behavior that guide current best practices.
by Josiah Mackenzie, ReviewPro
Online hotel reviews are increasingly seen in the hotel industry as a key tool to monitor, measure and improve quality. But another valuable use of reviews and user-generated content is the significant opportunity to increase the number of inbound website visitors, and to convert more of those visitors into buyers.
User generated content (UGC) has been defined as any data or media that is contributed by the users of a website - rather than being created by professional journalists and editors. In the travel industry, UGC commonly includes online guest reviews, photos, videos, social networking posts, and a wide range of other digital content.
These pieces of content can increase website sales two ways:
- indirectly: by increasing rankings in search engines, bringing more traffic to your website
- directly: by increasing sales conversion rates by increasing consumer confidence
“Consumer confidence” is simply how much a potential customer trusts you. Over the past few years, a significant shift in communications authority has taken place. According to Yankelovich research, 75% of consumers do not believe companies tell the truth in their advertisements. Further, emarketer discovered that consumer reviews are trusted 12 times more than product descriptions by the company. When making a purchase decision, people are increasingly turning to people they trust and other consumers for advice and guidance.
Use user-generated content for search engine optimization
For years, the primary search optimization benefit of reviews and UGC was that they provided a source of fresh content – something search engines needed and rewarded. This is still true: Content is king. But now, search engines are rapidly integrating social data to put content into context. Online reviews and UGC are an increasingly important factor in the search algorithms that determine how web pages are ranked.
- Google is emphasizing consumer reviews to reward local businesses that the community finds helpful
- Bing is reaching into their users’ social graph to suggest content they will love
Bing announced integration of Facebook data in their search results pages in a blog post that included this short description:
“Not only [will you] see the individual pages or stories your friends like, but the overall sites they like related to the topic you’re searching for.”
The new functionality will display personalized results based on that person’s social network – such as links or content their friends have Liked. When the person’s friends have not shared any content related to a search, Bing will prioritize content that is popular with the Facebook community at large. This means search engine optimization is now not exclusively all about building inbound links, but improving the overall sentiment and engagement toward your brand on the web.
Google also takes user-generated content very seriously. Their local business listing – the “7 box” very familiar to search engine marketers - is determined primarily by reviews and user-generated content. Recent Google patents seem to suggest that:
- the quality and quantity of your reviews,
- how many websites contain customer reviews,
- and the sentiment behind the customer reviews
...all play an important role in increasing search engine visibility today. If for no other reason, these factors would make a strong case for investing in online reputation management.
Use guest reviews to increase direct sales by building trust
Encouraging more direct sales takes place through three basic categories of activity:
1. Driving traffic to a website
2. Making sure visitors stay on the website
3. Converting that website traffic into sales
Since we covered the first point by looking at search engine optimization, let’s proceed to the other two areas.
First, making sure visitors stay on your site. Depending on the hotel type and a number of other factors, between 25-40% of people who leave a hotel website do so to read online reviews. Publishing reviews directly on your hotel website fights this loss of traffic, making that direct booking a higher probability.
Second, converting more traffic into sales – turning more more website visitors into buyers. Improving consumer confidence is a key factor in improving those conversion rates. Hotels that place guest reviews on their website typically find it much easier to get new visitors to trust their sales message.
This approach is especially important for small and independent hotels that may not have the recognition of a large chain brand. Business travelers in particular tend to choose large hotels because chain brands offer a consistent experience. The chance of having a horrible experience is perceived as lower. For small and independent hotels, developing a positive online reputation increases confidence that your hotel has been approved by dozens of other travelers. Trust is established through credibility, and today credibility is best built through the words of others.
Publish a mix of feedback formats
Sharing reviews you receive online as written text is a powerful tactic. But mixing formats of user-generated content can make the testimonials even more effective.
Many hotels that deliver remarkable experiences for their guests receive notes of appreciation back from these people. If people send your hotel staff a postcard or letter talking about how much they appreciated their stay, get permission to scan it and upload the positive feedback to your website. Hotel SO in New Zealand shares their guestbook online by uploading images to a separate domain – WeLoveSo.com – for easy reference. How difficult would it be for you to do something similar?
Video or audio testimonials can be the most difficult type of content to create, but can make for a very compelling sales tool. If you ever have the opportunity (and permission) to record positive feedback from guests in video or audio format, do so. Showcase it on your blog. Feature it on your website.
You may find the best way to create video is through events hosted at your hotel. The Roger Smith Hotel in New York City makes hosting live events and meetups a strategic part of their digitial media campaign for this reason.
Once you have positive reviews, testimonials, and other pieces of user-generated content, place it anywhere on your website where you need to build credibility. Look at your website analytics for pages with high bounce rates and high exit rates. This could reveal good opportunities.
Cultivate and work with brand ambassadors
Whatever goal you are trying to obtain with public relations or marketing communications, have your guests and customers become the spokespeople and share the message for you. Remember that the greatest selling tactic in the world is the similar situation story. Consumers will find a story from another traveler like them to be most credible and helpful as they make their buying decision.
- Collect and share stories of delighted guests.
- Leverage social proof in the form of testimonials.
- Put guest feedback on every page of your website
- Focus on putting positive reviews and testimonials in the website sales process, as this may increase conversion rates.
- Consider creating a separate website page or mini-site where you publish all guest feedback in one place for easy reference.
- Mix up the media formats – text, photos, and video – to achieve maximum results.
Josiah Mackenzie is an industry analyst at ReviewPro, which provides online reputation analytics to more than 1,500 hotels worldwide, helping them use feedback from the social web to improve operations: http://www.reviewpro.com