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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Advertising giants in disguise - Part 2 - The Anatomy of the Google Search

Yesterday I wrote about Bing's search for a hotel.  Today, we turn to Google.

They are not so very different from the consumer's perspective.  The parts of the search screen are fundamentally the same, with slight nuances.

AD IDENTIFICATION

Google recently changed their search in a couple of ways.

First, their ads, which used to be shaded, now have an AD icon to make them stand out more.  Each ad is preceded by the icon.  I'll cover the other changes after we go through the main parts of the search page.

SEARCH RESULTS
When I do a search for the Mayflower Hotel, Seattle, I see 855,000 listings.

By encasing the name in quotation marks, the list is cut in half.  And remarkably, the number of ads are multiplied significantly and the photo/booking window on the right disappears, replaced by the right rail of ads.

Here is a search for the Mayflower Park Hotel in Seattle.   The only ad on the page (separate from the embedded ads in the booking window on the right that I'll touch on in a sec) is one from Orbitz.   Orbitz appends the name of the hotel to the end of their URL, but as I mentioned yesterday, the name before the ".com" is still the name of who you are doing business with.

Google offers advertisers a series of options on their ads, which includes embedding ratings, showing your Google+ number of followers and reminding the user of how many times they have visited that particular site.  They can also include additional click ads at the end of the ad (4 Star Seattle Hotels and 3 Star Seattle Hotels are clickable links to Orbitz).

ORGANIC SEARCH

On Google, the next listing happens to be for the hotel itself.  The hotel is taking advantage of several additional features on Google, including "sub-links" for Special Promotions, a Calendar, Contact Us, Our Hotel, Accommodations and Oliver's Lounge.  There is also a link to display more results for mayflowerpark.com, so they can showcase other promotions using their same URL.

The remaining listings on the coveted first page are those that directly relate to the original search.  As you move back through the subsequent pages, the listings become less and less relevant.

THE PHOTO/BOOKING WINDOW

This feature is geared for the consumer that wants to search across different distributors of this hotel's inventory.  This is known as meta-search, made famous by Sidestep and Kayak.

If you fill in your check in and check out dates, you will see ads from Orbitz, Priceline, Hotels.com and getaroom ranging from $177 per night to $209 (not including tax and fees) and $206-$241 including taxes and fees.  You can also click through to the owner's site (if the property has been claimed through the link at the bottom of the window).  The same room is sold for $209 on the Mayflower hotel's site, shown as the "Best Available Rate".

NOTE:  As you can see above, Best Available Rate does not mean the lowest rate.  It typically means the lowest unrestricted (read can be cancelled without penalty) rate.

As opposed to showcasing TripAdvisor reviews, Google highlights its own rankings and reviews.  They also prompt the user to write their own review, directly from the window here.

The window also shows you other hotels that people are searching for in the Seattle area.

THE "BLACK BANNER"
The real difference between Bing and Google is when you do a broader search.  With Google, you get their "black banner", with a horizontal view of the hotels in the area.  The listing scrolls and can be filtered by hotel class and rating.  Beneath the banner are traditional ads, a sponsored (read: paid) listing of hotels, along with their average price, rating and reviews, organic search results, a map and then plenty more paid ads on the right side, with the Ads icon.  A total of 14 ads on the first page alone, if you don't count the black banner properties, which no doubt subscribe to this type of display of their property.



So what's a consumer to do?  Enjoy the choice.  Find the retailer that best suits you.  If you know what you want, then clicking on the hotel's own ad is likely a good idea.   If you are not so sure and don't have the time to browse through pages and pages of content, then a site that has a best price guarantee is your best bet.

As I mentioned in my Tommy Bahama post yesterday, do pay attention to cancellation policies and fees.  Don't assume that the hotel doesn't have non-refundable rooms.  Remember the "Advance Purchase" rate is a euphemism for Non-Refundable.

Be smart, be informed.

Travel often.  Spend money.  It is what keeps our economy going.










Advertising giants in disguise: The anatomy of the BING search utility

There is a lot of choice today when buying products and services online.   As I described in yesterday's blog on consumer confusion, there is broad choice in the physical world as well, whether you are buying a bedspread or consumer electronics.

The bottom line of that blog was that the buyer needs to know who they are dealing with and the terms of the sale. It is also the seller's responsibility to be clear on the terms of sale.  This is true online as well as offline.

Since I often write about travel, the parallel in the real world for reserving a hotel room is that you can call or visit a travel agent, you can call the property directly or you can call the hotel or brand's call center.  But more often than not, the search and price comparison process begins with online search.

Google and Bing are behind most every search done today on the Internet and those of us that are involved in online marketing understand that these are not utility companies, they are advertising giants in disguise.  Now mind you, this is not a bad thing.  If they didn't exist to make money, we wouldn't have access to the utility that they provide.

But unlike understanding the power behind the light switch, which simply turns on and off, search provides way more utility and as a result is more complicated to understand.  And if you don't take time to understand it, you can quickly find yourself somewhere that you didn't intend to be.

Today we are going to look at BING.

A single search for a hotel room at the Embassy Suites in San Diego on Bing produces over a million responses if you just type in the hotel's name.  If you put quotation marks around the actual property name "Embassy Suites San Diego Bay Downtown", you still get 32,100 results.

If you think logically, all of these listings cannot possibly be the hotel itself.  In reality there are close to 50,000 travel retailers (both online and offline in the real world) that have the rights to sell the Embassy Suite hotel properties worldwide.  Any one of those retailers has the rights to advertise on Bing, assuming they have an online site.

And while you would think that the first listing should be the hotel, as that would be true utility, remember this is an advertising giant, so that position is for sale.

Note at the top of the light green box the text:

Ads related to "Embassy Suites San Diego Bay Downtown"

This is your notice that these are not unbiased results.  They are paid for by the company taking out the ad.  And if you remember the days of getting the Sunday paper to get the ads (you may still do this...), the biggest insert is the most expensive.  Likewise, the first ad listed brings Bing the most cash.

In the case of this Bing display, Hilton.com has actually bid for the #1 position at this particular moment in time.  Remember that an hour or a day from now, someone may outbid Hilton and be in this position. And for those not intimate with the complexity of hotel branding, you may not even be aware that Embassy Suites is one of the many Hilton brands.



If you click on the first ad, you will see Hilton's logo and the San Diego Embassy Suites page on that site.  You can then proceed to book your hotel room.  But be aware that many hotel brands now collect up front and sell rooms that are non-refundable.  They may use the euphemism "Advance Purchase" but the result is the same.  If you need to cancel you can, but don't expect a refund.

The second, third and fourth listings in the light green ad box are all third party retailers that have all successfully bid on keywords for this property that result in being included in this coveted ad position.

There is science around the positioning and how people behave.  And not everyone clicks on the top ad, which is why companies still spend money on ads even if they can't get the #1 spot.  The following image is of a "heatmap", a technology used by advertisers to figure out the best place to advertise online.  While this article is a bit dated, the technology is still in use today.

 Click here to read Techcrunch's article on Bing vs Google

If you click on any one of the other ads in the green section at the top, you will land on what is known as a "third party distribution" site.  Be aware that they have not "hi-jacked" your search for the Embassy Suites hotel.  You clicked on their ad - unknowingly perhaps, but nevertheless, that is what happened.  These companies are authorized resellers of the hotel's inventory and their own logo should appear at the top of the site.  You will see pictures of the hotel, as the hotel publishes them so that anyone selling their property will represent them properly, giving the consumer a way to visualize the experience.   

If you wanted to be on the hotel website, you should see their own logo and/or their brand's logo.  If you don't see that, go back to search and look for URLs ending in the hotel's name or brand name.com.

For those that want to understand the technical terminology behind the online ads, they are also known as "pay per click" and SEM (search engine marketing).

ORGANIC Search Section
The next section below the paid ads is known as the Organic Search section of the site.  To be listed here, the search engine needs to find enough relevant content on your site to match what the consumer has searched for.

The first listing after the paid ads is generally the hotel themselves, but even this needs to be vetted by looking at the company name just to the left of the ".com".  That is the company you are dealing with, no matter what the ad text or a portion of the URL may say.

Now one might say (and some chains do say this) that no one should be able to buy their keywords but the brand or property themselves.  But this would be like Tommy Bahama not letting Macy's or Boscov's advertise and sell their product.

Product distribution is about marrying buyers and sellers - as many of them as you can, at as high a price as you can.  Because of this, it is extremely short sighted for brands not to appeal to as many buyers as possible, through as many channels as possible.

THE MAP (and more ads of course)


The next section of the BING display for this property is the map and the section in grey underneath it.

It has a handy Check In and Check Out date field and a FIND RATE button, as well as reviews.  But lest you think you are dealing with the hotel directly here, see the text below:

Powered by TripAdvisor  

Beneath the grey map and booking box, there are more ads.  In this case, the only ad listed is from a company called choosearoom.com.

While they include the words Embassy Suites in their URL, when you click on the link, you are taken to the choosearoom site.  You will know this by their logo, which is clearly placed in the upper left corner of their site.

BOTTOM SECTION (more ads of course)
What else would an advertising giant do, but after listing all of the utility content, provide more space for advertisers.  These ads are less expensive than the top or right side ads, but are still valuable real estate, particularly on the first page.  Here you see Related Searches, which can include other hotels or things close to this hotel, and more ads.  Again, we see an ad from Hilton.com and one from HotelsOne.com.


OK, you are now as educated as any consumer is on the use of Bing to find a hotel room.  You now know that Bing is actually driven by ad revenue, versus pure altruistic desire to help you find what you are looking for (they do that too by the way).

Advertisers use Search Engine Marketing (SEM) because it is an efficient way to reach a highly targeted audience.  They pay each time you click on their ad, whether or not you book with them.  If they are really good at SEM, they don't pay much per click and they always pay less than they make overall on their campaigns.

When I say "efficient" though, make no mistake, there are still WAY more lookers than bookers.  And it is not unusual out of 100 people that click on an ad for just 1 to buy.

Just as an aside, if an online hotel retailer was a physical store selling bedspreads, if 100 walked in and 99 walked out, they would call a high priced merchandising consultant or close their doors.  But in online, 1% conversion to a sale is considered the average.   Pitiful but true.

So when you see that most hotel retailers charge a service fee, it is because they spend alot to attract you and they have to have call centers to answer your questions 24x7, whether you buy or not.  They can provide you with more than one property or brand for your stay, allowing you to compare.  And many of them also invest alot in building out additional content, including customer reviews to help you plan your trip.

Also it is important to understand that cancellation rates for online bookings are often in the double digits and in many cases the retailer doesn't make money unless you actually stay at the property.   And because of those high cancellation rates, many hotels have increased the amount of their inventory that is non-refundable, even on their own site.

Here, from the Hilton Embassy Suites San Diego site is the availability for their 2 room suite with 1 king bed.  The Advanced Purchase (non-refundable rate) is $251 per night, marked down from $279, their "Best Available" (refundable) rate for the room.


Tomorrow we will take a look at GOOGLE, the grand daddy of the advertising giants.  

To read the GOOGLE article, click HERE.

Consumer confusion: I thought I was buying from.....


Imagine walking down the street after a wonderful lunch with friends in a new neighborhood.  A beautiful Tommy Bahama bedspread in the window grabs your attention.  Your day is now complete.

You walk in and see lots of other Tommy Bahama merchandise.  In the back of your mind you wonder how you missed a new Tommy Bahama store opening so close to your home.

You check out the price on the bedspread and you buy it, knowing it would be perfect in your bedroom and knowing that you've seen it for at least $200 more elsewhere.  And it is the last one in stock!  You feel great.  In fact, you like it so much that you buy the bedspread, the pillow shams and a few accessory pillows as well.

A few weeks later, you get your credit card bill and you see a $360 charge from Boscovs and you swear that you have never ever been to a store by that name.  Muttering to yourself about credit card fraud which you've heard so much about on the news, you call your credit card company to dispute the charge.  Then you post on social media about this company called Boscovs that had somehow gotten your credit card number and done an unauthorized charge.

The next day you are driving in the neighborhood where you met your friend for lunch and there it is big as day. 

 Oops.....     You call the credit card company and have them reinstate the charge.  But you forget to do anything about your social media entry.  Ah, social media doesn't matter anyway.

Then a few days later, you get an email from TommyBahama.com and there it is.  That same bedspread for $100 less than you paid!   It is on clearance. 

You are upset, so you drive back to the store and sure enough, as you are waiting to see the store manager you see it, right at the cash register.   No cash refunds.  Exchange for store credit only.

You sheepishly walk out the door, feeling silly that you were so enamored with the bedspread that you didn't see the sign.  Actually you never imagined that you would want to return the bedspread that you love.

When you get home, still a little peeved, you pull out your receipt and you see it in large print at the bottom.  NO REFUNDS.  EXCHANGES FOR STORE CREDIT ONLY.  It doesn't really make you feel better, only foolish.   

I tell this story, because it plays out online every day.  

Someone does a search on Google or Bing and are outraged after clicking on a listing and buying a product or service that they were not on the manufacturer/brand site.  Some even go so far as swearing that someone "hijacked" their search.

Here is a clue.  If you are on the brand site, the URL will have their name prior to the ".com".  And you will see their logo once you click on their link.  Third parties are not generally allowed to use any logo other than their own.

And as the story above illustrates, if there is any reason that you may need to return or cancel a product or service (such as changing your travel plans and needing to cancel an airline ticket or a hotel room), you need to read the policy regarding returns and cancellations.

No matter whether there is a sign posted by a cash register or a notice on the checkout page or in the policy page of an online product, more often than not, customers often don't read it.  We are all desensitized and hit the Agree button on terms for everything from downloading applications on our computers and phones to buying books, electronics and travel online.

Consumers see the product that they are looking for and do not pay attention to who they are buying from.  They see the price and even a notice that there is only one left at this price and they buy.   Most of the time it works out. 

But, when they see a lower price elsewhere or less restrictive terms on the brand site, they get upset that they didn't get that deal.  Or worse, their plans change and they need to return the product or cancel the service, only to find out that they agreed to a restrictive set of terms.

The moral of this story is that whether shopping in a new neighborhood or online, you need to know who you are buying from and on what terms.   Don't say yes if you don't know who you are dealing with or whether you can change your mind tomorrow, next week or next month.

Stay tuned.  Tomorrow we'll look at how confusion occurs with consumers when they do a search on Google.





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