Search Engine Marketing Basics for Hospitality

Whether you search online for sushi or a penthouse suite in Las Vegas, you’ll see them: a line-up of small ads populating the shaded areas above or to the right of your search results. They don’t look like much, but if done well, these minimalist ads can entice consumers to your website and hopefully, to make a purchase. For the hospitality marketer, this tool—called search engine marketing (SEM)—should be an essential part of your digital marketing toolkit.

Organic vs. paid search

Most hospitality marketers are familiar with that other acronym, SEO. SEO, or search engine optimization, is about relevance. The more relevant your website content is to how consumers search for your business, the higher up and more frequently your website will be displayed in organic search results. Organic search results aren’t just pesticide-free, they are free. You can’t pay search engines to get your website to perform better in organic searches. But, you can optimize your site with relevant keywords, useful content, and frequent updates.

On the other hand, search engine marketing (SEM) is paid advertising; it’s a cost-effective way to put ads in front of billions of eyes each month. The model is simple: Your company chooses a search engine marketing partner (such as Google, Yahoo!, or Bing), creates targeted ads using defined keywords, and then decides alongside which types of search results the ads will be displayed.

You don’t pay to place the ads; you only pay when someone clicks on your ad and visits your site, hence the reason this model is also called pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. With search engines, your cost-per-click is based on how much you bid on certain targeted keyword phrases. This allows you to set and adjust your PPC ad budget as needed.

Choose keyword phrases carefully

The first step in creating an SEM plan is to determine the keyword phrases that are most relevant to your hospitality business. What keywords would potential customers use to search for your business or a similar one?

There are several ways to answer this question. Start by searching for your company name using different search engines. Compare the number of search results you generate using several relevant keyword phrases; which had the most results? Or, take a shortcut by comparing keyword search volumes using Google Trends. Finally, if you have analytics on your website, you may be able to see which sites (and search terms) are referring visitors to your site most frequently.

How to participate: When will your ad show up?

After you’ve determined your SEM keyword phrases, you need to decide which types of searches you want to pay to be part of. There are typically three different ways for your ads to be part of a search: broad, phrase, and exact matching.

  • Broad matching: If you set up broad matching for your SEM ad, it will show up when someone searches for any of the keywords in your ad, regardless of their order in the query or if other words come before or after them. For example, say a consumer searches for “LAX red-eye” to book a late flight home to the East Coast. If my airline company’s ad specifies the keywords “red-eye from LAX,” and I’m paying for broad matching, then the search engine would include my ad in the search results. If a consumer searched for “song by John Denver lyrics red-eye LAX,” my ad also would appear in the search results.
  • Phrase matching: In this case, the consumer’s search terms must match yours, in the same order, in order for your SEM ad to appear in the results. Using my earlier example, say the consumer searches for “LAX red-eye.” If my ad specifies the keywords “red-eye from LAX,” and I’m paying for phrase matching, then my ad would not be included in the search results. But, if my ad only had specified the keywords “red-eye,” it would have been included in phrase-matched search results.
  • Exact matching: As the name implies, exact matching requires a consumer’s search terms to match yours exactly in order for your ad to appear in the results. In our example, if my ad keywords are “red-eye from LAX,” and I’m paying for exact matching, the consumer must search only for “red-eye from LAX” in order for my ad to be shown.

The long tail: More clicks, sales through branded search

Another important aspect of SEM to consider is whether you want to participate in generic versus branded searches. A branded search is one that contains the name of a company, as in a search for “Sheraton Hotels.” A generic search does not contain a brand or company name, as in “downtown hotels in Philadelphia.”

Just like exact matching, a branded search is very focused. For advertisers, a branded search is usually cheaper to participate in because there is less competition for those keywords. But, once your SEM ad shows up in a branded search, you know that the consumer has already (or has nearly) decided on a supplier. Therefore, this type of targeted search usually generates higher click-through rates (CTR) and more business.

Yet many companies are still interested in paying for the millions of generic keywords available. These generic keywords, though they account for a majority of overall search behaviors, often have a low click-through rate. This phenomena is referred to as the “long tail of search.” There is much more competition in the generic search world. In this world, consumers are still shopping around.

SEM ads are designed to entice and motivate potential customers to visit your website. Do your research: Make sure your ads appear for the right customers (keywords), in the right places and at the right time in their decision-making processes (searches and matching). And take a close look at using phrase, exact, and brand matching. Research shows that reducing the time it takes for Internet searchers to find good answers—whether to a question about converting gallons to liters, or where to find the best hotel getaway package—decreases their need to return back to search results and click around for better answers. Remember, your SEM ads, as Google argues, are answers.