Metasearch isn’t dead; you’re just doing it wrong

Let’s be clear: hotel metasearch isn’t your average digital marketing outlet. A property’s price listing competes against a multitude of online travel agents (OTAs) and wholesalers*.

Compared to other channels, metasearch doesn’t offer hoteliers endless possibilities to differentiate themselves from their competition. Nor are there many levers to be pulled and switches to be flicked to satisfy the hopes and dreams of the average digital marketer.

On top of that, success on metasearch channel is mostly dependent on both brand name recognition and the effectiveness of other digital marketing efforts (if available) in generating brand search demand.

Despite some limitations of metasearch, it’s an absolute mistake to disregard this channel. In fact, it can be one of a hotel’s most profitable marketing initiatives. So, why is metasearch such an important channel and why do so many hoteliers miss out on it?

The importance of metasearch

Let’s face it, most marketers don’t give metasearch enough care and attention. This is not unusual in the ever-growing world of digital advertising, where marketing agencies strapped for resources tend to understaff their paid media departments.

Furthermore, an increasing amount of marketing opportunities and media budgets lead marketing strategists to experience data exhaust. Naturally, some of the advertising channels get the preferred treatment, while others are put on the back burner. This is where metasearch usually finds itself.

If a hotel pursues multiple digital marketing channels (as it should), the ability to correctly integrate metasearch into this mix is crucial. For example, paid search initiatives can heavily benefit from innovations such as Real-Time Ads. However, when it comes to metasearch, finding the right strategy can be quite difficult.

The market never sleeps and major contributors to online travel are leading the conversation and influencing consumer behaviors. Thus, it’s imperative to stay away from the well-known management philosophy of ‘set and forget’ as this approach will get marketers as far as their hands can throw (not very far).

Despite the dominance of OTAs, there is positive news for hoteliers. In 2019, a dropoff in combined annual revenue from Expedia, Booking.com, and subsidiaries opens up new opportunities for independent hotels and hotel groups. Chances will increase for hotels to earn that top spot one meta sites for attractive bids and a lower CPC (cost-per-click) to appear in front of potential guests.

Metasearch within your digital marketing mix

Business meeting

Google, TripAdvisor, Kayak, and Trivago are arguably the 4 biggest metasearch players within the hospitality industry and are hoteliers’ go-to channels when listing their direct booking engine rates on the associated pricing feeds.

Of course, while metasearch can be a powerful marketing tool, it does come with limitations in terms of bidding, targeting, and messaging. For example, a brand’s messaging only yields two differentiating attributes: ‘pricing’ and ‘callouts’ (see example below). Not to mention, the “callouts” only appear if a bid is high enough to make it to the top position of Google. Other channels don’t offer callouts, but only showing the daily rate instead.

Google metasearch listing of a New York City hotel showing the lowest price among the competition, including owning top position bid and callouts.

Considering that there are many touch points throughout a consumer’s transaction cycle, the best-case conversion scenario happens when a guest first interacts with a hotel brand through its own brand marketing initiatives. This type of engagement usually leads to direct booking on the hotel’s website or enables the hotel to retarget the unconverted website visitors with more relevant and enticing offers through other marketing channels, such a PPC or Social Media.

Here is where metasearch will play an important part as it often serves as an initial touchpoint for brand website visitors and contributes to expanding the audience pool for ad targeting.

Who am I up against?

Hotels face fierce competition from the likes of Booking.com, Priceline and Expedia (including subsidiaries, such as Hotels.com). Major OTAs have virtually unlimited marketing funds to help them appear in front of potential travelers with the right price, in the right place, at the right time.

Their business model is simple. The objective is not necessarily to drive bookings for the initial property but to keep consumers staying longer on their sites. In contrast to the direct channel’s booking engine, OTA’s landing pages enable travelers to browse for many different options, including a property’s competition.

A guest’s initial search for a hotel’s brand name can lead to comparisons with other hotels in the same area, including price, amenities, proximity to points of interest and, in the case of TripAdvisor, prior guest reviews.

In addition, scarcity messaging and special offers also propel online shoppers to convert quickly. If hoteliers decide to only publish their metasearch rates through anyone but their direct channel, they stand to not only lose potential guests to OTAs and wholesalers, but also to competing hotels in nearby locations.

Example of Expedia listing for New York City hotel including offers from hotel competitors (584 properties in total) for lower prices, with more reviews, different amenities, cancellation policies, etc.

How to manage metasearch for hotels?

city and tablet

Daily shifts in competitive behaviors and changes in room prices are frequent on metasearch. In addition, with the delayed reporting capabilities of most metasearch providers, digital marketers need to be able to accurately track campaign bid adjustments, budget allocations, channel distribution, and more.

Data Insights. Aside from metasearch on Google, there is no impression share data to draw from. This makes it difficult to gauge how much the budget can and should be spent. Almost all channels prevent setting daily budget caps, creating a hostile environment for accurate pacing.

Additionally, change histories are minimal to non-existent, preventing marketers from having a clear view of what might have caused changes in performance – good or bad.

This makes paying attention to account performance more imperative than ever. The more time that is spent on metasearch, the more refined budget allocation and channel contribution will become.

Bidding & Targeting. Depending on a hotel’s marketing budget, it should be determined which channels will be feasible. Testing is important as it is unclear how consumers will behave and through which medium they will eventually convert.

With a low budget, marketers should focus on only one or two channels, which are usually comprised of Google and either TripAdvisor, Kayak or Trivago.

Booking engine and conversion data from your Google Analytics account can reveal the locations you should mostly focus on. Additionally, device targeting can be established after an initial test period, depending on how CPA (cost per acquisition) and conversion rates stack up against each other.

Need Periods. A time of low occupancy is arguably one of the most important factors for both revenue management’s decision making and metasearch managers’ planning processes.

Luckily, Google offers several multipliers to manipulate bids on advanced booking windows, check-in days of the week, LOS (length of stay), and more, enabling marketers to boost the performance of their listings.

In combination with enticing offers concerning the stay dates (e.g., through dynamic pricing rules), metasearch performance can be a major contributor to an increase in production for a hotel’s need periods.

Price Parity. Monitoring price parity issues by manually checking several comparison-shopping sites are crucial to determine when and where to apply a property’s valuable marketing dollars.

A higher room rate compared to other listings at a certain point in time equals a higher CPC (cost-per-click) on any of the participating meta channels. Higher costs lead to an earlier depletion of marketing budget (if operating on a non-commission basis).

A digital marketer is responsible for pointing out price discrepancies along with sharing the associated booking paths to help revenue managers in understanding current market situations and adjust revenue strategies accordingly.

Booking Engine Access. Metasearch is most beneficial if the associated marketing agency has insight into the hotel’s booking engine and subsequent overview over rate distribution. It makes it immensely more efficient for hotel marketers when adding certain rates and special sales to the rate feed. In online marketing, minimal turnaround time is crucial since delays can cause marketing dollars to go to waste.

Assessing account performance on a daily basis is necessary to make educated decisions on how to apply marketing dollars. At the end of the day, hotels need to stay top of the minds of as many potential guests as possible, including those who might not travel frequently or who have other reasons to book through OTAs.

Meta-Specific Rate Plans. Again, all the right mechanisms don’t mean a thing if a hotel’s room rates on any of the price-comparison sites are higher than the rest of the field. Once prices have been checked and discrepancies have been identified, the next steps are crucial to prevent a negative trend.

At Travel Tripper, we recommend adding a metasearch-specific rate plan to the metasearch mix. Preferably, these rates should be lower than those of OTA partners. Dynamic pricing rules can help hoteliers navigate those discounts. Also, targeting the rates by geo-locations might further improve conversion rates and ROAS (return on ad spend) through feeder markets.

Additionally, hoteliers should compare performances on mobile versus desktop to identify the areas where conversion rates are historically lower (usually on mobile) in order to boost performance with special rates. The obvious truth is that travelers should always be guaranteed to find the best rates on the hotel’s website versus other booking sites.

Metasearch as a valuable channel

Metasearch isn’t perfect – agreed! However, it’s a diamond in the rough that can serve as a valuable channel to integrate with your overall digital marketing strategy. If approached correctly, it can generate extra revenue through your direct channel and help your brand stay top of mind for travelers.

The inclusion of metasearch in their marketing mix also encourages hoteliers to review their contractual agreements with OTA partners, which can lead to a reassessment of what originally looked like a solid partnership. It goes without saying that the continuation of inventory distribution to partners, and the promise that they won’t be resold to the next best taker without permission and oversight from the hotel, should go hand in hand.

At Travel Tripper, we’ve helped our clients generate returns of up to 38x their initial investment. Some metasearch channels outperform others, depending on location, seasonality, and travelers’ purchasing behavior. But in the end, hoteliers usually walk away with more direct revenue while seeing their cost of sales become far more efficient than their commissions to OTAs.

Hotels interested in learning more about hotel metasearch advertising can also join the webinar “Mastering Metasearch: Strategies for Success” on February 12 at 2:00pm EST / 11:00am PST, in which Kerst Lehmann and Tristan Heaword will provide insights and strategies on managing metasearch advertising on Google Hotel Ads and other platforms, as well as discuss metasearch’s role within a wider digital marketing strategy. To secure your spot, please RSVP here.

*The wholesalers are actually wholesale aggregation channels but widely referred to as such within the hospitality industry because they are the agents that resell unbundled rates that were originally part of wholesale packages.

Kerst Lehmann

Kerst Lehmann

Kerst Lehmann is a Digital Marketing Strategist at Travel Tripper and oversees the digital marketing strategy for a multitude of domestic and international hotels and resorts, specializing in PPC and metasearch management. Located in sunny Boca Raton, Florida, he enjoys sunny days, good friends and spending time with his wife and two rescue cats. Contact him at kerst@traveltripper.com.

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