In my first article, I selected three websites to review using the process most clients favour: heading for Google, entering a common search term and selecting one of the top three ‘natural results’. This time I repeated the process but chose the top ‘paid for’ result in each case, comforted in the knowledge that each was prepared to pay at least 30p for my attention.
With so much talk in the travel business about reductions in commissions and the impact of the Internet on changing the incline of the industry’s playing field, it’s interesting to see who is spending the money for the Internet eyeballs. With one of the big four tour operators, a little hotel intermediary and a big upmarket hotel brand reaching out directly for my custom, the search results on the day spoke volumes.
Having repeated this search several times since, it’s interesting to see that only the big boys maintain their positions in these paid-for results, while smaller players turn their campaigns on and off or run out of budget at different times of day.
So, my tip is if you want to know what’s going on in the travel business (and who’s spending what on acquiring customers), I recommend you repeat my tests with appropriate search terms and see who turns up at the top of your list.
This exercise raises two separate issues on the effectiveness of pay-per-click advertising. Firstly, advertisements at the top of the sponsored links often do not link to the highest-calibre websites (none reviewed scored higher than 62/100) – is this because
PPC is where these brands invest their marketing budget, only for it to leak out through poor conversion?
Also, adverts are not always 100% relevant to the searches that generate them, as illustrated by the final example. Both advertisers and surfers should be aware of the idiosyncrasies of Google AdWords.
Search term: “Cheap hotels Paris”
Top sponsored link:HotelDirect.co.uk
Estimated cost per click: £1.70
Starting at the budget end of the market, my first search was for ‘cheap hotels Paris’. The top sponsored link, Hoteldirect.co.uk (not to be confused with Hoteldirect.com), encouragingly claimed to offer exactly that. Conveniently, the advert links directly to the relevant page of the website, which also promotes hotel rooms in most of Western Europe’s other major cities.
The website’s page layout is fairly logical but the colour combination of violet and vomit green is eye-catching at best, or bile-inducing if you are of a more delicate disposition. Design ethos falls into what some call the “we don’t need a designer, the programmer can do it all” school of thought. As a result, graphic conventions are not consistent, template design is crude and branding is amateur.
Availability and room prices are conveniently displayed within each hotel entry, reducing browsing time, and the optimised booking process will help users part with their money efficiently. However, many underlined ‘links’ were not clickable using my Mac, causing frustration. Hotels can be sorted by price, popularity, ‘our choice’ and by a few geographic areas, but navigation between different sections can become confusing as the links on the primary bar are inconsistent.
Hotel-booking sites often suffer from drab hotel descriptions but thankfully Hoteldirect.co.uk contains informative, flavoursome content and around five photographs per hotel. On the downside, there are no guest reviews, the city guides could be more conspicuous and there are no location maps.
Despite the ‘price pledge’ to refund the difference if you find a cheaper price elsewhere, the website may struggle for bookings due to a lack of brand awareness and the slightly amateurish feel. The euro prices slashed with sterling prices beneath appear to exaggerate savings to the unwary. The high prominence of a 08700 number suggests many bookings are completed by phone.
A content-rich website from a relatively unknown provider which will have to fight for brand credibility. The site will also struggle to rise up the search listings to
mitigate paying for every click.
Overall score 62/100
Search term: “Holiday deal Greece”
Top sponsored link:MyTravel.com
Estimated cost per click: £0.75
The top advert, for heavyweight tour operator MyTravel, compellingly offered a January sale with a 35% online saving. As one of the big four, perhaps it’s this ability to intercept consumer interest directly on the Internet that’s providing the operator with the confidence to cut commissions to travel agencies? With my click I was whisked off to a bland Greek islands search page from where I had to enter my island of choice, departure airport and date of travel.
The bland Greek island search page set the tone for my user experience. Although the information is presented cleanly when you get it, the site lacks identity and there is little attempt to seduce or inspire holidaymakers. Everything is driven by the search function and extended viewings become uncomfortable due to the intense white backgrounds.
Navigating the site is straightforward but this is partly due to the limited options available – most holidays to Greece are for durations of seven nights and there is no choice of flight times. Contrary to best practice (and risking-taking on pop-up blockers, and DDA usability guardians), holiday details are displayed in pop-up windows and new information can only be loaded if the current window is closed. I also encountered several error pages that cheekily asked me to call their helpline.
The preview menu contains a brief description and a thumbnail image of each resort plus flight details, enabling users to skim packages before delving deeper. The full details are well structured, if minimal, with information on the location, facilities, entertainment and MyTravel’s own opinions. Images are too diminutive to have any real impact. Because of the reliance on searching, the extent of the content is not easily appreciated.
As promised by the advert itself, the booking summary quotes a substantial saving for booking online. Coupled with the strength of its familiar name, MyTravel.com should capitalise on its high volume of sponsored traffic – as long as the technical infrastructure avoids throwing up annoying error pages.
Unglamorous but functional (if you know exactly where you want to go) and if you’re after a good-value package holiday this site is worth including in a comparative search with First Choice, Thomson and Thomas Cook. If you’re after inspiration, look elsewhere.
Overall score 62/100
Search term: “Seven-star hotel Croydon”
Top sponsored link: Hilton.co.uk
Estimated cost per click: £0.30
Yes, believe it or not, Hilton International is spending some of its marketing budget on intercepting seven-star hotel search enquiries for Croydon. The world’s most famous hotel brand is unlikely to be targeting this exact phrase, instead its bid for ‘four-star hotel Croydon’ is probably set on ‘broad match’ so Google will display the advert on all numerical permutations. The advert links to the most relevant page – Hilton Croydon – although it’s three stars short of the search enquiry.
The website’s corporate aesthetic is gratingly characterless. Marriott, a Hilton competitor, compounds this weakness with a vastly superior website featuring inspiring images and flash animation, and a sense of individuality in each hotel entry. By contrast, Hilton’s product-driven site is very preoccupied with uniformity – Hilton on Park Lane conforms to the same template as Hilton Croydon – and the small, poor-quality images are very underwhelming.
Ease-of-use is impaired by the ill-conceived navigation system that requires constant backtracking to the hotel homepage. Primary links are not intuitively titled, page-loading time is often slow and the first page of the booking process is presented haphazardly.
Arrivals to the site from searches for ‘seven-star hotels’ will probably be expecting more detail than the thin information on amenities, room types and local attractions. There is a substantial ‘regional guide’, but this tends to cover southeast England rather than the immediate vicinity or even London. The excessive amount of sloppy spelling errors are typical of distributed content management where product managers enter content themselves without appropriate editorial checks.
Hilton will heavily rely on the strength of its brand for online bookings. I suspect that the website’s conversion rates are lower than several key competitors due to the prevalent weaknesses of the website.
This is a flawed and formulaic online experience from a big hotel name.
Overall score: 44/100