18 Aug 2011

Google is going Places – is your business ready for the ride?

The online travel space is evolving at a dizzying speed, and nowhere have changes been more significant than at Google. 

In the past few months Google has introduced the “+1” button to rival Facebook’s “like”, has launched the Google+ social network, and has removed third-party reviews from Places pages. For hotels it has added rates and availability to Google Maps and Places listings and has introduced Hotel Finder, it’s answer to Kayak, as an “experiment” in the U.S.

What does this mean for hospitality and tourism businesses? 

As Google becomes more social, more mobile and more focused on user-generated content, Google Places is evolving as a linchpin of your online presence. It’s time to whip your listing into shape and to make it an integral part of your online reputation management program.

Optimizing your Google Places listing means ensuring content is complete, accurate and kept up to date. Your efforts will help travel shoppers find you and will help you convert them into paying guests. All content on Places is either controlled or influenced by you: description, categories, additional details, special offers, imagery and reviews. There is no cost and it can easily be done in-house.

Google provides detailed instructions (see links below), so rather than rehash them I’ll highlight a few key areas. For guidance I consulted with Laurian Clemence, Corporate Communications & Public Affairs with Google UK. Examples are geared toward hotels but relevant to all types of hospitality and tourism businesses.

Basic Information
“By having an online presence via Google Places, hotels are enabling users to find and interact with their business,” says Clemence. He recommends keeping listings simple, accurate and consistent.

To enhance searchability, ensure that your business’s name, address and phone number are listed in a consistent format across the web. The Company/Organization field acts as the title of your listing and should include the word “Hotel” and your destination if they are part of your official business name—Google doesn’t permit descriptors or keywords in titles. For example, “The Manderley Chicago Hotel” is more searchable than “The Manderley”.

Your property description is limited to 200 characters, little more than a tweet, so get right to the point and populate it with rich, relevant keywords.

Says Clemence, “We recommend that separate listings [be] created if the restaurant, lounge or spa within a hotel has its own name and telephone number, separate from that of the hotel. An individual website is not a requirement.”

Categories and Additional Details
You can choose up to five categories. At least one must be standard; the rest can be customized. Google recommends being as specific as possible, as it will automatically determine the generic category as well. For example, if you enter “Boutique Hotel” Google will know that you are also a hotel.

In the Additional Details section Clemence recommends hotels include “any additional information that would be helpful to potential customers as long as it’s specific and factual. Examples could be specific awards the hotel has won or a unique URL that leads to a menu for the hotel restaurant. The purpose is to help the user find all of the details about your business that might be useful to them.”

Imagery and Map
Businesses can upload a maximum of 10 photos and five videos, so make sure they are high quality, authentic and functional. Adding captions and descriptions is presently not an option, but I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t change soon.

Recently, Google made the “Upload a photo” button more prominent, so expect to see more photos submitted by users in the coming months. If a photo is falsely attributed to your property, click the “report inappropriate photo” button.

Make sure that the marker on your map is in the correct position, as people use a variety of Google products to find your location: Maps, Street View, Satellite View, Driving Directions and Hotel Finder.

Offers, Updates and Analytics
Adding offers and updates to your listing is free and can be a great way to keep content fresh, engage visitors and convert. To add an offer click the Offers tab on your dashboard. It will appear on your Places page and Google Maps listing. To share news, events or packages click the “Share an update” link.

Google now features room rates and availability data on Places, Maps and Hotel Finder but restricts access to a limited number of online travel agencies, GDS providers and brands with sizeable inventories across multiple markets. For the rest, only a link to the brand website is provided. This is a deterrent to direct bookings, so let’s hope Google opens it up to independent properties soon. For now ask your GDS provider if it is working with Google.

The dashboard provides basic analytics to track activity on your page: impressions, actions and search queries.

With the recent removal of third-party reviews from Places listings and the addition of a more prominent “Write a review” button, Google has embarked on a campaign to stockpile reviews from its own users. At present Places reviews have limited usefulness to travelers in comparison to sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. Online a handful of reviews are listed for many properties, little information is provided about the reviewer, and content can’t be sorted according to what’s important to the traveler.

But with the introduction of new products like Google+ and Hotel Finder and the integration of previously disjointed products, monitoring, soliciting and responding to Google user reviews is fast becoming a critical part of your online reputation management program.

We already know the many benefits of traveler reviews to search visibility and conversions. Says Clemence, “Engaging with the reviewers can be a good way to get to know your customers and what they think about your business. Business owner responses allow you to build relationships with customers, but keep in mind that the responses are also public.”

Presently reviews are not monitored by Google. If you're concerned about the accuracy of a review, Clemence recommends clicking the “Flag as inappropriate” link to submit a report. “If we find that the review is in violation of our Google Maps policies,” he says, “we'll take the appropriate action since we aren't always able to remove or be certain of violations.”

What’s next?
Says Clemence, "We’ll continue adding features to Google Places to make it even easier for users to rate, discover and share places with friends and family whenever they’re using Google.”

Google, already a dominant force in travel marketing, has reared its head as a formidable force in social networking. By optimizing your Places listing now you’ll be positioned to take advantage of new opportunities down the road.

Article source: Daniel Edward Craig. Daniel is an author and consultant who specializes in online reputation management, storytelling and social media strategy and works closely with TripAdvisor in the US and Canada.