While preparing a recent blog post, I was researching Google travel search results. I was appalled to find that a user searching for hotels in a popular market like New York City could easily miss seeing any organic search results.
Organic search results are the ones deemed most relevant to your query by Google’s search algorithm. Websites do not pay for organic search results, thus providing a disincentive for Google to feature organic results in the most prominent areas of Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).
The screenshot above shows what I saw when I searched for “hotels in New York.”
Google Hotel Finder, which contains paid listings, takes up the top area of the valuable screen real estate “above the fold.” (In the web world, “above the fold” refers to the top part of the web page that is visible to most users without scrolling.)
Below Hotel Finder in the screenshot, Google is displaying personalized “Google+ Local” results that I would normally see by going to Local.Google.com. The personalized Local results come with a map view and a lot of convenient information about each property. Local results are sorted by relevance and Hotels do not have to pay for inclusion in them. However, Google does monetize the local results. if you click on the displayed price a drop-down appears with booking links to online travel agencies and hotel sites. If you click on a booking link, Google receives a payment from the linked website.
Note that the personalized Google+ Local results take up all the remaining space above the fold. This means that I will not see actual organic search results unless I scroll down the page. Google has included the personalized Local results by default. Users can disable the display of personal results, but it is doubtful that most users do.
The SERP displays a notice when personalized results are included, but in my case, Hotel Finder was displayed in-between the personalized results notice and the actual personalized Local results, obfuscating the fact that they are not organic search results.
Below the personalized Local results and below the fold, we finally find the first organic results. Most of the organic results picked by the search algorithm happen to be for companies that pay Google for ads and clicks to their sites. All these companies compete to one degree or another with Google Hotel Finder. By pushing all organic results below the fold, Google is obscuring the content that is potentially most relevant to the user’s query. Google is also forcing its competitors to pay for exposure above the fold. If Hotel Finder and personalized Google+ Local results did not take up all the space above the fold this exposure would be free. Instead, Google travel search competitors have to buy placement in Hotel Finder and Local results. What difference does this make to Google? Companies like Expedia, Orbitz and Marriott may pay $5 or more per click for New York hotel clicks. Expedia and Priceline each spent over $700 million on Google Advertising in 2011.
As the dominant search engine, with more than 4 times the market share of Bing, its closest competitor, Google can successfully require such payments because it exercises so much market power in online search. I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and European regulators should take action against Google for anti-trust violations.
Google Hotel Finder is showing up more and more often.
RIP search engine optimization in the new world of Google Travel.