Pursuing $$$, Google Pushes Organic Hotel Search Results Below the Fold

A recent Google search for "hotels in New York"

A recent Google search for “hotels in New York.” Click to view a larger image.

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.

Further Reading:

Google Hotel Finder is showing up more and more often.

Search Engine Roundtable

RIP search engine optimization in the new world of Google Travel.


10 thoughts on “Pursuing $$$, Google Pushes Organic Hotel Search Results Below the Fold

  1. Thomas, I’m glad it wasn’t just me and others see it too. I tried to elicit SERP results in a logged in, logged out, and anonymous state and nothing much changed btw

    • Interesting. There are so many combinations of monetizable content Google can push in that you never know what you might end up with. A significant proportion of combinations seem to obscure organic in favor of paid results.

      I was able to make the personalized Google+ Local results go away by explicitly turning off personalization but I doubt many users would know how or bother to do that. And Hotel Finder seems to show up most of the time, as noted in the “Search Engine Roundtable” article I linked to. Personalization doesn’t affect it.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  2. First, local listings are free and considered part of the organic results.
    Second, perhaps you really don’t understand the way that Google search has been working and moving for the last year+…
    Third, you picked (as did the OP on the TNOOZ site) extraordinarily competitive markets to display the results.

    We’ve been in the hospitality vertical online since 1993, and have had very good results in getting our clients listed in the organic local listings and the global organic SERPs. One example is for the St Regis Monarch Beach Resort. It is the first independent site in organic search right after the Starwood listings (who owns the brand.) Another example is the The Jefferson Hotel, which is the first hotel listing after TripAdvisor and is above the fold for Richmond Virginia Hotels.

    Is it hard work to get these listings? Yes. Is it impossible. Hardly. I have plenty other case studies I could share from Joie de Vivre, Larkspur Hotels, and a great many independent hotels and you can ping me to get them. It’s a matter of paying close attention to not only what Google is doing and saying in public but also what is learned from what is implied.

    • Thanks for commenting.

      While the local results are sorted according to relevance and are thus similar to organic results (possibly with some modification based on personalization), you will note that they include a dropdown booking link. My assumption is that Google monetizes the dropdown booking link via a pay-per-click referral mechanism. If that’s not the case, I’m happy to stand corrected.

      With respect to markets, I did try out some others and I think that assuming that the local results are monetizable, the premise that Google is de-emphasizing organic in favor of monetizable results still holds. First, the major markets make up a pretty sizable portion of the market in terms of revenue. Second, I just tried the search “hotels in Salt Lake City,” a much smaller market, and only saw two organic results above the fold, from OTAs. (Although in the latter case, the links showed up above the local results.)

      With respect to your SEO efforts, I agree that proper SEO based on a quality product and quality content could still be worthwhile, but the bar is higher than in the past.



      • The drop down booking link is a result of Google’s acquisition of ITA and is a direct competitor to the OTA’s. It is not monetized to Google and is a cost savings to the hotels. Is it a bad thing that the bar is set higher for SEO? I think Google is attempting to increase the relevancy and quality of search results by restricting black hat SEO practices. Yes, it is harder and requires more work on the part of agencies but that also serves as way to differentiate the quality firms.

      • Thanks again for taking the time to comment; your feedback has brought additional clarity to the discussion.

        Unlike the author of the Tnooz article, my main point was not about SEO value. My point is that Google’s drive for monetization shifts money to Google from OTAs and hotels by de-emphasizing organic results. The information you have provided clarifies but does not contradict my thesis. While it is true that hotels do not pay for local results, Google is still monetizing them in a way that shifts revenue from OTAs and hotels as compared to organic results.

        1. The drop-down booking links in the local results are clearly labeled as ads, so the booking sites listed there are certainly paying Google for the placement. If organic results appeared more prominently in the SERP, the booking sites would get some of that exposure for free.
        2. By placing the paid booking links in-line with the unpaid local results, Google is shifting some bookings that would have been made at the hotels’ own sites to the advertisers’ sites. Hotels still get the bookings but through a more expensive distribution channel.

        In re-reading my original post, I see that I could have been more clear about how local results are monetized. I have updated the post to clarify that hotels do not pay for placement and that the monetization comes through ad links.

        Your point that proper SEO is still valuable is well taken. Hotels are likely better off doing whatever they can to appear high in the Local listings, even though they have to pay higher distribution costs as a result of the inline Local ad links that cannibalize click-throughs to the hotels’ own sites.

      • This just came out from SEO Quake which is an arm of SEMRush
        “Generally, Google Places can unlock the opportunities to be found on Google free of charge on higher positions than in organic results. So, it’s definitely a good chance to promote local businesses. However, every time we are going to start a project, we’d like to first get an idea of the real benefits. The question here is why you should use Google Places, instead of the many other options available?

        “Perhaps it’s just because Google said that 97% of consumers search for local businesses online. Do you agree?”

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