Our first post in this series provided an overview of how guests find and book a lodging property, based on research from WIHP, a hotel marketing agency. The four step process assumes the future guest has selected a destination area and then proceeds through the steps of (1) discovery of a particular property, (2) seeking information about the property to see if it is a good prospect (the zero moment of truth), (3) the guest on your website (the first moment of truth), and (4) the guest at your property (the second moment of truth). Our second post discussed the process by which a guest “discovers” (or learns of) your property as a possible place to stay.

Our topic today, then, is the “Zero Moment of Truth,” or the time when the guest has decided on a location to visit, has learned of your property as a possible place to stay, but has not yet seen your website, and wants to find out more about your property.

[pullquote]Around 80% of searches for more information are on a search engine. Ignore that at your peril.[/pullquote] The findings from WIHP indicate that nearly three-quarters (72.9%) of all prospective guests will look for your property on a search engine. Another 9.6% will look on a mapping website. Since most (but certainly not all) mapping sites are affiliated with search engines, this amounts to around 80% of all searches for more information going through a search engine. That is a statistic to be ignored at your peril.

Another 7.3% seek information from a review site (such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc.). After that the numbers fall off radically for travel guides (3%) and social media sites (0.8%). Just a side note – if you’re counting on your social media sites (Facebook, Google Plus, etc.) to provide the information, at the current time you’re reaching less than 1% of those who want to find you.

We would ordinarily expect Google to be the most commonly used search engine, so we won’t be surprised to find that it is. Although many articles remind us not to forget Yahoo, Bing, and others, and other articles talk about Google losing market share at the expense of Bing, in particular, these statistics don’t match up with the results of WIHP’s research. They found that 89.8% of searches leading to a property’s website came from Google, while Yahoo and Bing brought 4% and 3.6%, respectively.

Before booking, the average guest will have viewed 10 different hotel websites over 6 days, and will have visited the one they ultimately choose at least 3-4 times. This is where your competition truly exists. Your goal, at this point, is to be one of the sites (perhaps the top site) the guest will consider, and to get them to visit your website.

We talked about how to help yourself be found on TripAdvisor in our previous post, and much the same advice would apply to other review sites (though no others provide the exposure in the lodging market that TripAdvisor does). Consequently, our focus here should be on search engines – particularly Google – and map sites.

How do guests find information through search engines?

Try it yourself. What search terms would a guest, knowing the location and the name of your inn, use to search? If you’re having trouble, pick a place you’d like to travel, find the name of a property there, and try to find out more about the property using your favorite search engine. Then use those search terms for your own property and location.

What do you see in the results? In the case of our Freeport Maine bed and breakfast (while signed in to Google, which may affect the results), I see our website, then our TripAdvisor reviews, then a couple of B&B directories, a news article we are mentioned in, etc. Verify these results while logged out of Google. They may also differ by your location, so you may want to have someone repeat the search using a different location.

One thing you’ll see in all (or nearly all) the search results is a description of the page the result will link to. Although Google, at least, reserves the right to re-write the description, you can “help” by putting a well-written description META tag in the head section of a page. If your description provides an accurate summary of the content of the page, it may well be the description that is used in the search results.

Bear in mind that just because your own website is the first result in the search results, that does not necessarily mean your guests will click on it first! They may choose one of the B&B directories, TripAdvisor, or something else. Our goal is to provide information for our future guests in all of these sources, so they’ll find it regardless of where they look.

Getting found on search engines (search engine optimization or SEO) is a topic that would make an extensive series in its own right. Fundamentally it breaks down into on-page SEO (signals on the page that help the search engine determine how to index the content), and ongoing SEO efforts (such as building incoming links to your website, dealing with local listings, maps, etc.). We are planning to break out this topic, and part of the next post in this series (on the First Moment of Truth) relating to your website, itself, into a short series of its own. Consequently we’ll just hit some of the high points here. Bear in mind that our brief discussion of SEO is not meant to say it is not important. Just the contrary. It is so important that it deserves a more complete treatment than we can include in this post.

In an excellent series entitled “The Smarter Innkeeper”, Acorn Internet Services has devoted two of the three topics to on-page SEO and ongoing SEO (the third point is on the web design itself, which we cover in our next post). In each post is a checklist of tasks you can perform (or have done for you) to make your website more easily found by the search engines and to make it more likely to be indexed for the relevant search terms. The checklists are written as something you might ask your web designer or SEO firm, to be sure they don’t miss anything, but they will do very nicely as a list of the tasks you should plan to perform, as well.

Both of the two SEO checklists make reference to creating and maintaining local listings. In addition to any local listings sites, such as Chambers of Commerce, innkeeping associations, area marketing groups, etc., the search engines have their own local listings pages. Properly setting up and maintaining these pages will help you be found – especially on the mapping websites.

What about maps?

If you have followed the steps on the SEO checklists, and your local setup is correct, you do want to be sure your location is correctly specified on mapping sites. Most will allow you to claim your listing (you did that long ago, didn’t you?), then to edit the location if it is not correct. Again, most will allow you to specify business name, phone, website URL, etc., as well as other details, much as the local sites will. Keep in mind that the search engines have a specific format for business names, addresses and telephone numbers, so you want to follow those formats and keep the information the same from place to place. If the information is not identical (for example, saying “B&B” in one location and “Bed and Breakfast” in another), you run the risk that a search engine (which is only a computer, after all) will think they are two different businesses.

When your guest searches on a map, it is likely that they want to know how close (meaning how convenient) you are to a particular location. To help them out, tell them how close you are to various attractions. There is no substitute for making it easy for the guest to find the information they are seeking!

If we’ve done all these things, we’ve made it easy for the prospective guest to learn more about our property before they come to our website. In fact, if we’ve done our job well, we have whetted their appetite to see our website! We’ll talk about what happens on the website in our next post.