Making the Case for Independent Hotel Websites

by: Lauretta Shokler

Director of Inbound Marketing and Analytics at Valet Interactive a division of Worldwide Revenue Solutions

Does My Hotel Need an Independent Website?

Independent Hotel WebsitesMarketing hotels online is a complex and ever changing process, and for hotel owners and managers, the number of advertising venues, social channels and online profiles and sites that need to be managed can quickly become overwhelming. In addition, the need to manage real-time inventory and dynamic rate pricing is putting more pressure on hotels to respond to guests and potential guests in ever more personalized ways. One way the hospitality industry has responded to this evolving ecosystem is by building more independent hotel websites.

Traditionally branded hotels focused their digital marketing efforts on managing their brand site presence and their profiles on Online Travel Agencies, such as Travelocity and Expedia. Next they started building and managing profiles on social channels including Facebook, Twitter and TripAdvisor. This move was often driven by the need to manage their reputation and encourage positive guest reviews and feedback.

Independent and boutique hotels recognized the advantages of having an independent website early on, but many branded properties soon followed. As potential guests become more familiar and confident using online search, social channels and mobile apps to book their travel plans, the need for hotels to develop and manage a comprehensive digital marketing strategy, which could include an independent hotel website, will increase.

Factors to Consider Before Building an Independent Hotel Website

So should you build an independent hotel website to market your hotel? The answer to that question depends on a number of factors that are of often unique to each property. Here are some of the issues to consider:

  1. Decision factors about building a websiteHotel’s local market – The local market is a major factor in determining the potential benefits of an independent site. Local markets with key tourist attractions and nearby convention centers/airports/ship ports etc. provide more opportunity for building out detailed and searchable content. In addition, hotels in active markets with a variety of local events or that attract specific demographics can also use those unique selling propositions to get the most out of their independent website.
  2. Brand rules & restrictions – Some hotel brands have stricter guidelines on building independent websites and domain ownership than others. Read through your Hotel Management/Franchise Agreement first to understand any limitations, then factor the impact of those restrictions into long-term branding and SEO considerations for the independent site.
  3. Service level of property – Independent websites better serve hotels and resorts which offer a larger variety of services that can’t be fully marketed on the more limited brand website. For example, hotels with full-service restaurants, spas, golf courses, water parks/specialty pools, event/meeting space, unique amenities, etc. stand to benefit much more from an independent website in both traffic and bookings. Additional search traffic comes from people looking for those niche services and amenities via long-tail search queries. This leads to more bookings as well, as site visitors have more robust and detailed content available to influence their buying decision.
  4. Type of hotel – The type of hotel is not the biggest factor, but in general, very small motels or select service hotels have less to gain from a vanity site than full service, large hotels or resorts. Sometimes a simple mobile site, especially for small hotels/motels located on or near major highways will provide a better return on investment (ROI) and be easier to maintain than a full independent website. Also, independent and boutique hotels that don’t have an owned online presence like hotels with flags do through branded sites should definitely consider having a full independent hotel website.
  5. Hotel’s willingness to participate – All digital marketing efforts must be viewed as an ongoing process rather than a once-and-done project. To get the most from an independent website, participation by the hotel is key. Sites built in-house will take time to fully design, build, populate with content and optimize. If using an agency, hotels should expect to spend time explaining their market and clientele, assessing design options, reviewing content and monitoring functionality. After the site launches even more work lies ahead in building out partnerships with other local businesses, updating content, designing marketing campaigns and more. While an agency can take on a large part of the workload, guidance and participation by the people on-site at the hotel will be an important part of the website’s long-term success.
  6. Marketing budget and goals – Like all business projects, budget is a critical factor. Look at more than the upfront cost to build the website and factor in the time and money required to fully market the site. Websites require constant maintenance to keep content fresh and relevant. Furthermore, the short and long-term goals of the independent hotel website should be considered. Building a site’s search presence has an initial 9-12 month ramp-up timeline, and to fully build out a brand can take even longer, sometimes years. Because all of the factors listed above can impact the ROI of an independent site, be sure the budget available is substantial enough to do the marketing well, but that it is also in-line with the potential profit the hotel’s independent site can honestly earn. This will be especially true during the first year when costs are higher and the website is just starting to build an audience.

Advantages to Having an Independent Hotel Site

Of course for those hotels where having an independent website does make sense, it can provide a number of clear advantages over relying primarily on a brand site presence or online travel agencies (OTAs). Below are just some of the advantages from which hotels can benefit:

Building Hotel Brands OnlineBuilding Brand Value

Independent websites can help hotels build a stronger individual brand. The major hotel brands are instrumental in building the brand of the hotel’s flag, but an independent site can truly help build the individual hotel brand by better conveying what is unique about each property, its location and services. Here are some of the specific ways an independent hotel website can help a hotel build a stronger individual brand identity:

  • Google’s bias toward well-known brands makes building a unique brand for each individual property important for more search exposure.
  • An independent site is a good place to showcase positive press and guest reviews (or link to guest reviews), which helps build the hotel’s overall reputation.
  • The independent site can be setup to capture email sign-ups and utilize segmentation options collected at the property and not the brand/flag level. This allows for more custom targeting and marketing of former and potential guests at a less expensive cost. Just be mindful of brand guidelines, as some flags do not allow the solicitation of guest e-mails on independent hotel websites.
  • An independent site can also attract an engaged audience through blogging efforts.
  • Over the long-term, an independent site allows a hotel to also build value in a domain which could be very beneficial in case of a future flag change. As we all know, flags come and go, but this website will always be yours.

User Experience on WebsitesUser Experience

User experience is a critical aspect of getting site visitors to book hotel rooms. An independent website has more flexibility for providing a positive, custom user experience that is tailored to each hotel’s individual strengths and demographic. Here are some ways that can be accomplished:

  • A custom designed website is much more likely to convey the unique style and personality of a hotel than a standard template such as those used on corporate hotel brand sites.
  • By building a responsive website or optimized separate mobile site, an independent site can offer a much better mobile experience than the downloadable apps and poorly mobile optimized corporate sites that many of the major hotel brands have. With mobile expected to exceed desktop traffic in the near future, this factor alone can make the difference between getting those mobile bookings and not.
  • Independent sites often provide higher quality language translation and optimization options for global audiences.
  • The site can include options to encourage social engagement and integrate social activity into the hotel’s online presence.
  • Additional tools and features such as event calendars, restaurant reservations apps, video, custom package platforms and more can be integrated into an independent hotel website to provide guests with more information and more options for engaging with the hotel.

Search Marketing for Hotel WebsitesSearch Marketing

Travel is one of the most competitive industries online, so having a strong SEO and search marketing strategy is critical to a website’s success. Independent sites have several advantages over relying on a just a brand and/or third party (social channels, OTAs, etc.) presence when it comes to search marketing, including:

  • An independent website allows for significantly more content, which is a fundamental part of any SEO strategy. Most brand sites use very rigid template structures that have strict limits on the number and types of pages as well as the character counts within those pages. Additional limitations may be placed on the amount and format of internal linking, the types and quality of images used, or even the frequency in which content may be updated. These limitations seriously restrict the opportunities to promote local demand generators and well as multiple long-tail topics in search. This is all the more important since Google launched its Panda algorithm in 2010. This algorithm explicitly benefits sites with more relevant, higher quality content.
  • Independent websites can adapt more quickly to new standards and technologies that provide distinct advantages in search. For example, the use of microdata mark-up such as schema can help search engines better understand detailed information about local events, special offers, blog content, the hotel’s address,  contact information, site logo and navigation, as well as make that data available to apps, social channels, email software and digital devices (mobile, glass, watches). According to a 2014 Searchmetrics study, only 0.3% of domains even use structured markup on their sites. Responsive design and HTML 5 are other examples of new technologies that independent sites began to utilize well ahead of brand sites.
  • Google, and likely other search engines, take steps to avoid something called domain clustering, which is an important concept for hotels that rely on their brand presence for online exposure. To help ensure that search results have a greater diversity of domains, Google’s algorithm limits the number of different pages that will be shown in the search results from the same website. This can present a significant SEO challenge for hotels that are competing with multiple hotels of the same brand site in the same or nearby markets, as only 1 or 2 of them are likely to show for any given search query.Here’s an example: two Marriott hotels may appear to have completely separate brand websites from a user standpoint, but in fact they share the Marriott domain (www.marriott.com/…). If those two Marriott hotels are in the same market, Google may not serve both hotels in a given search result, because it intentionally avoids too many results from the same domain. An independent site, because it’s on its own domain, would give the hotel another chance to show for those critical search keywords.
  • An independent hotel website allows hotels to better utilize the partnerships they have built with local organizations by sharing links, developing and promoting joint offers, and swapping content with the hotel, all of which can increase the SEO authority of the independent site and allow the hotel to make those partnership more mutually beneficial.
  • Because pages on independent websites can be customized and refined, hotels that want to run pay-per-click advertising in search are likely to have higher quality scores from their optimized landing pages which can result in more click-thru traffic and reduced advertising costs.
  • In addition, hotels that rely on their brand to run PPC advertising for them may pay extra fees for that service on leads that result in bookings.
  • Because independent websites can be setup to track visitors in great detail using analytics and other tracking tools, hotels with these sites can better monitor site performance and improve marketing efforts by utilizing this detailed data and any expert analysis available to them.

Options for Building an Independent Hotel Website

Once you decide that you do want to build an independent hotel website, you’ll need to explore the options available. Most hotels will opt to have their independent website built by an agency or contractor. Some will actually build the site using in-house resources if that expertise is available. Before committing to any option, be sure to consider the following questions:

  1. Questions to Ask Website VendorHow long has the agency/contractor been building websites for hotels?
  2. Is the work done in-house or outsourced?
  3. What is the agency/contractor’s experience in web design, digital marketing and the hospitality industry in particular?
  4. What is the timeline for building the site?
  5. What information/assistance will you need to provide?
  6. Who are some of the other clients they have worked with? More specifically, what experience does your agency/contractor have working with hotel brands and within brand guidelines?
  7. What is the full scope of the project and what features/services will and won’t be included? For example:
    • Will site be responsive or have a separate mobile site?
    • Will the design be custom or a template?
    • How many pages will the site contain?
    • What special features can be added: blog, calendar of events, social feeds, etc.
    • Is the cost of the domain and site hosting included?
    • Is maintenance of content included and is that done by the agency/contractor or hotel?
    • Are ongoing SEO services included and what would that entail?
    • What other digital marketing services are provided or available for purchase such as email marketing, pay-per-click advertising, social media services, reputation management, etc.
    • Will the site be fully-optimized for search engine and conversion rate optimization?
    • Who owns the site once it’s built?
    • What platform and Content Management System will be used for the website’s technology and is it something that can be moved to another agency or hosting service if needed?
    • Will full or partial digital marketing services be done after the site is launched?
    • What type of support, data tracking and reporting will be provided?
    • Will a designated account manager be assigned for executing the web design project and ongoing marketing services?
    • Will the site be compliant with industry and web design standards and will it be functional on multiple devices and browsers?
    • What is the cost for building the independent site as well as any ongoing marketing services?
    • What is the cost/process for making design changes to the site later?
    • What are the expected results from the website and marketing efforts and how do they align with my business goals?

Be sure to work with several agencies and contractors to compare features, pricing and expertise before deciding, but don’t let price be the only factor. In the long-run the revenue the independent site could generate if properly optimized and marketed by a well-established and skilled agency or professional will far outweigh the cost of hiring that level of experience. A low-cost solution might be tempting, but may prove costly in terms of lost potential revenue over time.

Conclusion

Whether or not your hotel is a good candidate for benefitting from an independent website depends on a number of factors. The benefits of an independent site can be many, but hotels need to be sure they are ready to make the commitment to marketing and maintaining the site, and then choose a strong partner to work with.

Most boutique and independent hotels will need an independent site, and many up-scale and resort properties will opt to build one too, but small, limited-service hotels may find their time and financial resources are better spent elsewhere. Branded hotels that fall in the middle may need some guidance in deciding. An experienced digital marketing agency that specializes in the hospitality industry, like Valet Interactive, can help them with that decision making process by reviewing their property and market and analyzing their goals and budget. To get a quote for hotel web design or marketing services, submit your request today.

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Valet Interactive is full-service digital marketing agency specializing in the hospitality industry. Valet has been implementing a number of Schema.org and other mark-ups to client sites for almost 2 years including logo, location, publisher/author, offers, events, articles, Twitter cards, Facebook Open Graph tags, and many more.  We have made a substantial investment in this technology and continue to test more options on an ongoing basis. If your company is interested in working with an agency to add this markup to your site, we encourage you to submit a request for proposal today.

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Lauretta Shokler

Lauretta Shokler is the Director of Inbound Marketing and Analytics at Valet Interactive. Her professional background includes over 13 years of experience in digital and affiliate marketing including specialties in web analytics and technical SEO. In her free time she enjoys reading, volunteering, working out and decorating cakes.