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Google Hotel Free Booking Links – OTA Freedom or Competition?6 min read

June 14, 2021 5 min read
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Google Hotel Free Booking Links – OTA Freedom or Competition?6 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Google Hotel Free Booking Links – the biggest news for the industry by the search engine giant this year (so far). Right now you’re probably wondering: How is my hotel going to benefit from this program? Why did Google decide to offer this tool to hotels? Is there a flip side?

Let’s tackle all your questions…

So What exactly is Google Hotel Free Booking Links?

In early March 2021, Google announced the launch of its Hotel Free Booking Links program, giving Hotels free listings as a non-paid extension of Google Hotel Ads. With Google’s new Hotel Free Booking Links program, the hotel’s official website will appear in the Hotel Ads results, linked to its booking engine without the need to pay, providing hotels a new source of free traffic.

Up until that day however, Google’s Hotel Free Booking Links was exclusively a paid advertising service. Only bidding channels would appear in the search results, and therefore get that traffic from Google Hotel Ads.

Giving strong preference to paid listings, Google placed more ads at the top of the search engine and pushed down free organic listings – such as hotel websites. These preferred results directed users to Google’s travel pages, where advertisers showed first. This meant Google collected fees every time users clicked on paid listings.

This unsurprisingly led to concerns throughout the global travel industry. Companies argued that Google stifled competition and risked monopolizing the online travel search market. After being fined by the European Commission several times Google had to take measures, and thus, Google’s Free Booking Links program was born.

Let’s take a Closer Look at Google’s Free Hotel Booking Links Program

When searching for hotels on Google, most of the time this box will appear in the top right corner. This search result mainly collects information from Google My Business and typically provides some information about the hotel.
Until the beginning of March 2021, to appear in the rates and channels section of this search result, hotels would need to advertise with Google. This meant hotels would be required to pay an extra fee to appear in this position.

The key difference with Google’s Hotel Free Booking Links program is that hotels no longer need to pay to be featured in the comparison prices section, with a direct link to the hotel website.

Google Hotel Free Booking Links - Image of Hotel listings on Google's search engine

Is my Hotel going to benefit from Google Free Hotel Booking Links?

Probably yes. And so does Google, for sure.

Google’s Hotel Free Booking Links gives hotels the opportunity to increase its visibility and subsequently increase direct bookings. Hotels now have a new free source of traffic. Hotel booking engines are now showing in one more place that used to belong to paid advertisers such as Booking and Expedia. This a new opportunity for hotels to compete with the big sharks and drive more direct traffic.

On Google’s side, some experts predict this is a big move that will result in a massive shift where OTAs will no longer be the dominant reservation channel. Up until now, Google has predominantly operated as an ad agency, generating clicks and driving traffic which then converts into transactions for companies on the search engine. Google is likely to expand its foothold on the travel industry, either by acquisitions or by bringing competitors to the edge of irrelevance.

In addition, by flooding their results with booking options, Google is creating a crowded field forcing hotels, OTAs, and other booking websites to compete for visibility and thinking about how they can stand out. The obvious answer is sponsored links that will result in a bidding war. The higher everyone bids, the more money Google will generate.

How can I make my hotel website stand out?

One of the obvious options is to participate in the Hotel Ads Commission Program. This is CPA (cost per acquisition) based, which means hotels will pay Google a commission when a reservation is done and not per click. As you can see Google is also moving to the OTAs model, instead of the regular metasearch engine model of pay-per-click, your hotel can work with a commission based on the rate booked, just like Booking or Expedia.

If your idea is to stick with the free listings for now, there are also some measures you can take to be better positioned in the free listings ranking.

  • Google traditionally values the quality of the integration so make sure your provider’s integration fulfills all Google’s requirement and best practices
  • Competitiveness of your price compared with other channels is another variable to rank. Make sure your website has the best rates.
  • Optimize your Google My Business: Make sure your listing is always up-to-date, with the right photos, the right content, and with a 100% score.
  • Optimize your website and booking engine – If you’re on top of the listing but your site is not user-friendly, nor has appealing content or photos, do you think your visitor will book? Probably not. Make sure your website is fully prepared to give the visitor a great experience (refer to our best article about this)
  • Do you really need to work with those 35 channels? A healthy mix of distribution is vital for a successful business, however, are all the channels you work with producing? Or not really? The fewer channels appearing here, the higher the chances are of your listing being more visible.

Conclusion

This controversial tool and its latest update to offer free booking links to hotels is making a big impact in the industry for sure.

For the direct channel, Google’s Hotel Free Booking Link represents a new opportunity to compete with OTAs and drive more direct traffic and consequently revenue as long as you optimize your presence. In addition, Hotels will benefit from increased access to customer data, such as the contact information which does not happen nowadays with some OTAs like Booking.

However, it is controversial since Google is also increasing competition between paid and non-paid advertisers alike, which may likely result in increased bidding for higher visibility. Also, although it is still too early to guess, Google can be walking the path to become the number one travel booking channel, substituting what have been the big sharks until now: Booking and Expedia. Or it can contribute to a healthier distribution mix for hotels, only time will tell.

We will monitor the evolution of the results from these changes so you can be updated with the latest news and trends. And most importantly, never lose sight of the customers’ experience at all stages of their interaction with your hotel, regardless of which course this might lead the hospitality industry.

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