“Letting the OTA bid on your brand is like giving Expedia their own check-in desk at your hotel.”
Del Ross, Senior Advisor, McKinsey & Company
Any hotel manager in their right mind would not allow Expedia to take over their front desk. Yet, when it comes to your branded search results—the front-desk of the online world if you will—that is exactly what is happening.
What is Brandjacking?
Brandjacking is not a new concept; it has been around for years. However, Google Ads recent trademark policy update has pushed the brandjacking debate to the forefront. The policy update has hit hotel and bed & breakfasts around the world hard. UK Bed & Breakfast Association has even called for the ban of brandjacking of hotel and B&B names by online travel agencies (OTAs).
Brandjacking is the generic term for assuming the identity of a company, brand, or person with the intent on utilizing that brand’s equity for their own gain. Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) such as Expedia.com and Booking.com in particular have been aggressively brandjacking hotels to colonize the top of search listing for branded, high intent searches.
Why Should Hotel Managers Care?
Online travel agencies are bidding on your brand terms and capitalizing on your brand equity to drive more bookings to their site. This means, people who were booking direct are now booking via an OTA.
Remember, booking sites don’t care about your brand image or event booking your specific hotel. They only care about increasing their bookings. They get a commission off a booking, whether it is your hotel or not, which is why an OTA is happy to run ads on your behalf. Those ads drive people to their website, ultimately increasing their bookings, and your hotel pays for it in commission fees.
Let’s use the Roosevelt Hotel as an example. They have spent considerable effort building their brand reputation as “the quintessential Manhattan hotel- a taste of old-school New York…”. However, when we search “book the Roosevelt Hotel New York” the search results for this term are dominated by generic ads for online travel agencies that do not reflect the brand’s image. More alarmingly, OTAs take up the first three ads positions. They also dominate the Google My Business ad listings. Hotels.com is even outranking the Roosevelt hotel in the organic placement.
On mobile the situation is even worse. The only option above the fold is an advertisement for hotels.com.
So that visitor who would have booked direct in the past, is more likely to wind up booking via an OTA. These booking sites are not only hijacking your traffic, they are hijacking your customer experience. In many cases the page visitors land on are full of other hotel offers, like this listing on orbitz.com.
At this point, the guest that was solely interested in your hotel now has the opportunity to compare. The biggest point of comparison: price. And when price comparisons begin, unless you are competing with deeply discounted prices, losing that prospective guest is almost a guarantee.
Even if visitors are directed to a page that is specific to your hotel, OTAs still manage to sneak in other hotel ads and options. For instance, hotel.com has a landing page specific to the Roosevelt Hotel but still offers two other sets of alternatives:
How Google Trademark Policy Updates Impact Hotels
In the past, hotels could trademark their brand name as a measure of protection against brandjacking. While OTAs could still target branded keywords, having a trademark in place prevented the use of your brand name in the ad, which lowered the OTAs quality score in Google AdWords, forcing them to pay more just to keep the same position on the SERPs. Or, if the quality score dipped too low, the ads didn’t even appear at all.
Google’s new trademark policy states:
“Advertisers may use a trademark term in ad text if they are a reseller of, offer compatible components or parts for, or provide information about the goods and services related to the trademarked term.”
This means, as long as “the product or services” is “clearly available for purchase from the ads landing page”, OTAs will be able to use your trademarked brand name freely.
How to Combat Brandjacking from OTAs
Unfortunately trademarking your brand name is no longer enough to combat brandjacking. So, what options do hotels have?
Negotiate OTA Contracts
This can sometimes be easier said than done. Many small independent hotels and bed & breakfasts may feel powerless and that OTA contracts are “non-negotiable”. However, that is simply not true. Fight for your right to control your brand experience or move your business to a channel that will negotiate. You may not be able to negotiate OTAs from bidding on your branded terms, but you may be able to negotiate the language used in the ads, or what the landing page experience is like.
Optimize Your Direct Booking Site
With less and less traffic coming to your website, it is critical that your site is optimized to give the best booking experience possible. Keep in mind that the majority of bookings occur on a mobile device. Slow loading sites and complicated booking experiences will only drive more people to OTAs.
Highlight Direct Booking Specials & Deals
Optimize your website and organic listings to highlight specials and deals that they can’t get through an online travel agency. For instance, if you are near a popular ski destination, highlighting ski & stay packages during the winter months can encourage more direct bookings.
Highlight Added Value for Booking Direct
Think of how you can add value to a customer that online travel agencies can’t. Perhaps it is the ability to pick your exact room. Maybe it is earlier check in times. Figure out what matters most to our audience and capitalize on that.
Bid on Your Brand Name
With the recent changes to Google’s trademark policy, paying to play has become a necessity. Bidding on your brand name ensures “brand protection” by driving OTA listings down the page and giving you control of the messaging and brand experience. Unfortunately, brand protection can come at a steep cost if your terms are highly competitive. However, when done right, a paid search campaign combined with Hotel ads can turn the tide and capture some of your direct bookings back.
The Georgian Resort is an example of a brand protection campaign done right. Their search ad highlights a direct booking incentive. On the right, their Hotel Ad showcases a low price, and clearly indicates it is the official site, enticing people to book direct.
Are You Being Brandjacked? We Are Here to Help.
If you are struggling with declining direct bookings, you are not alone. Chances are one or more OTAs are currently bidding on your branded terms.