Google is making mobile a priority, and experts said hoteliers should, too, if they want to drive revenue.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Next year, Google will switch to a mobile-first index, and hoteliers need to be ready lest they see their websites falling in search rankings.
“Google’s mobile-first index means that they will soon be organizing their search results based on the mobile version of websites, only calling on desktop versions when there isn’t a mobile version to index,” said Tim Johnson, corporate director of e-commerce for LBA Hospitality.
While he said the concept is nothing new—in late 2016, Google revealed that to make its search results useful, it had started experimenting with mobile-first indexing—making mobile the primary index is a change.
“This doesn’t mean desktop will disappear—yet—but it will only be updated second to mobile,” he said.
It’s a move that Johnson said makes sense, as most people are spending more and more time on their smartphones. He said that one in five hotel reservations are now made on a mobile device, and that number will only continue to grow.
Tim Peter of Tim Peter & Associates said the change means Google will split into two indexes. The index today gives preference to mobile-friendly sites when users search via mobile. However, the change will see websites crawled twice: once for mobile and once for desktop.
“You could find you rank in one place on mobile and a completely different place on desktop,” Peter said. “If you’re not ready for the change, you won’t be found on search and it’s going to hurt your overall business.”
Hoteliers who franchise with the top names can rest assured the brands have been watching the mobile shift and have been updating their websites over the last several years, said Nicole Ragland, e-marketing manager at The Hotel Group.
“For those with independent hotels or vanity sites, now is the time to meet with your web developer to discuss ways you can make your site more mobile friendly,” she added.
Johnson said Google will apply the update to the websites that are ready for it to mitigate the negative effects to sites that aren’t ready and to give them more time to prepare.
“If a hotel doesn’t have a mobile-optimized website yet, they should get one ASAP,” he said. “No one knows how much of an impact this update will have.”
The experts offered several other tips to ensure sites are ready.
1. Make sure the site is fast
The average time it takes to fully load a mobile landing page is 22 seconds, according to recent analysis from Google. However, 53% of visitors leave a mobile site if it takes longer than three seconds to load.
“Despite the fact that more than half of overall web traffic comes from mobile, our data shows that mobile conversion rates are lower than desktop,” the Google report reads. “In short, mobile page speed equals revenue.”
“I can’t emphasize this enough: Start with fast,” Peter said.
Images should be optimized for mobile in order to achieve this goal. That means image file sizes should be as small as they can be without losing their appeal in order for them to load quickly.
2. Optimize content
For those who are already operating mobile-friendly sites, Ragland suggested focusing some time and energy on optimizing the site’s content. That’s why at THG, in addition to its full-scale yearly audits, the team encourages its properties to audit their brand.com content monthly.
“This is a great way to get your front desk involved in your digital roadmap while ensuring your content is accurate and fresh,” she said, adding that hoteliers should ensure the website’s imagery is high-quality and at a resolution that reflects the true nature of the property.
“With the majority of the population falling under the visual-learner category, you will truly be speaking their language,” she said. “If your images are low-resolution, stock, more than five years old, or reflect a pre-renovation product, consider adding this critical item to your budget.”
Johnson agreed but added that planning for content is equally as important as the content itself.
“It’s important that a hotel’s website content appeals to multiple persona types and appropriate traveler search queries,” he said.
3. Ensure the mobile site is user-friendly
To help reduce bounce rate, Peter said mobile websites need to be “finger-friendly” so people can operate them while using one hand via their mobile device. Buttons should be bigger to allow for easy access to call to actions, and text needs to be bigger for ease of reading on a smaller screen—and various screen sizes. Forms need to be as limited as possible; if they are difficult to fill out on a mobile device, people will abandon ship. Text should also be in clear paragraph breaks or bullet points.
“People don’t read big blocks. People want to scan,” Peter said.
4. Think about local search
The shift to a mobile-first index has also resulted in more localized search terms, according to sources.
“People are using search in a local context. You need to do things like not just having your property name in the title or H1 tag, but also the city and state on the alt or meta description,” Peter said.
“Simply put, now is the perfect time to revisit your current search engine optimization strategy,” Ragland said.
5. Go responsive
If hotels’ mobile sites aren’t responsive yet, now’s the time to make the change, sources said.
“Google hasn’t provided much direction on how folks should address (the mobile-first) change,” Johnson said. “However, they have said that if you have a responsive site, then you’re good to go since the content on both sites is the same.”
He said that big brand companies, such as Marriott International, Hilton and InterContinental Hotels Group, have already invested in and prioritized a mobile-first strategy to make sure all branded hotels are equipped with a responsive website that offers the optimum user experience on desktop, mobile and tablet.
If hoteliers find they don’t have a responsive website, Johnson suggested hiring a subject-matter expert to help with the task.
“Moving to a responsive website is definitely much easier said than done,” he said. “It takes a lot of planning, precision and, of course, money. It’s worth the investment.”