This is the second post in our 2019 Search Landscape Series. In the first we covered the difficulties landing slots on page 1 of Google with the advent of Search Features; Featured Snippets, People Also Ask, Video and more. These features compound the existing issues of decreasing organic clicks and increasing advert clicks. An issue I cover in an earlier post, PPC vs. SEO – Why are you Paying for Clicks.
In this post we move on from Google to look at other major players in the search industry. Comparison Sites spend vast sums of money on advertising, but also SEO, hording vast amounts of organic traffic.
Comparison Sites - Why does Google breaks it's own Rules?
I have a personal hatred of comparison sites. They are most well known in the travel industry, Trivago, Trip Adviser, Expedia. In short, I believe they are opportunists!! and I think they know it. They rely on group think in the industry and the fact they have deeper pockets I think Google should put a stop to it. Strong words? Let me explain.
They are an unnecessary distortion of the market, creaming money off the top in exchange for doing almost nothing.
Take a look on the right at the SERP for term “hotels in dublin”…
Every single slot, all 14. 10 organic and 4 payed search ads. Not a single Hotel Website!! The entire page is dominated by comparison sites. Google is a search engine, that’s obvious, but so are these comparison sites. They add no value. Trivago for example simply shows a list of hotel prices from other comparison sites!!
The first result is Hotels Combined. The paid results are also comparison sites but for now I want to talk about the organic results.
“Search Dublin Hotels,” I’m pretty sure that’s what I just did?? “Compare all the top travel sites” I thought this was Google’s job?? I must have been mistaken. Maybe Google puts up with this because they can’t yet do a better job (we all remember the first Google Flights!!). Although I am often critical of Google (this very post for example) I am a huge fan, an enthusiastic admirer of what they have achieved. They can do better, and they can do better without charging huge commissions to hotels.
We all know how to refine a search, well here it is on the right of the page. Many of the Dublin suburbs and most popular destinations.
This could have been done directly in a Google Search. Later we’ll take a look at how this might be done.
I won’t show them all, but you get the gist. 10+ hotels in the Dublin area ranked by an algorithm. An algorithm we know very little about.
I’d imagine that the more bookings made through Hotels Combined the higher up this list your hotel gets. Call me cynical, I can take it.
Indexation of Search Results Pages
This is what Google thinks about search results pages on your website;
"Typically, web search results don’t add value to users, and since our core goal is to provide the best search results possible, we generally exclude search results from our web search index. (Not all URLs that contains things like /results or /search are search results, of course.)"
This is a statement made in 2007 by Matt Cutts, former head of web spam & Search Quality at Google
Best practice in SEO tells you that you should block your internal search results pages from Google. This is because Google doesn’t want your search results in their search results, it’s another step between the user and the information they are looking for. This makes perfect sense. But why then are these comparison sites treated differently. Why is the search for “hotels in dublin” not returning 10 hotel or hotel chain websites?
How is it that www.hotelscombined.ie/Place/Dublin isn't treated as an internal search results page? Take a look for yourself, I'm sure you'll agree that it is an internal search page.
The situation is the same in the trades sector. These sites invest vast sums of money in SEO, ranking for 1000’s of terms, PPC and many other forms of advertising, pushing excellent websites down the SERP in all the trades; plumbing, carpentry, painters and decorators. Tradespeople see an easy win. Paying membership fees or commissions in exchange for leads. A fair and level playing field would see these tradespeople compete with each other on the merits of their work and their marketing efforts.
The only reason I can see for this is “fear of missing out.” Every other company in your industry is doing so it must be the right thing to do.
10 organic results, each a tradesperson website. 4 adverts, maybe new entrants to the market. This is what I would like to see, for every trade, in every location.
Structured Data & Schema.org
A few year ago with the advent of Structured Data it appeared to me that Google was taking a stand. This gives the opportunity for websites to mark up their pages with data such as price, star rating, availability and other useful info. It shows up like this in the search results.
These are examples of recipe mark up (thanks to Cypress North). The data shown including star rating, number of votes, cooking time, calorie count and image are put in the code of each page by the website owner. Google reads this and displays it in this format when it feels appropriate.
If every website implemented structured data it would in theory make comparison sites redundant. Only time will tell.
Recent Algorithm Changes & Updates to Search Rater Guidelines at Google
Two significant changes to how Google ranks pages took place recently, they both offer a little hope. The first change is what is known as a broad core algorithm update. It took place on August 1st and has been called the “Medic” update.
It was named Medic by Barry Schwartz, a true search authority because early data showed that it adversely affected medical type websites. This update speaks to the core principles that Google seems to be working off; EAT and YMYL. Let me explain both;
Expertise, Authoritativeness & Trustworthiness
E A T first appeared in the 2015 Search Quality Rating Guidelines (click here to read them in full). It may surprise you to know that Google employs a large team of Search Quality Raters. They perform thousands of searches and make reports on the results and the pages linked out from those results.
"Every high quality page needs E-A-T; a high level of Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness"
I don’t believe that Comparison Sites can claim to be experts in what they are comparing. I hope in the future, maybe 2019, that search results will more accurately reflect searcher intent in this area.
"Your Money or Your Life" Pages
Another key feature of the Search Rater Guidelines are pages that Google calls “Your Money or your Life” Pages;
“Google’s highest quality standard for web pages.
Some types of pages could potentially impact the future happiness, health or wealth of users. We call such pages “Your Money or Your Life” pages or Y-M-Y-L.”
Comparison sites would fall into at least one of these categories. But do they make the grade, the highest standard of web pages? I’m not suggesting that they crooked in any way, what I am suggesting is that they are not experts or an authority on hotels. They are marketers, very good marketers, and web designers. But there experience in the travel industry (apart from running these websites) is virtually zero.
How Could Goggle Shape the Future
Ok, so you know my opinion on Comparison sites. What I hear a lot from those in the SEO/Internet Marketing industry is that consumers love them, and I’m sure they do. But, at the end of the day, they do not pay the cost (or at least the cost they are paying is not obvious to them) and convenience trumps all other considerations.
Changes to Google's Hotel Local Pack
On the right is a screenshot of a hotel search I did earlier in the week. It will be familiar to anyone who uses Trivago, Booking.com or any other travel Comparison Site. The difference is it’s not a comparison site, it’s page 1 of Google for the search term “hotels in dublin.”
Google is not charging hotels for this, they are organic results. That’s the big difference, and why I object to Comparison Sites as much as I do. A well designed local results page using schema mark up for all the details would save hotel businesses 100’s of millions every year.
It gets better. Above is the full local pack result, accessed by clicking “View Hotels.” It is very similar to the AirBnB search interface.
The down side… it is pulling price information from the Comparison Sites.
If Google was minded to make a stand against Trivago, Trip Adviser and the like they could could. All of the information could be pulled from the hotel websites and their Google My Business Pages including; price, availability, location, star rating, customer reviews, images, customer images, hotel services and local amenities. All of this would be well within their technical remit, Google has achieved for more complicated tasks through search in recent years.
Only time will tell if Google will take on the Comparison Sites. In fairness to them it is non of their business if hotels, B&B’s or holiday lets want to outsource their booking department to Trivago. This is what they would say, I think.
Looking at what Google say about internal search result pages, and their recent redesign of their own hotel booking pages I am confident that they are looking at this issue (if they see it as an issue at all).
Thank you for reading this post and keep an eye out for Part 3 in the Search Landscape Series – Google at 20, The Past & The Future.