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Mobile Matters: The Changing Face of the Digital Landscape

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June 12, 2015
Marketing Tips
David Atkins - info@digitaldnainfusion.com

For frequent readers, we harken back to October 2012 when we published a column entitled, “Think Mobile First” in Hospitality Upgrade. The column detailed the importance of designing your products, systems, programs and technology from a “Mobile First” perspective.

Just over two and a half years later, with the more than 50 percent inflection point of mobile visits vs. desktop visits to the majority of digital websites now behind us, the mobile channel reigns supreme for nearly every user query, task and endeavor.

This is especially true in the travel and hospitality sector, where Google now reports that across every stage of the traveler’s lifecycle, greater than 80 percent of consumers and business travelers’ behaviors are initiated from a mobile device at least one or more times per week.

It is in this context of the digital audience’s rapid channel shift from desktop to mobile that Google, on April 24, 2015, implemented its first publicly announced mobile ranking factor(s) upon which to assess digital assets. The assessment comes with optimization recommendations that help Google serve better mobile search results and aims to enhance performance, provide greater advertiser and publisher (business) site clarity, and influence search engine ranking positions (SERPs) within Google’s mobile search.

The focus of the April release includes two sets of considerations – one is essentially focused on the front-end user experience within Google search results and for user experience of the site referenced by the referring URL. The other is focused on the back-end platform architecture of the receiving site, which puts greater emphasis on delivering a fast mobile user experience.

With regard to the first consideration, Google seems to be asking businesses to focus on a variety of issues regarding ease of use in the context of both search listings and the advertisers’ or publishers’ own websites.

In the case of the second consideration, Google seems to be asking businesses to focus on their own mobile websites and applications performance across a wide range of technical benchmarks regarding speed and code efficiencies.

Beyond the audiences’ channel shift, the rationale for pushing businesses to invest more on mobile helps Google to maintain its favorability with end users of its search engine (and, likely, also helps Google control costs of maintaining its index). Users who search and quickly find what they seek tend to be happiest. Positive and negative sentiments to failed searches are multiplied in the mobile channel because users have less time (and usually, a lot less visual real estate) to complete desired tasks.
For those of you who have been “thinking mobile first” since late 2012, we imagine you will be well positioned to reap gains where your competitors, who may have taken a wait-and-see approach will likely initially see lower ranks and thus reduced traffic to their digital assets.

Our point of view is that Google’s new emphasis on getting digital businesses to focus on mobile search is indicative of the whole digital landscape, where mobile’s new dominance impacts digital strategies and technology investments deeply, in terms of capabilities, and broadly, in terms of interoperability.

Why a Small SEO Change Has Big Repercussions
Depending upon whose data you rely upon, Google has between 73 percent and 75 percent share of U.S. search traffic. Various hotel industry forecasters regard search differently in hotel research and purchasing behavior. When looked at from the perspective of how and how much search influences hotel bookings, most research agrees that more than 80 percent of hotel bookings, across all types of customers touch search in the process, even if the path to purchase is not digital direct.  In most markets, except for China, Google has a dominant share position among the top search engines. So, even a small change to SEO ranks has big repercussions on businesses day-to-day operations.

This type of sea change is more indicative of a tectonic shift that reverberates along the surface of every industry and sector, driving substantial investments in new foundational platforms, code and meta-text cleanup and major overhauls of user experience design.

In the travel and hospitality sector, readers who have not moved toward a mobile first strategy will need to re-evaluate their entire stack, from front-end content marketing platforms (i.e.,: CMS, DAM, CDNs, etc.) to back-end platforms, design, processes and systems connectivity (i.e.,: network architecture, server configurations, load balancing, CRM, CRS and PMS bi-directional connectivity).

Hoteliers should begin to have conversations about how mobile will impact everyday business operations at the property, management, ownership and brand levels by considering how to adapt and evolve their respective efforts and investments. Departments within the hotelier landscape that will feel the most immediate impact include revenue management, information technology, marketing, sales, distribution, reservations and general management.

Do You have Mobile-friendly Digital Assets?
Usually, when Google tests SEO ranking factors and updates its algorithms, it does so quietly, over many months, without any public discussion. The reason this change is different – and why, we believe, it will have a material impact on businesses – is that Google pre-announced that it was going to make the change and then formally issued notices to Web masters about its digital assets’ mobile friendliness.
If you do not actively monitor your Webmaster email accounts, we strongly suggest you hunt down these notices, the text of which likely reads as follows:
“Google systems have tested xx pages from your site and found that xx% of them have critical mobile usability errors. The errors on these xx pages severely affect how mobile users are able to experience your website. These pages will not be seen as mobile-friendly by Google Search, and will therefore be displayed and ranked appropriately for smartphone users.”

The mobile-friendliness assessment is binary, coming in the form of a “Yes” or “No”; “Yes, this website is mobile friendly” or “No, this website is not mobile friendly.” Google’s notices explain (and link to developer resources to help Web masters directly address) the issues it finds substandard with regard to the site’s mobile friendliness, including, for instance, issues such as character counts that are too long for mobile screen dimensions, unclear page titles and page descriptions, poor mobile design and UX, wrong page setting and viewports, lack of implementation of schema mark up language, poorly implemented code bases and style sheets (CSS, Java, HTML), slow page speeds, slow server speeds or slow server connection speeds.

Based on the Google’s notices, the immediate impact will be on mobile search results on smartphones and tablets, where real estate is limited by the physical size of the screens and devices.  Our guess is that over time Google will continue to apply pressure on businesses to address mobile issues by reducing overall page ranks for those who fail to act quickly. This is in Google’s self interest as it wants to build a seamless experience for the majority of end users who use multiple devices interchangeably to discover information and complete their tasks and transactions.

Building Digital Success
If you have been following our columns for any period of time, you are aware of our insistence that success in digital is a function of your staff, the timing of investment and the flexibility of your selected platform stack.

Keeping up with Google or any other dominant platform (Apple, Amazon, Facebook) is a cat-and-mouse game of persistent vigilance and investment, so you need to be agile and ready to test, measure and invest for a rapid deployment. To do that, you must have flexible technologies, which can be easily extended. And, you need to have collaborative and informed technology partners to help you create, at least, a minimum viable offering very quickly to respond to market changes. 

Whether you are at a small property or at a large brand, there are several steps you can follow to keep up with the ever-changing technology landscape (and with Google’s ever-changing demands) for businesses.

David Atkins is a past chair of HSMAI Americas, a founding shareholder at Expedia, a digital expert on Hotel Impossible and a strategist to many hotels and DMOs. John Atkins is a digital management consultant and an expert in content marketing, SEO, digital publishing, marketing automation and CRM platforms. The authors can be reached at info@digitaldnainfusion.com.

©2015 Hospitality Upgrade
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Planning for Mobile Success

  1. Always start with your customer’s eyes
    -- Use a customer-first lens to understand and anticipate your customers’ needs.
  2. Plan marketing initiatives for earned and paid media that capitalize on your strengths and opportunities over the near and mid-term.
  3. Execute on property
    -- Set realistic expectations with your guests, then exceed them.
    -- Be authentic to who you are, do not try to immitate something else.
    -- You are not going to out Google Google or out OTA an OTA.
  4. Hire external facilitators (neutral third parties) to lead quarterly business reviews and technology summits.
  5. Hire external experts to run your request for proposals processes for new or replacement technology/ systems to gain perspective on where the market is now.
  6. Think mobile first in all you do in technology, systems and products.
    -- Plan for a mobile-dominant future.
    -- Content creation and experience is central to hospitality’s future.
    -- Think about tomorrow today. For instance, what is your company’s wearables’ strategy?

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