How did Google’s Free Booking Links become a headache for hoteliers

It has been almost a year now since Google announced the Hotel Free Booking Links. While that was good news for hoteliers, the majority of them still haven’t fully engaged as one might have expected. You can also see some properties being automatically granted with the free link. However, not all of them got the Official site badge by default.

So what’s going on and what do we know so far about Google’s moves towards providing direct booking options?

Your hotel on Google

As many of the services Google provides to the general public, listing your business is (still) completely free. Depending on the industry, Google will enable different options under Google My Business. You can show specific details about what, where, when and at what price you provide, plus they will also automatically put your business “on the map” .. literally. And your customers, or guests in our case, will be able to easily find you, contact you or visit your site when your brand pops up on the search results page.

Same goes for when you want your hotel listed with the added benefit of showing your rooms and rates on Google’s special place for hotels – Google Hotel Search. All good business, right? Well, the only difference is that in this case your are not the only one listing your hotel. All OTAs that you have or haven’t registered with, like Expedia and Booking.com (with all their subsidiaries like Hotels.com, Hotwire, Orbitz, Trivago, Priceline, Booking, Agoda, Kayak, etc.) will show up there, hijacking your brand and selling your rooms for a hefty commission.

So now, you’re not only paying commission on bookings from guests that found your hotel on their websites, you will also get charged for guests found you on Google but landed on their sites. You are even helping them a lot by having a good GMB profile to boost your hotel’s credibility.

How come their links are displayed before your booking links in the results when it’s your property?! Because they pay Google for it. You can start bidding also, via Google Ads and start paying too. Do you have the time or resources? We didn’t think so .. nor did they.

Google and OTAs

Truth is, Google and OTAs have a very complicated relationship. It is a codependent ecosystem which has functioned neatly for decades now. Google sells unbelievable amount of ad space to the OTAs, while depend on Google to capture your guests on several key stages of the booking journey. Even after OTA’s whooping 60% market value drop in 2020, due to Covid-19, this scenario is unlikely to change.

It is considered a misconception that Google lately is trying to enter the OTA game with services like Book on Google for Hotels or the Free Booking links. If Google were to dominate that scene, they wouldn’t “be trying to”. With unfathomable quantities of personal and market data, customer base and resources – they would’ve been there by now.

Where do the Free Booking Links fit in?

It’s a balance game where Google needs to keep up innovating and providing new services that would benefit their key audience, while at the same time making sure they don’t step on the OTAs’ toes. Generally, none of these services that would make you somewhat independent from the OTAs are widely available or easily approachable. They are limited either to certain regions and property category or by the complexity or integrating them to your daily sales and marketing operations as an independent hotelier.

Google Free booking links example

In case your region and property type is eligible, you will most likely need the help of an integration partner like a channel manager provider or an agency to set you up. And that might very well be the reason behind the free booking links.

Google might be trying to appeal to an entirely different audience now. The free links are not primarily for your benefit. Google is creating demand for integration partners like channel manager providers. In order for your inventory to be updated in real time on any OTA or meta search provider you need to have a channel manager. However, to have your active listing on Google Hotel Search page you need one that is GHA integration partner.

Google’s latest move – automatically enabling the free booking links to some hotels only goes to support this theory. The Official website link is automatically displayed only for properties using a channel manager that is a GHA partner. So now when you see your competitor having the free booking link, you will most likely ask your CM provider why that’s not the case on your profile, urging that provider to partner up with Google, otherwise they will lose you as a client.

How free are the links?

Unless you decide to embark on that tedious task of enabling the option yourself which, will cost you time and nerves, you will still need to pay someone to do it for you. Even when you have the “free” option available, pay attention to where that link appears. The same way an outstanding website SEO will never position you before the paid ads links on the search results page, free booking links will always be displayed way down on the Google Hotel Search page – in the “All options” section. If you want your Official site badge in the “AdsFeatured options”, where most people click – you’ll have to pay.

Conclusion

As with any other change we’ve experienced so far, the hoteliers that want to stay in the game are bound to engage. And we consider that a good thing. Since the Hotel Finder launch, back in 2011, Google continues to provide the most comprehensive, clear and all-round hotel research experience for travelers. Even if Google is not going towards becoming an OTA, it is always good to have your property’s profile up to date and have all hotel features available for your potential guests.

This hype about their latest addition of free links might have come in a tricky time for fellow hoteliers, but luckily we’re always here to help you get up to speed. Feel free to request a free consultation on how to activate the Google Free Booking links on your profile.

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