Search Engine Optimization in Hospitality

SEO is a bit like putting together a puzzle. Factor in Google’s daily algorithm shifts and it’s like putting together a puzzle with new pieces every day.

To see the entire picture, you need the correct pieces. And, in the case of SEO you need to have the right strategies in the right places to be successful.

But, of course, there are a lot of different SEO strategies out there in the hospitality and travel world. So how do you know which are right for your property?

Link building, keyword research, and content marketing are just the tip of the iceberg.

And let’s not forget about second-tier linking, featured snippets, and semantic search.

It doesn’t take long for SEO to feel like a convoluted mess rather than a pool of potential for your business.

Did you know, that the farther back you are in the rankings, the longer it takes to increase your position with link building?

Image Credit: SEO Moz

Or that it takes an average of ten weeks just to increase your rank by one position?

Or, did you know that it’s easier to increase your rank when you have a lower domain authority?

While those numbers can be a bit scary, this is not a post designed to discourage from undertaking a well-defined SEO strategy. I just want to inform you on the complexities of SEO, giving you a true understanding of how complicated it can be.

In order to succeed, there are a lot of strategies, rules, and statistics that you will want/need to understand. However, you can make your strategy as complex or as straightforward as you’d like.

One of the things that you do need to know about, though, is how Google uses RankBrain to increase or decrease your position in the SERP.

When you understand how the RankBrain thinks, you’ll be prepared to move your rankings forward.

What is RankBrain?

If you’re up to date with your digital marketing terminology, you’ve probably heard the term “RankBrain.” You may have even heard someone in the industry call it “Google’s RankBrain.”

However, even if you’ve heard of it, you may be a little unsure of how it affects your placement in search results.

So here’s what you need to know.

RankBrain is a part of Google’s method for determining which pages rank (and which ones don’t). Some online sources place it as the third most important ranking factor for Google (behind content and links).

Many people may jump to the conclusion that RankBrain is a part of Google’s ever-changing algorithm. However, that’s not exactly the case. Technically, it’s not part of the algorithm at all. Let me explain.

Before RankBrain, Google would just use an algorithm to determine which pages to rank high and which to rank low.

Now, however, RankBrain adds an extra layer of sophistication to that process.

Here’s how it works.

When someone searches for something unique on Google, the algorithm is actually utilizing RankBrain to find the searcher’s intent.

Google’s algorithm can often determine great results for common searches, but uncommon search terms cause Google (yes, even Google struggles at times) some difficulty..

So instead of playing alone, Google’s algorithm asks the artificial intelligence (AI), RankBrain, what it thinks the intention of the searcher is.

RankBrain makes its best guess based on past precedents, the location of the searcher, and even the habits of the searcher.

Then, Google provides the best results to the searcher.

Here’s a key caveat to RankBrain: Google doesn’t always use RankBrain. It only uses RankBrain when it needs some assistance determining what the searcher is most likely looking for.

We’ve all typed something into Google and received completely irrelevant results.

That’s what happens when RankBrain fails, proof that Google hasn’t mastered artificial intelligence, and that they’re working with an imperfect system.

And yet, it’s far better than the days of Google’s basic algorithm. It’s a step in the right direction of search optimization.

Why, though, is RankBrain important for your own rankings?

Because Google often uses it to determine the intent of searchers.

Understanding how RankBrain ranks different websites gives you a far better opportunity to find your blog posts and web pages in top search placements.

Here are six ways to optimize your website and pages for RankBrain’s judgment.

1. Target Google snippets

Every property in your area has undoubtedly been trying to get to the top of Google search results, the #1 position to be exact, but have you heard of position zero on Google?

If you haven’t, you may want to pay particular attention to this next section.

It can make a massive difference in your SEO. Google snippets or featured snippets fill the position that many refer to as “position zero.”

These are the boxes of information that you occasionally see come up when you ask Google a question.

These snippets are front and center on the search page, they offer content immediately (and perhaps an answer to your question), and they are genuinely helpful.

Of course, if it were easy to get a featured snippet placement, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, and everyone would already have that zero placement locked down.

There are a few tried and true ways to land in position zero, and the following are some of the most effective strategies.

Before we get to far into the strategies, I think it’s important for everyone to have a brief understanding of how these snippets apply to RankBrain and it’s “artificial judgment”.

Here’s how.

In Google’s eyes, a featured snippet for a target position means that you have organized your content correctly for search engines.

The better that you organize your content, the easier it is for Google to read and the more likely it is for RankBrain to choose your property website to showcase in this vaunted position.

Though this can be challenging, ranking in position zero is worthwhile for your business. Succeeding in structuring your website correctly will help to increase your click-through rate and thus your authority in the eyes of Google.

So let’s talk about how you can get into the coveted position zero.

There are two simple approaches:

  • Define a term.
  • Create a list.

Here’s what the former looks like.

And here’s an example of the latter.

One of the basic principles to keep in mind when targeting a snippet is using subheadings for each point you have.

On, we can do this by creating Top Lists of properties, destinations and activities. You can use a similar method when creating lists for your blog about your local area.

This method of content creation will help Google easily understand what you’re talking about and allows RankBrain and algorithm’s to reformat your information into a featured snippet.

In some cases, Marketing and SEO Managers have acquired placement in the  position zero unintentionally, but you can also actively try to get your property into this position.

There is one part of our featured snippet strategy that really stands out. As I mentioned earlier, it takes approximately 10 weeks on average to increase one organic position. HOWEVER, you don’t actually need to be in the top position to have a featured snippet:

2. Create genuinely helpful content

Above all else, create amazing content. This could probably #1 on this list, but it’s something we talk about on our blog fairly consistently, so I decided to bump it down a placement.

It’s important to have a content strategy in place for your property website. When you create and publish a ton of content that isn’t very good, Google’s algorithm and RankBrain are smart enough to realize there is no value for the traveler.

That content may end up ranking in the short term, but the more bounces you receive over the coming months, and the less that people show Google they appreciate your content, the worse your rankings will ultimately be.

Google wants to show people content that is genuinely helpful, not content that was created just for the sake of ranking (and believe me, they know they difference).

It’s your job to create remarkable content and trust in the process, no matter how long it takes and how fruitless it may seem at times (I promise, it gets better).

Check out the quality of this article from Content Marketing Institute.

Or this article from One Step 4ward. (A side note for this blog, and an important note to make as you start your content curation. Notice the life cycle of this blog post — On the internet since 02 March, 2016. However this company as updated the title of the blog post to reflect starting a blog in 2018. I’d be willing to bet that this post was previously titled “in 2016” and “in 2017”.

And here’s another great piece of content from Blog Tyrant.

Now how I found all of those great and helpful articles/resources?

Of course, I found them by searching on Google.

Judging by the content and depth of information provided in those articles, they definitely deserve to rank. The authors/bloggers clearly planned out what value they wanted to provide, a delivered a seamless message.

They rank because they provide value.

And creating genuinely helpful content is of extreme importance with RankBrain at the forefront.

At its most basic level, RankBrain understands and pays special attention to which pieces of content people appreciate, and (based on user habits) tries to show that content to more people with similar interests.

If your content helps people, it will rank better. It’s as simple as that.

Spend some time conducting your own local searches on Google for travel and hospitality to determine which articles are ranking. Then create similarly helpful content on your own website.

This ensures three keys for your property:

  • You’re creating great content
  • You’re drawing a particular audience
  • AND (most importantly) you’re ranking on Google.

3. Pay attention to semantic search

With RankBrain, semantic search is more important than ever.

Yes, I’m adding another new term to our vocabulary session today. So let’s dive a bit further into semantic search. What is it? And how does it apply to RankBrain?

Semantic search is what RankBrain tries to take into account when pulling results from millions of potential search options.

Basically, semantic search is the intent of the searcher. It takes into account things like context, device, language style, and query stream.

It may be easier to understand semantic search if you can think about it as an in-person conversation, in which your brain is doing the interpretation.

Imagine you’re talking to a friend, and your friend says, “Hey, you look good.”

Depending on your relationship with your friend, those same words in the same order could mean several different things. If your friend is being sarcastic, then that would be an offensive comment.

If they are being serious, then it’s a compliment.

And if they say it flatly, it could be passive-aggressive (those who grew up in the Midwest may understand this as “Minnesota Nice”).

In other words, tone and context of voice say a lot.

With search, the same applies. RankBrain is Google’s AI attempt at understanding the semantics of a searcher’s query.

For example, say that you type in, “what is digital marketing.”

In that case, you are probably looking for far different results than if you type in “hire a digital marketer.”

In this case, as in many cases, the nuance in the language a searcher uses makes a big difference in determining their intent.

In our physical conversations, it’s our brains doing the interpretation. And Google’s search bar has its own (Rank)Brain to interpret as well.

With the rise of voice search, the semantics of a query is becoming even more critical. Since people talk instead of type, they are not as intentional about the words they use.

Because of this, understanding the user’s intent is only going to become more important as time goes on.

Here’s the key in travel and hospitality: If you understand the intent (booking a vacation, finding the best deal, learning more about the local area, etc.), you’ll have a better chance of appealing to the necessary audience and, in turn, ranking better in search results.

4. Long-tail keywords can be the key to success

Now we’ve talked about placement (Featured Snippets) and the building blocks you’ll need to understand to rank higher with RankBrain (Content and Semantic Search). Now how do you learn more about the searcher’s intent?

When it comes to traveler intent, there may be nothing that is more revealing than long-tail keywords.

What are long-tail keywords? Let’s head back to the glossary!

Simply put, long-tail keywords are the longer and more specific version of a Google search. So instead of searching for “resorts,” travelers might search for “minnesota north shore family reunion resorts.”

Someone might search for “digital marketing”

But they might also search for “hire a digital marketer in wisconsin dells wi.”

That would be the long-tail keyword.

Because of the complexity of these phrases, these long-tail keywords are less competitive (a positive for those attacking them). However on the downside, they also have a lower search volume.

But is that really a bad thing?

Though it may seem contrary to SEO fundamentals, a low search volume may actually be beneficial to your overall SEO strategy.

Why exactly are Long-tail keywords are worth including in your SEO strategy? Let’s think about it as we do the travel Sales Funnel.

Travelers at the top of the funnel are still looking for some direction in their trip planning process.

They may know a general idea of the where/why/how they’re traveling (minnesota resorts, wisconsin dells waterparks, glacier country inns), but are still looking to narrow down their search.

By the time they’re ready to use long-tail keywords to search for something on Google, they know exactly what they want, and tend to be more committed than their general keyword counterparts (weekend romantic getaways in the poconos, minnesota north shore family reunion lodging).

That means that they will convert more often.

Who wouldn’t want to convert at more than twice the level based on your content strategy?

On top of that, you can help RankBrain with long-tail keywords (something for which the AI struggles to return results) by optimizing your website for these keywords.

Now, some of you may be working with SEO experts/managers who resist optimizing for long-tail keywords. They simply don’t see the value when the search volume is so much lower than for head terms.

However, after reading this piece, I hope you’re a bit smarter and realize that they are far from pointless.

Travelers and prospective guests using these more specific keywords are more committed to their travel plans, and should be easier to convert once they hit your property website.

A major goal for all marketing efforts (I would hope) is making money. That is, naturally, the end goal of SEO as well, and long-tail keywords can help you accomplish that goal.

5. Write in language a traveler would use

When it comes to optimizing for RankBrain, the most important strategy is as simple as writing in nature language.

Simply put, write like you talk.

I will be the first to admit, having written for a variety of platforms on a variety of topics, that it’s easy to get carried away with big words, and flowery language when you write.

Fluffy pieces can be great for readers, they just don’t register for search engines. When I’m editing content for our Marketing purposes, I find that my writing is much stronger when it’s quick and direct. The same is true for Google.

The more natural language you use when writing, the better RankBrain will be able to read your content.

Here’s a key to remember: You should never fall into the habit of writing for search engines. Travelers are the ones reading what you’re writing, and if they can identify “keyword stuffing” and content that’s just not helpful, they will bounce from your site.

Here’s what Google tells us about writing content:

“Optimizing for RankBrain is actually super easy, and it is something we’ve probably been saying for 15 years now,  – and the recommendation is to – write in natural language. Try to write content that sounds human. If you try to write like a machine then RankBrain will just get confused and probably just push you back.

But if you have a content site, try to read out some of your articles or whatever you wrote, and ask people whether it sounds natural. If it sounds conversational, if it sounds like natural language that we would use in your day-to-day life, then sure, you are optimized for RankBrain. If it doesn’t, then you are ‘un-optimized.’”

That’s as compelling an argument for natural language as I can make.

Google comes right out and says that the most important thing for you to do to optimize for RankBrain is to write naturally.

But what does writing naturally look like?

It means writing like you talk.

Take any of our blog posts on our Business Blog. We make a distinct effort to right naturally in words and terms our partners use with us on a daily basis.

Or check out some of the articles that our partner, Doug Kennedy of the Kennedy Training Network, has written. If you’ve ever attended one of his webinars, you’ll recognize that same cadence he speaks with in his writing.

We both write like we are actual human beings. We don’t write for machines.

This helps you become more likable and understandable not only in the eyes of your readers, but also in the eyes of RankBrain. Ultimately, those are the only two people (or things) you need to please.

6. Optimize anchor text

One of the biggest benefits of having a content strategy is that you are organizing your content for a week, a month, a quarter, or even an entire year.

In Google’s eyes, the more organized your content is, the better.

With more organized content, Google and more specifically RankBrain, can read your page and deliver it as a result.

If you don’t organize your content, Google probably won’t be adding your page to organic search results because it won’t understand what your page is about.

Anchor text is one of the best ways (and simplest) ways to ensure Google knows what your content and website pages are about.

Anchor text, in its simplest terms, are the words that you hyperlink to one of your pages.

Let me give you an example I see with a lot of our partners. You’ve gone through the work of securing a backlink from a local restaurant or business, and the hyperlinked word is “here.”

In this example “here” is your anchor text.

Now why would this be a problem for Google? Well, the word “here” doesn’t make this backlink as beneficial as one with more appropriate anchor text.

Let’s continue to play out this scenario and assume that the page you are linking to is talking about local restaurants.

And the keyword you were targeting with that page when you created it was “local restaurants.”

Now, if you link to that page on with anchor text that reads, “local restaurants” (or vice versa your partner is linking to anchor text like “local accommodations”) that is going to help your SEO even more than basic anchor text.


Your anchor text is telling Google that your business partner, another online publisher, can understand what your website is about and so, too, can other people.

In other words, it’s reassurance that your page actually is about what Google and RankBrain think it’s about (3rd party validation plays a crucial role yet again).

In fact, this strategy is so powerful that 84% of number one results have at least one keyword anchor.

The more you utilize keyword anchor text, the better off your rankings will be.

RankBrain looks for content that it can understand when searching for content to rank among the results pages

If it knows what your content is about (thank you anchor text), you have a far better chance of ranking on the first page.

Anchor text is a strategy you can use today to rank tomorrow.

My Take

I won’t sugar coat the fact that SEO can be confusing. There’s certainly more that goes into the algorithms and processes behind the scenes than I understand. However, my hope in giving you this background is that you can gain a deeper understanding of SEO steps and strategies you can put into place that will positively affect the business of your property.

With all the different strategies out there in the marketing world, it’s hard to know which ones to implement and which ones to ignore.

However, one thing is certain moving forward: You don’t want to ignore RankBrain and its preferences.

It’s the third biggest ranking factor on Google, which means that it can quickly help (or hurt) your property website depending on how you’ve optimized your online storefront.

While I would encourage you to implement all of the suggestions above, I know that’s not feasible for every property. But I would recommend starting off with at least one of the strategies and see what kind of impact it has on your SEO and placement within search results.

If you’re looking for some assistance in implementing any of these strategies, we are always happy to help out with our Digital Marketing Solutions.

Start using these strategies today. Your property will only be able to rank tomorrow if you prepare today.

Over To You

How do you optimize your own website for RankBrain’s influence on Google’s search system?