International SEO Case Study: Hotels.com
While the online travel market has become highly competitive in the United States, there are numerous excellent, untapped opportunities for companies looking to expand internationally. The internet is global and with over 1.5 billion people now connected. Many of these people are in countries with a rapidly developing middle class who are spending more on travel.
Hotels.com is one of the most prominent online travel companies. People use the site to find deals on hotels for both business and vacation travel. But with the US travel market exhibiting slower growth due to recessionary pressures and increased competition, international markets will be increasingly important for the Company’s future.
This mini-case study looks at how Hotels.com is using search marketing to expand internationally including its strengths and opportunities for improvement.
Buying Market Share
So what is Hotels.com doing to capture a piece of the more lucrative global travel market? The Company’s primary tactic is to drive traffic to country-specific websites using paid search marketing. For each targeted country, Hotels.com has implemented a local language site with prices displayed in local currency. For example, someone searching for hôtel on Google France can click on Hotels.com’s sponsored ad and be directed to the French site located on the subdomain fr.hotels.com.
Driving international visitors to your site through paid search is fine if you don’t mind handing over suitcase loads of cash to Google. Most companies would probably prefer a joint strategy of driving traffic through organic (or non-paid) results as well as sponsored results. A properly implemented international search engine optimization strategy can reduce dependency on paid search and drastically lower average cost per click.
Hotels.com has optimized its country-specific sites. But how well do they fare?
International SEO Strengths
Domain Name: A keyword-based domain name is a major factor in attaining high search engine rankings. Hotels.com ranks number 1 in the US search results for the term “hotels” thanks in part to the keyword term being equal to their domain name. Hotels.com also ranks number 1 on google.co.uk for the term “hotels” and their German language subdomain ranks number 6 for the same search term on Google’s German search engine, google.de.
Hotels.com has also made the strategic decision to buy the Spanish and Portuguese equivalents of their domain name – hoteles.com and hoteis.com. This strategy has helped them rank number 1 on Google in the United States and number 2 in Mexico for the term “hoteles” and number 2 in Brazil for “hoteis”.
Site Structure: Hotels.com has implemented country-specific sites and regional sites targeted at international visitors. The majority of these sites have been set up as subdomains on the main hotels.com site, for example de.hotels.com. For the Spanish-speaking Latin American market, the Company has established a separate website, hotels.com and for Brazil, hoteis.com in Portuguese.
On Page Optimization: Page titles, meta tags and headers have been optimized in local language.
Link Building: Each of the country-specific sites is linked to the others. This most likely helps the separate domains (hotels.com and hoteis.com) most of all as the links between sites implemented as subdomains are more likely to be discounted by Google.
Opportunities for Improvement
Local Domains: Hoteles.com ranks a lowly tenth on Google Spain for “hoteles” and Hoteis.com is a mere 36 in Portugal for “hoteis” despite owning the .com domains for these highly popular keyword terms. The number 1 ranking site in each of these cases was one with a local country domain – hoteles.es in Spain and hoteis.pt in Portugal.
While Hotels.com has done an excellent job in optimizing their sites for Latin America, they have failed with these sites in Europe. Google apparently doesn’t believe these sites are relevant to a European audience. What Hotels.com should do for these markets is implement subdomains – one targeted for Spain and another for Portugal. Better yet, if the price is right, they could negotiate a buy-out of hoteles.es and hoteis.pt.
A key lesson for companies with keyword-based domain names, and plans to expand internationally, is to buy the country-specific domains as well before a local competitor tries to steal your market.
Local Link Building: For sites that target audiences in specific countries, it’s important to acquire links from sites within that country. The majority of links to Hotels.com’s sites are from other sites they own. For their country-specific subdomains, this is particularly true and most likely the reason why Hotels.com does not perform as well in Europe. If their German site, de.hotels.com, had more links from German language websites, it would probably rank better than it does.
A “Mixed Bag” Strategy
Hotels.com’s international search marketing strategy comprises country-specific sites implemented on subdomains for countries in Europe and Asia, and separate sites for Spanish and Portuguese speakers. While this strategy appears to working reasonably well for the Company, it could be improved by implementing local sites on local domains while also including lingual translations on the main .com domain. However, this approach may prove costly as it requires negotiating the purchase of country-level domains that have already been acquired by aspiring local entrepreneurs.