Google Carousel and Holistic Google Optimization

Google is again shifting the ground under Hospitality's feet with its release of “Carousel”. This new version of its search engine results page brings a highly visual and review-focused band of results that hovers at the top of the "traditional" search results page. The Carousel replaces and enhances the previous "7-Pack" of local results that we have become accustomed to in the past couple of years.

Carousel results replace and enhance upon the 7-Pack

Hovering above any image in the Carousel highlights that venue in the Map. And, clicking an image results in a "Google Instant" refresh of search results. The name of the venue is added to the actual text of your search query, and the results page updates accordingly. 

Updated search query by clicking a Carousel image

Most of what I've been reading (here and here, for example) are focusing on strategies that are important but which DMW has considered for some time to be basic to organic search -- regardless of the visual format and algorithmic updates. In summary, if you want a ride on the Carousel, you need:
  1. Great reviews -- both quality and quantity. We have written about this topic many times, but notably in November and December 2012)
  2. Photographs that are, at least, good. This is another long-running topic for us. See October 2012 and earlier this month.
  3. Absolutely correct and consistent contact and address info. DMW makes this recommendation directly to our clients and recommends third parties who can support in this effort.
There is nothing wrong with this advice, per se; it will help you to optimize relatively far through the conversion funnel. There is certainly more to the story, however. The big picture is that Carousel is also creating threats and opportunities in organic search, generic paid search, and branded paid search.

Our headline advice related to Carousel is that brands must now adopt a "Holistic Google Optimization" approach. "Google Optimization" suggests that winning brands must focus on optimizing themselves in all aspects of Google, including:
  1. Not just reviews, but Google reviews
  2. Google Hotel Finder
  3. Google Paid Search
  4. Organic Search

1. Optimize for Google Reviews
Take a closer look at the screen captures above. The first presence of a non-Google review is third in organic search results -- and that's after 1) the Carousel, 2) paid ads (which we'll review in a moment), and 3) the Map. Although many non-Google review sites come up in organic search results after clicking an image in the Carousel (the second screen cap), one could argue that it's almost too late at that point for those reviews to be influential. (Also see how far down TripAdvisor has been pushed in the screen cap under #2, below) Takeaway: Google has made yet another end-run on the review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. If you haven't started yet, start optimizing for Google reviews right away. 

2. Optimize for Google Hotel Finder / HPA
Let's start with a look at a hotel query...

Optimize for HPA

We see the Carousel, the Map, traditional paid ads on the right, and the relatively recent "HPA Commercial Unit" (the box that lists the hotels and their rates) under paid ads. Although their algorithms are not known to us, we can be sure that Google has tested the location of this box carefully and that it is primed for maximum conversion. Takeaway: It is safe to assume that Carousel has upped the ante on HPA (Hotel Price Ads) and that brands should take notice by optimizing for this service. Also assume that HPA prices will soon work their way directly into the Carousel -- the cost category for restaurants is already there, and I'm sure that hotels will follow soon.

3. Optimize for Paid Search
In the same image above, it is not surprising to see a big OTA like with the top paid spot for generic search terms. Click on an image, however...

...and we that Starwood have done their homework (like most good hospitality brands) and bid highest for the branded keyword search. Let's sum up what just happened from the consumer's perspective:
  1. He typed in a generic search term like "atlanta hotels"
  2. He was presented with an appealing and informative user experience that shows relevant hotels that appear to be sorted by reviews. 
  3. Our consumer selects a hotel that has a combination of good reviews and an appealing image.
  4. The moment he clicks that image, Google transforms his brand-agnostic search query into a loyalist search query by adding in the brand name and displaying corresponding search results.
  5. And that brand's paid ad is displayed almost as prominently as the Google+ Local box on the right.
Takeaway: Many more agnostic searchers are about to be presented with your branded ads in Google. Expect impressions for branded keywords to go up, and plan accordingly.

Regarding paid search for agnostic keywords, we should assume lower click-through rates as traffic is (intentionally, it seems) directed to the Carousel and then converted to a branded search when users click on the images. Assume diminishing quality scores and increasing costs.

4. Optimize for Organic Search
This might seem counter-intuitive at first, but we believe that Carousel will create opportunities in organic search optimization. After all, there is the simple fact that Carousel opens up additional space at the bottom of first SERP page by moving the old 7-pack up. While the value of being on "page one" could conceivably diminish in the face of Carousel, there is still no doubt that you want your brand on that page. Takeaway: Don't quit on your traditional websites and other digital assets! Focus on fast load times, relevant content, and all other forms of content optimization.

Closing Thoughts
Google's game plan with Carousel seems to be: 1) Take agnostic intent, 2) Attempt to engage it, and 3) Turn it to a branded query. In this effort, Google continues to turn the screws in Search towards its ultimate advantage. In many cases this means drawing together the typically distinct silos of organic search, paid search, reviews, social, and more. Most analysis on this latest development will focus on one silo or the another. The real winners, however, will understand the broad impact this has on your Google presence as a whole (organic, Google+ Local, AdWords, and more) and will take action appropriately by creating a "Holistic Google Optimization" strategy.

By Aaron Zwas -- Director of Emerging Technologies at Digital Marketing Works