The issue of Google’s ranking of results on travel and hotel related queries – and all queries more generally – has popped to the surface a few times over the past several weeks.
Chris Dixon wrote a thoughtful piece about it most recently in which he used Oyster as an example of search results not being as good as they can be. Danny Sullivan responded. TechCrunch and Mark Suster also covered the topic recently.
Without wading into the debate between the SEOs and Chris, I wanted to share the experience we’ve had at Oyster. Reposting here the comment I left in response to Chris’s post.
I’m really glad to see that this issue – in the hotel category in particular – is getting attention. The hotel and travel category is a very valuable online category and yet is manifesting important problems with the quality of Google search results. If it’s like this is as high a value a category as travel/hotels, I can only imagine what it’s like in other categories.
By way of context on Oyster and SEO, here’s a bit about how we thought about the problem when we started.
During the summer and fall of 2007, while doing hotel searches for our own hotel and travel needs, we found that the quality of results in Google was lacking. We felt that outside of TripAdvisor, most of what we saw in the Google results was low quality, redundant, information that did not help customers make better decisions more quickly. We also had our issues with the challenges of using TripAdvisors’s UGC to make decisions but we never made a bet that TripAdvisor has to lose so that we could win. On the contrary, we believed at the time – and still believe – that both original UGC and Oyster’s expert content should be surfaced by Google in their first results though we feel strongly that Oyster expert approach is superior to UGC in a variety of critical ways. Original UGC was not a problem that needed solving – TripAdvisor had already done that – and we were passionate about solving the consumer problem with an expert perspective so we founded Oyster in early 2008 and launch in late June 2009 with a subset of the hotel coverage you see on Oyster today.
One of our co-founders, Eytan Seidman, had worked on relevance and relevance measurement in product management at Microsoft Bing so we were well grounded in the tactics of SEO. We did expect that unique, high quality, original hotel coverage that helps customers solve a very real problem would rank well in Google and other search engines. For the most part, we’ve been very surprised by how long it has taken the search engines to rank us. This is despite our having received a significant amount of press attention and customer love. The first page (and typically the second, third and fourth page as well) of Google results for basically any hotel Oyster covers is still covered with content/product that a panel of human relevance rankers would find, as you’ve found, inferior to the Oyster product. At 20 or so months since launch this is no longer my subjective opinion – it’s something I can back up with the feedback from the large pool of users who have found, used, and enjoyed Oyster.
There were other startups in the travel space of a similar vintage to Oyster – Uptake and Dealbase come to mind – where SEO was most, if not all, of their strategy. At Oyster, SEO was something we knew we needed to understand as a tactic but it was never our strategy – our strategy was to solve the problems that a customer trying to make a hotel decision faces. That’s where we were focused and that’s where we continue to be focused. As we iterate on and update our product, we continue to be very sensitive to the realities of SEO. We often find ourselves having to balance product decisions with the needs of SEO and the needs of our customers.
We came to the table with a strong understanding of the tactics of SEO. We’ve kept the tactical needs of SEO closely in mind as we’ve built and iterated on our product. We’ve definitely benefited from receiving search traffic (in any given month about 50% of our traffic comes from search) but have been surprised by how long it has taken our coverage to rank and rank well. What I believe is that search engines are failing customers by not quickly enough finding the better solution that’s available. It certainly seems that this issue – in the travel vertical in particular – has Google’s attention and that they’re aware that their product can, and needs to, do a better job for customers.