The purpose of this paper is to investigate how small- and medium-sized hotels use search engine marketing (SEM) to make their hotels (services and products) more visible and easier to find for existing and potential customers. Research consist of a qualitative, exploratory approach is taken and eight case studies of small, independent hotels are conducted via in-depth, semi-structured interviews. These interviews reveal that though all hotels have a web site they do not exploit SEM, which may be attributable to poor marketing planning and lack of control of their web site through outsourcing key web development and optimization activities.
The practical implications are that small hotels risk being marginalized, losing contact with their customers and fail to maximize their return on investment on their web site. This research highlights the critical issues and explores the potential to re-orient the small operator towards the opportunities of successful SEM and fully utilize their web site as a tactical and strategic marketing tool.
This investigation reveals that only respondent A appears to exploit strategic marketing planning, metrics and SEM. City locations in this research seem to be less concerned about SEM, perhaps relying on the “pull” of the destination and passing trade for “visibility”, while remote destinations with stronger international competition have to “push” to reach customers. Furthermore, is clear from the data gathered that the general technology focus is primarily solving internal, operational needs in terms of reducing costs and increasing efficiency.
To optimize the web site, the SME operator must have some “vision” for the hotel’s online presence and consider whether their web site will add some value to their marketing activities and have a clearly defined utility/value.
Regardless, of the hotel’s vision of their web site, most customers will, eventually, seek the web site for further information during the purchasing process and are likely to refer to it for details and directions as they progress down the “purchasing funnel”, so the web site must be visible to the customer in the purchase cycle.
Finally, SME hotel operators must realize that their consumers’ online behavior is changing and as more customers turn to “search” online for their hotel rooms, it would appear critical that the SME hotels maximize visibility on the internet through SEM and further reap the benefits of online positioning and differentiation.