Guest Post: Why the travel industry is hooked on Google Ads and what to do about it

Guest Post: Why the travel industry is hooked on Google Ads and what to do about it

Andy Headington, CEO of Adido, walks us through how to navigate a world in which we aren't so reliant on Google Ads

Every year, almost £180 billion is spent on Google Ads worldwide, generating over 75% of all Google’s income. By anyone’s measure it’s pretty successful business. As print readership declined and search volumes via the internet grew in the early 2000s, an increasing number of businesses turned to the web - and Google in particular - to get new customers.

Many of those businesses had limited technical or marketing knowledge, which meant the quickest and easiest way to get cut-through online was through Google Ads. The ability to easily set up ads and see them live, resulting in swift real-world bookings, was a powerful drug.

Many travel businesses found it difficult to wean themselves off Google Ads and years later we find they are still paying significant amounts every month, having become reliant on Google Ads for the success of their business.

Our data shows us that some travel businesses generate up to 80% of their website visitors from this one source, posing a huge risk.   With many travel companies being so much more reliant on Google than other industries - the overall web average is 25-50% - I wanted to explore why this was the case.

Firstly, in the main, travel is dominated by a few global players who tend to take the lion’s share of SEO real estate due to Google favouring 'bigger brands'. Google wants to provide the best result to the user when they do their searches, and so it makes sense for them to prioritise the most well-known and established companies.

But with Google giving the natural SEO preference to these trusted brands, it leads to an organic ‘SERP ceiling’ (Search Engine Results Page) where the realistic chance of ousting the global big dogs is almost impossible in many cases.

This then means the only viable option to boost visibility in the search engine results is to spend money with Google Ads. On the surface this provides shortcut routes to the top, and enables clearer reporting to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t.

Furthermore, the reporting offered by Google over the last decade endorses the Google Ad spending. Google Analytics adopted a ‘last click wins’ approach which has meant that even since the early days, Google Ads has always come up trumps in the conversion analysis.

While it’s right to point out that bidding on the right phrase at the right price can’t be underestimated, it does then lead to a complete focus on those end-of-funnel searchers where measurement of success is far easier than top-of-funnel, brand building marketing methods.

Research from Expedia shows that for most travel bookings, at least half of the inspiration and first touch points happen offline. Often more time is spent analysing how to spend Google Ads budget more effectively, which could be spent maximising the actual travel experience, helping to spread word-of-mouth recommendations post-trip. Ultimately, many businesses are spending money on Google Ads and simply picking up customers who were already convinced on taking the trip with them.

Given all of this, it’s no wonder so many travel businesses are addicted to Google Ads. What’s not to like about easy reporting, easy budgeting and seemingly easy successful outcomes?! But from a risk management perspective, putting all your chips on one square across a vast marketing board poses huge commercial risks.

For any business wanting to break the Google Ads habit and de-risk their business, a few options are seriously worth considering:

  • Email marketing is so often overlooked but can still be a hugely beneficial channel. Average open rates are between 20-40%. Additionally, those on your email database have most likely already engaged with you and so should be far more receptive to your messaging.
  • Better customer journey tools such as Infinity or Ruler Analytics show much more detail of the user journey. If you can see every booking journey taken by your travellers, over time you’ll be able to build a much better picture of the actual influence of each channel, rather than relying on a Google tool to report on Google spend and Google influence.
  • While Google Ads take all the top slots in the search pages, they don’t take all the clicks. For many niche tour operators or specialist travel businesses, there is still the opportunity to rank for key terms using SEO. Creating great blog content that demonstrates your travel expertise and experience helps to convince potential visitors on your credentials, and more importantly Google too.
  • If, like some travel businesses, a large percentage of your bookings come from cheap brand-related terms, it’s worth testing different bidding tactics. Manual bidding or down-weighting bids on brand terms can shave a chunk from your Google Ads spend, which can be invested in other de-risking channels.

There are several approaches travel businesses can take to wean themselves off Google Ads - but many don’t want to try. While the numbers might still be okay in 2024, it’s worth remembering that Google’s primary goal is to make money and has little interest in the success of your travel business.