In January, spammers hijacked official website links for thousands of hotels listed within Google+ Local, rerouting visitors to third-party booking services. Since these listings feed results into Google Search, Maps, and Hotel Finder, Google worked quickly and quietly behind the scenes to correct the links. And despite the irritation of this hack, there are key takeaways for hoteliers that can help them protect their online presence.
Hotels that proactively manage and scrutinize their business listings will notice when suspicious activity occurs, but those with abandoned or mismanaged pages are more vulnerable to spammers, says Max Starkov, president and CEO of the hotel Internet marketing and strategy consulting firm HeBS Digital. Unfortunately, many franchisees have become indifferent to the content of their local business listings because the major brands have management control, Starkov says. Without admin access, franchisees cannot log in to change information or update photos and videos. “When a property is not interested in their local listings on the search engines, if they don’t monitor them, then how would they know something like [the Google+ breach] has happened,” Starkov says.
Though the initial intent may have been justified, in order to maintain consistency across brand portfolios, Starkov believes hotel chains are ultimately doing a major disservice to their franchisees. “The major brands don’t have the bandwidth to manage the content of the local listings and deal with this on such a granular level,” he says. Aside from potentially stale content, another downfall for hoteliers that don’t have access to their local Google+ page is they cannot respond to customer reviews. Starkov suggests that franchisees put pressure on the brands to gain access to their own listings so they can better manage their online reputation. “If there is no ownership of the listing and no responses from the property, even the positive reviews don’t sound credible,” he says. “And negative reviews without a response sends a signal that the hotel doesn’t care.”
On the other hand, independent hotels have no excuse for not maintaining a robust presence on local listings. “Unfortunately, half of independent hotels either ignore these or underestimate the power of search engine and local business listings,” Starkov says. “So the listings just live out there quite often with incorrect information about a hotel, an old telephone number, or photography that is not updated.” Hoteliers can take a proactive approach to dealing with spammers by regularly checking their information is correct on major search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. If hotel franchisees notice unusual changes to their local listings, Starkov recommends they immediately alert their brand managers to rectify the situation.
The power of local listings has grown even stronger in our increasingly mobile world, so enhancing your online presence should be a priority. “Your local business listing is the first listing Google will throw into any mobile user,” Starkov says. As such, he recommends that franchisees check out their local competitors’ pages to see if they have more bells and whistles. For instance, they might be taking advantage of Google’s latest upgrades, such as YouTube channel integration or 360-degree panoramic images. “See if another brand has done a better job in the same location as far as photography, descriptions, and everything else, and then demand the same thing from your own brand.” Independent properties that are unhappy with the appearance of their listings can solicit help from their Internet marketing partners.
In addition to monitoring business listings, it’s important for hotels to watch out for suspicious activity on their individual property websites. Hotels that use analytics software will immediately receive alerts when unauthorized activity is detected. Properties that have created their own websites using free or open source software tools like WordPress are more vulnerable to hackers than those that use professional content management systems. Once hackers identify an easy target, they can install their own codes on the back-end of the hotel website. For instance, they may switch the booking widget so that it brings customers to a copy of the hotel’s website and then the booking is subsequently made through a third party. “These things happen on a daily basis,” Starkov says. “It’s a constant war between good and evil.”
The Google+ Local incident is only one of many online hacks that will affect hotels, so vigilance is vital. “It’s not the only hack, and it’s not the last hack,” Starkov says. “Believe me.”