By Forest Key, CEO and founder, buuteeq The use of online travel agencies (OTAs) has risen 45% since 2008*. Given that it’s 10-15 times cheaper for hoteliers to secure reservations directly through their own websites, and the reality that guests use the same internet to find hotel websites as they do to find OTAs, why the upward trend toward OTAs? The answer has less to do with guests and everything to do with hoteliers – or more accurately, hotel web design. Google your favorite inn or bed & breakfast and see if you can find their website. After sifting through pages of OTAs you may find it. Once there, can you see the actual rooms? Find promos and deals? Book directly? If you’re on your mobile phone (like 56% of business travelers booking rooms*) does the site ‘work’ on your device? The answer to most of those questions is probably no. A 2011 study by eDigital Research found that hotels were the poorest performing sector in a localized study of e-travel, with websites often lacking basic elements. Having an effective hotel website where guests have everything they need to book hotel online reservations directly is the key to reclaiming margin lost to OTAs. The good news is, with the availability of new solutions that build hotel website marketing savvy into easy-to-use tools, independent hotels can now create and maintain the online presence they need with minimal cost and effort. Through the R&D we’ve undertaken at our company and the collected experience of our customers around the world, we’ve identified some top tips for hotel web design that can boost direct bookings. 1. Retire your Flash-based site. Flash was a popular early multimedia platform because it enabled interactivity on websites when there were no alternatives. But Google sees flash-based websites as black boxes that its crawlers can’t examine. Organic search discovery drops, and hotel SEO / search engine ranking with it. Also, flash-based hotel websites are incompatible with most mobile devices. If neither Google nor mobile devices can see you, guests will never know you’re there. 2. Design for visual learners. People fall into three main categories in terms of learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic (tactile). 60% of people are visual learners. While text is important for helping your search engine rankings, building a website with lots of images will appeal to the majority of guests. Augment your site with big, high-resolution landscape-oriented photos of your rooms, property and local attractions, so visual learners get the information they need in a form that works best. 3. Make IA work for your property. Information architecture (IA) is ‘what visitors expect to find and where they expect to find it.’ When guests hit a hotel homepage they want to see rooms, photos and locations. Make maps prominent and interactive. Display rooms with images, descriptions and detail and make it easy for guests to compare rooms with the click of a button. Check out the The Hamilton House to see what an IA overhaul can do for a website. 4. Highlight promotions. Create a Promotions page where you list a clear, concise summary of each promo, with right-hand navigation and individual landing pages covering each promo in greater detail – complete with vivid images to give visual learners (and all guests) a compelling reason to stay. If your web infrastructure supports it, integrate promotions and packages with the hotel booking engine so that discounts are applied automatically. 5. Maximize your maps. If your locale is a big part of your draw, take advantage of maps and use them as a focal touch-point for first time and repeat guests alike. Pinpoint local sights, restaurants, shops, natural attractions and other places to see. Include walking and driving directions between your property and every location listed, to give guests yet another convenience. Check out South African luxury inn Le Quartier Francais to see a great example of map maximization. 6. Be SEO friendly. Hotel SEO (search engine optimization) is not a black art. It just means taking simple steps to ensure that your site performs and ranks optimally on search engines. One of the most powerful hotel SEO tools is translation – having your site in other languages does wonders for your SEO position in international markets. Weave keywords into your copy – think about what your guest would type into Google to get to your page and try to work those words into your site copy naturally. Organize your site logically – avoid having pages buried deep in directories or ‘orphaned.’ Create unique, accurate page titles, with name of your hotel, where it is, and what it offers. Above all, offer quality content and organize logically. Make it easy for guests to use your page and for Google to crawl it. 7. Optimize for mobile. While most websites can be viewed by mobile devices, most are not constructed to look particularly good on them. To hit the growing numbers of guests booking via mobile, you’ll want to create a mobile hotel website -- version of your site optimized for mobile marketing. That means no Flash, stacking navigation links vertically vs. horizontally to make them easier to ‘tap’ vs. click, and cutting out the frills of heavy content to enable your page to load faster on mobile devices. Again, you don’t need to hire multiple designers or agencies to help you do this. Tools exist that build this capability right in. Leverage those and you’ll reap the benefits with minimal cost and time drain. Which leads me to my last tip… 8. Don’t be afraid. Because hoteliers are focused on running hotels, not on designing hotel websites, many hesitate to undertake a website re-vamp. Will they have the time to devote to making sure the new site performs better than the current one? What if they lose content from the old site in the transition? Who will help them if they can’t call the developers they’ve been calling for years? Many of the concerns behind those fears are actually products of an outdated model. Hoteliers must embrace digital marketing, including mobile and social marketing, if they want to compete. It can be intimidating, but forging a distinct web presence for their independent hotels that is up-to-date, search engine friendly and offers direct bookings is the only way to snatch guests away from the claws of big OTAs. Hoteliers can use hotel software-as-a-service solutions to take care of their hotel website marketing for them, or use content management systems like WordPress to do it themselves—either way, hoteliers can’t ignore digital marketing if they want to thrive. Forest Key is CEO and co-founder of buuteeq, a Seattle-based company that created the world’s first digital marketing system for hotels. buuteeq fuses technology ingenuity with online marketing savvy to help hotels increase occupancy and reduce distribution costs by converting more direct reservations through online bookings.