Key Attributes of an Effective Hotel Website

By Stephen Saugestad
September 22, 2010
DesignStrategy

If you’re a hotelier, you’ve probably heard the phrase “best practice” bandied around in the context of designing and building a website. Typically it’s nothing more than a buzz phrase in an industry that’s littered with them.

At best, it’s a self-serving way for businesses to make their process sound more legitimate. At worst, it’s designed to make people believe that it’s endorsed by the larger community of companies who serve businesses in your industry.

Instead we adhere to a set of principals we’ve developed through trial and error, refined by our experience designing and building websites for tourism and hospitality clients. This is an evolving list that we adapt to the ever-changing technical and social landscape. We hope you find it useful.

When you are putting together your packages, specials, and promotions, make sure you follow some general rules. Use language that suggests urgency (“book now”, instead of “reservations”), position it on the page so users will always see it (above the fold [sic] on the most common monitor resolutions), make it accessible on every page if you can, and add a visual accent with colour or motion.

Language is important: “Book Now” will convert better than “Reserve”

For example we always do a promotional offer interface for our friends at MTM. We use eye-catching photos and motion that automatically scrolls between offers to draw the user’s attention – check out Bardessono at bardessono.com.

Entry Points + Clear Paths

How do you intend a user to begin their interaction with the site? What’s the most desired interaction? Does the page design and architecture foster this course of action?

Nietzsche once stated that “to predict the behavior of ordinary people in advance, you only have to assume that they will always try to escape a disagreeable situation with the smallest possible expenditure of intelligence”. Keep this in mind when you’re designing the interface of a website. When users don’t find what their want in a second or two, they start clicking around mindlessly in search of their intended destination. Increase the likelihood that they’ll find what they’re looking for by making the intended action clear to the user.

Make the intended action clear to the user.

There are many ways to make the entry points more obvious to the user. If you have an interactive element on the page, use (simple) language that tells the user how to engage the tool (e.g. “start!”, “let’s go!”). If you’re using a video, tell the user where to go once the video has played. If you want people to sign up to your subscriber list, just collect the email address, and do it from the same page.

Usability

There’s a lot more to this topic than I can cover in a short paragraph, but the objective of here is to make it as easy as you can for the user to navigate and interact with the website. The things we fuss about the most when designing an interface is hierarchy (navigation and content), intuitive and logical architecture (“accommodations” or “guest rooms” – not “magical sleepy time”), persistent navigation, and proper weighting of content.

We’ve also incorporated a “one click” sitemap feature, where you can access a sitemap from anywhere, quickly without leaving the page (willowslodge.com – click on “sitemap”). If the design allows, you can even embed the sitemap right in the footer of the page.

You’re only one click away from any page on the site.

Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” is a great book about this subject. It says that users should be able to carry out their intended task on a website as quickly as possible. Just remember that every decision you make about the website’s design should make it easier for the user to perform their intended action.

Logic + Conventions

Does the website’s architecture organize the content in a logical and intuitive way? You should always group pages into categories that make sense. We battle our clients frequently on this topic, because there is always a tendency for people to want to highlight certain pages more than others, and break them out of other sections. This makes sense when the situation merits, but not at the expense of breaking the convention of your architecture.

For example a hotel may want to make “employment” a main navigational item, though it’s clearly a secondary page that should be under a larger heading. For some hotels, it’s an important business problem that needs to be addressed (they always need people). We often solve this by creating shortcuts outside of the main navigation for commonly accessed pages (e.g. employment or photo gallery) and revenue drivers. This also makes the bean counters happy, because more emphasis is given to the more “tangible” revenue items.

Group your pages and name them appropriately.

There aren’t a ton of established conventions on the web, but there are a few that have emerged. For example having the logo on the top left is pretty standard, and clicking that should take you to the home page. Most users expect this, but adding a hover state is good for redundancy. Putting the “reserve” or “book now” button on the top right is common for hotel websites. Make it obvious by using contrast or eye catching visual elements. Nothing is more frustrating to the user than trying to figure out how to book a room when they’re ready to buy.

Stickiness

This is the process of improving the tactility of your website – getting people to stay on the website longer. Some of the more common ways to do this is by incorporating things like blogs, articles, resources, useful links, videos, free downloads, motion graphics, or rich media. You can also keep them engaged by doing some storytelling using an interactive piece or video.

Creating an emotional hook is a good way to keep the eyeballs on the page.

Stickiness is important from a marketing perspective because the longer a visitor stays on a website, the more likely it is that will buy. Also the same things that improve tactility are used for link baiting, which is the practice of naturally increasing the amount of links to your website by giving people a reason to link to you (creating value). Inbound links are arguably the most important part of an SEO strategy in a competitive field, and the most difficult to address because of the labor involved in doing so.

Keep it Short

Attention spans are getting shorter, while an increasing number of products and services compete for this ever-shrinking commodity. And there is a growing body of evidence that suggests a more fundamental shift in the way we interact with information that is affecting our ability to maintain focus. The sheer volume of information out there has changed the way we absorb it. We have a growing tendency to take information in bite size pieces. Traditional media – like magazines and newspapers, have been accommodating this change in behavior by providing users with summary pages and by adopting a “news at a glance “ format.

Keep this in mind when you are putting together the copy for your website. Users no longer “read” – they “scan”. So make the copy easy to digest. If you can say it in three sentences or a list – then you should.

Your SEO company will beg to differ. But keyword saturation only adresses the “low hanging fruit”. In any competitive situation, you are not going head to head with your competitors based on the amount of keywords you can jam into the page. It’s the off page strategy that will dictate your rankings. Certainly do the due diligence – have your keywords in your title tag, heading, alt tags, and interspersed in your copy – but don’t expect this to make a significant impact in your rankings on its own.

It’s a tricky science because stuffing keywords into your copy will dumb down the beautifully written text that you paid a lot of money for a professional to write. So don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re also providing this information to humans – not just robots (i.e. search engine bots).

Measurement & Response

It’s important to measure and gauge visitor interaction on your website. Otherwise any potential improvements you make will be made in the dark. There are a number of excellent third party tools out there that can be used to gauge and analyze user behavior on your website. Small variations, like changing the language of your call to action – can have a considerable impact on user behavior.

Use heat maps to analyze user behavior.

Heat maps are great at giving you a visual picture of how people are interacting with the interface of your website. Use the data from Google Analytics or Omniture and combine this with the insight gained from these maps to plan and set up A/B tests. Use the data from you’re A/B tests to make improvements, and repeat at regular intervals.

Intuitive Up-Selling

This is the practice of strategically placing or recommending similar or related products when users view or buy a product. Amazon is the undisputed king of this practice.

It doesn’t hurt to ask, right?

In the context of selling rooms, we recommend strategic placement of hotel amenities near related products, or during the checkout inside your booking engine. For example if you are selling a standard room, suggest a beer and snack package. If you’re selling the King Suite, a premium spa package and bottle of Dom Perignon.

Accommodate Mobile Devices

Mobile phones are already ubiquitous in our daily lives. It’s a fundamental way that people communicate. Problem is, websites were never designed to be viewed on a three-inch screen, and navigating a full size website on a smartphone is largely a frustrating affair. So providing information that is accessible through a mobile devices is important. A solid mobile strategy will also allow you to efficiently leverage this burgeoning market and position yourself for the future.

This is an area where we feel a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work. Mobile users fall under a separate user profile, and you must be sympathetic to the amount of data that must be transmitted to access your site. Therefore we recommend a lean, stand-alone website for mobile users that provides information quickly and in a format that makes sense for smaller screen sizes.

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