Booking.com is known to have the best conversion rates of online traffic globally. Some industry commentators report conversions rates as high as 14% versus sub-7% for other websites in travel.

We interviewed a former Manager of the Booking.com Account at Google to explore why Booking are so powerful and more:

  • How digital marketing budgets are changing during coronavirus pandemic
  • Evolution of SEM on Google
  • How the Google auction functions and importance of Adrank and quality score
  • how to run AB tests for digital ads
  • The role of Google Travel in the industry
  • How Booking.com are the best in the industry at SEM

What does Booking do so well, in SEM? What's their secret, from your time at Google, what did you learn about that business?

I was responsible for the Booking account, at Google. I helped them as free advisor, that they get with their spend. Their revenues grew from, in the mid nine digits, to well over the 10 digits, in my two, two and a half years that I was there. I learned from their CMO, Arthur Kosten, something I think he took this from Thomas Edison, who said, "I have not failed; I have found 10,000 ways that won't work." What Arthur Kosten said was, "There is no failure; there are ways that work and ways that don't."

This is their approach to running a company. It helps the whole team to be able to spot ideas, voice their ideas, have the ecosystem to put those ideas to the test, without being slapped on the wrist, when the result is bad. Because a bad result means that we now know that doesn't work and we try something else. That is the best way to summarize their experimentation and mindset.

Then in team, they choose smart people over experienced people. Lots of PhDs in physics and math were running performance marketing there. You cannot teach somebody to be smart and to know how to do experimentation really well, easily in a company. But you can teach people how AdWords works easily in a company. If you take those two, it's easier to take the smart people and teach them all about marketing, than to take people who have all that marketing experience and then teach them how to think like a PhD.

It's very much product led. They have the distributed responsibility to serve the customer. All of their goals are tied to customer success. Every piece that hits the customer, they get dedicated teams that continuously optimize it. From a distance, it might look like a website that is different types of font and different colors and all these things. But they created this experience where, the outcome of it is the highest possible conversion rate you can have.

People have made it clear they have an intent for travel and then they land on this website and they see the largest offering in the world. Whatever you want, you can find it here. Then you go into the search results and you see, indeed, that there is a huge offering, especially where you are looking for. Then you go a bit deeper and then they are poking you. Hurry up, so many left, so many people looking at this. Then there is more anxiety. Then you go one level deeper, with your credit card details and then they say, secure. Relax, you can give us your details. Then when you've booked, it's almost as if it says, all right, now you can relax completely. It's done; you've got the best deal, don't worry. That whole emotional rollercoaster, how they designed that, is extremely smart.

Specifically towards SEM, and what they do so well in SEM, there are a couple of things. Relevance, shelf-space, the data over opinions, building for scale and partnership. First, relevance. Way back, when Expedia was still funneling their traffic through their home page, they already knew that whatever people type in that bar, in Google, we need to answer, here. Even though there are only a couple of people that type this in a year, if we have the technology that can map a page to it, at least we can help those people better. They have a system that's also trying to build for scale and they have a system where they can use the size of the world to collect all of those single people, per country, that do that one search, collect them, aggregate them and then make a decision, is this a good ad for this type of query, yes or no? They just aggregate all of the data, globally, to make sense of, is this one query working, yes or no?

If you're not a global company and you only have one market, you wouldn't bother about these single terms that aren't used that much. But they can, because of their skill. Their website is relevant and they can land people on all levels of the funnel, whether you are still looking, where do I want to go, I don't know – actually, I think they could do better there. But as soon as you know where you want to go, whether it's a country, region, city, area within that city, they can land you at the best possible level and offer you any place you want to stay there.

Then shelf space. This is about owning the Google result page. They are always at position number one. It's rare that they're not there and that's because they understand that, if we have the best offering, if we have the best conversion, there's no reason why we shouldn't be there. If anyone attacks us there, then we're going to retaliate. We're going to make sure that it hurts them more than it hurts us. Shelf space also means, whatever you can do with that ad. How big can you make that ad, because the bigger you make it, the bigger the chance that you will get the click. That's also important, that they want to grow their shelf space, online.

Data over opinions. They have a huge, smart setup in testing. It's really easy for them to understand what the incremental value is, of a certain group of assets, whether it's keywords, audiences, ads, etc., that have a system that they can set up tests easily, without having to use the Google product, Drafts and Experiments, because it's not that good. Drafts and Experiments, actually, doesn't do sample rate mismatch well. The groups aren't equal. Their own experimentation tool is perfect for that. That way, they can do rapid testing and they can see what the effect is for everything that they are doing.

For building at scale, they were one of the first to adopt the Google APIs and create campaigns, automatically. There's not a lot of people, sitting in the front end of Google AdWords, doing the work. It's all done through APIs. Maybe you have a holiday home yourself. The moment you list your holiday home on Booking.com, within 24 hours, this is translated into more than 40 languages, all of the content is put live and it's live on all of the ad products. It's live on Google, it's live on Facebook. Wherever you look, you will see your holiday home, within a day. That's amazing.

Lastly, partnership. They have the best relationships with all of the big media partners, because of the budge they spend. That also means that you get access, if you ask for it, to engineering and product teams. That's where the symbiosis comes from. Those product managers and engineering teams want to build great products for users, and they need to have AB experiments and partners to test that with, in order to see if it's the right thing to do. Booking is that kind of partner. Because of the volume, because of the skill, because of the level of proficiency of the team, they can level with the engineers at Google and Facebook and Microsoft, etc. That puts them in a unique position, to not only to always be the first in alphas and betas, but also to introduce new ideas to Google and Facebook.

One of the things that was introduced by Booking, they called it keyword list ads, is dynamic search ads, where you actually give your website to Google and you say, wherever you think we're relevant, whatever keyword, just get some text from our website, create an ad out of it and good luck; this is the target. That was an idea that came from Booking. Now it has already been rolled out for years, globally.

Read the full interview and hundreds more at www.inpractise.com