Compare SEO and SEM for your hotel marketing strategy

SEO and SEM increase online visibility of hotel websites. Learn the key differences between SEO and SEM to optimise your hotel marketing strategy and increase hotel reservations.

Most hotel marketers are familiar with the importance of SEO (search engine optimisation) for their hotel marketing strategy, but fewer are familiar with SEM (search engine marketing). As a result, some  get confused between the two marketing tactics when optimising hotel websites.

When should you use SEO and what are the benefits of SEM to gain visibility for your hotel brand in the crowded digital world of travel search? Learn the key differences between SEO and SEM to better your hotel marketing strategy and increase hotel reservations.

How do SEO and SEM compare?

To begin, become familiar with the basic definitions and how SEO and SEM can best be used to drive more qualified traffic to hotel websites. SEO and SEM increase online visibility of hotel websites. Learn the key differences between SEO and SEM to optimise your hotel marketing strategy and increase hotel reservations.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

SEO is the process of altering your website structure and content in such a way that encourages search engines to rank them higher on search engine result pages (SERPs). Be aware that SEO can demand dedicated time, talent, and money.

However,  if successful, SEO can drive ongoing new “free” reservations to your property website over time and boost your hotel brand visibility. SEO is a long-term hotel marketing strategy that often doesn’t show results for many months. But don’t be discouraged! We recommend SEO if you have time and effort to spare, and are ready for a long-term investment in your website.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages primarily through paid advertising. These ads usually appear at the top of search engine results, but can also be seen at the bottom and sides.

Sometimes these ads are simple blocks of text. Other times they are images of products, or even location points on a map. SEM ads are managed using an interface run by the search engine, such as Google’s Ads or Bing Ads. Hotel marketers can pay the search engine for every click their hotel advertisement receives, or buy ad “impressions”.

Impressions means the amount of times an ad has been shown through your pay per click advertising or the amount of times a webpage has been listed on a SERP. One benefit to SEM is that it can start bringing you new guests immediately, as long as you’re willing to pay.

One drawback is as soon as you stop paying for ads, SEM stops sending you new guests. SEM can be difficult to set up and make profitable; however, once profitable, you can predictably increase or decrease direct hotel reservations by increasing or decreasing how much you spend on ads. We recommend SEM to hoteliers who need to find new guests now, and are willing to spend a little cash every month to feed their online booking engine.

How do SEO and SEM work?

In this section, learn about important defining characteristics between SEO and SEM.



SEO costs can accumulate over time. Hoteliers need to create an online marketing presence, ensure it is optimised for technical SEO, and then produce content, or hire someone to produce content. Content will have to be high quality in order to stand out from the competition and written to include the words and ideas hotel marketers hope to rank for in search engines.

If hoteliers have existing hotel websites, they should periodically examine them for SEO success by having a trusted subject matter expert review content. This ensures keywords, content, and the overall hotel marketing strategy is optimised and hotel websites function properly to support increased booking activity. Important to know: SEO is expensive upfront and slow-moving, but could lead to ongoing “free” direct hotel reservations in the future.


SEM hotel advertisements are free to create. SEM providers such as Google and Bing only charge hotel marketers when their ads receive clicks or impressions (views). Hoteliers are in control of how much they spend by “bidding” on clicks or impressions.

This means they tell Google or Bing how much they are willing to spend for a click, and then those services will weigh all the other bids and serve the highest one. Hotel marketers can choose to have a daily, weekly, and monthly spending limit as well, so cost is controlled.

Important to know: SEM costs are controllable and predictable. However, it sometimes takes weeks of experimentation before a hotel advertisement campaign becomes profitable, and if hotel marketers cancel the ads, traffic from the ads stops.



Websites that rank highest on search engines get the most visitors, and therefore make more money. Search engines such as Google build automated algorithms that judge the quality and relevance of a website. They’ll show the websites they think are the best first. Therefore, a key aspect of SEO  is making sure your hotel website has relevant content related to topics you want to rank for within Google searches.

Google judges your website quality using a number of factors, including backlinks (the number of links on other websites pointing to yours), social votes such as Facebook “likes”, content length and relevance to the initial search query, and much more.


Like websites, SEM providers rank ads that appear on their network by quality, because they want to serve only the best ads to their users. The better quality SEM hotel advertisements appear higher within the ad blocks and are more likely to get clicks to increase hotel sales. Google judges ad quality by a number of factors, including how relevant the ad is to the page it links to, how applicable the keywords are associated with the ad, and by the quality of the destination page.


Website listings in Google SERPs and Adwords SEM ads can be altered to include other useful booking and hotel brand information that can increase click through rates and lead to more hotel reservations. Here are some extensions hoteliers should be aware of.


The following extensions can be used by hoteliers who want to stand-out in the SERP. Publisher markup is for your hotel brand, not individual people. By enabling publisher markup, your property may be featured in the SERP for some queries (especially trademark or brand queries).

Markup makes your search results easier to read and understand to the people searching for your property. It supports user engagement by providing most of the information about your property that potential hotel guests are looking for in their travel search (address, phone number, hours of operation, etc).

Sitelinks appear as extra links to important pages on your site in the SERP. Google will generate site-links for your website automatically, if the search engine thinks it gets enough traffic to warrant them. You can choose which links you want to remove by integrating with Google Webmaster Tools (WMT), and making your selection from the WMT dashboard.


The following extensions can be enabled during the campaign setup process within Adwords. They come at no additional cost, and can help increase qualified clicks leading to new hotel reservations.

With call extensions, you can place a “click to call” button on your hotel advertisement, making it easy for guests to call your front desk directly from the SERP. This is especially useful for mobile guests. A call is charged the same as one click.

Present your property’s address and other important contact information to potential hotel guests directly in the SERP with location extensions. These can display on Google Maps and elsewhere, and are a great trust signal for your hotel brand.

You can choose which sections of your site you’d like to appear as additional links beneath your hotel advertisement, potentially encouraging new guests to click. For example, make your Promotions page a sitelink, so hotel guests can quickly see your promotions.

Is SEO or SEM best for my property?

Every hotel marketing strategy is different, but both SEM and SEO can be effectively used at any stage of a hotel’s marketing plan to gain new guests and increase hotel brand visibility in a crowded digital world. In order to gain new hotel reservations, properties must attract qualified guests.

Remember, SEO can be an expensive and time-consuming process. It is best used by hoteliers who can dedicate resources to building a powerful online presence, or who can find trusted experts to work on SEO with them to build a successful hotel marketing strategy. Look for a solution that optimises your website passively, taking care of the technical side to SEO, giving you the freedom to focus on content creation and marketing to boost hotel sales.

Conversely, SEM is cheaper up-front but can be complicated, and comes with ongoing costs to support your hotel brand.For these reasons, SEM is more suitable for hoteliers who have a monthly marketing budget and need an influx of new guests now. It’s a good strategy for properties wanting to increase hotel reservations during slow seasons or when they launch new properties. So, what’s the final recommendation? Hotels should use SEM to get new guests now while simultaneously building their SEO over time.

Optimise your hotel website today

To support your hotel marketing strategy, we’ve created a useful eBook to help you get started with SEM on your hotel website. Or, if you want a website that’s SEO optimised from the start, learn more about WebDirect.

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