It’s always wise in digital travel to keep at least one eye on what Google’s up to and how it sees its role evolving in the travel ecosystem.
So, an update from the search giant’s Richard Holden, vice president product management, at the recent Phocuswright Europe conference was worth noting, even if nothing particularly groundbreaking was revealed.
Firstly, Holden was asked about Google Flights, the now seven-year-old shop and booking interface that came out of Google’s at the time contentious acquisition of ITA Software in 2011 for $700 million cash.
Holden said the product has been growing quite well but needed no encouragement to play down the commercial significance of Google Flights to the company.
“We have been focussed on comprehensiveness and getting coverage across all markets,” said Holden in response to claims that market data shows it has surpassed metasearch rival KAYAK in the US.
Holden said Google Flights was now in 72 markets and will be in 75 by the end of this year. In Europe, Finland and Greece have just launched and he estimated it now has 95% data coverage.
Investment is going into “helping the customer make the right decision” by using data on factors like price prediction, and date and destination flexibility which Holden said “which we think is what a lot of people come to Google for”.
Google Flights puts the focus on user experience, added Holden, rather than advertising campaigns.
“We look at it from a pure search perspective. If we are answering people’s questions efficiently then we are doing a great job. By those measures the business is doing well for us,” added Holden who insisted Google Flights was making money if not on the scale of other parts of the business.
In contrast Hotel Ads is much more of an overtly commercial enterprise. It is now launched across the planet and Holden said Google has been working on ramping up the customer
experience both on mobile and desktop. This has seen a doubling of engagement with photos, for instance.
Holden said, however, the product performs best in the US and Google is looking at ways to better localise the product for markets like Japan and Germany and other regions of Europe.
“Right now we are not finding as deep engagement with the content in parts of Europe as we think we should. We are investigating why that is. There are some local differences in the product we need to introduce to make it perform well in all markets.”
Holden said Hotel Ads has opened up a new marketplace that was challenging for big OTAs and which allows them to compete effectively by delivering more qualified traffic.
He added it is also a great opportunity for suppliers to speak to customers direct and Hotel Ads increasingly offers hotels ways to communicate what about their product or service makes them unique.
Google is also working on “building comprehensiveness” in the fast-growing vacation rental sector where Booking.com, Airbnb, and Expedia, with its Home Away brand, are battling it out.
Next, Holden was asked about Google’s ‘book on Google’ service to provide facilitated bookings without passing users off the Google platform. “It is something we have introduced to help with conversion rates.
“We want consumers to be able to convert efficiently but we are not the merchant of record. All we are trying to do is make that transaction as seamless as possible.
“If a consumer has payment credentials stored with us we can make it a fast and easy experience. Partners do not have to partake in it, but if they do it can increase conversions.”
Holden said Google had just sold its one millionth ticket on Google Flights. “It’s small, but growing. We think it will drive conversion.”
He said Google was taking very much a partnership approach with Book On Google, giving the vendor’s brand dominance in terms of look and feel, customer service and post booking communication.
Finally, attention turned to tours and activities, that great unaggregated area of travel that has appeared to be on the cusp of big things for a number of years and seems ripe for an organiser of information to come in and tidy it up. “It’s an area we are interested in,” Holden said.
To date that has manifested itself in a ‘things to do’ module in Google Maps, based on points of interest around the user, and “experimentation” in Google’s more recently launched Trips application.
“We are trying to focus on the search side. What’s available on the web both paid and unpaid and aggregating that content,” Holden said.
Asked whether he thought Google’s alleged favouring of its own comparison shopping services that prompted European regulators to issue a £2.2 billion fine last year was a problem in travel, he said:
“Take Flight Search. Every time we launch in a particular market we go through strenuous questions about quality. We are only showing it where we feel it is highly relevant based on a query and what that user is searching for.
“These are very high hurdles we are jumping over. We are only showing it when we think it is a high quality answer to that person. It’s algorithmically driven. If you’re not giving the user a good answer they won’t come back. We use that to determine ranking. If it’s not being used it’s going to decline in the ranking.”