Google’s travel shopping products have not taken over the market and the industry is more relaxed today about their existence, the UK’s new head of travel claimed.
Dr Bernd Fauser was among Google executives who faced questions from senior industry delegates yesterday at a Business Breakfast run by Travolution’s sister title Travel Weekly.
He did not directly address the announcement a day earlier, that the European Commission is to officially investigate Google for favouring its own shopping tools like Flight Search and Hotel Finder in search results.
But Fauser, who has taken on the post formerly occupied by Robin Frewer, was asked about the firm’s ambitions in travel.
His views hinted at the case the search giant could mount against the antitrust claims Europe has levelled at it, in what is expected to be a contracted legal dispute.
He told the audience how in his previous role looking after the firm’s largest travel clients globally, the launch of Flight Search in the US in 2011 caused consternation.
“I was at the event in New York where we announced Flight Search to a packed room and people were panicking.
“Six years later, the big [travel] groups are still 95% of the market. They were worried we were going to wipe out the market, but that’s not the case.
“All of you know how complicated the product is and how complicated it is to surface results. The scenarios they envisaged haven’t come true and I feel the industry is much more relaxed these days.”
Google Flight Search was launched following the $600 million acquisition of ITA Software, which was behind other major flight search firms and OTAs like Kayak and Orbitz, a deal which itself was approved only after an antitrust investigation.
Its development, along with Google’s Hotel Finder shopping tool, and the prominence they are given in search results prompted widespread fears that Google planned to launch its own travel business.
However, Fauser said: “It’s all about staying relevant. The model that we had for many years was working very well. If someone was searching you showed them links.
“Today when people are searching they want answers. It’s not good enough for us to just show links. If we continue like that we will become irrelevant, people will just not search because they expect an answer.
“If we become less relevant, then we become not only less relevant as a search engine but we become less relevant for our advertisers.
“So the product team has for many years now been very focussed on providing, instead of links, more information, more insight, more facts, helping people find what they want.
“It’s more about being user-focused, what the user is looking for, how can we help them to get to that information more quickly, than it is driven by margin or profits.
“We are basically answering the first question. If someone is searching for a flight what is it they want to know? They want to know how long is it going to take, what’s the approximate price.
“Then they go deeper and we help to drive that user demand to our partners, and it’s much more qualified traffic so we see in all of these products that conversion rates for our partners go through the roof.
“In the past when someone was searching for flights you were buying basically traffic which was really random. Now our advertisers are buying traffic which is really targeted. That’s a much better lead. We are helping to qualify that lead.”
Fauser claimed some partners in the hotel sector have seen conversion rates leap 45% thanks to Hotel Finder.
Nishma Robb, head of commercial marketing at Google, stressed their engineers are developing its products with the consumer at the forefront of their minds.
“When we develop our products we are looking at the user first.
“Our ambition is we don’t want to frustrate the user, we want to get you as fast as possible to the best answer to the question which means we have had to change real estate on the page so that has changed the real estate that SEOs have.
“But actually I think SEO as a practice has changed, it’s no longer about gaming it, it’s about creating content that’s relevant.
“It comes back to consumers being pretty demanding about what they are looking for. Our engineers think users first, that’s all they think, sometimes to the frustration of our commercial teams.
“And actually, we are designing not just thinking about users first but we are thinking about mobile. The reality is that’s consumer behaviour. We don’t think about mobile as a device, that’s their behaviour.”
Next week, on April 21, Google will make a pre-announced change to its algorithm so that results that optimised for mobile are given greater prominence.
Fauser said: “Consumer behaviour is rapidly shifting, they are moving rapidly to mobile and that creates challenges for us and challenges for the industry and also huge opportunities.
“The UK is amazing on mobile. It has super-high penetration on mobile and tablets. Even with people 55 and over you have 64% smartphone penetration. Queries we see here on mobile are massive.
“UK has for an online retailer on the app and mobile side, quickly closed the gap on other markets, like Japan, which were once considered to be 10 years ahead of us.”
The Business Breakfast, sponsored by specialist travel marketing agency Melt Content, took place at Google’s headquarters in London in front of 100 specially invited senior executives from the UK travel industry.