US View – February 2008

Mega gains for meta search

Some in the traditional and online travel agency community sneer at meta search engines such as Kayak/Sidestep, Yahoo’s FareChase, Mobissimo and Bezurk because allegedly they “commoditise” flights, hotel stays and car rental, and cheapen the travel experience with their emphasis on price comparisons.

Supposedly, this argument goes, price-driven travel shoppers who use comparison-shopping engines are only a small subset of online travel researchers and bookers.

In fact, in the US, for years Travelocity has made a point of boycotting, to a great extent, the meta searchers, deciding not to throw its content into the mix. This was so Travelocity could punctuate its stance that online travel marketers need to focus instead on providing tools to enrich the travel experience and de-emphasise bargain hunting.

Today, although online agencies such as Cheaptickets, Orbitz, and Octopus dabble with the meta search engines in the US, participating in them and providing content in tactical ways, the comparison-shopping engines remain largely a vehicle of suppliers, one of their tools to compete with and beat up on the online agencies.

But, several recent signs point to the emergence and growing strength of the meta search engines, despite all the flack they get about being solely price-focused.

The reported $180 million Kayak agreement to buy rival Sidestep, and the mammoth overall financing package that Kayak recently obtained in tandem with the deal, highlights the fact that price-conscious consumers are indeed driving some of the most robust growth in travel on the web.

Already operating in the US, the UK, France, Germany and Spain, Kayak is eyeing the possibility of a new site in Italy, and the purchase of Sidestep undoubtedly will boost the percentage of revenue, now around 6%, that Kayak gets from outside the US

Meanwhile, Expedia Inc’s, where deals and discounts have always been the foundation, is poised to add five local sites across Europe, taking its portfolio on the continent to around 25 sites.

Hotwire and Priceline, two bidding sites that it was once thought would pound each other into irrelevance in a messy, discounting dust-up, appear to be thriving.

If you need more evidence of the growing clout of the search engines, contrast the number of new meta search sites that have cropped up in recent years and the funding pouring into them, with the paucity of new major players in online agency ranks in the same timeframe.

Two other developments, at the least, symbolise the gains of the meta searchers.

Yahoo! decided recently to give FareChase, a meta search site that Yahoo! acquired in 2004, more prominence on the Yahoo! Travel home page, to the detriment of Travelocity.

For years, Travelocity was the default search engine on Yahoo! Travel, but today the FareChase and Travelocity search engines sit side by side with equal footing in the display.

Yahoo! has labelled Travelocity’s search engine as ‘classic search’ [should one interpret that as meaning old and tired?].

In another signal of the meta searchers’ traction, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owns MySpace, took a minority stake in, the Singapore-based Asian meta search engine.

That’s an appropriate pairing because many of the meta search sites are developing their own social networking prowess. Social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, TripAdvisor and WAYN are leading the surge, and the comparative-shopping engines are buying social-networking sites or developing their own tools to leverage the push toward community.

After all, at this juncture in the short history of the web, it is becoming pretty clear that consumer behaviour, when it comes to travel is, to a large extent, is all about research and planning, social networking and finding a deal. And, even when it comes to high-end, luxury bookings made online, who doesn’t like to find a deal?

Mobile market is ‘sizable’

Mobile computing is growing in the US, however wireless penetration doesn’t yet approach Europe’s levels.

Yen Lee, president of California-based meta search travel-planning site, believes there are real opportunities for travel marketers to attract the business of the BlackBerry crowd, but these opportunities are “a little over-hyped”.

For example, Lee points out that most US consumers do not use mobile devices to query Google and Yahoo! And, most mobile searching is done through text messaging, which, at this juncture, has no keyword-purchasing or search-engine marketing (SEM) component.

Still Lee has identified several best practices for concentrating on what he sees as a smaller, yet “sizable” mobile market that can be targeted through search engine optimisation and SEM techniques:

Use mobile-friendly templates to make it easy for mobile agents and users to find your site’s content.

Avoid ‘the SEO sin’ of duplicative content. Ensure that search engines only access one version of your mobile or regular content.

Since ‘local’ or geographic relevancy is key for mobile searching, ensure that your address – latitude and longitude – is easily detected.

Keep testing and optimising your design templates to ensure they work properly on mobile devices.

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