Meta search: answers needed

It seems the clock is ticking for meta search engines such as Kayak and Travelsupermarket – or so Travolution’s board members would have us think.

Against a backdrop of Kayak’s merger with Sidestep and Travelsupermarket’s ongoing multi-million pound advertising, senior industry figures outside the burgeoning meta search sector question the value these sites can bring going forward.

In a world where disintermediation continues apace, it is curious that meta search engines have been able to edge their way in. Their success to date is undeniable with the millions of visitors they attract in addition to the advertising following. Travolution’s panel seems intent on praising their ability to build a brand and find a place in the market in a relatively short space of time and on limited resources.

Indeed, for consumers they perhaps bring some value in terms of transparency and clarity to a very fragmented market.

But, as far as suppliers are concerned, they are seen as just another force driving an already highly commoditised industry.

Google UK travel industry leader Robin Frewer says: “Meta search has its time and its place but it is largely responsible for driving commoditisation. A lot of product does not get fairly represented by meta search.”

The idea of meta search simply acting as a propellant for further commoditisation also concerns Jumeirah group director of e-business and customer development Kristie Goshow, who sees no value in price comparison for luxury products such as upscale hotels.

“We would question its relevance for a luxury brand. They have been focused on price and we will not go to market based on price.”

The question for many meta sceptics centres on the space the leading players will occupy in the future as advertisers become more adventurous with budgets and the world of search and user-generated content sites continues to develop and increase in sophistication.

Expedia EMEA marketing director Patrik Oqvist says: “What is the value being added to the chain in a world where we have Google and TripAdvisor? As advertisers become better there will be less need for meta search engines, which inserted themselves into the chain. Travelsupermarket’s moment in the sun is right now but I have doubts about its future.”

The problem remains that, despite a host of travel providers using meta search for distribution, there is confusion as to its overall value. chief operating officer Ed Kamm admits the online giant has struggled with price comparison.

“If anything, suppliers want to remove intermediaries. Clearly it adds cost in the chain,” he says.

Unfortunately for those spearheading the meta search market, a prediction from many senior figures is that the sector in its current form will not survive.

The takeover in the US of Sidestep by Kayak sends out a number of signals – but, remarkably, considering its rumoured price of almost £100 million – not one of confidence.

Indeed, meta search is a darling of the industry in the US, driven perhaps by a focus on its cutting-edge technology and gee-whizz user interfaces. Europe, it would seem, is yet to be convinced.

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