Guest Post: Searching times for the online travel industry

Search is currently a hot topic across the online travel bookings sector. With new applications appearing on the market on a regular basis, Carsten Kraus, chief executive of FACT-Finder Travel, looks at where the real game changing technologies are in this market

With standard conversion rates for online travel bookers languishing at just 0.5% – around four times less than “traditional” ecommerce – it’s hardly surprising that travel search has become the subject of considerable industry focus and much technological development. Making travel search not only easier but also more relevant is one of the key areas that will help travel e-shops to ultimately sell more.

Until now, anybody wishing to book a holiday online was more often than not faced with filling out complicated search forms. This meant that individual wishes and requirements could only be vaguely specified and most results were not really relevant to what was actually being searched for.

But a number of technologies have come onto the market in the past 12 months that look to try to change this. Hipmunk, for example, is a travel search service that allows customers to search for their flights and accommodation using visual tools and graphics. The site is designed to help people who are overwhelmed with pages of irrelevant results when searching for holidays, with flight results being presented in a visual “timeline” and hotels being shown on a map. Interestingly, the company recently received a $15m venture capital investment to develop its product.

In Germany, former airline HLX, now operating as a travel search portal, offers a “meta meta” search function to give people a broader view of the market. HLX not only searches the airlines but also searches other aggregators to offer visitors the guaranteed lowest price – it then redirects them to the relevant websites. They have also made certain improvements in the search functionality.

Probably the area getting the most coverage at present is mobile travel search. eMarketer reports that nearly 16 million Americans will book travel via mobile devices this year, with that number projected to grow to nearly 37 million by 2016.

While there is a lot of hype around mobile I don’t believe any of these are yet game changers, because most of the existing technology is simply geared around using old ideas to create new results.

And, although the eMarketer statistics appear comprehensive they don’t go into much detail as to what types of travel are being booked on which mobile devices. Our experience is that people will use mobile phones to book flights, train tickets, car parking and hotels only if they need to do so urgently. They do not carry out their research on destinations to book ‘leisurely’ holiday breaks on their mobile phones – the home computer or laptop is still very much the number one device on which to carry out holiday research.

So perhaps the enthusiasm with which we embrace these channels is being a little misplaced. On tablet computers, like the iPad, which are also rated as mobile devices, most people use regular websites more often than specialised travel apps. This may change when apps start using optimised tablet functionality. In my opinion, tablet computers are very likely to be increasingly used for researching and booking even something like a complex adventure holiday.

There is much talk about voice recognition technology and the part that it now plays when it comes to booking a travel destination via mobile (thanks, largely, to the advent of Apple’s Siri technology and the copycats it is now spawning). Certainly there are environments where voice search is a powerful tool, for example when you’re in an environment where you can’t type, such as while driving, and you urgently need to get a flight or train somewhere. However, I don’t see voice search dominating the mobile platform as most people don’t want to talk about everything they do in public.

So where is this quantum shift in travel search going to come from that will help drive conversion rates? The answer is semantic search, because it will revolutionise the way we actually search for our travel needs.

Semantic search allows people to search in their own words and not be constrained to a number of check boxes that will often generate pages of irrelevant results. The use of complex inference engines also means that semantic search engines can understand the ambiguities of natural language and translate them seamlessly into something that can be understood by the tour operator’s database.

For example, say you wanted to search the following: “Easter sun 2 children”. At best conventional search engines can only provide inaccurate results such as “Easter Islands” or “Sunset Hotel”, because “Easter” does not appear in the text of the hotel description. Also, “sun” is not interpreted as intended, such as a travel destination sunny enough to go swimming at Easter. With semantic search these inferences are understood and create qualified search results for would-be travelers.

Leading German travel booking site moved to a semantic search function earlier this year and has already seen a marked improvement in its conversion rates, despite the fact that less than 10% of visitors are currently using the full semantic search.

While all these technologies represent steps in the right direction for the travel sector, semantics is unquestionably where the real revolution in travel search is taking place.

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