Travel website roadtest – The Search Engines

We assessed eight search engines and four social search engines to find out which works best for online travel companies and consumers



Google.co.uk


That famously sparse page with the colourful Google logo is the most popular page on the web. Google has successfully made its site the front door through which everyone passes in order to access the Internet – and it’s certainly no exception in terms of accessing the travel market. Simply put, Google has the largest search distribution and network for travel.


Simplicity for the consumer
Google get top marks for its simplicity – the search engine is intuitive and it is easy for users to navigate between results.
Score: 23/25


Presentation of results
The simple interface displays result in a precise manner. I prefer the slick lines of Google to any of its competitors. Apparently, five out of six users still cannot tell the difference between paid and organic listings, though the paid listings are clearly labelled ‘sponsored listings’.
Score: 22/25


Quality of travel results (PPC)
Google Adwords listings appear at the top and/or along the right-hand side of the SERP, based on the number of advertisers bidding on a specific keyword. The positions of these ads are ranked based on how much the advertiser is willing to pay for each click as well as the click-through rate. This is known as the ‘quality score’ and can be best represented as: quality score = keyword’s CTR, ad text relevance, keyword relevance, landing page relevance. The amount of data coupled with the quality score results in the most relevant adverts in the industry.
Score: 24/25


Quality of travel results (organic)
Google is better than its competitors at determining the intent of a query and trying to match it. The search engine is biased towards displaying informational websites. Google has implemented many innovative features to travel-related searches, such as the ‘One Box’ feature to flight-related searches in the US, and maps to SERP, below which have improved the user experience.  Google places a lot of trust in the age of websites and it can be difficult for new companies to perform in the organic search listings.
Score: 23/25


Total: 92/100



Yahoo.co.uk


The search engine gateway is My Yahoo!, a personalised start page aimed to interact and inspire users to click on one of the pre-populated categories. One of these is Yahoo! Travel, a
comprehensive online travel resource where users can reserve cheap airline tickets, hotels, cars, cruises and holiday packages, as well as access destination guides, all in one place.


Simplicity for the consumer
The search engine is not complicated. However, the interface of the start page feels slightly busy. Numerous categories and options are just a click away and the search box is intuitively placed at the top of the page.
Score: 22/25


Presentation of results
The presentation of results feels clustered compared to the slick look and feel of Google. However, Yahoo! Travel engages with users. Yahoo! Travel Submit Listings Guide has been another search-based facility that has proved to be effective for travel clients. With more than 150,000 hotel properties in 40,000 different locations, this tool gets top marks for giving users the ability to compare prices and read reviews.
Score: 22/25


Quality of travel results (PPC)
Yahoo! currently prices its ads in an open auction, with the highest bidder taking the highest position. Yahoo!’s new marketing-platform, Panama, has launched in the US and is soon to be launched in the UK. The new platform is more similar to Google’s, incorporating a closed system which factors click-through-rate (dependent on a quality score based on algorithmic factors) into its ad ranking system.
Score: 23/25


Quality of travel results (organiC)
In comparison to its main competitors, the organic listings are found further down the page. Yahoo! offers a search submit service to companies, where it charges CPC to be listed in Yahoo!’s organic search results. Users cannot tell which organic listing results are profiting. In addition, it has a lot of internal content which it promotes heavily throughout the site.
Score: 19/25


Total: 86/100



MSN.co.uk


Microsoft launched Live Search in September 2006, designed to improve its web services with programs running on PCs. Today, Microsoft has MSN Search, Microsoft AdCentre and Windows Live Search, which can be confusing for users. Microsoft positions Windows Live services as something surfers can personalise, while MSN consists of pre-programmed content and its own unique database.


Simplicity for the consumer
MSN Search and Live Search score well for simplicity and the interface is pleasant and easy to use. Windows Live Search includes web search, an all-new image search, news search, RSS feeds, mail, local search, shopping and MSN spaces, as well as Microsoft’s blogging service.
Score: 22/25


Presentation of results
The presentation of results on MSN Search and Live Search is similar to the other main competitors, and the sponsored listings are presented in the same way. Live Search is an improvement over MSN Search in terms of functionality, and the look and feel is slicker. The image search on MSN is probably the best one available; users can adjust the size of images displayed with a ‘slider’.
Score: 22/25


Quality of travel results (PPC)
MSN has rolled out several new features to the SEM marketplace – and this moves SEM to an entirely new level. Although third-party campaign management firms have long offered day-parting, it’s new for a major search engine to offer it as an automatic, as opposed to manual, feature. In addition, the quality of the travel results displayed to users is impeccable.
Score: 22/25


Quality of travel results (organic)
It tends to be easier and quicker to get new websites indexed in MSN than in its main competitors. It has also made some major improvements, resulting in more relevant and high-quality display of search results.
Score: 20/25


Total: 86/100



Ask.co.uk


The company was bought by IAC/InterActive in 2005. The Ask search engine, previously known as Ask Jeeves, has always been among the most popular search engines and it continues to fight for market share against the search world’s big three: Google, MSN and Yahoo!


Simplicity for the consumer
Ask was originally the easiest search engine to use by far, as users only had to type in a question. However, today the search engine broadly works in much in the same way as its competitors. While searching on a broad search term, Ask provides pre-populated categories, to help users narrow their search.
Score: 22/25


Presentation of results
Ask offers many features that assist users and there is a list of tools from which users can choose on the home page. The search engine has web, news, images, blogs and feeds databases. The search engine displays the sponsored listings more prominently than its organic search results, and it is not easy to differentiate between the two.
Score: 19/25


Quality of travel results (PPC)
The results presented by Ask have varied in quality over time. Today, most of the sponsored listings on its searches are powered by Google. Ask Sponsored Listing also has a distribution network that includes services such as MySearch, Mamma, InfoSpace
and Dogpile. However, based on our experience, the volume of traffic and conversion rates do not compare to that of the big three competitors.
Score: 18/25


Quality of travel results (organic)
Ask’s ExpertRank algorithms aim to display relevant search results by identifying the most authoritative sites, not the biggest but the ones that are the best. The main weakness with Ask is that its database is not as comprehensive as its main competitors. Nevertheless, the travel-related searches conducted are of a high quality.
Score: 18/25


Total: 77/100



Del.icio.us


Del.icio.us is a social bookmarking website, owned by Yahoo! The site has been running for three years, and already has more than one million registered users. It can be used as a search engine by searching for sites that have been tagged by the community. The results displayed are not determined on a search engine algorithm but on the human element instead, as the community votes on the best content, which in turn is displayed at the top of the list.


Simplicity for the consumer
You can search the site without registering, but to gain access to all the features users need to register. Users that are planning a holiday can easily save links to hotels, activities, and transportation and use tags such as ‘Travel’, ‘London’ and ‘To visit’. Users can easily search for tags, as the website displays an intuitive search box in the top right-hand corner.
Score: 20/25


Presentation of results
Del.icio.us displays a ‘hot list’ on the front page, which contains websites that are popular among its members and frequently bookmarked. The majority of the websites are of a technical nature, reflecting the target audience of users. There is a list of ‘Tags to watch’ with rotating results. When we searched one of the categories listed was ‘Flights’.
Score: 20/25


Quality of travel results (PPC)
The sponsored results on Del.icio.us are provided by Yahoo! When conducting a search both with and without logging in, some of the PPC results seemed to be from the US, which is disappointing and would deter users in the UK from clicking on them.
Score: 10/25


Quality of travel results (organic)
The tag for each listing is shown beneath the actual title, and users can see how many users have saved or tagged a link. The results returned lack a description, and some titles are short, resulting in listings consisting of inconveniently limited information. Within Travel, there is a lot of good content tagged. However, if you narrow the search, there isn’t enough content tagged to provide you with enough relevant results.
Score: 16/25


Total: 66/100



Blinklist.com


MindValley, the company behind Blinklist, was co-founded by Vishen Lakhiani and Mike Reining in Silicon Valley in October 2003. Users with shared interests can list and share websites they are interested in. The social bookmarking aims to be the next evolutionary stage in how people find sites they’re looking for online.


Simplicity for the consumer
Blinklist makes it easy to import your existing bookmarks from your browser, Furl and Del.icio.us. When logging in for the first time, a message is displayed in ‘my message board’ from another helpful user offering to answer questions – a welcoming sign. To bookmark with greater ease, users can install a browser plug-in. An innovative feature of Blinklist is that it actively anticipates users’ search. When users start typing in the search box, it offers popular terms, along with suggestions.
Score: 20/25


Presentation of results
When conducting travel-related searches, the service displays results in an informative way. Some listings include thumbnails of the websites, votes, blinks and a description, resulting in a more visually stimulating browsing experience. It’s a refreshing change from the plain text search results. The flow of surfing is disrupted by sites being displayed in a new window, which needs to be closed to get back to the results page. However, some might prefer to always be able to return to the original results page.
Score: 20/25


Quality of travel results (PPC)
The sponsored results, which are sponsored by Google, were hard to detect as they are displayed below the fold. The results are not contextual (ie. related to the travel searches conducted on Blinklist), and therefore not relevant for travel. When searching for ‘Cheap flight to New York’ the sponsored results display ads related to blogging.
Score: 10/25


Quality of travel results (organic)
The quality of the travel results displayed is high. However, only a limited number of results are returned. When searching for ‘Cheap flights’, for example, only 12 results are displayed.
Score: 14/25


Total: 64/100



Digg.com


Digg was founded by Kevin Rose just over two years ago, and today has more than one million users. All content is submitted and voted on by the Digg community – a ‘digital media democracy’ as it states on the site. Users can search and submit articles, videos or podcasts online. Users participate in the collaborative editorial process by ‘digging’ the stuff they like best.


Simplicity for the consumer
Digg scores well for simplicity, and users do not have to sign up or register in order to be able to ‘digg’ news stories. Users can easily track their friends by the ‘friend list’ feature, customise the stories available and subscribe to RSS feeds of particular topics. Users can also discuss and share opinions by commenting on stories, videos and podcasts. The ‘Dig Spy’ feature provides a real-time snapshot of Digg activity submissions, making it simple for users to keep up to date with what is going on at Digg.
Score: 20/25


Presentation of results
On Digg the most popular news stories, as voted by members, appear on the home page. The accumulated count on news articles is prominently displayed. The sponsored listings are listed at the top of the search results page, and on some pages the sponsored listings are replaced by a banner.
Score: 20/25


Quality of travel results (PPC)
The sponsored listings are powered by Google’s AdSense. Companies can buy traditional online advertising on Digg through Federated Media. The results are not relevant to the searches conducted and it would be surprising if they receive a high click-through rate.
Score: 10/25


Quality of travel results (organic)
The search can be narrowed down to only search on any combination on the title, description and URL, making it easy for users to find what they are looking for. Unless choosing the latter, it is difficult to find relevant results. The quality of the search results varies. For some travel-related searches the results are pretty good, for others the site does not provide any really useful results.
Score: 15/25


Total: 65/100



Furl.com


Furl was founded in 2003 by Mike Giles and is part of the LookSmart family. The service had an upgrade in January this year, giving the service a new look, new features and it is now also faster. Furl positions itself to users as ‘Your personal web file – where to look for what you need’.


Simplicity for the consumer
It is easy to register; users need to validate the registration via an e-mail address. Unfortunately it takes about 15 minutes before the e-mail arrives, making it difficult to get started immediately. The next step is to install the toolbar into your browser, making it easy to Furl or save links easily. Users can save content to Furl without installing the plug-in. Furl scores relatively well on simplicity, thought not as high as some of its competitors.
Score: 15/25


Presentation of results
The latest headlines are displayed on the home page, together with pre-populated sub categories of hot topics, of which travel is one. The headlines are differentiated by a colour code, making it visible to users if a story is ‘cool’, ‘warm’ or ‘hot’.
Score: 18/25


Quality of travel results (PPC)
The LookSmart AdCenter PPC program provides the paid listings on Furl. Keyword targeted ads are positioned using both the maximum CPC and the advert’s click-through rate. The quality of the sponsored listings is high and is targeted to the search conducted.
Score: 18/25


Quality of travel results (organic)
Furl seems to have a lot more content for travel-related searches than any of the other social search providers. The top listing has not been saved by any member, although it could be a sponsored listing. However, it is difficult to distinguish this. The results are more similar to search results provided by the main search engines, in comparison to the other social search providers where the results combined smaller niche websites. Overall, the service works well for travel-related searches, but still can not compete with any of the big three search engines.
Score: 18/25


Total: 69/100



About the test:


Search engines are a starting point for most surfers, and today they are the largest website category in terms of traffic in the UK. The average searcher views 93 search pages a month and spends an average of 27 minutes doing so, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. 


With online travel being one of the most successful categories on the net, we have conducted this study to investigate how easy it is for consumers to find what they are looking for.


According to Hitwise, Google was used for 77% of UK searches in the month up to February 10, 2007. For the same period, Yahoo! Search powered 8%, while Ask.com and MSN Search both powered 5%. We are considering the four listed criteria to see if they use superior technology or if there is anyone who can threaten the current giant, Google. The test also looks at the impact of new advertising platforms – implemented by Yahoo! and MSN.


Traditional search results are based on objective criteria, such as counting the number of links other sites have placed to a given web page. However, social search gives people subjective answers. We have put the latest social search engines to the test to see how they measure against traditional search engines for travel related searches.



Testing criteria:


Simplicity for the consumer: How easy is it for consumers to find what they are looking for? How successful is the search engine in providing the user with what they want, and how intuitive is the interface?


Presentation of results: How appealing is the overall look and presentation of results? How are results displayed and what is the experience for the user? Are the paid and organic listings differentiated and which are more prominently displayed?


Quality of travel results (PPC): Does the consumer find what they are looking for in the results, or does the search engine display irrelevant results? What different advertising options are available and how are they presented? How well do these advertising options work for travel clients?


Quality of travel results (organic): Different engines look for different elements to determine search relevancy, and we are identifying some of the main differences between the engines. How well does the site present the natural (organic) listings of travel results and how relevant are they?



About the authors:


Anneli Ritari is a travel strategist at Bigmouthmedia. She oversees the agency’s expanding travel vertical team, which works with a range of clients such as Hilton Hotels, British Airways, Aer Lingus, Superbreak, Co-op Travel, Stena Line, National Express and EasyCar.


Todd Rosen is client services manager and heads up the US office. He manages accounts for Hilton Hotels and BP. He brings a wealth of experience to the travel sector and has been instrumental in the growth of Hilton’s business with Bigmouthmedia.


Bigmouthmedia, part of the Global Media Group, is a leading digital marketing agency based in the UK, mainland Europe, Asia and the US.

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