Hoteliers and OTAs are paying close attention to Google’s ever-evolving products and search results.
PHOENIX—One of the biggest unanswered questions surrounding the hotel digital marketing and distribution space over the past year has been how Google Travel’s entrance will alter the landscape.
While executives shed little light on their future plans at last week’s PhoCusWright Conference, the decision to highlight a few new travel-oriented Google products did show the company’s continued commitment to the space. It’s clear, however, that Google Flight Search and Google Hotel Finder are evolving slower than anticipated.
“We were happy to get the Fight Search out quickly. We had been sitting across the table during the regulatory review waiting to get to work,” said Jeremy Wertheimer, VP of Google Travel, who founded ITA Software and joined Google in 2010 when the company purchased the software. “We were pretty happy we got it out, and now we’re looking at international expansion.”
“Things are moving pretty well,” said Wertheimer, adding that the company tends to push new products out quickly and strategically test and iterate them over time.
However, a number of leading executives in the online travel space suggested during PhoCusWright that Google is finding the travel distribution space more complicated than the company initially thought.
While discussing the spinoff of TripAdvisor from Expedia, TripAdvisor co-founder and CEO Steve Kaufer said, “We both look at Google and say ‘what’s coming next’ just because they have so much power to divert within search. However, the product isn’t as complete as some would have thought it would be by now.”
Steve Hafner, CEO of metasearch Kayak, joked: “We’re delighted by the measured progress Google is making in the space.”
However, Wertheimer said there have been “several dozen launches” in the travel space over the past year and continued to suggest that growing the products internationally takes a significant amount of time.
“If you look at the small features, you’ll notice a continual process of rolling out new features,” he said. “There are a bunch of things going on. It’s growing nicely. There’s a process over time for how these things develop.”
He shed some light on Google’s testing practices, saying products are demoed first to a small group of Google employees, then a larger group, then all of Google tests the product and finally it’s rolled out.
“We subject things to pretty hard usage,” he said.
Shiny new tools
Wertheimer did take time to go over several new Google products that offer peripheral benefits to travelers and could tie in with the company’s larger travel ecosystem down the road.
First, he said, there have been a number of developments in the mapping space since last year, specifically indoor mapping and 3-D maps.
“The technology for giving you maps and views of places you’re going to ... that’s really here already,” he said. Now, Google is providing “indoor maps” of popular attractions, and hoteliers can work with Google to get indoor virtual tours of their properties on Google.
Next, Google is placing much emphasis moving forward on speech recognition, rolling out Google Now to allow a smartphone to become a traveler’s personal assistant. When travelers embark on a trip, Google Now automatically checks traffic patterns and offers alternative routes. It can tell travelers what trains are approaching next, find places to eat lunch based on previous preferences and update sports scores on the go.
“Google Now is always one step ahead,” Wertheimer said.
Outside of Google’s specific travel tools, hoteliers and online travel agencies alike are exceedingly concerned with Google’s tendency to alter search results and feature internal products more prominently.
Jeff Boyd, CEO of Priceline.com, said there is “no question” Google is rearranging where the search results send traffic.
“The importance of organic search goes down,” he said. “That’s an important thing people have to consider.”
Yet, the importance of having a presence in Google search results continues to rise.
“We are always in search of finding opportunities to help drive bookings,” said Jonathan Cherins, executive VP and GM of reservations solutions for TravelClick, which announced last week a partnership to provide Google with rates and availability for its 6,000 hotel clients. “Google happens to have a large portion of the eyeballs in driving demand. It’s all about putting the right offer in front of the right consumer at the right time.”
TravelClick and Google worked together to develop a technology where TravelClick can monitor the rates and availability that appear within Google’s various platforms.
“We are buying ads and optimizing bids so that a small, independent hotel or small chain has the same opportunity as a branded hotel to fit in one of (Google’s) four top spots,” he said. “It’s about maximizing the Google brand.”