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Touchdown for Google?

June 10, 2012

(Published in TTG 17.05.12)


Google’s latest boost to its Flight Search tool in the US could signal the search giant is preparing to launch it here too. Matthew Parsons looks at the implications for online travel sellers in the UK

Playing by Google’s rules is imperative for any travel company with an online presence. But with recent hints that the search giant could soon bring “Flight Search” to the UK, travel companies may have more work to do.

Google’s Flight Search (google.com/flights) currently works in the US only, and emerged last year following its acquisition of ITA, an airfare management system, in 2010 for $700 million.

Flight Search allows users to see routes, and costs, from different airports.

Until March 15 this year, this was restricted to certain cities in the US. Now, however, it has opened up to destinations from around the world – accessed via a large interactive map at the top of the screen.

In the US, users can click on a route or price, and head straight to airlines’ websites, and book in a click.

The move caused ripples among many online travel agents and aggregators in the US, who were suddenly losing visibility on search results pages.

UK on the radar?
Currently, typing “London flights” in to Google.co.uk reveals a few airports from which to fly from, in the US Flight Search-style, and with the ability to view all non-stop routes to London – which lists hundreds of other international options (pictured far right).
For now, there’s no ability to book – Google just shows the length of flight, and links to the airlines offering that service, but no data is passed through when they are clicked. But that could soon transform into a UK version of Google Flight, according to Daniel Hoggan, head of search at Media Works Online Marketing.

“I think the intention is to come to the UK,” Hoggan says. “Google has rolled it out to many areas, and is stepping up its search.”
Hoggan, whose clients include Eastern Airways and the Minoan Travel Group, believes there are implications for smaller companies, and that now is the time to prepare for Google’s imminent landing. And while many associate search engine optimisation with natural listings and key words, Hoggan says it is crucial for his clients to understand how Google works. “It’s not just about natural listings, it’s about how you can get results.”

Screen real estate
Online travel companies could soon find their natural – and highly trusted – search results appearing way “below the fold” of the first page of results, due to Google’s own large Flight Search box promotion (with the blue plane, in case you missed it), as well as paid-for adverts hogging the screen at the top.

“Online travel agencies and aggregators could lose out on traffic,” Hoggan warns. “Skyscanner, for example, might be a large company, but its market share could diminish.”

With these natural results being pushed down, what can OTAs do?

Most travel-sellers will have to increase their Google-friendly activities. Pay-per-click (PPC) adverts are already common practice in the travel industry, but there are ways to enhance these.

Hoggan also advises brands look at how “they can portray brand trust”. Google must be unbiased, he says, so it displays star ratings from third-party review websites such as Fefoo and Trust Pilot. He says travel firms should use a mix of these, and ask customers to review not only their holiday, but the overall service too.

Hoggan then recommends using Google checkout, which processes payments, as this allows customers to review you, and adds to the authenticity of the brand. As a trusted source, Google will detect reviews are authentic, as a purchase was made through its own system, and rewards this in its results.

So too must companies ensure their website is user-friendly and offers a good experience. Customers want ease of use, and if Flight Search launches in the UK, its beta stage may not offer the best user experience. as Google finds its feet within a new market.

Barriers to entry
Google, for now, tends to show direct flights only, but non-direct flights are likely to be on the way, Hoggan believes, as well as efforts in the long term to potentially “marry up different modes of transportation”.

Another potential hindrance to Google is that it is relying on data from ITA, not from the airlines themselves. In the UK, flight schedule data company OAG already provides Google with data.

For Google to earn revenue, this UK data may need to be integrated into its ITA system. Then, Hoggan predicts, Google could charge OTAs to advertise a “book it” link in Flight Search, or charge a higher rate to appear in the “sponsored results” column on the right.

But one technology expert believes Google is merely testing the water: “Google must be careful it doesn’t aggravate its OTA customers, which provide it with revenue,” says Paul Richer, senior partner at travel technology consultancy Genesys.

“Is this gentle approach to Flight Search softening the blow ahead of a full roll-out? Or is this a halfway house market test, to alert OTAs that some-thing might be happening?” he asks.

For now, however, Google remains characteristically tight-lipped on the subject. A Google UK spokseperson told TTG: “It may or may not come to the UK”.

Despite the uncertainty, agents must remain vigilant. “There’s speculation Google could even become an operator, it’s moving into every market that is doing well,” warns Hoggan. Could “Google Holiday Search” be next on the cards?

Whatever the size of your company, there is no doubt search results will be a key battleground should Google step up its travel efforts in the UK.

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