Google and Frommers, six months on – never about brand or books, just look at the bigger picture
But if anyone thought Google was buying the guidebook publisher so that it could get in to, well, publishing guidebooks and owning a destination information website (alongside many others), then they were never seeing or understanding the bigger picture.
Almost six months since the deal was announced (and closed pretty quickly, less than a month later) and there are only a few, subtle signs as to how what the acquisition really means to Google.
Inevitably (again), Google remains tight-lipped (it refused to comment on any questions we sent) about anything to do with Frommer’s and its strategy.
This void of concrete information is leaving some of the guidebook writers to wonder whether they will ever be commissioned again (many get their briefs in January each year, and haven’t) and the wider industry as to how important travel content will be to Google.
It appears the answer to the former is “possibly”; but the latter is an undoubted “massively”.
First, to the guidebooks. The natives are restless, at least if you read some of the reviews on Amazon, with complaints about content being out of date and needing an update.
On the one hand, why would Google continue to produce printed guidebooks? Probably for the same reason that Lonely Planet continues to do so: because people STILL buy them (just not perhaps in the volumes of yesteryear).
But with commissions languishing and no clear strategy as yet, most are relying on rumours that a handful of the guidebooks will remain in the portfolio as long as they fit the overall strategy.
Such a programme could be, as some suspect, concentrated more on “themed books” (activities, types of trips et al) rather than straightforward country or city guides.
There is also a suggestion that the motivation for recommissions – and, indeed, entirely new guides – will come, in part, as a result of examining how well such subjects or destinations feature in Google search.
Makes sense, to a some degree.
The bigger picture
At the time of the acquisition, putting aside all the focus on the guidebooks and existing site, it was obvious that buying Frommer’s was going to be part of a larger plan to bolster content in Google search.
With Places, Local and Maps core parts of how Google wants people to research destinations and (perhaps more importantly) things to do, Frommer’s and Zagat (its other content-related acquisition from 2011) material is a natural fit.
Those who perhaps weep over how a traditional travel guide brand might be losing its identity after being snapped up by the giant that is Google should reflect just for a moment – since when did Google care about brands, and indeed why should it?
What Google bought was a business that was not universally known in every market in which Google has a persence, a business that was up for sale anyway, which wasn’t the market leader in travel guides, nor one generally considered to be a pioneer in mobile travel (although it has decent apps).
Instead, it got hold of heaps of existing and original destination content, and a mechanism to contine to supply its overall strategy.
Google was essentially buying something that helps feed the search and content beast it has been creating for the best part of a few years, and an area it clearly wants to expand.
Zagat review content is already appearing against many attractions and things to do in Google Local and Places, and some Frommer’s material is starting to drip-feed into the same areas.
Consumers get a map, pictures from (Google-owned) Panoramio and others, and descriptions from Wikipedia. Additional material emerges in “normal” search, with upcoming events and points of interest (the latter of which often feed to another page with the new image search functionality.
Reviews and content are also included. Zagat and Frommer’s material is subtle, but Google is probably assuming this enough to lend some kind of legitimacy to the content for those that care and not make it too obtrusive to those that do not.
Roll back further to Maps and it is possible to really see how this might play out.
Attractions and things to do in a city are noted on a map, but once a user clicks on an item the pop-out boxes are starting to contain a lot more than just a name and link.
The primary route out is to the – you guessed it – respective Local or Places page. Some of the Zagat/Frommer’s content is also being piped into these boxes.
Throwing in the other angle, Google Plus pages for some points of interest, sheds further light on the strategy as the interactive element kicks in, where Google presumably hopes a growing community of users will start adding comments, pictures and reviews.
The fledgling social network (continually up against Facebook) will almost certainly find itself with new users if they are automatically directed to these pages.
It is worth remembering, therefore, if these two acquisitions (Frommer’s and Zagat) had not taken place, Google would be relying on content from elsewhere around the web. Now, handily, it just feeds in its own supply.
Similar to its initiatives around flights and hotels, control is everything.
Keep the user on its own pages, throw in its own content or sourced product, tighten the overall experience – in other (more blatant) words, why let users mess about elsewhere on the web if we can do it for them.
It is seeing how this is now playing out that the Frommer’s acquisition was clearly just Google moving a pawn or two in its overall chess game to have dominant position in travel research and, through the meta products it has for flights and hotels, the ability to search for products.
And, lest everyone forgets, all these services and functions are available on mobile and tablet devices – as some argue, the natural home on the web for travellers in the future.
Where this all heads in the next phase is less clear to determine.
Given the obvious focus on places of interest and tourism-related services, throwing in some kind of metasearch-type tool for activities and things-to-do could be something Google is considering.
But tours and activities, despite its continued rise as a sector of the industry ripe for online and real-time booking, is fragmented and arguably trickier to coordinate (as Google has found with Flight Search).
But it is pretty likely to happen in some form or other – in fact, some believe it would be peculiar if it didn’t.
Many other pieces in the chess set are already in play: Flight Search, Hotel Finder, Places, Local, Maps, search, YouTube and Panoramio as user services (perhaps with some car rental, tours and activities at some point); PPC, SEO, metasearch and mobile advertising are the commercial disciplines for the industry.
The days of wondering how Google will handle the enormous need for travel information and services by users are over. It is by NO MEANS at all some form of checkmate for everyone else, but the chess match is certainly getting very competitive.
Kevin May is editor and a co-founder of Tnooz. He was previously editor of UK-based magazine Travolution for nearly four years and web editor of Media Week UK from 2003 to 2005.
He has also worked in regional newspapers (Essex Enquirer) and started his career in journalism at the Police Gazette at New Scotland Yard in London. He has a degree in criminology and a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism.