530 days ago

Google and Frommers, six months on – never about brand or books, just look at the bigger picture

For some, Google‘s acquisition of Frommer’s in August last year triggered yet another sharp intake of breath that the Mountain View search company was wading further in on the travel sector.

Well, obviously.

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 The natives are restless, at least if you read some of the reviews on Amazon, with complaints about content being out of date and needing an update.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.

What’s next?

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

About the Writer :: Kevin May

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.



  1. RobertKCole

    What’s next? Two words: Knowledge Graph.

    Simply put, Google does not want to rely on TripAdvisor for reviews or Wikipedia for descriptions.

    See the Knowledge Graph in action:

    1) Search “JW Marriott Chicago” – The Google Knowledge Graph tile provides fairly complete information including the star rating, photos, a map, the phone number, Zagat reviews and booking capability through Google Hotel Finder – plus several similar hotels that people also searched.

    2) Search “Chicago Museums” – The Google Knowledge Carousel appears as a horizontal bar at the top of the page that provides semantically related searches (each with their own Google Knowledge Graph Card.) The Knowledge Graph tile area refers the user to three popular related searches – The Field Museum, The Chicago Museum Campus and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

    Very convenient – one spot to check out all the major Chicago museums.

    3) Select the Art Institute of Chicago from the Knowledge Carousel. Again Zagat reviews included. Fairly similar to the JW Marriott listing, but it also includes listings for specific artwork (thanks to the schema.org taxonomies…) It also includes “Latest Posts” with current/relevant blog content.

    4) Search “United Center” – Similar format with basic information & Zagat reviews, plus the related searches (other sports arenas, etc.), but note that upcoming events are also listed.

    5) Search “Chicago” – Even for a general City search, there are major events listed and points of interest that lead back to pages like the Art Institute.

    6) Search “Chicago Hotels” – Oh… sorry. seems a bit of a mess. Weirdly I see a stripped-down Omni Chicago Hotel tile with a map without and no detail below it – must be a test run amok. Regardless, one can imagine ample space exists for the Google Hotel Finder and photo/links including Google Hotel Finder pricing for most popular hotel searches. All that is missing is a little overview about the main areas for hotels – and that should be easily procured from Frommers content.

    One can see this approach applying to anything within the realm of Google+ Local (formally Places.)

    It’s very new & very early in the development of these semantic search applications, but Google, with curated ratings from known individuals through Zagat and professionally written reviews of destinations & travel related features (including hotels, restaurants, attractions, tours, itineraries, etc.) can provide an advanced level of validation that is far superior to crowd sourced reviews and links to blog posts.

    Potentially game changing relevance. Google can provide users with more useful & relevant information. Why go to the museum web site and click on 12 pages to find the hours or when a special exhibit is? Google can already post all that information on its main Knowledge Graph main tile.

    This did not happen by accident. Relevant semantic search content + authoritative validation from Zagat & Frommers content = potentially game changing search innovation.

    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      Love this answer, Mr. Cole. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Stuart McD

    Seemingly the books are as dead as the dead trees they were once printed on.

    So perhaps Google has only hastened the decision that many travel publishers need to face: the future for travel publishing is digital only.

    The more interesting Q is how/if the info gets updated. I imagine G will go the UGC road as it scales easily and has the same QC issues accross the board so lends itself to a conehead algorithmic solution.

    Keeping it to individual authors leaves an uneven product with talented authors like Jeremy above dishing out quality alongside other lesser characters. Most guidebook series tend to be uneven in quality because of this, and so think this is the less appealing option.

    Plus UGC is both free to G and easily brandable as “open” – a term, however hypocritically, G continues to brandish.

    Interesting times.

    • Jeremy Head

      Don’t agree with you about updating Stuart (and I wouldn’t being a writer who believes the masses are illiterate dolts and I am the only one who REALLY knows my city)

      Surely UGC is equally (more!) variable in its quality… and I dunno – you really think an algorithm will solve that problem? Maybe but I’m not sure…
      Google has a strategy for the author bit too – author-rel tag – I’m anticpating (hoping) that they roll this out big time in 2013.
      WHO the writer of your information is, is equally (if not more?) important as the information itself. No amount of fancy nerdy googlery will ever change that.

      • Stuart McD

        Yes for sure UGC is more variable, but there is a lot more of it to mingle and mangle with G-magic than a single author’s POV. Totally agree on WHO being important.

        If you’ve got an “expert-written” guide for a city then there is one set of reviews (voice) and not really anything else to gauge it against equally. You review the pizza joint in Rome, I’ll do the one in Venice etc. Regardless, you’ve one set of data. Obviously be all strive for the best – but the best for whom? I like lots of anchovies. You?

        With UGC you’ve potentially got a bazillion reviews on each of the two pizza joints. Sure some written by people who couldn’t tell a pizza from a piazza, but others from people so anal they probably temperature-check the crust on arrival — and that’s where Google’s goal or organising the most relevant reviews for the reader comes in to play. Different people look for different things in a pizza joint — you can only do every angle for every person with every thing with UGC.

        As Robert (I think) infers below — this isn’t necessarily about “quality content” at all, and the more I think about it, that’s why these guides won’t ever be updated again in a traditional manner — they’re just another batch of UGC that may get a bit of star-loading.


  3. Jeremy head

    I author the Frommer’s Day by day guide to Seville and Frommer’s Complete Andalucia. I’ve heard nothing whatsoever about recommissioning since the sale. I’ve asked my editor contact and been told they simply don’t know.
    Content has a sell by date. You have to keep it fresh or it becomes worthless quite quickly. Sure the cost was peanuts for a monster like Google – but if they don’t keep the content up to date it was a waste of money…
    I’m pretty hacked off when I see things like this about a guidebook I would LOVE to update… but can’t.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @jeremy – sorry to hear your woes and frustrations. Hopefully you will get some answers soon.

  4. Nick Vivion

    Nick Vivion

    One interesting area that doesn’t get enough attention is how the Frommer’s content will play into Google+ for Business. It’s not inconceivable that Google could roll a Zagat/Frommer’s/Places/Maps package together for businesses, allowing them to have featured listings across all the platforms, and to ensure that their businesses somehow come up before competitors in Search.

    Or perhaps pay for multimedia, such as a video, to pop up directly on hover when a user searches for “restaurants in New Orleans,” for example.

    There’s definitely something brewing, given that the overlap of these various Google services (Zagat, Frommer’s, Places, Maps) lies squarely in the local business realm. Perhaps a Yext-style update across all platforms could be included, allowing businesses to pay a monthly fee to have instant access to menu, photo, video and other content updates.

    It’s all very intriguing, no matter how you look at it!


  5. Oz Har Adir

    Kevin, It seems that the way Google uses the Zagat data is more diverse than you might think.
    For instance, the following location, gets a Zagat score of 19/30, which is ‘good to very good’, based on 37 reviews.

    Its an well-known East Asian location yet it only has 22 Google Plus followers.

    Google’s own definition of the location is: ‘Prison’. Which makes you think since when did prisons begin getting Zagat ratings?

    But its no ordinary prison, its the Yodok Gulag, a North Korean work camp.


  6. Pete Meyers

    Kevin – clearly you haven’t been thinking about this very critically. :)

    Excellent recap and heaps of food for thought. I think you’re spot on with the possibility that the commerce spotlight could turn to cars / tours, which is exciting for potential targets and terrifying for suppliers relying on SEO / SEM.

    Another point to consider: seems like the timing of both Zagat – and certainly Frommers – came shortly after Google recognized syndicating review content (being generous there) from 3rd parties like Yelp & TripAdvisor wasn’t going to work long term.

    Considering G can basically sneeze out the price of both acquisitions at any given moment, seems like this is a simple pill to avoid third party headaches.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @pete – thx for the comment.

      agree on the motivation re third party headaches.

      GOOG Q4 revs $14.22 billion. Frommers rumoured price $22-ish million. Petty cash.


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