Googling for an answer: What’s behind the Room 77 deal?
In a move that surprised more than a few, Google recently licensed booking technology from Room 77 to “remake its search experience for hotels to look more like travel sites such as Priceline & Expedia”.
This was how the WSJ portrayed it, with no fewer than two additional pieces from the media outlet hailing the move as “bold” and “risky”.
Based on that kind of press, you’d think Google had just entered the hotel business for the first time. Except, of course, it’s had a competing product for a few years now.
That leads to the question: What exactly did Google buy that it didn’t have already?
After a thorough exploration of both Room 77’s public site and Google Hotel Finder, it’s pretty easy to conclude “not much”.
Let’s take a look in detail and score each site:
User interface/Search experience:
Since the WSJ touched on it, I’m going to tackle this one first. I’d classify both interfaces as being – at best – adequate, and certainly nothing revolutionary.
While Room 77’s is more visual, Google’s approach to most of its travel products is very search centric. Reason for a licensing deal? Nope.
A fair amount of speculation around this deal centered around Room 77’s aggregation technology as well as its ability to display AAA and Government rates, something other OTA’s (and Google) haven’t featured on their sites.
But, aside from the aforementioned AAA rates, some basic searches on Room 77 returned less than stellar results compared to Google.
For example, let’s take a look at the first Room 77 result in the image below, The Mosser hotel.
Clicking the “Get Deal” icon through to Booking.com results in a slight price discrepancy: the $109 rate touted by Room 77 is a dollar off.
(NB: UPDATE – Room77 advised us this was due to a rounding issue)
Not a big deal, but certainly not indicative of revolutionary tech. Let’s take a look at Google:
Occasional price discrepancies aside, can Room 77 technology help Google customers actually find a better deal? A deep look suggests that, unless you’re a AAA member, the answer appears no.
A search for a one night stay in the San Francisco area resulted in over 500 results on both sites, and the only cheaper rates listed on Room 77 were AAA rates.
Can Room 77 help Google with more supply? Broadly, it’s difficult to believe this as well. Much like in other travel verticals, when Google makes a call, people tend to pick up the phone.
As for implementation help, well, Google’s nearly 20,000 engineers surely could figure that one out as well.
As discussed above, AAA and government rates are not currently shown inside Hotel Finder, and getting access to those rates likely took a bit of work. Score one for Room 77.
Before it was even a meta player, Room 77’s unique value was in its virtual reality-style room views.
But, as demonstrated by its own shift to meta, Room 77 undoubtedly learned that this feature alone wasn’t going to draw a significant amount of travelers to use the site as their primary booking tool.
Like Kayak, Room 77 experimented with a couple of ways to take booking directly. This is still visible on the Room 77 site today, especially when you look at higher end hotels.
Is Google interested in getting closer to handling the booking? Extremely doubtful.
Even a Google-branded booking form would necessitate providing end-user customer service, something which Google is (1) not great at and (2) unlikely to want to attempt.
Relatedly, what about Room 77’s oft-talked-about Room Concierge product? Again, extremely doubtful Google would want to attempt this kind of high-touch service. Differentiator for a startup to attract new customers? Yes. Necessary for someone with the reach of Google? Absolutely not.
Room 77’s mobile app could be considered one of the smoothest apps out there when it comes to actually booking a room. Not quite HotelTonight efficient, but close. Could Google be looking into ramping up its efforts in that area?
Doubtful. The smoothest booking experience can only be provided by booking direct, and, as discussed above, going direct is something Google is likely to shy away from.
Further, Google already has a wildly popular app that can handle hotel bookings: The Google Maps app. If that wasn’t enough, Google Hotel Finder on Mobile is also available.
To sum up: Publicly, there aren’t any obvious clues as to what Google saw in Room 77. Was there perhaps something behind the scenes? Let’s explore some ideas:
BEHIND THE SCENES
Did Room 77 have any un-launched technology that Google saw value in? With tens of millions in funding, it’s possible Room 77 had some unlaunched, under-the-cover features in the development that could change the way people shop for hotels. So it’s a possible scenario.
Engineering and talent:
A much more likely scenario, however, is that Google simply wanted to pick up a great engineering team that had spent years “in the weeds” building hotel connectivity technology.
Further, there’s history: Room 77 CTO Calvin Yang used to work at Google, and will be re-joining them with this deal.
Could Room 77’s technology help hotels with easier connectivity into the Google Hotel Finder platform? Some reports have suggested that the deal could help Google move towards a similar model as TripAdvisor’s TripConnect program.
But aside from engineering expertise and perhaps a quicker path to market, this seems an unlikely scenario. As above, Google simply has too many resources to not engineer a solution like this in-house.
THE BIG PICTURE
Looking at the bigger picture, does the move represent another step in Google’s plans to become a major player in the metasearch game?
As I wrote nearly a year ago, Google is slowly, but very surely, working to ensure that all its frequently used products — Gmail, Google Maps, Search — contain deeply integrated travel components.
This move doesn’t explicitly move it any further in that direction, but the signalling is pretty clear: Google is continuing down the path of becoming the best way to search for travel across any channel.
Could it soon become so “meta” that it starts stealing the entire search experience away from major online travel agencies, leaving them to only serve results pages?
Time will tell.
Alex Kremer is co-founder and head of product at Actourex, an electronic ticketing platform serving the tours & activities industry. He was previously Senior Vice President of Partnerships at Nor1, a leading hospitality merchandising provider. He joined Nor1 after it acquired Flextrip, a B2B tours & activities distribution network he co-founded. Alex is a 15-year veteran of technology startup companies, previously co-founding Cruvee, a business intelligence company for the wine industry where he led Business Development. Prior to that, he co-founded FanAxis, one of the world's first fan club management and merchandising firms in the music and entertainment industries. Alex is based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter at axk.