Is Google abusing its monopoly in search, or just trying to stay in the travel game?
But what are Google’s motivations in vertical integration?
While they are clearly finding ways to better monetize search results, they are also trying keep Google’s near monopoly on search in a world with more and more competition.
There are invariably two opposing viewpoints to these moves.
Thinking about the consumer
On one hand, Google can increasingly offer unparalleled user experience when researching in these areas.
For example, Google Flight search uses ITA technology to provide faster flight search, and deep integration with Zagat and Frommer’s means travel researchers have faster, easier, and simpler access to content that otherwise would require more clicks.
Similarly, Google has been treating Gmail as another content source, leveraging your inbox to provide a better search experience. All good for the consumer, right?
Thinking about itself
The opposing viewpoint is just as salient. By moving upstream, Google is turning its so-called monopoly in search to drive traffic to its own content at the expense of any non-Google property.
This not only spells trouble for any competitor who gets traffic from Google (eg. all of them), but also is potentially hazardous to users who expect unbiased search results (despite many studies suggesting Google has already strayed far from objectivity, the average person still expects it).
Double standards – does user experience trump openness?
A momentary deviation, but there is an interesting, if slightly awkward, parallel.
Ironically, the question around openness and access to content or technology has been debated for years between Google and Apple, with Google always being the proponent of open systems. One quick look at Android versus iOS tells the same Open versus UX story.
Android is the famously open mobile ecosystem while Apple’s iOS remains a tightly controlled walled garden. Google itself, along with many others, have struggled to take part in Apple’s boom because of this.
Yet when it comes to search, Google’s philosophy seems to be emerging aggressively in the other camp, doing to search what Apple has done to the smartphone since 2007 – making a walled garden of superior user experience at the expense of objectivity.
Should the travel community be worried?
After the acquisition of ITA Software, I argued there was no need for panic. So far, my prognostication rings true.
But I based that on the difficulty of flight search, the diversity in sources of traffic for most OTAs/metas, and the relatively small advantage that ITA provided beyond what other customers can get.
When it comes to destination content, some of those barriers do not exist. This latest deal does have the potential to harm the big review and content players in the travel space depending on how much traffic they depend on Google to deliver.
But even beyond traffic, one might also expect Google to invest in the web, mobile, and tablet products from Frommer’s, ramping up competition now that it can scale it with more traffic at will.
That is an even bigger concern that stems from any competitor who is more vertically integrated.
The good news is that just as Google buffs up on content, there are emerging real competitors for how we search and discover travel content.
As such, it behooves travel players to invest heavily in innovating in these emerging types of discovery to diversify away from pure search.
Google is taking a stand that search + content is a winner, but the slow adoption of Google Plus (eg. social) and lots of new alternatives might yet write a version of the future that makes today’s acquisition all but irrelevant.
Evan Konwiser is a contributing Node to Tnooz and currently the VP digital traveler at American Express Global Business Travel.
He was previously the co-founder of Lark Travel Group, Farely, and FlightCaster. He has spent the last six years working with travel start-ups and consulting on new technology and trends in the travel industry.
He started FlightCaster in 2009 to provide better tools for travelers using advanced technology.
After FlightCaster was acquired in 2010 by Next Jump, Evan managed Next Jump's travel distribution business, which includes employee discount programs for Fortune 500 companies.
Prior to FlightCaster, Evan was a consultant at Bain & Company and he also spent time at Kayak. He's an industry blogger and speaker on both consumer and corporate travel topics, a recipient of PhoCusWright's first ever Young Leadership Award and a two-time member of the critics circle for the Travel Innovation Summit.