Bye bye cookie: Expedia releases new innovations geared toward a post-Web future
The changing nature of the Web has been a hot topic in 2013. Namely, the evolution of Web-based interfaces alongside the growing consumer preference for mobile experiences without traditional cookie-based monitoring possibilities.
In addition to the rise of mobile, the cross-device future has clearly planted itself in the present, as consumers seek out brands that are able to provide seamless experiences regardless of device. That means that a search started on one device will port itself to another, allowing for instant uptake of that search no matter where a consumer does it.
At the annual partner event in Las Vegas, Expedia, Inc. shared more about how their portfolio of brands will be addressing these trends in 2014. While the following is focused more on brand Expedia, these insights nonetheless have applications and implications across their brands.
The cookie crumbles
The cookie has long been the way that companies tracked behavior on the Internet. By placing a small file on the user’s computer, websites glean specific information about that particular user’s patterns online. The rise of mobile has challenged this method, as cookies are not very effective, reliable or desirable in a mobile interface.
This means that digital advertisers and product managers have had to rethink the way that they engage mobile consumers – and thankfully, this has led to actual innovation as far as allowing consumers more choice and determination of their mobile futures. Brands must think about offering true value to their users, while also developing an opt-in interface that gives users control – and also increases engagement, as users are only opting in to information of personal interest.
Given these consumer preferences, Expedia is creating a codebase that performs as a singular platform across devices. Rather than having to code something up for each specific platform, the idea is that this codebase will perform regardless of platform.
This singular codebase concept means that the company can deliver supply irrespective of interface. And as the arrival of wearables like Google Glass introduce new interfaces, with their own advantages and limitations, this strategy allows the company to quickly deploy supply into emerging technologies, rather than having to re-engineer everything each time.
The company talks about this as “revolutionizing travel through the power of technology,” and the leader of this charge is Expedia’s SVP of Global Products John Kim.
On the low-end, you have devices like this [displays Samsung watch] where the screen resolution is even more important that you get it right. It’s very blocky, there’s limited space. As you can see, this is my next flight, so you can already see that we’re already optimizing for travel.
On the other end of the spectrum, the web browser is becoming even more powerful. So the experience on the Web are going to look more like apps, so the question is, how do you get your developers, instead of building 15 teams, that you build one team that builds one code base that can operate across all platforms.
So that’s a big item for us in 2014: efficiency and building really compelling front-end experiencecs that operate off any particular interface. None of those interfaces are the same, and the input modes are different and the presentation’s different, and what you showcase is different.
Scratchpad, a result of this post-cookie thinking
One result of the evolution of Expedia’s product thinking has been Scratchpad, a save-it-all repository of everything a user has searched on any device. As long as they’re logged in, their search history is saved.
This history can then be used to re-search as needed – say if the research phase has transitioned into the purchase phase. The user can also ask Expedia to send “notes,” which keep the user appraised of price changes, promotions and other important information related to previous searches.
Expedia’s John Kim:
The second thing you’ll see from us is that our focus is all about live data. Can we give you the live data you need at the time you need it. Simple innovations, in terms of Scratchpad, in terms of intinerary sharing, in terms of recommendations, that’s all about making data the product. And our recommendations technology is all about taking all of that data nd simplifying it for you. So if I just understand, just for one moment what you want, it makes our algorithm better every time you use it. And if we make our algorithm smarter every time you use it, then that’s your competitive advantage.
That’s what your product is. And then you don’t care what the interface is, because the interface will change on you to be better and simpler.
We’ve launched a number of those things this year, and next year it’s about tuning those things.
Scratchpad also ties into a new supplier-facing product, Expedia Partner Central, which encourages partners to offer special promotions targeted to different demographics. The idea being that a bit of opacity is always preferred by suppliers who want to target specific demographics with specific deals.
By rolling this out alongside a traveler-facing feature like Scratchpad, Expedia is also angling to boost conversions of these new promotion tools. A potential customer who had viewed a hotel with Scratchpad enabled would then, if they have “notes” selected, would get a notification that that hotel now had a special promotion. So now, the value proposition becomes more differentiated in the minds of consumers selecting OTAs – search once, and let Expedia do the rest.
The future of travel is most definitely down this path. Travelers don’t necessarily want to search a dozen sites once they are ready to purchase; this wide net is a satisfying part of the overall travel research experience, and will no doubt continue. But when a traveler wants to buy, having a record of their research has immense value if they’re also notified of price changes and promotions.
Machine learning brings better user experience through live data
Kim also speaks religiously about how data is the product that they are actually selling – a shift in thinking that surely comes from Kim’s position as the lead of the tech innovation product arm. Granted, traditional thinking is that supply is the product – travel companies upload inventory, and the OTA sells said inventory.
The company says it is “moving from a marketing channel to a living marketplace,” where the company can target travel in a living, breathing way.
However, if the company begins to aggregate available user behavior patterns to prioritize and personalize search results, thus resulting in higher conversions and more revenue for partners, the data becomes an essential component of the product being sold to suppliers.
This is an essential development, as OTAs have two customers – the traveler and the supplier paying commission for sales to travelers – they must iterate products that are wins all around.
Expedia’s VP of Media Solutions Noah Tratt puts it this way: “Test and learn is pretty much behind everything we do these days.”
One of the products launched in 2013 that the company will be iterating is the Flight Recommendations product.
Any given flight search can have hundreds of potential combinations, so the company is working to solve that equation by using the data gleaned from past patterns to deliver a more targeted set of search results to each user – and then allowing them to search according to different conventional categories, like price.
Expedia’s John Kim once again, on the transformative power of machine learning:
Instead of making more noise, we only send out the most relevant data so that the user is more likely to act on the data.
So Flight Recommendations will get better because we have machine learning technology behind it so that when the next user uses it, it improves. Scratchpad is all about collecting that data server side, and then presenting it to you when you give me permission. When you’re in shopping mode, you don’t want to come back to the website and shop every day. I should just push you what you find interesting. And you don’t even need to give it to me because the algorithms figure it out for you.
All regional information is implied. For example, I can tell with 85% certainty that if you search for hotels from Seattle I know the three destinations more than likely that you’re searching for: Portland, Vancouver, or within Seattle. 85% certainty on any given day. So why wouldn’t I use that to my advantage?
Of course, we use all of that information to our advantage to be able to present to you the simplest results that are highly predictive and anticipate your needs.
But then what we have to do is give ourselves room to be wrong. If for whatever reason we are wrong, we have to give four other ways to correct it. So you’ll see in our interface that we’ll keep changing and anticipate what we think is your next move. And even when you leave the site, how do we connect with you and give you the right thing – even later in the day.
Perhaps the most revealing statement from Expedia’s product guy is that these products are all geared towards a post-web future: “You have to think about the future of Expedia as having no website at all.”
NB: Author was a guest of Expedia, Inc for their annual partner event in Las Vegas.
NB2: Cookie image courtesy Shutterstock.
Nick Vivion is a writer and strategist. He was a Tnooz reporter and global events lead between August 2012 and July 2015. He was the launch co-founder of Booty's, a global street food restaurant in New Orleans and was recently AVP Operations, North America, at Zomato.