Google Flight Search one year on – no wonder rivals can sleep safely in their beds at night

When the CEO of Kayak told CNBC recently that Google Flight Search was “an inferior product” to his own service, some might have considered it typical Steve Hafner posturing.

He went on to claim that the launch of GFS (arriving, finally in September 2011, after the Department of Justice gave Google the thumbs-up to buy ITA Software for $700 million earlier that year) was not having “any impact” on Kayak, the market leader in the US.

It was difficult for Hafner to not be smug given that Kayak was one of the founding members of the anti-Google lobbying group FairSearch, launched in aftermath of the initial announcement that ITA Software (which supplies flight shopping technology to Kayak and others) would be joining the Mountain View-based search giant.

But, perhaps more than just basking in the glory of (also finally) getting the Kayak IPO behind it, Hafner is clearly speaking from a position of massive dominance.

Data obtained from Experian Hitwise illustrates that GFS is still languishing behind not only Kayak but a string of other flight search providers in the US.

Six months following its launch, GFS stood in seventh position in the list of leading metasearch sites in the country, with a 1% share. Kayak, the leader of the pack, had just over a majority with 52.6% market share.

Fast forward another six months to September this year, as GFS celebrated one year in the marketplace, things have improved but only marginally so.

RankWebsiteDomainPercentage of Visits Sept 2012Percentage of Visits - January 2012
10Mobissimo Travelwww.mobissimo.com0.25%0.17%

A nominal gain of 0.40% to its market share (or, as marketers might say, almost doubling of its previous tally) still puts GFS in seventh spot, but clearly Kayak has no suffered as a result.

In fact, Kayak has soared over the same period to the extent that it now almost commands a massive two-thirds of the category.

So who has suffered as a result of Kayak’s surge in its share of traffic? The most obvious victim is Bing, slumping by 13% over the eight months between the two sets of data.

Now there are those that dispute the figures – and have done so previously and privately – because they do not take into account mobile searches.

But given that Kayak has a strong presence also on devices (apps and mobile web), perhaps those remaining nine amongst the ten might actually be even worse off.

There are still lots of question marks around Google’s strategy around taking GFS to a global scale (lest we forget, vice president for travel at ITA Software by Google, Jeremy Wertheimer, claimed in November last year that an international roll-out of GFS was “coming soon”).

But the same could be said for Kayak, which has yet to set the world on fire outside of the US despite TV campaigns and struggles, in the UK for example, against the likes of Skyscanner, Cheapflights and Travelsupermarket.

The lesson, if any, is that first-mover advantage in flight search is as massive a consideration (perhaps even more than) as brand and marketing.

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Kevin May

About the Writer :: Kevin May

Kevin May was a co-founder and member of the editorial team from September 2009 to June 2017.



  1. El Kaim William

    For me Google Flight Search is not yet a product, like Google flight explorer (, but an experiment. I think they are still looking for a great (and global) business model. Google not only invent product, they also innovate in business models.

    I do think that 1% is pretty huge for such a simple web site.

    You could also remark that Google is not spending as much money as Kayak on advertising for its travel sites … It seems to me also that the Google Hotel Finder is much more popular to B2C users (at least in Europe).

    I always thought that Google will bet first on Mobile and Google+ for it new travel product & services. Google Now, and Google Glass will be heavy data consumer in the future … Information will be targeted and in context (could be geographical, social, or time based).

    When Google will be ready to launch products, then everybody will know about… For now, they do experiments.

    PS: This post presents my own opinion and not the one of my company.

  2. Johann Thorsson (for

    An interesting thing missing from this analysis is that the searches made on Google using the word “flights” is decreasing year-by-year. Since Google plans to leech traffic from those searching using that particular word it should be a source of worry (graph here: ).

  3. mobileguy

    Presenting these numbers without comparison to the general OTAs doesn’t put the numbers in much context. There is no obvious definition of what 100% in that table means.

  4. Thomas Allier

    Kayak has a fair and deserved dominance on the US market, consequence of a good and well marketed product.

    What google does is simply outrageous, penalizing in their organic algorithm everything that looks like a meta search engine, in order to position Google Product Search and now Google Flight Search.

    It’s a clear abuse of dominant position. Google is basically imposing its products on the consumers and in the long term, everyone (but them of course) will be losing :
    – the consumers that won’t see the option to use a better product anymore.
    – the advertisers that will have to pay whatever Google tell them to.

    So right now, they have this 1,4% marketshare. But tomorrow?

  5. Steve Sherlock

    even if/when GFS has the widest array of flight options – Kayak’s brand positioning in so many peoples minds might not be so easy to dislodge.

    be interesting to know what revenue per visit is the benchmark. I’d say GFS will be pretty good at that part of the puzzle.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @steve – thanks for the comment.

      kayak is strong in the US, but elsewhere?

      perhaps that, long term, will be the key for GFS – muscle in where there isn’t a strong competitor (will struggle against the likes of Skyscanner, which is seemingly going from strength to strength in many markets).

      but, yes, GFS will probably be pretty good at the metrics side of thing. It, after all, didn’t pay $700 million for a company to give it 1.4% share in the US.

  6. Suhail

    Just tried GFS. No outbound flights outside of the USA are currently supported – logically this must be the main reason for lack of market share within Travel Search. Google haven’t even started running at a canter yet…..Metasearch engines still need to be very wary.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @suhail – yes, as we said in the piece, still waiting for intl flights. Domestic market only so big, but the advantage Kayak and others have over GFS is the ability to give a wider array of flight options.

  7. Eric

    I know that Google won’t let us down! I am sure once they wrap their hands around Flight search, Hotel Search and then sprinkle the City Tour feature backed with their Frommer’s guide you will have a formidable travel portal that will rival anything on the web.

  8. Steve

    The problem with making any type of supposition based on Hitwise data is that there is no concept of the quality of a visitor… Kayak do attract a lot of 1-hit-wonders due to their strategies with search mktg.

    GFS is certainly not getting the traction it could have, but a lot of that is down to the decisions G has made with respect to how they integrated it and advertise it. It’s not very visible and the content isn’t that good yet. That says to me they just don’t have a focus on it, which is likely also to do with the various legal issues about how they market their own products. Anyone who expected G to go all out on promoting and pushing GFS so soon after launch is dreaming, they are in it for the long game and have to play it slowly. Had they gone all out from a promotion and product point of view the rest of the sector would have been screaming competition commission quicker than you can say….

    The real story in the table above (for me) is the lack of growth Hipmunk has seen in nine month. Given the massive VC injections I’d be getting pretty nervous if I was in their senior team.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @steve – thx for the comment…

      Do you have any evidence of the one-hit-wonders you mention? interesting analysis.

      Nothing to say re Hipmunk, only that maybe it will comment here. I’ll ask them to.


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