Is Google abusing its monopoly in search, or just trying to stay in the travel game?

With this week’s announcement of its acquisition of Frommer’s, Google continues to unabashedly move into the content game in travel.

On the heels of ITA Software providing content for air pricing and Zagat with restaurant ratings, Google is not remaining coy in its desires to build a travel powerhouse.

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.

Imagine Lonely Planet or Fodor’s trying to get traffic from Google search results when their primary competitor is now owned by Google?

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.

From Gogobot to JetPac, from Trippy to Facebook itself, it’s not clear pure web-search a la Google is the long-term win for travel research.

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.

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Evan Konwiser

About the Writer :: Evan Konwiser

Evan Konwiser is a contributor 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.



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  1. Clarence Middleton

    Just like ITA, this won’t impact us at all. Google is always trying to bite off more then it can chew, and will we handle this with no problem. We offer more in depth content then a few reviews.

    • ad smith

      I doubt this will be the case; the assertion of more content searching highlighting their own products will become more apparent as time goes on after the anti-trust regulators are no longer looking in their direction…google can’t be estimated, all one needs to do is look at their platform .. sure google + doesn’t have nearly the number of users facebook has but it does have 25 million and that was as of last year…this move has me worried in the sense they are looking to constantly show growth and more content providers being siphoned off is surely to come … they have:
      1. mail/voice/phone/search/flight search/travel content/android just to name a few … they won’t be stopping anytime soon

  2. Robert Gilmour

    It earned its monopoly in search, I’m sure it well knows what its doing, us mere mortals can criticise and blog/blag away till the cows come home it won’t make a whit of a difference. Google has been totally massive and imperial in the travel sector, a huge game changer over many years and hugely to the benefit of the travel industry, why people are always out to criticise and miscall/misrepresent it when they don’t know even a fraction of enough about it is totally beyond my understanding.

    Thanks Google keep up the great work commercially, you have never let the travel industry down.

    • Glenn Gruber

      @Robert, I don’t disagree that Google earned it’s ‘monopoly on search’. But it did so by objectively providing the best results to a given query and doing so very fast. I think Evan’s point is that if they continue to bias their results in favor of their own products, they stand to lose the trust of the consumer (those of them observant enough to notice), but can harm competitors.

      @Simon I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder I don’t think that creating content has to be part of improving search. It may improve stickiness of the Google brand and profits, but that’s a different story. But adding content does not necessarily result in success, as has been proved by AOL and Yahoo.

      • Robert Gilmour

        ‘continue to bias their results in favor of their own products’ – so what if it benefits the consumer.

        Perhaps instead of worrying about Google (commercial thro’ and thro’) – lets focus on the shambles commercially that is Facebook.

        • Glenn Gruber

          @Robert, not all Google products are superior to alternatives. So preferencing them isn’t necessarily better for the consumer. Especially when advertising is so pervasive on the search results that there is hardly any room for organic search results (10 organic results v. 11 ads on the page; and only 2 organic results above the fold v. 8 ads).

          Facebook may have monetization challenges, but I don’t see how that is relevant to the conversation at hand.

          • Robert Gilmour

            OK give me the alternative proposition?

            BTW Facebook has mountains to climb, not just monetisation challenges

            I have been a Google protagonist for 15 years, both as a hotel owner and as a consultant – you have said nothing to make me want to change my mind I’m afraid

            What’s so wrong with ‘advertising pervading search’

  3. Simon Hill

    The goal of “improving search” will inevitably take Google into content as they are forced to move upmarket by their need for growth, because much content, especially in the “guide” category, exists to help humans find what they want and make decisions, which is what search is becoming when you look beyond the narrow information retrieval sense. It’s not so much search as Q&A.

    If you want to know what happens when Google does this for a vertical, you need only look at MapQuest, which is limited to using organic SEO to attract users while Google ubiquitously promotes its maps product with top listings in multimedia formats, many of which are so informative it obviates the need to go to even their own map product.

  4. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Last week Steve (the live one) Wozniak came out about the dangers of the Cloud on the open web. There is a clear analogy and in my mind a bigger danger from Google acquiring content.

    What is clearly happening here is a trend to a two level internet. Having failed to enable this via technology – Google is engaging in a commercial set of constraints in creating a walled garden of premium content IF you drink the Google cool aid. Just as Facebook, Apple and Amazon have/are doing. These islands of content inside walled gardens create a bad state for open suppliers/content owners. Not to mention the difficulty that this creates for the consumer.

    Why do this? Because Google (and the other members of the AGFA Empires) must show revenue growth. The purity of the open web is no longer a desirable proposition now that The AGFA empires have dominance in a way that IBM, Microsoft, AoL and Nokia used to only dream about.

    The unfettered competition should be open and fine. But when you have the utility pipes and the content owned by the same company – then only one thing can come if it. Unfair competition.

    There should be a separation of church and state on this subject. Will the DoJ step in and do something about this? Last time Google was slapped on the wrist it was just over 2 mins worth of Google revenue for the last quarter!

    So think about that!


  5. brian harniman (@bharniman)

    Remember that with the ITA deal, Google acquired a neat little bit of faceted classification/categorization technology called Needlebase. Slap all the content into this system from Zagats and Frommers and then allow users to comment on it. All the technology from both of these companies is easily replaced with Needle. I don’t think that editorial assets stay at Google for the long term, but the bulk content they’ve got + their organic usage might be enough to get them to par with TripAdvisor and Yelp. Certainly interesting, though.

  6. AirBoss

    Just another example of “free-mium” — when the service is free, what is “for sale” is the user.

  7. Dave

    If one types a countries name into Google you get a nice little sidebar with quick snippets of info. Some content comes from Wikipedia. Other content comes from image search or the world bank.

    Frommers content would fit in really well there with verified content, images, and facts. This holds true when you currently drill down into a country using that side bar. Clicking it’s capital brings up a search on it. Likewise images.

    I would imagine flights, accommodation, restaurants will also fit in there too.

    There’s a lot of talk of Google raising the ire of antitrust investigators. If they stick with using Frommers content to help share knowledge and not direct google pages then I don’t see it as being an issue.

    At the moment Wikipedia get’s a lot of Google traffic as it’s a mammoth reference they link to quite offten. If Google moves into the area of supplying direct Google pages with that info then yes problems.

    If Google stays with being a content provider to others with Frommers media acquisition, flights etc then they are going to profit from this acquisition by supplying their direct competitors in search media content.


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