Where Google Travel is heading, according to one of its employees

Yesterday, Google announced an update to its Flight Search tool that lets users search for regions, like “Hawaii”—not merely airports.

You can now “search for countries, states, islands, and continents from any U.S. or Canadian origin,” says the company.

This flexible search option copies the innovation of the metasearch tool from Kayak called Explore.

Here’s a sample search of fares to Austria:

google flight explorer austria

This prompts us to ask: What is Google up to with its travel products?

It’s a question travel marketers rarely have time to ponder. But sometimes it helps to pause, take a breath, and think about what the “long game” might be.

Last week, James van Thiel, the industry leader for Google’s Netherlands Travel team, talked about integrating search with metasearch and other Google Travel development during a presentation and panel discussion at the Enter 2013 conference.

Speed is critical

Says van Thiel:

Consumers are becoming quite impatient. Thanks to the spread of broadband connections and 4G mobile data connections, consumers increasingly expect lightning-fast responses to all types of Internet interactions.

In 2011, the company introduced a generic search tool called “instant search,” where as you type your query Google auto-suggests search queries time.

That has been critical in maintaining usage of the site.

Google’s travel products are generally faster than those built by rivals. Says van Thiel:

As 4G expands on mobile, the trend will be accelerated, and companies that return results quickly will have an advantage.…

For Google Flights and Google Flights Explorer, the results feel virtually instantaneous.

Over time, more customers will find these fare-search products. When they do, they’ll adopt them because of their superior speed.

One implication of these comments is that if another travel company faces a choice between returning results that are the most quickly displayed and results that are the most accurate, they should opt for speed over accuracy if they want to compete with Google.

In short, it seems likely that Google will continue to prioritize speed-enhancing innovation in its travel products.

google travel james van thiel

Relevance is Google Travel’s other edge

“We’re moving to the predictive era,” van Thiel says. It’s not about keywords or static ads as much anymore.

The purpose of Google’s travel products is to spare consumer from having to visit the 22 different sites on average that they visit to before making a purchase.

Importantly, Google hopes to be able to charge advertisers more because the pay-per-click leads should be better qualified if the users are better informed and are further down the decision funnel before clicking through.

In the past year, Google has already made some notable changes to the user interface of Flight Search, including revamping the user interface to make it easier to compare complex itineraries, such as those including multiple stops.

In spring 2012, it added search capabilities for flights originating from the US or Canada to any international destination airport, and that capability will be further extended worldwide. Adds van Thiel:

We have added features that offer more information about amenities and fees.

We did this to help users feel well-informed, and to help them quickly choose the best itinerary by quickly seeing the total cost of a trip after baggage fees.

In 2012, we introduced an experimental feature called Flight Explorer, which is in beta in the US. It aims to give consumers a wider choice and help with inspiration.

For instance, you can now quickly compare multiple destinations and multiple days simultaneously, using live prices.

Say I live in Denver, and I want to go to Caribbean. Which island should I go to?

We want consumers to be able to make direct comparison over price between various destinations relevant from their point of departure and other factors.

We’re trying to get people higher up in the funnel, “I have $400 to spend, and I want to know what my options are” or I’m not yet settled on my travel dates.…

Google Analytics already allows some multi-funnel channel analysis, letting marketers see where interactions are happening.

We are working to improve that level of detail because what will work for a small company may not work for a mid-size company or one with a more complex campaign.…

Our advice is to make sure that your human resources budget for 2013 focuses on hiring online marketing people who have the skill to play with and understand data, meaning data for online and offline campaigns.

Your best hires in the next few years will be people skilled in using the data in attributing value to different efforts and people who can tell you what is influencing customers from the start of the funnel down to purchase and post-trip word of mouth.

You need to hire smartly to do better measurement of ROI.

What about hotels?

Google is also very much interested in hotels, as demonstrated by Google’s Hotel Finder, which rolled out in late 2012 to France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, UK, and Ireland.

In 2012 it also added rates and availability for a choice of room types.

An important part of  what we’re working on is automation for our hotel marketers, so Google will interpret and visualize your own data to help in decision making process.

Expect more data visualization, because it’s more intuitive for marketers to understand.

Hotels will have more information on a customer because of their behavior on the tool.…

Google is not going to be a booking platform but we want to provide transparency.

For marketers, it’s important to attribute marketing value across multiple channels. Don’t attribute your ROI just to what prompts the last click, because all of the momentum building across platforms plays a part.

Google Analytics will continue to improve in helping marketers do traffic measurement and interactive reporting along with social reporting via Google+ interactions.

Google+ is here to stay

For relevance, Google+ is the key, says van Thiel. Click-through rates on general search increase between 5% and 8%, depending on the product, if a site has had a “+1 (plus one)” from someone in their network.

Users have a greater propensity to click on what people they know have vouched for.

If I had fans of my brand, let’s say my hotel, I would absolutely encourage them to “plus-1” as many of my pages as possible for improved performance in the relevance of search.…

We consider Google+ to be a success. Google+ is the social spine of everything we do.

As the world is increasingly adopting social, we see the usage of Google+ is increasing at rates that exceed our projections.

If we can drop the moniker Plus in the future, the product will be truly proven as integrated into everything we do—and that’s our aspiration.

It’s okay to invest time and money in getting consumers to “click to find out more” than strictly “click to book,” says van Thiel.

In the US, Booking.com is having to brand, something they didn’t have to do while conquering Europe, because the US market is highly saturated and they need help improving the trust factor…

Speaking in general, for even small and mid-size companies, you have to do more pre-trip and post-trip interaction for building marketing momentum for your brand and getting customers to repeat a story with friends and family.

Popularity on Google+ could help brands like that reach those goals, too.…

In the meantime, van Thiel hinted that Google Flights is going to have a cool innovation coming soon, with the phrase “watch this space.”

It’s Google’s world, and we merely live in it.

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Sean O'Neill

About the Writer :: Sean O'Neill

Sean O’Neill had roles as a reporter and editor-in-chief at Tnooz between July 2012 and January 2017.



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  1. Glenn Gruber

    The part of the statements from Thiel that interest me most are the ones about Google+. I can imagine is that the +1’s help. Hitting +1 is easy enough and innocuous enough. And perhaps it’s helping conversion rates. But I’m not sure how many people are actually hitting +1. I don’t do it because I don’t actively participate in G+, so why share stuff.

    What that tells me is that Google still mostly cares about advertising rates and focusing on turning it’s users into its product and less on making Google+ a viable social networking platform where people actually engage and converse with each other.

    But that being said, I think that Google must have the bar set pretty low if they say that G+ is exceeding expectations.

    • Joe Buhler

      Google+ is now the number two social network with 343 million active users behind Facebook and followed by YouTube and then Twitter with 288 million. While these numbers alone are no threat to the big dog, the impact of + on Google search is another story and what they are focusing on. With the Google Authenticator becoming another factor in the game. It is indeed, watch this space.

      • Glenn Gruber

        Joe, what’s your definition of active? I think it would be really interesting to see a comparison of time on site or even number of posts across FB, G+ and Twitter. Something to actually quantify/measure actual engagement.

        • Joe Bühler

          Glenn, it’s not my definition but Google’s and I don’t know their criteria. I guess you can Google it 😉
          Seriously, it’s likely based on usage time per day/week/month, number of posts and comments. More important than the number seems to me is their integration of this social content with search. In an article I wrote that today it’s necessary for organizations to have a social presence on both the “closed web” of Facebook whose content can’t be searched by outside searche engines and on the “open web” with Google+ and Twitter.

        • Dennis Schaal


          The statistic of “active” is defined as “Used or contributed to in the past month”
          it comes not from Google but from this report last week:
          Make of it what you will.

          • Glenn Gruber

            Sean, thanks for the link. It makes me feel even more that “active” is really more a measure of how many people hit a +1 button as opposed to going to their Google+ page and seeing what others are doing/saying and reacting to comments. But I don’t think Google cares. They just want the data to influence search results and consequently increase ad rates. Whether or not a dialogue occurs is out of scope for them, IMHO.

    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      Thanks for your great comment, Glenn.

      I agree that Google must have the bar set pretty low if they say that G+ is exceeding expectations.


      1) G+ seems like a good fall-back plan. With the volume of information expanding at an exponential rate, some people may want to start having the additional filter of socially-approved content as a sorting tool. They can get the system in place and then, in a year or two, buy Twitter and integrate its data or wait for Facebook to collapse from its own internal contradictions or fickle consumer whim.

      2) Brad Feld has commented on the “brilliant long game” of G+. His thoughts are provocative.

      3) US adoption by consumers has been slow, but in Europe — where Google has more market dominance than in the US — there has been more uptake.

      In Sweden in 2012, KuoniKuoni Group’s local brand, Apollo, launched a multi-platform campaign, creating a mascot for the brand in the guise of a Bruno-like, Apollo-the-Greek-god character.

      It’s marketing director says that Google “plus ones” and Facebook “likes” were equal in value, and the lesson Apollo drew was not to ignore Google+.

      So… “watch this space” does seem appropriate here.
      But I still agree with you…G+ hasn’t been a sensational hit the other Google products have been.


  2. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Google continues to gloss over the speed issue (page results). And this is where we are ALL (having and) going to have a big problem. Let’s be REALLY clear. Travel is usually (mostly, not all) a constructed product. Therefore dynamic pricing and page speed are total opposites. The airline world is going further into dynamic personalized offers. The hotel world is so confused that almost any price is fine. However there is no (zero, nada, zip) accountability for inaccurate results.

    The “oops sorry sold out” is a blatant lie. The correct statement is “I have guessed at this price based on some funky algorithm from a company I don’t control. The actual price is different and you just have to live with this new price because actually it is the correct one (for now)”. And we wonder why the consumer has little trust in Travel websites???

    So we get the crap results we deserve and many players miss out. Many air websites deliberately put out inaccurate air based prices because they can and have to. The consumer has been trained (monkey see monkey do) that the results page is accurate and that therefore he needs to only look there.

    End state crap on crap.

    Google is doing its utmost to perpetuate that situation and for this they should be spanked. But since Google doesn’t care nor need to care it persists.

    Sad state of affairs. Will anyone do anything about it? Naaah!


    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      I should probably copy-and-paste your comment and share it with all my family members who have been frustrated by travel search. Thanks for the clear, authoritative comment.

  3. Dave

    Interesting article.

    I’ve slowly been watching G Search’s right hand side panel (and to an extent a top bar every now and then) grow with relevant G+ material. Wikipedia is there, for now.

    I also notice nearly every single encyclopedic travel sight from big to minuscule has a G+ label. Some are not filled up yet, but the offer is there if you want to. Perhaps a Frommers writer never covered it.

    While speed has it’s place, I do think people still want a bargain or the best price. Certainly if Google can offer up that information in tandem on the drop of a search there will be some early graves dug elsewhere.

    As for G+ staying the course? No doubt. Though I don’t see a Facebook like revolution. What I do see are circles being easy to connect up very specific people with ease. That’s useful. However I generally only see content producers on G+, I’ve yet to see a great number of everyday people make use of it. In order for G+ to have true search influence I think there needs to be more everyday people making use of it. I also see an inkling of spammers finally getting to promote their business

    Finally, in terms of Google dominating the travel sector I only see this happening if you buy into the Google world. It suits some people, but not others. Google’s a service, some people use it and enjoy it, others stay clear. What path travel business take is up to them!

    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      Thanks, Dave, for the insightful comment.

      US adoption by consumers has been slow, but in Europe — where Google has more market dominance than in the US — there has been more uptake.

      In Sweden in 2012, KuoniKuoni Group’s local brand, Apollo, launched a multi-platform campaign, creating a mascot for the brand in the guise of a Bruno-like, Apollo-the-Greek-god character.

      It’s marketing director says that Google “plus ones” and Facebook “likes” were equal in value, and the lesson Apollo drew was not to ignore Google+.


  4. Ankit bhargava

    Google hotel finder is a real threat to trip advisor”s check price referral traffic. This referral traffic seems to be successfully working and driving a better ROI. However goog has a long way to go to build a more meaningful content within hotel finder space. Presently it’s wide open for experiments.

    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that there is a great potential here, but much depends on what Google does next.

  5. Madhu Nair

    I had been resisting Google+ (did not want to be bothered with yet another medium). But for my travel blog / site I feel that it is now increasingly important for me to be active on Google+ since Google Search is the main channel for visitors to my website.

    “It’s Google’s world, and we merely live in it. ”

    Very well said – they have become so powerful that soon they will be controlling pretty much everything.

  6. Nuit d'un Jour

    Thanks to help us see the way ahead. It is getting more and more difficult to find our way for commissions/adwords free bookings. Feels like a dead end, sometimes.


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