There’s no doubt that Google is a phenomenon already shaping the future of every part of life in the internet age. The technology giant’s overarching vision is to “structure and make available all the data in the world” – and that definitely includes the distribution of travel. Bruce Piper investigates.
Google. It’s a word which started out as a very big number (1 followed by 100 zeroes), became a company (currently worth about $850 billion) and is now a verb (because everyone seems to be “googling” things all day every day). Google is everywhere around us — and because travel is big, the search engine giant sees it as a key sector too. In most Western markets, a vacation is the largest discretionary purchase made by many consumers each year. The wealth of travel information on the web, combined with the ease and convenience of the smartphone, has seen Google concentrate its efforts on developing solutions for all of the four key phases of the travel cycle — Dream, Plan, Book and Experience.
Dream – “I want to know”
In the key markets of Europe, the UK and the USA — not to mention Australia — users are glued to their mobile devices, and a lot of the time we seem to be researching our next trip. According to a recent presentation by Javier Delgado, head of Google travel in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the “vast majority” of users are looking to plan future trips at least once every month. Many are terrified of making the wrong decision — choosing the wrong hotel, going to an inappropriate destination or paying too much for their trip — in fact Delgado noted that in many cases there was more anxiety about planning a forthcoming trip than the selection of a mortgage, despite a home loan having a much longer term impact. Mobile visits to travel websites are increasing month-on-month, but the time on each site is decreasing, indicating that users are taking “snacks” of data as they research their next holiday. 2015 research indicated users were visiting 38 sites on average before making a booking — and given the proliferation of mobiles and always-on connectivity that figure will have only increased since then.
All that information can get very confusing — so to make things easier Google has created Google Destinations, which uses artificial intelligence to detect when a user is in this Dreaming phase of their planning and presents data in a different, more digestible way. For example, if a user searches Google for “Colorado skiing,” rather than simply a list of snow resorts, the search results include a pictorial display of options including Colorado destinations, an overview of the US state and even a curated travel guide listing the top sights and attractions.
Google Destinations also leverages different sources of information to offer users options depending on their budget, flying time, preferences and previous travel patterns. “We want to serve data in a structured way that helps make better decisions,” Delgado said. Other parts of the Google offering that can also help inspire travellers in the dreaming stage include the massive YouTube video platform, allowing suppliers to showcase their offerings in video format.
Plan – “I want to go”
As a prospective traveller’s plans crystalise, Google’s offering helps them refine their choices when they further research their chosen destinations. While not normally seen as part of the online travel ecosystem, a key part of this process is Google Maps which has amazingly covered the globe with detailed information allowing people to get around. It is now possible to find out exactly where particular hotels and airports are located – and, incredibly, to even see what they look like using Google Street View. Street View also provides an in-depth experience of attractions such as the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru and the Roman Colosseum through partnerships which have seen these iconic destinations documented in detail using Google technology.
Google’s input into the planning phase of travel now includes Google Flights, which recently launched in Australia and New Zealand. Built on the foundation of airfare search and pricing service ITA software, purchased by Google in 2010, Google Flights presents the results of a flight-related search in an innovative way, rather than just providing links to airline websites. A user can simply search for “flights from Melbourne to Singapore” to be presented with a comprehensive schedule of available services, including timing and pricing. The results can be filtered by travel time, stops and particular airlines can be eliminated from the search. Previously this type of functionality was only provided directly by some OTAs, who will surely be seeing an impact on their traffic from the new Google feature.
Google Hotels is also part of the arsenal, presenting the results of a hotel search in graphical format with a map showing hotel locations and prices, and allowing users to directly select their dates of stay, hotel class, rating, number of guests and amenities. This interface works directly with Google Hotel Ads, a product heavily utilised by accommodation providers and OTAs. While Google won’t confirm any financial information, a number of sources speculate that large online travel agencies such as Priceline/Booking.com and Expedia are spending billions of dollars a year with Google on Hotel Ads, with the ability for users to simply click through from the search interface to confirm a booking.
Book – “I want to book”
When it comes to making the transaction, Google aims to be right there when the decision is made. The company wants to connect with users in so-called “micro-moments” which bring together “context, intent and immediacy”. This philosophy has seen a shift in strategy, with the previously launched Google Hotel Finder product dismantled about twelve months ago. Rather than having a dedicated site where users can compare accommodation pricing, Google now aims to leverage the context of a search — based on maps, previous search patterns, Gmail data and more — to serve inventory and pricing to users at the moment that most matters to them.
That applies to both Flights and Hotels — with a key factor being the ability to click through from results to actually make a booking. Google insists it has no plans to become an online travel agent (OTA) in its own right — but rather aims to “bring the demand closer to the supply” and then allow the transaction to occur in the hotel or airline space.
However, the line is getting somewhat blurred, with the company also offering the new Book on Google functionality in the US and UK. This system aims to simplify the often complex process of completing a transaction on a mobile device. Rather than having to enter a complex credit card number on a small screen, Book on Google stores a user’s credentials in their Google Wallet, allowing them to simply enter the three- or four-digit CCV number during the process. Google then securely transfers the credit card information and customer data to the supplier, which processes it as the merchant of record. In terms of a local roll-out, Google’s head of business development, travel for the Asia-Pacific region, Eugenie Lam, told travelBulletin “we have no plans to expand Book on Google to Australia and New Zealand at this time”.
While rooms and flights are currently the key parts of Google’s travel offering, the vision is certainly not limited. Asked about car hire, cruising, touring and activities, Lam said Google’s goal is “to display the best information possible for travellers throughout their travel journey, and this includes in-trip experiences. We look forward to working with partners in all verticals, but have nothing to share right now”. Interestingly, dynamic packaging is also clearly in Google’s sights, with combined flight and hotel offerings currently being served up in search results in the UK and Germany — two markets where the package holiday is a popular way to take a break.
Experience – “I want to do”
The final piece of the puzzle comes when a user is actually on their holiday — and this is where the innovative Google Trips app comes in. With a host of functionality, Google Trips provides in-depth destination information including offline maps, suggested activities, places to eat and much more. Users who link Google Trips to their email account get a wealth of context-sensitive information, with the app automatically collating reservations for flights and hotels into a list of upcoming travel itineraries. There’s no need to forward emails to an itinerary manager or load in travel plans — Google Trips just gathers the details automatically behind the scenes and simply pops up with upcoming itineraries in a manner that seems almost supernatural.
Another key part of the travel experience is the photos we take while on holiday, and Google Photos has that wrapped up too. Providing unlimited free storage in the cloud, Google Photos also forms part of the travel ecosystem — and completes the circle back to the ‘Dreaming’ phase so users are inspired once again to enjoy a travel experience when they return. Google Photos offers incredible search capabilities — for example, you can simply ask it to find photos in your library where your brother was wearing a red jumper at the snow two years ago, and it automatically pops up with the appropriate pics.
Google Trips provides the ability to download all of the information about a destination so it’s available even without a wi-fi connection, and even offers ‘day plans’ with suggested itineraries to make the most of your holiday. In-destination content, such as where to eat and what to do, is collated and produced automatically by Google, based on website content and data sources such as the Zagat restaurant review service – bought by the company in 2011 — and information from the famous Frommers travel guides, also purchased by Google, which licensed all of its content before then selling the name back to its eponymous founder.
How can you make the most of it?
The power and pervasiveness of Google means that travel and tourism providers will clearly benefit by understanding where they fit into the company’s ecosystem. Rather than fearing the rise of technology, the travel and tourism industry should embrace the huge array of technology offered by Google for the value, power and opportunities it offers.
Lam noted that Google is constantly working to make it easy for travel and tourism partners to provide content to Google. As well as uploading video content to YouTube, travel websites can use Google technologies such as AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) to ensure their content loads rapidly when clicked in the search results page. There’s also Progressive Web Apps (PWA) which offer users an immersive, responsive full screen experience for mobile users regardless of the network conditions. At the very least, business owners should upload their information and photos to Google My Business, to ensure users are seeing the most up-to-date, relevant information on Google Search and Maps, she added.
Like it or not, the future is online and largely mobile — so make sure you have a good website, allowing easy interaction via “click-to-call” and encourage user-generated content — which hopefully reflects the excellent products and services your travel or tourism business offers.
What’s coming next?
There’s no doubt that Google is continuing to develop travel-related products across a range of verticals, so look out for future developments in dynamic packaging, tours, cruising, car rental and activities — as well as a focus on providing accurate results when a user is searching for the best deal. Another key strategy for the company is to integrate artificial intelligence into everything it does. Lam told travelBulletin “there is a growing focus on anticipating user needs and we are taking that to the next level with the Google Assistant. You can ask the Assistant about flights to Thailand, things to do in Thailand or even refine a query by just asking about ‘events’.” All of these queries can be done in the old-fashioned way by typing them into a browser — but Google’s voice search capabilities are phenomenal too.
What does the future hold? Could it be that a Google app becomes a virtual travel agent? Possibly. But it may also be the case that all of these technologies can provide great opportunities for people working in the travel industry — because they know how to ask Google the right questions.