Google’s travel plans slowly becoming clear

We're famous find us on Google Maps StickerIt was just over a month ago I wrote that I was surprised to learn that Google was not keeping pace with the “big three” in travel metasearch (TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Priceline). There has been a lot of criticism regarding Google’s low traction in the travel arena. Google Hotel Finder and Google Flight Search have been operational for quite some time now, but their market share in the world of online travel is still marginal.

Google not in a hurry?

Ironically, it doesn’t seem that Google is in a hurry to penetrate the travel vertical. It looks like they are using the same strategy as they do for Google+. At least, I find myself logging in to Google+ more and more as they are slowly connecting all the dots in making Google+ the backbone for all of their services (Calendar, YouTube, Picasa). I think the new Google Maps will be the backbone for travel related searches.

Google Maps a starting point for travel bookings

Google probably didn’t even listen to all the critics on the low traction of their travel products. In the meantime the guys in Mountain View have only been busy rebuilding Google Maps from “the ground up,” focusing on design and interaction directly within the map. Google maps receives around 17 million visitors, across all devices each month. This could soon be the new starting point for a lot of travel bookings. For example, if you are looking for the fastest way to get somewhere, Google Maps now also shows you your cheapest flight options.

Google Maps Flight Search integration

This is just a start and it’s only a matter of time before they integrate Google Hotel Finder. Don’t be surprised that your results are to be tailored to meet your travel needs, based on your search behavior or your preferences and those of other people in you Google+ network.

Why will it work this time?

Google Maps could be the next game changer in travel. Why? First of all metasearch isn’t mainstream yet. Although metasearch is clearly on the rise the majority of the crowd still have to be introduced to the concept. Google Maps can act as a great catalyst for this. Second, when Google Maps integrates results of Google Hotel Finder you really don’t need to look any further to plan your trip. Find more good reasons why the introduction of metasearch in Google Maps is such a big deal on Tim Peter’s blog, a reaction to this post on Tnooz.

Google Hotel Finder Barcelona screenshot

Hotels with a Google+ Local account are already displayed on the new Google Maps, including review scores of Zagat and Google+ reviews. Every hotel that wants to profit from traffic from the visitors Google Maps can potentially lead to your website, should make sure the content on their Google+ Local page is as complete as possible. Especially after Google’s other introduction of last month…

Knowledge Graph Carousel

Besides the new Google Maps, Google launched another service called the Knowledge Graph Carousel. This carousel enhances your  search results for hotels, restaurants or other local places. Above the organic search, it will show a carousel with images of local search results having user-generated ratings. Clicking on an image shows more information like the address, photos and user reviews. By zooming in and out of the map, you can change the geographic area of your search results, and also dynamically update the carousel.

Google Knowledge Graph Carousel local

Google carousel vs organic search results

The prominent location of the Knowledge Graph Carousel makes the organic search results for hotels less and less important. Hotels will finally get some power back from the OTAs that have dominated page 1 search results. At the same time however, Google+ ratings for hotels will play a bigger role in their visibility in search results.

Because of the emphasis on imagery in the carousel, it is very important that hotels carefully choose the images to upload on Google+. It seems that the images can be taken from any image on the hotel’s Google+ Local page, not necessarily the profile picture.

Also, Google seems to direct more and more traffic back to its own products (Google+ Local Pages, Hotel Finder etc.) rather than external web pages. There’s a very nice analysis of these developments on this blog. The strong integration of Google’s products seem to make it plausible that the results in the carousel are, again, adapted per user.

Is Google going to win the travel metasearch battle?

The question is if they want to win this battle. Besides competitors in the metasearch space, the “big three” in this field are also Google’s biggest advertisers. Personally, I think that the online travel market is big enough for a few of these big players. And where TripAdvisor has a strong integration with Facebook Google has their own Google+ network with data to personalize your experience. Expedia seems to be the only one lacking the possibility to personalize results and for their traffic they are very dependent on Google. Especially since Google is directing more and more traffic to their own products and services it might be about time for Expedia to rethink their strategy.

What is very clear for hotels is that now is the time to start enhancing their Google+ profile and Google+ Local listings. Those who get their act together on this platform will should reap the benefits Google’s new features.

Image (cc): Guillaume Capron

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