Google: talking straight or skirting the issues?

Nigel Huddleston, Google’s UK Industry Head, Travel, attempts to set the record straight in an exclusive interview with Pamela Whitby

Whether you grudgingly or gleefully see the mighty Google as a friend, partner or adversary, if you want a fair chance at winning in the search giant’s casino then you need to be ready for the next spin.

In February this year, according to Comscore, Google controlled 67.5% of the US search market, and over 80% of the US mobile search market. The next most powerful engine was Microsoft Bing, somewhat further down the scale with just 18.4% market share. In an interview earlier this year, Microsoft’s director of search Microsoft’s director of search, Stefan Weitz,had to admit that, as a search engine per se, they cannot compete.

In recent weeks, with the announcement that Google had licensed Room 77’s software to push mobile bookings and more hotels signing up for Google products, a lot has been said about its steady encroachment of the travel industry.

This week we spoke to Nigel Huddleston, Google’s UK Industry Head, Travel, a title held by many Googlers around the world. While he could not comment on the rationale behind specific acquisitions and partnerships in the travel space, he did shed some light on what Google is aiming for - in the short-term at least. 

EFT: In the last few weeks Google has been quoted by various sources saying that its efforts in the travel space are meant to provide ‘more and more detailed information when people do searches’ for hotel bookings or tickets. Is that an accurate statement?

NH: Google has been in the travel space for a while in some way shape or form. Whether it’s through maps or through search, so yes, that quote is a fairly accurate one. Google’s mission statement is clear that what we are here to do is to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful to the end user. And if you look at everything Google does, it is very much underpinned by that principle. We know people come to Google because they are trying to find an answer, or get to the route of an issue. In travel they are looking for information to try to inform their holiday or make a decision. That can be a long and arduous process and we are trying to make it easier, faster and more straightforward to book [complete the transaction] say a package holiday, flight and so on. Our strategy is to move the user from intent to action as quickly as possible.

EFT: Action or transaction? What’s your goal?

NH: I can definitely say we have no plans to book hotels or flights. What we are doing is helping users to find the right person to book with. We move them all the way to the point of comfort and to their final decision and help them press the button to book with a third party, or one of our clients. People think we are actually transacting and booking the holidays, but in fact if you look carefully we are not doing that. That’s causing some confusion in the market place.

I can definitely say we have no plans to book hotels or flights

EFT: In interviews with various industry players, one criticism is Google’s ‘protectionist’ approach to its own data. Is that fair?

NH: With hotels that I directly oversee we share a huge amount of information and data, whether that is overall query trends about what people are looking for in terms of what accommodation, or what countries are people are looking from and what they are searching for. We share that data on an ongoing basis. We also provide a huge amount of data for anybody to access for free. Tools like Google Trends and Google Correlate are available for free and accessible to everybody (More on this next week). For example, at the moment we are seeing a boom in queries for travel to Turkey, and also from Russian travellers. We share that information with clients, which can help hotels know where they want to build their pipeline, or airlines to extend flight routes. That's an add-on to day-to-day activity, which is making sure they spend their marketing dollar, euro or pound as effectively as possible. Interestingly, where Google can add a lot of value is where our clients triangulate our data with their own and other third party data. Because while we see query volume and query trends, but we don’t see how that translates into actual bookings.

EFT: There is a view that Google presents itself as a benign force doing everything in the name of the end user, but you have end users that are also advertisers - hotels, OTAs, airlines and so on?

NH: We distinguish between end user and client. When we talk about the end user we mean Jo Public who is typing a query into their browser. Then we have clients who do pay-per-click activity, advertising, YouTube branding and so on. We make money from the client because we have the volume of traffic and interest from the end users who use Google Products. We have a professional relationship with our clients; they are our advertisers and at the end of the day, pay our bills and wages. It is vital that I understand their long-term strategy of our clients, and build a relationship built on mutual trust, so I can help advise and make suggestions

We see query volume and query trends, but we don’t see how that translates into actual bookings

EFT: Okay, so where do you feel the dividing line is for Google in between OTA and hotelier advertising revenue and your own initiatives into booking through Google tools?

NH: If you look at HotelFinder, and the Hotel Price Ads (HPA) proposition, both the pricing and availability feed is provided by online travel agents and hotel suppliers. So we are working with both. If you want to book with an OTA then you book with an OTA. If you want to book with a supplier then you book with a supplier. We are trying to be as open as possible and work with as many players who would like to be involved in that. Obviously the larger OTAs and suppliers are in, but we are also finding ways to on board even smaller players who are using integration partners, like Derbysoft or TravelClick, to manage the feed and bidding process for them. Some smaller hotel chains and independent hotels just choose to distribute via the OTAs and let them deal with Hotel Price Ads for them. All are valid models. But we are trying to get the long tail involved in our product, which is evolving all the time.

EFT: Lots of hotels have started to test your products (Marriott, Best Western, Radisson and so on). So are hotels a bigger, more important market to you than the OTAs?  

NH: Both are important per the above and overall to Google. We want to work with both. Users themselves sometimes have a preference due to loyalty programmes and/ or ease of use/ or brand recognition and so on and we want the user to be able to surface and then book whomever they prefer.

EFT: Many would argue that your own Google Hotel Price Ads offering is effectively a metasearch play. What is your view and how do you see this space evolving?

NH: There is still a lot of experimentation with business models, and the metasearch side of thing is interesting. This is an evolving space. At the end of the day despite the fact that there are still some really large players in hotel sector, the reality is that when you look at the total number rooms sold in any one day it is still an incredibly fragmented market. And it’s a very international market; there are players that are really, really big in Country A but nowhere to be seen in Country B. So there is a lot of room for other brands. If you look at this market in five year’s time some players won’t exist, some will have merged and there will be a whole bunch of others, especially in mobile space that we haven’t even heard of yet. Just look at the whole Airbnb, Housetrip type model and how quickly that has come along quite quickly and in short space of time. And just a few years ago, people were saying the accommodation market is saturated. So huge new entities develop and evolve and do very well. Anybody who focuses on the end user and makes the journey simple and easy for the end user will do well. This is hospitality industry the key to success is to be hospitable.

If you don't yet have a mobile optimised site, I’d be seriously worried about who is heading up your IT strategy or making investment decisions

EFT: I know you can’t talk about specific deals but the Room 77 arrangements points to a real commitment to mobile. What are you witnessing on the mobile front?

NH: Searches coming from mobile and tablet together are now getting close to desktop and very soon could exceed those. For late last minute bookings, or even when there is good weather, we see a surge in mobile bookings. People reach for device closest to them. In fact a lot of mobile searches are still conducted at home. So yes, mobile is absolutely vital. Some very big names in hospitality space still don’t have mobile offerings and they are losing out. To date, no client has complained about overinvesting in mobile, but multiple clients have said they have underinvested. So yes, we’re pushing mobile but doesn’t mean spend money stupidly. Still if you don't yet have a mobile optimised site, I’d be seriously worried about who is heading up your IT strategy or making investment decisions.

EFT: Is Google talking straight or skirting the real issues?

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