An insight into online travel search by Google

IN-DEPTH: Google says it is making strong progress in improving its algorithms to deliver the best recommendation to the consumer query.

Published: 05 Sep 2011

IN-DEPTH: Google says it is making strong progress in improving its algorithms to deliver the best recommendation to the consumer query.

By Ritesh Gupta

The travel industry continues to witness new developments in the search arena. Start-ups in the travel search segment point out that the industry is dominated by established companies stuck on ancient technology who haven’t meaningfully innovated their search experience in a decade or more.

It is being highlighted that planning a trip online is actually very cumbersome and time-consuming process: a lot of jumping around from site to site, a lot of forms to fill out, a lot of waiting for results, and a lot of useless information. Quite often it is mentioned that the experience is infuriating—from the pop-up windows to the endless pages of search results.

Assessing the current status of the online travel sector, Tom Mulders, Industry Manager Travel, Google, says, “When we look at the phases of the travel cycle - Dreaming, Researching, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing - we see potential for innovation, particularly in the early stages of Dreaming and Researching, and the final stage, Sharing.”

The booking phase is traditionally an area in which the travel sector has placed most of its emphasis. Most sites are travel inventory and booking sites, focusing on shopping processes aimed at maximising RoI.

“Consumers spend a lot of time online on the orientation process, and an interesting question is whether they find what they are looking for in the dreaming and researching stages. Do Travel websites provide a good consumer experience by showing inventory instead of providing inspiration? Also, during and after a holiday, consumers are in the market to purchase additional experiences, as well as wanting to share their experiences, which could potentially lead to free good (or bad) publicity and brand engagement,” says Mulders, who is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming EyeforTravel’s Online Marketing & Social Media Europe 2011, to be held in Amsterdam (October 10-11) this year.

Mulders spoke to EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta about trip planning, the growing number of online resources, social shopping, mobile payments and other relevant issues. Excerpts:

Travellers have become increasingly reliant on technology for trip planning. But with the growing number of online resources comes an increase in unreliable sources, planted reviews and general confusion about what sites to trust for what services. How do you think this gap is being addressed in the travel industry today?

Tom Mulders:

Certain companies will become trusted brands that people will return to, and recommend to their friends. The brands that are most likely to succeed are the ones that prove reliable, listen to the consumer, and add true value to the process. We see successful examples of companies that run user generated reviews through a quality assurance process, before posting and sharing them online. Google is facilitating this process, for instance, by empowering the consumer with the +1 button. We see that consumers really appreciate the personal recommendations from people they trust.

A couple of years ago, social shopping for travel was being touted as the next big thing. It was being said that after all, unbiased meta-search and UGC seem to be perfectly compatible life partners. The real challenge was supposed to be how does one build in sophisticated collaborative filtering and recommendation engines that depend on individual tastes as well as recommendations. What’s your viewpoint regarding the same as of today?

Tom Mulders:

The topic is as relevant today as it was a couple of years ago. The difference is that technology has evolved, and we are making strong progress in improving our algorithms to deliver the best recommendation to the consumer query. Dependent on what the consumer allows us to use we can base our recommendation on orientation signals varying from previous searches, sites visited, links clicked, but also social signals such as +1’s by either himself or his contacts. So, where technology wasn’t able to deliver at scale a while back, we’re making strong progress. Travel companies can benefit from these innovations by allowing consumers to +1, share and consume their content in different ways on different platforms. In the end, it is our goal that the visitor coming from Google properties should be as relevant as possible to the advertiser.

Travel companies have made it possible to complete an entire booking straight from their respective Facebook pages, without leaving Facebook or having to visit any other website. What do you make of such efforts? How do you think e-commerce on Facebook is going to shape up in the next 12 months?

Tom Mulders:

It’s great that Travel companies invest in innovation. The complex world of today, where consumers go from Twitter to Facebook to YouTube to Search and back, is hard to grasp and follow. A testing culture is crucial for staying in touch with the consumer and their rapidly changing preferences. In the end it always boils down to the business case: is the return on investment high enough. What we see is that business cases work best where volumes and user intent are high. The easier it is to get consumers with the right intent, at scale at a decent cost, the more one should invest.

Consumers are increasingly using wireless devices for not only searching and booking travel, but they are also exploring locations in a much deeper and richer way. As far as the mobile activity is concerned, a section of the industry believes one should focus on driving unique experiences, which will eventually lead to channel preference. What’s your viewpoint regarding this and what is key to achieving the same? Overall, how do you expect the usage of mobile phones in the travel sector to shape up in 2011?

Tom Mulders:

We see a strong increase of mobile queries by consumers on the go. They are looking for local restaurants, hotels, things to do, things to see, what their friends recommend them to do etc.

With the permission of the user, travel companies know when a consumer will be where, and potentially also know what that consumer might be interested in. Don’t underestimate this insight. Local restaurants, for example, have no clue when somebody is in their neighborhood looking for food. This allows a Travel company to offer all kinds of paid or free deals through partners, or direct, thereby enhancing the travel experience, driving brand preference, and tapping into additional revenue opportunities.

Savvy smartphone users are embracing emerging behaviours at a rapid pace, across photos, check-ins, gaming and tagging . There’s lots of consumer interest at this stage, the challenge for brands will be the 'how' - the best way to deliver highly relevant experiences to users based on where they are and what they are doing. Do you think those brands that deliver great geo-location experiences will quickly differentiate themselves?

Tom Mulders:

They will not only differentiate themselves, they potentially also tap into a new revenue source capitalising on their knowledge of the date/location/intent of the consumer. Geo-location based differentiation doesn’t necessarily have to be lasting though, whereas local partnerships could be.

Companies like Google (along with Citi, MasterCard, First Data and Sprint) in the US and Orange and Barclaycard in the UK have come up with initiatives pertaining to mobile phone payments services. Would it be right to say that smaller ticket items are more likely to be at the forefront of this trend vs. more traditional travel purchases?

Tom Mulders:

Location related mobile purchases can vary from hotels, car rentals, tickets to amusement parks, dinner vouchers etc. Question to ask is what advantage the consumer has to purchase a flight at travel agent using mobile technology versus traditional payment options. For consumers on the go though, local-mobile payments through a trusted travel company, could prove to be a way forward.

EyeforTravel’s Online Marketing & Social MediaEurope 2011

Tom Mulders, IndustryManager Travel, Google isscheduled to speak at the forthcoming EyeforTravel’s OnlineMarketing & Social Media Europe 2011, to be held in Amsterdam(October 10-11) this year.

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Gina Baillie

VP, Marketing,



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