Google, ITA, and the Future of Travel: It’s All About Data, Not Search
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on Google’s sites. “The idea in general,” Wertheimer says, “is to try to make it less impinge on your consciousness that Google happens to have a bunch of different things, and make it more one experience. It’s not that I really care that a big red thing comes up and says, ‘Now you’re using Google Travel.’ No, no, no, you’re traveling, you’re using Google, so guess what, it’s doing the right things.” That means consumers should be able to get relevant travel information without necessarily specifying in the search box that they’re taking a trip, for example. “Users show interest in traveling in many, many ways,” says Ben Haim, the Google product manager. “Online, people get inspired and dream.”
The Competitive Road Ahead
As Butler (the ad executive) alluded to, the real payoff for Google lies not in outcompeting other travel search sites or collecting fees from airlines or travel agencies—it’s in gaining advertising revenue from knowing more about consumers’ travel plans and experiences, and being able to serve up more personalized ads and content. You can imagine this strategy becoming even more important as more consumers interact with Google on smartphones and adopt technologies such as mobile payments and photo/video sharing.
Indeed, Google’s competition with companies like Kayak and Fly.com in so-called “metasearch”—aggregating travel data for search and redirecting consumers to other sites to make purchases—may no longer be as important to the industry. “Metasearch is less and less relevant,” says Michael Raybman, the founder of travel site WaySavvy. “It’s about more personalized search results, and a lot of innovation in advertising.”
Consumer privacy is a big issue, of course, especially as Google updated its policy last month so it now combines user data from its many sites and services. But an argument can be made that there could be a strong benefit to consumers in terms of price and user experience—and, what’s more, that the claims of Google’s anti-competitive behavior in travel search are overblown. “The thought of ITA’s technology being unleashed into the Google organic search process has a huge consumer benefit and should in fact lower prices by giving people access to this exceptional low fare finding technology,” said one travel tech CEO and airline industry veteran, who agreed to comment on background.
Meanwhile, back at ITA, there is still a sense that Google and ITA are separate entities (though their engineering cultures are similar), with a customer-vendor sort of relationship. That may change in the coming years as the integration matures and the companies join together in a new campus slated to be completed in Kendall Square by mid-2013. But for now, Wertheimer says, “It’s like being back at MIT. Google is like computer science taken to its logical conclusion.”
On the day we met, Wertheimer was preparing to fly to the Bay Area later that afternoon. He said he likes to park his Chevy Volt at the airport and charge it up. He doesn’t fly all that much these days, and very rarely does he have a flight get canceled (except for the time he had to come back from Alaska by boat). But our chat about the future of travel made him reflect on how far we’ve all come in our expectations.
“Parts of travel pre-date the Internet by centuries,” he says. “It’s kind of funny how we all get to the point where we just expect to go anywhere, anytime I want, on schedule, no matter what, forget weather—I should be able to do it. It’s not an assumption people used to just make about the world, that you could get from anywhere to anywhere else in no time at all, and do it reliably.”