Google, ITA, and the Future of Travel: It’s All About Data, Not Search

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to expand internationally” and “to send more traffic from Google organic results.” That last bit implies the Web giant will show its own flight listings in non-sponsored search results.

Meanwhile, Stephen Kaufer, the CEO of Newton, MA-based TripAdvisor (NASDAQ: TRIP), which competes with Google in travel reviews, trip planning, and advertising, told me a few months ago that he thought Google Flights “bit off more than they could chew.” He said that “ITA has awesome technology,” but that (referring to Google’s flight search) “you need to have the business relationships with the airlines to have a successful product.”

Google would counter by saying it has built up relationships in the industry over the past decade. “We’ve been in the travel business for a very long time,” says Jane Butler, managing director of travel at Google, who works on the advertising side of the business. Online travel agencies, she says, “were among the first to really get Web marketing.” She’s referring to companies like Expedia, Orbitz, and Priceline, which compete with Google’s new travel offerings. But Orbitz, for one, has started working with the search giant so consumers can book airline tickets through its site when they do Google searches.

Hotels also have been a big focus for Google. Last summer, the company released an experimental tool called Hotel Finder, which lets you search for and discover places to stay in many cities. The effort built on the company’s efforts in listing hotels in Google Maps, and required working with hoteliers to get pricing and availability data, as well as things like high-quality photos of their establishments. One neat feature: being able to specify the geographic region and neighborhoods you’re searching on a map, by dragging the corners of a four-sided perimeter shape (see screenshot, above).

(As an aside, a hotel reservation startup called Room 77 has maps of every floor of every hotel in its system and uses Google Earth to show you what the view out the window from a specific room would be like. Can you say “acquisition target”?)

As for airlines, Butler says, “We want to help them reach users doing flight queries.” Currently, consumers buy tickets mostly through airlines’ sites when they do a Google flight search. Butler emphasizes that focusing on end users and showing them the best travel choices is “the starting point with an airline or an [online travel agency].” She adds, “We respect their distribution decisions.” It seems Google might be interested in playing some sort of intermediary role in bookings, but the company declined to comment on whether it gets revenue from referral fees or other sources.

In fact, Butler has a much broader view of Google’s interest in travel. The real business potential, she says, is that “we can better match advertisers with users [through] the most relevant messages.” That means if consumers are using Google throughout the travel process—and across Web, mobile, and features like video-sharing (YouTube) and payments (Google Wallet), say—the company should be able to serve up ads that are better targeted and more effective. “Through researching, booking, experiencing travel, and sharing, Google has unique assets to bring to bear at each of those points,” she says.

And that brings us back to the ITA integration—a prime example of “unique assets.” I asked Wertheimer what consumers might expect five years from now, in terms of futuristic travel experiences. “You might find … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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  • While I can appreciate the usefulness of sites such as Tripadvisor, I am still skeptical of the legitimacy of many of the online reviews posted – it’s still too easy for companies to pay people to make fake accounts and put fake reviews up, which hurts overall credibility IMO.