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Unless Google is playing possum and lulling competitors into submission, prognostications about the potential impact of Google Flight Search could turn out to be one of the greatest miscalculations in online travel history.
Google’s Nikesh Arora, chief business officer, recently told analysts the company is happy with its Google Flight Search product and ITA Software, acquired for $700 million in 2011.
There probably isn’t a hotter segment of the travel business these days than metasearch, or price comparison, with Kayak, Skyscanner, Trivago, and TripAdvisor all involved in high-profile mergers, funding transactions, or product launches this year.
But by all accounts, the flight comparison product Google Flight Search has hardly made a dent in the market since its much-feared debut more than two years ago.
Companies such as Priceline and Expedia have repeatedly said they haven’t felt an impact from Google Flight Search. Henry Harteveldt, Hudson Crossing’s travel industry analyst, recalls a recent conversation with an airline executive who, referring to Google’s flight metasearch product, said that sometimes the airline forgets that it even exists.
There are lots of theories about why Google Flight Search’s impact has been so small.
1. Google Doesn’t Want To Mess With Its Online Travel Agency Advertising Base
In travel it’s the online travel agencies, with their sometimes-large digital marketing budgets, that dominate Google AdWords. Google likely isn’t devoting more resources to Google Flight Search because it doesn’t want to threaten all that Google Adwords revenue with its own airline-dominated flight metasearch product.
BrandVerity, which studies paid search and monitors trademark abuse, monitored 100 keyword strings, namely “flights to” and “tickets to” the 50 most populated U.S. cities, on Google from October 26 to 28, and told Skift it found that paid ads from online travel agencies (68%) outnumbered airline paid ads (21%) by a factor of three to one.
The actual numbers were 21,584 OTA ads to 6,639 ads from airlines, and 3,422 ads from other kinds of companies in Google search.
“I don’t think Google wants to bite the hand that feeds it and antagonize any of its advertising clients,” Harteveldt says.
Given the importance of OTA advertising to Google AdWords, it sometimes appears that Google Flight Search is laboring away with one hand tied behind its back.
2. Travelers Aren’t Used to Google as a Destination Site in Itself
Some argue that the OTA advertising theory as the reason behind Google Flight Search’s lack of traction is overblown. Instead consumer expectations about Google may be a root cause, it is argued.
Travelers are used to searching Google for links to other sites, and aren’t necessarily accustomed to using Google Flight Search as more of a travel site in its own right, the theory goes.
3. Google Hasn’t Done Much to Promote the Product
Google has integrated Google Flight Search into the main Google search results pages, as well as the Maps product, but apart from that it has not done much to promote Google Flight Search.
While Kayak has run TV advertising campaigns and TripAdvisor is in the midst of one, it is hard to imagine Google running a big offline advertising campaign to create awareness for a product like Google Flight Search that it is not central to its business.
After all, Google Flight Search is not Chrome, YouTube, or Nexus 7.
4. The Airline-Heavy Business Model Isn’t Attractive to Travelers
Google Flight Search shows OTA results here and there, but predominantly displays schedule and fare results directly from airline sites.
Harteveldt argues that although there aren’t great fare differences, travel consumers may perceive Google Flight Search’s basically airline-only model as portraying a lack of comprehensiveness and choice.
5. Perhaps Google Doesn’t Need For Google Flight Search to Be a Commercial Success
Google obviously doesn’t need Google Flight Search to be a commercial success and perhaps it is content to learn from the experience and apply technology and consumer-facing lessons from it to other Google initiatives, Harteveldt says.
Given the importance of mobile and the immediacy of hotel bookings when travelers are already present in a destination, perhaps Google intends to make a bigger push with Google Hotel Finder than Google Flight Search, although the hotel product hasn’t trounced competitors either, Harteveldt says.
6. Google Is in No Hurry and Google Flight Search Isn’t Ready for Prime Time
There is a contrarian theory that Google is merely content to bide its time with Google Flight Search, realizes there are holes in it, and that the product isn’t ready for prime time.
Why promote Google Flight Search before it is a mature product capable of going head to head against its competitors?
Google declined comment on the subject so we won’t hear anything publicly about its latest thinking about Google Flight Search for now other than Arora’s comment that Google is satisfied with how things are going.
What we do know is that unlike its competitors, Google has the luxury of not feeling the pressure to be in a hurry with Google Flight Search, and can just toy with it at its own pace.