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Interview: The Puppet Master Pulling the Strings of Google Travel

@denschaal

Jul 28, 2014 8:00 am

Skift Take

If you build it, and it is comprehensive and works at breakneck speeds, they will come. That’s the mantra of Google, which is taking its sweet time to expand its flight and hotel partnerships around the world.

— Dennis Schaal

Free Report: The State of Student Travel

Google

Richard Holden oversees the product teams at Google focused on travel, which include the Flights and Hotels offerings. Google


Editor’s note: Skift is two years old as of today, and we’re rolling out a week of special travel industry coverage. This is one of a series you can find in full here, as we roll out these stories.

It hasn’t always been easy for outsiders to figure out who oversees Google’s travel products, but finally we have an answer: It is Richard Holden, who focused on product management, mostly for AdWords, for about a dozen years, and about a year ago became product management director, Travel, reporting to Sridhar Ramaswamy, who heads Ads and Commerce.

Skift caught up with Holden to ask him how he views the progress and status of what loosely can be called Google Travel, which over the last fews years has benefited from the acquisitions of ITA Software, Zagat, and Frommer’s, and introduced Google Flight Search and Google Hotel Finder.

Incidentally, as reported, Google’s supposed licensing deal of Room77 technology was primarily a talent grab, he says. Meanwhile, big acquisitions in travel don’t appear to be imminent.

There are ironies in where Google Travel finds itself. Holden believes that one of the key differentiators in Google’s two most prominent travel products is their speed in returning flight and hotel search results.

Yet Holden acknowledges that there are content gaps in both products, and Google is therefore focused behind the scenes on the not-so-glamorous task of notching new airline and hotel partnerships around the world at what some critics might view as a plodding pace.

But, Holden isn’t in a hurry, observing that “we’ve had 14 years of working on search and AdWords. We are getting started” in travel. Although there currently are hints of integrating Google’s disparate travel offerings, you can definitely expect more of that in the future, particularly through search.

Following is the Skift interview with Holden about the state of Google Travel:

Richard Holden: About a year ago, [YouTube senior vice president] Susan Wojcicki, when she was still running our Ads and Commerce area, asked me to get involved in the travel efforts we had ongoing. At that point we had our product managers split across a couple of different groups and different managers, and she asked me to come in and manage the travel product managers as one group. I’ve been doing this for almost a year now.

I work with our product managers here in Mountain View, Boston and in Zurich on building out our various travel features. I work with a team of engineering leads, and a couple of engineering leads and I together develop product strategy for our travel efforts. And then we work across our engineering and product teams to execute on that.

Skift: What is Google’s focus now in travel, and after a year, how do you think you are doing?

Holden: I would say we are execution-focused around comprehensiveness and quality in the product. The parts of the product I am talking about in particular are flights and hotels. We know we don’t cover all the world’s hotels. We want to. We don’t cover all the world’s flight itineraries and we would like to, as well.

Richard Holden, product management director, travel.

Richard Holden, product management director, travel.

And so there is a lot of work involved with our business development team, our engineering teams, our partner development teams, our product teams on just getting all the data that we need. Making sure it is high quality, making sure it is being delivered to customers very efficiently and very fast. What people come to expect from Google is fast results.

One thing Susan used to talk about when she’d meet with us last year before she moved on to the YouTube role was ‘Google searches everywhere, I need travel to be everywhere, as well. And so you guys need to have that as your number one mission, and making sure that we are getting complete coverage.’ So I think that is one major goal for us and I think we are doing pretty good on that.

There is a lot of data still to get and a lot of infrastructure to build to make that possible.

Skift: And when you look at those two products, Google Flights and Google Hotel Finder, do you think one is ahead of the other? Does one have particular strengths? Or are there areas where improvement is needed?

Holden: I think both are robust products. We can always make anything better. We always do focus on that. I’d say the flight search product we feel today is a nicely differentiated offering where through speed and comprehensiveness is really a pretty unique product out there on the market. We have a number of features that resonate with consumers when they use it. And the thing that people are particularly struck by, in typical Google fashion, is the speed with which they can get results back. I think that is a powerful feature that is useful for consumers at the end of the day.

 

I think we are making good progress on that. We’ve made good strides in the last six months. For example, in Europe we’ve added Ryanair and EasyJet, which were two missing pieces in the product. We are glad to see them there. We’ve added our first examples of direct booking there with EasyJet. There are other carriers we don’t have full coverage for and other parts of the world that we haven’t released the product for that we would like to, and we are focused on.

On the hotels product, I think we have made good progress there, as well. We’d like to get the coverage as deep as possible everywhere we can and we still know there are lots of hotels that we don’t have overall in the world that we would like to have in the product today. So there is just a lot of blocking and tackling work, frankly, there to do. We also think making good decisions about hotels involves lots of content and we are working on building out lots of content.

You may have seen announcements we had around Business View, partnership that we are doing essentially for inner space views inside hotels. And we are aggressively moving to build that throughout our portfolio of products that users can get a true experience of a hotel before they are there. [Below is a Business View of a room at the InterContinental Miami.]

google business view intercontinental miami

Skift: In some sense it seems like Google gets no respect. In the travel industry per se, when you are talking about the big players in hotels you think about Booking.com and Trivago. On flights you might think about Kayak or Skyscanner. No one really seems to mention Google as a major player. Why do you think that is?

Holden: I think sometimes the expectations of Google are very high. That’s fine. We like to live up to those expectations. We’ve had 14 years of working on search and AdWords. We are getting started in some of the travel space. We are hopeful In that sense; we know we have a lot to do. We have a long way to go. I do think some of it is just awareness over time, as well. Those users who use flight search find it compelling. Again, I see gaps in the product. We do need to improve it, but I think we are on the right track in that regard.

I don’t worry about necessarily getting “respect” in the industry in that regard. I view it day in and day out as building a great product. The more we can do to make it useful and identifiable by users, the more they will use it over time. Again, that takes somewhat non-sexy blocking and tackling execution, which I think is what we are focused on more than anything.

Skift: When you think of the travel products do you think of them holistically or do you see them as addressing particular needs?

Holden: When I think about organizationally and I think about resourcing I definitely think about flights and hotels, the sets of people, the things we have invested in, and each from an engineering and product perspective, and a business development perspective. I do spend a lot of time thinking about how people think about travel across product suites and I would say yes today we offer them fairly independently. But over time, I think, we would like to offer the products more in unison to serve the needs of people.

Frankly, in parts of the world, such as Europe, where people think of package deals and packaged travel much more, we have a lot to do there to address the marketplace that doesn’t really necessarily think of these things individually and do think of them more as a set unit.

Skift: Do you see thinking of them as a set unit as something that would happen in the next two to three years or would it take even longer than that?

Holden: I think there are things we will do in the relatively short term probably to provide indications of what might be useful to a user between one product and the other product. We have small implementations of that now. Not much, but there is more that will come over time. I talked first how we are focused on building out the core products for flights and hotels. I think the other thing that we think a lot about is here is how do we weave more of a travel experience for a user into google search where it is more relevant.

You can think about how you begin to see elements of that for a Google user today. A user who might use Google Now is getting a flight card when their flight is departing or how traffic is, how soon I need to leave to get to the airport. And those are beginning to be some examples of where we are beginning to be more of an assistant in nature. We are trying to anticipate their needs. What you will see is more and more of that where it will begin to weave more the elements of travel  just in the everyday things that people are doing within search itself.

Skift: What about the built-in tension between building out the comprehensiveness of these products and then competing against some of your best advertisers such as Expedia, Booking.com, TripAdvisor or whomever? How do you view that?

Holden: I guess I look at it that most of the people you mention are key partners of us, as well. In many ways, along with the suppliers out there, they are a key contributor, for example, to Hotel Finder today. So we view it very much as a partnership, as well. We have plenty of summit meetings with each of those partners you mentioned and with other partners, where we spend a day at a time or more talking about all the points of intersection with Google and how we can help them introduce themselves to more consumers. Just as AdWords has been an important vehicle of introduction between the provider and the user, Hotel Finder and the other products that we have serve similarly and we view the partnership in the same way, frankly.

Skift: How are you leveraging your in-house content teams, such as the people who came over from Zagat and Frommer’s? Does their work still have value to you?

Holden: Those teams are valuable to Google on a lot of different levels. I would say their primary points of contact are more toward Geo and local, universal and search teams overall. For example, on the hotel side today a lot of the work we’re doing on hotel development is in partnership with our local, universal and search teams. In fact, our development teams work jointly on our newest iteration of the hotel offering.

On a mobile device today, if you search “hotels San Francisco,” you get a list of hotels back within search results, which is really a joint partnership between the local search team and our hotels team. In that context there is review content that’s part of that, as well, that’s served through content partnerships we have internally. That same team works on restaurant reviews, which the Zagat information is incorporated into. This is content that is useful to the company in a variety of ways. It may not plug into the travel team directly but it does surface in some of our products.

When I mention on the hotel side that we want to build out content, I can logically see us working with our content and editorial teams within Frommer’s to build out the rich content that we can provide within hotels.

Skift: You mentioned the drive for comprehensiveness and all the blocking and tackling that you have to do. We have seen so much merger and acquisition activity in the travel industry over the last year. The Priceline Group’s acquisitions of Kayak and OpenTable, and TripAdvisor acquiring Viator. From a travel perspective, is Google in the market for some acquisitions in terms of building out your comprehensiveness or moving forward in other ways?

Holden: We don’t comment on what we may be looking at or not. At Google in general, we look at acquisitions as a whole regarding what’s the differentiating technology that something provides us, and what’s the know-how and engineering skill sets that it provides, as well.

Looking at the history of how Google has done acquisitions, for the most part they are often small, tactical acquisitions that help us from a purely development standpoint. I wouldn’t say that we are looking at anything in particular. Some people looked closely at what we were doing with Room77. For us that was more about particular talent that we could bring to our hotels team, which is really more of an indication we are committed to the space, and we want good engineering talent within the team and we want to build that out. I wouldn’t say there is anything in particular we are looking at.

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