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Interview: Google’s Head of Travel on Its Transition to Booking Site

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We recently released our latest report in the Skift Trends series, Deep Dive Into Google’s Travel Ambitions.

Below is an extract. Get the full report here to get ahead of this trend.

When it comes to hotels, Google the search engine is transitioning toward becoming a booking platform. The nature of Google search results has changed, as well, as most organic search results have been buried below the fold.

Oliver Heckmann, Google’s vice president of travel, says these changes have come about because of changes in user behavior and the rise of mobile. Heckmann, a Google vet of nine years, previously was vice president of engineering for YouTube in Zurich. A year ago he took the helm of the 850-person Google Flights and Hotel Ads product teams. Heckmann gave an exclusive interview to Skift from Google’s Mountain View, California headquarters prior to the launch of Google’s new vacation-destination search.

The new feature integrates flight and hotel recommendations on smartphones in a way that Google hasn’t done before. Heckmann detailed Google’s travel strategy, including for its new Book on Google functionality and Hotel Ads Commission Program.

An excerpt of the interview follows.

Skift: What is the difference between Book on Google and Book on TripAdvisor? Is it the same thing in terms of the way it works and the partner branding? In Expedia’s third quarter earnings call, the CEO said he wants to test Book on Google because, for one reason, he thinks that it will provide better branding for Expedia than in Book on TripAdvisor. Then he’s going to let the data tell him what to actually do, but he’s very open to Book on Google.

Heckmann: I don’t want to speak on TripAdvisor’s behalf, but our philosophy is really: We’re in the travel space, we’re a search engine, we have users who are interested in travel. We want to be a really good in assisting the user, we want to partner with the industry for that. We have no ambition, no plans to become an online travel agency or an airline or a hotel or any of that. So we want good partnerships with the industry; it has worked very well for us. We’re proud of our hotel and flights product. We’re only able to build it because we had these great partnerships.

Skift: But can you tell me how Book on Google works?

Heckmann: For example, the Book on Google page will actually have the branding of the company you are buying from as well as the Google branding so that I know that I am in a Google space. I can trust this page.

Skift: Is Book on Google all with commissions?

Heckmann: Book on Google has nothing to do with commissions. You can say I’m going to bid with CPCs or on a paid commission.

Skift: I think that is indeed different than Book on TripAdvisor. I think Book on TripAdvisor is just done through two basic commission levels.

OK, so you want to be a good partner to the travel industry. You want to provide good answers for consumers in search. You know, there are a lot of people in the travel industry who are mad at you. For example, if I type in “Las Vegas hotels,” then basically the whole page of results is Google AdWords. Above the fold you also have the three-pack of hotel results, which you say is organic but it leads you right into the Google Hotel Ads program. Then the first really organic result that happens, below the fold is for the Westgate Hotel in Las Vegas, which TripAdvisor ranked as something like 146th out of 269 hotels in Las Vegas. One person even said to me, “Oh, Google is putting up a lousy results in order to discourage organic search.”

Heckmann: That’s not true.

Skift: So you want to provide the best answers, but a lot of times you’re not providing the best answers. Results from TripAdvisor or Expedia results, some of the most popular travel websites in the world, they’re not necessarily high up in organic results. I interviewed Priceline.com CEO Paul Hennessy at the Skift Global Forum in October. He said basically that digital marketing these days is a paid world. Priceline.com is going to play in a paid world and the implication was — he didn’t use these words – that SEO (search engine optimization) is kind of, if not dead, it is way down there now.

Heckmann: It’s the shift that actually comes back to the micro moments. You’re on mobile, you spend a shorter and shorter time. Also, with the whole shift to mobile and to user apps like Uber and so on expect to basically have more power than in the past within a short session. Be able to transact and finish everything and it should just take a minute or two. And we’ve been saying that for a long time across all verticals, that 10 blue links are just not going to cut it in that world.

If someone is searching for hotels, a lot of text is not the answer. That’s why we built this new [3-pack] unit where hotels are showing up in there because that’s a better way of selecting a hotel. You can go to a full-page experience, you have a map view of the situation because that’s often how you look at a hotel. Clicking through 10 or 20 blue links and trying to figure out where the hell are they, that’s just simply not going to cut it anymore. I would actually say that was never really a good user experience.

It’s even worse in a mobile environment. That’s why we built that (3-pack) unit and we put it on top of organic because everything in there is ranked organically. You can’t bid your way up to the top of that unit. That’s the new way we show hotels. We also still show the 10 blue links but that is the future of what we do. And that’s consistent with what Google is doing.

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Deep Dive Into Google’s Travel Ambitions

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Aimed at the strategists, marketers and technologists in travel, the Skift Trends Reports provide you with the latest intelligence on travel trends.

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