With TripAdvisor emphasizing its own hotel bookings over lead-generating metasearch, it’s no surprise that outgoing traffic from TripAdvisor to third-party websites might experience a percentage drop.

That trend among travel review/booking sites, principally TripAdvisor and Yelp, was confirmed in a just-released study from SimilarWeb, which found that these sites sent 65.5 percent fewer visitors to third-party sites in the U.S. in March 2016 than they did a year earlier.

The trend coincides with TripAdvisor’s global rollout of Instant Booking on its own sites although the depth of the drop-off that SimilarWeb points to — if true — is dramatic. That’s because TripAdvisor has stated that it is committed to continuing to operate metasearch and its referrals to hotel and online travel agency partners even as TripAdvisor prioritizes processing bookings on its own sites.

For Yelp, we can speculate that perhaps the decline in providing referrals to external websites could have something to do with increased traction for SeatMe, its own restaurant reservations platform, versus sending traffic to its forrmer partner, the Priceline Group’s OpenTable.

TripAdvisor and Yelp didn’t respond to requests for comment about the SimilarWeb numbers and trends.

Is Online Travel Agency Trend to Include Meta Links Dead?

The SimilarWeb study, “Trends in the Online Travel Industry 2015-2016,” which gauged mobile and Web traffic to top online travel agency, hotel and alternative accommodation, airline, cruise and travel recommendation sites in the U.S. in March 2016, also found that online travel agency websites “experienced a staggering decrease [68.7 percent] in their ratio of outgoing traffic (measured as total number of outgoing visits divided by number of visits to the site).”

SimilarWeb’s finding that outgoing traffic from online travel agency websites to other sites has jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge is a head-scratcher.

What does SimilarWeb mean by outgoing traffic? It can include when a user merely bounces to Priceline.com or Marriott.com after searching Expedia; another example is when an online travel agency displays metasearch advertisers on its own website. For instance, sites such as Orbitz have begun to offer metasearch price comparisons within Orbitz search-results pages. In this latter example, Orbitz refers users to Expedia Inc. brands, including Hotwire, Hotels.com, Expedia and Travelocity to view their hotel rates as an alternative to booking a hotel on Orbitz.com.

Why is this happening, if it really is?

SimilarWeb states: “This decrease [in the ratio of outgoing traffic] is a clear indication that more OTAs are trying to transition towards an on-site booking model, and are losing their value as affiliates.”

SimilarWeb’s explanation is challenging because online travel agencies have essentially followed an on-site booking model for decades — since they were founded — and their media/advertising businesses have accounted for a relatively small portion of overall revenue. And the online travel agencies, as a rule, don’t send traffic to affiliates, a dynamic that SimilarWeb claims is losing ground.

When pressed about the analysis, a SimilarWeb spokesperson said “we provide the most accurate data on trends and there can be a range of commercial and audience drivers pushing trends online.”

Perhaps the outgoing traffic trend that SimilarWeb cites also has something to do with online travel agency consolidation with Expedia Inc. now owning Expedia.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, CheapTickets and HomeAway.

Richard Harris, whose Intent Media specializes in helping publishers “think beyond the transaction” with media solutions, says the SimilarWeb findings about a steep reduction in outbound traffic from online travel agencies “doesn’t resonate with what we see and feel in the market.”

“OTAs essentially are search engines,” Harris says, referring to consumers doing comparison shopping and then navigating to other sites. “They’ve always been transaction engines. It doesn’t add up.”

Hotels Seeing a Reduction in Referral Traffic

Hotels — perhaps because of their direct-booking campaigns, partnerships with TripAdvisor for hotel bookings on TripAdvisor.com, and/or diminished exposure on online travel agency sites — saw a 27.14 percent drop in referral traffic received from other sites in March 2016 when measured against desktop and mobile traffic a year earlier, SimilarWeb found.

Concerning the trends that SimilarWeb’s identified, the study states:

“The overwhelming trend in the industry is a shift toward mobile usage as travelers become more comfortable using their mobile devices to research and book their travel plans one the go. Another striking trend is the decrease in spend on paid search and display ads across the board. Finally, OTAs and review sites, traditionally big providers of traffic to other sites, have been sending lot less traffic in March 2016 than they did a year earlier.”

SimilarWeb Traffic Findings For Online Travel Agencies

March 2015 March 2016 Change
Direct 34.57% 44.75% 29.45%
Organic Search 15.93% 19.36% 21.58%
Paid Search 5.62% 6.61% 17.58%
Referrals 37.67% 22.93% -39.13%
Mail 2.81% 3.53% 25.62%
Social 0.68% 0.78% 14.80%
Display Ads 2.84% 1.81% -36.48%
Mobile Web Share 43.80% 49.26% -36.48%
Outgoing Visits Ratio 42.16% 20.01% -68.78%

SimilarWeb Traffic Findings For Hotels and Accommodations

 March 2015 March 2016 change
Direct 35.45% 40.82% 15.15%
Organic Search 21.29% 25.43% 19.49%
Paid Search 5.38% 5.43% 0.88%
Referrals 30.84% 22.47% -27.14%
Mail 3.27% 3.89% 18.87%
Social 1.60% 1.54% -3.40%
Display Ads 2.15% 0.63% -70.60%
Mobile Web Share 47.90% 53.99% 12.75%
Photo Credit: SimilarWeb states online travel agency sites such as Booking.com sent much less traffic to other sites in March 2016 than they did a year earlier. Booking.com