In tests involving about 7,000 property listings in Europe, Google is checking if travelers would like to use it to search and book vacation rentals. Online travel rivals should be on the alert.
In the past month, some Google searches have been revealing an option to comparison-shop vacation rentals.
In our checks Tuesday, Skift could find vacation rental filters for Barcelona, Berlin, Bordeaux, Cologne, Dresden, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Madrid, Munich, Milan, Naples, Nice, Nuremberg, Paris, Palermo, Porto, Reims, Rome, Seville, and Venice.
The results are limited to a small subset of alternative lodging inventory similar to traditional vacation rentals. Collectively we counted about 7,000 property listings. That is a mere smattering of the potential rental listings in Europe.
Our search Tuesday of google.com and google.co.uk for the term “hotels in Paris” unveiled the option to filter the results by choosing “vacation rental” from a drop-down menu for “accommodation type.”
In the Paris example, applying that filter turned up only 420 apartments — a sliver of the more than 50,000 available for rent in that city according to short-term rental leader Airbnb.
Doing a search on a straightforward phrase like “vacation rentals in Paris” didn’t turn up the feature. Only searching for a phrase like “hotels in Paris” cued the search box to appear.
Google is doing the test in multiple markets, too. A search on French site google.fr for “hôtel à Paris” found similar results. A search on German site google.de found results for vacation rentals, or Ferienwohnungen, too.
It is a cross-device test, too. We saw the option to have vacation rental filters on tablets and smartphones when running searches on Google in the U.S., UK, Germany, and France.
Booking.com is the biggest vacation rental player to have listings in the tool. It is providing the bulk of the content. But only a handful of its 753,465 vacation rental listings is being pulled into Google’s system today.
To be sure, there were a few listings from other players, like Expedia Inc.-owned Hotels.com.
Caveats aside, the test is a milestone for Google. It is the first time we’ve seen the search giant attempt to add vacation rentals as a lodging category alongside hotels.
Google declined to comment for this story. Skift has inferred this is a test given the search giant’s history of doing similar public tests before releasing new features.
When typing “hotels in Rome” on the U.S. edition of Google.com, the search engine fetched its search widget, which featured a few hotels plotted on a map with some sample rates.
One of the drop-down menu options under a new “accommodation type” filter is “vacation rentals.” Clicking that took us to a full search listings page with about a dozen listings.
Gradually expanding test
Koddi CEO Nicholas Ward says that his team has noticed stray vacation rental listings accidentally getting into the Hotel Ads interface for a few years.
But he says the listings of the past few weeks represent a different, purposeful test by the search giant.
Ward explains: “In the past, some vacation rental listings have been coded and miscategorized by advertisers in the data distribution process, and have slipped through and appeared as if they were hotels. And sometimes the properties have confusing hybrid models like ‘aparthotels,’ and these have also slipped through.”
In a couple of rare exceptions, this is still true. When searching the “vacation rental” listings for Vienna, we saw one for serviced apartments available by the day. That could plausibly have slipped through as a “hotel” due to poor categorization and its hybrid sales model.
He says this is the first time Google has tested having a drop-down option to filter accommodation results by “vacation rentals” as a category separate from hotels.
That said, some of the listings we saw Wednesday appear to be owner-managed and it seems like the owners have posted a business listing on Google Places and Google Maps and gotten automatically included in the search results.
Ward says, “It appears that if the property is bookable on a Hotel Ads advertiser and is matched to Google’s listing through their integration, it has a chance to show up as bookable.”
Google hasn’t figured out all of the details yet.
When asked about how property owners could try to get listed in Google search automatically, Koddi’s Ward noticed a note from Google’s “help” section about the types of listings that are “restricted” from appearing and that note includes “rental or for-sale properties, such as vacation homes, model homes or vacant apartments.”
Ward says, “The advice I’d (unofficially) give to a property that wanted to show up would be to set up a listing, make sure you categorize your place as a Holiday Apartment and make sure there is a rich description, images, and some reviews.”
Ward’s team at Koddi has reason to watch this development. The company helps travel digital marketers with reporting and bid management tools for placing ads on metasearch platforms like Google Hotel Ads, TripAdvisor, Kayak, and Trivago. Vacation rentals could potentially open up a new category of business for it.
Fixes to be made
In the tests, Google has not modified its search interface to provide options more suitable to the vagaries of hunting for a vacation rental.
An analysis earlier this year by a hotel digital marketer found that Google Hotels Ads’ traffic volume has been outpacing TripAdvisor hotel metasearch.
But other online travel players, especially metasearch brands like Kayak (which offers instant booking integration with some partners like Booking.com) and TripAdvisor (which offers rentals on its main site and sister site FlipKey) should also be on the alert.
The biggest gainer might be the technology vendors that help property managers connect to platforms like Google, such as the Dutch company NextPax.
But the entire ecosystem of property managers and tech providers that Skift Research covers in “The State of the Global Vacation Rental Market 2017” could be affected.
Ward says Google has to fix three shortcomings: the user experience, the content, and the number of reviews.
He adds: “Airbnb is the gold standard for having the filters someone shopping for a vacation rental prefers, and these filters aren’t there in Google’s search. If I were looking for, say, a three-room property for ten guests, Airbnb or HomeAway would be much faster and more intuitive to use.”
“From a content perspective, photos are crucial for deciding which rental to choose. The imagery is not there yet in Google, in contrast to the hotel content, which is super rich in text descriptions and imagery.”
“The third challenge is review density. We only see a handful of reviews for each property in most of these test examples. That’s not enough to give a traveler confidence to book.”
Ward adds: “But these are all data and engineering problems and commercial partnership issues, and Google is a great position to solve them if the tests show that there’s consumer demand.”
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Photo credit: This apartment, based in Paris's 15th arrondissement (or neighborhood), is available on Booking.com and was listed yesterday for a booking of 8 to 14 people via Google's "hotel search." Booking.com