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Google began rolling out a new desktop interface for its Google Flights metasearch product in earnest on Friday.
Most users who visit Google Flights in the U.S. on the Chrome Web browser are being prompted to click a button on the right-hand side to update to the new experience. Users of Safari and Firefox were not yet seeing that option as of publication time, but could visit the new experience by clicking this link and choosing the U.S. as their home country.
The design is simpler, with many of the options to customize a search upfront removed.
In this beta test, Alphabet’s Google appears to be scaling back its ambition to inspire people to consider new destinations.
In spring 2016, Google Flights had its last major redesign in which it pushed front-and-center a flexible-destination search interface.
From then until now, desktop visitors to the Google Flights interface would see a prominent “Discover Destinations” box. Users could check out possible itineraries by general time periods (like “January” or “weekend”), location (“Africa” or “Johannesburg”), and interest (“honeymoon” or “winter sports”).
The new look drops the box. Forget inspiration. Google Flights is merely showing three “popular” destinations from the biggest airport near where Google thinks the user is located.
It’s unclear how Google calculates these three spots. In repeated tests from a laptop near Philadelphia using logged-in and logged-out searches, the results varied. Presumably, Google Flights picks the three choices from a list of the most-booked destinations from a given airport.
A photo from one of the three “popular destinations” appears as a giant splash image at the top of the search interface.
The simpler design with a search box set against a big splash page photo is reminiscent of Kayak, the Priceline Group-owned metasearch company. When asked about this, CEO Steve Hafner said by email, “Google is one of a handful of companies that we admire. We’re flattered that they were inspired by our UX and we’ll continue to advance the state of the art.”
Google has pointed out previously that its flight search distinguishes itself from competitors by having faster response times than any other product on the market. Other companies counter that Google partly is able to have fast response time by not offering as much inventory as other providers. But it also spends more on caching, or saving airfares based on recent searches as a way to speed up results, than any rival.
Moving Options Around
Map-based search takes more prominence in the new look. On the landing page, a map plots the location of the three popular destinations. Clicking anywhere on the map takes you to a detailed, map-based interface of possible places to go, along with quotes of recent low airfares to those spots.
Gone from the main landing page is the option to see a flexible date search in a matrix format originally popularized by online travel agency Orbitz. That now appears as an alternative search option once a user has completed a search and moves to a listings page.
Gone, too, from the landing page is the option to see fares in a nerdy bar-chart grid that ITA Software, its 2011 technology company acquisition, pioneered. That’s also moved to an option on the search results page.
The company continues to offer the sale of itineraries via “separate tickets”, where users have to check in and, if they have luggage, check luggage, on each leg of a trip. That poaches on the “virtual interlining” territory of rising metasearch brand Kiwi, though Google Flights’ selection of flights is limited compared to Kiwi’s.
A Friend of Direct Bookings
Google Flights has strived to stand out from metasearch competitors by being supplier-friendly.
The new user experience is supplier-friendly in that it prominently shows a box at the top of the listings promoting premium economy seating. Clicking on the box filters out bare-bones, discounted tickets from the results — something that airlines prefer. Rivals such as Kayak and Skyscanner don’t make this a prominent option.
Google Flights also doesn’t include an option to filter to only see basic economy fares, even though those are usually the cheapest.
Google is supplier-friendly in another way: It appears to drive far more volume to airlines than other metasearch companies do, as a percentage of its search traffic. The first half of 2017 saw consumers using Google Flights to find fares at a much higher rate than over the same time period in 2016.
For example, in the first three months of the year, the service saw a 27 percent rise in unique visitors over the comparable period a year earlier, according to Jumpshot, a marketing analytics company.
The majority of its referrals in the U.S. went directly to U.S. airlines, a Jumpshot representative said. That’s the opposite of what’s common at other online metasearch players, who tend to refer a majority of visitors to online travel agencies to complete bookings.
Direct referrals enable a carrier to retain “ownership” of the customer by passing the customer directly to an airlines’ website to complete the transaction.
Google also curries favor with carriers by sharing the search and booking patterns of customers as anonymized clusters or cohorts, sources said.
Google Flights’ beta version continues to offer forecasts about when ticket prices may rise and by how much and to offer airfare tracking as a service.
It is unclear when the new look will be standardized for all users worldwide.
The company also continues to expand its Flights and Hotel products globally. For instance, since launching in India in 2015, it has added the inventory of carriers Jet Airways and Vistara and travel portal Via.com and Cleartrip.