Within months, Google has rolled out new features in flights and hotels that, we dare say, make it a convenient one-stop shop to book travel sans encumbrances. Given its dominance in search, hotels and online travel agencies are on another planet if they are not feeling wary.
In a span of just a few months, Google’s threat in booking travel is looming even larger. Indeed, Skift said last October Google’s new hotel search is presenting a greater threat to booking rivals. Now the tech giant has added a full-fledged destination site for hotels, without any major fanfare, and has potential implications for booking sites, as well as Airbnb, on the lines of what it has done with its already very-popular Google Flights.
Richard Holden, Google’s vice president of product management, travel, wrote about the new features in Google Flights and Hotels in a blog published late last week, and quietly slipped in a development we have been waiting for a year or so now, the full-fledged site for hotel meta search site and booking engine.
Once the users goes to Google’s hotel site and selects a hotel, a “Book a room” button is very prominent. When the user selects one of the online travel agency or other metasearch advertisers, the traveler navigates to the third-party site for booking. But there is often an option to book right on Google for Travelocity or Agoda, for example.
In an earlier blog, Eric Zimmerman, Google’s director of travel product management said, “We’re evolving the way our hotel search works on smartphones to help users explore options and make decisions on their smallest screens. The new hotel search experience includes better price filtering, easier-to-find amenity information and the ability to book right from Google.”
Thus, if you’re going to Miami at the end of March, and there are over 300 hotel results for your search, you can now find the right hotel for your trip by applying a new “Deals” filter. This filter, said Holden, “uses machine learning to highlight hotels where one or more of our partners offer rates that are significantly lower than the usual price for that hotel or similar hotels nearby.”
These partners’ advertising is what brings in the bucks for Google. As a travel search engine, Google is already under heavy pressure for controlling how businesses access customers online in the U.S. — and now potentially in Asia-Pacific — with companies bemoaning the millions they had to spend on advertising with Google.
Our search from Bangkok for a three-night stay for two in Singapore from March 28 to 31, for instance, is done simply by moving up the budget scale from zero to over $240. With a budget of $150, the search produces 348 hotels. Use the “Deals” filter, this whittles down to 12 hotels. Right on top is Hotel Clover which, at $79 — 23 percent less than usual, Google says — is way within budget. Click on it, read reviews and see photos from visitors and property. Users can book right there without leaving the page by choosing ads from Hotel Clover, Expedia Thailand, Booking.com, Hotels.com, Agoda, FindHotel, Trip.com, Wotif.com, Amoma.com and Otel.com. Amoma offers the lowest $79 rate, while the highest, $95, is on Otel.
Overall, it is effortless, intuitive, and fast.
On desktop, customers can also pick a hotel in a convenient location and near relevant landmarks by using Google Maps. Type in “Hotels near Marina Bay Sands Singapore” and several hotel options and their rates appear, along with walking and driving distances to points of interest.
In some markets, a tab for flights is now available, so customers having booked hotels can simply move on to book flights, and vice versa.
A new feature in flights is price filter, helping customers explore on the world map on Google Flights all the destinations they can fly to based on their budget. Say a person in San Francisco has $150 to spend on a flight. Setting the price filter on the desktop to that limit, the user will see only the destinations he can fly to within this range.
Once a user has decided on a destination and starts looking for flights, the user will see a price insight for most trips, a feature previously available for holiday dates last year. It shows whether the prices the user is seeing for flights are high, typical, or low compared with what one would usually find. It will also tell the users if the price won’t get any lower or if it’s expected to increase soon, to help them decide on when to book.
But Ross Veitch, CEO and co-founder of Wego, isn’t impressed.
Veitch told Skift, “The basic idea of mining historical airline pricing to help users figure out when to book was pioneered by Farecast about a decade ago before they were acquired by Microsoft and integrated into Bing Travel. The trouble with this concept is that with very few exceptions the answer to the question, ‘Should I book my airfare now or wait’ is always ‘You should book ASAP because the price is only going to increase the longer you leave it!’ This is because of the way most airlines approach revenue management.
“There are very few city-pairs on the planet where the price gets cheaper the later you leave it, at least not with any sort of predictability that a model driven by historical data is going to surface. Hotel pricing is a very different ball game and there are definitely a lot of destinations and travel periods when you are better off waiting for the last minute.”
He also does not believe the new feature is relevant to Asia-Pacific. Said Veitch: “The other thing I would note about the Google Price Trends feature is that it’s only useful if you live in one of five big U.S. cities, want to travel to one of 12 big destinations in the U.S. and Europe and do your travel shopping in a web browser.
“For most of Wego’s user base living mainly across the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] and Asia-Pacific regions with a strong preference for native apps, this is completely useless.”
Wego publishes a Public Holiday Calendar and Leave Planner for several countries, giving advice on when to strategically take annual leave so as to maximize the number of mini-holidays one can take during the year.
In the same vein, Expedia releases a generic trend analysis of pricing annually.
But hotel online distribution experts such as Chetan Patel, vice president of strategic marketing and e-commerce for Onyx Hospitality Group, believe the continued improvements in Google Flights and Hotels will shake things up.
Providing users the option to “visit our website” and also to phone the hotel directly via mobile or send a message wasn’t available until recently, Patel pointed out, adding this small but important feature gives more ways for users to get in touch with hotels directly, bypassing the intermediaries which are listed further below.
Another boon for suppliers, Google now offers a clear index for prices, reviews and photos, making a hotel’s content stand out a lot more prominently than in the past. All this is provided organically without any additional charge, according to Patel.
“Google has been expanding its flight and hotel offering for some time now,” said Patel. “Meta-search fronted this development in the initial phase. Now maps and content has become more prominent on search and on mobile. OTAs have always been dominant on meta but the organic listing on Google Search/Maps — suppliers know it as Google My Business — gives an additional opportunity for hotels to pull organic traffic away to their brand websites. Savvy hoteliers also play the meta-search bit and generate paid traffic from it.”
“There is a wealth of data that we are able to see, like how many visitors clicked on our website listing, how many calls were initiated from the listing, how many guests asked for directions to our property and what keywords led the users to our listing. Users are also able to ask questions which can be responded to by user community at large or by hotels directly. This gives one more option for suppliers to engage potential guests and customers directly.”
“Many meta-search sites and some others have pivoted to OTAs heavily for dependable monetization,” Patel concluded. “Google is balancing the user experience more with supplier-side content which is good news for us as hotels. This along with platforms like Fliggy and Airbnb’s acquisition of HotelTonight have a chance of shaking things up in the online travel world.”
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Photo credit: Have Google will book travel. Google