Travelers indeed shop all over the place when they are doing trip-planning. But to downplay Google's dominant role, as an exec did Tuesday, when travel brands are spending billions of dollars annually with the search engine-turned-travel-product operator, is disingenuous.
If you run a hotel, airline, or online travel agency, and you thought you needed to buy advertisements in Google search or Google Trips, then guess again — it’s probably not as essential as you have long believed because consumers begin their travel searches with “specialist competitors.”
That’s the conclusion travel executives might erroneously make if they believe a statement a Google antitrust executive made Tuesday to a U.S. House Judiciary Committee in arguing against the view that Google is a monopoly.
Committee member Jamie Raskin, a Democratic representative from Maryland, addressed Adam Cohen, Google’s director of economic policy, and cited a 2018 Rand Fishkin study alleging that Google accounts for more than 90 percent of U.S. web search volume, and is therefore a “near monopoly.”
“So congratulations on that,” Raskin quipped, and asked whether Google still argues that it is not a monopoly because “competition is just a click away?”
Google’s Cohen countered that Raskin’s statement was too narrow a view, and that consumers use a range of services when they search online.
Where Travel Searches Start?
“For example, when people are searching for products, a majority of Americans start their searches on Amazon,” said Cohen, who sat alongside executives from Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, also under the gun for antitrust questions. “When they are searching for places to travel, hotels and airlines, they start with dedicated specialist competitors. So I think the market is much broader than that.”
The hearing dealt with online platforms and market power, and how Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple impact innovation and entrepreneurship.
The amount of misleading statements and dodges these executives could come up with in arguing against their respective market grips was truly a sight to see (video embedded below).
For example, Amazon’s Nate Sutton, associate general counsel, competition, argued that Amazon doesn’t wield an online retail monopoly because Walmart’s smaller online retail business is growing faster than Amazon’s. According to eMarketer in 2018, Amazon had a 49.1 percent marketshare of U.S. online retail spend compared with 3.7 percent for Walmart.
Cohen of Google would have the Congresspeople believe that Google is an after-thought when people start searching for travel, and that “they start with specialist competitors,” presumably Marriott, Hilton, United, Delta, Expedia, and Priceline.
No need to spend all of those marketing dollars with Google, one could surmise. Cohen is obviously not in the Google sales wing.
In contrast to Cohen’s antitrust talking points, an Expedia study, according to MDG Advertising, “found that 69 percent of travelers turn to a search engine when starting to think about a trip. This ranks above all other sources, including family, friends, online travel agencies (OTAs), and travel brand websites.”
Even Think With Google, which serves up market research for potential advertisers, in 2016 provided a sort of case study “snapshot of a real traveler’s decision-making journey,” maps and search-engine heavy.
“Gina,” according to Think With Google, had more than 850 “digital travel touchpoints” during a three-month period when she was planning to travel “to San Diego for a mothers’ conference,” a business and pleasure trip.
The top websites she visited were maps (24 percent) and search (19 percent). The so-called specialist competitor websites that Cohen referred to may have been airline websites (7 percent) and accommodation websites (4 percent), and if he meant to include online travel agencies, they accounted for 10 percent of Gina’s touchpoints.
So when Google is marketing itself to potential advertisers, it emphasizes the primacy of Google Maps and Google search — and for good reason.
But, as with Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, when Google sends its economic policy guy to a Congressional antitrust hearing, he put the best spin on the issues, and suddenly consumers start there searches on Holiday Inn or Booking.com. Do they begin on Google? Nah, apparently not so much.
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Photo credit: A Google exec argued that travelers begin their travel searches on specialist websites, and not with Google. Robert Scoble / Visualhunt