Skift Take

With potential pressure from U.S. regulatory authorities and perhaps displeasure from airlines, Google is making the biggest change to the way it monetizes flight search since it launched Google Flights in 2011. Perhaps free search engine optimization for flights isn't dead after all.

Google Flights is changing the way it makes money — and it could have significant implications for travelers, online travel agencies, and airlines.

For example, when the series of modifications get implemented by the middle of next month, consumers searching Google for “United flights” might be able to view a free link from or that’s placed higher on the page or screen than Google’s own boxed module of flight search results. Today that never happens; Google pins its own flights’ module above all organic results.

Although the breadth of the changes remain to be seen, Google’s altered display algorithm could potentially be an important change for online travel flight sellers that have suffered as Google relegated their free results down the page, and virtually out of view.

According to Google, it will no longer charge airlines for booking links to their websites from within its price-comparison feature starting this month. (Some airlines were paying but most likely were not.)

And by mid-February:

  • Google Flights, which has favored airlines over online travel agency partners since it debuted in 2011, will eliminate the online travel agency ads that appeared without prices at the bottom of Google Flights on desktop. Google felt these ads weren’t serving the needs of most users and partners.
  • Within Google search results pages, airline links in the boxed flights module, which always appeared above organic results from Kayak, TripAdvisor or Skyscanner, for example, will no longer be labeled Sponsored. And the booking links within the Google Flights metasearch feature will no longer be designated as Ads.
  • With paid booking links disappearing within Google Flights, Google intends to explore introducing new ad formats for partners to promote their fares. Google provided no details on what these new ad formats might be.

“Beginning this month, we will no longer charge partners for referral links on Google Flights,” a Google spokesperson said. “The results within Google Flights will continue to be ranked by relevance to the user, based on factors like price and convenience.”

These changes won’t have a material impact on Google or most of its airlines partners.

The changes — what’s new and where they will take place — might be confusing. To understand, you need to know the various ways Google currently sells flights in Google Search and Google Flights.

Sponsored Links in Google Search

Nothing is seemingly changing to the Sponsored Links from Expedia, CheapOair, CheapTickets, and Kayak that are labeled Ad atop Google search results pages when someone searches for “flights to Chicago,” for example.

Google Flights Module in Google Search

But a “flights to Chicago” query in Google Search triggers a Google Flights module that was always the first result above all organic results, and right below the Google AdWords sponsored ads.

Among the changes, Google will no longer label the airline results within its boxed flights module as Sponsored. That’s because if a consumer ultimately clicks the Spirit, United or Delta links, navigates from Google Search to Google Flights, and then clicked again over to the airline website to make a booking, Google starting in January is no longer charging the airline for the booking link. It is now a free link, and not sponsored.

Many airlines were refusing to pay for these links but Google showed their fares anyway because Google needs to be comprehensive in showing consumer the breadth of available flight search results. Making all of these booking links free eliminates Google’s hassle of having some airlines paying for the referral links, and others, perhaps most, having the market power to demand them for free.

With the changes, a free airline link from Delta or online travel agency or metasearch link from Expedia or Kayak could appear higher than Google’s boxed flight module in Google Search, depending on the relevancy and convenience to the user.

Google has received a ton of criticism in recent years for giving inordinate preference to its own travel products to the detriment of competitors, so it would not be inconceivable that some of the changes Google announced Wednesday stem from pressure from the U.S. federal government. The Department of Justice is believed to be probing Google out of competition concerns.

Google Flights Within Google’s Travel Pages

The airline compensation changes likewise impact Google Flights, which is the comparison shopping, or metasearch, feature at Travelers who clicked on links within the boxed Google Flights module within Google search are taken to Google Flights within Google’s own travel pages.

A “Best departing flights” label includes the proviso: “Google may be compensated by some of these travel partners, but this doesn’t affect the ranking of results.” When users clicked through on one of the airline links, and viewed booking options, such as Book on Google with Spirit or Book with Spirit, the booking options were labeled as Ads. That label will be going away.

In another change on Google Flights on desktop, online travel agency ads from the likes of Orbitz, Priceline, Cheaptickets, Expedia, and eDreams, for example, will be eliminated.

So airlines are benefiting from Google’s changes in several ways: Those carriers that were paying for booking links no longer have to pay, and advertising from online travel agencies in Google Flights are being decapitated, lessening competition.

The Devil Is In the Details

Most of Google’s changes, such as enabling airline, online travel agency and metasearch free links to sometimes appear higher in the display than Google’s own flight business, haven’t been implemented yet. So it remains to be seen the depth of the impact to travel brands’ search engine optimization efforts in flights. Will it be a game-changer or a hardly noticeable benefit.

What’s clear for now is that while Google is making significant monetization changes in Google Flights, no such changes are immediately in the offing for Google’s hotel search products, including Google Hotels.

In contrast to its flights business, Google Hotels is a major money-maker for the search engine. Monetization there is not going away anytime soon.

Correction: Booking Options within Google Flights are labeled as Ads, and Google will be removing that label. Best Departing Flights within
Google Flights had no such Ads label, and we erroneously reported that it did.

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Tags: airlines, alphabet, flights, google, google flights, metasearch, online travel agencies, otas

Photo credit: Los Angeles International Airport gets passenger screening enhancements. Pictured is a United Airlines bag drop. Google is dropping the charges it asked airlines to pay in Google Flights. United Continental Holdings

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