Skift Take

What can make a travel companies truly put their money where their mouth is on sustainability? Threaten a lower placement on a Google search.

Google’s plan to provide information on a hotel’s sustainability practices offers transparency amid the climate crisis. But non-participating hotel owners don’t need to worry about their placement on the search engine.

Google will put an eco-badge of sorts next to a listing if sustainability-minded firms like GreenKey or EarthCheck have highlighted a hotel for its positive impact with environmental practices. Potential guests can even find out property-specific sustainability practices through the new feature, which will also be on Google Travel.

Transparency is one thing, but the new sustainability metric isn’t expected to hold weight on how high up a property would appear on a search. Beyond saying sustainability is the right pursuit, Google leaders aren’t publicly offering much in the way of an incentive to opt into the new initiative.

“There are a lot of aspects that go into a ranking,” Richard Holden, vice president of travel products at Google, said Wednesday at Skift Global Forum while declining to offer up more details regarding the status quo that will continue to dictate where a property shows up on a search. “Most are [from a] quality perspective.”

Hotel companies like Hilton and Accor have already contributed their sustainability information for the new platform, and individual property owners can provide their details through their Google My Business profile, Skift executive editor Dennis Schaal reported this week. There are signs the race to be the most sustainable hotel brand is the latest competitive streak for the hotel sector, at least optics-wise.

Accor this week joined the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, a global organization aimed at developing sustainable travel experiences and reducing the industry’s environmental impact. Hilton, Hyatt, IHG Hotels & Resorts, and Marriott are already members. Marriott earlier Wednesday at Skift Global Forum went a step further by announcing a pledge to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

Google itself even jumped into the fray, announcing Wednesday its own sustainability pledge by joining global sustainable travel coalition Travalyst. The company joins the coalition as a partner alongside founding partners like Booking.com, Trip.com Group, Skyscanner, Tripadvisor, and Visa.

“Travel obviously has an outsized impact on the world in terms of carbon,” Holden said.

One way to make an impact and get some tangible movement on sustainability might be to tether a property’s ranking to its environmental plan. But Holden reiterated Google’s eco-badge plan for hotels won’t necessarily reward early adopters of sustainability transparency on a business page. The plan is in its early stages, and Google would want to verify accuracy over time, he said.

But even the company’s verification network for the new information page relies heavily on data an individual property self-reports. The company is considering “some other checklists” in the future as an added verification step, Holden said.

“Most people look at sustainable travel and information on carbon impact and don’t know what it means, frankly,” he said while noting the confusion surrounding what things like sustainable travel and even net-zero pledges mean. “If we’re going to get meaningful impact on this, we’ve got to join forces across the industry.”

Perhaps one way to get even more meaningful impact is to provide an incentive for users to get on board.

[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story used an incorrect professional title for Richard Holden. This story has been updated.]

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Tags: google, google travel, sgf2021, skiftforum, sustainability

Photo Credit: Google VP and GM of Travel Richard Holden (right) in discussion with Skift Sr. Research Analyst Seth Borko at Skift Global Forum, Sept. 22, 2021. Skift

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