Google is one of the undisputed heavyweights in online travel. So when one of the key masterminds behind all of its travel platforms and products talks about where the search giant is heading, it's worth paying attention to.
Google’s been busy these past few months, updating its options for rail travel but also making the news for its controversial move to remove contrail emissions data. But speaking at Skift Global Forum, Richard Holden, vice president of product management at Google Travel, also shared some future developments, including the return of its own fintech product whose life was cut short by the pandemic.
Watch Holden’s full on-stage appearance with Skift founding editor and executive editor, Dennis Schaal, as well as read a transcript of it, below.
Dennis Schaal: Hey, everybody. Richard, thank you very much for being here.
Richard Holden: Good To see you, Dennis.
Schaal: So this is the 11th anniversary of the launch of Google Travel. Started out with Google Flights. I remember the whole thing, acquiring ITA software. You’ve been at Google since 2002. You’ve seen the development of the whole thing. How is it different than what you imagined it would turn into? What were some of the challenges along the way? How has it evolved?
Holden: That’s a good question. Before we acquired ITA and launched flight search, we did have a hotel search product at that time too. I wasn’t actually involved in the travel products, and I was working on our ad products. But I think they’ve evolved quite nicely through the years in terms of just improving core search, core vertical search as well too. We’ve started from a nub of what was really a local search for hotels at the time into having a very rich product at this point with lots of content through lots of partnerships we have in terms of photos, reviews, location, information, et cetera, bringing all those pieces together. And then we spent a lot of time over the last few years also just engaging more and more partners across the industry to get on the platform too as well to help drive more traffic to them.
So I don’t know if I had a vision because I wasn’t there at the first day when we launched the products, but I think they’ve evolved nicely in terms of the comprehensiveness both on the flight side, the hotel side, now working on things to do, each of these sub-verticals we’ve been pursuing. It’s really about building the best consumer experience possible. And usually that’s about getting the most data, the most comprehensive data that we can get. And I think we’ve made good strides on that across those products.
Schaal: Has it taken as long as you envisioned? You’re working on comprehensiveness. You’re doing a lot of stuff. It’s really been a long haul.
Holden: Yeah. It has been a long haul. I mean, the truth is, when you dig into this, and many of those in the audience probably know as well, gathering the data across the industry is a challenging thing. It takes time. You can get a first cut at it, but there’s a lot of work to getting the accuracy as high as possible over time, the frequency, the rate of updates, et cetera. Every year, we have a goal around quality and accuracy, and that just bar gets higher every year as we go. So I would say in some ways, it’s been surprising how long it’s taken. On the other hand, it’s a never-ending mission in that sense.
Schaal: How often do you do updates?
Holden: We do updates all the time.
Schaal: Every day?
Holden: I’m approving launches every day. There’s always something’s coming across my desk to flip a bit on, so to speak, to say this is ready to launch.
Schaal: Before I forget, if you have any questions for Holden, put them in the app and we’ll get them towards the end. So post-pandemic, is Google stronger or weaker in travel?
Holden: I would say pandemic was a real wake-up call for everybody, industry. I think one thing we learned pretty quickly on during the pandemic was there were a lot of consumers that still needed to travel, and so we pivoted a lot of the things that we were working on toward trying to help them figure out how to travel even when you couldn’t travel, in many cases. We also had a lot of partners out there that were struggling to figure out what to do, how to find demand, how to know when to turn on operations again, to turn off operations, et cetera. So we actually spent a lot of time pivoting our resources to working on things that we didn’t anticipate working on at all
Schaal: Informational kind of things?
Holden: Yeah. I mean, from a user perspective, we found a lot of users were just grateful to be able to have information about, “Hey. I got to travel. I’ve got a family crisis. I need to go someplace. Can I go there? How do I do that?” And so we started working on alerts, other information for consumers that… nothing that we had envisioned before. And then from a partner perspective, I think that we generated a lot of analytical tools for them to help them understand the markets. I’d say I’m hoping that we’ve come out of that stronger from a partner perspective. A lot of those things that we were working on in the pandemic, we probably would never have worked on but for the pandemic. And we have a set of analytical tools now that we continue to invest in post-pandemic. So I’d say we’re probably stronger from that perspective in how we engage with the partners. And I hope we’ve built trust with the consumer that we actually have their interest in mind there too.
Schaal: So is Google Travel bigger than pre-pandemic?
Holden: We have a similar amount of resources that we had working on it internally. I’m not sure how to measure it externally.
Schaal: So I guess one thing that people might not… People who use Google for marketing I’m sure understand this, but others might not, and that is Google Travel is really Google Search and it’s Google Travel itself. So how do those two things interplay with each other?
Holden: Yeah. I’d say over a decade ago, we decided at Google that there were a set of verticals that we wanted to specialize on, that we wanted to focus on. We noticed that a lot of consumers were not necessarily getting the right answers in some of these more specialized services, the things like shopping, things like travel. And from our perspective, we decided that it was worth setting up a specialized focus on that. That being said, I would say that it’s still very much like core search in that sense. There are verticals that are still organizationally within our search organization at Google that aren’t split out, like shopping or travel, and our approach isn’t that different.
Holden: My team focuses on all the features and functions that relate to travel-related products on Google, but I work in the context of the search organization very often, even if I don’t sit in it. So things that I launch are within the guidance and framework of things that we’re doing within search as well too. And we work closely with the MAPS organization similarly and others as well too. So I’d say that it’s very fluid as to how I would define those things. These are really just verticals that get more focus at Google, but are still part of core search.
Schaal: So if your account rep is… I realize you’re in product, not necessarily ads. Are there different use cases for throwing ad into Google Search versus Google Hotel ads?
Holden: Oh, sure. I mean, we have different ad products, and the ads team works on those. There are a core of search ads, there are core product, and there are travel-specific clients that buy those search ads on the search results page. We also have travel vertical-specific ads that are like the hotel ads that you see within the booking module. And most of our advertisers in the travel segment are buying both, a mix of those advertisements.
Schaal: So we have an audience poll, Holden. You will the results. For Gmail users, google takes all of your travel booking information and aggregates it for you to view in one place at travel.google.com. Is this a great service? 47 percent. An invasion of privacy? What’s that, 18 percent? Are your eyes better than mine?
Holden: That’s 19 percent.
Schaal: 19. A nuisance. What’s that, Richard?
Holden: Nine and a half percent.
Schaal: Something else. 23 percent.
Schaal: So I use this service all the time, travel.google.com. But what I don’t like about it is, so if you’re not familiar with it, if you get a flight confirmation, say from United Airlines and you’re a Gmail user, Google will add a block or a module on top of the email and it’ll say view in travel. It doesn’t say it’s from Google. So sometimes it’s confusing, like if I want to change a flight, instead of booking on the United Airlines part of the email, I’ll book on the Google part where I can’t change my flight.
Holden: That sounds like a UX issue we should work on because the language should be clear. I mean, I think for most people, looks like at least in this case, close to most people, it’s a useful service. But certainly, improvements we could make in that as well. And I should point out, for those who think it’s an invasion of privacy or aren’t comfortable with it, you’re in full control to certainly turn off the service within that, within Gmail settings, and not have us do that too.
Schaal: And no one else can use it except yourself.
Holden: Yeah. It’s all personal.
Schaal: So we have a bit of news. Can we show the image a screenshot, hopefully? And do you want to talk about the new things that you released today, trains and some filters?
Holden: Yeah. In terms of on the sustainability front, there are a couple of things … Actually, the screenshot here in particular. We did launch today new Train Search services on Google.com. It’s worldwide available, but for particular countries. So if you’re looking for trains in Germany, in Italy, Spain, and Japan, we have data now to help you understand what the train options are. And as you can see in the imagery here, you can then go directly to the provider to book that train as well. So some of the information you might have seen in the past on Google was related to map-related information and embedded transit information there. It gave you schedule information, but it didn’t give you pricing information and it didn’t link you to a partner to be able to book that. So that’s what we’re announcing now.
Holden: As you can imagine, this is just what we’re starting. We’re hoping to expand that to other markets as we build relationships with the train operators themselves, with intermediaries as well too. So we’re looking forward to gathering more. You can think about it as similar to work we’ve done in Flights where we’ve built a Flights platform for this and we’d like to do the same thing in Trains as well. And so that was one announcement we made today.
Holden: Another was related to our sustainability efforts where last year we launched the ability to get carbon emissions information in flights and also eco-certification information on hotels. And what we launched today was the ability to filter results for that. So if you’re interested in flights, but you only want to see flights that have low emission standards, you can filter that in Flights that way. Or if you want to find hotels that are eco-certified, you can search for that only as well.
Holden: And the third thing that we announced today is that we’re working with certification bodies to gather data directly from them, for hotels that are eco-certified. You can think about LEED certification and the like. Or now, not only getting the information from the hotels, but from third parties that are doing the certification so that we can get comprehensive information on the product.
Schaal: So the new Train feature is what I would consider the Google conundrum in that you’re making it much easier for people to search for trains, which is a great thing for the consumer. It’s streamlined. You don’t have to go clicking around to Omio, and then once you get omio.com, and you got to start the search again. It’s much faster. But on the other hand, because of Google’s grip on search, you’re disrupting people’s businesses. It might be Omio might lose traffic or Kayak or whomever. Right now, the booking links are only for the train operators themselves. So how do you view that?
Holden: Yeah. I would say that what you’re seeing in the product today is just an initial launch where we’ve worked with rail operators and data providers to get that information. We’re perfectly open to and would love to have intermediaries there as well too, just like we do in hotel search and we do in flight search. And so I would see it as an opportunity quite soon for anybody to participate in that as well. These are just the initial markets. We’ll launch more. And then from our perspective it would be, “Hey. It’s a free offering that we can drive lots of traffic to you, help discovery from a consumer perspective. And if it performs the way we would hope it does, hopefully for partners, it’s more traffic that’s in all cases at the moment free.
Schaal: But it might take you five years, but eventually you might end up charging for those links.
Holden: We might charge links at some point in the future. We have no plans at this point. Usually, we do that at a point where we think the comprehensiveness is there. And then we also supplement that with both free links and paid links. And from a blended perspective, for most partners, it’s good value.
Schaal: So Google Flights, there was somewhat of a controversy with Google Flights in terms of you changed the way you calculate emissions. And the BBC said that what you did was you airbrushed a lot of the emissions impact to help your airline partners, to make it seem as if they are not as, or to make it appear as they’re more sustainable than they actually are. So what happened there?
Holden: Yeah. That’s definitely not what we were doing, but we had what we called the travel impact model that we’ve been working with many folks across the industry on, and a number of you are probably familiar with the Travel List Coalition as well that we’re a part of, and we’re working with parties to do that. What we had is part of the model was a contrails information in the model as well too, which-
Schaal: And contrails are?
Holden: Cloud formation that you often see behind planes, which we 100 percent believe in the science there that there is impact, environmental impact from contrails formation, traps heat, and it creates more negative impacts to the environment.
Schaal: Some people say it’s a major impact.
Holden: And we 100 percent agree with that. In fact, it was part of our model originally. What I would say is that we listened to a number of academics, scientists, others that came to us and said, “Look. Your science is good about this in terms of the impact overall, but on a per-flight basis, there’s still quite a bit of debate in the industry about the impact on a per-flight basis.” And we stepped back and said, “You’re right. I think we’re wrong from a per-flight basis. The information we’re providing is misleading from that perspective.” We decided we’ll pull back but only from a temporary standpoint until the science is more confirmed, more elaborated in this space, and then we can do a better job on a per-flight basis showing this information.
Holden: And I think it got overblown as to Google’s listening to the airlines saying something negative about this. Couldn’t be further from the truth from that perspective. We just want to make sure the data we’re presenting is accurate and right. A number of academics and others came out and lauded us for actually making this change, for not misstating it. I would also say most consumers are probably looking at this information on a relative basis. I want to choose a flight that has less emissions impact or less negative environmental impacts. The relative ranking of the flights hasn’t changed because we pulled this data out as a result. So I don’t think we’re affecting consumer choice at the end. We’re just making sure the consumers aren’t getting false information.
Schaal: Do you think this is going to take years before you get the confidence in the data or?
Holden: It’s a very good question. I don’t think it’s going to be years, but I don’t think it’s going to be a matter of a couple of months. So it’s going to take a little bit of time. But we are working with a number of academics on this front right now.
Schaal: So the audience and I think alike because I have the same question as an audience question, that is, that you just eliminated Book on Google for flights or for hotels also?
Holden: We did for hotels first and then flights as well.
Schaal: Okay. So a lot of people felt that… not me, but a lot of people felt that Google was going to become an OTA, that you were going to take over Expedia’s business and booking.com. You’re going to become an open OTA, a booking site. But you’ve dropped that. And the audience question was what is Google’s travel strategy considering it is disabling bookings? So what happened there?
Holden: So I would say that I’ve said this for many, many years that our objective was never to be an OTA and our goal of doing Book on Google wasn’t to become an OTA. Our objective on Book on Google originally, the genesis of it initially was many years ago in a early mobile environment where a number of sites out there just didn’t perform well from a mobile booking perspective. We created initially to help partners say, “Hey. We’ve optimized this for a mobile context. We can help you improve your conversion rates. We have no interest in owning the customer relationship. You’re still the merchant of record. If this helps you from a conversion standpoint, great use it. If not, don’t bother.” And for many partners, that really was the case for some of them particularly who were less sophisticated online. It was a helpful service.
Holden: We offered it on desktop as well too, but it was more engaged on a mobile front. And eventually I would say that most mobile sites have become better and better over time. They perform better. The value in Book on Google wasn’t there for as many partners. As a proportion of our overall bookings, it was falling, and we just decided at that point that it had served its purpose. And so our purpose was not to become a end-to-end own the customer relations bookings site. It was to streamline bookings, which it did, and the purpose has ended at this point from our [inaudible].
Schaal: And you felt that not a great percentage of consumers were using it?
Holden: We had consumers that used it and loved it, but we were finding that it was declining as a proportion of our overall bookings over time. Just seemed clear that most mobile sites and others were performing well over time. It wasn’t necessary, necessarily.
Schaal: Here’s a good audience question. What does Google think about the threat posed by TikTok?
Holden: Well, I’m not really in the space of our search team in thinking about this, but obviously I guess in the travel context, I would say that there’s no doubt that consumers are spending a lot more time, particularly younger generations of users, looking at video rather than text-based information to do travel inquiry. We think there’s a huge opportunity in the video space. You can see it in YouTube. You can see it in other sites with consumers beginning to engage more and more at the early stages of thinking about travel, dreaming about where they want to go rather than just dreaming and reading about it, spending a lot more time looking at videos about that. And I think TikTok has a nice space in that, Instagram through Reels and other aspects as well too. We think there are some interesting opportunities there.
Schaal: So I guess I’m not sure if it was two years ago. Google added a lot of free links, or maybe it was a year, year and a half ago. I did a search for the Moxy Times Square where we had a party last night, and I think there were three paid ads, booking.com, Expedia, and hotels.com. And then there were 37 free links listed under the Moxy. So how is that working out? Is that really benefiting some of the companies that weren’t buying ads?
Holden: Our perspective on launching this, what we call free booking links, was we wanted to make sure we had comprehensiveness, and we wanted to make sure that we had all the offers from hotels that we could possibly present a consumer. And looking back on our product, we knew we were missing some. So part of our objective there was to say what can we do to enable all partners, both intermediaries, both suppliers directly, to want participate in the product? And that was the genesis of free booking links from a couple of years ago, as you suggested.
Holden: And I think it’s working out quite well. We’ve got a nice surge of engagement from suppliers coming onto the platform. We simplified a lot of the connectivity issues that we had in the past from sophisticated partners to less sophisticated. We got a lot of complaints in the past about having very unique demands in terms of connecting to our systems. We’ve now adopted industry standards in many cases for connecting with us. And so we have seen a nice surge of suppliers joining us and an increase in pricing information and offers on the platform. And we’ve also viewed it as a Boone for all partners.
Holden: We’re actually seeing an increase of traffic to partners across the board both in paid and in the free booking space. So I think it’s been good, and we’re doing this across other services. So flights and a parallel since. A number of years ago we removed the ads from flight search and we’re bringing on more and more online travel agents to ads, into the flight search product. And then things to do, we’re doing a similar thing where we’re trying to get full supplier integration as well as intermediaries as well.
Schaal: So with the free links, it’s interesting. So if you buy an ad, a hotel ad for a particular hotel, you also get a spot in the free links. So a booking.com will appear in the paid ad and booking.com will also appear in the free links. How does that work for the advertiser? Are they getting a significant amount of traffic from the free links versus the paid or?
Holden: Well, when you mentioned before that there were 37 free links, again, you click to the prices tab one layer deeper. So on the booking module itself, you would typically see those two or three ads for the provider, and then you might see one or two free booking links. So if there’s any time that a partner wants to certainly get noticed, being in the ad slot means that they will be, versus if you’re in the free booking links, you may not show up unless somebody clicks deeper into that experience. So there’s certainly an incentive there for a partner that wants to always appear in that booking module to buy the ad as well.
Schaal: So sometimes it appears to the naked eye, for lack of a better term, that for example, with the Vacation Rentals product, it doesn’t seem like it’s really changed all that much in the last few months or over the last year. I’m sure there’s a lot of changes going on, the way you present things. What is the focus there?
Holden: I mean, the focus I would say is just a product that is a number of years earlier in its life cycle than something like hotel search for us. But our objective is the same there to be able to build out the content, have full imagery, full rich review content, location information, et cetera, about those properties over time. I would just say we’re earlier in that process than we are in hotels. And a lot is changing about it, but it’s not always apparent to the naked eye. It takes time for those things to show up entirely.
Schaal: So Airbnb doesn’t participate in that. I see Vrbo is in it recently. Booking.com isn’t in it, I don’t believe, in vacation rentals. How viable can the product be without Airbnb?
Holden: Yeah. We’d certainly love to have those brands participate. They did in the past. Some of them have been in and out at different times. We’d love to see them all in the product at the end of the day, no doubt about it, if I want to have comprehensive set of offers. I would say that there’s a trend in the industry over the last five or so years where multi-site listing is becoming an increasing factor. And I do think that we have access to more information across multiple providers now than we once did. But there’s no doubt that we’re missing some information by not having those partners there as well, and we would welcome them to participate again in the future. We’re going to continue to try to build it out and make it as comprehensive as we can without them, but we’d love to have them there too.
Schaal: When you’re talking to Brian Chesky about that, what’s he telling you? Why isn’t he in it?
Holden: Well, I haven’t talked to Brian specifically about it in a long time, but our ads teams meet with them regularly and they still buy ads from us as well too over time. I would say all of them are all looking at the product and saying is, “Consumer traffic grows there and if it’s interesting to us and it’s valuable to us, we’ll participate.” So that’s usually a wait and see attitude on most partners engaging with us on this.
Schaal: So you don’t have paid links and vacation rentals on Google Travel, right? But you still make a lot of money in vacation rentals, right?
Holden: Well, I think may be referring to search ads. There are vacation rental companies that buy search ads and I don’t sell the ad products. I think we make good money there too.
Schaal: Yeah. You think you’re doing okay?
Holden: I think so.
Schaal: A lot of people are talking about FinTech these days. Hopper’s doing all these price freezes for airfares and hotels. When are you rolling out your FinTech products?
Holden: I wouldn’t say that we have anything specific in FinTech. There are some interesting products there for sure that various players in the industry are working on. There was something back in 2019 we worked on, which was flight price guarantee, which we experimented with for a period of time. And then the pandemic hit, and we pulled back on that. That is something that we’re looking at trying to renew in the next year or so, which I think is an interesting opportunity. The consumers really loved when we experimented with it before. And we work a lot on what I would call insights, price insights both on the hotel side and the flight side. But I wouldn’t say there’s anything that I would deem FinTech-specific that we’re announcing at this point.
Schaal: Audience question. How does Google Travel communicate with consumers outside of the Google platform?
Holden: I’m not sure how to interpret that question.
Schaal: I guess it doesn’t, right?
Holden: I mean, outside the Google platform, we present information to consumers on Google.com, across various travel properties. And yeah, I’m not sure I understand that question.
Schaal: Okay. Things to do. What’s happening there?
Holden: Things to do, another area that I would say is an interesting space for us. It’s still, I would say a very fragmented industry, which is where we see interesting opportunity to help consumers find what they want to do in particular markets. I think what the rise of mobile in particular and a lot more last-minute planning that consumers are doing on device in location, that there’s certainly an interesting opportunity there. You’ve seen a lot of growth of companies out there in this space over the last number of years. I still think consumers are very confused often about where to find information on this. And so for us, we see it as another interesting aggregation opportunity to provide comprehensive information. I think there’s been a real focus on commercial activity in this space where I think from a consumer perspective, you’re often in a market saying, “Yeah. Maybe I want to buy a tour, but maybe I just want to take a walk. Maybe I want to do something else. So I’d like to see what I can do and comprehensively in a market.”
Holden: And that’s what I’d like us to deliver is looking at all the free offerings in a market as well as the paid offerings and have a consumer be able to look across those things from a tour perspective, from an experience perspective, from an activity perspective. So we’re trying to aggregate those things.
Schaal: So Google Travel, you have flights, you have hotels, you have vacation rentals, you have things to do, you have itineraries, you have maps. Super app strategy?
Holden: Nothing in particular.
Schaal: Oh. So you’re not denying it.
Holden: You see what we have. We have no app-specific at the moment out in the market.
Schaal: I love the… You did a blog post maybe a month ago about when is the best day to book a flight and all kinds of that, and had a little Google-ish humor there. It was like, “Sorry, Tuesday. You’re not the best.” So what can you say about some of those trends, about the …
Holden: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of myths in the industry often from a consumer perspective about when to book and when to travel. And it was just interesting. We look at some of the data that we have across time. We’re able to aggregate some of that and come back and tell consumers maybe booking on this day isn’t the best booking day necessarily. It is true that some of the things we’ve seen during the pandemic of shifting of travel slightly by Thursdays is definitely giving people… Getting an earlier start on the weekend travel has definitely saved consumers money. There are just a number of interesting little tidbits of information that we found looking at some of this.
Schaal: I think 3 p.m. on Tuesdays is the best time to book a flight. So I’m going to book one right now. Thank you, Richard.
Holden: Thank you, Dennis.
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Photo credit: Google's head of travel Richard Holden with Skift executive editor Dennis Schaal at Skift Global Forum on September 20, 2022 in New York City. Neil van Niekerk / Skift