Guest contributor Matt Beswick on two new travel search products from Google, and what they mean for the folks who do travel SEO.
Google’s guiding philosophy seems to be try, try and try again. Only one-third of development projects at Mountain View ever become a full-fledged feature of Google’s broader product offerings. Also-rans like Wave, Knol and Buzz were all ambitious efforts that never really panned out. Regardless, the utilities that do make the cut tend to stick around for awhile.
The field of travel search has been a conspicuous hole in Google’s lineup until recently. They dipped their toes into the pool before, but hadn’t really made serious moves until the summer of 2011.
Google’s latest travel tools
Google’s renewed interest in travel search began last year with the acquisition of ITA Software for $700 million on September 13, 2011.
Building on the talent and code that they gained through the buyout, they’ve launched Google Hotel Finder and Google Flights. Much like most other search engines for airline information, users can select flights based on a number of parameters like arrival and departure times, budget, and preferred carriers.
The reviews thus far are lukewarm at best, and competitors like Expedia and Orbitz don’t seem to be that concerned at present.
What differentiates Google Flights is its nifty UI for picking out flight itineraries and its sheer speed. Though not as full-featured or ostentatious in appearance as its many rivals, Flights provides the average searcher with a quick way to comparison shop—although you can’t book flights within the service.
Hotel Finder, while still technically a Google Experiment, allows users to select a specific region in which to hunt for hotels and accommodations. Thanks to the user feedback and reviews provided by Google Plus, Hotel Finder boasts a heavy social element that assists users in finding the right lodgings.
Travel SEO and the bottom line
For the average Joe or Jane that uses Google for planning trips, Flights and Hotel Finder make searching for travel accommodations fairly painless. Though Bing currently features better travel search functionality overall, Flights and Hotel Finder are solid options for gathering information.
The major point of contention for travel SEO experts and marketers is the fact that these new travel services rely on a paid inclusion model for the top spots. In other words, sponsored ads take precedence at the top of the SERPs.
It’s pretty obvious at a glance what this will mean for AdWords advertisers. Basically, they’ll have to pay more money if they want to stay in contention. What it also means is that travel SEO sites will need to rely more heavily on organic and viral marketing in order to be successful.
Changing revenue models and streams
Google first became famous for its completely neutral take on search results. Unlike Yahoo, it completely segregated paid and non-paid results and made it clear which was which. AdWords handled sponsored listings, while organic SERPs were immune from the direct influence of money.
Paid inclusion used to be anathema to everything Google stood for. Now, it seems they’re willing to integrate it gradually under the right circumstances. Travel metasearch service Kayak, which gets a mere 10 percent of traffic from Google search, claims that Google Flights won’t significantly impact their profits.
That’s great for Kayak, but it won’t help smaller travel SEO practitioners who rely on Google for the bulk of their leads.
Adapting to the new reality
When it comes to Flights, the paid inclusion model that’s gaining traction is similar to that of Google’s Advisor service. Though there’s still a relatively clear segregation between organic SEO venues and PPC-based advertising arenas, the waters are getting murkier as we go forwards.
Marketers basically have two options: pay more for paid listings, or increase the quality and quantity of their inbound-links via organic SEO and social media. Dealing with Hotel Finder will require SEOs to optimize content for Google Places, among other tactics.
The primary takeaway
You have to hand it to those crafty folks at Google: they’re certainly adept at keeping marketers on their toes.
You can expect to see much bigger things in the coming months from Flights and Hotel Finder as Google moves to increase monetization of their travel search products. But, in order to do that, they’ll need to really impress advertisers and searchers alike with an experience that’s unparalleled.