Thursday, 25 March 2010

Google’s New Travel Meta Search Experiment: Hotel Search & Prices on Google Map

Yesterday, we saw another first for Google as they started experimenting a combination of Google Maps and their Local Business Listings application to offer a new search experience: the meta-search. This project is still under development, but Google is currently testing how to effectively display hotel rates on the Google Maps search pages. As the news spread, concerns were raised especially among online travel agencies, vertical search engines and travel meta-search portals, as the search giant entered their territory.

See the screenshot from the Google Maps new experiment:

As the functionality is still in beta-testing, it is not yet clear how Google will develop the feature both in terms of price scraping and approach. On Google’s blog yesterday a post said that Google are currently evaluating the effectiveness of the feature from a user’s and advertiser’s point of view: “This new feature will not change the way that hotels are ranked in Google Maps. Google Maps ranks business listings based on their relevance to the search terms entered, along with geographic distance (where indicated) and other factors, regardless of whether there is an associated price.”

The biggest question is how will Google collect rates and will these be in real time? Will rates be drawn from the hotels’ booking engines or reservation systems, CRSs, travel agencies or other sources? The source is of primary importance and will have a great impact on how this new feature will affect the marketplace and who, of the business players, will benefit. From a user perspective, this features would seem to make searching for hotels and accommodation in know or unknown locations easier and more efficient.

Despite the uncertainty, the new feature clearly points out the growing call to local hotels and accommodation providers to get listed and registered on Google Business listings (where available) and on Google Maps. It seems clear that the feature will refocus the relationship between hotels and Google as Google becomes increasingly important as a sales and marketing channel for large as well as small market players.

From a search point of view, if prices shown in the results listings are not accurate or up-to-date this Google feature could increase bounce rates to hotel and travel websites as consumers will expect to see the rates advertised on Google on corresponding hotel or agency Web sites. However, it is still too early to tell whether and how this functionality will affect hotels and local businesses. What we can say is that with all such functionalities – when done right - it rewards those who are keep up-to-speed with these developments and punishes those who lag behind.

In the wake of the recession, some positive news is now being published about an increase in direct bookings and direct online revenues to hotels across the world. As hotels are doubling their e-marketing activities and budgets the internet is confirmed as the only sales channel on the rise even during the economic downturn. With Google’s price comparison feature, it will be interesting to watch whether this will further promote the increase in direct revenues or whether it will push the online travel agents, travel meta and vertical search engines pricing and services.

The question is: Will this feature speed up the disintermediation of the hospitality and travel sectors and lead to a decrease in hotel dependency on the online travel agencies? As online marketers working for more direct online revenues – we are keeping our fingers crossed.

Velit Dundar

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