Clearly, Google is moving into the travel planning space.
giant launched a flight search tool
on Tuesday, displaying schedules and fares using data and technology from ITA
Software, a company Google bought last year for nearly $700 million.
This development comes less than a week after the search giant bought Zagat, a leading sources of user-generated
restaurant reviews, and only two months after Google began testing
Hinting at the company's plans, Google's head of travel Rob Torres recently told
the travel tech blog Tnooz: “When you look across the phases of the travel
cycle – Dreaming, Researching, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing – the
potential for innovation, particularly in the early stages of dreaming and
researching, is astounding.”
A lot seems
to be brewing for Google's role in travel. In the meantime, which of Google's new
tools are worth using?
What's new: At google.com/flights, you can search between major US cities and
Google will list flights and fares, much like other
travel metasearch sites. But a few inventive tools help narrow down options:
a calendar, a slider that filters time and price, and categories on the left
hand side for selecting the number of stops, frequent flyer programs and
preferred outbound/inbound times. Once you find a fare you like, Google will
direct the user to the airline's site for booking.
Coolest perks: Google's flight and fare results are lightning
fast; no other online travel site returns fares and flight information so
quickly. Using Torres’s theory, the tool also stands out for helping
travellers when they're in the "Dreaming, Researching and Booking” stages
by allowing open-ended searches. For travellers who are unsure about where they
want to go, the Flight Search map displays destinations within certain time and
cash boundaries. For example, a traveller from Dallas could scope out where she
might fly within three hours for under $300. To exclude long and costly flights
from the search results, she could take advantage of Google's unique
innovation, the "limits" slider graph (search for a flight and then
look for the chart icon under the map on the right-hand side). Adjust the
sliders back and forth to determine the price and length of the flight. Fare
geeks who are familiar with using airport codes will want to follow the tips laid
out by PhoCusWright analyst Robert Cole for doing advanced-level
searches through the tool.
Downsides: For now, other metasearch
sites like Kayak and Bing, and major online travel agencies
like Expedia and Travelocity, are often finding cheaper flights
and more thorough options than what Google is offering. Plus, some airlines,
are only showing schedules and not fare information, and others, such as Delta, seem to be sharing only partial
The forecast: Google has only begun to dip its toes into
flight search. If the past is any guide, the search giant will probably become
more competitive and innovative in displaying fares as the months go on. My BBC
Travel colleagues and I have already noticed more destinations available today
than on Tuesday's launch day.
What's new: Find a hotel in a
specific neighbourhood by visiting google.com/hotelfinder. Type in your US destination to see
it appear on Google Maps. You can search for hotels by budget and preferred
location to stay.
Coolest perks: In an ingenious feature,
you can use your computer mouse and cursor to spotlight the area or
neighbourhood you are most interested in staying in by drawing a box around it
on your screen. Google will then fetch rates for hotels located in that
district for the travel dates you request. Google will even tell you if today's
rates at those hotels are above or below the average going rate for the hotel.
Downsides: There is limited
inventory of hotels so far, and only for US destinations. If users want to book
a hotel, Google points them to the hotel’s website for rate and availability
The forecast: Loads of money is
being made by websites that refer customers to hotels in exchange for
commission. Google is nearly certain to be making hotel search results an
integrated part of its general search sometime soon. But the biggest growth
opportunity is in mobile search. In the same Tnooz article, Torres also pointed
out that, "the number of mobile users researching travel is expected to
grow 51% in 2012". I can foresee Google integrating hotel rate information
into the Maps tool on mobile devices, allowing travellers to see properties near
them with real-time availability for quick booking, rivalling other
apps that do the same, like Expedia and Hotel Tonight.
What's new: Google bought Zagat (pronounced
Za-GAT with an emphasis on "gat," which sounds like "cat")
soon after its failed attempt to buy rival user-generated review service Yelp,
which has roughly ten times as many contributors. Zagat has reviews in 100
major markets, mostly in the US. A Google executive told a crowd at a
TechCrunch event that the company plans to showcase
Zagat's reviews in more appealing and relevant ways.
Coolest perks: Zagat reviews are
edited for relevance and usefulness, making them distinctive from other
user-generated content on the web. If Google's users learn to love that, it
will conflict with Google's efforts to generate Yelp-like opinions through its
service, launched in November 2010.
Downsides: The merger has just been announced, so there
are no known plans as to what the product will be.
The forecast: Picking a restaurant
is one of the ultimate "social" activities, where most travellers
tend to trust particular people they know -- not anonymous Internet strangers
-- to provide smart insights in where they might like to eat. If Yelp,
Facebook, TripAdvisor, or another company can find a way to for people to
receive restaurant recommendations that are heavily weighted toward the opinion
of people they respect, those companies will defeat Google in the restaurant
review race. As Google's stumbling efforts in social networking tools Google
Plus and Buzz show, the company doesn't quite understand how to make such tools
Sean O'Neill is
travel tech columnist for BBC Travel