The Google Grill: Hard Questions, Asked and Answered

Industry heavyweights Hugo Burge and Carl Sparks grill Google's Jeremy Wertheimer on Flight Search, the ethics of being so big, and more

“We think the travel ecosystem is a very big, open, busy place that's growing all the time, and that's how we like it.”
— Jeremy Wertheimer, Google VP travel and co-founder of ITA software, during a keynote presentation in November at The PhoCusWright Conference 2012 

Google’s ongoing travel-related acquisitions and its seemingly limitless intellectual, innovative, financial and technological capabilities have pushed many travel suppliers and distributors into a watchful stance regarding the search giant’s plans in the travel space.

Specific concerns focus on the possible introduction of a Google booking capability and the ever-increasing financial and marketing resources required to stay on top in the search process and keep up with Google’s expanding advertising ‘opportunities’, particularly those involving local search.

More general concerns drift into the realm of ethical uncertainties, including the negative impact — intended or not — that Google’s sheer size and reach can have (and have had) on smaller businesses and, in some cases, entire industries. And, given Google’s ubiquitous presence online, its dominance in search, and its deep-dive user tracking capabilities, is it accurate to define the digital marketplace as a truly “open” system?

In a keynote address given at The PhoCusWright Conference 2012 in November, Jeremy Wertheimer, Google’s vice president of travel and co-founder of ITA software, shared his perspective on Google’s current and upcoming innovations in travel within a historical context. Directly following the keynote, two industry heavyweights had an opportunity to question Wertheimer on his statements, and on Google’s involvements and intentions in the travel space. Probing questions, particularly involving Google Flight Search, were asked and answered.

This article features excerpts from the question-and-answer session, reproduced courtesy of PhoCusWright and edited for length and clarity. The Google grill featured questioners Hugo Burge, CEO of Momondo Group (formerly Cheapflights Media), and Carl Sparks, president and CEO of Travelocity Global.

Hugo Burge: Jeremy, I loved the video at the beginning. Very inspiring. Then you used a couple of words — you said the travel industry was exciting because it was ‘big’ and ‘open’. That got me thinking. Google is a brilliant company, but some of the things that it's done over the last few years have actually made travel a little bit less open in some ways. You could say that Google Flight Search is potentially prioritizing your end product. The purchase of Zagat [restaurant reviews] and Frommer’s [Frommer’s Travel Guides] sometimes gets people in this room a bit nervous about the fact that Google wants to prioritize its own content, which is kind of the opposite of open. I wanted to put that question to you and see what your thoughts are.
Jeremy Wertheimer:
By ‘open’ what I mean is a system that interacts with other systems. Throughout most of the history of travel you had these closed computer systems; you could only have the information that was available to them, the same way we talked about closed-wall gardens on the Internet versus open spaces.

Google is open. Anybody is free to use any part of it they want. Nothing is connected to anything else in a way that anybody can't change. What we want to do (is) to give the best answer to users to any question they ask, and even for questions they don't ask. And if the best answer is giving them a link to somewhere, that's great.

Burge: But Google is making a decision that the companies it's decided to purchase, like Zagat or Frommer's, is the best answer. I think what made Google brilliant in the beginning was that it was very open. It was collecting the best answers from whoever had them, and now it's making decisions that make it just a little bit more closed.
I'm not sure why you say that. Yes, Google acquired Zagat, but I'm not sure why that makes it more closed. It just says, ‘Here's some content that's being offered up.’ It doesn't say you can't get to other content.

Burge: Okay. Well, let me take it back to Flight Search, which is obviously my favorite topic. I thought your talk was notable by the fact that you didn't really talk about Flight Search. Last year it was a bit of a hot topic at the conference: you were using Google-esque type words — ‘we've launched’ or ‘we like to launch quickly’ or ‘we're going to iterate quickly.’ This year it's been a little bit quieter than I think people expected. Can you talk us through that a bit, or explain the reasons for that?
Well, there have been several dozen launches [involving Google Flight Search]. Last year when we launched it was just U.S. Then we launched international destinations, then we launched Canada origins. So, things are moving out.

If you look at the small features, or if you follow our blog, you'll see there's a continual process of rolling out new features. As you know, at Google we're sort of scientific about it. We roll things out. We measure them. We test them. We roll out other things. So there's a continual process. There's a bunch of things going on.

Burge: If I was being harsh I would also say that Google says, ‘We launch fast, we iterate fast, and we fail fast.’ Has Flight Search failed fast this year? Have you stopped investing in it, or is it going to be pushed more?
I don't think there’s any drop in the number of launches, the number of iterations, or the things that we’re doing.

Burge: But has Google Flight Search met your expectations in terms of the amount of traffic that it's had this year or the amount of impact it's had on the industry?
  It's growing. It's growing nicely. I've been doing this for a long time, so I've seen these things develop. Most of the companies that we were looking at in the video are companies that we power as ITA Software. We've Wertheimergrillwatched them develop over their arcs. These arcs are typically many years long, so there's a process by which these things develop. We go into industries and we start doing things, and we work away at it.

Burge: So it's a longer-term game. But what are the challenges that you've found in terms of making Google Flight Search a great product? I would guess the airlines haven't been incredibly helpful. And is cannibalization an issue? Are those things holding back innovation?
No, I think things are moving along. We launched quickly with a set of airlines; we're going a little more diligently and cautiously as we move out to the international sphere, because there are lots of airlines to talk to. We want to make sure the quality is high enough before we launch.

On lots of things that we do — and you might have to look carefully — there's continual experimentation. There's rolling out of new features. There's careful measurement of how those features are doing. There's careful tracking of what's working and what's not working. So it is a process, and we move forward. 

Carl Sparks, Travelocity Global: You mentioned that you look very closely at the metrics. I'm curious; for either Flight Search or Hotel Finder, what are kind of the metrics that you look at that help you tell whether a certain part or the whole thing is working for consumers? What are those metrics? And. which ones are good and where are there places you feel like you still want to improve?
It’s the usual kinds of things that you measure on the Web. We'll measure what things people click on, and when they click on things do they seem to get what they want? Do they engage with the thing they're using? Do they click on it and go away, or do they stick around? For things where they're going off and doing bookings, how productive is that?

It’s all the different kinds of metrics that you use on the Internet. We don't really have time to go through all of them, but it's the kind of thing you would expect. We're measuring all of those things, and we're tracking them, and things are working pretty well. We're mindful of how that process goes.

Sparks: Where do you see the biggest area of improvement opportunity? What are there metrics [in Google Flight Search] where you'd like to see improvement?
Clearly there's international expansion, which is something that requires working with partners in every market and going in carefully and evaluating what quality bar you want to have. For Google, a usual rollout is every country and territory in the world — 200 or so. To do that in the airline space requires going and having a lot of conversations. That's a process that we've been in, and you'll continue to see that expansion.

As you said a moment ago, it's a long game. It's not a game to be done in one quarter or two. We think this is a big area, and we want to move carefully to make sure that we're getting out good experiences.

Hugo Burge: You've got some very big ambitions. There's a lot of opportunity in travel. What are the things that you're most excited that you've launched since ITA joined forces with Google?
We were very happy to get Flight Search out quickly, because we had been sort of sitting across the table from our colleagues for the whole period of the regulatory review, kind of itching to get to work. So it was fun that once we got approval, within a few months we were able to get something out and begin iterating on it.

There's lots of other things going on. There are lots of partners involved in the ecosystem that we're working with, so we're engaged in the process. It's moving along. But, pretty happy we got Flight Search out, we’ve got an international expansion going, we're getting the features going. All the different products are moving along pretty well. I think it'll be fun next year [2013] to review how things are going.

Burge: There were a lot of rumors last year. I think people were expecting the international expansion [on Flight Search] to come sooner. Has it been slower than you expected or more frustrating, or are things kind of on track?
There’s always a choice between whether you move out faster and maybe have people say things like, ‘Oh, look, you didn't do X or Y or Z’, or whether you want to say, ‘Okay, let's get X and Y and Z done before we roll out.’

We were quite focused on getting something out very quickly because we'd finally be able to consummate the merger [with ITA Software], and we wanted to get something launched. Now we're working carefully with partners to make sure that we're setting things up the way we want and rolling out region by region.

Burge: There was an interesting Tnooz article that generally said flight engines could sleep well at night because Google had moved slower than everybody expected. Do you think it's unjustified? Kayak's moved very quickly, and also been purchased [by], and there are many meta-search companies launching internationally very quickly. Do you think that you're going to be able to keep up with that pace given your experience so far?
I've done the thing of launching the company and getting it acquired, so I'm not trying to keep up with that pace. But in terms of rolling out services to users, you're looking at slightly different numbers than I'm looking at. Unfortunately I can't share them, but we look across all the things that we do in travel. I think the path we're on is going in a good direction.

There are lots of things going on. Obviously, mobile is a very interesting area. We have lots of things progressing. I think you'll see a bunch of things coming out.

Carl Sparks, Travelocity Global: It's really interesting to see the innovations like Maps and Google Now, and just imagine all the possibilities. At the same time, when you unleash something like this on the world there can be unexpected consequences; for example, maps and the disclosure of sensitive military sites that people might get upset about. With something like Google Now or other things, do you ever pressure-test these things to say, ‘Boy, could this accidental outcome happen, or what if it was misused?’ Do you have a destructive testing group? And if you do, are there any interesting stories of things where you said, ‘Wow, we can't let that happen?’
We do an enormous amount of testing. Anything that gets released, first we're all using it, and a small group uses it, then a larger team, then eventually all of Google. So everything that actually gets out there into the wild has been through a lot of use and a lot of testing. Sometimes you test something internally and you decide it's not quite ready yet. You know, ‘Let's do some more work on it.’

So we're not really putting out things that haven't been tested for a bit, and we have a big enough group of testers that we can subject things to some pretty harsh usage before we roll it out. 

Audience member: Jeremy, I know that as you were developing Flight Search you had a vision of providing a lot more rich data. Have you had trouble working with the airlines to have them release their ancillary fee data to help you out with baggage charges, seat reservation fees and so on, so you could pass those on to consumers?
All these things are starting to roll out, they're all processes. If you've watched, for some airlines we now have more information about a richer range of products. We have more information about baggage fees.

The airline industry, frankly, is not a place where every datum that you want is easily and immediately available because it's in a nice clean system; often it takes a tremendous amount of work, because you have to go and excavate this data from these very old legacy systems. Something that might seem very simple might be a very expensive proposition on the airline side, so it might take a while. So these are continual processes. We work on them. Would I love it if all data was available immediately? That'd be great. But practically, we work and move forward.

Audience member: Jeremy, when we think about the things that Google offers in travel, they're very specifically product-centric versus trip-centric. Is there any vision for building the pieces together? Or that the consumer is thinking about a trip holistically and may want to consider multiple components at once instead of just a flight search versus a hotel search?
The short answer is yes. Coming from the systems we build, like an airline reservation system, you have a kind of workflow where you have professional users that have sessions with lots of information that they manage on the Internet. With the user-facing things they typically have, there's a different kind of interaction style. Over time you'll see a merging of those interaction styles.

Jeremy Wertheimer on Google’s Latest Innovations in Travel
A Google Booking Engine: It’s a Definite Maybe
Where’s Google? An Editorial by Arnie Weissmann 

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