The Google-ization of Travel

A dialogue with tech writer, author and Google expert Steven Levy on where the search behemoth might be headed in travel

By Diane Merlino

What’s Google up to in travel?

Google’s August purchase of Frommer’s, following the Zagat buy in fall 2011 and the acquisition of ITA Software earlier in the year, begs the question.

There are myriad possibilities, particularly when considered in a broader context. Google’s reach and resources are mind-boggling, including a reported $184 billion in market capitalization and a whole bunch of super-smart, highly motivated talent. Google’s capabilities in flight and hotel search, location (Google Maps), social (Google Plus), and video/social (YouTube) — not to mention the company’s storied endeavors in artificial intelligence (self-driving cars, for one) — are under constant development.

Steven Levy headJust imagine what might happen if Google integrated travel search with all, or even some, of those capabilities.

Steven Levy has some pretty keen insights about all that. A journalist and author with six highly regarded books to his credit, including “Hackers,” Levy had the opportunity to observe Google from inside the company’s infrastructure for two years, with the full cooperation of management. He describes his most recent book, In the Plex. How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” as a deep dive into Google. It was chosen by Amazon as the best book of 2011 in the Business and Investing category, and garnered widespread praise as the definitive book on Google.

Levy shared some insights about what Google could and might do in travel in an exclusive interview with Travel Weekly PLUS.

What’s your take on Google’s focus in the travel sector?
The core product for Google is search, and travel is one of the things people search about a lot. Google is very concerned about some vertical coming up where people could get in the habit of looking first when it came to travel. They could not only lose that business, but it would have a ripple effect on people’s search habits.

Is it possible that a vertical could divert traffic from Google?
Well, yeah. When Bing came out with its fare finder, that’s something Google didn’t do, and when I used it I found myself saying, well this is a quicker way to get the answer. Even now I’ll use hipmunk. I think that sophisticated travelers ask around, they want the best tools, and if something works better than Google they’ll use it. And Google doesn’t like that because if I’m using hipmunk — of course I’m looking for hipmunk on Google — but I’m using this other product and I’m most likely to follow that up with another search, and then Google doesn’t get the ads from my original search.

Does Google want to own the travel category in search?
I think they want to be number one in travel — they want to be number one in everything. Basically, any time there is a reason for someone to search elsewhere, Google sees that as a problem they have to fix. And travel is a key thing that people search for, it’s a natural accompaniment to ads and it’s a revenue-rich area for them. So it’s an area where they are going to spend a lot of attention, and fight things off.

What kind of things might they have to fight off?
They are pretty concerned about the social challenge there. Travel is one thing people ask their friends about — where have you been, what have you liked there. I think a big concern at Google would be whether their friends’ responses will trump what they see on Google in terms of the products they use.

We haven’t seen the numbers yet for Bing, but there is something in the new version that let’s people actually poll their friends when they do a travel search — or any other kind of search, but travel is a natural for that — and ask things like, hey, does anyone know a great hotel to stay at in Jamaica.

In the past 30 months or so Google has purchased ITA Software, Zagat’s and most recently Frommer’s. Why those acquisitions?
By being the one search engine people go to for everything that’s important for them to do, Google can remain the go-to site for travel. In a lot of cases that means answering the questions people ask about travel without sending them to another site. Things like building in the data from ITA helps Google do that.


Another big thing, not only for travel but for local activities too, is getting reviews on things. Buying Zagat was brilliant for that, especially after Google was on a little bit of shaky legal ground scraping the content of other sites for reviews. It really needed it’s own property there. I think you can see the Frommer’s acquisition along the same lines as Zagat’s. It’s a travel buy as well as a local buy.

What might be next?
Where Google is going is to merge the products. Traditionally there has been search and then there have been these other products, but they’ve been pretty much siloed off. Google Plus, their social product, is definitely part of that. An informal motto is ‘One Google’. So they will want to move all these products in a way that integrates them with search, and with each other.


I think what Google wants to do is put together the most powerful experience, specifically when we are talking about travel, by making use of all these different things — maps, search, and even email. So when you are querying via email about things you want to do, or making reservations — things like that — Google can start searching to answer your questions about traveling before you ask them.

Do you think there will be additional travel-related acquisitions? Is there a strategic approach there?
Clearly they need to be the right kind of acquisitions. It’s not unlimited. I mean, after ITA, how many more are there? That’s a big category. When they get all the pieces they need, like a small company where they feel that the talent would be the biggest benefit for them, that would be it.

In general, Google has been pretty active in acquisitions, it seems to be a key way of nailing down areas where they don’t feel confident they have the dominance.

Who should be concerned about what Google can do in the travel arena?
Companies that want to deliver that specialized search activity, who call themselves experts, like the kayaks and hipmunks, they’re always going to be on the firing line. Right now Google isn’t going to go ahead and complete the reservation — but whose to say that they might not at some point.

What about traditional verticals in travel, like cruise lines?
They see those companies as traffic generators, and of course it’s crucial for those companies to show up high in the rankings and to do well in their placements with advertising. I think those companies do pretty well with that.

How would you describe the business relationship between Google and travel product suppliers?
They really want people to see them as partners, as the place where they are going to get their customers. They see themselves in a symbiotic relationship. In terms of hotels and the transportation industry, cruise lines, and restaurants and destinations in general, Google wants to be the place where visitors look and find the places that they want to go.

If they go farther it would be in helping people close the loop and make the booking there. But I think Google wants to be seen as someplace that expands the field, gets people interested in more travel, and sends them out into the world to spend money that isn’t spent on Google.

About a year ago Google introduced YouTube Vacationer. What’s YouTube’s role in Google’s overall focus In the Plex 72 and 130on travel? In the Plex 72 and 130
Promotion, showing you what you’ll see when you travel, and enticing you to travel. In keeping with Google’s social moves, they see YouTube as a site where people do their uploading, in addition to encouraging the various parts of the travel industry to put up videos and also to sponsor videos that the right customers are going to view at the right time.

Google might work to encourage people to put up and stream live what they’re doing on vacation. If someone is streaming a video from a hangout in Cancun, or something like that, there could be the ad right there to book your own vacation to Cancun. As people share information, whether it’s video or anything else, that’s an advertising opportunity. People can say, ‘hey my friends are having a great time there,’ and pop, all of a sudden there is this opportunity — click to come here, too.

That would require instantaneous tracking and response.
That’s what Google does; basically, that’s Google’s strength. When you search on, the search engine, what Google has done is it instantaneously sees what you’re interested in and conducts an auction of people who want to sell to you there.

That has a lot of possibilities for travel advertisers.
I think it’s totally within Google’s game plan to be able to see what you are doing at any given second, where you are posting from, and the content you’re posting, and then see if they can enhance that for your friends and pick out the right ad. They think that’s a great service. In general, Google feels that delivering the right ad at the right time to the right person is a great value for users, it isn’t something that’s just for advertisers. That’s a big part of their philosophy.

Where else might we see some new initiatives in travel from Google?
You have to look at where maps and Google Earth figure in. If you look down the road, there’s an interesting overlap between virtual travel and actual travel. Google is sort of enabling digital tourism through Street View and other places. The logical thing is that, at some point they will want to close the loop there.

As you are able to visit things remotely, it’s a great opportunity to be able to say, ‘as great as this is, how about actually being there? How about experiencing this in real time, breathing in the ocean air, climbing that rock?’ What Google increasingly does is bring that world virtually to you, in terms of search engine. Then, in terms of travel, it’s a logical step — and maybe a great marketing tool — to be able to give you the actual opportunity to go to the place that you’re looking at on your screen.

Any other thoughts on Google’s impact in travel?
I think it’s definitely within Google’s ambitions to be able to pitch you a trip you wanted to take, but hadn’t realized you wanted to take. They could do that — and this is something they are really interested in. With your permission they could analyze your documents, your email, and the things you look at on the web, and figure, ‘this person doesn’t know it, but she really wants to go to Hawaii, she’s thinking a lot about Hawaii here.’ And some well placed advertising or suggestions, or even search results, might yield that trip to Hawaii. And the person would say, ‘Wow, now that I think about it, I really do want to go to Hawaii, and here is a hotel deal.’

I think the effect of Google in general would probably be more travel — to make it easier to think of and find places.

This article is the first in a series that will examine Google's involvement in and impact on travel businesses. Future coverage features interviews with Google travel executives and a wide swath of business and technology experts.

Steven Levy photo by Marion Ettlinger.


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