Google headquarters in New York's Meatpacking District has an almost cinematic quality to it. Workers wheel through wide corridors on company-supplied scooters. Manned help-desk kiosks are set up in hallways at strategic intervals. And every 20 paces, there seems to be a food station of some kind, from an artfully arranged candy dish to cafeterias offering a wide variety of (free) dining options.
We're all familiar with the most-used Google product, its basic search engine. And we know that many of those sugar-fueled employees scooting through the halls are also selling keywords so businesses can serve up sponsored search links adjacent to unsponsored search results.
There are three regional managers dedicated solely to selling keyword searches to travel companies. I had been invited by one of them, Ian Arthurs, to meet with him and Frederick Buhr, vice president of e-business for Rail Europe.
If, to paraphrase Didit co-founder Kevin Lee, a keyword is a fragment of the mind of your customer, Google helps Buhr assemble enough consumer mind-fragments to enable him to continuously fine-tune his marketing campaigns.
And some Google consumer research tools are available to anyone, whether they purchase keywords or not. Chief among these resources is Insights for Search. At this site, anyone can track keyword search trends all the way back to 2004 and determine what consumers are most interested in and, importantly, the exact phrases they use to find what they're looking for.
If, for instance, you specialize in selling Mexico, you'll find that the top search results for "Mexico" over the past six months all have negative connotations: earthquakes, drug violence, murders, swine flu and hurricanes. Buying the keyword "Mexico" isn't going to sell many vacations there.
Try "Mexico vacations" and you find better results, but you might also notice that the trend line for the phrase "Mexico vacations" is falling. And it's surpassed by "vacation in Mexico," "vacation packages Mexico" and "vacation to Mexico." Subtle differences in phrasing can mean a lot.
The most intriguing column on the page is titled "Rising searches." Although, in aggregate, fewer people are typing the term "all-inclusive" into the search box than other Mexico vacation phrases, those searches including "all-inclusive" are trending up very quickly. In fact, the top three "rising" results each employs "all-inclusive."
One can also use the website to spot common mistakes that can be turned to an advantage. Buhr began buying "Eurorail," even though no such entity exists, because Google told him it was getting a significant number of search queries for it.
If you advertise, Google will proactively send an alert to you about this sort of opportunity. But it strikes me that the Insights for Search tool has broad applications for even the smallest home-based travel agency. Anyone can use this tool to examine fragments of their clients' minds, and then use the words and phrases that are most in tune with rising consumer sentiment and syntax when communicating with clients, whether in email blasts, newsletters or phone conversations.
Studying Google results, Buhr has discovered that consumer behavior can be unpredictable and counterintuitive. For example, he found it's not necessarily best to be the first one listed among a set of competitors. In some cases, the second, third or fourth position is best for actual sales.
His reliance on empirical data at times puts him in conflict with his boss, who feels that Rail Europe should always be listed first, no matter what. It is the most prominent player in its space, his boss reasons, and therefore should be in the pre-eminent position.
"There's a term for that kind of decision-making," Arthurs said. "It's called a HiPPO decision: Highest Paid Person's Opinion."
I raised the question of Google's recent conflict with China and what impact it might have on the search company's travel clients. If Google pulls out of China permanently, it's not only Chinese travelers looking for information who will be affected, but also U.S. travel marketers who turn to Google for insight into what Chinese travelers are looking for.
Arthurs said he really couldn't comment on issues related to the China controversy, but Buhr said he admired Google's decision. As a Frenchman from Strasbourg whose family was affected by both world wars, he said, "I wish IBM had pulled out of Germany before the Nazis used their machines in their terrible endeavor."
I asked if Buhr would use Google's tools to research Chinese consumer behavior and then execute a strategy via Yahoo if Google doesn't have access to China. Arthurs pretended to put his hands over his ears, but certainly heard his data-driven client answer, "Why not? They're not coming now except in groups, but China is China, and we're not pulling out of China."
Ironically, China and Google might be the two biggest Big Brother intelligence-gathering operations in the world. I, too, admire Google's principled stance against the Chinese government's intrusion into the private behavior of its citizens.
What surprises me is that consumers, myself included, don't seem to mind Google's aggregation of information about our behavior in the service of capitalism. It's a trade-off, I suppose: I'm willing to sacrifice a fragment of my privacy in exchange for understanding a fragment of your behavior.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.