It's time again for Travel Weekly editors to review the year's events and compile our annual list of the 10 biggest stories. And while engaged in this process, it struck me that one company -- Google -- seemed surprisingly quiet in travel in 2012.
This isn't to suggest that Google is losing interest in travel, nor even that it has hit a pause button. But after two years of acquisitions and the release of search tools for flights and hotels, is hasn't made many travel-related announcements this year.
Nonetheless, Google hogged outsized mindshare at last month's PhoCusWright Conference, even before Google Vice President Jeremy Wertheimer was aggressively questioned onstage by Momondo CEO Hugo Burge.
And Google's plans in the travel arena raise enough interest globally that I was invited to speak about the company at Buy Tourism Online, an Italian travel technology conference, last month in Florence.
In reviewing Google activity over the past few years and the state of its current offerings, the search engine's travel plans could appear to be progressing in a piecemeal rather than linear fashion. But that's deceptive.
In July 2010, after acquiring Wertheimer's ITA Software, which provides searchable airline schedule and pricing data, Google Senior Vice President of Commerce Jeff Huber blogged: "How cool would it be if you could type 'flights to somewhere sunny for under $500 in May' into Google and get not just a set of links but also flight times, fares and a link to sites where you can actually buy tickets quickly and easily?"
Let's assume Huber's comments reflected Google's ambitions at the time. Flight Search, based on ITA Software, was unveiled in September 2011, lightning quick but surprisingly incomplete, since only domestic, roundtrip flights and coach seats were searchable. (International flights have since been added.)
Fast forward to December 2012. If you now type "flights New York to Los Angeles" into Google (the search engine, not Flight Search, per Huber's comments), a sampling of flights will be returned above organic search in a "sponsored" Flight Search display. But if you simply add a date -- e.g., "flights New York to Los Angeles December 15" -- no Flight Search result is returned above organic search. It's surprising that a logical refinement -- date of travel --knocks out the sponsored display. It makes Huber's dream seem a ways off.
Hotel Finder, well integrated with Google Maps, seems more built-out, but it has fewer useful filters than its competitors. It has integrated reviews from Zagat, which it acquired in late 2011, but it confusingly puts user review ratings in the same crimson color associated with Zagat.
No sign yet of the Frommer's content, acquired earlier this year.
But we might be looking in the wrong place when we focus on Google's overtly "travel" properties. Some of the most significant travel developments are occurring elsewhere at the search giant.
Google Street View, which provides a ground-level panorama of a growing number of cities, is progressing quickly. In addition, Google launched an art project that has mapped dozens of museums and enables users to take panoramic tours of their interiors.
One can imagine that travel planning in the future might involve using Maps, Street View and, say, the interior of not only museums and other attractions, but hotels. A city, its attractions and accommodations could be toured virtually, with booking tools (possibly in the form of interactive, speaking avatar guides) embedded along the way.
The implications for travel agencies, online and off, are enormous. This could be a fantastic tool in the hands of both live travel advisers and digital counselors.
Google's DNA is still strongly "search," and it has deterrents to becoming the agency of record in travel transactions, which have low margins and carry high customer service burdens. Google would also be putting its significant travel-related paid search revenue at risk.
But it's conceivable that they could feel pressure to jump into travel transactions if Apple does. Everyone's assuming that any marketplace that can go mobile, will. Apple won a patent for an "iTravel" app, which, for the time being, is airline-focused. If its focus expands, Google might feel compelled to come up with a comparable Android solution.
Google might be off our Top 10 list for 2012, but keep an eye on 2016: That's when the sun sets on the most inhibiting aspects of government regulations regarding its intra-company use of ITA Software customer data.
Of course, by then, Huber's vision might seem archaic.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.