Ogling Google

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Jane Butler wants to talk about Google Maps. And, as Googles managing director of travel, Butler also talks in heartfelt tones about Google Local and how her company is hell-bent on securing noncommercial content, ranging from information on hotel amenities to user reviews, to populate its local search.

It is safe to say that Butler, often described as Googles ambassador to the travel industry, wants to talk about anything except metasearch.

But, from conference to conference, from interview to interview, Butler has been forced to answer questions about metasearch and Googles intentions in that arena.

Thats because Google.com in October launched a Flight Links shortcut that features booking engines from Expedia, Hotwire, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity -- and the entire industry, from Googles airline advertisers to the metasearch crowd, is watching to see what Google will do with it.

I pestered Butler with more questions. For the record, again, Butler said Google has no specific plans to expand the Flight Links feature and has no designs on entering the travel metasearch arena.

Heres how Flight Links works: When users input two cities into the search box, the results include a default link to Expedia for that route, suggested departure and return dates and links to the booking engines from the five participating online agencies.

After its launch, there were whispers -- and some shouts -- that Google might use its clout to become an online travel agency or that its selection of online agencies as participants in Flight Links was a step to counter the dominance of supplier-direct booking in metasearch engines.

Butler acknowledged that some people may perceive Flight Links as a hedge against the metasearch engines but that the intent of Flight Links merely was to improve the way Google users searched for flights.

She says Google executives are pretty maniacal about continually improving the search experience. So why did Google select online agencies instead of airlines to improve searches? Googles product experts decided to use agencies because their sites are more comprehensive than airline sites, Butler said.

Google uses the booking engines in Flight Links for free, Butler said, emphasizing that Google has no commercial relationship with them in the endeavor. She says there is no deep meaning to Expedia being the default booking engine. Actually, Google said it chose Expedia because it comes first in alphabetical order.

Still, Google advertisers (and who isnt?) and some U.S. airlines, which are trying to grow their direct-to-consumer business, are watching Googles Flight Links experiment with keen interest. Northwest Airlines says it monitors Google and other search engine features on a regular basis and will continue to monitor and assess whether to address issues directly with them.

American Airlines spokesman Billy Sanez said: We are in observation mode.

I think the industry will keep watching its development and every nuance about it.

After all, just because youre paranoid, it doesnt mean theyre not out to get you.

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