Experts take wait-and-see tack on Google's mobile travel planner

Destinations on Google users are shown photos, brief descriptors and flight and hotel prices.
Destinations on Google users are shown photos, brief descriptors and flight and hotel prices.

While analysts said that Destinations on Google is not a game changer on its own, the new tool is a significant step toward giving users an easier-to-use mobile travel-planning platform.

And while Google’s past success with products in the travel space has been mixed, analysts said it was too early to tell how successful Destinations on Google might be.

Douglas Quinby, Phocuswright’s vice president of research, said the driving force behind Destinations on Google is providing a mobile search offering.

“There are still challenges with mobile content, where a lot of suppliers and travel companies’ mobile sites are not as robust,” Quinby said. “There are still limitations about deep linking into apps, native apps, and that’s where the really robust travel content and personalized user experiences are. So I think the Destinations product is part of a much greater shift to really adapt the travel search and planning process to a mobile experience.”

Jake Fuller, an analyst with Guggenheim Investments, said that while mobile is growing in other verticals, the app might be especially relevant to the travel industry.

Travel isn’t something people do every day, so travel-related apps are more likely to be buried in a smartphone or deleted altogether after use, Fuller said.

“Travel’s much less frequent,” he said. “So it may be that travel is an interesting vertical for someone like Google in the mobile landscape. Given that frequency of usage, mobile Web may be more relevant in this vertical than others.”

Google’s search data show Destinations on Google will likely meet a rising demand. According to the company, mobile travel inquiries increased by almost 50% from January 2015 to the start of this year. Additionally, mobile devices accounted for almost half of Google Flights queries and more than 60% of destination information queries.

The service is accessed through a Google search on a mobile phone’s browser or on the Google Mobile app. A search — for example, “Europe destinations” — will pull up several locations based on popularity. In the Europe case, users are shown photos, brief descriptors and flight and hotel prices for London and Paris. Clicking through to more destinations brings up a slew of cities, again based on popularity.

Clicking through brings users to an “explore” page that includes destination information, itineraries, top sites, weather and crowd information, videos and other nearby places to visit. Users can also click onto a “plan a trip” page, which includes dynamic pricing data from Google Flights and Google’s hotel booking program.

Google provided previews of the technology at Phocuswright’s annual conference last fall, so it was known to analysts in the travel space.

“It’s still fairly fresh with the launch,” Fuller said. “We had seen the demo, but we haven’t really had a chance to play with it live yet.”

Douglas Quinby
Douglas Quinby

Quinby agreed. “I think that it’s all a wait and see, quite frankly,” he said, “because Google is obviously very, very strong … in terms of just traditional search, the search that we’ve all come to use kind of second nature. But when it comes to these specific travel products, such as flight and some of their hotel-search products, the traction hasn’t been as strong.”

Google, Quinby said, has “absolutely got an uneven track record” with travel products. Destinations on Google, he said, “is getting a lot of attention today because it’s Google, but let’s see where things stand six months from now, and a year from now.”

Initially, Google’s presence in the travel space was viewed with some trepidation within the industry out of fear that the company would attempt to cut out OTAs, Fuller said. The concern was that “they would build out a fully realized travel vertical,” and that fear was further spurred when Google acquired ITA Software in 2011.

But with its slow build-out of travel products, that fear began to dissipate, according to Fuller.

Lately, Google has more quickly updated and improved its travel products, he said, “but the direction they’re going has also become clear, it’s pretty clear at this point that they’re not looking to displace the OTAs. They’re not looking to build out a directly competitive product.”

Instead, Fuller said, it appears that Google might be attempting to dislodge the “layer above” OTAs by sending traffic to Google-sponsored products instead of sites like TripAdvisor. They can create an attractive lead, then sell it to the OTAs.

Quinby added that while the ITA acquisition created a lot of buzz, “it really turned out to not have an enormous impact. Their consumer uptake was just not as great.”

Most important with the recent move, though, is the mobile component, he said, which makes sense considering the current mobile environment.

“The conversion rate on mobile is still relatively low,” Quinby said, “because the mobile experience for travelers still is not as good as it is on a desktop in a lot of cases, so you have a lot of mobile shopping and then migration to desktop for booking.”

He also said he did not view Destinations on Google as a threat to travel agents.

“There’s already just such an abundance of information and content [that] I don’t think this really changes the equation for travel agents, frankly, one iota,” Quinby said. “All a travel agent’s customers today are already shopping online and are coming into travel agents or picking up the phone after having already researched and have a good sense of what they want and can expect. So now, they’re looking for that expertise, that guidance and that kind of personalized service.”

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