Is Google a force for good in the travel industry? “Eye on Travel talk” at World Travel Mart London November 2017

Is that a real or rhetorical question? The answer ought to be stunningly obvious to anyone in the industry.

Rhetoric aside there clearly are lots of pros and plenty of cons when it comes to assessing Google’s role in our industry. But indulge me, if you will, a bit while I recount my first encounter with Google. I first heard of Google when it launched back in 1998 when a cricket crazy friend of mine started talking about just how much of a game changer it is. It sounded eerily similar to Googly and as someone who thought he knew everything about cricket I went along not wanting to sound ignorant of the latest in Cricket. For those of you who don’t know, a Googly is a deceptive delivery.

So let me lay out a few of those pros and cons to see if Google is a force for good or is it just as deceptive as a googly. In other words it pretends to be something it is not.

The pros: Many of you are experts in this field and probably know of most if not all the terrific things that Google does.

Well, for starters with that magical box called Google Analytics you can track exactly how people discovered your business. It tells you where people are going once they get on to your website. Which pages they are checking out, and importantly, which page they are leaving your website and so on.

For instance, in a hotel, a guest arrives on your home page, then goes to the rooms button on your website but then leaves. Google tracks that – big brother clearly has nothing on this. It can also tell you when a guest goes all the way to your booking engine to make a reservation but then leaves. Google tracks that. All this data comes in very handy particularly when you convert that to information to use in marketing campaigns, work flow at your property or even design engineering.

There are three broad areas in Google analytics to look for:

– Demographics: The geographic origin of visitors is a boon for targeted marketing campaigns and the lifeblood of DMOs, hotels and virtually any business..

– Acquisition: Which websites are driving traffic to your website? Organic search has the least cost. It is when your site shows up on top based on optimization and relevance. Direct is when someone types in the website URL, a rarity nowadays. Referral when other websites such as that of a DMO or social group sends traffic.

– Behavior: That’s when Google Analytics helps you track where customers go to once on the website. This is helpful for example, when a boutique hotel owner, justly proud of the property’s unique characteristics (artwork painstakingly acquired from local artists), uploads expensive 360 degrees videos only to find that about two visits a month. It can also serve to add or remove calls-to-action and even follow the path of his website visitors and assess changes needed. In other words Google is all seeing and all knowing.

The Cons:

– Google Docs: In early November of this year many users found out that documents that they thought were private were actually being monitored! Google’s less than plausible explanation was that they were being monitored not by humans but by an algorithm that checks to see if the terms of use for Google drive and docs uploaded are being violated. That includes obviously unacceptable stuff like pornography but it could just as well include anything Google decides to police for whatever reason.

– Flight Search data tool: Then there are seemingly arbitrary and capricious actions on Google’s part that directly affect the tourism industry. Last month Google quietly announced the closure of QPX Express API, a code that allows third party apps to pull flight search data onto their own platforms. That essentially destroys the ability of many aggregator sites to compare flight prices.

– Google Assistant: Google’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’ Siri can find a range of things including hotel rooms. Why is that a bad thing? It uses data on your smartphone, computer or any other device and suggests answers based on past preferences. The trouble with that is it kills all experimentation. If you are a creature of habit you can be assured you will remain one oblivious of new trends whether in hospitality or without.

– Price Label Feature. A new development on a Google map search of hotels, it shows a bunch of price labels to click on. For many prices are all that matter when it comes to selecting a hotel room but everyone has underlying assumptions as to what we should get that price. Instead those assumptions are submerged in a blizzard of prices.

– Googe Ads: The all-pervasive, and intrusive feature which has made life and, by implication, profitability particularly difficult for hotels. There was a time when a hotel could hope to show up on page one of a search if it had unique aspects that would enable it to show up “organically”. But we all know now that no amount of clever SEO practices will ensure you are on the first page of search unless troves of money are spent on Google ads. Just ask the OTAs. Priceline spent $3.5bn in PPC ads while Expedia spent $4.3 bn in 2016. All of you know that OTAs are not just the bane of our industry but have a chokehold on our industry largely enabled by Google.

Total ad spending on Google ad words is about $14bn with Expedia, Priceline and Airbnb making up 50% of that. The other 50% is shared by hotels, airlines, tours and activities etc. Importantly, Google Ads don’t really help the case for hotel branding – you’re swimming in an ocean where all fish look alike. A telling aspect of it all is that, at an estimated valuation of $100 billion, Google’s travel business alone contributes about 15 percent to Google’s $650 billion market cap. That not just suggests but underscores the degree of control they have over our industry.

I know this first hand having a launched a booking engine for the members of the Hotel Association of New York City earlier this year with an optimistically labeled website: Despite the name a swirl of Google ad words propelling the big OTAs almost immediately drowned the site. As for that alluringly labeled phenomenon called organic search it seems to be another chimera!

So, I will close by suggesting that Google is certainly a force in our industry but like the Googly I referred to it is a deceptive if not insidious one. In the hands of a good bowler it blows your wickets away and leaves you with next to nothing.