About 18 months ago, Amadeus, the global distribution system, began selling a technology product called Featured Results.
It’s not an industry secret that Featured Results delivers airfare content to online travel agencies and tour operators, quoting “instant” price results (up to 1,500 in a single reply) to a broad set of open search queries.
Amadeus touted Featured Results at last November’s PhoCusWright travel conference in the US, claiming the product could deliver airfare results to users within 100 milliseconds of hitting the “search” button. That’s much faster than the three, five, or even 10 full seconds required to fetch queries on some travel websites today.
Most people in the industry seem to think of the technology as nothing new, in principle. The product is thought of as merely a sped-up version of the long-embraced practice of caching data, where recently accurate fares are fetched from a database rather than pulled dynamically in real-time, which is a slower (though more accurate) process.
Yet the true secret sauce that generates the product’s claimed improvement in conversion rates (as high as 15% in tests since November) might be equally attributed to how it curates—or carefully edits and displays—its instant results.
In other words, this is a story that’s as much about consumer psychology as about “speed wins.”
The paradox of choice
The story goes that an Amadeus executive was inspired to lead the invention of Featured Results after reading one of the most influential psychological books of the past 20 years: Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, published in 2004.
Schwartz’s core argument is that human beings are not entirely rational, and he covers a variety of studies of decision-making behavior to prove his point.
One example Schwartz cites is an experiment that took place in a gourmet food store. One day, researchers set up a display with a variety of 24 jams and presented six types for tasting. Another day, they displayed the same 24 jams, but this time they made all 24 types available for tasting.
In both cases, people tasted the same amount of jam. But when it came to buying, people bought more jam when they had been presented with fewer options to taste.
It’s important to note a nuance here: The reduction in choice led to more sales overall: It wasn’t just the few products that were made available for tasting that were bought in greater quantities. It was the average rate of purchasing across all 24 varieties that went up after merely 6 were offered for tasting.
Applying the jam thesis to airfares
Featured Results puts this insight to the test in the travel space.
When a consumer runs a search using the technology, he or she instantly sees only four results: the cheapest fare; the fare for the most convenient (or fastest, non-redeye) flight; the most popular flight (by airline and flight number) for this itinerary at this time of year based on historical data; and a sale sponsored by an airline.
After being presented with this shortlist, the consumer sees the full set of hundreds of search results a few seconds later
Amadeus’s hope is that consumers will buy more. Beta tests in the past 12 months have been promising, but more data is needed to be conclusive, according to Sebastien Gibergues, whose role is travel technology consulting, leisure and online, for Amadeus.
The fantastic four
The Madrid-based company ran A/B testing on comparable searches done with and without Featured Results to check the impact on conversion, says Gibergues. Early results suggest people are buying more—but not necessarily by clicking through any of the four featured results.
What appears to be happening is that the four Featured Results serve as benchmark prices for users.
Prior to the search, consumers aren’t sure what a “fair” airfare is for their ideal itinerary. The four featured results give consumers more confidence to go ahead and make a purchase—even if they only make the purchase after wading through the full range of hundreds of results that appear a few seconds after the initial four.
Vayama's huge experiment in consumer psychology
The first major travel site to test Amadeus’s new product is Vayama, a five-year-old, Mountain View-based website that specializes in international flight search. As Tnooz reported at the time, Vayama conducted a beta test last September and October using a handful of city pairs. Transactions were 18% higher, according to Vayama and Amadeus.
In the months since then, fewer than 5% of the site’s users have encountered Featured Results because the functionality is tucked away on a beta website. yet during this second beta test period between November through June, Featured Results generated 15% more transactions than the standard results, according to Vayama.
By October, Vayama plans to launch Featured Results as the default experience on its main homepage.
Whenever a consumer searches for fares on one of the site’s 2,000 historically most frequently searched city-pair combinations, he or she will see Featured Results, as Tnooz recently reported. They’ll be followed a few seconds later by the full results, sourced by Vayama from its own pipelines with airlines, wholesalers, and agencies.
This will be the big test. When it’s finally released into the wild, will a curated set of four benchmark airfares increase conversions sitewide?
An open edge over metasearch
Amadeus’s Gibergues says its instant search technology gives its online travel agency and tour operator clients a leg up on their metasearch competitors. Amadeus has both direct access to fare and availability information from airlines, while metasearch sites have to launch “availability calls” to return results from a mix of sources—delaying their response times.
(As a side note, about accuracy, in Vayama’s beta tests, the error rates for Featured Results weren’t any higher than for its own traditional search.)
Amadeus says it will roll out more “open search functionality” around Featured Results soon, which could provide a further edge for its clients over metasearch giants. Open search involves open-ended queries that aren’t necessarily tied to specific dates and itineraries, such as “give me recommendations for next six months for next year, flying between Barcelona and Tenerife.”
While conceptually not new, open search hasn’t been implemented by any of the major digital travel brands yet due to technological hurdles. It’s something that a global distribution system like Amadeus with direct access to fare content can deliver faster and more accurately than metasearch providers, says Gibergues.
Map-based flight search, too
Vayama is eager to move away from “the wizard engine”, the all-too-familiar interface pioneered by Travelocity in the 1990s, where users type into little fields on the screen, entering their origin and destination, travel dates, and other key details—only to have to repeat variations on the search over and over to get a sense of their options.
With its autumn’s website re-design, Vayama intends to encourage users to opt instead for either a map view (which plots fares on a Google Earth map) or a matrix view (which lines up side-by-side the cheapest tickets on every airline flying a particular route). The map and matrix views will incorporate Amadeus’s Extreme Search technology in their own ways.
On the map view, if a consumer types in their hometown airport, the map will auto-populate with the top 20 most searched on destinations from that origin, benchmark fares for each destination. As the dates are changed, the fares will be updated across the map.
Moving further up the funnel
Likewise, in the matrix view, entering an origin airport will produce a list of the top 20 destinations flown to from that airport with current benchmark fares.
“Matrix view is best for opportunitistic travellers,” says Ted Jansen, chief commercial officer of Travix-International, the company that owns Vayama.
“If you’re someone who has a few destinations in mind but hasn’t settled on a place to go, this tool can let you get a quick overview of the price differences. It puts Vayama a bit higher up the distribution funnel, closer toward inspiration (e.g. multi–destination searches).”
Escaping the bonds of polling ratios
Jansen makes a related point:
Historically, using a GDS as the core content provider means conflicts with polling ratios that are part of GDS contracts – i.e., number of searches to bookings. Those polling ratios restrict an OTA's ability to let a customer pound away at the data in more flexible shopping ways.
Some entities have used cached data to try to solve this issue, but invariably the data quality is poor. The new featured result capability is also cache but the accuracy of the data is high, with fresh, actually bookable itinerary/fare details--without causing a problem with the polling ratio.
Other travel sites to be playing, too
Amadeus says it has talking with other online travel agencies and tour operators about implementing Featured Results and similar solutions, but wouldn’t say which ones.
The only other publicly announced experiment with Featured Results is one being done by the US OTA Cheapair.com, which has, since April, run a map use case for routes with a US origin. Results will be revealed soon.
Vayama’s project remains the most interesting one because it will be the first large demonstration of the technology in front of tens of thousands of users.
If successful, Featured Results could lead to the first significant model shift in how airfare results are presented to users since the invention of metasearch. Those interstitial webpages displaying brand messages while search results load may become a thing of the past.