UPDATE: Here's how one industry insider views the politics of what's going on behind the scenes with Google Flight Search.
Google and ITA were in a rush to get the product out there and they acceded to airline demands to keep the OTAs and metasearch companies out of the mix.
Some airlines feel more vehemently about the issue than others.
Now, however, Google is looking for ways to monetize the service and to transform Google Flight Search into more of a level playing field between airlines and intermediaries.
So, the inclusion of those OTA and Kayak ads on the bottom of Google Flight Search pages should be viewed in that context.
As the original piece noted, Google is engaged in a balancing act: It wants to retain airline participation, but needs to appease some of its largest advertisers, namely the OTAs and other intermediaries.
Meanwhile, that balancing act, however, will only go so far.
Sandra Heikkinen, a Google spokesperson, says: "Like any other partner, Google needs to honor the airline's distribution decisions. With the Flight Search feature, that means we can only show airlines in the booking links. We are exploring advertising opportunities within the page to showcase the products and services from other relevant partners, including our OTA and metasearch partners. The new ad format experiment is an example of that exploration."
At this juncture, those OTA and Kayak metasearch ads may be freebies -- no money is believed to be changing hands.
And, only a limited set of advertisers have been invited to participate so far.
"With regard to the new ad format which allows users to repeat their flight searches on advertiser websites, the experiment involves working with a limited number of online travel intermediary partners," Heikkinen says. "As mentioned before, we're looking forward to expanding our advertising efforts with partners, formats, placements and targeting capabilities."
And, privately Google is whispering to OTAs that it wants to involve them more deeply in the product.
All parties are trying to negotiate the best ways of doing that while ensuring that the product becomes comprehensive.
The original post follows:
Google Flight Search launched six weeks ago with direct links to airline sites only, but now you'll also find online travel agency and Kayak ads at the bottom of search results pages.
Airlines keep their top billing by far in Google Flight Search, but intermediaries are no longer completely shut out and seemingly have secured a little bit of turf.
Among the advertisers are all four major online travel agencies -- Priceline, Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity -- as well as CheapOair and Kayak, for example.
Laurie DePrete, a spokeswoman for Fareportal, which operates CheapOair, says CheapOair is participating in Google's beta of Flight Search "as we're among the top five OTAs and a significant spender with them in the travel category. There's no cost for the test."
On a New York to Chicago flight search for Nov. 10 to Nov. 14, for example, you can click on the first search result for American Airlines and take advantage of a deep link to AA.com to book the flight.
Or if you happen to navigate to the bottom of the Google Flight Search page, you'll see the OTA and travel metasearch ads. If you click on the Priceline ad, for instance, you will navigate to Priceline.com for flight listings -- but there is no deep link to anything and you would have to repeat your flight search.
"We are exploring advertising opportunities with the Flight Search page to showcase the products and services from relevant partners, including our OTA and metasearch partners," says Sandra Heikkinen, a Google spokesperson.
"For example, we recently launched an ad format on the Flight Search results page which allows users to repeat their flight searches on advertiser websites," Heikkinen adds. "While this is just a start, we look forward to expanding our advertising efforts with partners and to continue experimenting with different formats, placements and targeting capabilities."
So Google Flight Search has apparently adopted an advertising model, or is at least experimenting with one. These ads began appearing about two weeks ago.
But, priority clearly is being given to airlines in this Google-ITA Software solution.
And, airlines assuredly would argue since they operate the flights and own the planes, then their top-gun status in Google Flight Search is totally appropriate.
Google is walking a fine line, though, trying to take a balanced approach with advertisers, although certainly leaning heavily toward airlines in its Flight Search service.
For example, the OTA and Kayak ads are not within search results and appear to be relegated for now merely to the bottom of pages, although this could change.
This preference for airlines occurs despite the fact that online travel agencies are probably larger advertisers in Google's various advertising programs than are airlines.
Google invited these OTA and travel metaserach advertisers to participate in Google Flight Search, and some have also been solicited to participate as advertisers in Google Places and Google Hotel Finder, as well.
Some of the advertisers in Google Flight Search, namely Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak, belong to FairSearch.org, which opposed the acquisition of ITA Software and is an ardent critic of Google's search practices.
"Google continues to contradict public representations it made during the Justice Department’s review of the ITA deal that Google would continue to send traffic to all segments of online travel," says Ben Hammer, a spokesperson for FairSearch. "Instead, Google lists flight results solely alongside logos of airlines that directly link to their sites, but not for OTAs and other travel sites next to search results."
For example, in Google's July 1, 2010, announcement about its intention to buy ITA, Google stated: "The acquisition will benefit passengers, airlines and online travel agencies [emphasis added] by making it easier for users to comparison shop for flights and airfares and by drving more potential customers to airlines' and online travel agencies' websites."
There was no hint then that Flight Search would be skewed toward airlines.
Hammer points out that these OTA and Kayak ads in Flight Search are placed in a subordinate position. Says Hammer:
These non-airline sites, which have helped drive airline prices lower and expand consumers’ ability to find the best flights for them, are pushed far down by Google’s presentation of flight results, where they are likely to get less traffic.
In reaction to Hammer's statement, Heikkinen of Google says:
Our goal, prior to the ITA acquisition and now, was to create a new, easier way for users to find better flight information online -- which should encourage more users to make their flight purchases online. We absolutely want to include both OTAs and metasearch engines in Flight Search in the future and are exploring advertising opportunities within the page to showcase their products and services. (see: recent launch of an experimental ad format on the Flight Search results page which allows users to repeat their flight searches on advertiser websites). While this is just a start, we look forward to expanding our advertising efforts with partners and to continue experimenting with different formats, placements and targeting capabilities.
Despite the relative low priority that these new ads in Google Flight Search are getting, at least one online travel agency, Orbitz, welcomes the move.
"Google knows that our desire is to participate in Google Flight Search and we are hopeful that these are the first steps toward that," says Chris Chiames, Orbitz spokesman.