For the first time, Google users can book a hotel room without ever leaving the search giant's familiar desktop interface.
The addition of assisted booking to Google.com/hotels, the search giant's metasearch tool, hasn't been officially announced. But the Google-faciliated bookings appear to be slowly rolling out across a select handful of listings in U.S. desktop search.
Google has long offered hotel metasearch through its Search and Maps products. But it has always handed off users to hotel websites and online travel agencies to complete the transactions.
The new strategy of keeping users on its recognizable and minimalist Google user experience -- with barely any hotel branding -- may lead to increased conversions.
But it also runs at a cross-current to its business of helping middlemen online travel agencies get bookings. Expedia Inc and Priceline Group contribute to about 5% of Google advertising income, by some estimates.
This facilitated-booking strategy is similar to the one followed by TripAdvisor. For about a year the user-reviews giant has been rolling out Instant Booking, in which it faciliates metasearch transactions to keep users within its interface.
Google faces a similar challenge to the one facing TripAdvisor in getting hotels and hotel chains to participate in its instant booking tool.
None of the major US hotel chains appears to be participating in Google's scheme so far -- with only independents popping up in Tnooz searches. TripAdvisor has struggled, only landing Marriott, Choice and Accor so far.
Google as an OTA-lite
A search today for hotels in Washington, D.C., turned up Hotel Rouge, a property in the Kimpton chain recently acquired by InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG).
Clicking on the option to book directly with the hotel formerly took customers to Kimpton's website to finish the transaction.
But now users are sent to a Google booking page.
Once a user selects a room, they share their contact information for receiving a confirmation email from the hotel directly.
The user then enters credit card information, if they haven't already provided that to Google Wallet.
Google's hotel tool completes the purchase within its interface:
It was unclear who was helping Google interact with the hotel booking systems.
When asked, Sabre Hospitality Solutions, which has more than 20,000 independent hotel customers for its central reservation systems software, said about the Google effort:
"We are powering the backend only for our hotel customers."
If Sabre is helping Google with hotel metasearch nationwide, it would be a surprising turnabout.
When Google was attempting to launch a metasearch tool for flights by purchasing ITA Software, an airfare technology company, Sabre was a member of the lobbying group FairSearch that attempted to stop the search giant.
But cooperation may be in the air.
Earlier today Sabre revealed its was in beta-testing with Google on a new commission-based (not pay-per click) model for letting hotels receive bookings via visitors using organic search in Google search and Maps.
If Sabre decides to also market Google's instant booking feature, it may be able to convince many of the 20,000 or so independent hotels that use its central reservation system to sign up.
Google tested instant booking through mobile first
Nicolas Ward, president of a Koddi, a Dallas startup that helps hotels maximize the Google hotel distribution channel, said in an interview:
"There have been full-on-Google transactions on mobile for a couple of years through Wallet, though their exposure has been pretty limited.
It wasn't until April this year that we saw a fully-on-Google transaction interface for desktop users.
But that was for limited offers and you had to use Google Wallet, which meant its rate would have to be at a significant discount.
Another difference back then: Tourico Holidays was heavily featured as the provider. Today the offers are for regular hotel rates at a variety of hotels.
There are also some smaller interface changes from that layout to today's design."
Ward was the first to notice Google's new interface and write about it today on the Koddi Hotel Price Ads blog.
It was 14 months ago that Google licensed Room 77's hotel booking technology, which included the concept of keeping users within the desktop user experience.
ANALYSIS: Hotel pricing mechanisms need a direct approach
MID-JUNE: TripAdvisor nabs Marriott for Instant Booking, stock jumps 14%