Many will find it hard to name two companies that polarise opinion within the travel industry more than user review master TripAdvisor and search giant Google.
It is both their respective power and influence over so much of the world of online travel marketing and distribution which leads many to watch every move from afar with envy, rail against publicly or simply admire.
Which is why when a rumour along the lines of "Google might buy TripAdvisor" comes along there is a collective sharp intake of breath in many quarters.
The rumour is not exactly new. Talk of such a monumentally huge deal has dripped into conversations on countless occasions over many years, but it is certainly doing the rounds again - and with some intensity.
In the halls of ITB Berlin last week there were a number of occasions again where the likelihood of deal being brokered was discussed and, of course, what it could mean for the industry.
The subject even came up during a one-to-one session on-stage between PhoCusWright chairman Philip Wolf and new Booking.com CEO Darren Huston. Huston inevitably dismissed the question with the ease of a seasoned and well media-trained executive.
Fact or fiction?
At this stage it could be said that any such move by Google to acquire TripAdvisor is in the realms of fantasy and paranoia, depending on who you are.
Furthermore, there is about as much chance of either organisation commenting on such a piece of speculation as anti-Google lobbying group FairSearch deciding the search giant "isn't so bad after all".
And with both companies listed on public markets, even acknowledging such speculation exists would probably be enough to send their respective share prices in a frenzy.
But the industry - at senior and other levels - is certainly talking, nonetheless, which often means a number things: it's completely true; there is a campaign to soften the sector by throwing discreet leaks to influential people; or the concept of a deal is mind-boggling that the chatter is exponentially increasing as a result.
Any approach to acquire TripAdvisor would be complicated to say the least. Just three months into its first listing on the financial markets and with a market capitalisation of around $4.1 billion, TripAdvisor could be said to be enjoying life as public company, with its share price up by around a sixth since opening day.
Although it still has overlapping ownership with Expedia, TripAdvisor is now seen as a company independent in most respect from the former mothership, making it more attractive to a potential suitor.
However, a deal could trigger some kind of regulatory oversight from US authorities, not least when the likes of Yelp et al realise the consequences of it all.
Either way, despite Google probably having the cash to make an acquisition, whether it can be bothered with the regulatory headache is another matter entirely.
An acquisition would certainly be in the top deals completed by Google in its history - Motorola Mobility ($12.5 billion in 2011), DoubleClick ($3.1 billion in 2007) and YouTube ($1.65 billion in 2006) are the top three.
Why does it make sense?
But the idea of Google buying TripAdvisor isn't that outlandish.
The user review giant has so much of what Google needs, at least in terms of volume and influence in the world of travel content.
- It is a highly influential (probably the most important) player in user generated content in travel, primarily in hotels but increasingly in other areas, such as vacation rentals, tours and activities, restaurants and other things-to-do in destinations.
- It has ready-made and incredibly popular mobile applications, putting its services on the ground and in-resort, often where users never interacted with travel brands before.
- It is a significant part of the search and purchase funnel in the hotel sector.
- It has years of experience of working with hotels to generate millions for its ad model.
What would Google get (apart from that listed above)?
The increasingly influential Google Places pages, from a travel and tourism perspective, would be stuffed with content from a single source (thus the Yelp issues) but far closer to being comprehensive and uniform in their structure.
Content would be far easier to integrate into Google's other travel products, those which exist now and those clearly on the table going forward (Google was never REALLY going to step at flights and hotels, right?).
Wrinkles in the idea
There are, of course, a number of issues around such a deal.
- TripAdvisor remains a member of the FairSearch group.
- The pair have fallen out spectacularly in the past over, ironically, Google Places (although they recently shared an exhibition stand at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and are seemingly best buddies again, at least in some areas).
- TripAdvisor has a very strong and evolving relationship with Facebook, Google's arch nemesis in social networking.
- Shareholders and management simply may not want to sell.
But, as someone said nervously last week, a move to acquire TripAdvisor actually makes more sense than Google buying ITA Software
. "None of this messy flight search business - this would be all about content, which is where Google currently makes most of its money through the placing of PPC ads."
What is most likely is that the rumour will stick around for a while longer, probably die down, only to reappear again in a few months.
Or, as someone else suggested last week, perhaps Facebook will be the next suitor for TripAdvisor?
NB:Shake hands image via Shutterstock.