The personality of the travel industry has changed over the last 15 years. Prior to the internet's arrival as a major personal tool, the supply pyramid was fairly flat.
The US market, for example, consisted of four GDSs, 12 major airlines and a very broad number of travel agencies, a number which peaked in 1996.
Now the numbers have dropped dramatically. Several airlines went bankrupt (ATA, Aloha etc), others merged (United Airlines and Continental, Delta and NorthWest), still more have become part of "virtual mergers".
The number of hotel holding companies has consolidated, the Mom and Pop agencies have largely disappeared etc etc. In the US, the top intermediaries have now concentrated into four online players and four offline players.
The GDSs are now concentrated into four global players: Sabre (with Abacus and Infini), Amadeus, Travelport (Apollo, Galileo and Worldspan) and Travelsky.
With a concentration of supply and intermediaries, it becomes harder to encourage competition in an environment where there is tight supply such as airlines.
The arrival of Google Instant (with the benefit of hindsight) was only going to accelerate the concentration of traffic to larger players - in other words, those who either dominated a market segment or could afford it.
What many didn't realize was how the lazy consumer would therefore concentrate their activities and hit accept in the search bar early, thus reducing the total amount of choice.
Now that both the web version of Google Instant as well as the browser bar (at least in Firefox and Chrome) offer "instant" results, we can review what has happened from a performance basis.
I have spoken to several SEO specialists and a number of directory/redirect sites. The results are pretty universal. SEO has changed.
Left unattended (with no change in SEO refinement) the drop off in traffic was approx 30% after September 8.
In some cases, those that didn’t pay attention have seen this drop accelerate. One site management group told me that their drop from pre-September 8 to December 31 2010 was more than 50%.
The change was tracked across several different product categories including vehicle sales and travel.
Since then the tuning of "Instant" and the evolution of Google result pages has seen a reduction in the time spent on Google's own pages and getting the user to where they THINK they want to go because it’s now faster.
So the actual usage of options on the long tail has dropped and the lazy consumer sees less options and actual impact (as measured by click throughs) of options on the long tail has dropped significantly.
Others recognized the switch and quickly changed SEO to reflect the impact, moderating their drop off, but even they have noticed that they cannot necessarily compensate for this set of changes in Google’s search engine in the way they were able to prior to the changes.
And it’s not going to get better. Thus there is a creeping realization that Google is not necessarily pro-consumer choice. It is Pro-Google and Pro-Consumer Laziness.
Should Google have implemented this? One could argue that Google only implemented this as a defensive move. But I doubt that was the case.
This should send shivers down the spines of any and everyone in travel. It could mean, in a post-thumbs up world for its acquisition of ITA Software, Google results will be focused on the top tier players.
The options on long haul flights in the past have been restricted by legacy GDS based algorithms.
In recent years this has improved, particularly in 2010 with the emergence of new search players such as Everbread. That improvement is likely to erode significantly with the fewer options of a shortened search string and a busier first results page.
Further there is a persistent appearance of a mediocre user experience of one-size-fits all that has been a hallmark of Google’s products. Good enough is the order of the day.
In competitive markets, getting results from marginal players will be either very hard or expensive. Either way this disadvantages both the consumer and the smaller players in the long tail.
This is also likely to generate a geographic bias towards the US-based results - I have a hunch that this will favour a US airline over a local national carrier.
Perhaps Google just handed FairSearch all the ammunition they need to make their case to the DoJ. But this is no slam dunk.
NB: Disclosure - O'Neil-Dunne is CTO and deputy CEO of Lute Technologies, which is a partner of Farelogix, one of the members of FairSearch.