Yesterday, Google announced an update to its Flight Search tool that lets users search for regions, like "Hawaii"—not merely airports.
You can now "search for countries, states, islands, and continents from any U.S. or Canadian origin," says the company.
This flexible search option copies the innovation of the metasearch tool from Kayak called Explore.
Here's a sample search of fares to Austria:
This prompts us to ask: What is Google up to with its travel products?
It's a question travel marketers rarely have time to ponder. But sometimes it helps to pause, take a breath, and think about what the "long game" might be.
Last week, James van Thiel, the industry leader for Google's Netherlands Travel team, talked about integrating search with metasearch and other Google Travel development during a presentation and panel discussion at the Enter 2013 conference.
Speed is critical
Says van Thiel:
Consumers are becoming quite impatient. Thanks to the spread of broadband connections and 4G mobile data connections, consumers increasingly expect lightning-fast responses to all types of Internet interactions.
In 2011, the company introduced a generic search tool called "instant search," where as you type your query Google auto-suggests search queries time.
That has been critical in maintaining usage of the site.
Google's travel products are generally faster than those built by rivals. Says van Thiel:
As 4G expands on mobile, the trend will be accelerated, and companies that return results quickly will have an advantage.…
For Google Flights and Google Flights Explorer, the results feel virtually instantaneous.
Over time, more customers will find these fare-search products. When they do, they'll adopt them because of their superior speed.
One implication of these comments is that if another travel company faces a choice between returning results that are the most quickly displayed and results that are the most accurate, they should opt for speed over accuracy if they want to compete with Google.
In short, it seems likely that Google will continue to prioritize speed-enhancing innovation in its travel products.
Relevance is Google Travel's other edge
"We're moving to the predictive era," van Thiel says. It's not about keywords or static ads as much anymore.
The purpose of Google's travel products is to spare consumer from having to visit the 22 different sites on average that they visit to before making a purchase.
Importantly, Google hopes to be able to charge advertisers more because the pay-per-click leads should be better qualified if the users are better informed and are further down the decision funnel before clicking through.
In the past year, Google has already made some notable changes to the user interface of Flight Search, including revamping the user interface to make it easier to compare complex itineraries, such as those including multiple stops.
In spring 2012, it added search capabilities for flights originating from the US or Canada to any international destination airport, and that capability will be further extended worldwide. Adds van Thiel:
We have added features that offer more information about amenities and fees.
We did this to help users feel well-informed, and to help them quickly choose the best itinerary by quickly seeing the total cost of a trip after baggage fees.
In 2012, we introduced an experimental feature called Flight Explorer, which is in beta in the US. It aims to give consumers a wider choice and help with inspiration.
For instance, you can now quickly compare multiple destinations and multiple days simultaneously, using live prices.
Say I live in Denver, and I want to go to Caribbean. Which island should I go to?
We want consumers to be able to make direct comparison over price between various destinations relevant from their point of departure and other factors.
We're trying to get people higher up in the funnel, "I have $400 to spend, and I want to know what my options are" or I'm not yet settled on my travel dates.…
Google Analytics already allows some multi-funnel channel analysis, letting marketers see where interactions are happening.
We are working to improve that level of detail because what will work for a small company may not work for a mid-size company or one with a more complex campaign.…
Our advice is to make sure that your human resources budget for 2013 focuses on hiring online marketing people who have the skill to play with and understand data, meaning data for online and offline campaigns.
Your best hires in the next few years will be people skilled in using the data in attributing value to different efforts and people who can tell you what is influencing customers from the start of the funnel down to purchase and post-trip word of mouth.
You need to hire smartly to do better measurement of ROI.
What about hotels?
Google is also very much interested in hotels, as demonstrated by Google's Hotel Finder, which rolled out in late 2012 to France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, UK, and Ireland.
In 2012 it also added rates and availability for a choice of room types.
An important part of what we're working on is automation for our hotel marketers, so Google will interpret and visualize your own data to help in decision making process.
Expect more data visualization, because it's more intuitive for marketers to understand.
Hotels will have more information on a customer because of their behavior on the tool.…
Google is not going to be a booking platform but we want to provide transparency.
For marketers, it's important to attribute marketing value across multiple channels. Don't attribute your ROI just to what prompts the last click, because all of the momentum building across platforms plays a part.
Google Analytics will continue to improve in helping marketers do traffic measurement and interactive reporting along with social reporting via Google+ interactions.
Google+ is here to stay
For relevance, Google+ is the key, says van Thiel. Click-through rates on general search increase between 5% and 8%, depending on the product, if a site has had a "+1 (plus one)" from someone in their network.
Users have a greater propensity to click on what people they know have vouched for.
If I had fans of my brand, let's say my hotel, I would absolutely encourage them to "plus-1" as many of my pages as possible for improved performance in the relevance of search.…
We consider Google+ to be a success. Google+ is the social spine of everything we do.
As the world is increasingly adopting social, we see the usage of Google+ is increasing at rates that exceed our projections.
If we can drop the moniker Plus in the future, the product will be truly proven as integrated into everything we do—and that's our aspiration.
It's okay to invest time and money in getting consumers to "click to find out more" than strictly "click to book," says van Thiel.
In the US, Booking.com is having to brand, something they didn't have to do while conquering Europe, because the US market is highly saturated and they need help improving the trust factor...
Speaking in general, for even small and mid-size companies, you have to do more pre-trip and post-trip interaction for building marketing momentum for your brand and getting customers to repeat a story with friends and family.
Popularity on Google+ could help brands like that reach those goals, too.…
In the meantime, van Thiel hinted that Google Flights is going to have a cool innovation coming soon, with the phrase "watch this space."
It's Google's world, and we merely live in it.