Airlines shouldn’t worry about Google Flights’ latest moves
Since Google Flights not only fosters a more aggressive search environment, but also keeps customers away from OTAs, Google Flights might be a friend and a foe to airlines.
Google has been investing substantially in its flights metasearch product, turning it into a more useful tool for consumers who are still in the “inspiration” stage.
Since this winter, Google Flights lets users launch their trip-planning efforts with generic terms, such as “New York to Miami” or “flights to San Diego,” without having to have specific itinerary details in mindto see results.
The core product hasn’t changed, though. Google Flights essentially provides consumers with a starting point for browsing flights, and connects them directly to airlines for further details or to book.
But since February 2016, Google updated the default interface for visitors to its main Google Flights window (i.e., google.com/flights, google.pt/flights) in select countries worldwide.
The tools on the new interface allow users to click on a selection of filters to receive relevant, image-heavy results – not just of potential flights, but of potential destinations.
For example, users can select from different “interests” (such as adventure travel, culture, or ecotourism) to browse destination suggestions. For each recommendation, Google offers live ticket prices from carriers at the searcher’s nearest major airport.
On one hand, this development represents Google essentially mimicking airlines’ favorite marketing strategy: inspiration.
Many carriers cover their websites with vacation-oriented content, “getaway” messaging, and destination imagery – all designed to drive consumers’ toward a greater intent to travel.
Yet while airlines have embraced inspiration-based marketing for decades, it’s an unwise (and largely ineffective) approach for them, which is why 74 percent of consumers engage with airline websites exclusively to review inventory information. Think: checking route details, confirming prices, etc., rather than to contemplate or receive trip ideas.
Generally, customers head to a carrier’s website once they know they intend to travel from Point A to Point B… not to decide which “point” B should be. As such, an increasing travel-inspiration approach from Google Flights won’t compete with airlines’ most important business focus: driving direct channel conversions on their branded websites.
As carriers navigate this newest online marketing development, we ultimately think destination driven search will boost the ‘friend factor’ between Google Flights and carriers. Google is a natural place for most consumers to do research on travel (and everything else).
More comprehensive and flexible flight-search tools on Google Flights may help it become a de-facto travel aggregator – and make travelers even less reliant on the OTAs and MSEs that have seized so much traffic, and so many commissions and fees, from airlines.
The jury is out on whether Google Flights was a friend or foe to airlines. As I argued before in the 2016 Airline Marketing Outlook report, the tool is a little bit of both:
A Foe, Fostering a More Aggressive Search Environment:
“Because it pushes organic results further down the page, Google Flights creates a more competitive search environment. It’s all the more important now to appear not just on the first page of search results, but toward the top of the first page.”
A Friend, for Keeping Customers Away from OTAs:
“That being said, we actually foresee more revenue flowing through airlines’ direct channels as a result of Google Flights because consumers increasingly use Google for all aspects of flight research and planning, whereas they previously used major online travel agencies (OTAs) and metasearch engines (MSEs) to research and plan even in cases where they intended to buy from the airline.”
In sum, airlines need to keep an eye on Google Flights, but so far, it seems distracted by a new effort that isn’t a core threat.
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