Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Google Speeds Up Travel Searches, Annoys Travel Search Sites

Using Google, we simply typed "IAD to LAX" into the search box and immediately (or, as Google would prefer, in 0.22 seconds) got the results in the familiar Google format -- paid ads on the top, then the results, then more results for other pages related to the topic.

As on the other sites, we simply select the flight we want and hit "Book." Unlike Kayak, Google didn't try to direct us to Expedia.com, Cheaptickets.com or any other third party; it took us right into the United Airlines reservation system and brought up a final purchase screen confirming the itinerary and price.

Like Kayak's pages, Google's pages contain advertising, which remains Big G's primary revenue source.

Consumers complain about advertising, of course, but it is the basis of the free press that is in turn the basis of American democracy, so perhaps the less said about that the better.

The problem?
So what's the problem? Well, the other travel sites say the problem is that Google will in short order put them out of business by "favoring" its own searches. It's what they've been saying since Google bought ITA Software Inc. last year.

ITA is the mother lode of flight data. It supplies the information used not only in Google flight searches but also in nearly all of the competing searches, including Kayak, Expedia, etc.

The Justice Department allowed the purchase to go forward after Google promised that it would "build tools that would drive more traffic to airline and online travel agency sites." The other sites are now complaining loudly that Google isn't doing that.

Proper role
The question comes down to whether Google must forever more be nothing but a passive search engine, combing through data posted on the Internet by others or whether it should try to live up to its mandate to "organize the world's information."

Providing comprehensive, impartial flight data quickly seems to fit into Google's mandate and also, just in passing, would seem to be a benefit to consumers. Google is not obligated to think first of consumers, of course, but publishing has traditionally been a public service business -- providing information that meets consumers' needs in a reasonably impartial manner.

If other businesses are damaged by that, it may be what in other venues is called collateral damage. It wasn't many years ago that the online travel agencies were being vilified for running bricks-and-mortar travel agents out of town.

Some of those traditional travel agents found ways to adapt and survive. The Expedias of the world may have to do the same.

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