Google Needs To Send Flight Search Back To The Hangar (Guest Post)

I’ve finished up my week at APEX, and it was a great one. That being said, I have a ton of stuff to sort through for future posts, so I’ll be pretty busy until next week. Today, I’ve got a guest post from Henry Harteveldt on Google’s new flight search.

Two days ago, Google unveiled a new flight search function. Following its successful acquisition of ITA Software, Google’s move was expected — only the timing remained unknown. But after a bit of testing, I think Google launched the product too soon. Since you never get a second chance to make a first impression, I don’t think Google did itself any favors by launching it when it did.

Like Kayak, Fly.com, Hipmunk and other similar “meta-search” websites, Google’s new flight search function allows a user to search and compare airline schedules and prices. Google’s flight search certainly offers several benefits:

  • Convenience. Google is the most-used search engine, and adding flight search will only serve to increase the site’s utility to its users. As an advertising-based business, this obviously stands to benefit Google enormously as well — more people using more pages, spending more time on Google.
  • Page download speed. Once I’d selected my travel dates, Google returned results almost instantly. A search on Kayak produced a calendar on the right-side of the page showing the best available fares, but users must wait several seconds (six to eight seconds, in my tests) for all the actual flight results to be returned.
  • Proactive filters. Google’s flight search allows users to filter by both price and travel time. Both of these are smart. Research I did in my previous job shows that a large number of US online leisure travelers — likely the primary audience for this application — allow price to dictate their first-choice destination. The travel time filter is helpful (if not original — Travelmuse.com first offered this at least three years ago) for travelers who want to avoid long flights, especially if they’re taking a long weekend getaway and want to maximize their time at their destination.
  • Integrated — though slow — booking. After a user has selected both outbound and return flights, a red “Book” button appears (beneath that is an ad for the airline, read on to see how that will play out). Clicking on it will take the user to airline’s website where he or she may proceed to complete the reservation. In my experiences, though, it routinely took eight seconds or more for the airline website page to appear (I didn’t encounter other delays using the Internet or my web browser — Google Chrome — while waiting for the airline page to load).

That said, as analyst I think Google jumped the gun in bringing this product to market. Why?

  • Poor presence on launch day. Hint: If you’re going to tout that you’re bringing something to market, it’s usually a smart idea to let users find it. I did 10 searches on Google.com using the suggested “flights from [city] to [city]” phrase. None produced the “flights” link in the left-side navigation menu, as illustrated on Google’s blog. The “flights” link did appear in the searches I conducted today, September 14. Nitpicky? Maybe No. If you’re going to bring a product to market and tout it, make sure your users can consistently find and use it.
  • A clunky map. If there’s anything Google knows besides search, it’s mapping. Google offers two nice features on its flight search map. First, it shows the prices for the destinations based on selected travel dates. Second, the departure airport shows an icon of a plane taking off, while the destination city shows a plane landing. After that, though, Google — surprisingly — disappoints. It’s not at all clear how a user interacts with the map. To change origin and destination cities, a natural response would be to try to move the icons around on the map. That doesn’t work — doing so shifts the map in the window. To adjust the destination city on the map, a user must click a different city. To change the departure airport, users must change the “from” city in the flight search box.
  • Google flight search
  • Incomplete flight search results. Not all airlines serving a city-pair were returned. For example, a search for San Francisco-Washington DC (all airports) returned results for United, but no other airline. With a 6 1/2 hour flight duration, Virgin America’s (VX) San Francisco-Washington/Dulles nonstops should have been included (VX schedules those flights for roughly 5 hours, 10 minutes). On other searches, like Oakland-Houston, Southwest’s (WN)flights didn’t appear. I can understand not showing WN’s fares, but not its schedules, especially since media presented WN flight results. A San Francisco-LA search returned flights for American and United, but not Delta. A Delta.com search showed 11 flights southbound, nine flights northbound on the same travel dates.
  • SFO LAX no DL GOOG flight search
  • Uninspired user sort controls. I give Google credit for allowing users to sort flight results by airline alliances — that can be very helpful, especially for international flight searches. But the other controls are fairly standard — number of stops, connecting airport, and departure and return flight times. This site has nothing on either Kayak or Hipmunk, whose user controls are more visible. Yawn.
  • A display that emphasizes airline commoditization. Yes, this is a new product. Yes, airline pricing is complex. But airlines are working hard to differentiate themselves, and Google’s flight display does nothing to help them. Google presents the least expensive economy-class fare. Nothing wrong with that, but Kayak presents premium economy fares. Airlines like United and Virgin America can’t merchandise their premium economy offerings on Google’s flight search tool. Carriers that offer amenities like in-flight Wi-Fi, in-seat power, or in-seat audio/video entertainment systems can’t promote those items in the tool, either. Hipmunk shows users which flight have Wi-Fi. These items are important to distinguishing elements for the airlines. Not offering at least some merchandising capabilities at its start places Google tangibly behind its competitors.

When a firm introduces what is essentially a “me too” product, its launch should incorporate enough bells and whistles to create a distinctive, compelling experience to encourage switching. As of now, Google’s flight search may be convenient, but it’s far from compelling.

Finally, there’s been a lot of buzz about how the flight search shows only airline websites. Cranky Flier readers no doubt know that airlines would like to increase their direct sales, primarily via their websites — their lowest-cost sales channel — rather than selling tickets through travel agencies. Don’t expect this to last. Remember that:

  • Google is a publicly-held firm. Like all publicly-held firms, Wall Street and investors expect growth in gross income and operating and net profits each quarter.
  • To help generate those revenues and profits Google sells advertising. Travel is a prime category. Within that category, online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, and Travelocity are major customers.
  • The OTAs generally have larger marketing budgets than the airlines. Both Expedia and Priceline have large cash balances, and have — or have had — larger market valuations than many airlines.

The OTAs will not allow themselves to be frozen out of Google’s flight search display. The OTAs are authorized agents of the airlines, so I don’t see how Google can prohibit them from participating in a public channel like its flight search tool. Plus, if consumers are not provided the same choice in shopping channels on Google’s flight search engine that they find elsewhere, Google will not get the traffic it seeks. Bear in mind that Kayak started as an airline-focused price aggregator, and then added OTAs as a booking option. That move must have worked, otherwise would have stopped it.

I understand, and respect, why airlines may not care to have OTAs compete with them in this channel. I don’t expect airlines to sit idly by, either. In talking with carriers, I get the impression that some may be willing to pay Google referral fees for users who book through their websites. Of course, it’s possible the OTAs may pay more. The OTAs can subsidize paying a larger referral fee on air tickets to a meta-search site, since they can recoup that by selling other travel products like hotels or insurance, to the air traveler. Though airlines sell third-party products, they don’t generate the same volume of those products as the OTAs.


Henry Harteveldt is a co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, where he leads its airline and travel research practice. Prior to starting Atmosphere earlier this month, Henry spent more than 11 1/2 years as the airline and travel analyst at Forrester Research, Inc.


26 Responses to Google Needs To Send Flight Search Back To The Hangar (Guest Post)

  1. Bob K. says:

    Agreed.

    This confirms some of the early reviews of the new Google tool. I took one look at a few screenshots, said “Why the heck is this so messy and visually unclear?”, and went straight to Kayak to look up flights. If a product isn’t going to be better or easier to use than the competition, why bother coming out with it?

    Incidentally, when I book corporate travel I use Kayak to nail down the flights & times I want, then go over to the company Egencia portal to book them there once I know exactly what I want. Saves me at least 20 or 30 minutes a trip looking up times that way vs doing so in Egencia. “Why can’t our systems be more like Google products?” is a common refrain in my company, but with travel it is, “Why can’t Egencia have the Kayak interface?”

  2. Sean says:

    I disagree. Good for Google to maintain its start-up spirit of throwing some projects out there and rapidly iterating based on real-world feedback. We’ll be waiting for another five years for Microsoft to do something with Farecast, which it purchased years ago.

    I also think this tool, as it stands, is promising. Google’s tool stands out for helping travellers when they’re in the “Dreaming, Researching and Booking stages” of travel planning by allowing open-ended searches. Users can search multiple origins and destinations — up to five of each.

    For instance, click the Flight Search map and use filters to see where they can go within certain time and cash boundaries. A case in point: A Dallas traveller could scope out where she might fly within 3 hours for under $300. If she wanted to exclude from the search results long and costly flights, she could take advantage of Google’s unique innovation, the “Limits” slider graphs. You’ll see these slider graphs if you run a search for a flight and then look for the boxes with chart icons under the map on the right-hand side on google.com/flights. Use your cursor to move the sliders back and forth to filter out overly long or costly flights.

    Hinting at the company’s plans, Google’s head of travel Rob Torres recently was quoted in an article at industry trade publication Tnooz: “When you look across the phases of the travel cycle – Dreaming, Researching, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing – the potential for innovation, particularly in the early stages of dreaming and researching, is astounding.”

    That’s all good news for travelers because when it comes to serving the top of the “funnel” — the Dreaming and Researching stage — OTAs, to coin a word, suck.

    • Henry Harteveldt says:

      Sean, the search filters you mentioned are indeed helpful, but they’re not as obvious or easy to use as they should be. It’s an example of putting the technology ahead of the person using it. The casual traveler would probably not see or know how to use this.

      Google needs to put more focus on the UI. Many years ago in my role at Forrester I pointed out the need for travel firms to do a better job of helping to inspire travelers. Sites like Triporati, Travelmuse, Gogobot, Kayak, Mobissimo, and Hpimunk (among others) do a great job with this. I’ve no doubt — no doubt at all — that once Google turns its design attention to its flight search UI that its flight search tool will also be helpful as an inspiration and planning tool. Factor in Google’s potential ability to integrate this into other Google apps — Gmail, Google+, the new Google HotelFinder, Android (or any smartphone platform), the Google wallet — and you’ve something with the promise of being extremely interesting.

      But…Google won’t live up to that potential with its flight search absent making improvements. It will be interesting to watch how they evolve the flight search tool. But until then, for the typical leisure traveler, who tend to no more than two airline round-trip flights a year, Google’s current flight search offers no compelling reason to change from other meta-search sites they may be using.

      Henry

  3. S.O. says:

    There’s an Easter egg for Chrome users of Google flight search that Robert Cole of PhoCusWright has found:

    “You may experience the same code-driven rush as a travel agent typing into a green screen in the 1970?s. The speed is addictive.”

    I’m quoting from his blog
    http://connect.phocuswright.com/2011/09/a-faster-way-to-search-google-flights-–-cut-and-paste/

    For experienced travelers who are familiar with airport codes, this may represent the industry’s fastest possible way to search for flights.

    The Google Flights text-based query string works really well for quick & dirty air searches.

    Click on this link as see what I mean:
    http://www.google.com/flights/#search;f=ORD,MDW,MKE;t=WAS;d=2011-11-14;r=2011-11-17;a=AA,CO,WN,UA;c=DFW,IAH;s=1;olt=0,900;itt=840,1440

    Is it fast? Hell yes. And there is no map pushing the search results below the fold.

    That’s Cool.

    But that’s not all, go into your browser bar and start manipulating the text string. Using Google Chrome, with Google Instant, the search results simply appear – even without clicking or hitting the enter key… Even when changing origin or destination airports.

    That’s Magic.

    The search query is easily broken down – here are the key elements (based on the query above):
    http://www.google.com/flights/#search | The website URL
    f=ORD,MDW,MKE | Origin Airport(s) (from)
    t=WAS | Destination Airport(s) (to)
    d=2011-11-14 | Departure Date (depart)
    r=2011-11-17 | Return Date (return)
    a=AA,CO,WN,UA | Air Carrier(s)(airline)
    c=DFW,IAH | Connection Cities (connect)
    s=1 | Maximum Stops (stops)
    olt=0,900 | Outbound Landing Time Range – Min-Max in minutes from 0:00 (outbound landing – arrival time range)
    itt=840,1440 | Inbound Takeoff Time Range – Min-Max in minutes from 0:00 (inbound takeoff – departure time range)

    Each element is isolated by a semi-colon. If particular search attributes are not needed (at a minimum, keep the dates and origin/destination,) leave them out.

    Try it – using Chrome. Awesome, isn’t it? It beats the page back / new search / or filtering options normally required on traditional airline, OTA or meta-search sites for raw speed & flexibility.

  4. Great points Henry, to me it begs the question, where’s the BETA label that Google has always put on the products that they’ve rushed to market? Gmail kept it for years and Google+ with all the publicity it’s received has a big “field trial” note on the welcome page. So if Google is indeed putting their Flight Search out for public “trial” that they don’t more openly acknowledge that fact.

  5. An additional issue I found when I tried to book a flight through the site a few days ago was that you can’t necessarily book all these flights online. I selected the flights I wanted, it gave me the price, yet the “Book Now” link was grayed out with the alert, “No booking links available. Contact airline directly.” I think there’s promise, but a certainly some distance to go.

  6. Didn’t I just read yesterday that their new search gave an option of the World Trade Center to use for flying to New York? It still thought the helipad on the roof was still open when it actually closed in the 80’s. Small detail that the WTC has been gone for 10 years. Are their programs that slow that they started this project prior to 2001 and are just finishing it?

  7. GrantParish says:

    Just tried a search out of Memphis ( a Delta Hub) and no Delta flights showed up in the results. This has a long way to go before I could consider it as a primary information source for flights.

  8. Kris Ziel says:

    It’s really pathetic that it had to be brought to their attention that the WTC was gone. And why are Bing Travel and ITA matrix searches not getting any mention? Both of them are superior to any other search.

    • Kris, you’re right. It is embarrassing. In fairness to Google, their flight search pulls from a separate database of airports/heliports. I suspect that database was not examined by its developers for closed airports/heliports.

      Good points re: Bing Travel and ITA matrix search. I have always found the Farecast product, which is used to power Bing’s flight search tool, to be helpful. Google now owns ITA Software. I’m not sure why they decided not to use its matrix UI.

  9. Ken says:

    I disagree on the speeds. I’m using Chrome and the results are instantaneous.

    I think the tool is about 80% there. I love the map. Being able to see how airfares compare relative to distance is a great feature. I definitely prefer this to Kayak, the interface is much faster and cleaner. Hipmunk will still be my first stop, though. Google also needs to get all the airlines on board too so we can actually buy tickets instead of having to re-input everything on some airlines’ pages.

  10. Kris Ziel says:

    You’ve got to be kidding me, I just searched DEN-SIN and it can’t find results because bleeping international destinations aren’t supported yet. I knew it was bad, but that is completely outrageous, this is 2011. If this is a new interface on an old product, said product has to be a decade or more old.

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  12. I’m planning a around-the-world trip departing this December, and this is the first I’d heard of the new Google search feature. I use Kayak almost exclusively because of its filtering capabilities, and the fact that it generally has the lowest fares from searches I’ve run.

    My buddy and I have posted our itinerary online (http://global-en.co/qa3kPo), and I’m curious what your thoughts would be on the cheapest options for air travel: using online search engines ahead of time or using discount travel agencies in person in each country of departure. Any insight would be greatly appreciated!

  13. aarong34 says:

    Uh…no ability to search for one-ways?? Kinda…simple to offer, isn’t it?

  14. My beefs are the lack of one way and that no international search is offerred.

    Am curious to see what happens otherwise

  15. Sanjeev M says:

    It’s really fast, which I like.

    Also, can you elaborate more on the “ad” that’s below the Book button?

  16. Matt says:

    Its an issue with many Google products though especially when it comes to feeding back information to Google about its products. The other issue for me is 1 way flights as I live out in the Tropics and go back to the UK now and again either end I don’t have a fixed time of flying so generally just buy one way as its normally outside the normal flying window of buying an open ticket (6 months). So for me its pretty useless without the 1 way feature.

  17. Chris Bird says:

    Google can’t catch a break! They spend years in the back room developing a product (Google+) which delights no one when it finally arrives. It would have been better to socialsource that product – get the customers involved, develop in rapid iterations, etc.
    Here’s a case where they are deliberately introducing something that they know isn’t finished – they are inviting feedback, crowd-source behavior, and they get dinged because it isn’t prime time.
    Of course the horrible interface (what is the use of that map that takes all the real estate?), it doesn’t render properly on my Android tablet, it isn’t intuitive – all things that need to be in an interface early to encourage exploration.
    It’s another typical Google offering, get the geeky, backend stuff working and screw the UX.
    Now if they listen to feedback and continually improve, they may have a worthy product. Otherwise not.

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