Google Flights: A new move into travel
In March 2016, Google’s VP of Travel and Shopping, Oliver Heckmann categorically stated, “We are not becoming an OTA. That’s not planned, either now nor in the future.” And yet…
In the past few years, Google has continually invested in Google Flights, at www.google.com/flights, building out one of the most responsive and easiest to use flight search interfaces available. The backbone of this interface is the airfare search and pricing system, QPX which Google acquired when it bought out ITA Software in 2010. Google also offers QPX for Enterprise a comprehensive pricing and shopping platform used by travel intermediaries like, KAYAK, Orbitz and Cheapflights as well as airlines like United, Alitalia and US Airways.
Nowadays, users can search for a flight with Google Flights, offered with various options and sorted by price and convenience, and then with just one click straight to the airline selected and complete the booking. Bypassing any further, commission-claiming intermediary, it appears Google is directly stepping into the business of flight search features like KAYAK and Skyscanner.
Despite claims to the contrary, Google is becoming an increasingly important referral partner for some of the biggest and busiest airlines in the US, covering domestic and international routes.
It was obvious to conclude three US-based airlines that received the highest proportions of traffic from Google Flights’ referring URL, googletraveladservices.com, to determine the impact referrals from Google was having on their traffic. In each instance, referrals accounted for around 20% of all desktop traffic to the site and in each instance referrals from KAYAK made up between 24 and 30% of those referrals. At alaskair.com, Google is responsible for just 4% of desktop referral traffic hardly competing with KAYAK. However, at united.com and flyfrontier.com Google makes up 29% and 35% of referrals respectively, equally and surpassing the referrals from kayak.com.
Referrals from Google Flights account for over 6% of all traffic to both united.com and flyfrontier.com. This is in addition to any traffic coming to those sites from paid search. Whether it is willing to admit it or not, Google, through Google Flights, has become a major player in the flight booking space, easily competing with the biggest OTAs in the business. How far Google is willing to push this and what existing OTAs can do to defend their revenues remains to be seen.