Travel Search: Is it the end of the “Google Era”?

Alphabet, Google’s owner, will never disappear from our lives as it has the power and wealth to “buy” the next internet sensation or solution, as it did with YouTube. But are we about to see a seismic shift away from Google’s 95% dominance over internet search?

For a generation, Google has held a monopoly over travel searches. However, this dominance comes at the cost of a relatively poor customer experience. Research reveals a staggering truth: the average customer is forced to visit 48 travel sites and invest a whopping 26 hours in research before finally booking a holiday. Imagine the frustration level out there!

Google’s search services are monetised through a “Cost per Click” (CPC) or CPA model. The more clicks it generates, the higher its profits. But have you ever noticed that the longer the search you type into Google, the less likely you are to find the result you want?

Google encourages shorter search terms and returns pages of links for customers to click on to research further to find the answers they need to take the “Action” they require, e.g. booking a holiday. These results are further distorted by “paid bias”, with advertisers bidding to be placed in the most prominent positions.

Commercialisation has become so bad that 28% of the UK population actively uses Adblockers, which, for Google searches, may indicate a desire to get the right answer quicker.

Large Language models (LLMs) are exploding in popularity as they appear to offer a much faster route to the “right” answer.

LLMs are trained on the entire knowledge of the internet and are much better positioned to interpret long and complex enquiries by focusing on the “intent” of the keywords used to reach a better understanding of the customer’s question.

They also allow a query to be “built” by considering what the user has said previously in the same query stream, allowing customers to refine their requirements based on the results returned at each stage.

This has allowed Neural Voice, one of my AI start-ups, to create a “Voice” overlay where customers can talk to an AI character, in a conversational format to discuss options for where they want to go on holiday next year (Dream Stage). Check it out; the sophistication of the tech, even at this early stage, will amaze you

Links to Emily, our AI agent, can then be emailed out to previous bookers to qualify their requirements for their next holiday, with a summary and transcript automatically passed to the customer’s CRM to influence further marketing or for follow-up by a human agent.

LLMs and voice interaction promise to offer a much better customer experience, allowing them to find the information they need for “action” much faster. This could quickly erode Google search volumes while providing a new route to market for the travel business. However, the model is radically different, and the LLM’s commercial model will quickly evolve.

Here are a few things for travel businesses to start thinking about:

Commercial model.

Like most people, I am currently happy to pay my $20 monthly licence fee to use ChatGPT. However, this subscription revenue will quickly get eroded by competition from other LLMs, and inevitably, these models will seek to add transactional revenues.

However, adding bias to direct customers to partners paying higher advertising fees, in the same way, Google does, would be diametrically opposed to the ethos of providing the best answers without bias and would create a clunky endpoint.

I personally think LLMs will follow the Amazon model.

Amazon is, in effect, a massive “retail” search engine, where the customer chooses from a huge range of suppliers’ products but transacts with and pays Amazon. Travel comparison sites like Trivago have also evolved to transact this way as it increased conversions by removing friction created when customers clicked out to partner sites.

So, if LLM delivers an “end-to-end” booking service, what are the other knock-on impacts?

Will SEO and quality of content matter in the longer term?

Many travel businesses are rushing to use AI technology to create new SEO content, to drive them up the SEO rankings. However, although some LLMs integrate with Google content, most models are based on online data-rich sites like Wikipedia rather than individual website pages, making them inaccessible via traditional SEO optimisation.  Getting LLMs to prefer your travel products will be a key battle, but it’s very unclear how this will be done yet.

Secondly, if LLMs are transactional, they will likely use their content database and differentiate between suppliers based on price rather than content quality.

Creating and protecting travel “brands”.

The large airline-owned tour operations of Easyjet and Jet2 holidays have natural protection in that customers travel on branded flights and are serviced by branded ground staff delivering in-resort services.

However, OTAs like Love Holidays and On the Beach’s main role is to provide a wide range of products and a simple booking process. What is their added value if the LLMs replace this booking process?

Obviously, there is an opportunity for these brands to use LLM technology to become the next Amazon of travel, but this does seem like a big ask and although not all travel traffic will flow through LLMs, it does seem like these players could be long-term losers.

Google Search, like the Dinosaurs of yesteryear, may quickly become extinct, but what replaces it and how the travel industry integrates into this new search model is far from clear.

However, the more dependent your business is on Google search traffic today the faster you need to act.

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