Monopoly: Google is the definition of one!

Recent Phocus Wire research showed that the top 4 global travel brands spent an astounding $16.8 billion in 2023 on sales and marketing, up 20% from 2022. An estimated 70% of this, or $11.8, was handed over to Google in the form of search advertising.

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission would swiftly initiate an investigation if a merger proposal arose among major low-cost carriers or if an acquisition attempt was made on an Online Travel Agency (OTA) such as On the Beach or Love Holidays. However, they ignore entirely Google’s dominant market position, which holds 93.5% of the UK’s online search market share.

How can one business be allowed such a dominant position, with virtually total control over how UK customers access online holidays? Particularly when Google does not even pay a fair level of UK tax, siphoning off its UK profits to a lower-tax Southern Ireland office.

However, a quick review of the table below highlights how Airbnb is bucking this trend.

Airbnb is proud that it spends relatively little on Google marketing and drives 90% of traffic on a non-paid basis directly to its website.

It helps that they have such a clearly defined product proposition and loyal repeat booking customer base, but they also focus heavily on creative social media and PR stunts, such as collaborating with Martell to turn a Malibu mansion into the “Malibu Barbie Dream House” listing on Airbnb. This alone generated millions of site visits.

Airbnb is also investing heavily in influencer marketing, providing tools to its owners to carry out their own marketing, and driving app usage by ensuring that all communication with the host goes through this channel.

In the UK, On the Beach (OTB) still spends 51% of its revenues on marketing, but unlike direct competitors Love Holidays, it is spending increasing amounts on “Above the Line” on TV and Radio to create brand awareness and drive more direct traffic. The benefits of this brand building may take years to develop, and Love Holidays has rapidly caught OTB in terms of turnover and exceeding its profit performance in 2022.

Love Holidays’ recent accounts to October 31st, 2022, showed a turnover of £ 1.35 billion, just behind OTB £1.44 billion but with an impressive EBITDA of £36.3m. Clearly, their excellent technology is driving conversion and customer retention levels that allow them to pay high Google acquisition costs and scale rapidly, making Google an effective traffic source.

If you’re not one of the major players, reliance on Google is probably a deferred death sentence waiting to happen. So, what alternatives are emerging?

1. Perplexity Search. Playing with this tool by visiting will demonstrate how quickly it delivers “answers” and should move you away from Google search. Although the tool has 10 million uses across Asia, India, and the USA and is valued at $520m, it’s relatively new to the UK, having only launched in August 2022.

Why would the customer continue to spend 24 hours researching and clicking on 50 Google links when they can get an answer in an instant from Perplexity or ChatGPT? As my recent blog outlined, Open AI’s CEO Sam Altman is opposed to advertising, which he believes will add “bias” to results. He prefers to offer a premium subscription model, and this is indeed the model Perplexity operates.

However, history has shown us that although new online tools initially shun advertising during their user growth period, it always creeps in. In the meantime, travel SEO plays like little-known , is ranking well and harvesting lots of free traffic.

2. Database Marketing. Most users now ignore millions of emails, with opening rates and click-throughs for travel emails falling rapidly. However, new AI technology offers a potential solution for re-invigorating this approach.

Customers can now be emailed a link to an AI Travel Agent such as Emily, who can have a conversation informed by their previous travels to establish their requirements for this year’s trip. The conversation is automatically transcribed, summarised, and posted into the business CRM to contextualise future advertising or for the lead to be followed up with online booking links or a call from a human agent to close the sale.

3. Influencers. If you are not an Instagram user, you will not comprehend the power that influencers can yield over the “Dream Stage” of a holiday. This medium is compelling for tourist boards and upmarket hotels and is increasingly becoming a proven traffic generator. Recruiting your own team of influencers or working with influence aggregators like Trending Travel should be considered.

4. Homeworkers. This is the ultimate low-cost route to market, with localised marketing via sports clubs and businesses supported by targeted social media activity controlled by the homeworker who understands their local market dynamics. However, companies like Travel Solutions Network are now offering business access to “Virtual Call centres staffed by commission-only homeworkers, to offer high converting “Human agents” to complement their online booking path. Research has shown that showing that a business is “Contactable” in the case issues emerge increases “online conversion”, making the phone bookings 100% incremental, even after booking route substitution.

As Love Holidays has proven, Google search as a customer acquisition route can still work if you have great technology that converts these leads. However, for the rest of us, it’s probably time to focus on exploring some of the new routes to market listed.

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