Google is causing trouble again. This time, the search giant is making waves for travel sites like Kayak, Expedia and Orbitz. But its defenders say it is helping travelers find flights faster and as for the airlines, they like anything that cuts out the middleman sites like Orbitz and Expedia.
There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes in the seemingly simple search business, but screenshots are sometimes worth a thousand words, as someone might have once said had there been screenshots way back when.
Say you're going from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles International, a busy route with many flights. We tried three different ways of finding available flights.
From the Orbitz search page, we typed in our itinerary, then waited eight seconds while this placeholder graced our screen:
That was followed by a results page listing available flights, times and prices:
This is all pretty familiar to anyone who's done much traveling in the last few years. The next step is to click on the desired flight and book it through Orbitz, which acts as a travel agent and takes a cut of the ticket price.
Now, Orbitz will argue that this is the best option since it supposedly will be there for us if anything goes wrong during our travels. This sounds good but many consumers have found it doesn't always work that way.
Let's be clear: Orbitz is selling something. Like Expedia and other online travel agents, it wants to sell you an airline ticket, book a hotel room and reserve a rental car. It takes a cut from each of these. Whether it gives greater prominence to deals that give it a bigger slice of the pie isn't something that's easy to find out.
Kayak is different. We might call it a specialized search engine. It really doesn't do anything but find flights, prices, times, etc. and, in most cases, provide a link directly to the airline. Kayak doesn't sell you anything and doesn't take any money out of your or the airlines' pocket. It sells advertising on its site, just like Google, and relies on that for its revenue.
We entered the same travel parameters on Kayak and had to wait only three seconds for the results:
The results, sorted by price, came up quickly and gave us several options for booking our selected flight. We can book directly through the airline, thorugh Cheaptickets.com, Travelocity or Expedia.com.
Fair enough. The Kayak site is indeed covered with ads but it is relatively straightforward and appears to present all of the available options impartially.
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.
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.
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.
A couple of points should be noted: the Google travel search is, for the moment, only domestic. International flights are available directly from the airlines and through online travel agents.
Also, the Google travel search does not include hotels and car rentals, so Orbitz, et al can continue to eke out an existence there, although hotels are putting on a full-court press to get their regular customers to book directly, promising better service and lower rates.
And finally, it should be noted that not all airlines are included. Southwest, JetBlue and a few others don't make their schedules available, preferring to handle everything themselves.