by David Craft
“The errant child of the industry,” is how a recent Phocuswire post describes metasearch. “Its inherent usefulness as a consumer tool was purely, some argued, to compare prices.” Adding, now we’re at a “fascinating point in its evolution.”
In a piece for skift.com Sean O’Neill explains that a “convergence is taking place among supplier eCommerce sites, metasearch engines, and online travel agencies.” He quotes Richard Harris, co-Founder and CEO of Intent Media, a data science company for online travel companies (OTAs): “We’ve been watching the lines blur between search and commerce as old, ‘walled garden’ user experiences are giving way to open, multi-brand marketplaces — even in places where you wouldn’t expect it.”
Metasearch, OTA & Hotel Sites: Who Has The Upper Hand?
There’s a crowded playing field in accommodation metasearch, and for good reason. A recently released report from EyeforTravel and Fornova states that 44% of 3,000 travelers surveyed in Australia, Canada, the UK and US “always used metasearch tools, 73% did so regularly, and 94% were at least occasional users.” The survey also found “millennials and business travelers are some of the heaviest metasearch users.” Those most likely to use price comparison tools every time they book are 8-35 (46.4%) and 36-55 (46.4%), followed by those over 55 (36.8%).
Travel consultants PACE Dimensions analyzed 10,000 travel websites and “found metasearch sites account for more than 45% of global unique visitors in travel,” which siteminder.com notes “is greater than the proportion of unique visitors for OTAs, both globally and in the US.”
With those stats in mind, Steve Endacott, chairman of Teletext Holidays, believes hotel metasearch sites “have the advantage over hotel direct sites of offering a massive range of both beach and city hotels, increasing the likelihood of a repeat purchase.” He gives OTAs an edge over metasearch citing “the push from beach hotel OTAs to add extra utility by offering flights, transfers and holiday insurance during the hotel booking process. The more of these products customers buy from OTAs, the greater the chance of building utility and stickiness.”
Max Starkov, founder and director at HEBS Digital, explains the advantages of OTAs over metasearch sites in terms of their basic business model. Metasearch promises shoppers “the best price for the property they have chosen” while OTAs offer travelers “the best hotel in the destination they are traveling to.” He adds, “travelers have long chosen Booking.com and Expedia as their favorite research tools,” pointing out that they both “offer a wealth of research tools to facilitate this: maps, descriptions, rich media and customer reviews.”
And what about giant Google and its Google Hotel Ads program? Where does it fit in this mix? Starkov says, “over 50% of hotel website bookings are direct referrals from Google: 30% from organic and 20% from paid initiatives.” He points out that “Google is not trying to become an OTA. Google cares only about providing the most relevant information to its users.” That information is hotel location, hotel description, customer reviews and price/availability. “Since the introduction of Google Hotel Ads in 2010, now Google is in a position to provide answers…about price and availability. “
Is Change In The Air For Metasearch & Flights?
The complexity of airline pricing and price variations make travelers’ need to easily understand their options even more important than for hotels. It’s not just a matter of getting from one place to another, but fliers need to factor in direct flights versus connections, lengths of layovers, departure and arrival times, level of service onboard and more.
Earlier this year Icelandair and El Al began testing the value of adding competitors’ availability and fares on their own sites to keep more travelers from getting vital comparison-shopping somewhere else. According to Skift’s O’Neill, Icelandair is “experimenting with displaying a sampling of flights from other airlines in their search results. The idea is that, by showing how competitive their offering is, airlines can persuade more shoppers to buy right away.”
Another way airlines can offer comparisons are with a product offered by Travelaer. When it appears a potential customer is leaving the airline’s site, the best direct fare will appear (and compared with a sample of competitor’s fares). As Intent Media’s Harris notes, “Most segments of flight shoppers comparison shop anyway. So airline brands should anticipate user needs.”
Will Metasearch Help the Disjointed Vacation Rental Sector?
The chief executive of HomeToGo, Dr. Patrick Andrae thinks it will. “There are hundreds of websites offering vacation rentals - it can take users hours of searching to discover the perfect accommodation for their needs.”
HomeToGo compares more than 16 million offers from more than 300 vacation rental websites, making it the world’s largest vacation rental search engine. Andrae explains that HomeToGo uses “a complex search technology that integrates, combines, and deduplicates the data of hundreds of partner websites to make the world’s vacation rentals easily accessible and comparable for everyone.” In addition to offering “the largest choice with one quick search,” the use of “machine learning based sorting technology” provides results that are ranked based on relevance to the individual.
Where to Next?
BookAssist’s Head of Product, Metasearch, Jacopo Rita says, “Like everything involved in technology and the digital ecosystem - and when it comes to metasearch advertising, even more so - change is the norm, and the speed of change is the paradigm.”
Andrae believes “metasearch will have to continue to evolve to accommodate users seamlessly across devices, including voice search technology.” Phocuswire predicts, “The concept of meta-book is where many believe the market is heading next.”
The evolution of technology in the travel industry and the entry, exit and merger of players will certainly influence where metasearch goes, but something more basic will also have an impact—travelers. As Richard Harris told Skift: “Consumers are savvy and know how to get pricing data, so trying to pull the wool over their eyes is not a strategy for success.”