Over the past couple years, the global roll-out of Google Flights has been one of the highest impact events affecting the search performance of the airlines with whom we work. This is true primarily from an SEO perspective, but Google Flights has also affected Paid Search (“SEM”) to a lesser extent. We would like to share some of our reactions and our hypothesis of what Google Flights means to an airline’s Non-Brand Search (e.g. “flights from A to B”) strategy going forward.
First Impression: Google Flights is an Enemy
Over the years, we have spent considerable resources, time, and effort to improve numerous airlines’ Non-Brand Search performance. Enabling an airline to consistently rank in organic search results for search queries related to its destinations and routes is no small feat. Similarly, Non-Brand SEM for global, multilingual airlines is a constant battle requiring new weapons and enhanced strategies at all times. When Google Flights launched in our airlines’ respective markets (especially domestic markets), we witnessed considerable declines in Non-Brand SEO traffic and revenue, and slight declines in Non-Brand SEM traffic and revenue.
What’s more, the airlines with the most sophisticated, high-performing Non-Brand SEO and SEM strategies were most impacted by Google Flights’ siphoning off traffic (and therefore revenue) from organic and paid search results (mostly organic). One of our top performing airlines experienced a month-on-month decline of Non-Brand SEO revenue of 40% in its home market. Needless to say, we were incredibly upset at Google at the time, and felt this setback was unfair and unjustified.
Post-Hangover: Google Flights Is a Friend (Maybe)
The immediate impact of Google Flights led to our redoubling efforts to recover Non-Brand Search traffic and revenue as quickly as reasonably possible. Eventually the bitterness subsided (or maybe we were too busy to keep moaning), and both the airlines and our team recalibrated expectations for Non-Brand Search traffic and revenue.
But, in due time, something happened. After managing to reverse the negative trend in Non-Brand Search, we have recently experienced a growth trajectory suggesting full recovery is imminent, and previous performance levels will ultimately be surpassed. While we would like to claim that despite worsened conditioned we have managed to best the competition so effectively as to reach new height in our SEO and SEM pursuits, we have a suspicion that, to some degree, other forces might be helping our cause. Is Google Flights a friend of airline Non-Brand Search?
The Hypothesis: This Will Be Good, Eventually
Having taken a step back and meditated on this still-developing experience, we think Google Flights may ultimately be a powerful growth driver for airline Non-Brand Search, and we may already be experiencing the early benefits of this force. Here is our logic (hopefully sound, and not post-rationalized):
We thought about what Google’s overall objectives really are. When someone wants to find something online (a product, information, an answer, whatever), Google expects to be the solution. This is Google’s intention regardless of vertical, geography, language, or any other delineation. However, air travel (and travel in general) is a rare vertical where it is arguable that Google is not the dominant search solution. Many consumers consider Expedia, Kayak, and other aggregators as their “search engine” for air travel. That is, there is a significant segment of online travel bookers who go directly to these aggregators rather than first searching in a search engine and then navigating to a specific page presented in Google’s SERP.
This suggests that considerable market share in flight search is available to be captured by Google, if Google can convince consumers that Google is a superior flight search solution versus aggregators, namely online travel agencies (“OTAs”) and meta-search engines (“MSEs”). Anyone who has spent time with Google Flights will realize that this goal is well within Google’s reach, given the phenomenal user experience provided by Google Flights.
We believe we are witnessing growth in user adoption of Google Flights, which ultimately means growth in flight search traffic on Google—yielding more non-brand SEO and SEM traffic and revenue. Our preliminary data indicate that, although Google Flights is capturing a significant share of traffic, the vast majority of clicks on the SERP still goes to the top organic search results. Therefore, growth in the channel as a whole will directly benefit those airlines executing non-brand search strategies. Therefore, while it appeared that airlines were the initial victim of Google Flights, at this point we believe OTAs and MSEs should be far more concerned, and ultimately airlines may benefit from more consumers considering Google as their solution for flight search.
This is especially the case given that, historically, Google has seemed less interested in true customer ownership throughout the funnel, whereas the success of OTAs and MSEs is heavily predicated on customer acquisition and retention. All in all, because of the critical importance of customer ownership for airlines in the increasingly competitive eCommerce channel, the true impact of Google Flights on airlines may ultimately be direct channel growth and increased customer acquisition and ownership.
That is, unless Google itself becomes a true OTA. Which we doubt. But you never know…