Although airlines rely on online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Priceline and Orbitz, and metasearch engines (MSEs), such as Skyscanner and Kayak, to sell tickets on their behalf, they also compete for the very same passengers and the same (limited) pools of revenue. Faced with already thin margins, airlines must carefully balance the multifaceted relationship they have with OTAs and MSEs.
When a traveler looking for a flight runs a search such as “London to Barcelona” they receive search-engine results on a given page along the lines of a fairly reliable arrangement. At the very top of their displayed results they are likely to see paid search placements — bought and paid for by brands that want to be seen first. Below that, depending on the specific country market and type of search query, there is typically a field showing Google Flights results. Below that, the consumer finds organic — that is, non-paid — search results.
Online, airline customers can be categorized in three key ways. One category includes the customer already loyal to an airline brand. Another type is the consumer who is loyal to an OTA or a metasearch brand. And then there are consumers who are not loyal to any one specific brand in any of these verticals. These non-brand-loyal customers represent at least 75% of searchers and they represent a segment airlines can mine for new acquisitions, groom for loyalty, and leverage for conversions over time.
Online travel agencies and metasearch engines are pushing airlines out of Google search engine results. In fact, digital marketing agency EveryMundo reckons airlines are so out of the picture when it comes to their placement on SERPs that they are missing out on the opportunity to establish a better relationship with travellers.
In the current travel search landscape, however, airline websites are losing traffic and visibility to online travel agencies (OTAs) and meta-search engines (MSEs). OTAs and MSEs outbid and out-build the airlines with detailed and highly searchable destination-specific web content. More often than not, airlines’ websites are absent from top results for travel search queries, and their rankings slip exponentially as consumers’ searches become more and more specific.