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The future of travel search engines

Scouring the web for travel inspiration can be daunting. But the rise of ‘semantic’ search engines and metasearch promises a new era, with the internet recast as an intelligent, intuitive ally that seems to knows what you want — even before you do

The future of travel search engines
The rise of semantic search engines and metasearch will revolutionise the way we search for holidays. Image: Getty

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In the 1870s, a telegram to Thomas Cook & Son, of Fleet Street, would have done the job. A century later, you’d return from the high street with a stack of glossy brochures. Now, I don’t need to leave my sofa. If I want to find a holiday, all it takes is a web search.

But planning online can be a frustrating business. Searches return pages and pages of unstructured links, many irrelevant or out of date. Or I find a great property only to discover, after multiple clicks and scrolls, that it’s fully booked all summer. The internet catch-22 is a constant menace: how do I search for somewhere to go, when I don’t yet know where I want to go? Thankfully, major improvements in travel search are already on the way.

More than semantics

‘Semantic’ search sounds like just another tech buzzword. The concept, though, is simple. It’s about a search engine reading your intent, something we humans do without thinking. An example: if I ask you about ‘David Cameron’, you’ll understand that I’m also interested in information about ‘the British Prime Minister’. In the real world, these two entities are related. I don’t have to spell that out. But a web search doesn’t usually work that way. Search has traditionally found results relevant to a block of text, or ‘keywords’, that you type into the box. It was never necessary for the engine to decipher the meaning.

What’s all this have to do with travel? Lots, because in travel, understanding the why behind a search can get quite useful, quite quickly. What am I really thinking when I plan an autumn getaway? Probably something like, ‘I want somewhere still hot in October, near a beach but with a couple of cultural day trips within easy reach.’ Those words do not make an effective search term. (I just used it, in fact, at Bing.com. Top result was a page titled, ‘Where is hot in May’). What if a search engine could answer these sorts of questions?

Chris Whitfield is managing director of a Jamaica-based start-up that’s building one. His company, Antullia, aims to bring a semantic sea-change to the travel industry, starting in the Caribbean. “A snorkelling location in the Caribbean might be a hub for sea turtles,” explains Chris. “Based on this knowledge, Antullia might recommend nearby resorts to someone looking for ‘a resort with wildlife experiences for my family trip with young teens’. The ability to further recommend a specific tour company that can take travellers from their hotel to this snorkelling spot is where we see the future of travel search.” Searching for travel becomes about what we want to do, the kinds of experiences we’re seeking, not just where we want to go. Because often we don’t know where we want to go.

The second key component of semantic search is here, too: natural language. Traditional search engines break down your search into its keywords, and trawl the web looking for the most relevant and authoritative combinations of those words. Search terms work best when they are stuffed with keywords. True semantic search works differently. It understands the question, rather than merely matching patterns of words. Apple’s voice-activated iPhone assistant, Siri, is one example. Microsoft’s new digital assistant, Cortana, integrates this kind of Bing search capability into the next generation of Windows Phone handsets.

The knowledge engine

Google isn’t sitting by while specialist companies like Antullia pursue the holy grail of travel search. A mid-2013 update to its search algorithm, nicknamed Hummingbird, boosted Google’s ability to handle searches in conversational language. Then there’s something called the Knowledge Graph. On launch, Google described it as ‘a critical first step towards building the next generation of search, which… understands the world a bit more like people do.’

Another example: I’m planning a family trip to Provence. I haven’t visited for years, so turn to Google for help. Searching ‘things to do in Aix en Provence’ returns the usual list of links, to TripAdvisor reviews and articles in the Daily Telegraph, New York Times, and a blog for hotel website Venere.com. But that’s not all. Google works out there’s a motive behind a search like that. A box on the right-hand side of my screen links to a map of Aix, with handy facts including local time and weather. A band across the top of my screen highlights Aix’s top sights. One click on a photo of the Cathédrale Saint-Saveur or Aix-en-Provence Festival and I’m redirected to a new set of search results. This is the Knowledge Graph in action. Google understands my intent, and is answering my next question before I’ve even asked it.

Useful, certainly, but for now the Knowledge Graph is fairly limited as a travel tool. Type ‘renaissance paintings’ into Google and you’ll see a pretty carousel of some of art’s best-known images, by Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and the rest. Type ‘renaissance paintings in Florence’ — a query that might actually be useful for a forthcoming trip — and you’ll see the usual unstructured list of links.

“Semantic search isn’t something we think or talk about at all, as it means nothing to consumers,” says Tom Howard, co-founder of flight search engine Adioso. Instead, he sees it as, “an important factor in the progression towards more intelligent travel search, that can ultimately be far more knowledgeable and at least as user friendly as the very best human travel assistant”. For now, semantic search is at the experimental stage. The Knowledge Graph will get more knowledgeable. And other big developments in travel search are already here.

March of the meta

Travel ‘metasearch’ has been around for over a decade. The drill is familiar: specialist search engines trawl the web for different vendors offering similar products, compare prices, and offer you a list of deals. ‘Simples,’ as the TV ad promises.

“Metasearch is now about helping you find the best supplier and then book it direct. So you book with the airline, hotel or local tour guide rather than with a travel agent,” says Alex Bainbridge, CEO of booking technology provider TourCMS. Metasearch companies take a small fee for every referral to the booking site. Their aim is to build a destination for travel shopping that allows users to bypass ‘mainstream’ search engines altogether. One reason, perhaps, why Google is in the metasearch business, too, with its Flight Search and Hotel Finder tools.

Several tests over the years confirm that using a flight engine like Skyscanner, Momondo or Kayak can save travellers money. It’s also much quicker. Metasearch engines trawl airline and reseller sites, typically returning a list of options within a few seconds. “A consumer has to choose from a huge number of products, but they can’t look at 1,000 apartments at the same time,” says Ramon Glieneke, chief marketing officer at Apartum, an apartment-rental metasearch engine. “Metasearch engines help because they offer all the product available, plus a wide range of filters, so they can get to what they’re looking for.”

What’s fuelling the rise of the metasearch engine? “I think it’s a mix [of technology and changes in consumer behaviour],” says Ramon. “IT advances made it possible, since it’s getting easier to connect with all the partner websites, and there’s a common language from a programming point of view — XML, API feeds and so on. Also, cloud storage and database management improvements make fast connectivity possible.” Savings can be significant. Using Apartum to search in Barcelona, I found the exact same Eixample apartment available for prices between €908 and €1,254 through different agencies.

Some sectors are trickier to build for than others. “The peer-to-peer (websites that connect travellers with locals offering a service, such as Airbnb.com) market’s flexibility and ease of getting started is also its Achilles heel,” says Ovidiu Mija, COO of peer-to-peer metasearch service Zilyo.com. “Unfortunately, there’s no standardisation for how data is stored or transmitted like there is for the hotel industry, for example. Zilyo takes all the different data formats coming from providers and unifies them.”

Despite the technical challenges, metasearch has further to go in travel. Where could it appear next? “Airport transfers doesn’t have much meta technology,” says Alex Bainbridge. “Another area that isn’t covered yet in accommodation is hostels: there isn’t an engine that provides just this service,” suggests Ramon.

According to Tom Howard: “The ideal metasearch site would unify flights, hotels, hostels, vacation rentals, tours and activities, rental cars, ground transport and insurance into a single, intelligent interface that’s as pleasant to deal with as a friendly, knowledgeable, human travel agent.”

Location, location, location

Even more fundamental than these changes in how we search is the change in where we search. Around 16% of travel-related Yahoo searches originate on a mobile phone, according to the company. A further 9% come from tablets. According to a Google spokesperson, just over a quarter of all travel-related searches come from mobile and around a fifth from tablets. Ask anyone in the travel industry and you’ll hear the same story: usage trends are moving in one direction, towards increasing search from mobile devices.

Searching on your mobile adds a key piece of information: where you are, right now. “The travel industry has historically been a search-driven industry but it’s morphing into a location-based industry,” says Alex Bainbridge. “On a mobile device you know where the customer is and the context of their trip. Customers already in-destination and using their mobile are more likely to book supplier-direct than they are through an agent.”

We’re doing more than just searching. Mobile booking is rising, too. By 2017, hotel group Best Western expects 30% of bookings to originate from a mobile device, rather than a desktop: “2012 saw less than 5% of all bookings come from a mobile device… 2014 to date has already seen this grow to be in excess of 15%,” says Richard Lewis, CEO at Best Western. Booking.com increased the value of mobile accommodation bookings from $3bn (£1.8bn) in 2012 to $8bn (£4.8bn) in 2013, according to the company. A 2013 survey by air transport technology company SITA found that 70% of air passengers would buy tickets on their mobile if the service were available.

“At present, searching and booking flights on a mobile device is an awful experience, but with some innovations in both the searching experience and the booking, mobile will become the primary platform for travel purchasing,” says Tom Howard.

Travellers can expect search engines to work better, and to solve our ‘semantic’ puzzles in everyday language. We can expect metasearch engines to help us find the best deal, instantly, whoever is offering it. And we can anticipate all these improvements at one swipe of a screen on a pocket-sized device, bookable from anywhere in the world. The adage ‘seek and ye shall find’ has sometimes had an optimistic ring when it comes to internet search. But perhaps not for too much longer in the holiday business.

The meta-map: Search engines that save you time (and money)

Hotels: Trivago.
Bought by Expedia in 2012, Trivago compares prices offered by ‘200 hotel booking sites’, including big-name agents like Booking.com and Hotels.com.

Flights: Adioso.
Flight metasearch is well established, but Adioso adds useful semantic elements, allowing you to find a flight from an origin to ‘the best winter festivals around the world’ or ‘US National Parks’.

Apartments: Apartum.
Metasearch engine for apartment rentals, with more than 500,000 apartments available to book, all with live pricing and availability.

Peer-to-peer: Zilyo.
Formerly Outpost (outpost.travel) it searches peer-to-peer marketplaces for accommodation, including Airbnb, HouseTrip.com and more.

Buses: Busbud.
A search engine for point-to-point, long-distance bus travel. Find, compare, and click-through to book coach tickets in 90 countries.


Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)