I have just completed an email interview with Ritesh Guptaof eyefortravel in the lead up to the TDS conference in Singapore April 28 & 29. Here is part 1 of our exchange (part 2 here).
Question - Do you think predicting user preferences is the biggest unsolved problem in online travel? How do you assess the integration of social search into online travel?
BOOT - I am a strong believer that all companies in online travel should be focusing on understanding users and working on predictive and recommendation engines. But it is a mistake to come at this from just a user preference angle. The trap that companies are falling into is thinking that consumers are still asking "closed" questions. Questions that can be answered with an easy or direct response. Questions like "how much for a flight to new york?, "which hotel should I stay in in Rome?". These are the questions consumers asked for the first 15 years of online travel. Now consumers are also asking open ended questions like "where should I go next?, "what is a good place to go this weekend?". Questions that require a more detailed answer and therefore a very detailed understanding of not only the preferences of the user but also the relationship between those preferences and the destinations available and the different versions of the individual that is searching (my concept of EveryYou). Social networking's role in this is the role that word of mouth has always played in marketing and travel purchases. A force that can be instrumental in a consumer's purchase decision which can be influenced, prodded, supported but never controlled. The difference between Social Networking marketing and word of mouth marketing is just speed. Social network is word of mouth at the speed of light.
Question - Today Google's algorithms are still quite a bit of a black box for professional search marketers. The semantic web should make it more efficient to create and manage online campaigns, because there will be less left to algorithmic interpretation. How do you assess this viewpoint?
BOOT - Google has won search - game over. There are countries were they are weaker (Japan, Korea, China for example) and products where they are weaker (local search and business listings for example) but let's not kid ourselves about who has won search. That said, "old search" is about providing a single destination as an answer to a question. Regardless of the search term, Google only presents a list of single answer destinations. If an answer to the search request is found through information from a combination of different websites then Google (or any search site for that matter) do not have the answer. The other constraint on Google and old search is the limited scope for incorporating and merging the latest up to date with results with older more trusted results. Google has been experimenting with incorporating real time search in their results (example here) but they have not yet figured out how to establish authority in real time search or change the display to be more than an never ending stream of updated information. The Semantic web should be part of the solution here but I still feel we are a while away from implementation because we have not figured out new rules for authority and new methods for display. Maybe Google have but there are just not saying yet!
Question - Google, which last year had introduced a new experiment on Google Labs called Google Social Search, has added a social element to Google Images. With Social Search, Google finds relevant public content from your friends and contacts and highlights it for you at the bottom of your search results. What is going to be the next big thing or trend in social search engine marketing?
BOOT - If you agree with my comments about that marketing of social networking is just like marketing through word of mouth but at the speed of light then the next big things in social network marketing are finding ways to adjust word of mouth marketing to a faster/instantaneous medium. The basics of word of mouth market are trust, interest and relevance. For a consumer to be prepared to share a product, idea, story, service etc with a friend they have to trust the source, be interested in the item/thing and think that it is relevant to others in their circle. Social network marketers need to have these three human elements at the centre of each campaign. The mistake that I see so often is jumping to a technological solution to marketing on social networking rather than the human elements. We can see this in the constant screw ups at Facebook with privacy as they launch new privacy crushing rules and products to give marketers access to customer data. My advice is to turn to the technology second and the human elements first. Establish trust then make something relevant and interesting. If you do, consumers will follow. The final thing to remember as a marketer in social networks - and the 21st century for that matter - is to accept that you have limited control over what your customers will say about your brand. The response to that lack of control is communication and discussion (ie engagement) not defamation, litigation and IP laws (ie stupidity).
Question - This year, we have already seen a couple of significant moves from Apple and Google towards mobile advertising. How do you foresee the impact on search and social media via mobile phones on the travel industry?
BOOT- Up until recently I have been a mobile denier. Mainly because every year since 2000 has been THE year that mobile would take over PC as the place for online action. Google's purchase of AdMob is the turning point. Not because when Google does something it means we have to take a trend seriously but because it means we know have non-transactional revenue streams for mobile activity. The problem for mobile has been that people stop at the credit card entry point. For a variety of reasons people that are completely comfortable putting their cc number into a PC or giving it to a bartender covered in tats and piercing in the off-line world have hesitated when asked to give it to a mobile phone. With Google betting on mobile advertising we have a biz model outline. A means for content and transactional companies to make money in mobile. That is the step that has been needed - more that the continued roll out of smart phone technology and more than the expansion of social networks.
more in part 2