Thursday, April 16, 2009 launches in Australia - but this is not meta-search as it should be

It is supposed to be interesting when an international online travel company launches in the land of the barbecuing shrimp. So here I am on staycation leave quietly reading my newsfeed and blog email address when I spot care of m-travel and an email from Steve Sherlock of Oodles that "Cheapflights have launched an Australian and New Zealand version of their site". I should be excited by an international launch in Australia but Cheapflights is not exciting for two reasons.

Firstly, as I said back in July 07 when the rumours first started of Cheapflights coming to town (where 2008 was the planned launch date), this market (online air in Australia) is already too crowded for a domestic market with 2/3 carriers. OTAs like Webjet, (owned by Wotif), Flight Centre, Expedia, Zuji (Travelocity) and Bestflights and regional meta-search player Wego (part owned by News Corp) are fighting for scraps left over by the online air dominance of the major airline websites (Virgin-Blue, Qantas and the Qantas owned Jetsar). Granted those scraps are getting bigger and bigger but still this is not an easy market to enter. Secondly, the Cheapflights product is simply not good enough to be of value to the consumer.

For those that don't know, Cheapflights is a quasi meta-search company started in the UK way back in 1996. Even describing them as "quasi" is generous because to me the hallmark of a meta-search business is an integrated display of up to date results in one place. The UK version of Cheapflights has the integrated display but the results are not up to date. Have a look at this extract from a London to Paris search

Notice where it says "updated 9 minutes ago" next to the BA quote and "updated 2 days ago" for ebookers. Also have a look at the URL for the page

It is a static landing page - - rather than a dynamically generated page based on the timings of my specific search. The results are not timely or up-to-date. I clicked on a few of the links and they ended up on either dead search pages or some other destination page where the results did not match the search terms. In short the UK version Cheapflights - the oldest and most established version - does not work on a stand alone basis nor meet the minimum criteria for a meta-search player.

The Australia version of Cheapflights is even worse. It may be just early days for the product but the AU version is many steps behind the UK product which itself is steps behind competitors Kayak and TripAdvisor.

To give them some due, meta-search in Australia is not easy. As I discussed here in a Webjet vs Wego post (another Steve Sherlock tip) it is has proven very difficult to facilitae multi-carrier domestic meta-search in Australia. Wego has tried a work around (again go back to this post for more) but Cheapflights are not even trying. Have a look at this shot below of

This is the results of a search of Sydney to Melbourne. Rather than being presented with a set of even un-integrated (or disintegrated if you prefer) results I am given four options, four different websites that I can click on. Each click generates a new pop up with search results from the named party. If I want to do what meta-search is supposed to be for - comparing multiple sites - I have to open all four sites and looked at the results one by one. In other words do exactly what we used to do before meta-search came along. In some other words, it adds no value to the standard surfing practices of a regular internet consumer. In some more blunt words, next to useless.

In truth I don't think even Cheapflights think of themselves internally as a meta-search company. They target more of their effort and energies in their Travelzoo style Hot Travel Deals newsletter. Am undecided if there is value here,

Either way I am not predicting success for this product. The product in its current form adds little to the market and the competitors have more money to spend on marketing.

Told you I would get tough again? Am I being too tough?


Anonymous said...

CheapFlights may not seem to offer value to industry experts but an average user and more importantly GoogleBot seem far less judgmental.
Just look at the Alexa/Google Treds stats for a bunch of similarly "lazy" meta-search players:,, (pushed in a big way by Travelocity), OneTime, TravelZoo's Super Search ad locally - all pulling in significant visitor numbers at a fraction of the technological investment made by Kayak and SkyScanner.
Cheapflights will probably do OK just because of the domain name and the SEO value passed from the UK/US versions - they are already number 3 organic listing for "cheap flights" in Google AU (it won't be long before they are number 1 for this very big term).

Steve Sherlock said...

great breakdown of the topic.

i agree with Anonymous comments and would add that it seems to me that they are aiming at the lowest common denominator i.e. consumers who have no clue about what brands and technology is actually out there as far as comparison sites go.

fair enough - thats a business model in itself.

though i think in the end consumers make their judgements and brands thrive or they dont.

sites so heavily reliant on SEO as opposed to innovation and direct/brand search & wom traffic, i think will be the ones that dont thrive as much. (to put it kindly)

Tim Hughes said...

@Anon (and Steve) - I agree that the URL and landing page set up should provide for a good flow of organic Google traffic. But I do not think a strategy based on having a bad product but good URL structure is going to be sustainable. the very least... it should not be.

Anonymous said...

Agreed it should not be, but you only have to look at the fact that cheapflights has been around since 96, Bookingbuddy is one of the most used travel sites in the states and is in the UK too, so there is demand in the non-technically space for a simpler travel search tool. is meta really where it is at with the high overheads required to pull in prices and where do you think kayak actually makes any money, the leads it sends to advertisers, or on site text links...? I would say with margins as tight as they are it is the latter

John Barrington-Carver said...

Dear Tim
Thanks for featuring us in your blog regarding our Australian launch - we are very pleased to get the word out there. We felt from your blog that you might not have fully understood our business model. We are definitely different to most price comparison sites in the industry. First and foremost we not a meta-search site. Our mission is to offer consumers the broadest possible choice of companies to compare and find the best deals. Each model has strengths and weaknesses but we feel that diversity is important to the consumer. is an initial offering (Phase 1) site meaning we only have a booking engine, handpicked deals plus travel tips and destination guides on it at present. Its early days yet for the site as you said. However, we hope to develop a full site like the UK, Canada and US in due course.
Given that globally we had some 73 million visits last year (including blogs) most believe our model is significant and delivering a great service to consumers. We offer a fantastic range of airlines, OTAs and the long-tail of smaller travel agencies (some of whom have no web presence apart from Cheapflights) who benefited last year from an estimated US$1.8 billion from leads generated by Cheapflights. Do we want to make our product better and improve? Absolutely - we more than anyone are aware of areas for improvement. Please watch this space - we are a small company that has grown out of cashflow (no flashy VC funding for us) and thrived through innovation. We now have more exciting plans than ever to improve our service to consumers and the travel industry.
I would be very happy to Skype with you if you would like to have a chat .
Kind regards

John Barrington-Carver MCIPR
Head of Corporate Communications.
Cheapflights Ltd.