Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Smarter" Travel search vs profiling and recommending at the PhoCusWright Innovation Summit

I have been reflecting back on the PhoCusWright Travel Innovation Summit. At this event 33 companies (start ups, established companies and entrepreneurs with ideas) pitched new products seeking fame and recognition for their innovation. The final four will go through the rest of the conference competing for the Travel Innovation Summit winner prize.

At the Summit a series of companies presented on new ways to do online travel search.

Goby presented on a travel search system with three questions to generate search - what, where, when. Aim is to present a more targeted and consolidated results rather than the site list that come from a Google search.

Exalead presented on a search platform that can be used to provide other companies with a search engine with profile saving metrics.

Planetism the first alpha of the presentation (no site live). Comes to search from a budget perspective (see my discussion on that here). You enter dates and budget and then are presented with a list of options to refine and select.

I have also interviewed a number of search and discovery sites - most recently Joobili.

The reason why people are trying to innovate so much in search is that the current search process (type question into Google and press search) was designed to support closed answer questions such as "cheap flights to New York" and "Hotels near the Opera House". Questions where a single site can provide a single answer. This approach is no longer sufficient as it does not answer open ended questions that people are now asking such as "where should I go next", "I have to get away this weekend, what's good and cheap". Answers to these questions will not be found on one single site. They can only be answered by bringing together information and content from more than one place.

My recommendation to the above companies and others trying to innovate in search is to be very careful betting the business on search innovation and make sure you spend time on recommendation and inspiration. The step beyond search. The proactive approach to search. A focus on pure search brings you head to head with Google and might risk missing the real next step.

I am convinced that the answer to the problem matching the excessive amount of content available and the desire for answers to open ended questions is not to reinvent pure search. Instead I think innovators and other online travel companies should focus on developing processes for profiling and recommending.

What do you think? Is there room for search innovation outside Google and Kayak like meta-search companies? Should start-ups steer clear of search?

PS - if you would like to see my pick for the top 4 click here.


Claude said...


One way to innovate, it's with map search and map navigation.

Thanks Google, who made evangelism about basic Internet map, a second step can be live in a near futur with dedicated search map who can be interfaced with different database.

A smart french project are in the pipe.



Tim Hughes said...

@Claude - thanks for the comment - look forward to more

Hernan F said...

Hi Tim,

I see search queries similar to initial questions of a conversation so I believe that there are some innovating opportunities with human-guided search or live chat search features on travel sites.

I haven't seen a live chat button placed next to a search button on a travel site yet but I believe that having human participation to filter search results and/or assist users in providing relevant information would beneficial not only for customer experience but also for business product analysis.

Hernan F

Tim Hughes said...

@hernan f - thanks - great comment

Mark Watkins said...

Hi Tim,

Was great to meet you at Phocuswright, thanks for the great conversations!

At Goby we do agree that a better 'pure search' alone is not enough - however we think it's a necessary first step to get the personalization & recommendation ideas you speak of. We're starting with developing a structured, semantic understanding of the data, and providing an intelligent search on it. Once we have information reliably classified, we can start to develop recommendations - but it's hard to recommend content to someone when you don't know what that content is about. We see Goby evolving from only providing search and into providing recommendations as we learn more about the content and about the user's preferences and desires.

Claude - we agree with you about maps - would love to learn more about what you are up to - in the meantime take a look at and see how we're mapping open web content to provide a better travel & free time search experience. Would love your feedback.


Elliott Ng said...

The biggest thing I've been thinking about is how solving huge search problems doesn't necessarily lead to traffic. One example: I really liked seeing the "Affinity Shopper" example of solving the "where to go" problem. That's been one that UpTake has been wanting to solve since the company's inception. But because Google doesn't really support this kind of open ended search well, people don't type those queries into the search box. So as a result, its hard to get traffic on "where to go" when everyone starts at Google.

I think all these startups need to build a clear acquisition strategy into their plan from the beginning, and many of them don't seem to have a laser focus on that. As far as I can tell, there are only 2 paths to traffic: Google, and Facebook. So you need to have a strategy for both.

I liked your comment on focusing on inspiration and I do think all new companies (including UpTake) need to come up with something innovative and fun that captures people imagination. Looking forward to finding these gems out there going forward!

Xisco Vicente said...

we at linkintrip strongly believe that recomendations together with content and multichannel providers plus score from the users will be a winner factor , just started this week ,great article.