Google has extended its direct messaging feature to allow customers message hotels direct from its search results.
The move came as the search engine was accused of ganging up on the OTAs, in league with hotel companies.
Google users can now message hotels directly through Google Maps, using the Q&A feature, as well as through Google My Business. On Google Maps the question can be answered by anyone professing to know the answer, in addition to the business itself.
Google said: “Planning a visit to a local business can raise questions ranging from “Does this restaurant provide high-chairs?” to “What accessibility accommodations does this B&B offer?” When looking for answers, 82% of people turn to search engines, but they often have a hard time finding accurate, up-to-date information. That’s why Google is bringing Questions and Answers to local business listings. “
The Google My Business products allows hotels to chat directly “with customers who find your business listing on Google Search. Responding to customers can help you answer their questions, tell your business’s story, and attract more people to your location”.
TrustYou commented: “Not only is this a free opportunity for you to connect with potential guests, but it is a more important new and direct channel for conversion from Google. Logically, when someone searches for a hotel, they are looking for more information of some sort. In a traveller’s search and evaluation stage, easily answering that vital question ‘Is breakfast included?’ could be the difference between getting a direct booking and losing out: especially in today’s mobile-first world.”
In a study conducted by the group – which provides messaging software – the company found that two out of three travellers would rather communicate through written messages than over the phone and that 75% of travellers wanted to communicate one-to-one with representatives at the hotel, and guests are significantly more satisfied when communicating through text messages and social-media compared to those who do not.
With regards to the hotel’s website, while 76% of guests expected to be receive information about a booking via email, but 27% also wanted to access their information through their hotel’s website.
The comments came shortly before a column in the Wall Street Journal at the end of 2017 accused Google of abusing its market position to favour hotel companies at the cost of the online travel agencies, by limiting the ability of OTAs to use keywords to advertise hotel rooms.
The WSJ said: “Travellers may unknowingly pay more and fail to see all of their options because some major hotels have ganged up with Google to undercut competition.”
Google responded that the WSJ had “mischaracterised how some of these offerings work. The online travel industry is highly competitive and in fact, travel companies are some of the most avid users of Google’s advertising offerings.”
Google has introduced a number of innovations to its hotel offering over the past year, most recently adding a hotel ‘deal’ tag, which guides consumers to hotels which are priced below their normal rate or below the rates of similar hotels nearby.
Jonathan Alferness, vice president of product management at Google, wrote in a blog post: “To help with planning and booking travel ahead of the busy holiday season, we’re making it easier for people to find the right flight or the right hotel, in their price range, and in turn, help connect our partners with potential customers.”
This included Hotel Smart Filters, giving people the option to filter hotel search results based on specific needs. For example, travellers can filter based on rating or price with one tap on their phones. Alferness said: “We’ll make it easy to search for exactly what people want, like ‘Pet-friendly hotels in San Francisco under USD200’ to find the perfect hotel for them”.
He added: “When it comes to booking their trip, 69% of leisure travellers worry that they’re not finding the best price or making the best decision. To help users feel more confident about making a booking, we’re working on making it easier for people to filter to find the right flight or the right hotel – at the right price – using our technology and real-time analysis”.
HA Perspective [by Katherine Doggrell]: Google is all things to all people, with most users under the impression that search results are bestowed from above by some benevolent provider and not subject to the vociferous exchange of cash.
And with every party who pays expecting to get the very best listing, the search engine is usually in receipt of some anger from one group or another. Hotels have a long and glorious history of loathing the engine and now, after Google has spent the past couple of years working to be the hotels’ friend, it’s the turn of the OTAs to crack out a gimlet eye.
In the meantime, Google is eyes on its own competition, namely Facebook, which would love a sniff of its commercialism and is vying to be the leading messaging platform, as witnessed by its USD14bn acquisition of WhatsApp and the development of its Messenger product, most-recently with Messenger Kids, targeting children from the sage of six.
Google has long denied that it is a travel agent, a claim which gets less credible the deeper it gets into meta search. At the same time, the OTAs pay its wages – The Priceline Group paid USD3.6bn in PPC in 2016 – with the majority expected to have gone to Google. Regulators, particularly in the EU, keep a close eye on the search engine, which points out that other search engines are available. For hotels, the line Google is currently trying to tread is working in their favour. Time to capitalise on driving direct before the winds change.