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What are the Potential Implications for Online Travel?
Earlier this week Google announced a new version of Google Maps that more deeply integrates search into the core mapping experience, and along with it a new feature that is similar to one of the most popular innovations we introduced back in 2008 when we added flight search results to driving directions on Cost2Drive.
We have a pretty good idea of where Google may be heading with the latter, but first here is additional information regarding the announcement which introduces a major overhaul to the entire Google Maps platform and perhaps heralds a new era of innovation in map design.
The map IS the UI
The new Google Maps is indeed a dramatic leap forward in UI (user interface) design, and thank goodness that someone is innovating away from the tired old mapping layout that has the left rail being used primarily for step-by-step navigation and the occasion ad which has become the de facto design for interactive maps in recent years.
With the new Google Maps it’s the maps themselves that are the UI with a floating search box and results that appear directly on the map in text format (not push pins). Navigation has also been enhanced by road names that increase in prominence based on relevance to the destination entered.
A search for restaurants in Reston, VA displays the results directly on the map
In this, the map starts to feel like a living, breathing organism that is constantly morphing based on an interpretation of context and a million other bits of user data to which only a company the size and scale of Google has access. This is extreme personalization, which is exactly what Google is shooting for in their new version of maps where “Everybody gets their own map, every time,” according to Jonah Jones, the lead designer for the new Google Maps.
There’s much, much more to this announcement including user reviews, recommendations and photo enhancements that we won’t delve further into as you can learn more on the official Google Maps blogor by reading one of the thousand of articles that have been written since the announcement, but we do want to dig further into one particular feature as it perhaps signals an important shift of perspective in how Google views maps and online travel.
Why Flights in Driving Directions?
The new Google Maps includes a feature that finds the cheapest airfare when a user enters driving directions, something we introduced on Cost2Drive back in the fall of 2008 for routes over 200 miles, except that our version has the additional benefit of including the cost of driving so a user can quickly determine if it’s cheaper to fly or drive to a destination.
At the time, this was pretty revolutionary thinking and there’s an interesting backstory. To implement the feature in a way that was both seamless and super fast for the user, we needed to find a partner who was doing innovative things with flight data and who’d be willing to work with us to create this very unique experience.
Paul English, Cofounder & CTO of Kayak
Fortunately for us, Kayak had at this point been introducing many innovative tools for developers to play around with in their Kayak labs sandbox, and one of them was an RSS feed consisting of the cheapest flights users had found on Kayak.com.
This was exactly what we needed, and as I had previously worked on a couple of skunkworks projects with their brilliant cofounder and CTO Paul English while running AOL Travel (AOL was an early investor in Kayak) I thought he’d be willing to help out. In typical fashion he jumped right in and lent us the help of his lead engineer, Jim Giza, who I’d also worked with in the past and who is now VP of Technology at Kayak.
After this all it took was a quick phone call between Jim Giza and Patrick O’Leary, C2G’s own brilliant technical cofounder who is an expert at geo-spatial engineering, and within a week we had the feature up and running live on Cost2Drive. It immediately became one of the most popular features on the site and so when we launched the Cost2Drive iPhone app in 2011 we made sure to include it, which led the press to begin referring to the app as the fly or drive app.
So What Does This All Mean for Online Travel?
Typical Online Travel Agency Booking Widget
Few people realize that the overwhelming majority of long-distance travel in the US (85%) is by car, not plane, and since most travel websites are oriented toward air travel there are few tools to help car travelers plan their trips (which is why C2G exists). In fact when you look at the major online travel websites, they all pretty much look the same with a booking widget that has a Flights tab followed by Hotel, Cars, Vacations & Cruise.
But if this reflected the way peopleactually traveled the first tab would be labeled Drive and behind it would be trip planning tools car for car travelers embedded in a map-centric experience – very similar to the way we’ve designed Cost2Drive.
Now along comes Google who brings enormous scale to the game and has been rapidly building travel tools like Flight Search and Hotel Finder to better monetize their hugely lucrative travel audience in Google Search. What if Google has now set its sights on another enormous travel audience they have access to via Google Maps who are using maps and driving directions to plan trips? Might their first step be…..adding flights to driving directions? How long before we see a version of Hotel Finder in Google Maps as well?
A search for San Francisco Hotels in new version of Google Maps
At C2G we’ve thought long and hard about how maps, travel and search are all combining, it’s what we refer to as our route obsession and just as we foresaw flights in driving directions over four years ago we have a pretty good idea what’s next, because we’re already building it.
We’ll share more on this in the coming months but as a teaser we’re currently running a user survey on Cost2Drive and the preliminary results indicate that 70% of the visitors to site are using it to plan vacations. We’ll publish the full results in the coming weeks.
In closing I am including a link to Partners in Health, a humanitarian organization Paul English is very involved with that delivers health care to impoverished regions of the world, and I encourage all to visit the site to learn more and get involved.