Travel Planning Search Systems and Search Engines

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Broadly speaking, any information system that provides access to online information based upon user-specified search queries can be considered a search system or search engine. These systems typically possess or have access to a large collection of documents about travel products and a user interface that allows the traveller to interact with the domain of product information. Today, with the tremendous growth of the Internet especially the so-called Web 2.0 technologies, there are a variety of search systems serving the purpose of connecting the supply and demand of travel and tourism. These systems include general-purpose search engines like Google and Bing, domain specific search engines with the focus on tourist destinations, online travel agencies (OTAs) and meta search engines (e.g., Kayak), social search systems like Facebook’s Graph Search, and numerous emergent systems based upon the mobile platform.


Significance

Travel planning is an important activity in the entire travel process. This is because the travel product is an intangible, individual-based experience. Besides, the travel product is extremely complex and its purchasing usually involves high costs and high risk. Because of this consumers often seek a large amount of information prior to the trip for decision making purposes. With the huge amount of information on the Internet it has been reported that many consumers begin their travel planning by querying a search engine for information about destinations, air tickets, lodging, dining, and many other activities. From the suppliers’ standpoint the travel product is highly perishable. Therefore, how to organize and present travel-related information in a meaningful way and offer good value to support travel planning remains an important yet challenging task. In order to create a rich and personalized search experience many of today’s search engines not only focus on algorithms that produce highly relevant search results but also have integrated a variety of value-added features such as images, videos, maps, as well as customer reviews and ratings.

General-purpose search engines handle the largest amount of user queries on a daily basis. They excel at providing arguably the largest collections of web pages compared to any other systems. However, they are considered “thin interfaces” in that their search results based upon generic search queries are oftentimes dominated by websites that are popular on the Internet but not necessarily relevant to the travel planning needs. Domain specific search engines have been developed to complement these tools by providing search results representing the travel and tourism industry and thus offer a “focused” search experience. In recent years meta search engines have become very popular because they provide price comparison mechanisms primarily for hotels and flights by crawling multiple OTA sites (e.g., Expedia and Priceline). Social search systems offer unique value by harnessing knowledge and insights from social media and one’s social networks based upon Web 2.0 technologies. With more and more consumers migrating to the mobile platform search systems are now able to provide location-based and increasingly context-specific search results to cater to travellers’ individual information needs at the right place and at the right time.

Search systems have significant impacts on the value chain of the travel and tourism industry especially the marketing and distribution of travel products. Nowadays search engines are used as important marketing tools for brand awareness as well as for generating direct traffic to the service provider’s website. Particularly, search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) have gained considerable currency among service providers and marketers in hospitality and tourism. Search systems are also constantly evolving as result of the dynamics between the user, the business domain, as well as the technology. For example, Google and other general-purpose search engines have to change algorithms to counter the effects of search engine optimization strategy to improve one’s ranking among organic search results, which may be considered “illegal” by search engine providers. In recent years there is a trend for general-purpose search engines to expand their service into the travel domain. For instance, both Google and Bing now offer price comparison and prediction for hotels and air tickets, operating essentially as a meta search interface between the consumer and OTAs. Therefore, online searching for travel planning purposes is highly competitive and dynamic, and search systems and search engines can be considered a “disruptive technology” for some existing intermediaries in the travel and tourism industry.


Examples

http://www.tiscover.com: a domain specific search engine for Alpine destinations

http://www.tripadvisor.com: arguably the most popular virtual community site with search functions for hotels and destinations

http://www.nileguide.com: a search engine for destinations with reviews by locals

http://www.kayak.com: a meta search engine for travel products

http://www.tripit.com: a mobile app for searching and trip planning


References

Pan, B., Xiang, Z., Fesenmaier, D.R., & Law, R. (2011). The dynamics of search engine marketing for tourist destinations. Journal of Travel Research, 47(4): 440-453.

Paraskevas, A., Katsogridakis, I., Law, R., & Buhalis, D. (2011). Search engine marketing: transforming search engines into hotel distribution channels. Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, 52(2), 200-208.

Xiang, Z., Wöber, K., & Fesenmaier, D. R. (2008). Representation of the online tourism domain in search engines. Journal of Travel Research, 47(2): 137-150.