by Nancy Huang
At ITB Berlin in March 2017, Google announced that it now considers itself an “AI-first” company, moving away from its mobile-first position. This fascinating shift in focus reveals how Google expects artificial intelligence to infiltrate our lives in the coming years, and it comes with some significant implications for the travel sector.
Google is already shaping a world where artificial intelligence is rapidly expanding beyond our desktops and smartphones into our workplaces, homes, cars and public transport systems.
The evolution of AI is also changing how we interact online. In the years ahead, voice-based interactions and natural language inquiries will take over as the dominant interface. And as more and more people “talk” to the internet, intelligent algorithms will redefine how they find information and make choices.
All of these changes will have a profound impact on every business and the way they communicate with consumers, and the travel industry will be no exception.
Google’s expanding travel plans
Following a flurry of releases in recent years, Google’s ever-expanding travel portfolio now includes Google Flights, Google Hotel Ads, Book on Google, Google Destinations, and the recently launched Google Trips.
This has fueled debate about the company’s potential ambitions to become a full-blown online travel agency. But the amount they receive in ad revenue from the major OTAs means this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Instead, Google sees itself as an “answer engine” and “connector” that helps consumers find the best possible matches when they’re planning a trip. And this is where its announcement as an AI-first company will really impact travel brands and hotels.
AI in action
The deceptive thing about artificial intelligence is that it largely remains invisible, operating beneath the surface of our attention. Yet it’s driving pretty much every interaction you have with Google.
For instance, Google Flights uses AI to deliver a range of impressive features that help with planning and decision-making. If you plan a journey in Google Maps, it can alert you to a traffic jam that might cause heavy delays and suggest real-time flight options for a speedier way to reach your destination.
Google has also integrated AI directly into travel search, and one of the most impressive aspects of this integration is that it remembers the context of a query.
If you have the Google app, you can make a request like, “Look up flights to London.” Then if you ask, “What hotels are there?” it will show you London hotels—you don’t have to say or type London because it already understands the context of the conversation.
You can then continue to refine requests such as asking, “Show me only the five star ones.” Again, it will know that you mentioned “London” and “hotels” in your previous two questions and automatically filter five-star London hotels.
This growing development in context-aware search means that Google can predict needs and offer intelligent suggestions based on likely intent.
But alongside a handy predictive search function, AI is also changing the nature of how people search and ultimately book their travel plans.
Voice search and the move away from desktop
Voice search already accounts for 20% of all search queries, and that number will only grow as Google rolls out its new wave of voice-based platforms. This in turn will free up users from the desktop, leading to more spontaneous sessions that happen alongside other tasks and activities.
For instance, while cooking dinner, a person might ask their Google Home to research destinations for an upcoming trip. At a later point in their research, they could “ask” their smartphone to recommend hotels while they drive home from work.
Staring at a screen of text will be replaced by a spoken list of curated selections, reshaping the way information is presented and consumed.
As searching and booking inevitably becomes even more mobile-centric, last-minute bookings will almost certainly increase. A business traveler could ask Google to search for a hotel while packing for a flight. A few simple requests could refine the results for options with free Wi-Fi or a location near the city center, all without touching a screen.
While Google doesn’t offer a direct booking function, it does offer the option to call the hotel, so searching and booking could still be easily conducted in one hands-free session.
Adjusting for voice-based search
The nature of voice search will also change the type of phrases people use to request information when looking for accommodation.
When tapping on a device, search requests are typically simplified to phrases like “boutique hotels in Barcelona.” But the language we use when we talk is far more complex and specific. So a voice search might involve a more detailed request such as, “Find me the best boutique hotels in Barcelona for this summer.”
These conversational terms will mean hotels need to adjust PPC ads, landing pages and web pages so that they’re optimized for natural language. As spoken long-tailed queries become more common, consumers will be looking for more specific information to specific requests. A generic offer or ad simply won’t have the same impact.
There are a variety of other ways you can optimize for voice search, such as publishing blog posts or creating Q&A pages that feature the kind of terminology people use when they’re talking.
How Google Trips is changing travel planning
The app serves as a trip planner and travel guide for 200 cities, offering users a wealth of local information including activities, sights, tours, restaurants and transport options. In addition, reservations, flights and hotel bookings can all be pulled from Gmail and Inbox to be accessed in one place, and Trips also has a handy offline mode.
As for the potential opportunities for hotel marketers? While there aren’t any paid ad opportunities, there are still plenty of ways to boost overall visibility, including making sure that your Google Business Listing is up to date and that you have employed all possible local SEO strategies.
Because the app relies on user reviews, nurturing positive guest feedback will be crucial. It’ll also be important to focus on traditional strategies around building a strong mobile presence. A mobile-friendly site, being registered in local listings and a diversified marketing strategy are all ways to place yourself on Google Trips radar.
Preparing for the future of AI
The far-flung future that artificial intelligence once seemed to inhabit is here. Driven by Google, it’s already changing how we travel.
Today, you can “ask” your smartphone to find you a hotel and rely on an algorithm to plan your entire vacation. As the company’s AI platforms get better at understanding preferences and infiltrate everyday life, it’ll become even more influential in guiding consumer choices and the brands they connect with.
It’s not easy to grasp the full extent of the change that lies ahead, but there are steps every hotel can take now to ensure their online presence is optimized for Google’s new AI-first mindset.