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Why Google needs to build a vertical experience in Travel and also acquire ITA

April 8th, 2011 satish View Comments

Bill Gurley’s post “Google Acquires ITA: Will Deeper Vertical Integration Lead to Higher Revenues?” got me thinking about Google’s intentions.

Bill thinks that Google may lose revenue and makes his case by saying that:

1)      CPC pricing on Google is Irrational today because market places with less sophisticated customers leads to an edge for the market which is Google.

2)      Moving from a marketing channel to a transactional channel will lead to loss of revenue as the customers will stop paying for life time value and demand paying for current transaction value.

Both of these arguments hold for highly competitive markets with some less sophisticated customers where Google plays arbitrator. Secondly the vertical also needs to be an area where users come to Google first instead of going directly to a vertical site like Amazon.

The problem is that both those conditions don’t hold true for travel.

  • Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity market directly to the end customer on TV and drive traffic to their sites, which could be leading to a drop in the overall volume of travel queries.
  • Travel sites might also be realizing that a larger share of their customers are coming directly to their site and reducing adwords purchase budgets.
  • Finally, I would expect companies like Kayak and Orbitz to be sophisticated in paying for customer acquisition costs.

So Google needs to figure out a way to regain mind share in travel to grow revenues in this vertical. And the only way to do that is to provide a compelling flight search and comparison tool themselves. That is where the ITA acquisition comes into play.

The ITA acquisition will provide Google with 2 sets of data for free:

1)      Historical data to predict price changes which Microsoft has access to with the acquisition of Farecast. This will allow Google to provide strong recommendation to customers on when to buy their ticket.

2)      Free access to fare prices for all future dates to give recommendation to customers on when to travel. Usually when you search on Travelocity, you need to search one date at a time. If you look at the flexible date calendar for the next month, there are a lot of dates for which no fare is shown. Sites leave dates blank because they use only previous searches to fill out this calendar. If no one has previously searched for a date they will not have the price for that date. I assume they do this because the cost to search for ITA fares for 30 days is much more than the margin they make by selling a ticket. If Google own ITA they do not have to worry about that. And this information superiority will enable them to provide a better solution for their customers.

Finally Bing is investing in travel because it provides them a beach head to gain market share in search. And Google needs to make sure that Microsoft does not gain a foothold in any vertical that will eventually help them gain search market share.

Categories: Flight Search, Travel Tags:

The Data Problem with Flexible Date Search

March 17th, 2011 satish View Comments

This post is part of my series on Flight Search. I start by stating my understanding of the user needs, then derive the features based on the user needs, deconstruct the different elements of flight search on sites like Kayak, Orbitz, Hipmunk etc, and finally present my own design for a flight search product.


When a user performs a flexible date +/-30 days search on a site like Kayak or Expedia, a calender with fares is displayed. This fare calender does not have fares for a number of dates as the data for this calender view is generated from previous searches on the site. If no user had previously searched for a particular date then the fare for that date is left empty. For the search I performed for the month of May from SFO-DFW, Expedia had a lot of holes in the data than kayak.

Bing on the other hand has data for a fixed set of destinations for a fixed number of dates. For one set of destinations they have the data for 90 days for trip duration of 1-8 days and for another set of destinations they have data for 180 days for trip duration of 2-14 days.

Since ITA own the data that is used by other sites their calender view is complete and probably is the freshest data available.

My knowledge on this topic is minimal. I need to dig into this topic at a later time.

ITA Calender View

Expedia Calender View

Kayak Calender View

Bing Calender View


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Categories: Flight Search Tags:

Flexible Destination Tools in current sites

March 15th, 2011 satish View Comments

This post is part of my series on Flight Search. I start by stating my understanding of the user needs, then derive the features based on the user needs, deconstruct the different elements of flight search on sites like Kayak, Orbitz, Hipmunk etc, and finally present my own design for a flight search product.


Kayak and Southwest take a shot at creating a travel planning tool for users who are flexible with destinations.

Kayak does some interesting things with exploring destinations but doesn’t provide an integrated experience. Kayak sends you off to a different tab/window to search for flights once you pick a destination.

Southwest on the other hand does an incredible job of providing an integrated destination browsing, hotel exploration & selection, and flight booking experience. The only problem I experience with their solution is that it is very rigid and doesn’t expect the user to go back & forth between various steps of the process. They also expect the user to browse and purchase in one visit to the website. They need to allow users to save ideas and pick up where they left. With a few tweaks their interface could become a killer vacation planning application.


Kayak
Map Based Landing Page

Filters

Dates & Budget

Type of Location

Travel Time

Sharing

Results

Southwest

Dates, Budget, Vacation Theme

Browsing Destinations on Map

Browsing Destinations in List

Filtering Hotels at a Destination by Star Rating

Browsing Filtered Hotels at a Destination

Details of a hotel

Flight choices for Destination

Confirming Choices for Vacation


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Categories: Flight Search Tags:

Decision Making Tools

March 15th, 2011 satish View Comments

This post is part of my series on Flight Search. I start by stating my understanding of the user needs, then derive the features based on the user needs, deconstruct the different elements of flight search on sites like Kayak, Orbitz, Hipmunk etc, and finally present my own design for a flight search product.


Bing Fare Caster Tool

Strong BuyPrediction

Strong Wait Prediction

Weak Buy & Wait Predictions

Explanation of Prediction

Fare Caster in action for flexible date purchases

In Graph Buy or Wait Information



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Categories: Flight Search Tags:

Saving flight options and sharing with others

March 15th, 2011 satish View Comments

This post is part of my series on Flight Search. I start by stating my understanding of the user needs, then derive the features based on the user needs, deconstruct the different elements of flight search on sites like Kayak, Orbitz, Hipmunk etc, and finally present my own design for a flight search product.


Based on user needs, a good flight search site should provide tools to:

  • Save Searches
  • Save Flight Options
  • Email Flight Options
  • Email link to Flight Options
  • Find the same flight option later (even if the price is different)
  • Display flight options that are similar to saved flight option

Save Searches
Kayak
Kayak automatically saves the searches performed and displays them in the landing page.

Save Flight Options
kayak provides an option to save flights in the results page. The saved flights are then shown at the top of the results page above the rest of the results.

Sharing Options
Kayak provides options to copy a link, send an email, share on facebook, and share via linkedin.

Email Flight Information

Copy Link to Share

Share on Facebook

Share via Linkedin


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Categories: Flight Search Tags:

Deconstructing the results page of flight search sites

March 14th, 2011 satish View Comments

This post is part of my series on Flight Search. I start by stating my understanding of the user needs, then derive the features based on the user needs, deconstruct the different elements of flight search on sites like Kayak, Orbitz, Hipmunk etc, and finally present my own design for a flight search product.


Based on user needs, a good flight search site should take into consideration the following features in the design of the results page:

  • Browsing Results
    • Intuitive Display of Flight Options
      • Separate Departure and Return flight results (Note: tabs vs scroll down)
      • Hiding redundant/useless flight options
      • Show all relevant flights in one page.
      • Thin rows for each flight option showing only relevant information. (Note: Southwest Vs Hipmunk)
      • Total Price Display vs Individual leg?
    • Summary View for Chosen Dates
      • Best price for nonstop, one-stop, two-stop
      • Grid view of airline, stops & price within chosen filters.
    • +/- 3 day prices at a quick glance
    • Intuitive Filtering
      • Time filtering
      • Price filtering
      • Airline filtering
    • Sorting Options
      • Price
      • Departure Time
      • Arrival Time
      • Duration
      • Stops
    • Calendar price view for identifying good dates to travel
    • Map view for displaying flexible destination results
  • In this post I’m going to examine the results pages of various sites to identify the different solutions that they arrived at and explain my reasons for liking/disliking them.

    Intuitive Display of results
    Separating Departing and Return Flight Options
    As I explained in the previous post, on design choices that lead to a terrible experience, Orbitz, Kayak, and Hotwire combine the departing and return flights into a single trip. This makes it complicated for the user to sift through the results, filter the choices and to make a decision. I am firm believer in separating the flights into individual legs and displaying the choices for each leg separately. Southwest airlines, United Airlines, American Airlines, Virgin show the departing and return flights separately to simplify the user experience. Among the travel sites Travelocity, Expedia and Priceline display the departing and return flights separately.

    Most of these sites first display the departing flight options and then the return flight options. United and soouthwest display the two flight options simultaneously. Southwest displays the return flights below the departing flights, while United displays the departing and return flights in two columns next to each other.

    United

    Southwest

    These two options might not be feasible with an aggregator site as not all return flights are available with all return flights. I would experiment with dynamically creating the return flight list in the same page based on the departing flight chosen.

    Hiding bad flight options

    Hipmunk

    Bad flights Hidden

    Bad Flights revealed

    Displaying all relevant flights in one page
    Most sites display a lot of information that is not relevant for the first level of filtering in the results page. Since they take a lot of vertical space to display each flight, the user can see only a few flights without scrolling down. For example in the image below, Orbitz displays 2 flights in the entire page before the user has to scroll the page. Other sites like Travelocity and expedia display results very similarly.
    Orbitz

    Kayak does a better job event though it shows departing & return flights together as trip. Southwest (just screwed up their display by adding points etc), American, and Hipmunk do a tremendous job of displaying only the relevant information.

    Kayak

    Southwest

    Hipmunk

    Summary View
    Kayak

    Orbitz

    Travelocity

    +/-3 Day Prices
    American Airlines

    Orbitz

    Kayak

    Travelocity

    +/-30 Day
    Travelocity

    Kayak

    Southwest

    Filtering Options
    Kayak

    Bing
    TimeFiltering

    Orbitz
    Grid Based Filtering for # of stops and airlines

    Hipmunk

    Time Filtering by Searching Again

    Sorting

    Flight Details
    Kayak

    Hipmunk
    Individual Flight Information


    Complete Trip Information


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    Categories: Flight Search Tags:

    Price Discrepancy: Round trip vs One-way

    March 10th, 2011 satish View Comments

    Price Discrepancy

    The ideal solution for a user purchasing a round trip ticket would allow the user to individually select the best departing flight option and the best return flight option. On a site displaying flight results for a single airline this can be achieved without much difficulty. Displaying the individual legs separately is more complicated for a site that aggregates flights from multiple airlines because most airlines price their round trip and on-way tickets differently. Most airlines force customers to purchase round trip tickets from the same airline by pricing one-way tickets much higher than round trip tickers.

    For example:

    Round Trip Pricing

    Individual Leg pricing

    Leg 1

    Leg 2

    In effect customers get the best rates when they purchase both legs from the same airline/alliance.

    Design Choices resulting from price discrepancy

    This pricing discrepancy creates a difficult design choice when building a flight search site that aggregates flight options from many airlines.
    Option 1: Display flight options as round trips where both legs are shown together as one flight option (For example: If there are 20 departing flights and 18 return flights, there would be ~ 360 trips to display)
    Option 2: Display the departing and return flight options separately with the understanding that not all departing flights are available with all other return flights at the same price. Such an interface allows the user to select an option for the departing flight and then dynamically display the available return options along with the corresponding price. The user can select either the departing or the return flight first and view the choices that pair with the selected option to complete a trip.

    Kayak and Orbitz display results using Option 1, while Travelocity and Hipmunk use Option 2. Hipmunk does an excellent job of allowing the users to pick either the departing or return flight first.

    Hipmunk Dynamic display of flight options
    All Return Flight Options

    Return flights filtered based on the selection of a departing flight

    Categories: Flight Search Tags:

    Design choices that lead to terrible flight search experience.

    March 5th, 2011 satish View Comments

    This post is part of my series on Flight Search. I start by stating my understanding of the user needs, then derive the features based on the user needs, deconstruct the different elements of flight search on sites like Kayak, Orbitz, Hipmunk etc, and finally present my own design for a flight search product.


    A majority of people agree that searching for flights on the leading sites like Orbitz, Kayak etc is a terrible experience. We spend a lot of time trying to sort through the options and end up with a headache long before we finally settle on a suboptimal flight choice. This post highlights two of the design choices that result in such a terrible experience.

    Mistake 1: Combining the departing & return flight and displaying them together as a trip.
    The top complaint that people have with any of the top travel sites is that there are pages and pages of flight choices that they have to sift through. The main reason for this problem is the fact that departing & return flights are combined and displayed as trip options. This created two problems for the users.

    1. Complexity of choice:
      For example if you have 10 options for the departing flight and another 12 for the return flight, the site creates a set of 10 * 12 = 120 trip options and displays the 120 trip options. Instead if they displayed the options for the two legs separately you would have to choose a departing flight from 10 options and the return flight from 12 options. By making a simple change the sites can simply the whole decision process dramatically for the users.
    2. Sorting or filtering the flight options:
      Let us say the first option for the departing flight is at 7AM and the second option is at 8AM. When the results are displayed they will show the 12 trip options which have the 7AM departing time combined with all 12 of the return options before it shows the 8AM departing option. There is no way to filter or sort the results that will let us see all the departing options in sequence. So you will have to scroll through the results and mentally make a list of all the departing options or use a smart trick like using the filter for the return flight to make sure there is only one return flight. In essence filtering and sorting through results is non intuitive because the departing and return flights are combined.


    Mistake 2: Displaying all connecting flight options.
    Suppose the flight from DFW back to SFO has one stop, the departure time for the first leg at DFW is at 5:35, while there are two options for the second leg: one that gets in at 9:55AM (total travel time of 6h20m) and the second that gets in at 11:17AM (total travel time of 7h42m). Under normal circumstances most people would prefer the first option. So a site could hide the second option. This would simply the decision process for the customer.


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    Categories: Flight Search Tags: ,

    My flight search landing page design

    February 27th, 2011 satish View Comments

    This post is part of my series on Flight Search. I start by stating my understanding of the user needs, then derive the features based on the user needs, deconstruct the different elements of flight search on sites like Kayak, Orbitz, Hipmunk etc, and finally present my own design for a flight search product.


    Based on my understanding of user needs and resulting feature needs, I mocked up my design for a flight search landing page using Balsamiq. The landing page is cleanly separated into 3 sections: Where the user is traveling, When the user wants to travel, and Who & How they want to travel. Below are images for:

    • Default Landing Page with Round-trip & Fixed Dates
    • +/- 3 Days Selection
    • +/- 30 Days Selection
    • Weekend Selection
    • One-way Options
    • Multi-city Options

    Landing Page: Default View with Round-trip & Fixed Dates


    Landing Page: +/-3 Days Selection

    Landing Page: +/- 30 Days Selection

    Landing Page: Weekends Selection

    Landing Page: One-way Option

    Landing Page: Multi-city Option


    Landing Page: Airline Selection


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    Categories: Flight Search Tags:

    Deconstructing the landing page of flight search sites

    February 25th, 2011 satish View Comments

    This post is part of my series on Flight Search. I start by stating my understanding of the user needs, then derive the features based on the user needs, deconstruct the different elements of flight search on sites like Kayak, Orbitz, Hipmunk etc, and finally present my own design for a flight search product.


    Based on user needs & desired features, a good landing page for flight search should consider the following Fields/Options for selecting:

    • One-way, Round-trip and Multi-city options
    • Auto-complete for city or airport
    • Include Flights from Alternate Airports in search results
    • Calendar to pick dates
    • Flexible dates option
    • Departure/Landing Time options
    • # of travelers
    • Cabin/Class
    • Non-stop only preference
    • Preferred Airline or Alliance

    Some of these options need not be part of the landing page and can be displayed as part of the filtering options only. My hypothesis would be that the following options need not be part of the landing page:

    • Flexible dates option
    • Departure/Landing Time options
    • Non-stop only
    • Preferred Airline or Alliance

    One-way, Round-trip, Multi-city Options:
    Most sites force the user to choose between three options one-way, round-trip, and multi-city using a radio button. The default value is set to round-trip. Hipmunk on the other hand combines one-way and round-trip into a regular option. They indicate clearly that the date field for the return flight is optional. If a user leaves the return date blank, then they assume that it is one-way. By doing this they achieve the same goal while reducing the input from the user.

    Orbitz, Kayak, Hotwire, Travelocity

    Hipmunk

    Auto-complete for city/airport:
    A good landing page should suggest cities as you type like google does for search. Some sites like Orbitz, travelocity, and priceline do not provide a true auto complete. They either suggest the airports that you have already searched for or do not provide any suggestions at all. Hotwire and Hipmunk provide a good auto complete feature which is fast enough for it to be helpful to the user. With auto complete the exact text displayed for each city/airport is important. Since airport codes are only 3 letters, auto-complete is not that useful when someone starts to type in an airport code. Auto complete is more useful when a person is typing in a city name that is long. Hotwire displays the suggestions by displaying the city name first and then the airport code. Hipmunk on the other hand displays the airport code first and then the city name. If a person is searching by city name, this confuses the person in essence making the auto complete feature ineffective.

    Hotwire

    Hipmunk

    Include Flights from Alternate Airports in search results:
    Some travel sites provide an option to search from all nearby airports in one search query. For example, you could search for a flight from all bay area airports (SFO, SJC, OAK, STC) to dallas as a single search. Kayak provides this option right on the landing page, while Orbitz and Travelocity provide it as part of the advanced flight search options. I believe that this option should be available right on the landing page. Hipmunk does not provide this option yet.

    Kayak

    Orbitz

    Calender to select dates:
    Most sites let the user click in the date field (or on a calender icon) to open up a calender and pick a date from it. The calender is tied to either the departing flight or the return flight and is anchored in the date field. Hipmunk provides a unique interface where the calender is always on display. The mouse-over color of date elements in the calender is different when the user is picking the departing flight (brown) vs the return flight (green). As the user clicks on dates the choice loops through departing to return to departing. The Hipmunk interface for the dates seems intuitive as I did not notice the difference when i started to use Hipmunk. It was only when i looked deeper to understand their design that I noticed the difference.

    Travelocity


    Hipmunk

    Departure/Landing Time Options
    Most sites provide a drop down menu to select either a time period (4am-8am,8am-12pm etc) and/or times (8am, 9am etc) to choose right on the landing page. This option is useful when a user knows has a very specific need. Most of the time this feature is better implemented in the results page as a sliding filter.
    Kayak

    Flexible Dates Option
    There are two main use cases that require flexible date options. The first use case is when a user wants to travel on a particular date but is flexible by a few days in order to get a cheaper ticket. The second is when a user is willing to travel over a larger period, say the month of May, but wants to travel for a certain number of days.

    Kayak and Travelocity provide options on the landing page for the first use case. Kayak allows the user with more options than Travelovity. But the interface has room for giving the user more control. Expedia on the other hand provides options for he second use case and does a very good job with the interface.

    Kayak

    Travelocity

    Expedia

    # of Travelers, Cabin/Class, Non-Stop only
    All sites provide a drop down menu to choose the number of travelers. Some sites provide options for children and seniors on the landing page, while others require the user to go to the advanced options to select children and seniors. Some sites had additional options for infants in lap etc. Travelocity adds menu drop down menus to add the age of all the minors who are flying. Cheaptickets and Orbitz categorize the drop down menu based on whether the children need a fare or not as part of their advanced options. Kayak and Hipmunk do not provide options to add children or seniors.

    kayak

    Travelocity


    CheapTickets

    Cabin/Class and Non-stop only
    Most sites provide a drop down to pick among the cabin/class options and a check box to search for only non-stop flights. Some sites like Orbitz do not display a cabin/class option on the landing page but have it as part of the advanced options. This choice should be displayed as part of the landing page. Hipmunk on the other hand does not display the option for nonstop flights only.

    Preferred Airline/Alliance
    Hipmunk provides the option to add preferred airlines/alliances on the landing page itself. Most other sites display airlines as part of either advanced options or as filtering options in the results page. This is an option that can be held off until the results page.

    It’s time for My Landing Page Design.


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    Categories: Flight Search Tags: ,