With so many people talking about meta search these days, you would think it was a brand new digital marketing channel. Not so, as SideStep and FareChase got the ball rolling in the travel sector in early 2000. I remember helping SideStep set their first advertising rate card a couple years later. I also recall that GDS companies and OTAs were a bit scared of these new kids on the block at first. Many of the travel suppliers were in “talk to the hand” mode for the first few years which looking back now seems unbelievable. Some people predicted that meta would replace traditional OTAs which is funny considering that Expedia just invested $632 million in Trivago.
The two pioneers of travel meta search both were eventually acquired as Yahoo bought FareChase and Kayak absorbed SideStep. It was disappointing to see Yahoo not utilize FareChase and eventually shut it down in March of 2009. But Kayak has fared much better as they are in the top heap of today’s major U.S. players. Other majors include Google, TripAdvisor and Travelzoo’s Fly.com. A bunch of our travel clients have asked for more meta options so we have been consolidating about forty of the travel sites in our platform to overcome the lack of scale typically seen beyond the top players. The space has gotten a bit crowded recently as some sites attempt to aggregate all the aggregators with super meta search. This approach can be valuable to end users but does have limits as you would not want to take the user on an endless search from one meta site to another.
Meta search has a few key benefits for travel companies including: pay for performance and direct bookings. Advertisers typically pay only for clicks or bookings which means very low risk. Because meta allows the user to enter dates and locations, the user is very qualified which leads to higher conversions rather than people kicking the tires. Typically the travel company is saving money on commissions as they drive users to their lowest cost distribution point which is their own website. Travel suppliers also enjoy acquiring new customers and having users complete the booking process on the travel supplier website. In comparison when a hotel gets a booking from an OTA that hotel does not always acquire nor maintain a relationship with that customer that would be more loyal to the OTA.
Comparison shopping for the travel consumer equals lots of savings. Users save money and more importantly save time as the meta technology scours hundreds of sources of pricing and availability in order to return a wide selection of travel options. For example instead of getting only the Expedia rate for a certain hotel, a user would see rates across many travel sites for that same hotel and perhaps even similar hotels in the same area.
We have come a long way as PhoCusWright reports 36% of online travelers use meta search tools which is up from 28% in 2010. Meta search should be part of your marketing strategy for 2014. Work with and test a bunch of meta players rather than thinking of these sites as head to head competitors with only one correct answer.