A Faster Way to Search Google Flights – Cut and Paste

Google Flights heralds Google’s formal entry into the travel meta-search arena. Much has been made of the absense of intermediaries such as online travel agencies and meta-search competitors in lieu of direct booking with the airlines. Unquestionably, the game has changed.

Google Flight Search Powered by ITA Software

Since the announcement of Google’s acquisition of ITA Software, everyone knew it was going to be a game changer

The Fairsearch.org immediately reacted with a blog post asking if partners will be coerced into working with Google, if the new search technology will secure premium placement in search results, or if the content will be intermixed with search results. Valid questions. To which Google will undoubtedly reply with something along the line of “whatever provides the greatest utility to our users and yields the greatest benefits to our partners.”

As with all things Google, democratization of information and disruption of established business practices typically involves a balancing act between users and partners where the scale normally (and appropriately) tips toward the user’s end of the spectrum. Many partners understandably don’t like this and Google Flights will certainly be the poster child of the coming US Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights hearing.

For now, let’s forget about all that – there will be plenty of coverage in the coming weeks on the strategies, symbolism and voodoo surrounding Google’s deeper dive into travel. Much will be conjecture, lots will not be true, and some will be flat-out crazy.

One thing however, is for certain – Google Flight Search changes everything, but in more ways than you might think. It actually enables a very old school approach to searching air fares.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Is Google Flights perfect? No, non-US/international itineraries are not supported. It also doesn’t present all those cool Hacker Fares Kayak finds.

For those predicting the demise of the OTAs, don’t be so quick. Earlier today, when booking a flight, Expedia found the cheapest itinerary, a UA-DL combination that was not identified by any other sites, including Kayak Travelocity, Priceline or Google Flights. Plus the price was $25 lower than any other comparable fares (although the last point may have been due to the location of Expedia’s servers on the West Coast.)

The concept of using a map to explore options based on budget and flight duration was worked out by Sabre Labs in the late ’90s and resulted in as Travelocity Dream Maps a few years later. It is questionable whether the Google Flights map should be presented as the default, especially because it occupies a lot of valuable screen real estate.

The map is nice for playing a joint round of “What-if” with both “where should we go?” and/or “when should we go?” as variables. It is a great experience to watch the fares change instantaneously as departure.return dates are changed. The only annoyance was having to close and reopen the map to get rid of the large “Popular Destination” tool tip that covers a large portion of the map as a default. The question is if most users are making where/when decisions when approaching Google Flights for the first time.

If one already knows their destination, is that much screen real-estate necessary, and does that little arc between the origin and destination really need to remind everyone the world isn’t flat? Sorry, but I doubt many people care if they can fly to Detroit for $151 when they have already entered their destination as Washington, DC. Inspiration is a noble goal, but integrating it in this way doesn’t simplify the process much.

Another minor mapping peeve is that when a flight includes stops, only the simplistic origin/destination arc is rendered, not smaller arcs between all connecting cities on the itinerary. Overall, when it comes to the mapping functionality in this version of Google Flights, the synopsis is: nice technology; low utility.

It was a good idea not to use the potentially disorienting Limits Scatter-graph as the default. The concept of using sliders in a graphical matrix to filter shorter and cheaper flights is nice, but the tight clustering and sporadic distribution of outlined and solid circles may create some confusion on first viewing. Once familiar with the content, most will simply use the sliders to highlight flights in the lower left corner of the graph.

Incorporating a hoverbox on mouseover into the Limits display would have been extremely helpful. A user could then immediately identify the targeted flight itinerary without needing to scan the list below. The current implementation requires the use to scan the results list even when the 2D scatter graph is visible. Simple sliders could have accomplished the same task, again, using less screen real estate.

There is plenty of other cool stuff – the calendar option lets one see a visual representation of the strategies employed by airlines for managing city-pair pricing. The outbound/return time sliders including departure & arrival times are nicely rendered, but far and beyond all other features is Google Flights blazing fast speed.

That said, there is incredibly powerful code underlying these tools – the key will be harnessing that power and unleashing it through an innovative user interface to make flight search more engaging and seamless.

From a content perspective, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America flight schedules are included, but pricing is not provided and no booking link is active. AirTran provides pricing, but again, the booking link is not available – the same goes for Frontier.

It is unclear if Google intends to enable integrated alternate day search capability, as the current iteration allows clicking forward & back by date. It may have been that in its initial version, the date paging was provided to simplify the UI and ensure page rendering speed was a key point of differentiation.

Google will need to do some retooling to compete with Kayak’s Hacker Fares. Kayak finds lower pricing or new itinerary combinations by linking two one-way itineraries to create a round-trip between airlines lacking ticketing agreements. As a result, two separate bookings are required. Google’s current limitation of one ad unit covering a complete roundtrip will probably need to be reworked to be competitive.

Hipmunk also has Google beat on pure graphic appeal. C’mon, all Google could muster was a generic airplane silhouette icon alongside the word “Flights” in a standard red font? Beyond the very cute mascot, Hipmunk has a clean & simple interface augmented by some clever agony filtering that eliminates irrelevant flight options. User experience is a critical factor that makes travel search much more of a challenge than basic web search. The current feel of Google Flights is a lot like Google Analytics – and that may not suit the typical leisure traveler.

It also seemed that Google Flights handled certain carriers somewhat sporadically. For some reason, Delta itineraries seemed to be most problematic.

Most OTA and meta-search user experiences are also superior to Google Flights – particularly because there are more itineraries listed on the page above the fold – especially with the map is displayed. On my display, only four outbound Google Flights are presented above the fold; the figure increases to 11 with the map collapsed. In comparison, Kayak displays five, Expedia offers 12 cells within its matrix, Travelocity offers a 15 cell matrix, and Orbitz, 24 cells. In my survey, Hipmunk, with its Time-bars, reigns as champion with a list numbering 28. Priceline is the laggard, displaying only three and lacking a matrix. This puts Google at the low end of the spectrum.

Now for Something Completely Different
So you already test drove Google Flights and passed judgement for better or worse, right?

Hold on – you might want to take a look at this little trick that foreshadows the inevitable Google Flights API.

Guess What? The Google Flights text-based query string works really well for quick & dirty air searches.

Click on this link as see what I mean:

Is it fast? Hell yes. And there is no map pushing the search results below the fold.

That’s Cool.

But that’s not all, go into your browser bar and start manipulating the text string. Using Google Chrome, with Google Instant, the search results simply appear – even without clicking or hitting the enter key… Even when changing origin or destination airports.

That’s Magic.

The search query is easily broken down – here are the key elements (based on the query above):
http://www.google.com/flights/#search | The website URL
f=ORD,MDW,MKE | Origin Airport(s) (from)
t=WAS | Destination Airport(s) (to)
d=2011-11-14 | Departure Date (depart)
r=2011-11-17 | Return Date (return)
a=AA,CO,WN,UA | Air Carrier(s)(airline)
c=DFW,IAH | Connection Cities (connect)
s=1 | Maximum Stops (stops)
olt=0,900 | Outbound Landing Time Range – Min-Max in minutes from 0:00 (outbound landing – arrival time range)
itt=840,1440 | Inbound Takeoff Time Range – Min-Max in minutes from 0:00 (inbound takeoff – departure time range)

Each element is isolated by a semi-colon. If particular search attributes are not needed (at a minimum, keep the dates and origin/destination,) leave them out.

For experienced travelers who are familiar with airport codes, this may represent the industry’s fastest possible way to search for flights. The only tricky part will be the flight time calculations, but the sliders may be used if deemed easier. The outbound and inbound time attributes can both be altered for departure or landing times and are based on minutes, so be prepared to practice dividing by 60.

Try it – using Chrome. Awesome, isn’t it? It beats the page back / new search / or filtering options normally required on traditional airline, OTA or meta-search sites for raw speed & flexibility. You may experience the same code-driven rush as a travel agent typing into a green screen in the 1970’s. The speed is addictive.

Finally, before anyone starts getting too bent out of shape, Google has not (yet) embedded Google Flights into the organic search results page. A search of “Flights” today returned ten standard links to Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak, CheapTickets, Priceline, Hotwire, Orbitz, JetBlue, American and TripAdvisor in that order. Not that Google is completely ignoring the new functionality – Flights appears as a menu item in the left sidebar whenever the keywords Flight or Flights are entered, but not when the terms air, airfare, airline, plane tickets, etc. are entered.

At least for the present, Bing gives its air meta-search a much higher profile within its organic search results – including origin/destination and date inputs.

I am guessing Google’s approach may change in the future based on advertising click-through rates or when profile information is integrate profile information and retaining values from recent searches, for example the origin airport and dates. It would be logical for Google to follow Bing’s lead.

When Google fits together the pieces of the puzzle, this will be a platform to be reckoned with… just as everyone expected. I don’t recall anyone predicting the lightening-fast search results – and this is just the first release. Just wait until those smart Googlers and ITAers start tuning the application for speed in future revisions…

So in the interim, before Google launches international itinerary search, tweaks its algorithm and UI to present Hacker Fares, suppresses the map, introduces an API, or at least spruces up the branding on the flight search page, have fun relishing the speed and elegance of the old-school travel search technique proven by thousands of traditional travel agents on green-screens for decades – the simple paste & edit text entry.

About Robert Cole

Robert Cole is the founder of RockCheetah, a hotel marketing strategy and travel technology consulting practice. He also authors the Views from a Corner Suite Blog and publishes the Travel Quote of the Day. Robert speaks regularly at major travel industry conferences, authors articles for leading travel industry publications, advises travel-related startups and the equity investment community. He is an evangelist for the global travel industry.