Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Smarter" Travel search vs profiling and recommending at the PhoCusWright Innovation Summit

I have been reflecting back on the PhoCusWright Travel Innovation Summit. At this event 33 companies (start ups, established companies and entrepreneurs with ideas) pitched new products seeking fame and recognition for their innovation. The final four will go through the rest of the conference competing for the Travel Innovation Summit winner prize.

At the Summit a series of companies presented on new ways to do online travel search.

Goby presented on a travel search system with three questions to generate search - what, where, when. Aim is to present a more targeted and consolidated results rather than the site list that come from a Google search.

Exalead presented on a search platform that can be used to provide other companies with a search engine with profile saving metrics.

Planetism the first alpha of the presentation (no site live). Comes to search from a budget perspective (see my discussion on that here). You enter dates and budget and then are presented with a list of options to refine and select.

I have also interviewed a number of search and discovery sites - most recently Joobili.

The reason why people are trying to innovate so much in search is that the current search process (type question into Google and press search) was designed to support closed answer questions such as "cheap flights to New York" and "Hotels near the Opera House". Questions where a single site can provide a single answer. This approach is no longer sufficient as it does not answer open ended questions that people are now asking such as "where should I go next", "I have to get away this weekend, what's good and cheap". Answers to these questions will not be found on one single site. They can only be answered by bringing together information and content from more than one place.

My recommendation to the above companies and others trying to innovate in search is to be very careful betting the business on search innovation and make sure you spend time on recommendation and inspiration. The step beyond search. The proactive approach to search. A focus on pure search brings you head to head with Google and might risk missing the real next step.

I am convinced that the answer to the problem matching the excessive amount of content available and the desire for answers to open ended questions is not to reinvent pure search. Instead I think innovators and other online travel companies should focus on developing processes for profiling and recommending.

What do you think? Is there room for search innovation outside Google and Kayak like meta-search companies? Should start-ups steer clear of search?

PS - if you would like to see my pick for the top 4 click here.

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