Former Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia executives envision advanced personalization features that have never existed before.
Veterans of Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia have teamed to launch a new travel search company, Kayak.com, a public beta of which launched this week. Executives say it will possess Google-like objectivity, Amazon.com-like personalization features and an Overture-like ad auction model, when it launches officially later this year.
Like Yahoo’s Farechase, currently in beta testing, Kayak.com crawls a wide variety of travel providers’ sites -- more than 60, in Kayak.com’s case -- and presents the results in a matrix. The company currently returns results for airlines and for hotels, but it plans to add car rentals before it launches later this year. Users can adjust airline results by checking or un-checking airlines, and tweaking sliders for price or flight times. With hotels, users can refine by distance from a given location, by price or by star rating. The site has both Flash and HTML interfaces, which users can toggle between.
"We all recognized about a year ago that online travel really hadn’t fulfilled the vision we all had," said Steve Hafner, co-founder and CEO of Kayak.com, who formerly helped found Orbitz. "We wanted to facilitate informed decision making by consumers and really put an end to cross shopping."
Kayak is part of a new generation of online travel companies that are more like search technology players than travel agencies. Other players include SideStep and Mobissimo, and Yahoo’s FareChase. More established firms like Travelzoo, with its SuperSearch product, are also getting into the travel search game.
"It’s no surprise that there are some new and late entrants into this space," said Kelly Ford, vice president of marketing at Travelzoo. "When you think about it, these are the cross hairs of two of the top things happening -- search, and giving consumers more choice, and online travel."
Unlike online travel agencies like Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia, Kayak.com and its competitors hand searchers off to the travel provider to complete the transaction, allowing airlines, hotels and car rental companies to manage the customer relationship from that point on. Kayak.com even shows results from the online travel agencies in the hotels area, allowing users to buy there, if they so choose. Kayak.com gets paid a per-click referral fee from the companies to which it sends searchers. Hafner says this arrangement allows Kayak.com to be objective and provide users with more relevant results.
"Because Orbitz was selling a service they weren’t always objective about the information that’s supplied there," said Hafner. "It’s pervasive on other sites, as well."
The company’s planned personalization features are just starting to appear in the beta test. In the airline search area, the main effect so far is that Kayak.com remembers previous searches and allows users to easily perform them again. In the hotel area, Kayak.com allows users to rate hotels and leave comments about them. Eventually, Hafner says, the company will introduce Amazon.com-like collaborative filtering, which would suggest to users that, for example, people who liked hotels they liked in San Francisco, also liked certain hotels in New York. The company also hopes to learn enough to distinguish between good suggestions for business travel versus good suggestions for personal travel.
"There’s no such thing as a business traveler or a personal traveler," said Hafner. "Your preferences for what you are willing to do depend on what you are buying the trip for. For business travel you may want only American or United, on leisure you are much more flexible."
For this to be successful, Hafner admits, the company must get plenty of data from users -- both information they volunteer and data gathered by observing their behavior. He’s optimistic the user experience will be good enough to allow Kayak.com to achieve new levels of personalization.
"No other Web site has ever done that," he said. "No other Web site has as good a view on what people are looking for, as we will have."
Kayak.com’s bid-for-placement advertiser interface hasn’t yet launched, but Hafner says it will be similar to Google’s AdWords program or Overture’s system. It will be more complex, though, to allow hoteliers to account for seasonality.
"You can specify the search dates that you want for your Web site," said Hafner. "You can say you want four star to five star searches only."
Bids impact the initial ordering of search results but users can always re-sort using the refinement tools. Any listing whose placement has been impacted by a payment is labeled as paid, Hafner said. Hafner says the company has been working with some travel companies to test and improve the advertising system before it is launched.
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
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