Google's Boutiques.com has got lots of people I work with in iCrossing's Content and Social Media team talking this week. It speaks volumes about where Google could be headed in the not too distant future.
Boutiques.com looks very slick compared to the usual Google Beta releases. It's nicely designed and features lots of great imagery showcasing all the latest high street fashion items, mixing this with celeb write ups and, crucially, an inspiration engine - called the Stylizer Quiz. The user makes a series of 'more/less' choices based on pictures of clothes and people wearing clothes (along with some more random things like cocktails - martini or margarita?). They are offered a selection of clothes that in theory they should like. Click on any of them and they're diverted to the web retailer who stocks the item and can make a purchase. As the user makes more purchases, the engine should become better at making further recommendations. Retailers pay to participate on the site. And lots of big names are there already. ASOS and Top Shop to name a couple.
Now, usually this kind of technology promises loads and delivers pretty poorly. But Boutique.com seems to work pretty well. Quite a few of my female workmates at iCrossing have tinkered with the inspiration engine and been genuinely impressed with the suggestions it offers. And, let's face it, with its huge experience of algorithms and so on, if anyone can crack a problem with this degree of complexity, it's probably Google.
What's also very interesting is that for now there is no attempt to link it up with Facebook and thus access Social Graph data as well. I'd have thought that this could be mega-useful. Friends' purchasing decisions have huge influence on our own choices. And even if that's too complex, the opportunity to automatically post to someone's wall that they just bought something using Boutiques.com seems an obvious way to grow the user base really fast. Could this be Google making an active decision to create something totally separate from Facebook? And is this then an example of a poorer user experience because of the rivalry between the two companies?
So far no one has got anywhere near making this kind of concept work in the travel sector. Lots of travel sector companies are up in arms about Google's recent purchase of ITA. ITA's software powers major booking engines like Orbitz, Kayak and Microsoft's Bing amongst many others. They are lobbying for US competition authorities to investigate the deal claiming it will give Google an unfair advantage. Google sees it differently and I'm no expert so won't offer an opinion. There's lots more about this story over on Tnooz.
But... just imagine how immensely powerful a user interface like Boutiques.com coupled with a booking engine with the inventory of ITA plugged into the back of it could be.
And. Even if that deal gets vetoed, the Boutiques.com-style user interface plugged into a load of different travel providers' inventories could, if it worked be very powerful. It's a clear statement of intent from Google I'd suggest. If it works in the fashion vertical, why not in other ones too?
Some day soon Google will enter the travel sector with a direct proposition. I wouldn't be at all surprised if we don't see it happen in 2011. Do you?