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?

5 thoughts on “Google Boutiques – Could it be travel next?

  1. Definitely agree that inspiration engines will play a major role in the future of travel.

    I can see Google deep linking search results to the travel sellers, which, in many cases will be the travel suppliers, but the OTAs will be around for a long time - they simply wield too much market power.

    The GDS's did not disappear in the '90s as many predicted, but their business model is still undergoing change. The same scenario should play out for the OTA's.

    While this may create challenges for the online travel agencies, it could also create even greater challenges for the major hotel brands.

    If travelers are able to seek out specific properties based on collaborative filtering of likes & dislikes, the value of hotel brands also be scrutinized more closely by the hoteliers.

    The hotel brands could become an attribute, like the designers on boutiques.com - something that is liked, and provides a framework, but not the primary booking channel.

    Travel is most often a much more complicated purchase than clothing, especially when destination selection and activities are added into the mix.

    I foresee considerable disruption, but the customer benefiting with improved choice and better alignment to their likes and needs.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    1. Hi Robert
      Thanks - some great observations here. I have been really struck too by the way Google continues to work on user experience on the SERPS. As you say re: deep linking. You aready find examples of prices being quoted for specific deals for searches like say 'hotels in New York' and reviews being pulled in there too. Fascinating stuff. Does it make the search engine better though? Or is it just throwing loads more choices at the user and consequently confusing them. Part of the joy of Google in the old days was you got a really simple uncluttered list. Not anymore. For me this is almost a case of Google having to admit defeat and accepting that they just can't get the algorithm itself any better.

      1. It's interesting to remember that Yahoo started as a curated list of sites, so context was a key consideration.

        Google's move to algorithm based, keyword-centric search dramatically expanded the range of search results, plus increased the opportunity to monetize searches by relating advertising to the keyword/phrases searched.

        Bing's advertising, and its joint venture with Wolfram|Alpha, is trying to reintroduce context into the equation and produce the "best" answer, not just lists of options.

        This is why they acquired Farecast, to tell travelers if they should buy now, or wait on airline tickets. This introduced meta-search and secondary analytics to the search results page, undoubtedly influencing Google's decision to acquire ITA Software.

        The key is now how to best execute semantic travel search - Groups like Uptake are doing nicely aggregating review content, but there is still a long way to go before a traveler gets the killer app:

        "Where should we go on vacation?"

        Ideally, the destination, activities, lodging, transport, timing, duration, cost, etc. should be the opportunity that is best suited to the interests of the party traveling, accessing the products best suited to their needs, at the lowest cost based on their eligibility for various discounts.

        In short, the lowest cost for the best experience.

        It will be a good period of time before a system can beat a great travel agent, or a search engine beat an OTA that can leverage its ability to steer volume into preferred products in exchange for rate concessions.

        Three very different dynamics - it will be interesting to see how they converge...

  2. It might well be travel where Google has clearly indicated it will be more active with the ITA acquisition. Will it end the domination of OTAs? Unlikely, but that is not necessary for them to seriously disrupt some relationships and change the way travel is distributed and purchased. There is often too much talk of one new player destroying all others - the killer app syndrome - when that is not really necessary to be very successful and have an impact on markets. Travel is much too huge and fragmented for one player, even one as significant as Google to dominate it. This boutique approach definitely could play a role in travel.

  3. Google has a lock on search queries where the answer is a single website. Looking for the website of The Economist? There's one best answer. Looking for the Big Mac Index? There's one best page.

    Travel is more complicated. There isn't always one best answer. The best fare for a flight out of your city depends on a variety of factors, and the answer you choose depends partly on the results you see from multiple providers. Google hasn't excelled in that kind of search. But ITA Software has. And supposedly it has been beta-testing even better ways to slice and dice fare data.

    Google could learn lessons in how to present travel information and then apply them in other multiple-answer subject areas, like finance and sport. That's a broader implication, I think.

    As Robert Cole has pointed out elsewhere, the PhoCusWright conference this year saw that about half of the startups were focused on social media But social media may not move the meter for most travelers, per this research from y Partnership http://blog.ypartnership.com/?p=319

    Google is focusing on the algorithms that matter. Watch out Everbread, Expedia, and Yelp!


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