Updated: Oct 6
Travel has returned to levels similar to pre-pandemic. Yet, sites like Expedia and TripAdvisor continue their downward spiral. Why is this? Google is replacing the need for such sites with reviews, content and deals on its own travel tools (hotels, Google Flights, things to do, etc.).
Google's gain is Expedia's pain
Note how many people are directly searching for "Google Flights" relative to Expedia, TripAdvisor and other popular travel sites in the chart below.
What do you need all these other sites for when you can find it all on Google?
In recent years, Google has increasingly kept more and more user traffic on its own web properties rather than routing it to the various websites in its index. This is seen, for example, in frequently asked questions being pulled straight from websites and inserted in the top of Google search results for many queries. This phenomenon is perhaps most evident in the travel space. More and more, when you search for hotels, flights or things to do, you can find it all right on Google without the need to rely on travel sites like Expedia and TripAdvisor. Since 2011 when Google launched Google Flights, it has continually increased its travel offerings to include reviews and deals for hotels, flights and things to do in cities around the world. Naturally Google has pushed their own travel tools to the top of Google search results while pushing other travel sites like Expedia and TripAdvisor to much lower organic positions.
2022 and 2023 travel demand is similar to past years
See how Google search demand for "things to do," "flights," and "hotels" is similar to past years (with exception of the 2020 pandemic lock-down period and the 2021 bounce-back).
Travel sites won't go away but they are losing much of their organic advantage
In the current environment, sites like Expedia are losing their brand appeal and much of their organic traffic but still making money. How is this possible? They are still earning revenue because Google has faced pushback from regulators when it tries to broker deals with airlines and hotels directly. Thus in many cases it must work with sites like Expedia in order to get a cut of the hotel deals that are happening. Expedia brokers the deals and then pays Google a king's ransom to show up in the search results. The trouble with this is that (a) profits are squeezed from two sides because they have to outbid their competitors in Google's ad auction just to be seen and they have to offer the lowest price in order to get the sale, and (b) Google would still love to find a way to cut out the other middle men like Expedia. Thus, travel sites have become more reliant on Google than ever, and benefit less from free, organic traffic than they used to. Now they must pay to play and it's expensive! The other problem is that Google can simply turn off the faucet at whim. They currently allow zero travel websites access to Google Flights (they only deal with airlines directly). So whomever was trying to sell flights in the past has been in a world of hurt in recent years. The same could happen without warning in the hotel space.
About the author
Aaron Charlton, PhD is a science and medical blogger and entrepreneur. He writes for Away Clinic and other medical clients. He also maintains a website called OpenMKT.org that is aimed at improving transparency and quality of scientific research within the field of marketing. He is sometimes quoted by the media on matters of scientific integrity.