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Google’s Search Ad Embrace Crushes Online Travel Agents

Gerrit De Vynck and Kiley Roache

(Bloomberg) -- Google’s moves to cram the top of its search results with more and more advertising is hammering the online travel industry, one of the company’s biggest customers.

Expedia Group Inc. fell the most in 14 years on Thursday and TripAdvisor Inc. dropped the most in two years after the companies reported dismal third-quarter results and laid the blame on Google. Booking Holdings Inc.’s shares dropped 8%, too, wiping out a combined market value of more than $13 billion from the three online travel agents.

Google dominates the online search market, with at least three quarters of the market. People use the search engine to research trips, so for at least a decade online travel agents have refined their websites with trustworthy content and easy booking tools to show up high in Google results.

This search engine optimization, or SEO, worked well until about five years ago. Around that time, Google began placing more ads on the top of search results, pushing down the free listings. The internet giant also built new travel search tools, which were mostly paid listings, too. This means online travel agents now must pay billions of dollars each year to Google to ensure they show up high in search results and get clicks from travel planners.

The online travel industry has been concerned about Google’s changes since at least 2016. But the full impact was felt this week.

“Google has got more aggressive,” TripAdvisor Chief Executive Officer Stephen Kaufer said during a conference call with analysts late Wednesday. “We’re not predicting that it’s going to turn around.”

Free traffic is “shrinking all the time,” Expedia Chief Executive Officer Mark Okerstrom said the same day. “Google does continue to push for more revenue per visitor. And I think it’s just the reality of where the world is.”

The industry has been trying other marketing channels, such as social media and more TV advertising. But Google’s search engine is so pervasive that online travel agents have to keep buying ads from the company to keep traffic coming to their sites.

D.A. Davidson analysts wrote that Expedia is exploring alternatives to mitigate its “reliance on search/Google,” but they see “no alternatives that will be able to efficiently ‘move the needle’ from a volume perspective anytime soon.”

Carnage in the online travel industry comes as antitrust scrutiny of Google is ramping up in the U.S. State, federal and congressional probes are all underway to determine whether the company violates competition law. One area of concern is vertical search, where Google uses its main search engine to promote its own industry-specific products over those of other companies. Travel is one example where this is happening, along with local search, contractor marketplaces like Angie’s List and shopping-comparison services.

Google has been a rising risk for the travel industry for a while, but executives have been generally hesitant to blame it for poor results. The search giant is one of the most important sources of traffic and business for online travel agencies, so they have tried to maintain a good relationship. But this quarter, Google’s impact was so painful that industry executives and Wall Street analysts couldn’t avoid it.

“We see these Google changes as a potential headwind to OTA profitability,” Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said in a note to clients. This trend isn’t going away, and people who want to invest in the online travel sector should do it through Google stock, he added.

Booking Holdings, the largest online travel agent, was peppered with questions about Google during a conference call with analysts on Thursday.

Glenn Fogel, Booking’s chief executive officer, said the company’s future success will rely on reaching people without Google getting in the way.

“What we know is most important is for us to get customers to come to us directly,” he said. Building brand strength and retaining customers better means the company “will not be as dependent on other sources of traffic,” he added.

--With assistance from Ryan Vlastelica, Olivia Carville and Ian King.

To contact the reporters on this story: Gerrit De Vynck in New York at gdevynck@bloomberg.net;Kiley Roache in New York at kroache@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jillian Ward at jward56@bloomberg.net, Alistair Barr, Andrew Pollack

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