Google Hotel Finder: First Impressions

It is very telling that Google has labeled their Hotel Finder project as “experiment”. It suggests that this service is rough but that Google wants to continue to pursue this market agressively. Despite the label, I found the new service to be responsive and useful; I’ve already used it to book my next business trip.

Like many of Google’s best products, Hotel Finder is an exercise in simplicity. It strips down the hotel shopping experience to five familiar elements: Location, Dates, Price, Class, and –significantly- User Rating. The page is bare, and there is none of the usual advertising and other “stuff” that we have become used to with other sites. To be fair, this is because Hotel Finder does not necessarily have to generate revenue in its own right. 

So far, I like Hotel Finder. The service has new clever features, includng “draw a shape” so that you can specify exactly your preferred geographic areas (I can see this feature evolving nicely for touch devices), and a pricing feature that compares posted prices to “Hotel’s Typical Price” (possibly fueled by Google’s ITA acquisition?). For me, however, the killer element of this new service is speed. Even sites that I otherwise love, like Kayak, seem to take a modern eternity when trolling for search results. Hotel Finder, however, is very fast. For some searches, I’d even describe it as Instant. This is true for the original searches, and espeically true for follow-up activity like looking at photos or reading reviews. The combination of a bare-bones UI and very fast load times will be a major advantage when this service is optimized for mobile web and mobile app (Note: I checked – as of now the service is traditional web only).

In the near future, I can see this product graduating to the “beta” stage and becoming integrated with organic searches, in much the same way that Places/Maps has evolved. In fact, I could see this service replacing Places/Maps results if a search happens to be for a hotel. Due to its speed and simplicity, I can see this product becoming a standard element of the shopping and buying experience. 

So what are the key takeaways? As usual, it’s all about reviews, reviews, and reviews…
  1. The release of Hotel Finder and the recent news that Google Places/Maps no longer includes reviews from third parties underscores the importance of treating Google as another review platform that, like TripAdvisor, must be monitored, managed, and optimized. I cannot overstate the importance of this. Google will overtake TripAdvisor as the de facto review platform because it is a gateway to the overall internet – both traditional and mobile. It’s just a question of how soon this will occur.
  2. Reviews, again, feature very prominently in this new service. After an area is selected, the results can be sorted by Hotel Class, User Rating, and then by two price categories. “User Rating” is the second column, a telling detail when trying to divine Google’s strategies in this space. When a hotel is selected for closer inspection, reviews again display very prominently beneath the photgraphs, along with a notable call to action to leave a review if the user has visited the location.
  3. Optimize your Google Places Listings: Several good reasons already exist for doing this, and Hotel Finder has just become one more. DMW research shows a direct correlation between SERP ranking for Maps/Places and optimized Places listings. 
As time goes by, and as Google collects feedback, I suspect that we will begin to see this service tilt towards "impulse" and "same day" reservations vs. the more formal vacations and events that usually have a longer research cycle. I could also see potential incorporation with flash deal sites (see Google's acquisition of Dealmap, and its own Google Offers, for example). What are your thoughts? Have you used Hotel Finder yet? Is it better than Kayak?