90di travel search blog

Archive for January, 2011

Future of search engines

Monday, January 31st, 2011
What would a future search engine be like?
The age of brute force search engines may be about to be over. Or atleast the nature of search engines, are due for a drastic change. By brute force I mean, an approach to crank out meaning, information, and relevance, to the search query, by just looking in tera bytes and peta bytes of data on the Internet. And of course, things like number of back links to that page.
To those, following the areas of Search Engines, its pretty common knowledge, that the conventional Google-like Search Engines are no good for “high quality relevant discovery”. In fact they have been no good, for such information for a good 4 years or so, in my opinion. What we have now, is a situation of “relevant but random discovery”.
Let me explain, it with an example.
Try searching for “video cameras in India” and you get some results. And they all are relevant. But there’s no guarantee, that they are sorted in terms of a criteria, which you may want, e.g. sites having quality information about a camera. So I call this as a “relevant but random discovery” rather than a “high quality relevant discovery”.
As the information they get is still relevant, in some way, is the reason, why most folks are still happy to live with it.  And people are used to just getting by, by tweeking their queries, and getting some satisfactory enough result. The problem is that people don’t even know what they may be missing. Remember no body actually wanted a real nice search engine, when Google silently arrived.
Another thing, why no body sees a problem is that, when using the search engine just for navigation. For e.g. finding out “Java 5 TimerTask”. Its brilliant. You get precisely what you want in the first two results (Aside: they still have 32,100 results for that. That’s why I perhaps used the phrase ‘brute force’)
Was the situation, always like this and people didn’t know?
Certainly not. After the Google arrived in 1998, for some good 5-7 years or so, its PageRank algorithm worked very well. The algorithm works very well, if people don’t game the system. But, we have full blown SEO industry around the Search Engine. And despite Google’s efforts to keep the SEO clean. It’s simply not possible to do it. In today’s Internet world, it will be increasingly difficult to identify for a clean link to a site, to a paid (SEM’d) link. The links from social media, only further add to this noise.
So what’s the solution?
On your machine, how do you find a file. You often search for it, using the file system search. But you know, what file you are looking for. Think, the conventional brute-force search engine, will move more towards navigation, in which a person knows what he wants, and tries to find it.
So something similar will happen on the Internet. Ofcourse the person, doesn’t know which website to look for often, so he will ask his friends for advise. Wait a minute, did you say, ask friends, come on who has the time to ask, and then wait for a reply?
Well the answer is that the asking and replying will happen asynchronously. On all the social media, people are continously telling what they like and what they don’t and sharing various experiences. “This rose smells nice”, “This coffee is not so great” and “this travel site is so great” Or “this site doesn’t rock”. So some body has to just assimilate all these statements of expressions and churn them as replies when a question is being asked.
Several folks are already at play in this area e.g. quora.com – the arguments against it are that its a closed service, bu that’s a different story. But there is far-far from a clear winner. Its possible, but unlikely, that the likes of Google itself, will totally transform themselves into a totally different kind of a search engine. Unlikely I say, is because, its not always possible to kill a cash cow. The conventional brute-force search engine is perhaps at the peak of money making curve, by the various Ad programs – Ad words and Ad Sense. So in such a scenario, will somebody be able to shake of the inertia and start from a clean slate. Possible but unlikely.
There were some efforts, which I was very excited about like blekko.com. But they appeared to be working on a conventional ‘brute-force’ search engine (of course on a better version of it), atleast until about a couple of years back. This was around the time when cuil (remember?) failed spectacularly. It will be interesting to see how they launch, in a post twitter/facebook world.
It will be interesting to see, who get’s there first, and importantly who gets it right.
PS: Had written this piece a few months back. When blekko was yet to be launched. But shied away from blogging it.
NOTE: This blog has thoughts, which are personal opinion of Khushnood Naqvi, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of 90di.

What would a future search engine be like?

The age of brute force search engines may be about to be over. Or atleast the nature of search engines, are due for a drastic change. By brute force I mean, an approach to crank out meaning, information, and relevance, to the search query, by just looking in tera bytes and peta bytes of data on the Internet. And of course, things like number of back links to that page.

To those, following the areas of Search Engines, its pretty common knowledge, that the conventional Google-like Search Engines are no good for “high quality relevant discovery”. In fact they have been no good, for such information for a good 4 years or so, in my opinion. What we have now, is a situation of “relevant but random discovery”.

Let me explain, it with an example.

Try searching for “video cameras in India” and you get some results. And they all are relevant. But there’s no guarantee, that they are sorted in terms of a criteria, which you may want, e.g. sites having quality information about a camera. So I call this as a “relevant but random discovery” rather than a “high quality relevant discovery”.

As the information they get is still relevant, in some way, is the reason, why most folks are still happy to live with it.  And people are used to just getting by, by tweeking their queries, and getting some satisfactory enough result. The problem is that people don’t even know what they may be missing. Remember no body actually wanted a real nice search engine, when Google silently arrived.

Another thing, why no body sees a problem is that, when using the search engine just for navigation. For e.g. finding out “Java 5 TimerTask”. Its brilliant. You get precisely what you want in the first two results (Aside: they still have 32,100 results for that. That’s why I perhaps used the phrase ‘brute force’)

Was the situation, always like this and people didn’t know?

Certainly not. After the Google arrived in 1998, for some good 5-7 years or so, its PageRank algorithm worked very well. The algorithm works very well, if people don’t game the system. But, we have full blown SEO industry around the Search Engine. And despite Google’s efforts to keep the SEO clean. It’s simply not possible to do it. In today’s Internet world, it will be increasingly difficult to identify for a clean link to a site, to a paid (SEM’d) link. The links from social media, only further add to this noise.

So what’s the solution?

On your machine, how do you find a file. You often search for it, using the file system search. But you know, what file you are looking for. Think, the conventional brute-force search engine, will move more towards navigation, in which a person knows what he wants, and tries to find it.

So something similar will happen on the Internet. Ofcourse the person, doesn’t know which website to look for often, so he will ask his friends for advise. Wait a minute, did you say, ask friends, come on who has the time to ask, and then wait for a reply?

Well the answer is that the asking and replying will happen asynchronously. On all the social media, people are continously telling what they like and what they don’t and sharing various experiences. “This rose smells nice”, “This coffee is not so great” and “this travel site is so great” Or “this site doesn’t rock”. So some body has to just assimilate all these statements of expressions and churn them as replies when a question is being asked.

Several folks are already at play in this area e.g. quora.com – the arguments against it are that its a closed service, but that’s a different story. But there is far-far from a clear winner. Its possible, but unlikely, that the likes of Google itself, will totally transform themselves into a totally different kind of a search engine. Unlikely I say, is because, its not always possible to kill a cash cow. The conventional brute-force search engine is perhaps at the peak of money making curve, by the various Ad programs – Ad words and Ad Sense. So in such a scenario, will somebody be able to shake of the inertia and start from a clean slate. Possible but unlikely.

There were some efforts, which I was very excited about like blekko.com. But they appeared to be working on a conventional ‘brute-force’ search engine (of course on a better version of it), atleast until about a couple of years back. This was around the time when cuil (remember?) failed spectacularly. It will be interesting to see how they launch, in a post twitter/facebook world.

It will be interesting to see, who get’s there first, and importantly who gets it right.

NOTE: This blog has opinions and thoughts, which are personal of Khushnood Naqvi, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of 90di.

PS: Had written this piece a few months back, when blekko was yet to be launched. But shied away from blogging it here. Thanks to Vijay, Patrick, Shaurabh, Kiran and Abhinit for reading it. Since then the noise around search quality has only increased as seen in these blogs: Codding HorrorBlekko founderGoogle.

Travel Search is more ‘green’…!

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011
‘Green’ is the word in vogue, along with other words/phrases like ‘Carbon footprint’, and rightly so, whenever there is talk about eco-friendliness or lack of it.
So here is one simple thought to ponder. Travel Search is more ‘green’ …!
To complete the phrase:
‘Travel Search’ model is more ‘green’ than the Online Travel Agent (OTA) model.
The logic. Its quite simple. First lets define what ‘green’ means in this context. Green means being eco-friendly, which means doing things in a way, which is light on the environment. That is, in simple terms we can define it as: ‘Consume less and produce more’.
People who want to travel need to compare flight (or train) options before buying –  i.e. search the cheapest and the best flight (or train). So some kind of search on top of the Airlines sites and Railway sites, is required. Else the user will have to do the comparison on various sites themselves. Both the Travel Search model and the OTA model fulfill that need.
One thing which OTA also additionally provide to the user is booking. I contest, it is this aspect which makes it less eco-friendly to the entire flight booking eco-system. It creates an extra (larglely redundant) middle layer of providing the booking itself. Which the Airlines themselves do, very nicely.
In doing so, it adds a thick layer of actions, which are largely duplicated and can easily be performed by the Airline itself (Or by the Railways/IRCTC).
To meet this extra cost, it has to charge heavy commissions. So it adds significant cost to Air travel, by charging commissions often as high as 7-8%.
In addition, the OTAs charge their own cancellation fee (or a change fee), in case of cancellation or a change in itinerary. It also has to run call centers, since it does booking. Also it can come in the way of loyalty programs between the customer and the Airline (Some of them make it workable, but its not straight forward).
Last but not the least, all that spam, in the form of mailers, announcing deals and discounts, which are largely useless for you.
Now compare this with what ‘Travel Search’ does. It serves an essential function, of allowing travellers to compare flight options (or train options or both) and choose the best flight (or train or a bus). And doesn’t duplicate the function of booking, which the Airlines do equally well.
It costs less to the eco-system. The referrals paid to travel search players are typically just about 1/10th of the hefty commissions which the Airlines pay to the OTAs. (For this reason its less attractive to VCs, but that’s another story)
It costs less to build. Just a small team of may be around 10/20 people, who sit in a garage (and largely survive on Maggie noodles!) to build a nice and strong search engine. Which allows the users to search the best flight and book directly at the Airline.
Compare this with typically hundreds of employees employed by an OTA, largely to fulfill the additional function of booking.
But don’t the OTAs offer lots of deals and discounts? Yes they do. But in simple terms, it adds further to your average travel cost, as the discount and deals on may be less than 5% of all the bookings/routes, increase the cost of overall bookings. As they have to earn money, and somebody has got to pay for it. The deals and discounts, serve mainly a marketing purpose.
So Travel Search, costs less to build. And gives more value to the user – in terms of providing just what the user wants and then getting out of the user’s way. Less is indeed More – and Travel Search model is yet another example of that!
This is our honest opinion, and would love to debate this, and learn more about it. If you agree to this, then please spread the word about us and this model, to your family and friends (we don’t have the budgets for a TV advertising you see!)
Footnotes:
1. Travel Agents: We believe all the field travel agents (i.e. the ones having a physical presence in form a store, you can walk-in to), serve a very important need, and the above argument does not apply there. Majority of the folks in India, still purchase their travel offline.
2. OTA evolution: It will be unfair to not even mention a bit on the history of this Industry. In the pre-internet days, when travel agents in US had to do bookings for their customers, they relied on Global distribution systems (GDS) – like Amadeus etc. to do the booking. So in a way, the GDSes, used to manage the entire Airline seat inventory. The first generation of online booking sites, didn’t sort of look at the system, from a clean slate view, and just moved everything online –> Online Travel Agent (OTA). Travel Search is a clean-slate perspective, of looking at things overall. It has established itself in US, firmly, with the likes of Kayak. Now, in India, its in the process of establishing itself.
3. Disclosure: We allow users of our site, to compare, flight results from Airlines we show with OTAs. Also we get a commission from the OTA if a booking is done there. So in a sense, you may detect a shade of hypocrisy, in what I say, above.
But I have an explanation for that.  We do see that the majority of the bookings happen through the Airlines itself. Something like more than 95% of the bookings, we see, happen on the Airlines’ site. We give an option to the user, to catch any deals, which may happen at that point in time, which the OTAs do as part of their marketing.
So this blog post is about our world view, but we do accept the reality (of OTAs commanding a large mind share) and we try to make the best use of it. But we totally stand by what we say above, and believe that, it will serve the people better, if ‘Travel Search’ was the dominant model, rather that the ‘OTA’. Since Internet is also about removing redundancies, we believe ‘Travel Search’ is the model, which is going to survive and do well in the long run. Only time will tell…
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Patrick, Sanjeev, Abhinit, Rockey, Kalyan, Bharat, Vijay, Bal, Kiran and Iram for reading and reviewing drafts of this post.

‘Green’ is the word in vogue, along with other phrases like ‘Carbon footprint’, and rightly so, whenever there is talk about eco-friendliness or lack of it.

So here is one simple thought to ponder. Travel Search is more ‘green’ …!

To complete the phrase:

‘Travel Search’ model is more ‘green’ than the Online Travel Agent (OTA) model.

First lets define what ‘green’ means in this context. Green means being eco-friendly, which means doing things in a way, which is light on the environment. That is, in simple terms we can define it as: ‘Consume less and produce more’.

For the uninitiated: Travel Search Engines allow the users to search on their sites and for booking take them to the Airline site (or Railways/IRCTC). Whereas OTA sites give a search option to the user, and also make the users book with them.

Now lets go on and explore why Travel Search is more ‘green’.

People who want to travel need to compare flight (or train) options before buying –  i.e. search the cheapest and the best flight (or train). So some kind of search on top of the Airlines sites and Railway sites is required. Else the user will have to do the comparison on various sites themselves. Both the Travel Search model and the OTA model fulfill that need.

One thing which OTA also additionally provide to the user is booking. I contest, it is this aspect which makes it less eco-friendly to the entire flight booking eco-system. It creates an extra (larglely redundant) middle layer of providing the booking itself. Which the Airlines themselves do, very nicely.

In doing so, it adds a thick layer of actions, which are largely duplicated and can easily be performed by the Airline itself (Or by the Railways/IRCTC).

To meet this extra cost, it has to charge heavy commissions. So it adds significant cost to Air travel, by charging commissions often as high as 7-8%.

In addition, the OTAs charge their own cancellation fee (or a change fee), in case of cancellation or a change in itinerary. It also has to run call centers, since it does booking. Also it can come in the way of loyalty programs between the customer and the Airline (Some of them make it workable, but its not straight forward).

Travel Search is more green

Now compare this with what ‘Travel Search’ does. It serves an essential function, of allowing travellers to compare flight options (or train options or both) and choose the best flight (or train or a bus). And doesn’t duplicate the function of booking, which the Airlines do equally well.

It costs less to the eco-system. The referrals paid to travel search players are typically just about 1/10th of the hefty commissions which the Airlines pay to the OTAs. (For this reason its less attractive to VCs, but that’s another story)

It costs less to build. Just a small team of may be around 10/20 people, who sit in a garage (and largely survive on Maggie noodles!) to build a nice and strong search engine. Which allows the users to search the best flight and book directly at the Airline.

Compare this with typically hundreds of employees employed by an OTA, largely to fulfill the additional function of booking.

But don’t the OTAs offer lots of deals and discounts? Yes they do. But in simple terms, it adds further to your average travel cost, as the discount and deals on may be less than 5% of all the bookings/routes, increase the cost of overall bookings. As they have to earn money, and somebody has got to pay for it. The deals and discounts, serve mainly a marketing purpose.

So Travel Search, costs less to build. And gives more value to the user – in terms of providing just what the user wants and then getting out of the user’s way. Less is indeed More – and Travel Search model is yet another example of that!

This is our honest opinion, and would love to debate this, and learn more about it. If you agree to this, then please spread the word about us and this model, to your family and friends (we don’t have the budgets for a TV advertising you see!)

Footnotes:

1. Travel Agents: We believe all the field travel agents (i.e. the ones having a physical presence in form a store, you can walk-in to), serve a very important need, and the above argument does not apply there. Majority of the folks in India, still purchase their travel offline.

2. OTA evolution: It will be unfair to not even mention a bit on the history of this Industry. In the pre-internet days, when travel agents in US had to do bookings for their customers, they relied on Global distribution systems (GDS) – like Sabre, Amadeus etc. to do the booking. So in a way, the GDSes, used to manage the entire Airline seat inventory. The first generation of online booking sites, didn’t sort of look at the system, from a clean slate view, and just moved everything online –> Online Travel Agent (OTA). Travel Search is a clean-slate perspective, of looking at things overall. It has established itself in US, firmly, with the likes of Kayak. Now, in India, its in the process of establishing itself.

3. Disclosure: We allow users of our site, to compare flight results from Airlines with OTAs. Also we get a commission from the OTA if a booking is done there. So in a sense, you may detect a shade of hypocrisy, in what I say, above.

But I have an explanation for that. We do see that the majority of the bookings happen through the Airlines itself. Something like more than 95% of the bookings, we see, happen on the Airlines’ site. We give an option to the user, to catch any deals, which may happen at that point in time, which the OTAs do as part of their marketing.

So this blog post is about our world view, but we do accept the reality (of OTAs commanding a large mind share) and we try to make the best use of it. But we totally stand by what we say above, and believe that, it will serve the people better, when ‘Travel Search’ is the dominant model, rather that the ‘OTA’. Since Internet is also about removing redundancies, we believe ‘Travel Search’ is the model, which is going to survive and do well in the long run. Only time will tell…

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Patrick, Sanjeev, Abhinit, Rockey, Kalyan, Barry, Vijay, Birla, Gopi, Kiran and Iram for reading and reviewing drafts of this post.