Is Google a worthwhile marketing tool for airlines?

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Carriers worldwide are spending an increasing amount of their marketing dollars on Google. ­

Clickair chief executive Alex Cruz has a proposition for airlines around the world using Google for marketing: form a user group to discuss how to optimise the industry's growing relationship with the search engine giant and make sure it does not become too powerful. "Google is becoming bigger. It's becoming harder to deal with," Cruz says. "They say the price of this is this much and there are no alternatives."

The chief executive of travel distribution software supplier Datalex, Cormac Whelan, agrees the potential power of Google "is definitely something" to be concerned about. "There are always rumours that Google will buy one of the large online travel agents. That will be real game on," Whelan says.

Cruz, who was an Accenture consultant before joining Clickair in 2006, reckons airlines worldwide are now paying a few hundred million dollars annually on google.com. He estimates some carriers now rely on Google keywords and ads for 25-30% of their bookings.

Majority share

Monarch e-commerce manager Ian Chambers acknowledges 35% of the carrier's bookings come via search engines, with Google accounting for the vast majority. Monarch now spends about $1 million per year on Google. "Google dominates our pay-per-click search spend, but Google dominates the search ­market," Chambers says "A lot of people are conditioned to use pay-per-click brand ads."

Aer Lingus corporate affairs director Enda Corneille says the carrier pays to sponsor 36,000 keywords on Google in 15 languages. "It's very cheap. It's around 20¢ per customer," he says. "One of our focuses over the last year has been pay-per-click."

Corneille says he is not concerned Google is getting too powerful and when asked about Cruz's call to arms he says Cruz should have other more pressing issues to worry about. "It pays. It gets you your clicks," Corneille says. "You need to manage it not be afraid of it."

JetBlue vice-president of planning Marty St George says JetBlue has also been using Google effectively for years and does not see it becoming a dangerous monopoly. "We don't see it as a double edge sword at all," he says. Adds Chambers: "We're not worried about it."

Emirates vice-president of e-commerce Theunis Potgieter says it is clear Google is now playing an important role but it is too early to know whether it will become too powerful. "We still need to make our assessment," he says. "Google has become an important part of every airline in terms of its online advertising and search engine marketing strategy."

Potgieter adds airlines need to think carefully about how to maximise their Google spend because it is "an art" to determine "what works on Google and what doesn't".

Chambers says Monarch also has found certain keywords are much more effective than others. He says Monarch has experimented with dropping all their sponsored keywords but quickly went back to Google after noticing a significant fall off in bookings. About half of Monarch's search engine-driven bookings come from paid search engines, while half come from natural search engines.

In exchange for sponsoring keywords, airlines are placed at the top of the search results and can provide a sentence that can be tailored to promote sales in certain markets. Google also sells banner ads and targeted ads to airlines, which go to web surfers that meet a certain profile. It also is actively marketing to airlines its custom search business product, which helps customers on airline websites such as monarch.co.uk navigate and find what they are looking for on websites. Google is also believed to be working on several products with potential application for the airline industry, including desktop tools. Google declined to be interviewed about its offering to the airline industry, saying it only comments on its custom search business edition and not any of its online marketing products.

Cruz says Google employees are the centre of attention these days at travel industry shows. He says he has trouble conceiving what the online marketing world will look like for airlines in a few years but sends his marketing people to conferences in the USA with orders to ask lots of questions, particularly of Google. "They have the potential to significantly influence the way online business is conducted," he says.