Google flight search engine lifts off
Soars into antitrust airspace
Google has launched its flight search service, five months after sealing the acquisition of flight-data outfit ITA Software.
Unveiled on Tuesday with a blog post, the service is a means of searching airline schedules. If you type "flights from Chicago to Denver" into Google's main search engine, for example, a "Flights" link (Google.com/flights) will appear on the left-hand side of the page, and from this link, you can search flights by date, price, duration, and airline as well as by arrival and departure points.
Previously, Google provided fairly static flight schedules when you typed a flight query into its main search engine. The new service is more of a separate search engine.
The service will roll out over the course of the day, but initially it will only be available in certain US cities. "Just over five months ago, we welcomed ITA Software to the Google family," the company said. "Since then, our engineering teams have been working closely together to build new travel tools that provide faster, more flexible, and more useful results to online travel searches. We wanted to give you an early look at some of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far."
Some are convinced that the new service will make your life easier. "Google is adding a new airline schedule feature to its search site today, making looking for flights potentially as easy as googling yourself," CNet says in the opening sentence of its story on the new tool. And that may be the case.
But this attitude highlights Google's ability to use its search engine monopoly as a way of expanding into vertical markets – a phenomenon at the heart of the ongoing antitrust investigations into the company's search and ad practices.
Foundem – one of the vertical search companies that complained to the EU about Google's practices – originally took issue with the way Google entered the price-comparison market, accusing the web giant of favoring its own price-comparison service over competing services. And now it has new competition from Google. Foundem is also in flight-search business.
In a document recently posted to the web, Foundem compares Google to a supermarket that offers its own branded products.
"The closest parallel to the competitive relationship between Google and its vertical search rivals may be that of a supermarket whose own-brand products compete with branded products. But, for this to be even roughly comparable, we would need to imagine a supermarket as dominant as Google (in reality, no supermarket enjoys anything like this level of dominance)," Foundem says.
And, the company says, you also have to consider an added twist. "When Google directs users to its own price comparison service (whose pages also contain sponsored links), Google grows its revenues (whether or not it also charges merchants a commission for any resultant sales). On the flipside, every time Google directs a user to someone else's price comparison service it is forgoing those revenues, as well as any further opportunities to extract revenues from that user's visit," the UK-based company says. "By contrast, the incentive for a supermarket to favour its own brands may be less acute, because a supermarket makes a profit from everyone else's brands as well as its own."
Google "favors its own brands", Foundem says, through its Universal Search setup – which, by definition, inserts links from vertical Google services into its primary search engine results – and through discriminatory search penalties against some competitors. At the moment, only the old static Google flight schedules are inserted via Universal Search – but presumably, Google will eventually replace them with its new vertical search engine.
When Google agreed to acquire ITA Software, various flight-search outfits banded together to protect the deal, and though the DoJ launched a lengthy investigation of the pact, it eventually let it through – with some restrictions. But it seems that the DoJ probe merely addressed the flight market, and not Google's overall ability to enter new markets through its primary search engine. This is the subject of the FTC's antitrust probe, and its sister investigation in the EU. ®
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