Google makes no secret of its focus on mobile users. At the beginning of 2018 it rolled out mobile-first indexing and with it an entire ethos of mobile-first prioritization to reflect the fast-changing preferences of its user base. By comparison, online travel has always been at the tail-end of mobile optimization: a relatively high-value product coupled with the prevalence of legacy systems and attitudes has typically meant hotel websites in particular have skewed heavily towards prioritizing the desktop experience. Indeed, Google’s VP of Product Management for Travel Richard Holden himself admits that Google's travel offering hasn’t yet fully taken up the ‘mobile-first’ mantra: “travel has been a little slower… many people are more comfortable [booking] on the larger screen of the desktop.”

The multi-session, multi-device nature of travel booking has seen Google develop different features for different stages of the booking process. Richard Holden again: “We see users come to Google very early in the funnel… and sometimes very late in the funnel. They touch Google throughout their travel planning process, and we think we can do a better job at helping the user pick up that research where they left off at whatever time they come back to Google.”

Rather than shoehorn a mobile-first attitude onto a product that doesn't respond to it, Google has worked to optimize their travel platform for a multi-device shopping process. In today’s post, we’re looking at a representative example of a mobile-desktop divergence in Google’s travel product: the Room Booking module.

'Select a room' vs 'Similar hotels nearby'

When users run a hotel search on Google from a mobile device, there’s the option (if the hotel or related OTAs are participating) to expand the Google Hotel Ad search result and see images of available rooms and their rates under a 'Select a room' header. Currently this feature appears to be exclusive to mobile. For a thorough overview, Mirai published a great rundown of the Room Booking Module when it first appeared a few months ago.

While we’ve seen something like this previously on desktop via the Hotel Ads on Google Maps interface, it seems to have been replaced (for now) with the ‘Similar Hotels Nearby’ panel. The two features are similar in presentation in terms of their image and pricing placement, but rather than showcasing rooms within the property, ‘Similar Hotels Nearby’ presents users with alternative hotels with a similar ADR to, and within a small radius of, the searched-for property. 'Similar Hotels Nearby' is available on both mobile and desktop.

Why the difference?

This division of functionalities reflects Google's understanding of searching and booking behavior across desktop and mobile devices. Desktop users are typically more open to multi-tab, comparative browsing, so it makes sense to offer up as much choice as possible to users willing to spend time clicking between different options. Mobile users who make a branded search are seemingly more disposed to make a quick booking decision; instead of seeing options for other hotels, they need to be able to quickly compare different room types and prices.

Importantly, Google's 'Select a room' feature is exclusively linked to Book on Google. Instead of redirecting to a hotel or OTA website to complete their transaction, users can start and finish their room booking process without leaving Google. Beneath each room type panel, users have the option to 'Reserve now'. Tapping this link takes you to an online booking channel powered by Google (but which makes clear the advertiser with whom you are transacting).

At the moment, fewer OTAs are involved in the auction for the Room Booking Module than on the general Google Hotel Ads metasearch. That leaves a great opportunity for hotels to appear in a high-conversion channel for a potentially lower-than-average bid price. However, it does mean you need to be connected to Book on Google, which not all providers can offer - and some hotels actively choose not to participate with for various reasons, including cost of acquisition.

The Room Booking Module and its specific placement in the mobile user journey is just another example of Google learning from the millions of hotel transactions it tracks every year in order to cherry-pick the most effective features of both OTAs and metasearch engines and incrementally push up its own conversion rates. Like it or loathe it, Google's travel ecosystem is evolving at an incomparable rate - and for hotels without the capacity to develop and iterate their own mobile experience, taking advantage of features like RBM could be key to regaining ground from mobile-friendly OTAs.

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