A flying start to 2013 travel searches
January... never the cheeriest month, is it? Thoughts naturally turn to new challenges and escapes; whether in the world of work, society or health ... and, of course, which holidays we'll take to balance the gloom of the season; whether right now, or as a motivating prospect.
Google has been well-prepared for this, using several updates in 2012 to improve the way it handles users' travel queries.
Its blog, Inside Search, has also hinted that more is to come in 2013. This is likely to include increased support for UK travellers and other nations around the world, as at present Google's services are mostly geared towards US residents.
So, what's on offer - and how is it better?
Google Hotel Finder
Google Hotel Finder was formerly a basic search option using check-in and check-out dates, like many other hotel booking websites - but now details nearby amenities and includes reviews by Zagat; the respected and well-established company it acquired in 2011 to boost its Google+ Local network.
For example, searching for Manchester, United Kingdom delivers results including The Radisson Edwardian, The Midland and The Lowry, all of which have been scored out of Zagat's traditional 30, based on guest reviews and critical assessments.
Hotels are listed on the left of the window while a map appears on the right for easy navigation; and selecting a hotel reveals detailed information presented in tabs: Overview, photos, reviews, location and rooms (inclusive of prices and availability). This can be closed to return to the map.
Google Flight Search
Google Flights began in September 2011, following the company's acquisition of ITA Software earlier in the year. It allows travellers to buy aeroplane tickets online, by presenting third-party results in a similar way to travel websites such as Expedia.
A new innovation named Flight Explorer enables the comparison of multiple destinations and multiple days by displaying live prices; while other improvements include the listing of baggage fees beside each flight option, advice about which flights offer Wi-Fi faciities and the ability to quickly compare business, first-class and economy options. Detailed travel itineraries are also catered for.
Though destinations outside the US can be selected, the service currently only allows journeys to begin at US airports. With its international status and online omnipotence, it's easy to forget that Google is still at heart a US company and therefore tends to try its features on home soil first. Considering the nation's size and social spectrum, it's a pretty good testing ground - but Google Flights does seem to be dragging its feet a little on rollout, considering it is now well over a year old.
Opportunities for businesses
As with all social networks and travel websites, it pays for businesses to ensure they have a presence - and that it is optimised, well-presented and accurate.
In Hotel Finder, for example, venues should regularly check how they appear in the form of official publicity information, star rating, address details, map location, prices (and deals) and photographs.
It is also possible for venues to place themselves higher by paying for a sponsored position - as in other Google facilities.
Many travellers may still lean towards popular sites such as Expedia, TripAdvisor and Laterooms, but as Google's listings become increasingly populated with information, they will also become more visible and therefore an important factor for businesses wishing to maintain a strong public image.