Microsoft's new Outings app aims to help travelers find their next destinations

Microsoft has launched Outings, a new travel app for iOS and Android. Designed by the Microsoft Garage Project, the app curates travel-specific content and images to help users find potential travel destinations.

“Whether you’re looking for a fun hike near town or planning your next vacation destination, often the hardest part of travel is just figuring out where to go,” writes Lainie Huston on the Microsoft Garage blog. “Outings makes it easier by presenting inspiration for your next adventure, curating high quality travel blogs and beautiful images to show the information — and sneak peek — you need to pick where to go.”

According to Microsoft, the app includes a “Discover” feed listing US locations, and a “Nearby” feed that surfaces content related to local sites. Users can keep track of places they’ve traveled, as well as save and share places with contacts.

“We look forward to users’ feedback from our launch, and we plan to actively respond to them and add several new features in the coming months,” says Microsoft Garage program manager Vimal Kocherla.

Microsoft said it is also open to partnering with travel and local content providers that want to promote their content within the app.

Bing's Travel Search & Kayak Favoritism Angers No One, While Google's Gets Headline Attention From WSJ

Bing’s not-so-newest push into online travel hasn’t begun to roil the industry, the latest example of where if Bing does something, no one cares, but if Google does it, it’s time for a Wall Street Journal story examining the potential evilness of the move.

In case you missed it, the Wall Street Journal has a story out about how Google’s travel results — added in September, rather than December as the story says, have upset (as you’d expect) rival travel search engines such as Kayak, Expedia and Orbitz.

Bing: Pushing Travel Search Against Google Since 2009

You have to get midway down into the story to find any mention of Bing doing exactly the same thing:

Microsoft’s Bing, which has less than a quarter of Google’s audience, also places its flight-search tool atop search results.

That’s all you get, too. There’s no mention of any of the travel sites being upset with Bing, perhaps finding this unfair or having gone on for literally years before Google did the same.

There’s also no mention that Bing has used having its own travel search results as a way to position itself as better than Google, an important fact in any debate on this issue.

Soon after Bing launched in 2009, the ads about its travel search began airing:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WP7xFODQeqI

From the ad:

You’re planning a trip. First stop, Bing. ‘Cause any search engine can help you find a plane ticket. But Bing, with Price Predictor, can help make sure you don’t pay too much.

To me, this seems pretty relevant. Travel search is an area where Google’s top search competitor, Bing, has repeatedly poked at Google being behind over the years. Indeed, when Bing launched, it effectively called out Google as not offering strong enough vertical search results in this area. From the Bing launch press release:

Microsoft’s research identified shopping, travel, local business and information, and health-related research as areas in which people wanted more assistance in making key decisions.

The current state of Internet search isn’t optimized for these tasks, but the Bing Decision Engine is optimized for these key customer scenarios.

For example, while a consumer is using Bing to shop online, the Sentiment Extraction feature scours the Internet for user opinions and expert reviews to help leverage the community of customers as well as product experts in trying to make a buying decision.

In Bing Travel, the Rate Key compares the location, price and amenities of multiple hotels and provides a color-coded key of the best values, and the Price Predictor actually helps consumers decide when to buy an airline ticket in order to get the lowest prices.

I’ve bolded the key parts here. This competitive battle seems just as relevant as concerns that travel search engines have with Google’s new travel search. It seems necessary background to provide. But that’s not given, even though the Wall Street Journal itself talked about this in July:

In fact, some analysts see Google’s move into travel as a direct reaction to the offerings at Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Some of Bing’s features, like travel search, “have put some pressure on Google” to innovate, wrote Douglas Anmuth at Barclays Capital.

Kayak: Do As I Said, Not As I Do To Others On Bing

As for who exactly is upset, only Kayak gets quoted with slams against Google. Kayak doesn’t have any slams against Bing, perhaps because it partnered with Bing in May to help it do exactly what it doesn’t like Google doing to other travel search engines.

Also not mentioned is how in March, Kayak’s chief technical officer dismissed concerns about Google entering the travel search space.

About The “No Links” Issue

It is interesting to read how Google isn’t linking to other travel search engines with the search tool itself, something it apparently promised to do but isn’t required to. From the WSJ article:

While Google wasn’t required by the DOJ to link directly to the travel sites, it emphasized that it would “build tools that drive more traffic to airline and online travel agency sites.” Competitors say that Google is now violating the spirit of that commitment.

Google acknowledges it has failed to make good on assurances it would link to the travel sites, but the company says it had no choice. “The airlines told us that they would not give us [travel data] if we provided booking links to” online travel agencies, Jeremy Wertheimer, ITA’s founder and now a Google vice president, said at an online travel conference last month.

He added that Google still wants to include travel sites, and “we’ll keep knocking on that door to see if things change.” A Google spokesman declined further comment.

To be clear, Google is still linking to other major travel search engines in its main search results. Links, as best I understand, just don’t appear in the travel OneBox at the top of the page:

Links do appear below the OneBox, just as they do at Bing, though Bing’s travel search box takes up far less room:

So Google is linking, just like Bing does, to other travel search engines. What exactly is, then, this promise that it’s not delivering on, which is a key allegation featured in the Wall Street Journal piece?

I had to dig back to find it here from this Google blog post of October 2010:

Our goal is to build tools that drive more traffic to airline and online travel agency sites where customers can purchase tickets. We also believe that giving users better ways to search for flights online will encourage more users to make their flight purchases online, which will create more overall online sales for airlines and travel agencies. Google does not plan to sell airline tickets directly.

Wanted: Free Links From Within Travel Search

If you take the new travel search feature as being a new “tool,” then yes, it clearly fails to drive traffic to them to allow booking, at least for free. That’s because when you actually do a search, and go to book, only direct booking is provided through the airlines:

In the example above, you can see how selecting the “Book” button only allows booking through American Airlines — and only because, as best I can tell, American is paying to have that happen (hence the ad being shown).

Now if you really want to be bothered about the Google tool, this is where you should get upset. When you hit the help pages about Google Flight Search, it doesn’t suggest that the only reason airlines appear is because they pay:

In some cases, we may be unable to connect you directly with a vendor to purchase your ticket and as a result, the Book button will be inactive. If this happens, you should repeat your search on the airline website, or, particularly in the case of a multi-airline flight, repeat your search with an online travel agent.

Potentially, only including booking links if being paid for them is a violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines on paid inclusion (see Google Experiments With Paid Inclusion & Does “Promoted” Meet FTC Guidelines? for more about this). It’s hard to say, because the airline’s route is listed without payment, so it’s not exactly a case of paid inclusion.

But more important, look here:

The first arrow shows what happens if (as I assume) an airline doesn’t pay to have the Book link enabled. You’re told to contact the airline directly.

The second arrow shows that the travel search tool does send traffic to the non-Google travel search engines. There’s an ad at the bottom of every page I do listing them. I assume they’re paying to be there, and if they don’t pay, then they wouldn’t show up.

Of course, for them to show up for free would be a nice boon to have. And for consumers, it would probably be nice as well, since the tool’s booking feature seems to be pretty weak.

At Bing, Kayak Locks Out Competitors From Free Listings

The booking feature at Bing is much more robust, but that’s pretty easy to explain. The results are all from Kayak:

To recap. Kayak gets quoted in a Wall Street Journal story upset that Google doesn’t link to it for free within Google’s flight search tool, saying that Google has an:

“explicit policy to intercept general search queries with their products,” and therefore, “their argument that they’re not engaging in anticompetitive practices doesn’t hold up to basic logic”

But when the same exact thing happens at Bing, except in favor of Kayak and only blocking Kayak’s competitors from being listed for free, that’s apparently OK. Or not, at least, worth a mention.

Search Engine & Transactions: An Industry Issue

The more that search engines start diving into providing direct transactions or being transaction brokers, especially where they might charge providers a fee through ads or by taking a share of sales, the more any publisher should be concerned.

But that problem isn’t a Google-specific one and shouldn’t be treated in that manner. Otherwise, potential abuses by Google get stopped but others are free to do the same.

Related Links

Google AdSense Radio Ads & Microsoft Bing Travel TV CommercialKayak Welcomes Google As Travel Search Competitor, With ITA Acquisition Still Under DOJ ReviewBing Travel & Kayak Announce PartnershipGov’t To Okay Google-ITA Deal After Google Agrees To Burdensome ConditionsGoogle Travel Search Takes Flight With First ITA Travel ProductGoogle Makes Flight Search Results Better Looking, More UsefulGoogle Experiments With Paid Inclusion & Does “Promoted” Meet FTC Guidelines?Google Launches Comparison Ads, Starting With MortgagesGoogle To Acquire BeatThatQuote.comGoogle Tests Its Hotel Finder As A New Comparison Ad Atop Search ResultsDear Congress: It’s Not OK Not To Know How Search Engines Work, EitherBing Bans Holiday Deals Sites, Including One By Group That Created Cyber MondayBanned Holiday Deal Sites Return To Bing

Bing's New Airport Maps Aim To Make Air Travel Easier

Finally, some good news for air travelers: Flying gets a little bit easier with Bing’s launch of detailed U.S. airport maps.

Much like the previously announced shopping mall maps, Bing’s airport maps take searchers inside the airport to see things like gate locations, stores and restaurants on each concourse, restroom locations and more.

Searchers will find the airport maps when they come across one of the 42 available U.S. airports on Bing maps. They’re accessible more quickly by searching for the airport name or code (i.e., SEA for Sea-Tac International Airport). And Bing has also added a new “Map” link next to flight status search results.

Here’s a look at how it works for Sea-Tac:

When you first find the airport on Bing Maps, it’s highlighted in blue and a mouseover introduces the new airport map (as shown in the image above).

As you zoom in, Bing shows details such as the proximity of various parking opportunities to the airline’s ticketing counters. That’s especially helpful at bigger airports with large parking areas. In a rush for your Virgin America flight? Now you have a good idea where to park.

Bing has also included a directory of the airlines and shops at each airport. Details of some shops are available when you mouseover their location on the detailed map above.

As I said above, there are currently 42 airports available on Bing Maps now, and Bing says more are on the way. You can see the current list on Bing’s blog post.

There are already a few mobile apps available that offer similar features, and Bing would be wise to port this search feature to its mobile apps/properties as soon as possible. For now, it’s a welcome addition to the desktop search experience.

Now, if only Bing could figure out a way to get us through those TSA checkpoints more quickly….

Bing Ups Ante In Social Search, Adds More Facebook "Likes" To Search Results

Bing is taking the next step in its self-conscious evolution from “search engine” to “decision engine.” Perhaps we could equally use the term “conversation engine,” as Bing begins to emphasize social content and even tries to enable connections between people through the deeper integration of Facebook and “Likes” data.

It isn’t news that Bing is integrating the Facebook data; that was originally announced in October last year. Rather the news today is that Bing is entering a kind of “phase II” of the process, doing some more interesting and potentially useful things with Likes.

According to Microsoft, which spoke to us about the changes and also has done a blog post, there are three components of the new, more social Bing experience:

Trusted FriendsCollective IQEnabling Conversations

“Trusted Friends”

Trusted Friends stands for deeper and broader integration of your networks’ Likes. The objective is to reduce noise and clutter by showing results that are preferred by members of your network. This was extensively discussed back in October during the original announcement.

Microsoft says that “Bing shows the faces of up to three of your friends that like a search result, offering a visual, virtual seal of approval from your trusted social network” (see  image below).

Search results are also being re-ranked based on Likes. Microsoft discussed this in principle last year when it first introduced Facebook data into search results.

Now, as a practical matter however, Bing is elevating Liked results if they’re associated with people in your network. For example, an hotel, news story, restaurant or brand that has been Liked by someone in your network and appears on page two of a search result or below it may now be elevated to page one. This is completely specific to your network and won’t affect others’ results.

The SEO implications of Likes are thus more obvious than ever, at least in terms of Bing.

“Collective IQ”

Collective IQ refers to the presentation of aggregated Facebook data: most popular sites, stories and so on. It’s the wisdom of the crowd in total and not just the opinions of your personal Facebook network.

Because people in your network may not have any experience with the thing you’re searching for the Collective IQ effort can provide a useful additional source of information or recommendations.

“Enabling Conversation”

The third category, which Microsoft is calling “enabling conversation,” is the most involved but in some ways the most intriguing aspect of all of this. Simply put Bing is seeking to enable people to quickly identify those people in their network who may be able to help them in making a decision or providing advice.

Bing is providing an expanded Facebook profile search capability with a longer bio, including details about your friends’ locations, education, employment and so on. The idea is to find someone who might be knowledgeable about a desired subject.

There are also vertical-specific features on Travel and Bing Shopping designed to help people interact around buying decisions:

Bing Travel Wish List: You can compare trips with friends on Facebook, get their input, suggest new destinations for friends, and learn more about a destination on Bing Travel.Friends Who Live Here: Bing will show you which of your Facebook friends live or have lived in the city you’re traveling to, so you know exactly who to go to for travel tips.Flight Deals: Bing will send you great deals on flights directly to your Facebook feed, for cities you’ve liked on Bing Travel.Shared Shopping Lists: You can build a shopping list and share, compare and discuss it with your friends on Facebook.

The Bing toolbar also now includes a “universal Like button,” which enables tagging of any site or page you visit to help create more social recommendations.

Google +1

Bing and Facebook’s joint announcement in October that Like data was coming to Bing SERPs put additional pressure on Google to accelerate its own social search efforts. Google introduced social search/”Social Circles” in 2009 but more recently introduced the potentially more significant +1 button in March.

Because Google has not been able to gain access to Facebook data it created its own version of the Like button, which it eventually hopes will rival Facebook’s across the web.

Last week Facebook struck back with a controversial anti-Google PR effort that many labeled a smear campaign. The exposure of that “whisper campaign” (about privacy and “Social Circles”) created lots of negative coverage for Facebook. That black eye will heal but the move illustrates how the stakes around social search have gotten much higher and the tactics rougher.

Related Entries

Examining Facebook’s “Smear Campaign” Concerns About Google Social CirclesJust Weeks Away, A Preview Of The Google +1 Button For WebsitesMeet +1: Google’s Answer To The Facebook Like ButtonGoogle’s Search Results Get More Social; Twitter As The New Facebook “Like”Bing, Now With Extra Facebook: See What Your Friends Like & People Search ResultsFacebook On Social Search: ‘We Want To Work With Everybody’

Bing Travel & Kayak Announce Partnership

In a post on the Bing blog made earlier today, Bing Travel and Kayak have joined forces, as the two travel search engines announced a formal partnership to provide searchers with more comprehensive results.

In the next few weeks (no specific timeline has been shared yet), Kayak will begin serving flight search results to Bing to give customers additional results for flights in the “U.S. from multiple cities, airports and airlines, giving customers access to a larger set of flight itineraries.”

The Kayak flight search data will supplement existing Bing Travel tools including Price Predictor, Flights Answers and more.

Bing Travel also made a point to include in the blog post the following statement:

[Bing Travel Supports Competition and Innovation – www.Fairsearch.org]

Bing Travel Now Offers Destination Comparison Tool

Some day, the McGee family is going to pack our bags and hightail it to Hawaii. We’ve never been there and would love to spend a week or two on the beaches, in the mountains, and enjoying the weather. But we have no idea which island to visit. Sound familiar? Maybe you want to to head to Australia, Ireland, or somewhere else but you don’t know exactly where to go for the best vacation fit.

Bing has a new tool that might help. Its destination pages now let searchers compare several destinations at once in a familiar side-by-side layout. Here’s what it looks like when you start to compare three national parks in the western US:

Depending on what data is available for the locations you choose, the comparison chart includes basic info, photos, hotel listings, local attractions, and weather. The data changes based on what you’re comparing. You can compare up to five locations at once, though only three fit on the screen without needing a horizontal scroll.

Bing currently has 315 destinations available, and offers various filtering options like “beach,” “bike friendly,” and filtering by geography. The data included in the comparison tool isn’t terribly deep, to be frank, and is probably geared toward the casual searcher/traveler right now. It’ll grow in value as more data and destinations are included.

As part of today’s announcement, Bing also says it has updated its hotel pages with deeper information including average rates per night and an indicator when current rates are a “deal” or not.

Bing Travel Adds Attraction Answers, Gives Destination One-Boxes

Following yesterday’s massive rollout of several Bing search enhancements, one of their new content features, Attraction Answers, is fully functional today. Intended to complement over 3,000 new destination guides for cities around the world, Attraction Answers also offers more details on over 60,000 tourist attractions worldwide, with approximately 20,000 attractions across the US.

The attractions data, as well as the destination information is being provided by Frommer’s, so in many cases, you’ll be given links to the official attraction site, as well as a link to Frommer’s guidebook page to those destinations and attractions.

According to Bing, Attraction Answers are a quick snapshot of attractions for a specific destination in the SERP, while Destination Pages are a deeper look into the local area that includes travel information such as flight search and weather, as well as videos, images and events.

In reality, Attraction Answers don’t seem to appear as part of Bing Travel at all. If you’re on Bing.com/Travel, and you’re looking for information about “Boston, Ma”, you’ll get redirected back to the main Bing web search, rather than redirecting you to the new “Destinations” tab within Bing Travel.

So at first, you’ll  see a nice snapshot of Boston travel information at the top of the SERP:

But you’ll notice that the ‘web’ results have travel related tabs. If you click on that “Destinations” tab, you’ll get an expanded view for Boston, Ma:

If users click on anything in the “Attractions” box, they go directly to Frommers. But, users who do a related search for “Things to do in Boston, MA”, you’ll get “one-box’ style results for both upcoming events (which is quite handy) and then further down, integrated “Attraction Answers”:

Now, if you click on any one of those Attraction Answers, for example “Paul Revere’s House“, you’ll be looking at a new set of Bing web results, with additional Attraction information, including useful data such as a link to Bing Maps, hours and official website URL:

The destination and attraction ‘one boxes’ are dynamically generated by the query, so the search experience and content can vary significantly by the information available. In the early planning stages, it might be very helpful to go down the path of many ‘attraction options’, as well as that quick glance at airfares.

Depending on the type of travel researcher, this may be helpful to many for inspiration. Others might get frustrated that it’s a constant loop, which often ends you at Frommer’s, which of course, does have some of the most comprehensive guidebook information.

But the feature is most useful when the query is more specific, and the SERPs present the quick one-box answers, perhaps more helpful right before a trip occurs or while actually visiting a given destination.

Also see our overview article on recent Bing changes announced this week, Bing Releases Huge Set of Upgrades: Maps, Local, Mobile, Travel, Image Search.

Bing Releases Huge Set of Upgrades: Maps, Local, Mobile, Travel, Image Search

At the Bing Search event in San Francisco today, Microsoft unveiled a dizzying array of nearly across-the-board updates and improvements for Bing online and mobile apps. Some are minor and some are more significant. Most of these upgrades and feature enhancements will be available starting today or later this month.

There are in fact so many things rolling out simultaneously that it’s a bit overwhelming. Accordingly in this post I’m just going to offer up an edited version of the information provided by Microsoft. We’ll explore selected features and products later in subsequent posts.

Facebook-related:

Like Annotations: Search results will now show which links on the main results page have been “liked” by a person’s Facebook friends.Social annotations: Bing is bringing “like” data into core search across all queries. Search results will now show which links on the search engine results page have been “liked” by a person’s Facebook friends. This feature will show what a person’s friends “liked” on the main results page and will be different for each user.

Local enhancements:

OpenTable will be integrated into the local search vertical, allowing people to book reservations from the restaurant details page in Bing.FanSnap will be integrated into the local search vertical, allowing people to purchase tickets to a concert or sporting event through the events details page in Bing.Everyscape integration: Interior Views on business profile pages will allow people to see inside local restaurants and businesses with 360-degree panoramic views. These views will be accessible from the local search results. This feature will initially be available in Seattle, San Francisco and Boston.

Bing Maps:

Bing Maps will feature stronger differentiation and contrast between major and minor city streets so streets “pop” out moreVenue maps provide detailed maps and directories of venues, such as shopping malls, airports, museums and college campuses, within Bing Maps.Improved Landmark Listings: Users now get contact information, related businesses, and landmark details immediately from the search for a landmark.Transit Routing: Transit directions will be available for the AJAX experience. Users can choose their desired departure time and choose among multiple routes with similar travel time. The initial cities in the release are: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Newark Metro Area, New York Metro Area, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver BC, and Washington DC.Map Interface: The new Bing.com/Maps experience allows rich features to be more accessible by all users. In this release, the Map Apps button and Gallery can be viewed in the Bing.com/Maps (AJAX) site – once a Map App is opened, users without Silverlight will be shown how to download Silverlight to access Map Apps.Map App Search: Adds a search box to find map apps within the app gallery.The left-rail of the AJAX site will now guide users to some of Bing Maps’ key features – directions, traffic, business lookup, and map apps – and helps map apps to be more discoverable within the core experience.

Mobile (iPhone):

Autosuggest: Bing intelligently narrows and refines restaurant and movie searches by suggesting query strings to help people plan the perfect night out.Bing Vision: Bring an object into the [camera] viewfinder, hold it still and Bing will detect text and present a highlighter tool to select words for a search. If the object has a barcode, Bing will instantly return product results. Search for a nearby business listing by pointing your camera at a landmark.Check-in: Share your current location with friends and family via Facebook, foursquare or Windows Live Activity Stream.iPhone Apps: Surfaces iPhone apps in search results, when relevant.Plans: From the Bing homepage or a local search result, people can plan a night out and share the plan with friends via Facebook, who can comment or join the plan.Opentable and Grubhub integration: With the integration of Opentable and Grubhub into Bing for Mobile, once you find your restaurant of choice, you can reserve a table on OpenTable or order takeout from Grubhub without leaving the Bing app.Real-Time Transit Predictions: Real-time updates for Boston, San Francisco and Seattle allow commuters to see if transit options are on schedule, early or delayed, with predictions for arrival times.Reminders: Create a “to-do” list and set reminders to receive alerts when near a specific location.Enhanced StreetSide: Helps people orient themselves in unfamiliar places by stitching together and panning across street-level imagery of businesses, addresses or landmarks.

Mobile (Android):

Search Widget: expands beyond the ability to search contacts, apps, audio files or the Web and includes ability to search third party apps that register to be searchable.Share Command: Share content with friends using any loaded app that can accept and share content (images, URLs, etc.).Opentable and Grubhub integration: With the integration of Opentable and Grubhub into Bing for Mobile, you can reserve a table on OpenTable or order takeout from Grubhub without leaving the Bing app.

Travel:

Flight Summary: Displays an instant set of airfares as users enter flight details such as cities and dates. This provides people with an approximate cost for their trip without having to complete a full search, and allows people to see alternative travel options that could help save money or provide a better value.Flight Answers: Flight search options have expanded to include Flight Answers, which utilize flight search and top deals. Users can type “I want to fly to Paris next January” and find a form pre-filled with January dates, or try “fly SEA to SFO on Dec 9 returning Dec 12” to find precise flight information. Users can also construct queries around one-way, non-stop and airline-specific requests.Destination Pages: Bing’s new destination pages pull together all the key information on a city, saving you time and energy: flights and hotels, images, attractions, events, maps and a weather overview.Attraction Answers: Bing attractions now features 60K attractions Worldwide, ~20K attractions US.

Image search:

Bing’s new image search organizes images in a more intuitive way and brings back additional categoriesCollage Answers: Richer instant answers across entertainment verticals including music, movies, TV and Games.

Entertainment:

Landing pages for movies and television shows will now include organizational tabs to allow people to explore more detailed information such as trailers, reviews and showtimes.Extended TV listings and episode guides will be integrated into search results, along with TV clips and show information.

Whew . . . Lots of this stuff is really useful and “cool.” The challenge for Bing and Microsoft is to make ordinary users aware of it. Map Apps, for example, are really interesting and engaging but they’ve been “hidden” behind the Sliverlight wall and not well promoted by Microsoft. Now the company is bringing some of that experience into the non-Silverlight version of Bing Maps.

Conceptually almost all these changes and upgrades are intended to make good on the notion of Bing being a “decision engine” and help people put together necessary information or take the next step in a process or conduct a transaction directly on the site or mobile app. As I said, we’ll drill down on some of these features later in more depth.

Postscript: See our follow-up pieces on some of these announcements:

Bing Releases Version 2.0 Of iPhone App.Bing Expands Use Of Facebook ‘Likes’ In Search ResultsBing Improves Image Search With Tabs & Page PreviewBing Travel Adds Attraction Answers, Gives Destination One-Boxes

Bing iPhone App Adds Flight Price Predictions & Better Maps

Bing announced they have released a new version of their iPhone app that has better travel and mapping features.

The travel feature now takes advantage of their Farecast acquisition, where you can now get Bing flight price predictions on your iPhone. The price predictions let you know if you should buy or wait to buy a specific airline ticket.

The second update is about making the maps on the iPhone app easier to read and see. The backdrop information now pops up, the font size has been increased, added a nearby feature and easy map switching.

Here are some pictures:

For Travel Planning, Search Engines May Not Be Your Best Destination

It’s that time of year when many of us turn to the internet for information, advice and maps to help plan a getaway for some rest and relaxation. Many people start with search engines to help them find travel related sites. Others seek out maps to help plan routes or check out street level images of hotels, restaurants and attractions. Still others turn to social rating and review sites, hoping to benefit from the experiences of others rather than relying on marketing hype from travel service providers.

There are a ton of great resources out there to help you research and plan your holiday. But there is no single, comprehensive source that will give you everything you need to know. And some sites with some really excellent resources are sadly lacking in tools or information easily found elsewhere.

This is the first of a two part series looking at the best travel search resources on the internet. I’m going to start, naturally, with the three major search engines. Of the three, just Bing and Yahoo have prominent and rich travel verticals (but don’t count Google out—more on its apparent plans in the travel space later).

Next I’ll look at the online versions of popular travel guides featured prominently at your favorite bookstores. Like their print kin, these are generally rich with information, photos, maps and advice. Some leverage the interactive potential of the web, offering tools, customization, mobile apps and more. Others are essentially online brochures.

I’m purposely avoiding the major online travel agencies like Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, Orbitz, Kayak and others. They’re useful sites, but their primary function is to either sell you a travel product or refer you a seller’s site. Rather, I’m going to focus on sites that either help you search for travel information, or help you plan and assemble an itinerary independently of how you intend to travel.

So let the journey begin.

Travel planning with Bing, Google & Yahoo

Many people almost reflexively begin travel planning with the major search engines. And why not? All three offer good mapping services—in fact, Hitwise ranks Google Maps as the #1 travel site with a 15% market share, nearly double the share of #2 Mapquest and 5 times third place Expedia.

But as useful as the major search engines can be in helping you plan a trip, they all have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to travelers aid.

General travel queries

For a query like “duluth vacation,” each search engine offers a very different set of results. Both Bing and Google results for the query “duluth vacation” (Bing, Google) skew toward heavily SEO’d property and rental sites, with a few links to information resources. Both also offer a local map and easy access to local search listings, as well as a set of suggested related searches that can help you refine your query. Yahoo’s results are a bit broader, including links to more info from Yahoo’s travel vertical, Trip Advisor and the Vacation Rentals By Owner website.

Bottom line: If you’re just starting your vacation planning, general search engines can help you get a good initial “lay of the land.” But if you have a good idea of where you want to go you’re better off going directly to one of the travel planner sites I’ll be reviewing later this week.

Using maps for travel planning

For a long journey, it’s useful to have detailed driving directions, overhead and street-level images to help you get a sense of place, and particularly if you’re traveling in urban areas, real-time traffic info. All three major search engines have very good and usually accurate (careful, though! not always) maps at Bing Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Local Maps (this is a link to the beta version which I think is better than the current service).

Of the three, I prefer Google for driving directions, primarily because it has autosuggest enabled, making it easy to select different variations of keywords for your query (though Bing and Yahoo have autosuggest for web search, they don’t offer it for maps). Google also offers alternative routes for some trips. By default, all three mapping services look for the fastest, most direct route to a destination, which in most cases is what you want. But if you’re more interested in a scenic route, especially for longer trips, you’ll want to experiment with adding cities or landmarks as waypoints between your starting and ending locations.

Arguably the biggest difference between the three is in the print versions of your itineraries. Each offers a map of your journey, but renders step-by-step directions differently. Bing’s are visually rich, with road sign symbols, visual turn indicators and nice total miles/time markers for each step. In addition to the map of your complete journey, Bing also includes smaller maps of your beginning and endpoints. In the list of directions, Google offers road sign symbols and visual turn indicators, but the layout isn’t as easy to read as Bing’s—for some, an important difference when you’re simultaneously driving and trying to read directions. Yahoo’s driving directions are the most spartan, but it also offer options for beginning and end point maps. Here are sample driving directions from each of the three—click on the links to see the complete list:

Bing map & directions: Newport Beach to Brooklyn

Google map & directions: Newport Beach to Brooklyn

Yahoo map & directions: Newport Beach to Brooklyn

Bottom line: Each of the major search engines’ mapping functions are useful, with just a few variations in features. Which one you ultimately use will likely be more determined by your comfort factor than due to differences in functionality or accuracy.

Search engine travel verticals

At the moment, just Yahoo has a fully-fledged travel vertical with its Yahoo Travel property, with comprehensive booking, research and planning tools. Although positioned as a vertical, Bing Travel isn’t as comprehensive as Yahoo (Bing does aggregate travel articles from other sources and publish some original content, though it isn’t easy to find). However, Bing does offer some excellent and unique fare and rate comparison tools that help you find good deals on travel—it just lacks the guides and other tools that Yahoo offers.

What Bing does that no other travel site does is attempt to predict when to buy, when to fly, and where to stay based on a huge volume of airfare and hotel rate data it processes every day.

At its most basic, you can enter two cities and the dates you want to travel, and like most travel sites Bing will present you with a list of airfares, hotel offers and links to book online. But Bing takes this a step farther, and also tells you if this is the best time to make a booking or not:

If Bing suggests that you wait, when exactly should you book? To find out, click the “Flexible search” link on the menu bar:

Re-run your flight search, and you’re presented with three options: a map, showing your route, a graph, showing you when to travel, and a grid, showing options when you vary the length of your trip. To determine the best time to buy if you have fixed dates, select the graph:

This shows a chart of predicted prices over the coming month for your itinerary, based on historical data and other factors (such as holidays, major conventions or events happening in your destination city, and so on). Note: you’ll need to be careful here, as the chart shows the dates when predicted fares for specific dates should be lowest, not the date you should purchase a ticket. Airline fares constantly change—what this graph shows you is a probable trend in fares, not exact pricing. You’ll need to think about other factors like early purchase discounts when making your purchase decision.

If you have some flexibility with your travel dates, you’ll get another interesting view of predicted prices based on the duration of your stay mapped with suggested departure dates for your trip:

Notice the more than $400 dollar difference if you simply change the dates and duration of your trip! Using these tools, it’s possible to save some serious coin when making your reservations, usually without doing anything other than following Bing’s recommendations.

If you’re looking for a hotel, Bing will also look at historical prices and will offer an opinion about the rate a particular hotel is offering:

Although Google has sent a clear signal that it intends to become a big player in travel with its recent purchase of travel reservations software company ITA, as well getting the team behind travel guide site Ruba to “join” Google, for the time being its only pure travel related services apart from maps are flight tracking and currency conversion—just type any U.S. airline and flight number (united 929) or monetary conversion (100 USD in ZAR) directly into any Google search box.

Bottom line: Bing’s travel vertical offers unique planning tools, and some useful information (if you can find it). But in general, if you’re looking for travel guides, route planning tools and other resources to help you with your trip, you’re better off with Yahoo travel or one of the other travel planning resources I’ve written about in The Thirteen Best Online Travel Guides.

Moving forward

General-purpose search engines try to offer reasonable results regardless of the type of query. But to get really useful travel information, you’re almost always better off seeking out specialized resources. Read on for an in-depth look at the web’s most useful travel planning resources:

>> The Thirteen Best Online Travel Guides