Google Hotel Finder Experiment

Last week amidst the noise of changes in the Place’s layout, Google noted  that  they would be “Integrating some of the great information that’s been buried on Place pages into your web search experience across all Google platforms“. While Google doesn’t talk much about their thinking or the future, when they do, I have learned that you can take them at their word. They have in fact quickly started this process of projecting data from within Places more broadly, resulting in its higher visibility and an increased liklihood of being seen. They are putting more photos from Places into the branded One Box in the main search results and have started showing coupons from Places in their mobile Shopper app (OMG will coupons finally make their Phoenix like  re-appearance after 4 moribund years?) .

The Google Hotel Finder experiment is yet another example that they are taking buried information from Places and Maps and experimenting with making it more visible. In the process they are making search results more engaging and interactive, demonstrating their move from being strictly a search results provider to using search to generate useful content that will attract and retain users. More users, a longer time on the site and a fresh way of looking at previously buried content will obviously also provide additional ways to sell more ads.

Rather than the standard Google approach of the single search box and their educated guess as to what searchers want, the Hotel Finder interface, in very un-Google like fashion, provides a more faceted approach to finding exactly the information that a user is looking for. The choices allow for a great deal of granularity of pricing, relative pricing and quality.

If the broad, single field geo search does not return the appropriate geography, the user can drill into the map and literally outline the appropriate neighborhoods themselves via interactive, draggable boundary lines. The map view provides a heat mapped representation of the most popular areas.

The interface allows a user to build repeated queries with slightly different parameters and save the results into a “short list” of choices. Thus if you wanted to compare hotels in two or three totally distinct non-adjacent neighborhoods, say the Upper West Side, Tribecca and Park Slope, a user  could create a custom view of hotels from which to choose and then share the view via URL with another.

More details about a given hotel, a Places view if you will, with a very attractive layout can be seen by clicking on the hotel of choice. The user is presented with an array of photos, review summaries and the owner description. It seems to reflect a new, thoughtful design sensibility on the part of Google.

Of course, it is not just a view of content but offers the option of booking the hotel via their still secretive hotel booking tool. All in all it is in impressive experiment with a subtle transactional nature. It is both more polished and definitely better looking than most Google experiments. It is very slick and offers an interface that could be easily adapted to restaurants, bars, florists and hair salons (to name a few) and of course to mobile.

If this experiment is any indication, the future of search is local search and it is an interesting one. With the acquisition of ITA and Google’s obvious and long standing desire to move into the hotel booking market, this experiment shows how Google is thinking about both the data and the market. Many have explained the recent changes as a reactive response to anti-trust complaints. It could equally be explained as a proactive measure that would allow Google to be in a more competitive position going forward as they compete more directly against the likes of TripAdvisor and Yelp.

The Google Hotel Finder experiment is not just search as we have come to know it but search as interactive content that has the ability to achieve serendipity in both interaction and results. And of course in a way that makes the sale.

Google Code-in Winners Arrive at the Googleplex

Earlier this month the Google Open Source Programs Office hosted the Grand Prize winners of the Google Code-in contest, a contest designed to introduce pre-university students (age 13-18) to the many kinds of contributions that make open source software development possible. Students worked on many types of task including: writing or refactoring code, documentation, translations, outreach/marketing, quality assurance (testing), conducting research, training, and user experience research. Students earned points for each task they completed, with the top 14 point accumulators winning a trip for themselves and a parent to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

Day 1
Upon their arrival in the San Francisco Bay area, students had their first meet-and-greet dinner at their hotel near Google. Many students had worked with the same open source organizations so they had ‘seen’ each other in chat rooms, on IRC, and on group lists but this was the first time the students actually met one another. The bonding began right away as students quickly started moving tables together as more students arrived so that all of the students could talk to each other.

Day 2
Students and parents spent the next day at the Googleplex. The morning began with an introduction by Google Code-in Program Manager, Carol Smith, congratulating the students on their achievements and giving them a talk on Google Summer of Code, our worldwide program for university student developers giving them stipends to write code for various open source software projects.

Next, the students were treated to a talk by Alan Eustace, Google Senior Vice President of Knowledge. Alan discussed the evolution of search and where we go from here.

Three engineers in our Open Source Programs Office, Shawn Pearce, Junio Hamano and Dave Borowitz, chatted with the students about their roles at Google, their work in open source and specifically with Git.

Lilli Thompson, Game Developer Advocate for Google, discussed her role at Google and her experience as an engineer in the gaming industry.

Lunchtime at Google’s largest cafe was next on the agenda followed by a tour of the Google campus. One of the stops on the way was the picturesque front lawn of Mr. Android, complete with all of his releases: cupcake, donut, eclair, fro-yo, gingerbread and honeycomb. Perfect place for a photo op….

…then on to the Google onsite store to pick up some fun schwag to take home to friends and family.

When the students arrived back to our conference room they were welcomed with large plush bug-droids, compliments of Dan Morrill and the Android team. Dan chatted about Android and took questions from the students and parents.

Jutta Degener discussed her job as a Software Engineer working on the Borg cluster management system.

Jeremy Allison, co-creator of Samba and Open Source Programs team member, engaged the group in a lively discussion about why open source development is important to the world and the important role these students can play in the years to come.

Chris DiBona, Manager of open source at Google, encouraged the students to continue working on open source software development as they move into university. He also discussed the importance of open source software at Google and more history on the Google Summer of Code program. Then it was time for the awards ceremony for these amazing students. Chris DiBona presented each student with their engraved, very substantial (ie. heavy) awards.

We wrapped up the day with chief Java architect and Open Source Programs Office team member, Josh Bloch, running through a few Java puzzlers with the students.

Day 3
Students spent the next day of their trip in San Francisco enjoying a behind the scenes tour at the California Academy of Sciences complete with a planetarium show. To have energy for their next adventure, the group filled up on chocolate ice cream and banana splits at Ghirardelli Chocolate shop. Then the parents and students spent 2.5 hours on segways touring around Fisherman’s Wharf and the North Beach neighborhood.

The students traveled to Northern California from 8 countries: Austria, Brazil, Canada, India, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Turkey, and the United States. This group was a great representation of the talented students around the globe interested in open source software development.

The students left all of us in the Open Source Programs Office feeling lucky to have met these rising stars in the open source world. We hope to see them again in Google Summer of Code (once they are old enough) and at future open source events around the world. We’re sure this is not the last we’ll hear of these bright, hardworking, humble, gracious young adults.

The New Google Calendar Appointment Slots

Places and similar products have slowly been moving towards becoming a transaction environment. Last November Google rolled out, on a limited basis, a hotel booking feature. In December, Bing introduced a restaurant reservation system on their Place page equivalent. This spring when Google added rich snippet events to the Places page, they integrated the ability  to easily add those events to a user’s personal calendar.

Google Calendar Appointment Slots On Monday Google rolled out appointment slots for Calendars. This feature allows you to not only publicly make your appointment slots visible to the others to see but also allows other Google Calendar users to book a segment of your time. BusinessInsider pointed out that the feature will very likely be a big hit with students looking to schedule a meeting with a teacher.

But as reader @brazil_83 pointed out to me that is likely just the beginning. He noted that it “seems like Google [is] getting close to providing scheduling for more complex activ: spa, golf, restos – anything social”.

Clearly this appointment slot feature is a critical piece of infrastructure. When viewed in light of the Places hotel bookings and the event/G calendar integration features, this puts Google one fairly short step away from adding an appointment feature on your Places page for a whole raft of business related activities from massages to scheduling your dish washer repair.

Every time a consumer touches a Place page is an opportunity for Google to insert themselves in the local sales process. This new capability, when (if?) added to Places, is one that arguably could remove friction in the local buying process, increase Google’s supply of local (time) inventory information and provide a perfect nexus for additional revenue for Google.