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Online comparison sites move beyond price

Originally created as bare-bones comparison-shopping tools, next-generation meta-search sites  are now letting users refine their searches through the filter of relevant intelligence.
Meta-search sites continue to improve and make it easier for users to search for, prioritize and customize results., for example, now lets users narrow their hotel searches to specific city blocks.

Six to eight billion — according to Yen Lee, a former Yahoo! manager and now president of Internet start-up, that’s approximately how many travel-related searches are conducted in North America each year on the Web’s major search engines.

Unfortunately, there’s no comparable data on the results of those searches. Some, no doubt, set the stage for happy travels; others, for nightmare experiences. And it’s all but certain that some led potential travelers to throw up their hands at the information overflow and the difficulty of extracting the significant from the spam.

Help, however, may be at hand thanks to developments at several leading meta-search sites. Originally created as bare-bones comparison-shopping tools — meta-search sites aggregate price data from multiple sources — sites like and are now letting users refine their searches through the filter of relevant intelligence.

Making tracks for the mainstream
According to Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst with Forrester Research, meta-search sites account for approximately 12 percent of the online travel market. That’s far behind the big online travel agencies (Expedia, etc.), but it’s expected to grow because the meta-sites don’t charge booking fees. (In most cases, users book directly via the Web site of the hotel, airline or rental car company they select.)

Industry observers expect meta-search to get another boost now that the two biggest players in the game, and, have joined forces. The companies, which merged in December, handled 34 million searches in January, a total that would make the pair the eighth largest player in online travel, says Drew Patterson, VP of marketing. “Those are some pretty material numbers,” he notes.

Not surprisingly, the companies will benefit from each other’s areas of expertise. SideStep, it’s worth noting, owns, a hotel-oriented site that offers news, deals and user-generated reviews. Kayak, meanwhile, recently revamped its Fare Alert service to allow users to monitor fares via a variety of parameters, including timeframe (upcoming weekends or specific months), number of travelers and region (e.g., New York to Europe or Chicago to the Caribbean).

At the same time, says Patterson, the merger will raise the profile of meta-search in general, which will, in turn, attract more mainstream travelers: “This will be the year when meta-search begins to have more presence as opposed to being used by travel geeks.”

Content, context and customization
Other meta-search sites have also upped their offerings recently., for example, recently added international flights to its fare-prediction service, while now lets users narrow their hotel searches to specific city blocks. And Yahoo! Travel has moved its Web-crawling FareChase feature front and center, giving it equal billing with the site’s more traditional, Travelocity-powered system.

Meanwhile, has announced a major redesign that lets users customize the content they see when searching. Users can activate individual modules (currency, current weather, etc.) that are automatically updated with appropriate content based on the destination searched. The idea, says CEO Beatrice Tarka, is to “offer content with context, to let users decide what’s most important to them.”

The company is also updating its natural-language search feature, which lets users type in more general requests to receive a range of results. (For example, if you enter “San Francisco” and “surfing” on the Activities page, it will return options from Hawaii to Rio de Janeiro, along with comparable airfares.) The next version, set to launch in March, will go even further, analyzing previous searches to come up with alternative suggestions. Says Tarka, “It will bring more of a discovery angle to choosing vacation destinations.”

The right trip at the right price
Finally, consider the newest kid on the meta-search block,, which should probably be called a meta-research site. Currently in private beta, it’s being built on the proposition that finding the right trip is as important as finding the lowest price.

To that end, the site aggregates more than 20 million traveler opinions (articles, blogs, user reviews, etc.) from 1,000-plus Web sites and parses them so that other travelers can filter the information based on their own unique preferences. “We’re taking the organic world of travel information,” says Lee, “and personalizing it for users.”

The key to the system is what Lee calls its “travel ontology,” a fancy way of saying it analyzes how words relate to each other. For example, he says, “’My daughter loved the pool’ maps differently than ‘the pool was nice.’” Multiply those relationships exponentially, filter the results through your personal preferences (e.g., romantic, thrill-seeking, pet-friendly) and the site will return reams of information on the most appropriate hotels, resorts and activities.

For now, the site covers only California and Hawaii, but it will likely expand before it goes live, adding more destinations, more filtering options and, naturally, a meta-search booking tool. “Meta-search based on price alone has been done,” says Lee. “We have to go beyond that to grow the business.”