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Speak and it shall be understood

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaHow one hummingbird may help all travellers fly.



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Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Fake hotel booking sites are out to grab your credit card details

Google believes it now "understands" better what you really mean

HOW often have you keyed in "Bali spas" or "Bangkok hotels" into your search field only to find yourself mired neck deep in frenzied sales pitches from just about every BestRate.com east of the Suez? If you're an average traveller shopping around for options, a simple two-word search will land you squarely in the thick of an online fish market with booking engines, hotels and scalpers screaming for your custom.

This is for two reasons. First, most people online are trying their best to sell stuff rather than explain what the stuff is that they are selling. And second, even a super search giant like Google, which dominates the web, cannot “understand” search requests. Its mathematical algorithms simply run through its database of stored words and phrase combinations to toss up the "best" results, albeit in nanoseconds.

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With so much sales inventory online, the odds are it will favour "booking” information over "brand" information. Think of it simply as this: Hotel A has one excellent website. Hotel A also has perhaps 10,000 worldwide retailers, each with their own website. So when you search for Hotel A, the referee points in the direction of the most noise – the 10,000 retailers. In mathematics, as in politics, it is a numbers game. And therein lies the rub.

Most intelligent species will start their enquiry with research and background checks. This is how expensive cameras, laptops, and cars, get sold. Discerning people trawl for professional reviews and brand comparisons. Price is an important driver but, for quality products, it enters the equation much later. No one starts his search for a Rolls-Royce by moaning about the cost and frantically seeking a Groupon coupon.

When arranging that perfect beach resort wedding you are not immediately searching for the cheapest deal to get it over with, unless you're the frazzled father or a besotted ex. You are looking for the spot that will bring back this moment in perfect high definition to plague you for the rest of your life on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest etc. Ah well…

Top-drawer resorts may refer to their product as an "emotional luxury" item. It's an intangible. It’s aspirational. It’s the stuff of dreams. It’s not a dollars and cents click-me-quick item. And, for the life of them, search engines cannot get their heads around that.

{With long-tail searches accounting for over 90 percent of the total volume, Hummingbird attempts to extract the meaning of the request rather than just the key word string...

Now Google has bravely ventured where no search engine has gone before to launch its latest algorithm, Hummingbird.

What Hummingbird is attempting to do is extract the meaning of the request rather than just the key word string. Google has finally acknowledged something that has been understood for years. Online surfers are increasingly frustrated and this has become evident in long-tail searches that now account for over 90 percent of all queries. People add on words and quotation marks and all manner of clever stuff to cook a verbal stew they hope will lead them to the answer. Sometimes it works. Oftentimes it doesn't.

For “discerning” travellers (and yes, hotels still love this term though it is debatable what exactly is so discerning about messing about on TripAdvisor feedback from kids and I-want-a-free-room blackmailers), research comes before retail. And Google has heard your long-winded complaints as you search for the "best downtown business hotel in Bangkok close to shopping, fun kids’ stuff, and a sexy girlie bar in a hidden alley that my wife will never discover".

When this magazine was launched in January 2003, people said we were insane. They were right. It was insanity to release highly researched 8,000-word articles free on the worldwide web for everyone to copy and cannibalise. But it was and remains the only way to reach an information hungry audience that has abandoned print. Like radio and television, the web is a free information highway, and demanding pesky log-ins and fees and new passwords is simply an open invitation to cyber road rage.

The web in its infancy was driven by mathematical whizz kids with no notion of design or typography or the purpose of publishing. They didn’t comb their hair and they couldn’t tell a Mona Lisa from a Masala Dosa. It was an awful medium, ugly, cluttered, slow, and guaranteed to kill any brand that dared venture out. Sales "distribution" thrived because it did not require a pleasing landscape or a sneeringly smart Trajan Pro font. Later, ugly blue text links crammed onto pages morphed into the powerhouse eBays and Amazons and Alibabas of this world. Then came beauty. Today's websites – many former Ugly Ducklings – are often masterpieces of design.

The web has become the place to build your brand because only by doing so can you sell your brand. Google's Hummingbird is a great leap for mankind and weary travellers, and in the right direction, as it starts attempting to intelligently "interpret” the online chatter. Hummingbird will find more meaning in queries, set a context, and will be more mobile friendly with easier conversational (spoken) searches. This marks a sea change in Google's approach and is far bigger than the incremental information-sorting steps presaged by Caffeine, Panda and Penguin, the earlier search algorithm tweaks.

At some point when you search for "Siberian vixens" you may find just that. Not just lovely Natasha – and her extended family – all in bikinis, egged on by a web-crazed vodka swilling babushka. The good news for travellers, especially the discerning kind, is that at some stage in the not too distant future, Google will know that if you type "Bali spas" you are actually asking, "What are my spa choices in Bali?" If you were looking for price you'd say so. Right? We'll find out. Let us know about those vixens.

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