By buying a travel guidebook publisher solely to bolster its local search content, Google risks both straddling itself with an unprofitable albatross and missing out on a way to differentiate itself from its rivals.
Google’s recent acquisition of Frommer’s has given rise to much comment about the “real” intentions of the Big G and what this means for other travel publishers. While it’s less entertaining than some of the theories floating around, for time being I’m willing to accept their stated rationale at face value: just another stepping stone to “provide a review for every relevant place in the world“, and thus a tactical move to bolster local coverage for the ailing Google+.
There are, however, two fundamental problems with the purchase and this goal that do not seem to have garnered much attention.
The first is the problem of content creation. Frommer’s claims “4,500 destinations, 50,000 images and 300,000 events“, but they leave unsaid the source of every one of those bits of data: their own printed guidebooks. Google thus has an unpalatable array of choices:
- Keep producing printed guidebooks and digitizing the incoming content as usual. This is clearly Google’s starting point, as they will be retaining Frommer’s print staff, but it’s also almost certainly a money-losing proposition: given the fire sale price of barely over 1x revenue, there’s no way the books are making money. With the overall travel guidebook market declining by 10% year and the new owner focused on entirely different things, a turnaround seems fanciful. Google will thus be looking to jettison them as soon as it can, which leads us to the next option:
- Stop print production, but keep the authors and editors around producing travel guides in digital form. Alas, this would only exacerbate the losses, as e-book and app sales make up only a small fraction of printed book sales and the actual printing is only a fraction of the cost of book production. This option seems thus very unlikely, and my money is thus on:
- Stop producing guidebooks in any shape or form, dispense with narrative content entirely and focus purely on points of interest. (This is what Zagat has always done.) It also means throwing any direct revenue model out the window, although it does keep their B2B arm Frommer’s Unlimited afloat. It will be interesting to see how much money Google is willing to sink into paying authors and editors to update those reviews, but it’s quite conceivable that the answer is “none”, in which case we end up at the final option:
- Fire all editorial staff and let the content decay. If the purchase is indeed purely a tactical ploy to temporarily beef up their reviews while they wait for Google+ to reach critical mass and start to create fresh, user-generated content à la Zagat, this actually makes perfect sense. Google doesn’t even need authors for the other half of their usual job, verifying practicalities details (addresses, telephones, etc), as Google has already mastered that process through other means.
If Google goes with the 3rd or 4th option, and I have hard time seeing them not do so, their second problem (or, rather, missed opportunity) will be the lack of content curation. By treating guidebooks as no more than a database in print form, turning them into a homogenous soup of atomic points of interest, Google is effectively conceding to compete on a level playing field with local search rivals like Facebook and Foursquare. All three now assume that users are searching for individual points, easily filtered on individual axes: “best five-star hotel in New York by user ratings”, “cheap Japanese restaurant in Melbourne CBD open for lunch” etc.
But a guidebook is not the same as a phone book: it’s supposed to contain a careful selection of the best places to go, arranged in a sensible way. Neither Facebook nor Foursquare can offer a sensible answer to real travel questions like “Funkiest bars in Brussels”, “Romantic day in Paris”, “Three-day hike in New Zealand”, whereas any guidebook about those places that is worth its salt can. As an engineering-driven company, Google has given things like this little thought simply because they are hard problems for artificial intelligence to solve — but using Frommer’s team of authors, it would be possible to augment the automated results produced by things like the Knowledge Graph to field hand-curated content as well.
If Google goes ahead and does this, then the Guidebook of the Future will be that much closer to reality and travel publishers will have a real problem on their hands. But I doubt it, and that’s why those publishers are breathing a sigh of temporary relief: one competitor less means a bigger slice of the shrinking pie for the rest.