Waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, Hafner says he is much more concerned about how Kayak, the leading travel-metasearch player in the U.S., would navigate Google's souped-up role in facilitating hotel transactions than about the maneuverings of rivals like TripAdvisor, Fly.com, Bing Travel or Mobissimo.
"Google is by far the biggest source of travel information for consumers," Hafner says.
That point was confirmed for me last night when I drilled down a bit into what Google has been doing on the hotel front.
When I performed a Google search for Chicago hotels and then selected Hotel Allegro reviews, I accessed a link that produced:
• The property location in Google Maps;
• Overviews of the hotel and property details;
• Some 619 user reviews and ratings of Hotel Allegro from the likes of TripAdvisor, Priceline, HotelGuide and others;
• 50 photos and videos from the hotel itself and other content providers;
• 683 Web pages about the property, and
• Advertisements from Expedia, DealBase, Travelzoo and Hotelsmax.net.
The "look and feel" of this compilation is not very attractive, but that can be improved. And, with so many consumers launching their trip-planning through Google searches, you could argue that Google already is the most comprehensive "hotel website."
With speculation rampant about Google's next move in travel, Hafner believes he knows where Google is headed.
"Google doesn't care about flights," Hafner contends. "Hotels is where they'll enter."
He continues: "Hotels are a comparatively easy entry point and yield the highest margin for Google."
I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the Brave New World of Google Travel 3.0, arguing that Google may continue to build out its apps, from flight links to Google Maps, to put a heavier stamp on its travel offering, now that Bing Travel has raised its profile with its prominent integration into Microsoft's Bing search engine.
Hafner's theory on Google's evolution in travel is consistent with that line of thinking.
As it already does for products ranging from books to digital cameras, Google might display hotel price points in default displays and then advertisers could use Google Checkout to drive hotel transactions, Hafner says.
"So imagine a list of OTAs [online travel agencies] and suppliers, with Google Checkout to help facilitate conversion," Hafner says. "Pretty powerful."
And, Google already has another app, Google Base, featuring a data API, which perhaps could accommmodate hourly hotel pricing updates, Hafner says.
Some have argued that Google, with its market cap of $143 billion, doesn't worry about relatively little things such as Bing Travel.
But, I think with travel being such a large part of Google's advertising business, Bing's deft integration of Bing Travel in Google's own backyard has been an embarrassment to Google.
So, how would implementing hotel pricing -- and this could merely be Google's opening shot in travel-inventory pricing -- impact Google commercially?
"My guess is that it would be cannibalistic since many advertisers run their SEM [search engine marketing] campaigns on a same-session loss," Hafner says. "And, Google's opportunity to increase search share is relatively small (since it already owns 70 percent of queries in the U.S.) But, they'll probably need to move to this approach anyway to counter Bing etc."
In travel, as in other sectors, when Google bobs, the entire industry weaves.
There are lots of issues to sort out.
How would this impact the hotel-direct channel?
Who would be the winners and losers?
"It's an open question what role players like Kayak would have in a new ecosystem like this," Hafner says.
Google, by implementing hotel pricing (and who knows which travel segment after that), could certainly be disruptive.
Why would consumers navigate to TripAdvisor to read hotel reviews or to Kayak to compare prices, if they could do it all and get a more comprehensive look through Google?
Why go directly to a hotel website or to an online travel agency if you can get user reviews, maps and pricing on Google?
I received an inquiry from a business publication in Japan several months ago, asking me for answers when unfounded rumors were swirling that Google was going to launch "another Expedia."
Don't look for that sort of scenario. Google isn't going to become a travel agency.
Instead, there is plenty of room(s) for Google to expand its reach as a hotel kingmaker.