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KAYAK adds features to compete with Google

People on vacation at the beach.  Eleftherios Elis/Getty Images

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There’s a good chance that you’re reading this from a cabin or beach house: An estimated 46 million Americans traveled last Fourth of July. And expectations for travel numbers this year are just as high. That means sites like KAYAK are seeing some serious digital traffic. The company has been adding innovative features, like allowing customers to search for deals with emojis. Below is an edited conversation with Steve Hafner, co-founder of KAYAK:

Ben Johnson: How does KAYAK work as a search engine in concert with Google?

Steve Hafner: We have a very close working relationship with Google. We get a lot of consumers looking for flights that originate on Google. But we don’t actually get too much information from them directly from doing business with them. What we do see from Google in terms of data is when we spend money on Google buying ads — they will help us identify the right audience. 

Johnson: I know that Google travel is a thing now. Does that complicate your relationship with the company?

Hafner: Google is thinking about self-driving cars, the Android operating system and Gmail. They don’t actually have their best minds on the travel problem. They have a product, and it’s getting better. But KAYAK is far ahead and we remain committed to staying far ahead.

Johnson: You get a lot of data on how and when people are looking for flights. What do you do with that data?

Hafner: We do two things: One is we try to personalize the search results. If you’re looking at Spain, Greece may be a good alternative for you. It might be cheaper and you can do similar things there. The other is we try to provide context that help people make smarter travel decisions. If we observe that you’re looking for a trip for a particular date and destination, but it’s actually going to be cheaper a week later or a week earlier, we’ll suggest that to you.

Johnson: You guys are offering lots of new features. You’ve got integration with Amazon Echo, Slack and Facebook Messenger. Can you talk about how you imagine KAYAK in five years?

Hafner: We were the leaders in the travel category in launching on Alexa, we were first on Apple TV and first on Google Home. I think where we’re going with it, particularly on Alexa, is to actually complete a transaction. The whole idea is to marry old school travel agent capability with new technology. What’s great about travel agents is you can pick up the phone and talk to them and they work on your behalf. What sucked about it was they were human and they liked to sleep and they weren’t available 24/7, which KAYAK is. With the rise of AI we can marry the two.

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