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SideStep To Add Cruise Search, The Vertical Search Opportunity
Rounding out its travel search offerings, SideStep will soon launch cruise search, powered by CruisesOnly, the premier cruise brand of Boston-based NLG. While I was surprised by this announcement as I think SideStep has a lot of other fish in the frying pan it needs to focus on, Jon Robison explained that “CruisesOnly is a full service solution for us. We are leveraging a partner. It’s light weight integration and doesn’t distract us from Air, Car, and Hotel.”
The question for SideStep and all the other vertical search players is still how to gain loyalty in a world in which everyone (ok, not everyone, but you get the picture) starts their search at Google or Yahoo. How does SideStep or Kayak gain loyalty and reduce dependence on the PPC engines? Is it by offering a one stop shop, complete with cruise search? Sure, that’s part of it and the cruise market is nothing to sneeze about (aprx. $13B according to PhoCusWright), but I’m much more excited about the company’s distribution partnerships content generation (user generated, expert editorial) plans
SideStep announced a deal with Orange, one of the UK’s leading portals, a couple weeks ago. As opposed to the wasteful Amazon deal which was rumored to have cost SideStep a pretty penny (or 100m pretty pennies), this deal was set up with a much more reasonable up front fee plus a revenue share on ad sales and bookings. This will be the model for SideStep going forward. In this hot ad market, there are plenty of publishers looking for more inventory and a deal with SideStep provides just that.
And then there’s TravelPost and hopefully other similar user generated content (UGC) initiatives. While SideStep is very happy sending travelers off to partner sites to book, SideStep definitely has ambitions to become a destination. By aggregating expert editorial content and user generated content, SideStep is heading in the right direction. This content at its core is meant to provide color to a potential traveler’s itinerary and to gently push a person to book, but in the meantime, SideStep has no qualms with racking up the page views and charging high CPM advertising dollars from big brand advertisers who want to reach a targeted audience. I expect SideStep to add hundreds of these type of pages, enhanced with TravelPost content, over the next year. The more UGC it develops, the more pages there are for the search engines to crawl.
Ok, but everyone understands this. So why does a vertical search engine like SideStep excite me? Because the GDSs lost their battle with the airlines this past year and the industry hit a tipping point in early 2006 when travel search engines gained clear acceptance from the travel providers as just another way to efficiently distribute content. The travel search engines now have to figure out how to go from aprx. 4m uniques/month (SideStep, Kayak) to 10m uniques/month. You’re seeing the foundation for that with these portal deals (similar to what helped PriceGrabber become a top shopping comparison engine) and content aggregation plays (I would love to see Sam Shank blow out TravelPost, head up additional content acquisitions, and create a network of SideStep travel blogs, vlogs, and of course, a travel wiki).
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