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AOL Launches Pinpoint Travel

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AOL's new Pinpoint Travel is an ambitious effort to provide truly comprehensive travel search that consumers can trust to provide the best options, not just inventory a travel provider or agency is anxious to sell.

"Pinpoint travel is the culmination of a year of work and research, trying to understand the behavior of users in the travel space," said Jim Riesenbach, senior vice president and group general manager of AOL's search and directional media group.

Risenbach says that most people use three or more sites when making travel decisions due to the widely different offerings at different prices found at online travel agencies and travel provider web sites. There's no single site yet available that consumers trust to provide preferred options at the best price—and that's something Pinpoint Travel aims to offer.

"The challenge for us is to provide a meta search experience for the travel environment bringing together all of the options into a single environment that helps users walk through the process of filtering their query to the most logical choice," said Risenbach.

Pinpoint travel searches a broad array of both online travel agencies and travel provider sites, including over 100 web sites, 550 airlines and 85,000 hotels. Every major airline is participating in the program, and even most low-fare airlines including Jet Blue, Independence and others are on board—the one exception being Southwest, which traditionally has never partnered with anyone else. All major hotel chains other than Marriott and Hilton are also in the program.

Pinpoint Travel is powered by Kayak. Why this particular partnership? AOL travel vice president and general manager Jeffrey DeKorte cited the experience of the Kayak management, which includes the founders of Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity. AOL took a minority investment in Kayak as part of the deal. "Because it was a startup we could get in early and influence their business model," said DeKorte. Kayak developed the back end for the system and did some of the front end work, as well.

Pinpoint Travel is the latest offering from AOL in its efforts to move beyond a "gated community" of content and provide more services via the web. These initiatives kicked off last September with the launch of Pinpoint Shopping. In November, AOL relaunched Singingfish, the multimedia search site it had purchased a year earlier.

AOL's biggest push came in January, when the company introduced its new AOL Search which we reviewed favorably in the SearchDay article AOL Search: Playing In the Big Leagues Now. Just a month later AOL rolled out its local search service.

Pinpoint Travel currently searches for flights and hotels in the continental U.S., but the company plans to aggressively expand both the number of travel products and locations searched over the coming months, offering searches for cars, cruises and ultimately packages that combine the best deals from multiple providers.

Slick, Intuitive Interface

Like Pinpoint Shopping, Pinpoint Travel has a clean, uncluttered home page. Enter a place name or airport code into the search form and a drop down box appears prompting for travel dates, times and number of passengers. Once the search begins, a new "while we're looking" form appears prompting for additional preferences.

AOL calls this a "rapport" box "where we have a conversation with a customer and learn what their preferences are," says DeKorte. Here you have the opportunity to customize your search, indicating whether this is a personal or business trip, preferred departure and arrival airports and airline you like best.

There's also a feature that's unique to Pinpoint Travel that lets you specify your most important concern: Lowest price, flight time, trip duration, airport or airline. While other online travel agencies or search sites offer these sorting options, Pinpoint Travel takes your preferences a step farther by using your preferences to find "your best match."

On a search result page, this best match is presented at the first result. Beneath that is another good match that might cost more but uses your preferences to recommend an appealing alternative. A full list of all flights that match your criteria follows.

Clicking the "more info" button provides full flight details, with options to book the flight directly with an online travel provider or agency.

AOL provides multiple advertising and promotional opportunities for travel providers and agencies. On the right side of search result pages are display ads, designed for agencies. Beneath that is a space for other partners that can't or don't show up in the main results.

Beneath these are text-based contextual ads sold by Kayak, with backfill from Google sponsored links.

AOL also has a pay for placement program for hotels. DeKorte says that despite being a pay for placement program, relevance is still paramount—nobody shows up in hotel results unless they meet requirements that the consumer has specified. Paid placement results are clearly labeled with a "preferred listing" label that offers more information when you mouse over it.

Hotel results are also supplemented by other sources of content, such as photos, maps, amenities, content from AOL City Guides and so on. I found the consumer ratings on hotels to be useful, with a 1-10 ratings scale, reviews and "description tags" that rate "vibe," staff and hotel property with adjectives such as tacky, pompous, modern and so on.

Pinpoint Travel is an impressive debut for a travel meta search engine, and given AOL's current commitment to search its likely this service will improve rapidly over the coming year. We're planning a week-long look at the various travel search options available on the web, and we'll certainly revisit Pinpoint Travel as part of this series.

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