The Meta-Search Paradox and Value of Online Aggregators

Priceline is an online hotel booking service with inventory that is also directly available from Marriott, Intercontinental, Hilton, and many others. Priceline receives a commission for every room reserved, a commission that is less than the profit that the hotel reaps from the booking. However, in online search ad auctions,  Priceline’s ads are somehow able to appear higher than the ads of any of the individual hotels. Considering that Priceline makes less money per booking, how is it able to pay more per visitor than the hotels?

AdWords is Google’s search ad marketplace and is the most prevalent ad auction online. It uses a formula to determine ad position based on the following inputs: advertiser cost-per-click (CPC), a “quality score,” and the click through rate (CTR) of the ad for a particular search term. The quality score is based on ad relevance (to the search term), landing page experience, and expected click through rate (CTR).

Assume that the auction formula inputs for a Priceline ad and a Hilton ad on a search query for “hotel room in Boston” were the same – same CTR, same ad quality, etc. It seems impossible for Priceline to be able to outbid Hilton in this case, but paradoxically, they they are able to outbid individual hotels on a huge variety of keyword queries.

Suppose a simplified scenario where there are only 10 hotel providers in Boston: Hilton, Marriott, Starwood, and 7 others. Each of the 10 have 10 rooms available for a particular night that a user is interested in. Imagine a user who clicked the Google Ads of each individual hotel before making a decision. Each of the hotels would have to pay for the user to click their ad, even though 9 out of 10 got no benefit. Thus, each one has only a 10% chance of attracting this person’s business, given that he is committed to buying a hotel room in Boston. If a hotel has to pay Google for 10 ad clicks to make one room sale, those ad payments start to add up and eat into the profit margin of the room sale. In contrast, an aggregator like Priceline who has deals with each of the 10 direct players, will have 100 rooms in its inventory. It has a much higher chance of actually gaining a conversion since the consumer is likely to find exactly what they are looking for on Priceline. The aggregator has a higher conversion rate and therefore it can pay more than a direct advertiser to attract a user to its site, despite a lower profit margin for a sale.

In addition to this structural benefit that aggregators benefit from, users often appreciate aggregators because they simplify the buying process. The CTR of an aggregator and is often higher than those of direct players which, coupled with the higher purchase conversion rate, means that aggregators can bid even less and still maintain the top ad positions in search. Aggregators are valuable to users as they minimize the need to shop around across a highly fragmented industry. It is much easier for the user to compare amenities, prices and location in one place. The breadth of listings gives consumers the further confidence that they are making an informed decision.

Furthermore, aggregators can seem like an independent third party and thus foster trust. A user that visits a hotel’s website directly, isn’t likely to have full trust in the reviews that are displayed since they might be biased. A third party that aggregates review information is likely to be more trustable. This isn’t to say that a third party is necessarily trustworthy, but rather that consumers are more likely to trust their reviews and/or recommendations.

You might ask why the hotels would continue to support this structure and fund a channel that undercuts their margins. The answer primarily lies in the fragmented nature of the marketplace. The aggregators would only be threatened if a large majority of hotels in an area colluded to pull their contracts. It is not in an individual hotel’s best interest to turn off this marketing channel and they are unlikely to be able to come to a deal with their direct competitors. The result of this fragmented structure is that the aggregators continue to thrive online.

This model works in a surprising number of fields. Flights, hotels, rental cars, apartments, home services, online courses, and many others.

In addition to providing deep breadth of listings for their users, aggregators can further differentiate themselves by helping users in the decision-making process. This is becoming especially important as online consumers seek the simplicity associated with being served an answer on what to do by a trustworthy expert. Unfortunately, some companies exploit this user desire, by, for example, promoting products that bring in the highest affiliate commission rather than the ones that are truly the best.

There is an opportunity for new companies in many fields to step up and take their role as quality raters and custom recommendation seriously. For example, the company is focused on getting real expert input on specific products and recommending products in all categories on the basis of the combination of expert opinions and public reviews. Similarly, users will value, the well-researched science-based supplement recommender.

As the online economy continues to grow and evolve, the role of online aggregators will also have to adapt if they want to stay competitive. I believe that the aggregators will further differentiate by creating more value by providing complimentary services such as deep research and trustworthy recommendations.

By: Liza Yermakova