Why Google Play Sees Complementary Roles for Travel and Local Apps

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A few taps is all it takes with an app to book travel arrangements or order dinner, and while those sound like vastly different services they can intersect in numerous ways, according to Jeena James, global head of travel and local for Google Play.

It comes down to a realization that even when making plans on a global scale, arriving at the destination brings the user back to the local level. That is the juncture where apps on Google Play can be mutually relevant for vacationers who want to find a private getaway and for people looking for new places to eat just around the corner.

James, who will be a speaker next month at Street Fight Summit, caught up with us recently to discuss how apps on Google Play can be contextual on multiple levels.

You head up travel and local at Google Play — tell us a little about how those two categories are similar and different.

I think of these categories as more intertwined and complementary. When you think of travel, it can be different things. For some people it’s commuting to work or going on business trips. For the majority of people it’s synonymous with vacation. We see more users not just going to a place for the sake of checking it off their bucket list. They’re looking at rich local experiences. It’s all intertwined. You don’t just travel; you try to experience it like a local and help out the local economy in some form or another. When you think of local — pertaining to a specific place or location — it’s so much more broad. It’s not just for traveling.

You could use a delivery app for food. You could book yoga classes. You could have a haircut appointment on another app and then you look up weather on another app. None of these have to be related to places you are visiting or traveling to. So local is a much broader area, even though it pertains to a particular location.

What I see are travel companies, especially traditional companies who are just focused on planning and booking, looking at offering more end-to-end experiences. It’s not just about traveling to a place—where do I go, how do I get there, where am I booking from? Once I’ve made my reservation, what is around that place?

More and more travel companies are thinking about how they can stay relevant when the traveler is at the destination. That’s where you see more end-to-end user interaction with local experiences and flavor being added. They’re either doing it all by themselves — you can book, you can plan, you can check in, you can open the door with your app, you can order in-room dining — or partnering with complementary, local apps. Local apps can standout based on how they can get you the best information about that area and what is most contextually relevant and location-specific.

Personalization and context become much more important when I think about local apps because when I want food delivered, I want to see providers who can deliver to my location. I don’t want to see someone who doesn’t. Those things become really important when you think about local apps. It’s important for local apps to stay contextually relevant and give you the best experience.

What are some of the lessons that local companies can learn from the way similar things are done for a travel audience?
When I think of travel, I usually try to use concepts around the users’ journey. The key elements are stages of that journey — dreaming, planning, booking experiencing, and sharing. It’s almost like a cycle. It can start when you are thinking about checking out a new town nearby or getting to work. Travel companies have invested a lot to figure out where the user is in that journey and place the most important, current information for them when they are looking for it. Over the years, they’ve mastered understanding where the user is and giving them the best experience for any place they want to go.

That can mean using machine learning and AI to figure out which set of results you want to show before the others, or where to offer customer service when someone is idle on the app or the site. You have these boxes that pop up saying, “Can I help you?” providing an assistant-like experience. That can be one of the lessons, understanding where the user is in their journey. People don’t travel every day, but even for those limited number of interactions, travel companies invest so much in personalizing the experience.

Local companies and services, you tend to use them more often, maybe a couple of times a month. There’s so much opportunity to learn about who that user is, where they have been, where they are going, and what kind of content they prefer. You’re searching for a salon, but are you looking for a salon that specializes in curly hair? That’s a different experience altogether. That’s something that local companies could learn from — where is the user in their journey and how can you surface the most relevant and personal information for them when they are looking?

Then there is obviously investing in where the demographics, like Millennials and Gen Zs, are. Gen Zs are growing; in the US they make up over 25% of the population with an annual buying power of $44 billion. They’re very comfortable planning any trip on the phone. They’re the ones growing in that space and care about local content. So for the local companies, how does your content look to those users, who are predominantly on mobile? How do you surface the content to them, and is it different from how you would surface content to other demographics?

Another thing I see is the social connection. When you think about what inspires you to travel to places, social platforms play a crucial role today. Many social platforms inspire people to get out of their comfort zones and seek more localized, personal experiences. Reviews are also very important, but images and videos play such a big role in inspiring people to check out another location. One person sharing is another person’s inspiration. It’s almost like a catalyst for making your travel plans real.

What types of apps are we seeing more of now within the category? What kinds of services are being offered compared with a couple of years ago?
Maybe a year back, there was a lot of attention on on-demand apps. On-demand grocery, laundry, even professionals who can help you with relocation. In different countries and markets, there are companies that are startups in the on-demand space, or are more locally relevant, or have local content in those markets. There are some apps that are global. On-demand deliveries from restaurants are in many countries. In certain markets, there are homegrown companies that are serving just their market or just a few cities in their country. There are more on-demand partners and apps coming up in these markets.

I also see payments options; there are some apps that let you pay cash in certain markets. You can give users plenty of options; you can pay by cash, cash on delivery, multiple debit card or credit card-led banking options. Payment options have a big impact on where people travel. Carrying foreign currency is not a big deal.

Another thing is voice-based actions. When you’re on the go, it can be easier to ask. One of the data points we shared last year was that 20% of the queries we see now are voice queries on mobile. That’s a number that continues to grow. Android has voice-actions API, which you can integrate with your app and have more app engagement.

Google’s investing in assistants; a lot of companies are. Assistant experiences are predominantly voice-based. Local has a pretty big part in those experiences, especially when it comes to voice-based actions.

What is Google Play’s role in facilitating this ecosystem?
Our area of focus is around helping developers be successful, whether it’s measured by installs, revenue engagement, or brand awareness. We focus on how you can optimize app launches, how we can improve app quality, and how we can improve their overall business. We understand that our developers care about contextual and personalized experiences. We’ve been working on tools and features that help them achieve those goals.

One of those tools is Awareness, which is basically seven different contextual and location-based signals in one API. You wouldn’t have to integrate with multiple APIs to get the same kind of information. You’d also be to understand what kind of experience you want to offer up to a user. When you know that the user is out for a run, has their headphones on — knowing that, do you truly think that sending a notification is relevant?

Joao-Pierre Ruth is a Street Fight contributor.

Join Google Play’s Jeena James and hundreds of other top local companies and brands at The Best Street Fight Summit Ever — a three-day extravaganza in Brooklyn on June 12-14. Click here to register now!