Each year, Google publishes a travel study that shares key insights about US traveler shopping behavior.

This year’s report, the 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision, has yet to be published on its market research website Think with Google. A spokesperson says the study will appear there soon.

In the meantime, Tnooz has obtained a copy.

The report has some eye-opening findings that could help digital marketers plan their campaigns and help travel companies allocate their spending more optimally.

The poll spotlights a declining use of mobile apps as a starting point for travel planning and booking. It also notes that nearly half of US travelers now use multiple devices to research and book a single trip.

The survey in spring 2014 was of 3,500 US leisure travelers who have traveled at least once for personal reasons in the first half of 2014, plus 1,500 US business travelers — defined as people who have traveled at least 3 times for business in the past six months.

Claim: Search engines not losing to apps

Google’s travel study says that leisure travelers are turning to search engines as their first step in trip planning. This use of search engines appears to be coming at the expense of the use of apps.

The poll saw an increase in the use of search engines in May and June 2014, compared with the same period a year earlier.

For overnight accommodation research in 2014, 24% of the travelers surveyed typically kickstarted their online travel planning at search engines — up from 18% the previous year.

In comparison brand sites and apps saw a decline in usage as the first place they plan trips at online — from 37% in 2013 to 31% this year.

For rental car research, branded sites and apps lost ground, while search engines gained in popularity as a travel tool. Only 38% of US travelers typically first planned trips at car rental brand sites this year, compared to 44% last year.

But the broader context needs to be kept in mind: Search engines remained less popular than apps as the way to begin planning a rental car booking, with only 24% of travelers turning to search engines first this year. What’s new is that search engine usage was up from 16% a year ago.

What about researching plane tickets? The starting point for airfare research for 45% of US travelers was a branded airline site or app in 2014. That’s a fall of four percentage points from a year earlier.

In contrast, search engines gained five percentage points in popularity as a starting point for air travel research, rising to 18%.

Cruises saw a similar drop in usage of branded sites and app, and a relative gain for search engine usage, among US travelers.

So, search engines remain significantly less popular than apps as a way to start travel planning and booking. But the balance appears to be shifting — with search gaining at the expense of apps.

Surprise trend

Declining app usage flies in the face of the conventional wisdom.

Many companies have prioritized app development over mobile website development. The industry has also hyped same-day mobile booking apps such as HotelTonight and Hipmunk.

One caveat to note about the travel study, sponsored by the search engine giant, is that Google is commercially self-interested in promoting the value of search as a digital marketing tool.

That said, the report was conducted by an independent market research firm, Ipsos MediaCT. The wording for questions around this topic has been consistent for several annual editions of the report — suggesting that the trend does not reflect a bias.

Smartphone apps are favored by business travelers

Google’s travel study does not say apps have lost their importance.

On the contrary, the study says apps remain a vital part of travel planning, especially for business travelers. In its words:

“Leisure travelers mostly book via mobile websites, while business travelers mostly book via apps – both types of booking method are still key.”

Among those who booked travel on a device in spring 2014, 45% of leisure travelers did the booking via a mobile site using a browser, while 55% of business travelers did so.

Similarly, among those who booked travel on a device in spring 2014, 40% of leisure travelers used apps on their smartphone to book, while 63% of business travelers used apps to book.

In other words: Apps are here to stay, and, when it comes to booking via smartphones, business travelers maintained their lead over leisure travelers in adoption rates.

Cross-platform travel-planning is widespread

Travelers did about 45% of their searches on smartphones and tablets — not just on desktop computers, says Google’s travel study.

This trend in “cross-platform” researching and booking was true regardless of the type of travel being purchased, such as airfare, hotel stay, car rental, or cruise trip.

It’s often suggested that, while travelers may often snack on travel information on smartphones, they almost never actually purchase travel via smartphones.

Yet Google’s travel study found that US travelers in spring 2014 did, in fact, book on the tiny devices in significant percentages: car rental (20%), air travel (15%), lodging (19%), cruises (25%), and vacation packages (21%).

That said, the conventional wisdom still generally holds: Half of those who use their smartphone for leisure travel inspiration ultimately book another way, such as by making a call or using a desktop computer or a tablet.

The trend for cross-device switching is even more pronounced among business travelers. Compare these statistics:

75% of leisure travelers switch between devices to conduct the same travel-related planning or booking activity for all types of travel (air, hotel, cruise, car rental) 87% of business travelers switch between devices to conduct the same travel-related planning or booking activity for all types of travel (air, hotel, cruise, car rental)

The smartphone form factor doesn’t lend itself to particular activities

The report points out that all travelers go to the same types of sites on smartphones as desktop/tablet. It does not find that the smartphone especially lends itself to particular types of travel planning or booking.

Travel brand sites/apps (includes Vertical brand sites/apps and Tour operator sites/apps) Computer/Tablet 66% | Smartphone 47% Vertical brand sites/apps (includes Airline sites/apps, Hotel sites/apps, Car rental sites/apps, and Cruise operator sites/apps) Computer/Tablet 64% | Smartphone 43% Search engines Computer/Tablet 47% | Smartphone 43% Online travel agency Computer/Tablet 46% | Smartphone 30% Map sites/apps Computer/Tablet 29% | Smartphone 34% Travel review sites/apps Computer/Tablet 26% | Smartphone 24% Social networking sites/apps Computer/Tablet 20% | Smartphone 38% Destination-specific sites/apps Computer/Tablet 19% | Smartphone 16%

Travel study caveats:

The study by the Google Insights division was conducted by Ipsos MediaCT. The report says:

“To qualify, respondents had to be 21–64, live in the US, have no sensitive industry employment, go online at least once per month and have some involvement in their personal/business travel decisions.

Interviews were conducted from May 12 to June 4, 2014, yielding a total sample of 5,000 consumers (3,500 personal and 1,500 business) who have traveled at least once for personal reasons (or a minimum of 3 times for business purposes) in the past six months.

One augment was also recruited consisting of 1,500 affluent ($250k+ household income) past 6 months personal travelers.”

Video as a digital marketing tool

One out of three leisure travelers and 56% of business travelers engaged in travel-related YouTube activities within the past six months, says the report.

About 55% of leisure travelers who viewed travel views most watched trip reviews from ordinary people and from experts — nearly twice as many as view commercials from brands.

Google has revealed other research this year that’s relevant to travel marketers. Some highlights from the separate “Travel content takes off on YouTube” report:

Two out of three US consumers watch online travel videos when they’re thinking about taking a trip. That’s a huge jump from about half of shoppers in 2012.

Among these travelers, those between ages 25 and 64 tend to subscribe to content that emphasizes reviews of places from travel brands and travel networks, based on anonymized views of content on YouTube in the US between early 2012 to early 2014.

More Google research

The search giant plans to post the 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision and other upcoming studies at its Think with Google site, which has an e-mail newsletter alert service.

Tnooz has also covered previous Google-themed travel search statistics:

SEPTEMBER 2014: Get your heads around marketing and ecommerce trends (as uncovered in search volumes)

JANUARY 2014: Google travel: trip planning, videos and multi-screen

OCTOBER 2013: Deep dive into travel research activity by online and offline bookers

Original author: Sean O’Neill