Jeena James has, all things considered, a pretty important job to do at Google. As global head of travel and local at Google Play, the official app store for Android smartphones and tablets and which brings all the search giant’s digital media under one umbrella, she has her work cut out.
Jeena may not be able to talk about Google’s strategic moves up the trip-planning funnel – that, she says, is the responsibility of Oliver Heckmann, Google’s VP of Engineering, who seems to have been made the official spokesperson for its multibillion travel dollar vertical – but she knows which travel apps get traction in the Play store and why.
Indeed, Google’s Android ecosystem is one that travel app developers cannot ignore. According to IDC, in the first quarter of 2017, Android captured 85% of the global smartphone market. And smartphones, says Google, are fast becoming the go-to resource for every travel need. This is true, not only the dreaming, planning and booking stage of travel but also in destination – hence the fact that Jeena is tasked with driving successful app developer partnerships in the ‘travel, local, food, drink and lifestyle’ space.
After all, when travellers arrive at a destination, it is the local experience that counts. “More travellers than ever are looking for authentic experiences rather than just checking cities or countries off a bucket list,” says Jenna, who will be speaking at EyeforTravel North America in Las Vegas later this year.
Although Jeena admits that “we don’t share what people are searching for on Play publicly,” what she can say is that the user experience and expectations from mobile apps are different from desktop and mobile web.
Jeena is also seeing travel brands increasingly focusing on the end-to-end experience, across screens and throughout the user journey. Brands are also offering relevant local information and features such as the ability for users to plan activities, find places of interest, book a restaurant and more. This, says James, is because “users today engage with their apps even when they are on the trip”.
People are certainly using apps more. Data from App Annie, a provider of business intelligence and analysis, finds that globally people spent 900 billion hours in apps last year, representing a 100% increase since 2014.
But there are only so many travel apps that users will download, so what should app developers be thinking about? Jeena has this advice.
1. Be mobile first and develop from the ground up
Today Millennials and Gen Zs (now 25% of the US population!) have a mobile-first mindset and are comfortable planning all aspects of their trip on mobile.
For Jeena, apps don’t have to mirror the experience across the desktop and mobile web. Instead, brands really need “to think about the value proposition of having an app, rather than just putting everything you have from desktop or the mobile web experience onto it”.
Developers should think about the whole experience – not just within the app but, for example, how information is presented on the Play store listing, the first port of engagement.
Her top tip is to develop from the ground up, with the user experience and product design as strong foundations. Best developer practices, such as building virtual reality (VR) experiences, can be found on Google Play.
“Travel companies who have really taken a mobile-first mindset to their apps see better success than those who haven’t,” she stresses.
2. Go global, be local, build partnerships
Most travel brands are global operations, but providing a local experience can make all the difference. After all, when travellers arrive in a destination, it is the local experience that counts. Many travellers today are also willing to plan activities on the fly – in other words, on a mobile device – while they are at their destination.
In fact, according to Google, 85% of leisure travellers decide on activities only after arriving at their destination.
“So, if your app is global, localisation should not be an afterthought, instead it should go hand-in-hand in user growth and engagement strategies,” says Jeena.
Again, it’s about putting the user first. In practice, this means that based on the user’s language download, you can have different store listing pages for different countries. This is something that all developers should be doing as a matter of course, she says.
Local experiments that are A-B tested, such as trying out a particular app icon for a specific market, is another tip.
Giving user relevant, information in location, as well as when the date for travel draws closer, is crucial. Google’s Awareness API, says Jeena, enables developers to provide contextual experiences in the app.
“The beauty is that you can have an app that is global but also tailored to each market,” she says.
Partnerships are another important way to give users what they want in local environments. TripAdvisor’s recent partnership with GrubHub in US is an example of how contextually relevant partnerships can add value.
But warns Jeena, there are some technical challenges to ensure that the app you are handing off to, is of the same quality; having the right handover technology is crucial.
3. Harness new and innovative technology
Virtual reality, Jeena says, “has the potential to transport people anywhere, and creating VR content for destinations could be a powerful channel to inspire and motivate users.”
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are also driving greater personalisation via predictive analysis at all points of the journey, and are therefore able to anticipate needs and preferences. Google, like many other travel brands, is investing in assistants, especially voice-based assistants. Last year, Google shared that 20% of queries on mobile were voice based and that continues to grow. For this reason, Android has voice-actions API, which can be integrated into any app for greater engagement.
On another note, emerging app solutions such as Android Instant apps mean developers can run apps instantly, without installation.
4. Remove sign in and payments friction, for a start
Surprise, surprise! Google, the data machine, recommends that users sign-in and has developed solutions like Google Sign-in and Smart Lock for Passwords, which does seem to be working for travel brands.
HotelTonight, for one, says its saw a 23% higher conversion rate for users of ‘smart lock’ compared to email address sign-ups. Wego is another: it says Smart Lock’s one-tap sign-up is responsible for 85% of its new app registrations on Android, which has increased 1134% compared to rates prior to implementation.
Payments are often another challenge, but by enabling Google’s Android Pay customers are, according to Jeena, able to make quick, easy and secure credit and debit card mobile payments.
5. Think carefully about reviews and ratings
Ratings and reviews do affect the discoverability of an app. But the big question, says James, is when is the best time to ask for these.
Brands can ask for feedback on the app experience, but also for the actual product or service. Sometimes firms choose not to ask for app ratings, but rather, because the quality of the service they are providing is so high, they rely on reviews alone. Jeena recommends putting a little more effort into this and cannot recommend A-B testing highly enough.
** We usually quote people by their surname on second mention, but Jeena prefers to use her first name because of the gender confusion with James!