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The Aggregators are Coming

In the travel biz, it's still early in the game for full-blown comparison shopping across multiple vendors, but a few sites have emerged as the go-to leaders in the biz, which appears to be going by the name travel "aggregators:" Sidestep, Kayak, Mobissimo, Qixo, and Yahoo's new FareChaser.

How Does It Work?
Warning -- wonkish content turbulence just ahead -- if you're not a Web geek, or Web travel geek, you can probably skip ahead here.

In past price-busting columns here, I have recommended searching the booking engines, and then going to the individual airline Web sites to see if they had a better deal, which they often did, and purchasing directly from the airline.

The best aggregators can do all of this for you in a single search. The great advantage of aggregators is the ability to search dozens of airline Web sites, all at the same time, as well as one or more of the major booking sites. Aggregator sites run searches on numerous Web sites simultaneously, then link directly to the search results so you can purchase the fares within a click or two. The technique is commonly called "deep linking" -- the practice of linking well down into another site's pages.

In most cases, those searches point to Orbitz, as Expedia and Travelocity do not permit the comparison sites to spider through its booking engines, or to "scrape" their sites, as the latest ecommerce neologism goes.

Scraping remains a gray area of Internet commerce, as the booking sites have not quite figured out if the aggregators are marketing for them, or competing with them. Just last week, Orbitz sent a mysteriously worded email to all registered users announcing a change in its privacy policies and Terms of Service. It sniffed like spam -- an unexpected, wonkish email with an urgent tone, a few links, some official graphics -- but it was anything but.

What was it then? Included in the new Terms of Service is a prohibition on deep linking -- Orbitz was giving notice that fare comparison engines were no longer welcome to "scrape" its pages for fares. As a result, only those sites that partner directly with Orbitz (including Sidestep and Kayak at present) will be allowed to scrape for, and link down to, Orbitz fares.

(While most sites will abide by Orbitz's wishes, it is not clear that they have to, as previous cases have determined that deep linking is legal.)

Comparison Shopping Stuck on the Tarmac? Not So Fast
This development dampened the potential punch wielded by a potential glut of comparison sites, but they have other tricks of some interest -- most significantly, they search the fares of discount airlines like JetBlue, which appear on few or none of the major booking engine sites. (Southwest's policy of going it alone with their own Web site seems to be in effect here as well; none of the aggregators return Southwest's fares.)

For both airfares and lodging, most comparison sites search airline and hotel sites directly, but also search consolidators such as Airfare.com, Cheaptickets.com, Hotels.com, and Onetravel.com. The very broad net cast by the aggregators can still result in significant savings, especially when compared with searching a single booking site.

New Entrants, New Tactics
The aggregator industry is red hot; SideStep launched the Web version of their service on January 5; Kayak.com fired up a public beta on October 7, with an official launch on February 7; Mobissimo launched in March of last year, and Farechase, while in business in a B2B mode since 1997, has just launched in beta on Yahoo.

As I wrote here a couple years ago, SideStep has long been a superb travel search engine, and probably the best comparison shopping travel service overall for a while. There has been one serious barrier to ubiquity, however; SideStep required a download. Additionally, the SideStep toolbar, which would pop up with travel pricing results even if you were searching on another site, didn't always work well with firewalls, and gave some people the willies, as it seemed to know what sites you were visiting and what you were looking at there.

Inevitably, SideStep took their show to the Web, and the results are solid. The downloadable toolbar still works, too. If you don't have the toolbar, a link encouraging you to "Compare your results to Expedia and Travelocity" leads to the SideStep download page, the idea being that once you're comfortable with their Web site, you'll want to use the toolbar.

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