Travel agents face a significant fall in online sales
after three of the big four introduced a ban that will stop
retailers promoting the operators’ holidays through the
search engine Google.

First Choice, Thomas Cook and Thomson have all banned agencies
from using their brand names as keyword searches on Google. More
than 60% of Internet users rely on the engine to conduct online
searches.

Google will now only bring up operators’ websites when
potential customers search for one of their brands.

Agents who rely on the web to generate business reacted angrily,
dubbing the ban anti-competitive. They claimed it would have
“massive implications” for the trade.

Cwmbran-based Holiday Express managing director David Powell has
already complained to the Office of Fair Trading over the move.

His company has 100 Internet sites with a turnover of £30
million a year. Powell claimed 70% of his business is generated by
Google searches, the majority of which are for the big four.

He claimed he cannot now use ‘Holiday Express is the first
choice for Cosmos holidays’ because it includes the term
‘first choice’.

“It’s anti-competitive as our prices could be cheaper than
the actual operators. It’s no different to Dixons stocking
Canon cameras but being unable to advertise this.

“They are using this to drive business direct to operators
instead of through agents. It could have a massive effect on the
viability of agents in the future.”

Global Travel Group product development director Jason Edwards
believes the move will have a huge impact on agents as more are
starting to use search engines to create a web presence.

“What’s wrong with agents wanting to promote an
operator’s product? It’s their role,” he said.
“It’s part of operators’ direct strategy. It leaves a
bad taste in the mouth.”

Previously, agents could optimise their websites to highlight
operators’ names to appear high on Google’s search
results. Agents could also pay per click to appear at the top of
searches for operators’ names.

These practices still exist on rival search engines such as Ask
Jeeves.

All three operators involved claimed the move was to protect
their brands online.

Only Thomson confirmed it is part of its direct bookings drive.
“It will drive people to our website,” a spokeswoman admitted. “We
have to do what we can to protect our brand.”

Thomas Cook said it “is taking steps to protect its trademarks
on the Internet”, while a First Choice spokeswoman said: “It was
done for brand protection, pure and simple.”

A Google spokeswoman said the company’s policy meets
trademark laws. “We have contracts with each of our
advertisers.

“They are under an obligation to ensure their ads including the
content, keywords and links do not infringe third-party rights.
Google’s policy complies with trademark law, yet does not
stifle advertising,” she said.

But operators cannot stop the use of the word
‘holiday’ incorporated with a brand name.