Sept. 25, 2011 -- News flash: Google doesn't have all the answers.
At least that was the response from travel search-engine sites as they caught their first glimpse of a competing product launched by Google last week.
It's never a good sign for your business when one of the world's largest companies buys your chief supplier and seeks to muscle in on your turf.
So it's understandable why many travel engines — including Travelocity, Expedia and Kayak — suffered angst when Google proposed last year to buy ITA Software, the company that developed and provides their fare-search technology.
After the acquisition was approved in April, they were resigned to waiting to see what competitive threat Google Travel would unleash. But when the tech giant finally released its airfare search tool last week, the competitors were left underwhelmed and perplexed.
"We believe our flight search technology is superior," said Robert Birge of Kayak (which has a business relationship with USA TODAY).
Bloggers at FairSearch.org, an anti-Google organization funded by travel search sites, wrote that the new product "raises a lot of questions," including whether Google will favor flights from its advertisers or mix sponsored ads with other search results.
For whatever reason, Google has launched a product with many shortcomings. And it's hard to recommend it as a go-to flight-search tool — at least, not in its current form.
Some of the features omitted are genuine head-scratchers. It doesn't provide international flights. Small U.S. cities also aren't available. Also missing are one-way tickets and premium-class flights.
Roger Entner, a technology analyst at Recon Analytics, says Google has a habit of under-delivering the first version of its products.
"Limiting the choices helps (Google) focus and improve things relatively quickly," he says. "It's about engineers trying to get this out as quickly as possible and making a bigger splash later."
Overview: Google Flights is a fare-search tool accessible directly from its main search engine page. Type in a city pair and date — say, "flights from Washington to San Francisco" — and Google displays a "Flights" link on the left side of the results page that leads to a list of flights and ways to filter them. Or users can go directly to Google.com/flights.
Pros: Ability to search without leaving Google's main search engine. Fast search results (no progress bar to sit through). Clean and minimal interface that's familiar to Google users. Bar chart that shows the cheapest dates to fly, and dot-matrix display that filters flights by cost and duration.
Cons: Highly limited in search capability: No one-way or multicity fares, no international flights, no small cities. Even some flights between large cities aren't shown. Results only from participating airlines. Bar chart and dot-matrix display to filter flights by price may not be everyone's cup of tea.