The dust hasn’t really settled on Google’s acquisition of the Frommer’s travel guide brand. I author Frommer’s guidebooks to Seville and Andalusia and the previous owner Wiley had made it clear it intended to find a purchaser several months ago. It’s been a frustrating wait – at least we now know who the new owner is. But what does it mean? Well the short answer is no one knows – but here are a few of my thoughts.

A big YES for quality content
I’ve always thought of Google as being on the ‘anti-professional content’ team. It set out originally to populate its clever tools like maps, places etc with user generated content. It was very much part of the ‘everything on the web should be free’ brigade. Spending cash – and a lot of it too – on a professional travel publisher makes it clear that Google sees that the web needs content created by professionals to be able to really deliver. Seeing as Google is the way most of us find stuff on the web, that’s a big endorsement for the idea of investing in quality content for your website to ensure search engine visibility. If the search engine itself is doing it, then you probably should to? (This tallies with all the stuff Google says in public - even if SEO folks might argue that frankly ranking well is still all about links.)

But what kind of content?
You can see immediately how listings – short accurate and appropriate write-ups of places like restaurants, hotels and shops will dovetail neatly with Google Places* – basically the content you get served up on a place’s Google + page when you click on a pointer on a Google map. This kind of thing was exactly why Google bought restaurant review publisher Zagat this year too – Zagat reviews now sit above user reviews. If you search for a specific place by name you’ll start to see Frommer’s reviews crop up in the search results pretty soon I imagine. Right now if you Google say New York and click maps the info if you click the pointer for New York features Wikipedia content – presumably we’ll start to see Frommer’s content on this page too. (*Is it called Google places? Does anyone else get completely confused by the way Google keeps chopping and changes its products?)

Does Google have any experience of print publishing though? I don’t think so(?) and that’s concerning for me as a guidebook writer and someone who believes passionately that guidebooks still have a place in travel planning and inspiration. I really hope the guidebook remains a core part of the product offering. Maybe as the Guardian newspaper has done there should be a move towards digital first but print should still be a part of the package. Interestingly adopting the mantra of 'digital first' suggests a need for fresher more up to date information. Could that lead to more regular updates and indeed more work for professional guidebook writers? I hope so.

20 thoughts on “Google buys Frommer’s – what next?

  1. I'd be astonished if Google keeps the print business going.

    All of Frommers is an accounting error to Google. The value they saw in the company was using the data online, not in selling books.

    My guess would be that they just disband the entire publishing outfit, as there is no point in them wasting resources on a dying market.

    They have killed off larger digital groups in Google. I can't see them keeping this.

    1. There's lots of circumstantial evidence based upon which staffers Google retained and who was left jobless that the Goog only wants the listings information from the books and the Frommers Unlimited event database and that both the guidebooks and Frommers.com will go away. We'll see if this turns from speculation to reality in the next few weeks.

  2. Couple of things on this:

    1. Yes, I think digital-first is a no-brainer. We're both Frommer's authors (disc.), Jeremy, so we both know how much of our good info *isn't* currently on, say, Frommers.com and earning pageviews. I doubt that situation will last long. The best stuff, currently only in the books (paper and e-), will appear simultaneously (or first) on the web. Probably, as you say, integrated into Google+/Local.

    2. On Gary's point:

    "The value they saw in the company was using the data online, not in selling books."

    Obviously true. But the conclusion drawn from that ("My guess would be that they just disband the entire publishing outfit") just doesn't follow. Where does all that "data" Google want to use online come from? From the publishing outfit. Publishing isn't the act of committing information to paper; that's printing, and in time most travel publishers won't be doing that anymore ("most" travel publishers probably already aren't, depending on who you call a publisher). So, to say that means the end of "publishing" is to cpmpletely misunderstand what publishing is. For example, all that "data" Google will (probably) be using online gets old, at varying speeds depending on what sort of data it is. Then what? $50m, or whatever they paid, is a lot to pay for a one-shot-deal's worth of data-dump for Google+. Though, of course, $50m+ isn't a lot to Google... but successful businesses don't get to the top by wasting resources unnecessarily.

    Not that I'm saying I know what Google will do with Frommer's. Maybe the first thing to examine would be what they did with Zagat? A quick skim of Amazon reveals they have a number of (paper) guides due to publish this autumn. They have apps on iOS, Android, WinPho. They have eBooks on Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony, etc. Beyond that, it's guesswork.

    3. There's a *big* difference between listings (what you call "short accurate and appropriate write-ups of places like restaurants, hotels and shops"), which is very much a business that Google is in right now, and a guide. The missing link to go from the former to the latter is *curation*, a business that Google is less "in" right now. I have no idea if they want to be in it or not... time will tell. And that will be the key point here. Not whether paper is the preferred medium for delivering the guide. Because, in the long term, it won't be, whether you're owned by Google or not.

    All this very much IMHO, conjecture, of course. I have no inside track on any of it.

  3. The way this transition has washed through, and the signals so far, say print guidebooks and frommers.com could be on the line [disc: ex-Frommer's reg ed].

    I'd be sad to see them both go - as listings are integrated rapidly into Google+ - if that is how it plays out over the next few weeks. Sad both for all the people involved (good staff, some great authors) who enjoy that variety, but also for the bigger picture stuff of what these different content mediums offer, that I've spoken about here before (http://www.travelblather.com/?s=mark+henshall&submit=Search). It is a no-brainer that it's digital first obviously, but these different content blends (print, (interactive) e-books, tablet/mobile, desktop) all offer slightly different (and useful) propositions for travellers, at different stages of the travel cycle.

    The write-ups involved in short-form listings is a very different exercise from the curation involved in a longer guide (and, importantly, the context this provides). To lose some of that publishing piece across platforms would be a real shame I think.

    The big take-away for me though is the message the acquisition sends out about professional, high-quality travel content. For those of us involved in creating this "data", that's a very welcome sign (e.g. not just link juice). And all of this needs people to keep the content fresh. Given the Zagat deal, Google was always in the frame, but lots of people seemed *very* surprised, and I'm glad this is making them think hard about the value of pro-content and not just UGC/crowd-sourcing.

    Travel Cos and DMO/CVBs (but this is another post) will need to look again at their content offer. If they are the authority on-the-ground, they will need to reflect this expertise with useful, practical info. Relevance is crucial, interestingly something Zagat has been pulled up on lately (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/sep/10/zagat-guide-london-restaurants?newsfeed=true). But telling a true story well, that resonates, has personality and helps customers *is* good news for pro-writers and those of us who care about content. Watch this space...

  4. Great points everyone. Thank you.
    On the one hand you could argue that this is another nail in the coffin for guidebooks - but I wonder if it's more a nail in the coffin for traditional guidebook publishers. I noticed that the Guardian is now creating guides of its own to places. http://www.guardian.co.uk/info/2012/sep/11/newyork
    That makes a lot of sense to me. They have the content creation resource available to them - it's the next logical step. (Time Out of course did it too for a while - I mourn the dimise of their guides which were excellent)
    But where does that leave me as a guide writer? Do I need a publisher these days? I'm not sure. I already author an app to Seville which is separate from the deal I had with Frommer's for the print guidebooks. Absolutely nothing to stop me re-formatting this content as an ebook and start selling it on Kindle.
    The days when a publisher controlled the distribution network are gone.

  5. I just can't get my head around the "Why".

    I find it difficult to imagine Google continuing to employ writers to update these guides once the content has been shifted into Places - which is really anchored into the disaster area known as Plus now.

    While I agree a solid guidebook is far more than a sum of its POIs, even a cursory foray into Places/Plus illustrates Google isn't overly concerned with tying it all together by anything more than a glad bag of longlats and UGC ratings - having just waded into it to try and find a ridiculous example to append to this post, it remains a UI trainwreck IMO.

    Frommers isn't really a global brand as far as guidebooks go so if you assume this was seen as an affordable way to grab a chunk of content, does this mean they'll be buying Bradt next to bolster their coverage of the Central African Republic and Let's Go for whoever still uses those books?

    I read somewhere the tech staff all got the boot, so it doesn't seem to be a talent thing…

    I just don't see the sense in it.

    That said, while all this makes no sense to me, should they end up employing writers to update the content they've just purchased, I'd say that would be a very concerning development for any independent (travel or not) publisher.

  6. Good article, Jeremy.

    One thing to remember in all this is that the deal should not be viewed in isolation.

    Yes, there is an obvious discussion to be had about whether Google will continue with print publishing (no idea, and indeed, no-one else REALLY knows), but in the grand scheme of things such a decision is probably agenda item #12 - or probably much higher - in Google's priorities in travel.

    Google's primary motivation in travel, as has become clear over the course of the past two and a half years, is - as a variation to its existing mantra - to organise the world's travel information.

    And, more importantly, organise the experience of researching destinations (content), obtain product information and provide leads into suppliers/intermediaries (metasearch, PPC), planning (Maps, Local) and sharing (reviews, Plus).

    The purchase of Frommer's is just one part of that jigsaw - and while it is an interesting discussion about how travel writing and guidebooks and destination content fit in to that strategy, Google will probably be quite ruthless about what it keeps and what stays and how the Frommer's brand continues (if at all).

    If something doesn't add value to the overall WEB-BASED user experience (it's primary channel) in some way, then it'll probably find itself banished to the same cupboard as Wave, Google Video et al.

    Strip out the tech (if there is any worth keeping), keep the decent people (to help in SOME way, perhaps not in their original roles), move on......

    Anyway, forgive me for throwing in a link, but this image illustrates a reasonably large chunk of that travel jigsaw:



    1. Q re this:

      "Google will probably be quite ruthless about what it keeps and what stays and how the Frommer's brand continues (if at all)."

      if it didn't want the Frommer's "brand", and just the stripped-out content, then why not just license it, white labelled or otherwise? Would have been much cheaper.

      1. @donald

        The same question was on many people's lips when Google bought ITA Software for £700m in July 2010 - it could very easily has licensed the QPX technology from ITA which it now uses for the Google Flight Search product.

        But Google doesn't work like that - it prefers to own the technology, content, brand (if worth it), rather than be part of a white label customer.

        Buying Frommer's (for a rumoured $20m-$25m) is just like spending a few quid of its pocket money. And, of course, it now also controls the relationship with existing white label users.

        [Such as, err, Kayak and Expedia, long-time opponents of Google's entry into travel and vocal members of the FairSearch anti-Google lobbying group]

    2. "Google's primary motivation in travel, as has become clear over the course of the past two and a half years, is - as a variation to its existing mantra - to organise the world's travel information."

      Perhaps in the past. Today the mantra is more like:

      " to organise Google's version of the world's travel information."

        1. Perhaps but most others are not a search engine with majority market share.

          Also most others never said their goal was to organise the world's information.

          G, in the past, has busied itself organising others' info, now it includes it's own in the mix, and that changes things yes?

          1. @stuart - indeed.

            But did anyone REALLY think Google (when it started facing pressure from other channels, such as FB, metas et al) could carry on "doing no evil" in the long-term?

            Of course not :)

            It's a public company. Models evolve. Capitalism sucks.

  7. One thing to just throw in here as an aside is around the question of value of content.

    If (big IF) Frommer's sold for around $20M-$25M, with its web content, books, brand, mobile apps, white label partnerships, staff, etc, what does that say about the gazillions of "travel content" brands/sites/publishers out there?

    Certainly the price surprised some people we spoke to, especially against the back-drop of what the BBC (now, arguably, over)paid for Lonely Planet.

    Any content producers (terrible phrase, sorry) hoping they're gonna get super-rich from their activities may well be rethinking that aspiration.

    [NB: Hey, maybe Jason above can share whether he thinks the rumoured price tag is above or below his expectations?]

  8. That price doesn't seem crazy considering that Wiley really wanted to unload the brand and anyone looking at Nielsen BookScan can see a clear decline in print sales for every guidebook publisher. The past few years demonstrated that the real opportunity for growth at Frommer's was on the consumer-facing digital side (traffic was way up and casual observers would have noticed lots of high-quality sponsors), but Wiley does very poorly with consumer digital product (Dummies got destroyed by eHow, CliffsNotes by SparkNotes) and spent the last few years tripping over its own backend. Frommers.com had the success it did because the team was good with duct tape and "accidentally" ignoring advice from above.

    Although the BBC has written down the value of its Lonely Planet purchase significantly (GBP 130 to GBP http://ow.ly/dGtXP), I think they're well positioned to survive the slump and still publish what we'd all recognize as "travel guides." Its apps are still a bit of a mess, Wenzani was the funniest joke of fall 2011, and its website needs more staff and a rethink, but it's been really smart with basic stuff like PDF downloads at good price points and creating a brand that's identifiable world-wide as _the_ travel experts.

    I'd love to see some smart investors buy LP from BBC (I'm sure they'd unload it), and really focus on it, as opposed to the current situation where it's only getting half-love from its parent as well as a good amount of meddling from silly people in suits.

  9. Good commentary here, and I think Jason and Stuart are on the ball here: it's pretty clear the primary reason Google bought Frommer's was just to boost its G+ review coverage. The question is thus how long Google feels the need to pay people to update those reviews, as once they achieve critical mass with free user reviews, they won't need to anymore.

    My own post on the topic: http://gyrovague.com/2012/08/16/why-google-will-most-likely-kill-frommers-and-why-thats-probably-a-mistake/

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