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Skyscanner is a website that allows users to search for flights by price and location; according to Hitwise, it has an 11.34% share of the UK travel search market.

Recently, Skyscanner has been making a few changes to its website, aimed at improving the user experience.

We have been talking to CEO Gareth Williams about the changes and finding out more about the site...

How long has Skyscanner been going?

It has been around since 2002 and was launched by myself and colleagues Bonamy Grimes and Barry Smith. We all have a background working together as IT contractors, and we decided to form the company.

I was looking to go skiing when I had a few weeks off one winter, and built myself a tool so that I could check for the best prices on sites like EasyJet, and this is how Skyscanner started.

We have grown the site using our own revenues and skills to develop it, and even in 2006 we only had eight staff working on the site. We did take funding last November to help us expand the site and the team behind it.

Can you tell me about the funding?

We were profitable already, but wanted to accelerate what we were doing, plus there was a lot of interest in this sector from VCs.

We took £2.5m in funding from Scottish Equity Partners for a minority stake in the company, and since then we have done a lot of recruitment an now have a staff of 45 working for us. Our revenues have trebled since last November, while the number of users has almost trebled.

Our principles remain the same though; we don’t see ourselves as a meta-search engine, we want to be a vertical search site. In my view, you have to be able to handle free text queries to be considered a search engine.

What are the common usability issues for travel search sites?

There are a few problems common to all travel search websites:

  • The annoyance factor of search controls i.e. customers have to do a lot of checking and typing to get the results they are looking for.
  • There can also be problems in the transfer of information between different sites, between search sites like ourselves and the travel operators for example.

If there is a high cost in user effort and time spent searching then it can be an unfriendly and frustrating experience, as people don’t enjoy having to solve travel problems. This is partly because on travel sites there are complex problems to solve in matching flights, prices, times, and other associated details. We have been trying to make our flight search fast, usable and authoritative.

You got rid of the drop down menus in the recent update, why was this?

We come from a background of searching all if the budget airlines in Europe, and used to offer drop down menus which, once a user had selected a departure airport, the second menu would only show the destinations for which flights were available.

This can be useful for users, but once we expanded to include a broader range if flights, the menus became unfeasibly large.

We have had feedback on this, and some regular users of the site preferred the drop down menus so we will be changing this shortly and giving users the option of searching this way if they prefer.

This can be more useful in helping customers discover destinations and eliminate errors. If you know where you want to go, it can be easier to find this destination via a drop down menu – it takes less effort to locate the departure or destination airport in a lust than it does to formulate a query.

That said, we have tried to make the search boxes as intelligent as possible, suggesting answers as users begin to type in a query, as well as allowing for phonetic matches, correcting common typing errors, and handling queries such as foreign spellings of place names.

We also allow for queries where users have left some of the options blank, so a user can select a departure airport only, leave the dates and destination blank, and still receive a set of search results to choose from.

How many users does Skyscanner have at the moment?

We have around 180,000 visits each day, of which 120,000 are unique.

How does the site make money?

We have affiliate deals so that we take a commission when we refer searchers to book flights on a travel operators’ site. However, we show all the available fights we can, regardless of whether or not we have an affiliate deal with the operator.

We do give more prominence to those that have partnered with us, and they will receive more traffic from Skyscanner. Altogether, we have deals with 60% - 70% of flight providers.

How do you keep flight details and prices up to date?

We cache all the prices that we get, but some will still be out of date by the time they appear in search results on Skyscanner. As long as the price variation is small, we think it’s worth displaying. The alternative to this is the meta-search / comparison model which means that you will only get the info at the speed that travel operators provide it.

Also, we don’t handle the booking process on our site, so this part of the transaction is handed over to the flight operators’ websites.

How have you marketed the site?

Until the recent funding round, we relied exclusively on SEO and word of mouth to promote Skyscanner, which did enable us to build the business to the point where we were profitable.

Since November 2007, we have spent more on marketing, though this spend is capped by the ability to get traffic to the site at a reasonable CPC, which can be difficult in a competitive market like online travel.

How well are you ranking in Google?

The main search term for us is ‘cheap flights’ and we rank number 2 on Google.co.uk for this, and number 3 on Google.com. However, we also have a high visitor return rate; over 50% of our traffic comes from direct type-ins.

Where does most of your traffic come from?

Roughly 50% of traffic comes from UK users, 45% from the rest of Europe, and the other 5% the rest of the world, In time we expect this to match our booking proportions; 35% of bookings come from the UK, and 30% from Germany, with the rest spread around other European countries, and a small proportion from the rest of the world.
 

Related research:
Travel Website Benchmarks 2007

Related articles:
Q&A: Vicky Smith of Travel.co.uk
Q&A: Thomas Cook's Russell Gould on improving conversion

Graham Charlton

Published 25 September, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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