Is Google the Next Big Threat to Independent Agents?

After already infiltrating the travel, shopping and credit card compare businesses, rumors abound that Google is planning to launch an auto insurance comparison site in the U.S this year.

The digital giant recently partnered with auto insurance quoting service Comparenow, and although the expected pilot rollout date in California has passed—with Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas to soon follow—it’s already licensed to do business in more than 26 states and authorized to sell on behalf of a handful of insurers such as MetLife, Mercury and Workmen’s, according a blog post by Forrester Research analyst Ellen Carney.

The auto insurance comparison site is said to model the United Kingdom’s platform, Google Compare, which launched in 2012 as “an alternate channel for getting additional information,” says Sean Allen, vice president of North American sales at Xchanging Insurance Services.

According to Allen, things will be similar in the U.S. “It’s kind of exaggerated about what’s going to happen,” Allen says. “Google’s getting [into the online insurance game] pretty late. I think out of curiosity you’ll see some consumers go there, but I don’t think it’s going to be a huge market-changing thing like what people are thinking.”

Although Xchanging’s 2014 Insurance Technology and Spending Report revealed that 30% of industry practitioners believe non-conventional sources—like banks and Google—pose the biggest competitive threat in the U.S., Allen says there’s nothing to worry about.

“If they were really going to go in this full tilt, they would not just be a rating engine—they would be a carrier, because that’s where the value is at,” Allen says of Google. ”They quote this, rate this, and pass it on to the carrier—they’re really out the mix and they’re not going to have that touch point with the customer anymore.”

To be a competitive threat for independent agents, Google would have to tap into the most crucial phases of the insurance experience—underwriting and client relationships, both of which an online comparison tool will be hard-pressed to address. Google may be starting with auto, but adding more complex insurance products means they’ll need to figure out a way to ask questions and receive answers that require intricate forms and processes.

“When we were thinking Google was going to come in as an insurer, that was a little different,” Allen says. “If Google was going to come in as the underwriter, as the claims processer—that could change the game up, because you’re putting someone in there that doesn’t have a strong background.”

But even so, the infinite amount of resources backing Google, as well as its foundation of quick technology and innovation, will remain an underlying threat. Allen adds that agents’ involvement in technological innovation—using more online tools, quicker self-service and enhanced communication with agents—is still more essential than ever before.

“I see the agents being more diversified and being more of a one-stop-shop for your financial needs,” Allen predicts. “I also see the agents adding more value than just being sweeping order takers and really sitting down and explaining the purpose of the insurance.”

The insurers permitting Google to sell their coverage have the potential to profit from the service if they’re receiving traffic and business from shopping consumers. But on the other hand, “the ones that need to be fearful of this are Esurance and Geico—the guys who have traditionally gone out into a Web-based model and sell strictly through a portal,” Allen says, adding that many customers of those companies treat insurance like a commodity and strictly buy auto coverage.

The No. 1 concern for Google as they roll out the new resource? Pricing, Allen says. “Are they pushing the same numbers out there?” he asks. “You don’t want to see Google be more expensive than the carrier itself where it’s going to flop right out of the gate. And you don’t want to see it less than the carrier itself and the carrier doesn’t want that to happen.”

For the first few months, if and when the product is released, Allen expects it to create plenty of buzz in the marketplace as another channel capable of diluting what’s already there.

“I don’t see it as changing the game,” Allen reassures. “If was to go online and do a search on Google—and I will, just to test it out—I’ll still go back to my carrier and alternate carrier and see if I get a better price.”

Morgan Smith is IA assistant editor.