Net gains for TripAdvisor

It’s great what people post on these days. Take a look at this recent review picked up by snarkyowl. “We had brown water coming out of the tap in our room… the resort ran out of food a few times and it was not busy. Even worse, there were aunts [sic] everywhere, even in the rooms. It was gross. People had their rooms sprayed because it got that bad.” Clearly uncles everywhere would have been even grosser. But you see that’s the joy of Tripadvisor and the reason why it has become a phenomenal success. It’s so easy for anyone to comment, even people with an aversion to aunts. You visit a hotel, write a review, post it with a few pictures or video and share your thoughts with tens of millions of other people.

Story by Andy Round

And the power of all those opinions is phenomenal. It’s not a case of who uses before booking a hotel it’s who doesn’t these days. When chief executive Stephen Kaufer started the site in 2000 to get online feedback on a hotel he wanted to book in Mexico there were three users on the site he set up. In March this year there were 32 million monthly visitors.

“Tripadvisor is certainly one of the pioneers of user-generated content,” the company’s Luke Fredberg tells Living a la Carte. “And it’s been an incredible journey. It was one of the first to strip away all the gloss of hotel brochures and show you what was really going on behind the scenes.”

The growth of all those reviews is mindboggling. These Tripadvisor statistics will be out of date by the time you read them, but here goes: at the time of going to press there are 20 million travel reviews on the site featuring 270,000 hotels, 78,000 attractions, 470,000 restaurants in 24,000 cities and a total of 1.3 million photos. Basically the site bestrides the virtual world like a travel internet behemoth with three million visitors a day.

“I think that in this climate Tripadvisor is more relevant than ever,” says Fredberg. “Today value is more important than ever. People are more savvy than before and more worried about how they spend their time and money and we are continuing to experience growth.”

In a move that chimes with the times, Tripadvisor recently launched a ‘top values index’ a programme literally drawn up by rocket scientists in Boston allowing visitors to search across the site according to a ‘proprietary algorithm’. In English that basically means identifying a match between a hotel’s quality with its price according to reviews on a daily basis.

Already Tripadvisor has a flight finder application and now with the recent addition of restaurants (following an astonishingly successful link up with Facebook through games and maps), overviews of destinations, activities and sightseeing along with social networking sites, blogs and suggestion forums it sounds like the end of the traditional guidebook.

“No I don’t think so,” says Fredberg. “I think people like to have something to hold and refer to when they are in a new place, but I think they also like the idea of reading a review of where they are going to stay that was created an hour ago. Personally it has simplified my life. I use Facebook, Twitter and Tripadvisor to keep in contact with my friends. It’s quicker and I want to read their opinions when they post a review.”

It is astonishing how far into our psyche Tripadvisor has reached. A friend recently described an illness she described as Tripadvisor negativity syndrome. Basically any hotel reviewed on Tripadvisor will inevitably have at least one bad review. And even if there are 200 positive pieces of feedback, that one negative review will rattle around your brain until the moment you check into the hotel and find out for yourself.

Negativity, inaccuracy and just being downright wrong are occupational hazards of all user-generated content sites. If someone has just one bad experience in well-regarded hotel restaurant and then goes upstairs to rant and rave in a Tripadvisor review, it seems wrong that we take it seriously.

“Not at all,” says Tripadvisor founder Kaufer, who probably addresses this issue in interviews on a daily basis. “It’s about taking the rough with the smooth. We have 45,000 hotels with more than 10 reviews each and not all of those will match another person’s background, reference points or opinion. But when you average out all those 10 reviews get a really good sense of a hotel is all about. Compared to what we had to rely on in past through a brochure or travel agent we have come really far.”

In fact many hotel chains, tour companies and tourism organisations have linked up with Tripadvisor to share content whether it is negative or not to underline the fact that they are open to criticism and proud of the integrity that provides. Kaufer is fond of saying, “Trust is the gold dust of the internet.”

But how much can you trust Tripadvisor? There have been instances of fake reviews designed to damage competitors and hotels even posting their own positive feedback to improve their Tripadvisor image. Fredberg says that a highly sophisticated technical team monitors all text for repetitions such as repeated spelling mistakes or sentence structure to identify potential problems or the suspicious use of the same IP address. In addition there are human editorial teams that read every entry for ‘phoney patterns’ and the Tripadvisor community itself is fast to pick up and report suspicious reviews.

If a hotelier is found to have manipulated the system they receive a “nice red badge on their property” that they “can’t take off”. The law has also caught up with online fake reviews and across Europe, for example, under EU legislation hotels can now be prosecuted for online fraudulent reviews.

There is also an online feedback system that hotels can use to answer their critics. Fredberg says that one president of a very large well-known hotel chain reviews all the negative Tripadvisor comments of his division’s hotels every Monday morning with his executive team.

The future continues to look bright for Tripadvisor with its reach now extending across Asia. Global domination seems just a few short clicks away. And what is also incredible is the way that the concept of swapping dog-eared copies of guidebooks, picking up mail from a poste restante or even sending a postcard sounds almost medieval these days. “It’s just evolution,” laughs Fredberg. “Posting a review is just like a postcard in a way. It’s just that more people get to see it. And it’s easier.”

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