Friday, June 12, 2009

The Truth About TripAdvisor and Professional Hotel Reviews

The blogosphere is abuzz with "news" that TripAdvisor has conceded that some of its user-generated content is cooked.

Arthur Frommer, a longtime critic of guest-written hotel reviews, is at it again on his blog, blasting the concept of user-generated hotel reviews under the headline, "TripAdvisor is now warning you that numerous hotels are submitting phony recommendations for themselves."

This latest round of TripAdvisor-stomping apparently originated with the Beat of Hawaii blog, which found more than 90 hotels with TripAdvisor review-manipulation warning notices and then trumpeted the news of "TripAdvisor's new stand on fraud."

When TripAdvisor catches a property that allegedly games the system, it prominently displays the following notice: "TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that either this property or individuals associated with the property may have attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans."

For example, Hotel Renew in Honolulu, rated #2 out of 102 Honolulu properties on TripAdvisor, earned a notice.

And, while Frommer and the Beat of Hawaii dismiss the worth of guest-written reviews, Chris Elliott takes a more reasoned stance, noting that he reads TripAdvisor reviews on the road, "but I do so with the knowledge that the travel industry is successfully manipulating the site. I ignore the best and worst reviews (those are typically the fake ones) and whenever I read phrases like 'best hotel ever' or 'incomparable service' I roll my eyes and wonder about that fabled algorithm that’s supposed to catch counterfeit reviews."

I would disagree with Elliott on the matter of the travel industry "successfully manipulating the site."

With its more than 23 million hotel reviews, I don't think the crush of bogus reviews rises to the level of hotels "successfully manipulating the site," although certainly some of them would want to.

I find tremendous value in guest-written hotel reviews, but read them skeptically.

It's the same approach I take when I read newspaper websites, book reviews, advertisements and, oh yes, professionally written travel reviews.

There is nothing holy about the professionals. And, there often is wisdom in the masses.

There are great hotel-rating services out there, and you should use them in conjunction with guest-written reviews to get a well-rounded picture.

But, "professionals" have their own prejudices because, after all, they are human.

The dirty little secret about getting advice from a travel agent is that they have business relationships with "preferred" suppliers who compensate them especially well because of all the guests that the agents send to the hotels. So some of these agents might steer their clients to a Marriott property instead of a Starwood hotel because Marriott might give the agent a better deal.

Of course, online-travel sites have preferred relationships, too, and many bias their displays.

And, travel agents, like trade journalists, often get discounted rates or free rooms to entice them to visit and say nice things about particular properties.

This is not to say that the professionals are bought off. Hopefully, the vast majority still have integrity.

But, when scoping out a hotel, use your brain, talk to people, and read both professionally written and guest-written reviews. Don't take any of them in isolation.

One of the shortcomings of the TripAdvisor reviews is that TripAdvisor, unlike some other review sites, demands no proof that the reviewer actually stayed at the property.

That could be a tough requirement for TripAdvisor to impose, even if it wanted to, because TripAdvisor doesn't actually book any travel, but funnels consumers off to advertisers for bookings.

TripAdvisor takes fake reviews seriously because, when you take its business model into account, guest-written hotel reviews are its bread-and-butter.

TripAdvisor's advertising/media revenue is contingent on consumers visiting TripAdvisor over and over, and spending some time there, going through all of that content.

When I'm traveling, I consult TripAdvisor's hotel reviews and find them to be a valuable tool, warts and all.

I think the hidden agenda of some of TripAdvisor's critics, like Frommer, is that they consider the democratic empowerment of the consumer and the Web in general to be one big blemish.


RobertKCole said...

Great insight as always Dennis.

A good approach when reying on the recommendations of others is to "trust, but validate." The validation aspect has always been a bit tricky with TripAdvisor and a number of properties and third parties have taken advantage of this to improve their ratings and ranking results.

This work was euphemistically described as actively "manging" Trip Advisor. In some cases, it was responsibly managed - providing timely responses & feedback to negative reviews. However, some discovered that a bogus positive review could negate the impact of a negative review. Incremental positive reviews moved the property up the ranking ladder. There was also a direct monetary benefit for those involved.

Your point was very true - for popular, high demand properties, it is extremely difficult to make much difference in the rankings due to the sheer volume of legitimate reviews. The real issue arose with new properties and smaller niche players in major destinations or properties in smaller markets.

Trip Advisor is a great resource for crowdsourced hotel reviews, and provides very valuable information. Trip Advisor is not the all-knowing source of truth in the travel universe. It is a good tool, and like any tool, it serves a specific purpose - not every purpose.

Personally, I like Priceline's scorecard that is based on data provided by individuals who have actually booked through Priceline and stayed at the property. Unfortunately, there are not nearly as many of these people compared to the army of reviewers on Trip Advisor. That is a definite trade-off.

Not to be egotistical, but having worked with hotels and destinations for the past three decades, I may have a bit of an advantage over the average leisure traveler when I research a destination. I have a preference for quality over quantity of rviews.

I would think you might fall into this category as well, but the great thing is that despite our backgrounds, we both still find value in researching properties and destinations. There is undoubtedly value in the process.

Trip Advisor is not evil itself, but some of those in the crowd are undermining its social utility for personal gain - that activity could be described as evil. It tarnishes Trip Advisor a bit, but by no means makes it worthless as some competitors have claimed.

As with all things in the travel space, the flaws of Trip Advisor will serve as a catalyst for improvements in the process - either by Trip Advisor /Expedia, Priceline, a competitor or a new entrant into the space.

One thing is certain, we have now passed from the art to the science phase of collecting and communicating hotel reviews. That is a good thing - a better informed consumer is a better traveler.

Anonymous said...

I don't beleive that TripAdvisor is being mass manipulated as they have been inferring. I used and contribute to TripAdvisor each time I plan travel.

Isn't it in Frommer's interest to dismiss the validity of the millions of reviews on TripAdvisor? Wouldn't he see TripAdvisor as a threat to his book sales?

So, we are to believe that all things Frommer are righteous? Check out this post on his very own blog:
Someone adds a comment about a glowing review that the Frommer's Bermuda 2009 guide includes of a hotel that's not even opened.

Jeff Talajic said...

Great post. I think there's another potential solution to the problem of "fake" reviews--a user generated content community.

Think about Wikipedia. Anyone can go in and start editing stuff with commerical purposes, but the gatekeepers of Wikipedia will quickly spot and remove it.

TripAdvisor doesn't seem to empower their top reviewers to also be their community gatekeepers, and that's a shame. It would give them tons of street cred. They wouldn't even have to defend themselves,

My company is currently working on a travel site with a wiki-like community element, although what we're doing is a few months away from being ready for primetime! One philosophy to embrace is essentially giving the reviews/content to the community--give them the keys to the castle, and they will treat you right. I think that's too risky a move for an entrenched market leader like TripAdvisor unfortunately.

@toddlucier said...

As I've written about on the positive reviews on Trip Advisor can boost revenue 20%.
With such a huge incentive it is clear that some may resort to the easiest way to achieve positive reviews.

Fortunately there are easy ways for hoteliers to garner positive reviews from their ideal guests and a few of these tactics got the full support of Trip Advisor CEO .

When it is so easy to get legitimate positive reviews, hoteliers must be called on the carpet when they break the rules. Clearly there must me more operators gaming the system than are currently flagged by TripAdvisor.

ram badrinathan said...

There is only so much humanely that can be manipulated relentlessly. As volume grows the incidence of the manipulation as % of total reviews will keep decreasing. Also it is in the consumers interest to take Tripadvisor as one perspective. On the net you are click away from another perspective ( editorials, other communities, discussion forums)..

And it is in Frommer interest to take on Tripadvisor, though his point is not entirely valid. There is some truth in everyone's perspective but fundamentally crowdsourcing solves the problem in the long run

Donald said...

I appreciate the labour you have put in developing this blog. Nice and informative.

Anonymous said...

A good solution would be to overlay recommendations against the portability of a user's social network / social graph (e.g., Facebook Connect, Google Friend Connect, etc). Meaning, instead of a review from a complete stranger get one from a friend or a friend of a friend. There are a number of promising startups in the space trying to do this.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, you fail to take into consideration the actual algorithm that TA supposedly uses to weed out fake reviews...they develop the algorithum, so it performs in the way that they they can make any desicions, in any way they choose AND take actions they have deemed necessary. All this is done without the particular business' permission or even involvement.

Doesn't this sound awfully GOD-like to you??? Find out from some of the small businesses how TA actually operates...they inform you that some of your reviews have been deemed suspicious...what does that mean? Suspicious??? They are very cagey and never actually accuse the business of posting their own reviews but they punish these businesses by taking off the ones they have deemed suspicious (still a mystery which ones they are).

We actually had a reviewer from stay with us. She posted a review on TA and hers was one of the reviews removed. We contacted her with the hopes that one of them was hers...low and was. After she contacted them, they actually sent her an unsigned email apologizing for the delay in posting her review. We have all the communications from TA and the reviewer, but TA simply ignores our protests. Do you really think they will admit that their algorithm failed???? Yet, they use this system to rate businesses based on a secret method using invalid data?

Why would they possibly change their system, since no one knows the truth about how they manipulate it all?

Be real...would you really only read all those good reviews...don't you check the site for all those bizarre posts? Just like in journalism, good news does not sell would they sell any advertising if they weren't so controversial?

Ask the businesses what kind of managerial reply they can post. The truth is that TA will not let a business even hint that the review isn't 100% valid. They insist that the business acquiesce or they will not post the reply. Haven't you noticed the lack of managerial replies? How can a business possibly apologize for a non-existent issue?

Don't you think there needs to be accountability? After all, isn't TA business like the rest of us? Right now, it seems they are not being regulated in any way.

Many of us in the hospitality industry believe that TA is dangerous and needs to be policed like any other enterprise. Hopefully, the antiquated laws will catch up with technology in the near future so giants like TA will not swallow-up any more small businesses.