As many of you know, TripAdvisor, which was part of Expedia, was spun-out in an IPO on December 21, 2011. We found ourselves wondering what that might mean for those of you who use TripAdvisor for advice on hotels, and the like. We are not sure the news is good.
You probably know that TripAdvisor, which bills itself as the world’s largest travel site, has over 50 million unique monthly visitors and claims 20 million registered members. Due to its massive audience, it is able to publish 25 new contributions every minute and features over eight million travel photos taken by their visitors. TripAdvisor and its 18 subsidiary travel sites, operated by TripAdvisor Inc., attract more than 65 million unique monthly visitors. TripAdvisor’s subsidiaries include: www.airfarewatchdog.com, www.bookingbuddy.com, www.cruisecritic.com, www.everytrail.com, www.familyvacationcritic.com, www.flipkey.com, www.holidaylettings.co.uk, www.holidaywatchdog.com, www.independenttraveler.com, www.onetime.com, www.seatguru.com, www.sniqueaway.com, www.smartertravel.com, www.travel-library.com, www.travelpod.com, www.virtualtourist.com, www.whereivebeen.com, and www.kuxun.cn.
Of course, now that it is a stand-alone business, TripAdvisor needs a way to create revenue and does so by running ads and providing other services for its business partners. Indeed, this week TripAdvisor introduced a comprehensive Analytics Service for businesses that allow them to us a “management dashboard” to summarize the performance of their business on TripAdvisor at a glance. Hmm, we guess this specific business model means that travelers contribute independent evaluations to TripAdvisor and TripAdvisor finds a way to monetize the efforts of their visitors for the benefit of TripAdvisor. We realize that TripAdvisor need to make money, but when the companies that are TripAdvisor business customers are provided information on the ratings of their hotels or restaurants contributed by members of TripAdvisor or visitors to their websites, it feels like the contributors are being disadvantaged.
One has to presume that the reason for TripAdvisor to provide this feedback to business partners is to allow these businesses to take action and remedy ratings that do not benefit the business. Oh. Well, how will that happen? Well, honorable companies could use this information to reevaluate and improve the services they provide. Conversely, for companies looking for the quick fix might, solving the problem might be to find a way to improve the ratings without having to spend money doing so. If this case were to happen, it would appear possible that some companies could try to game the system.
Yes, we know that TripAdvisor claims to have a large number of analytical programs that root out deceptive evaluations. But the real truth here is that crowdsourced systems are just that. They reflect the crowd that is attracted to that website and the “crowd” brings all of their biases and everyday perspectives when providing an evaluation of a property or an attraction. Given the wide variety of people involved in providing evaluations at TripAdvisor, it can only be expected that reviews will evidence a wide variety of world views. Bad reviews of high-rated property or rave reviews of a previously low-rated property are not necessarily spam. They may be honest opinions. In other words, TripAdvisor may be able to catch flagrant violations of its policies, but it is likely that this in a very small minority of the cases of actual spam reviews. This is not a criticism of TripAdvisor, since it is a fundamental concern of all crowdsourced systems. What is the problem however, is that TripAdvisor has taken a crowdsourced system where people are willing to contribute their efforts without compensation to help other travelers and the company is now going to attempt to make money off their efforts.
Perhaps Expedia thinks the same thing. Recently (just after it spun-off TripAdvisor) it began providing “Expedia Verified Hotel Reviews.” In effect, when using Expedia you can read reviews for hotels in which Expedia has verified that the person contributing the evaluation both booked and stayed at the hotel in question. While this won’t solve all of the problems with people trying to tilt the evaluation system, it will make it more difficult for competitors to trash other properties and for owners of properties to tout their hotels. Good for Expedia.