TripAdvisor Credibility Under Attack, Hoteliers On Front Foot

TripAdvisor has peaked. Big statement but I can’t shake it. The world’s largest travel “community” – 11 million members, 30 million reviews – may continue to grow but its reputation among frequent travelers and the industry is in terminal decline. This is crucial. It means the people who matter will move on, leaving it to the ignorant and the socially needy. No doubt it will remain a fantastic business, but one without soul or genuine credibility, absolutely crucial criteria for any media business, old or new.
These thoughts have bubbled to the surface following the brouhaha that’s erupted in the UK over the latest top 10 dirtiest hotels list. Negativity has long been TripAdvisor’s stock PR tactic, generating masses of stories and links. The resulting industry shrieks of outrage are no surprise – they happen every time – but the general media is no longer simply swallowing and regurgitating the TripAdvisor press releases. Powerful old players like the Daily Mail newspaper are questioning the results and also the quality of reviews. European hoteliers are calling for legislation to govern review authenticity.
The outrage is focused on the fact anyone can post a TripAdvisor review whether or not they have stayed at the hotel in question. Cleary, a rival property could post a negative review. Or the property owner’s second cousin by marriage could write a glowing five-star post. Well, yeah. Sure, the industry has complained about this central weakness for years but it’s significant that it is now mainstream knowledge, as is an increasing realization that TripAdvisor’s ragtag community is fallible. The Wisdom of Crowds has been debunked.
The key question is – what does the TripAdvisor community represent? This is a question no-one has yet been able or willing to answer. Certainly many TripAdvisor members appear to be ignorant, poorly travelled and without any sense of context. A lot are also angry and small-minded. As Rod Cuthbert from Viator has pointed out, reviews are often dominated by American travelers, whose view of the world and hospitality does not translate well to other cultures. Then there are the fakers, those posting false reviews and opinions (who TripAdvisor attempts to thwart with a secretive fraud squad and mysterious algorithm).
Of course, there are also plenty of TripAdvisor members whose views are educated and considered but these tend to get lost in the mix, like finding a needle in the haystack. It can be a hugely time-consuming exercise trying to locate a review that actually means something, making TripAdvisor’s claim to be the “world’s most trusted source of travel advice” look like false advertising. However you’ve got to give them kudos for coming up with a tagline magnificent for its ambiguity. It can’t be proved or disproved … it simply is.
So, if you accept that the tide has turned and TripAdvisor needs to bolster the integrity of its reviews, what can it do? The most obvious step would be to allow only qualified reviews, but there are several problems with this 1) since TripAdvisor does not take bookings how can it determine authenticity, 2) it would stem the flow of reviews integral to TripAdvisor’s volume-based business model, and 3) it may be seen as an admission that fraud is part of the current review culture.
Given these hurdles, do not expect change any time soon. TripAdvisor will remain immensely powerful for a long time to come. But now it’s become a big bloated slow-moving corporate creature – and history shows the Internet is best suited to the nimble and the quick. There’s no threat on the horizon, just yet, but surely it will come.

TripAdvisor has peaked. Big statement but I can’t shake it. The world’s largest travel “community” – 11 million members, 30 million reviews – may continue to grow but its reputation among frequent travelers and the industry is in terminal decline.

This is crucial. It means the people who matter will move on, leaving it to the ignorant and the socially needy. No doubt it will remain a fantastic business, but one without soul or genuine credibility, absolutely crucial criteria for any media business, old or new.

These thoughts have bubbled to the surface following the brouhaha that’s erupted in the UK over the latest top 10 dirtiest hotels list. Negativity has long been TripAdvisor’s stock PR tactic, generating masses of stories and links. The resulting industry shrieks of outrage are no surprise – they happen every time – but the general media is no longer simply swallowing and regurgitating the TripAdvisor press releases. Powerful old players like the Daily Mail newspaper are questioning the results and also the quality of reviews. European hoteliers are calling for legislation to govern review authenticity.

The outrage is focused on the fact anyone can post a TripAdvisor review whether or not they have stayed at the hotel in question. Cleary, a rival property could post a negative review. Or the property owner’s second cousin by marriage could write a glowing five-star post. Well, yeah. Sure, the industry has complained about this central weakness for years but it’s significant that it is now mainstream knowledge, as is an increasing realization that TripAdvisor’s ragtag community is fallible. The Wisdom of Crowds has been debunked.

The key question is – what does the TripAdvisor community represent? This is a question no-one has yet been able or willing to answer. Certainly many TripAdvisor members appear to be ignorant, poorly travelled and without any sense of context. A lot are also angry and small-minded. As Rod Cuthbert from Viator has pointed out, reviews are often dominated by American travelers, whose view of the world and hospitality does not translate well to other cultures. Then there are the fakers, those posting false reviews and opinions (who TripAdvisor attempts to thwart with a secretive fraud squad and mysterious algorithm).

Of course, there are also plenty of TripAdvisor members whose views are educated and considered but these tend to get lost in the mix, like finding a needle in the haystack. It can be a hugely time-consuming exercise trying to locate a review that actually means something, making TripAdvisor’s claim to be the “world’s most trusted source of travel advice” look like false advertising. However you’ve got to give them kudos for coming up with a tagline magnificent for its ambiguity. It can’t be proved or disproved … it simply is.

So, if you accept that the tide has turned and TripAdvisor needs to bolster the integrity of its reviews, what can it do? The most obvious step would be to allow only qualified reviews, but there are several problems with this 1) since TripAdvisor does not take bookings how can it determine authenticity, 2) it would stem the flow of reviews integral to TripAdvisor’s volume-based business model, and 3) it may be seen as an admission that fraud is part of the current review culture.

Given these hurdles, do not expect change any time soon. TripAdvisor will remain immensely powerful for a long time to come. But now it’s become a big bloated slow-moving corporate creature – and history shows the Internet is best suited to the nimble and the quick. There’s no threat on the horizon, just yet, but surely it will come.

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9 thoughts on “TripAdvisor Credibility Under Attack, Hoteliers On Front Foot”

  1. Hi Martin,

    Can you add a link to the Daily Mail article you refer to in this piece, it would make an interesting read.

  2. Hi Martin, excellent article and very good point. I think nobody will challenge the fact that TripAdvisor is covering a market need – if they don’t get it right, someone else will take their place.

    Now, if I remember right, TripAdvisor is owned by Expedia… and therefore could go down the path that you describe as ‘qualified reviews’ since they would have access to all the bookings. Although probably Expedia wants to keep the brands very separated: one with an open/neutral policy (i.e. we give you advise but have no interest in what you book) and another one with a more consultative role (we want you to book with us and here is what other customers have to say about the products we sell).

    just some thoughts 🙂

  3. Good article, Martin – it really cuts to the problem with TripAdvisor, that many reviewers are ignorant and it is dominated by US travellers.

    I see you mention TA’s slogan about being the most trusted source of travel advice – presumably they were forced to change it for legal reasons from what it used to be, i.e. “get the truth then go”. That was too obviously false!

    Phil

  4. Great timing Martin.

    When I got the ‘dirtiest hotels’ list and went into individual reviews I just saw an absolute mess.
    Take ‘Pearl of the Pacific Boracay Resort & Spa’ for example. 18 ‘terrible’ votes but still 7 excellent? How’s such a thing possible?

    Then read the individual entries and it get’s even stranger… From “The hotel is dreadful” to “All the bad reviews and nothing great to hear about… I wonder why people do that?”

    How does one expect I could base my trip on such info? I guess one solution would be photos on location… that would ship around the issue of using a booking engine for authenticating travellers… not entirely but it would certainly but the bar higher…

    I am a great fan of social media and the power of grassroots information but unless TripAdvisor builds in some sort of 3 degrees of separation like facebook (I trust friends and their friends). It will fail.

    Bonny

  5. To quote the late, great Jay Chiat, “How big do you get before you get bad?”
    Check out TravelZealots.com. A brand new forum, only travel professionals
    are allowed to post. Very interesting concept!

  6. Excellent points Martin

    we found that tripadvisor did NOT list many responses that our hoteliers had placed in response to negative comments.
    all very well saying “use the right to response”; what good will it do when only negative comments show and hotels don’t get a chance to put things right and comment.

    Couldn’t agree more with the path of qualified reviews according to Expedia’s commercially minded algorithms

    Love the idea of Travelzealots.com – hope it’ll take off.

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