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.