Category Archives: Trip Advisor

Upcoming Forum on Travel and Tourism

Because of my research on travel reviews, I’ve been invited to deliver a presentation at a major tourism conference that’s coming up this Fall in NYC: the Skift Global Forum.  I’ll be speaking there to travel industry executives (a totally new audience for me)…and it’s quite possible that I may be the only academic participating at this event.  Which means that I’m super excited – and more than a little bit nervous.  Fortunately, the event organizers will be providing me with lots of feedback along the way.

A couple weeks ago, I was interviewed by a reporter for the event.  I like how she incorporated my findings about stance adverbials definitely and literally into the photo caption. But I gotta say that if there’s anything more cringe-inducing than transcribing your own speech…. it’s reading another person’s transcript of your speech.  Yikes!  Clearly I need to work on sounding much more fluent, and much less stream-of-consciousness.  So I’ll be practicing my presentation A LOT in the next few weeks!

Among other topics (evaluative adjectives, and references to expectations and disappointment), I’ll be talking about  how linguists can help businesses determine the extent to which their branding strategies are being reflected in online reviews of consumer experiences.

The latest research on the language of online reviews!

I’ve just returned from a large international conference on Pragmatics (=the study of language use in context) that was held in Antwerp, Belgium.  The last time I attended this particular conference – 4 years ago – there were only a handful of papers on computer-mediated communication…and mine was the only presentation about online reviews.  This time, however, there were LOTS of great papers on various CMC genres (e.g., Twitter posts and social TV, Facebook status updates, food blogs, comments responding to Youtube videos, and international businesses’ social media communication).    Most exciting for me was the fact that, besides my own talk about parodies on Amazon reviews, there were *2* other presentations about online review language!  (…hey, that’s a 200% increase in 4 years ;-)…)

In one of these, researcher Tuija Virtanen looked at 237 Amazon reviews of Linguistics textbooks.  Similar to trends identified in several earlier studies of online reviews, Virtanen found that over half of the reviews were positive (5*s), and average review length was 93 words.  She concluded that review writers adapt to the genre by basically using one of two possible strategies: either a “me first” approach, which focuses on the user’s experience with the book, or a “topic-first” approach, which instead emphasizes the characteristics of the product itself.  She also noted that a number of reviewers tell readers what they should do (in the form of recommendations, warnings, etc.), and that several reviewers also refer to what prior reviewers of the product had written.

The other one was Giuliana Fiorentino and Maria Rosaria Compagnone’s paper on Italian-language TripAdvisor reviews.  They looked at nearly 2,000 reviews of Italian hotels — 76% of which were positive (once again, we see the positive skew!).  In their discussion, the researchers touched on the most common rhetorical moves (description, evaluation, narration, persuasion) they found in their data.  Other features they mentioned include a future orientation (ci torneremo), superlatives (bellissimo), and speech acts such as recommendations (dovete andarci).  In addition to being able to practice my receptive Italian skills, I found their talk super exciting because many of their findings were similar to what I have found in English-language TripAdvisor reviews.  This means that although the user-generated online hotel review is a relatively recent genre (TripAdvisor  has only been around for 15 years: it first appeared in 2000), it is a relatively stable one, which relies on a set of pretty standard and consistent conventions.  Furthermore, it is also a global genre.  In other words, as they write their online reviews, people are using language in very similar ways to achieve their goals — regardless of which specific language they happen to be using.  Interessantissimo!

Billion Dollar Bully & Ristorante Scaletta

What do these items have in common?  Both are about manipulating online reviews.

Ristorante Scaletta is the name of a phony restaurant that was recently invented by an Italian newspaper.  The paper then went on to post a number of positive (though obviously fictitious) reviews of this fake restaurant on TripAdvisor.  The story broke in the media about 2 weeks ago.  Once the phony restaurant began displacing other restaurants in the same area in terms of their overall ratings on the site, the newspaper contacted TripAdvsior to explain that they did what they did to prove a point – which is that it’s pretty easy to game the system.  What’s interesting here is a solution the Italian newspaper is proposing to make reviewers (and businesses?) more accountable: requiring reviewers to post a photo of a receipt showing that they really DID dine at the restaurant that they are reviewing.  Intriguing, but obviously, this would open up a whole big can of privacy issues.

Billion Dollar Bully is a forthcoming documentary which alleges that Yelp engages in unfair practices, including pressuring businesses to pay them for advertising, in exchange for Yelp helping to “manage” their reviews on the site.  (“Managing reviews” translates roughly to Yelp either giving advantages to those who advertise with them, or punishing those who do not…as a result of selectively highlighting – or hiding –  positive or negative reviews, according to the direction the company wants to skew impressions.)  It is unclear when the documentary will be released, but when it comes out, I know that I’ll be adding it to my queue!

Is Yelping really helping?

Overheard this week:

  • 3 out-of-town business people explaining to their server how they finally decided on this particular restaurant, after checking out a number of other possible options located downtown: “We Yelped you guys before coming in.”
  • At a newly opened establishment. One server talking to a group of other servers: “I hear that Yelpers in this town are really vicious. Is that true?”

Besides being great examples of word formation processes in English, these bits of naturally-occurring language speak to the pervasiveness of Yelp in our daily lives.

This week, I launched Phase 2 of data collection for the latest project, which is looking at local businesses’ responses to online reviews.  So far, we’ve collected the data on whether or not (and to what extent) area restaurants post replies to reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp.  And I’m now following up by contacting businesses in our sample, to find out what they think about these reviews and how they go about dealing with them.  At this point, I’ve communicated with a handful of businesses on my list, and the general impression I’m getting is that businesses feel like reviews on TripAdvisor tend to be classier than those on Yelp.  As one person I spoke with explained, if someone is going to post a nasty, unfair review, it’s more likely to appear on Yelp than on TripAdvisor.  I’ll be speaking with more businesses this week to see if this impression is fairly consistent across the sample.

And I also believe it’s a just matter of time before we hear someone say: “um, that was really…Yelpful.” 😉

Are unhappy Brits less polite online than their American counterparts?

I love journalists.  I’ve had the privilege of interacting with several of them, and I’ve found them to be a smart, well-informed, and insightful bunch.  What’s more, journalists ask really great questions. Their questions typically bring a slightly different – and often thought-provoking – spin to some of the same topics that I’m interested in.

A few days ago, I got an email from a journalist – let’s call him “J” –  who asked me if I’ve ever looked into relationships between nationality of reviewer and review valence (positive/negative).

I responded by explaining how hard it is to assign categories like “nationality” to a reviewer.  First of all, people move around a lot, so even if someone indicates in their profile that they’re (let’s say) “from Chicago”…what does this actually mean?  That this person was born and raised in Chicago?  Or that they they currently live in Chicago (but maybe they were born and grew up in some other part of the world)?  Or maybe the person is transnational, and considers him/herself to have multiple nationalities?  So nationality can be hard to pin down. Especially so in online environments.

But I was intrigued about what would prompt him to come up with this question in the first place, so I asked him to elaborate.

He told me that, after traveling for several months in Europe recently, he had observed that Brits (i.e., people who claimed to be from a location in the UK in their profile) tended to be “hyper-negative” and “not objective in the least” in their TripAdvisor reviews. (btw, though he shared some examples with me, he also acknowledged that his observations were only  impressionistic and totally unscientific.)

This got me thinking though.

According to a common stereotype, Brits are known for being super polite.  Perhaps even overly so! – as is captured so well in this cartoon:


But there are actually a couple different ways of using language to be “polite.”   The British way of being polite is often expressed in terms of non-imposition, and is realized by means of linguisitic indirectness: as we see in the cartoon above, as well as in the example below.

British sign

I took this photo in a garden on my last visit to England.  When I show this sign to my students in the US, their reaction is “Why is it so wordy…when the point is just ‘Be careful’???”  And my answer is: Because this is considered culturally appropriate language for public signage in England.  We just happen to have different norms for this sort of thing in the US.

And this brings me to my main point as it relates to review language.  In my very first TripAdvisor study, I looked at 1-star “rant” reviews: the very “worst of the worst” hotel reviews.  And even then, I found that about 1/3 of them offered at least ONE positive comment. I argued that when reviewers do this, it helps to construct them as “reasonable” people who are trying to be objective, and who are able to discern quality between different features of the property.

As I’ve given talks about my research over the years and shared this particular tendency, I have been asked by people from Italy, Germany and elsewhere: “Is this a uniquely American phenomenon?”  And it may well be.  I think we do have the tendency to “sandwich” bits of bad news, negative assessment, or critical feedback, between something more positive.  Or even if this is not something that all of us do, it’s usually what is recommended that we should do. We also have a strong cultural orientation toward acting in ways associated with appearing “nice” and “friendly,” even with strangers – and this is quite different from the British.   (It also happens to contribute to why people from other cultures sometimes have the impression that Americans are “phony.”  All of this kind of stuff usually comes down to differences in cultural ways of being.)

Returning back to J’s question, in negative reviews, are US reviewers more likely to present a balanced critical perspective (i.e., “be sure to include the good with the bad”) than British reviewers?  And in contrast, are Brits more likely to “tell it like it is” when they have a criticism?  (After all, just because they tend to be indirect in telling others what to do doesn’t mean that they are going to apply the same level of indirectness when engaged in a totally different activity: posting negative reviews online!)  At this point, I don’t have the answer to J’s question, but it is certainly one that is worth exploring.  Doing so could actually reveal some interesting things about politeness norms and cultural differences  in online contexts.

Article about TripAdvisor in April’s Outside magazine

In the April 2015 issue of Outside magazine, writer Tom Vanderbilt takes a careful and critical look at the business of TripAdvisor. His article weaves together his own experiences and personal observations about the site, along with interviews with TripAdvisor execs and employees, insights from travel industry representatives, as well as findings from academic research. It is an exemplary piece of journalism.

Vanderbilt makes some really interesting points. The following are my “Top 10.”

  • TripAdvisor is a unique “travel industry Goliath,” with no serious competitor. Interestingly, the site was originally intended to aggregate web-based travel content…and the feature of user-generated reviews was only added as an afterthought in the early 2000s.
  • The fact that online reviews have basically replaced earlier sources of travel information (guidebooks like the Lonely Planet, or Let’s Go series) is a pretty recent phenomenon. According to Vanderbilt: “Social media officially took over travel in 2010.”
  • Today, TripAdvisor is literally a money-making machine. Last year, the company’s CEO made $39 million. Vanderbilt points out that that this is “somewhat ironic for a site based on the promise of democratization.” And to that I would add that it is also ironic (and rather incredible) for a site whose success is based, in no small part, on the unpaid “prosuming” activities of millions of internet users like you and me.
  • Higher hotel ratings on TripAdvisor often lead to higher hotel prices (“for every point its reputation improves on a five-point scale, a hotel can raise prices by 11 percent”), demonstrating, once again, how much reviews DO impact businesses’ bottom lines.
  • TripAdvisor reviews have also been linked to improvements in hotel quality (he backs this up with a study carried out by Irish researchers).
  • Furthermore, there is evidence that hoteliers are using reviews as a type of “virtual focus group” to get consumer-based information which influences what business decisions get made: for example, decisions related to capital expenditures.
  • In the last few years, businesses have made more of an effort to respond to consumer reviews. And those who do are rewarded for their efforts. From an internal study conducted by the company: “Owners who respond more frequently to comments are over 20 percent more likely to get booking inquiries.” The point here is that online reputation management is extremely important.
  • And, of course, Vanderbilt addresses the company’s efforts to detect deceptive reviews, which include the usual algorithms as well as a “content integrity team” staffed by 250 people.
  • Perhaps a bigger issue than worrying about which reviews are fake on sites like TripAdvisor is the issue of information glut, which results in “loads of info, but no insight.”
  • Finally, for me, one of the most fascinating observations Vanderbilt makes is this: The reviews that we read online can actually end up mediating our own travel experiences. (e.g., “…I made a motion to call the front desk. Then I remembered, from a TripAdvisor review, that there were no phones in the rooms! I suddenly realized that I was reliving someone else’s inferior service experience.”)

TripAdvisor and Class

I was recently in Prague.  Walking around the city, I noticed the usual TripAdvisor window decals, certificates, and plaques.   But my favorite was this DIY version of the now-iconic TripAdvisor logo:


As a traveler, I am grateful to get to experience businesses of all types – from the cheapest of the local joints, to some of the poshest places in the city.  One of things I noticed on this trip is that prominent displays of TripAdvisor creds in businesses seem to be linked to class.  That is, there are more of them in businesses catering to the middle-classes…and they are either not as visible or not displayed at all in businesses that cater to the elites.

Electronic-word-of-mouth​ is important for smaller out-of-the-way places

I recently returned from an amazing week-long yoga retreat in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. The retreat was organized and facilitated by my husband, who is a brilliant yoga teacher. (Of course I’m not biased or anything…) This was his fifth international retreat, but our first one in Guatemala. The location was spectacular! We practiced for 2 hours every morning in a tranquil space with THIS stunning view.

No wonder everyone loved it!

The retreat center (Villa Sumaya) is a beautiful family-run business, and the owner, Wendy, cares about every detail of the property. As one of the retreat participants said “It feels more like you’re staying in someone’s home than in a hotel.”

During the week, the staff asked us a couple of times to share our experiences there on TripAdvisor when we returned back home. Once again, I was struck by how much places like this rely on “electronic word of mouth” in sustaining their business. The only way to get to Villa Sumaya is a 20 minute boat ride across part of giant lake, so it’s not exactly a place that you’ll stumble upon accidentally. Online reviews seem to be really important source of information for spreading the word about how unique and special this “off the beaten path” place is.

Reviewer Identities

This is about one of my favorite topics.  And it’s a longer post, so you may want to grab a cup of coffee or something else to drink before you settle in and start reading.

As I was writing my very first article about the linguistic features of complaints in online reviews, I realized that there were a LOT of other really cool things to explore in this set of 100 TripAdvisor “Rants”! (In fact, I came up with a list of 9-10 potential topics, and so far, I have only gotten around to researching about 3 or 4 of these.)

So for my first follow-up project (after the “complaints” study), I decided to tackle the topic of reviewer identities. I spent an entire summer reading about identities online. What I found was a lot about gender identities, children/adolescent online practices , and a bunch of carefully-controlled laboratory experiments testing various hypotheses. None of this was exactly what I was after. The research that was the closest to what I was interested in (identities in social media) was restricted to only examining the identity information found on users’ profiles.

But I wasn’t interested in user profiles. In fact, when I went back to look at the profile sections of my 100 TripAdvisor reviews, the overwhelming majority of authors had left most of their profile info blank.

Instead, what was interesting to me were the ways in which authors told us something (and very often MANY things) about themselves in the actual texts of their reviews.

I often use the following example to illustrate this phenomenon. This is an excerpt from one of the “Rants” in my original TripAdvisor dataset.

I booked this hotel with the intention of taking my husband to a “fancy” hotel in which we usually cannot afford. At $266 per night I THOUGHT that’s what we would be getting. […] My husband is a soldier in the US Army, and I wanted to take him out for a nice weekend on one of his ONLY weekends off. We ended up spending over $600 on this place and now we are in debt. $30 a night for parking really took a toll on us.

What can we tell about “who this reviewer is” after reading these 3 sentences? I argue that through the author’s language choices, we can determine that the author is: 1) a woman who is married (my husband), 2) to a military spouse (My husband is a soldier in the US Army), and 3) that she has a limited family income (a “fancy” hotel in which we usually cannot afford…now we are in debt).

Whether or not it is the reviewer’s intention to reveal all of these details about herself, this excerpt is a great example of how much information about an author’s identity can appear within just a few sentences of a review. (It also illustrates how much could be missed by looking only at the reviewer’s profile to learn about her identity. Her profile section was mostly unpopulated.)

Some people may argue that we can never really know who the author of this review is.
I mean, maybe she’s not really a financially-constrained Army wife. Maybe she’s some wealthy guy with a trust fund, pretending to be financially-constrained Army wife. Sure, there is always some possibility that this could be the case.

So, who is that “real” person behind the text? Well, with most forms of online communication, we can never be 100% sure. But perhaps that’s not even as important as we think it is. What we end up reading off of texts like these is the authors “constructed identity.” In other words, online (and offline) people use language in ways that both TELL and SHOW us who they are…or who they want us to believe they are.

Ok. So let’s assume that this author really IS the person that she tells us she is. What does she have to gain by telling us all of this personal information in her review? I argue that it is through these linguistic details that the reviewer establishes she is some kind of a ‘real’ person, with economic constraints as well as with legitimate consumer expectations. Most likely, readers like ourselves take this identity information into account (though again, with varying degrees of awareness) as we interpret her evaluation of this particular hotel throughout the rest of her review. This is corroborated by scholars working in other fields, such as information systems research (Forman, Ghose, & Wiesenfeld, 2008) who have found that users of online reviews attend as much the perceived identity of the person writing the review as they do to the actual product information that’s being presented.

[A side note: Some sociolinguists might also point out that, in the above example, the non-standard construction in which we usually cannot afford is an example of a phenomenon known as “hypercorrection.” This is what happens when an individual MISapplies a grammar rule that s/he is not entirely sure about… usually in an effort to sound more formal or educated. Here, in order for this sentence to be grammatically correct, the relative pronoun which should actually not be preceded by the preposition in. Evidently, the author is over-applying the prescriptive “rule” of not ending a sentence with a preposition…and mistakenly adds the preposition in the “correct” position, although this construction actually does not call for any preposition. Hypercorrection like this is often a marker of class anxiety.]

I have developed some of these ideas in more detail in a book chapter about TripAdvisor reviewer identities. This chapter is part of a recently-published volume called “The Language of Social Media: Identity and Community on the Internet”, edited by Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg.   It’s a really nice volume with several fascinating contributions. Here’s Philip and Caroline’s opening chapter which frames the main topics covered in the rest of their book.

TripAdvisor Reviews in the Mass Media

Sometimes I have trouble sleeping. When insomnia strikes, I have found that watching a few consecutive episodes of a television program that follows the same basic episodic structure can work wonders. As far as genres go, reality shows seem to do the trick more quickly than drama. Having cycled through the offerings on Hulu available for Chopped and Project Runway, I recently found a new program: Hotel Impossible.

This series is about a consultant who visits hotels, and who tells hoteliers concerned about the state of their business what they can do to improve their property. Here is the program’s description from Hulu:

Anthony Melchiorri, a no-nonsense hotel “fixer” tries to help turn struggling hotels around. Each episode features a hotel fighting for its life. Can Anthony Melchiorri revamp the staff and transform the hotel?

What I find fascinating is that point in the episode when Anthony asks the hotel owners “What are customers’ impressions of your hotel?” Without fail, every time, the hotel owners appear be completely oblivious to the existence of online reviews. Anthony then pulls up on his tablet several online reviews of their property, and reads aloud excerpts from TripAdvisor to the hotel owners.

TripAdvisor has been in existence since 2000. Are we supposed to believe that now, 14 years later, there are hotel owners who don’t think about looking at online reviews of their properties to find out about customer’s impressions? Seriously? (Although it’s likely that this speaks more to the hokeyness of so-called “reality” television than to actual hotel management practices… but who knows?)

Actually, in my own research — and in other research I’ve read on the topic – I’ve found that only around 7-13% of reviews are followed up from a post by the business. Obviously, not all businesses have the human resources to respond to reviews. Especially smaller businesses. But surely all businesses are at least aware of online reviews. Because these days, just about everywhere we turn, in just about every corner of the world, we can see signs for TripAdvisor or Yelp.

TripAdvisor sign in Bali, Indonesia
TripAdvisor sign in Bali, Indonesia

Btw, speaking of Hulu, a few weeks ago, I watched an episode of Modern Family, where the Pritchett-Dunphy clan traveled to Australia. TripAdvisor is mentioned by one of the characters in this episode of the popular sitcom, showing just how embedded this phenomenon has become in the fabric of mainstream.