Category Archives: Trip Advisor

Gaming TripAdvisor

Although my main project these days is focused on linguistic creativity and humor in social media, I’m still very interested in all things review-related.  My friend Michael just sent me this great link about how a VICE reporter “gamed” TripAdvisor by creating a fake restaurant profile on their website.  Although this was not exactly his intention going into it, in just over 6 months, his fake restaurant (“The Shed at Dulwich” = literally, the garden shed that he lives in) became the highest-ranked restaurant in London!

The article is a highly entertaining read.  Or, if you prefer, you can watch the 18 minute video version available from the same link.  To me, the most clever parts were the restaurant’s “mood”-themed menu, as well his unexpected food-styling reveals (“whipped cream quenelles” made from shaving cream & “scallops” that were actually round white bleach tablets).  As a consumer, I know that I am totally a sucker for exactly these kinds of conceits: sexy food pics and a conceptual menu.  I was especially interested to learn about how TripAdvisor responded (at the end of the article).

And on a different topic, I just remembered a recent conversation I had with business writer, Tara Ramroop.  We talked about how language shapes workplace culture: a very relevant topic, but something that not all businesses think about, or approach very systematically.  You can read more here.

Growth in research on the language of online reviews!

Two years ago  I wrote a post about how excited I was to see 2 presentations about online reviews – other than my own – at IPRA (the International Pragmatics Association), the largest international conference about Pragmatics, which is held biennially.  Interest in this topic continues grow as was seen at this year’s IPRA in Belfast, where there were 7 presentations on the topic.  (Incidentally, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland = total playground for sociolinguists!)

My colleague, Tuija Virtanen, and I organized a panel for this year’s IPRA called “Analyzing Prosumer Discourses: Consumer Reviews, Customer Feedback, and other modes of eWOM.”  The panel was international in scope, with speakers from Finland, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, and the US.  Tuija’s presentation dealt with various ways of conceptualizing the rather abstract notions of responsibility and accountability as they are made relevant in consumer reviews: in her case, in book reviews on Amazon.  Michael Barlow’s corpus study examined differences between hotel reviews written by male and female TripAdvisor reviewers; interestingly, he found virtually no gender-based differences in variables such as word frequencies, review length, lexical variation, as well as the other variables he looked at.  Irene Cenni’s presentation built on her prior work, comparing TripAdvisor reviews written in Dutch, Italian, and English; this time with a particular focus on service encounters.  She had a number of very interesting findings, which she plans to publish soon – stay tuned!  The two remaining presentations (my own, and Maria Rosaria Compagnone’s) looked at businesses’ responses to restaurant reviews.  I focused on features of “linguistic impoliteness” found in restaurants’ responses to 1- and 2-star reviews, posted on both TripAdvisor and Yelp.  I showed examples of restaurant owners firing back defensive-sounding messages, which included features like sarcasm (“So much for knowing your Florida seafood.”), dismissing the reviewer’s comments (“As for the rest of it…whatever”) and excluding the reviewer from future contact (“Hopefully this reviewer will stay true to their word and make this their last visit.”).  I thought these responses were unprofessional…until I saw Maria Rosaria’s data! Maria Rosaria’s Italian restaurant owners posted much more aggressive and hostile responses on TripAdvisor – including one death threat!

Besides our panel, there were 2 additional presentations dealing with online reviews.  One of these was about extreme positivity in Airbnb reviews: the presenter focused on UK data, but the trends were nearly identical to what Judith Bridges and I wrote about in our Airbnb paper, published earlier this year.  The other was a more exploratory study examining differences in Chinese and Anglophone reviews and responses.

The next IPRA will be held in Hong Kong in summer 2019.  Will the number of online review-related studies continue to grow?  I’m looking forward to finding out! 🙂

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.