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.”)

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