Since its foundation in the United states in 2000, TripAdvisor has grown to become one of the most powerful online travel tools globally. TripAdvisor today is the largest travel site in the world, and TripAdvisor, Inc. includes 25 travel brands. Needless to say that any corporation this size needs to be treated with caution, as TripAdvisor is not just a review forum anymore, but an enormous for- profit business.
So what are the pitfalls of TripAdvisor, and how can we use it wisely in our travel planning?
TripAdvisor is an incredibly helpful tool when planning a holiday, and anyone who has ever done their travel research online would have come across the travel giant. TripAdvisor listings normally come up on page 1 of Google for any keywords even marginally related to travel or dining.
When it was first founded, TripAdvisor was intended to be a platform for travelers and dining enthusiasts to exchange their experiences with hotels and restaurants in the world. Before the web 2.0, we mainly had to rely on the advise of travel agents or “off-line word of mouth” to gain any knowledge on distant destinations and their local travel products. In this regard, TripAdvisor was certainly a revolution that has made travel planning much more convenient, as it can be done online from home, and I would say that it is now possible to plan and even book an entire trip solely through the use of TripAdvisor. However, with such an extensive and almost monopolist travel planning tool comes a power that should not be underestimated. There are certain things that we need to be aware of when using TripAdvisor as our travel planning tool.
Apart from obviously unreasonable reviews such as travelers complaining about insufficient water pressure in their $20 hotel room in Cambodia, we need to be careful whenever we read another persons travel review. Every person has different expectations of a holiday or travel product, and their review largely depends on what these expectations were in the first place. However, we normally don’t know that, so we need to try and figure out what implications a review has for us, personally. When using TripAdvisor, we constantly have to “read between the lines”, and we often have to read many reviews of one and the same product to be able to find a pattern that allows us to assess the value of the product and its reviews. This can be VERY time consuming, especially when we are trying to compare a large number of products. And given the many choices we have today, this is often the case. Therefore, TripAdvisor is certainly convenient, but not necessarily a time saver.
Apart from assessing the true value of real reviews, we also have to be aware of fake reviews. Yes, there is now a whole industry for creating fake reviews on TripAdvisor and other review forums. Fake IP addresses are used to create accounts and submit favorable reviews for paying businesses, or unfavorable reviews for their competitors. Don’t ask me how that works exactly, but it is happening, so it is something we need to be aware of.
Implications of TripAdvisor for Tour Operators and the Travel Industry
TripAdvisor is now not only listing hotels and restaurants, but any kind of travel product including day tours, extended tours and entire travel packages. A problem for many tour operators is the unintentional submission of reviews to the wrong business. Travelers seem to have more trouble reminding what tour operator they traveled with than what hotel they stayed at, for some reason… At Charter North, we have experienced this issue ourselves, and we know of many other tour operators in Northern Australia with the same problem. Of course, this is especially harmful if reviews are negative and pushing down the average rating of the operator. Our good friend and colleague owns and operates the tour company “Kakadu 4WD Safaris”. This is certainly a great company name when it comes to marketing and especially online ranking, but not so much for TripAdvisor. The poor bugger constantly receives reviews from travelers that have been on any kind of Kakadu 4WD Tour, but not necessarily with him.
When we recently contacted TripAdvisor to remove a review that we received from a traveler that had traveled with another company, the response we got was anything but flowery:
“We have contacted the reviewer and asked them to verify the listing they reviewed. Please allow seven to nine days for this process to complete and please note that we will not contact you again regarding this review. After receiving the reviewer’s reply, we will take the appropriate action. If we find no reason to remove this review, it will remain published on the site. Your patience is appreciated.”
Even though not directly rude, the reply from TripAdvisor was certainly very cold and impersonal, and proved that the travel site has the power to decide whatever reviews are being published. Businesses have no ability whatsoever to influence the process. This is a scary thought given that TripAdvisor reviews are so powerful that they could potentially ruin an entire business. For businesses that work trough agents, this is an even greater risk, as visitors might arrive with false expectations created by incorrect information through the agent (we have seen this a lot in the industry).
We had another unpleasant TripAdvisor related experience earlier this year. We had signed up with the online agent Viator, which seemed to be a great option for tour operators like us. However, we were unaware that Viator was being acquired by TripAdvisor at the time. Soon we found our TripAdvisor listing dominated by huge Viator booking buttons, manipulation potential customers to book via Viator instead of going through our website. Bookings through Viator, of course, come with a substantial commission hardly affordable for a low volume business like Charter North. We also had no influence on what tours were featured by Viator/ TripAdvisor. I can tell you, without going into details, that it was a long and stressful process to have the Viator booking buttons removed from our TripAdvisor listing.
What else to be aware of?
I recently read an article which describes further the manipulative ways TripAdvisor is using to generate income, and steer people to book travel products through their platform. And even though TripAdvisor insist that “commercial factors have no influence on ranking”, this is hard to believe after reading this article. It was written by a day tour operator in Paris, Heather Stimmer- Hall, who heavily criticized TripAdvisor for its manipulative and in transparent ways of doing business. She called the travel site “anything but honest and unbiased”, and made some very interesting points on the pitfalls of the travel giant and what is happening “behind the scenes”. Her article is very comprehensive and certainly deserves a read.
After reading this article, you will certainly be more aware of how TripAdvisor actually works. It can still be a great and helpful tool if you make sure you use it wisely. I personally still like to use TripAdvisor as a resource, and I believe that, if you are using it, you should also contribute. But I always make sure I book with operators and hotels directly whenever possible, and I always treat other people’s opinions with utmost care…