Wednesday, July 08, 2009

TripAdvisor needs to move to a "no stay, no say" approach to reviews to protect brand and online reviews generally

TripAdvisor - Hotel ReviewsExpedia's TripAdvisor is claiming more than 20 million reviews on their site. In addition they have been on a steady and apparently unstoppable campaign to buy niche review sites in areas such as Cruise, holidays, airline seats and vacation rental. You'll find the latest list of everything they have bought here. As a result (and as predicted here) they have morphed from a destination site to an online advertising network and meta-search company called (unsurprisingly) the TripAdvisor Media Network.

While that has been going on in the background, the front end of TripAdvisor looks like an Onlnie Travel Agency site with tabbed header, a search widget middle left, deals and promos in the the C column and content and search help below the fold. Clearly a move to compete directly with the OTAs in drawing in consumer loyalty and repeat business.

Despite all the changes, the heart of TripAdvisor is the reviews. The dedication of the user base to write detailed, descriptive, useful and Google friendly content to attract lookers and bookers. This all ties to the baseline of the TripAdvisor band and their tag line - "get advice from real travellers". Unfortunately stories are coming out about possible flaws in TripAdvisor's mechanism for ensuring that reviews are only written by "real travellers".

Just recently the Times in the UK ran a piece called "Who's really writing the reviews on TripAdvisor". The story quoted one hotelier as saying "the system is laughably easy to manipulate....I was even approached by PR first offering to write my reviews for me." Newsweek also covered the story in their article "TripAdvsor tries to respond to fake hotel reviews". In that story journalist Sean O'Neil noted that he did not understand why "TripAdvsor didn't duplicate Amazons "Real Name" feature, which offers third-party verification that a reviewer is the person he or she claims to be".

The question is not whether or not their are fake reviews on TripAdvisor - clearly there are. The question is how many are there and what influence do they have in hotel rankings, especially in smaller destinations. Consumer Travel uber Blogger Chris Elliott put the question best in his story "Does TripAdvisor hotel manipulation scandal render the site completely useless".

The official word from TripAdvisor (care of Elliott's post) is that they have a zero tolerance for fake reviews (they call it fraud) and a three methods for policing this policy. Quote -

"1. Every review is screened prior to posting and a team of quality assurance specialists investigate suspicious reviews

2. Proprietary automated tools help identify attempts to subvert the system

3. Our large and passionate community of more than 25 million monthly visitors help screen our content and report suspicious activity"

An example of this approach can be seen on the entertaining TripAdvisor We're Not Making This Up Blog (in the post called "Exactly") where an irate hotel DOS is complaining that all of the reviews he is writing for his own hotel are being pulled down.

What is missing is independent confirmation that the customer actually stayed in the hotel. My view is that these three steps are not enough. Technology and human review will simply not be enough to screen out the "gamers". The only way to be truly clear of fraud is for TripAdvisor to move to a "no stay, no say" rule. A means of verifying that the person writing the review has stayed at the hotel. This could be achieved though a combination of approaches such as a feature like the Amazon Real Name service, using the enormous amounts of transaction and searching data that the Expedia Inc empire collects, drawing on information from advertising partners and other verification mechanisms.

The counter view is that this would be too hard for TripAdvisor as they do not do any of the bookings, that is left to the advertiser. While there is some truth to that argument, between the data collected by TripAdvisor on click behaviour, information provided by advertisers and information from what must be a massive Expedia Inc privacy killing data warehouse, there is (I am sure) more than enough data available to TripAdvisor to verify. I would not be cheap or easy to do, but in my opinion necessary

What do you think - should TripAdvisor move to a "no stay, no say" rule or is the fraud so small that it doesn't need to?

If you are looking for more commentary on this story also check out
As always I close with confirmation that Expedia owns TripAdvisor. Other than searches for my name, Google searches for "who owns TripAdvisor" is my number one source of search traffic.


Anonymous said...

TripAdvisor needs to do many things. Including change their ridiculous policy of allowing reviews of a place to be posted for up to 5 years AFTER a stay! false or untrue reviews are a fact of life these days, and it can be a double edged sword for an owner. But, the only way to remove a listing with TA (and therefore damaging 'reviews') is to tell them that the business has folded. While we as owners do accept that TA's not perfect, we do ask that they shake up their policies to offer some support to affected owners.

Tim Hughes said...

@Anon - thanks for the comment - good point.

Claude said...

Your quote : reviews of a place to be posted for up to 5 years AFTER a stay.

It's a Seo technic for TA, number of pages and number of reviews is a key for them.

dar najat said...

Hi there!
Excellent post!i'm a riad owner and we're asking trip to publish revews after evidences of stay to avoid confusios for travelers..and fake posts!some bad competitors do abuse if the system in a way or an other and again,before publishing a post,an evidence of stay should be required to recredibilize the system!
It's not fair to have some guys doind some auto-promotion with fake revew sand attacking competitors with ugly post to tarnish their reputation!
After,the fellow traveler doesn't know which is which!!
When i've been doing a post with the help of true believer(an excellent expert for Marrakech too)..the only answerd we had was:"go'ne be a laps of privacy.."
We do agree bur better having a laps of privacy than wrong informations!
Yours sincerly,oliver from dar najat in Marrakech.

Anonymous said...

There are two distinct problems here:
1. Fake negative reviews.
2. Fake positive reviews.

Compulsory proof of stay will solve the first issue but hoteliers leaving fake positive reviews for their own property will have no issues producing a proof of stay (or identity for that matter).

To solve the second problem TA needs to make a drastic change by allowing reviews only from a RANDOM set of users that booked their stay on Expedia.

Danny Sovernigo said...

They should do all of the above.
1. 5 year max time limit on responses
2. real name posted on review
3. clearify how they weight the good reviews and bad reviews. It seems that the medium or bad reviews are weighted much more than the good reviews.
4. management responses...they should be reflected in the positioning, I am not sure they are even considered and if they are what is the weighting.

So far not too impressed, I regret having listed our hotel with them. It would have been better to not list at all.

Anonymous said...

Trip Advisor posts a remarkably small number of reviews to have such an impact. One person explaining why their stay was poor (from their perspective of course) can have considerable weight if it is among only a handful of comments for one or two years. Further, it appears most come from leisure travellers who often do not represent the majority of guests at many, if not most, hotels. The feedback most carefully controlled appears to be that of the responding manager or organizational representative. On the whole, the system is flawed by the limited response count, lack of travel segment randomness and the inability of TA to determine who is writing comments: is it disgruntled guests, vindictive former employees, current managers, competitors or someone who just has nothing better to do. That said, we have little choice but to react to all the comments under the assumption they indeed from someone who stayed at the hotel. I would also add it is not uncommon, particualarly in areas like Orlando, for the commentor to place his/her remarks on the wrong hotel site.

Jon Michaeli said...

It seems TripAdvisor is already headed in this direction, but I would be a proponent of a ratings system, whereby users who have registered accounts are tracked over time as they provide multiple reviews, which are then deemed helpful/not helpful by readers. Users with good "credibility scores" would then be given priority in review listings.

James Morton said...

Interesting. But Amazon implements Real Name by doing a credit card authorization. It seems like users would be wary of writing a review if they're forced to enter their credit card information. If TripAdvisor implemented a system whereby users simply enter their real name, and TripAdvisor then checks that name against Expedia Empire databases, this would be a great tool for men and women wanting to check-up on their wayward significant others!

Chris @ Nozio said...

We at Nozio have implemented an "official review" labeling system which are reviews from users that have booked direct from the hoteliers using their booking engine.

Tim Hughes said...

@all - thanks for a great discussion.

@Anon2 - good point about the fake positive from a hotel. Not sure if limiting to Expedia users will fix the problem especially in secondary and teriary markets where Expedia is not strong in Asia and Europe. But they could use IP tracking, user account tracking and other methods

@Danny Sovernigo - Am amazed by your comment that "I regret having listed our hotel with them". I have heard people say that they are annoyed, especially when their ranking changes dramatically without explanation but this is the first were I have heard such a strong view. Thanks for sharing

@Anon3 - I agree with your point on the impact of the number of comments. I have seen with many large hotels with hundreds of comments that the results end up looking like a standard bell curve. A few comments saying the hotel is excellent, a few saying it is crap and then a bell curve like collection of the majority of comments indicating that the hotel is "fine/ok/good". Not very useful.

@Jon Michaeli - interesting idea of setting trust levels for registered users based on some sort of feedback. I think they should include it in a revamp. Only risk is that you end up in a or Wikipedia scenario where some super/uber users and editors have significant power

@James M - good point re Amazon.

Dennis Schaal Blog said...

Tim: Thanks for the link. Yes, another way that TripAdvisor flags alleged fakers is putting a big notice in red next to the display of their properties on
I like the idea of having review writers prove they booked their stay through Expedia, Hotwire or to qualify to write a review. Two problems with that, though. That would take away some of TripAdvisor's agnosticism re. Expedia competitors who advertise on TripAdvisor. And, the real reason that TripAdvisor doesn't transition to a prove-you-stayed prequalification is that it would drastically reduce the number of available reviews. The great thing about TripAdvisor for advertisers is that it is sticky, and consumers are doing a lot of late-stage travel planning on the site. Reducing the number of reviews would probably limit consumer engagement. Then, on the other hand, giving the reviews more integrity would boost consumer confidence. No easy answers here, and no inkling that TripAdvisor even is mulling a change. But I think some form of verification system would be in order.

Jon Michaeli said...

Here's a link to an article about reviews on Amazon. Included is an explanation about how Amazon has developed its own algorithm to rank the credibility of reviewers and the usefulness of their reviews.

Tim Hughes said...

@Dennis - great comment - thanks

@Jon - thanks for the article link

Ren Zwiers said...

Many reviews posted on Trip Advisor are obviously written by disgruntled hotel guests who grossly exaggerate the problems they encounter. As a regular reader of those reviews, I tend to treat them with suspicion and simply try to gain a general overview of the property, whilst also consulting the generally more reliable reviews on sites like hotelclub, which are written by genuine guests. Regardless of the negatives, I do think Trip Advisor's reviews serve a useful purpose (even if it's just to see how poor most people's English writing skills are)!

Sam Clark said...

I agree with all of this. Anecdotally though, I do think however, that consumers are getting smarter and more suspicious of Trip Advisor reviews. As a operator, one bad review at a great hotel used to be the bain of lives, but we now find that customers are much more distrusting of reviews and more easily persuadeable (one again!) by us.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this is new or not, but I have seen (and still do see) reviews on Tripadvisor that carry label "This review was written by a real traveler on one of our trusted partner sites." for various booking sites, including Expedia.

Kind of interesting that this seems to say that the other reviews are not written by 'real travellers'... wait, what was their slogan again? :)

Tim Hughes said...

@Anon - clearly some real travellers are more real that others! Great catch. Thanks.

Bart said...

Interesting to see several ANONYMOUS comments to this post... But what a wonderful illustration to the root of this issue.

Clearly many are still uncomfortable with having an identity online. In the mean time the more advanced or seasoned web users are looking for ways to bundle their identity with OpenID etc or via cross platform posting via APIs.

At the same time some are still amazed that many take advice from strangers.

To make sense of it all we should take a step back and realize online reviews are the modern word of mouth. BUT don't stop there, instead note that the most powerful word of mouth, -that word of mouth that you trust-, is just one or two degrees away from you.

Undoubtedly TA team realizes the need to tap in to the social fabric (or curve) that allows one to filter on friends or friends of friends or simply to verify identity.

In short it is just a matter of time until identity is verified and becomes a KEY feature in navigating the sea of reviews that are being collected.

Tim Hughes said...

@Bart - great comments. Thanks

Dar Zaman riad Marrakech said...

I'm a riad owner in Marrakech and am very familiar with the pros and cons of Trip Advisor rankings.

Requiring some form of proof of stay would be fantastic, but I can't see how this could be implemented (with privacy issues etc).

Perhaps one way of helping would be to require mandatory submission of photographs (possibly including the reviewer) taken at the establishment.