With its 25 million user-generated reviews, TripAdvisor has become a traveller's necessity. But criticism is mounting over the reliability of its reviews and the damage it could be doing to the industry. Gemma Sharkey reports.
"Get the truth and go," is the slogan peer-to-peer review site TripAdvisor uses to sell itself, to both the public and the advertisers that bankroll it. And over the years the Expedia-owned site has developed a devout fan base, with 25 million user-generated reviews of nearly 500,000 hotels and 11 million registered members.
Many people would not consider booking a trip without trawling through its pages of reviews, name-checking funnyville, passing through bitter town, stopping at hysteria junction, sometimes reaching the point of no return. But can the information on there still be treated as gospel?
For the past couple of years criticism of the site has been mounting, with hoteliers claiming that reviewers exaggerate and lie, reviewers accusing hoteliers of writing their own glowing reviews, and operators accusing each other of writing damning ones about their competitors.
There have even been cases when hoteliers have offered to pay people to take their bad review down from the site.
These accusations beg some serious questions. Is TripAdvisor losing its relevancy for an increasingly online-savvy audience? Does it need to police its content more thoroughly? And if so, where does the future of online hotel reviews lie?
"Reviews are posted without any check for factual accuracy. The algorithms [a rule written into computer software] used to calculate the ratings and rankings are, at best, odd. And while the worst hotels tend to get what they deserve, the shining lights of the industry rarely manage to reach the top of TripAdvisor's rankings," he says.
Indeed, the effectiveness of the site's policing ability is critics' main bone of contention. TripAdvisor has to serve its global travel marketing business first and foremost and makes money via pay-per-click links and adverts. This means the value of the business is largely driven by the number of reviews posted, as well as the total number of site visitors.
This, as Young points out, calls the site's credibility into question, as it has a vested interest in ensuring that as many reviews as possible are posted, regardless of accuracy. "I'm aware of marketeers' arguments for working with TripAdvisor. It makes commercial sense, but it lacks integrity," he adds.
What's more, while it seems there's nothing easier than to post an inaccurate review, or even take a pop and vent some spleen in the process, it remains difficult for hoteliers to have a review removed or to post a management response without censorship from TripAdvisor's policing system.
Louis Naudi, owner of the Royal Sportsman hotel in Porthmadog, Gwynedd, says: "The management response system is weak and is seen only if a customer scrolls all the way down to the bottom of the page. Customers do not read reviews word-for-word, and management responses are therefore ignored when the damage has been done."
But despite the barrage of criticism, can 25 million users all be wrong? After all, even if the odd review is exaggerated beyond belief, the sheer volume of reviews should eventually paint an accurate picture. TripÂAdvisor actually relies on this as a form of policing.
It says: "Our research shows that the average traveller reads three pages of reviews when researching a hotel - so the overall context provided by this extensive content, together with the candid traveller photos of hotels, gives travellers the ability to make an educated evaluation before they book."
As well as its users forming a sort of futuristic rent-a-cop, TripAdvisor screens every review before it is posted and a team of quality assurance specialists investigate suspicious ones. Penalties for anyone attempting to manipulate the system are handled on a case-by-case basis, but can include a red badge being posted to warn travellers that a particular property is being investigated for potentially fraudulent activity, or manually suppressing the Popularity Index rating for a period of time.
TripAdvisor maintains the site can be good for hotel businesses. A group spokeswoman says: "The majority of reviews posted on TripAdvisor are positive and rate accommodation providers in the UK highly. The reviews tell you a great deal about the people who are using your services; their likes and dislikes, age, where they live, etc. The quality of the content in many reviews is priceless. Reviewers will tell you what makes the best hotels special and how it is done in other countries.
"Anecdotally, we hear from travellers that negative reviews aren't nearly as impactful as how a property handles them," she says.
Her opinion is shared by some hoteliers who believe the industry can use it in a positive way. Liam Berney, owner of the Cottage in the Wood, in Keswick, Cumbria, says: "It is likely that sites such as TripAdvisor are set to expand, and the industry needs to look at how we can make the most of the feedback we receive and use it in a positive way. We need to learn to take the rough with the smooth."
Furthermore, some industry figures think the site is becoming more relevant than the star rating systems used by the AA and VisitEngland.
Jamie Stevens, general manager of Glasgow's Abode hotel, says: "I would always check TripAdvisor before booking anything, as it gives a better reflection than a star rating. Although I believe there is a place for a grading system - how else is a customer going to know what to expect before walking through the door? - the criteria must be transparent to the customer. Five-star in the UK is not the same as five-star abroad."
So, with a meteoric rise behind it, what does the future have in store for TripAdvisor? Ruth Watson, TV hotel inspector and proprietor of the Crown and Castle in Suffolk, has waded into the debate and suggests the site makes some alterations to be fairer to the hotelier. "I would like TripAdvisor to change two things: to stop allowing anonymous reports; and to impose a time limit so reports reflect the current state of a hotel."
Despite this, and other criticisms, TripÂAdvisor has no plans to change the process, as it feels its users are "loyal to the existing model". But although the site is confident of its position and future and is ahead of the game, it might soon have to contend with some competition in the shape of Oyster.com - a US-based website that plans to become professional journalism's answer to TripÂAdvisor.
Oyster uses a team of undercover journalists to review hotels, apparently without bias or agenda, across the globe. And although executive editor of the site Scott Mendintz says Oyster is not aiming to "go after" TripÂAdvisor, he makes no bones about the fact that it is "aiming to take over the world".
Watch out, TripAdvisor, a new messiah may be on its way to end your days as the king of reviews.
FACTS AND FIGURES
TripAdvisor has more than 25 million travel reviews and opinions from travellers around the world including:
- 68,000-plus cities
- 400,000-plus hotels
- 90,000-plus attractions
- 551,000-plus restaurants
- 1,793,000-plus traveller photos covering 100,000-plus hotels
Number of people who thought they were being highly original when they compared the hotel they stayed in to that of John Cleese's infamous BBC show Fawlty Towers: 3,882 (plus a further 1,340 who spelt it Faulty Towers).
TRIPADVISOR USERS GET NASTY
"It was terrible to drink an orange juice with two mices [sic] in the breakfast room." Avni, Kensington
"Find a meth lab a couple miles outside of town for better accommodation." OsideAndBeyond
"Bring your own toilet paper." A TripAdvisor member
"Royal? You've got to be joking, don't even bother climbing the stairs to reception." A TripAdvisor member
"If you like staying in cheap, nasty caravans, then this is the hotel for you." A TripAdvisor member
"Our room was in a side annex, which I have the feeling was occupied by benefit claimants, who are moved elsewhere when guests arrive. In the bathroom bin there were used tampons and earbuds - seriously. Also - don't look under the bed or you will find more treats." Spacemanc 3, Manchester
"There was a strange fungal growth on the dining room ceiling and the first-floor corridor's false ceiling was covered in black fingerprints. If you can avoid looking above yourself or generally have no awareness of your immediate environment, stay here."
"One word - AVOID! The staff are rude and aggressive. The food is cold. The beds collapse. And watch out for Andorran red eye." R Hommond, Belgium