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By Vikram Singh

When TripAdvisor was founded in February 2000 in a small office above Kostas Pizza on 315 Chestnut Street in Needham, Massachusetts, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the amount of time and energy it would consume, and the strong emotions it would conjure.

Since I started my blog in 2013, I have consistently fielded questions about TripAdvisor. Looking back at the sheer volume of time I spent answering these complex emails, I think it’s time to for me aggregate my knowledge, experience and advice in one place. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions, along with my responses.

Is my competition trying to take my hotel down on TripAdvisor?

Short Answer: Yes, it’s possible.

Long Answer: I get asked about this a lot by hoteliers around the world. “You are not being paranoid” is how I start most replies. There are some hotel owners/operators who turn to the dark side when it comes to TripAdvisor. Instead of improving their own product and service, they trash their competition. These are the folks that the youth today refer to as the haters.

The hospitality industry has always had its fair share of bad apples. Anytime you claim something is powered by algorithms, there will be a group of players ready to game the system. In a time when so much power is bestowed upon TripAdvisor, a lot of time people feel desperate to win. Desperation should lead to hard work…but often leads instead to a “win by any means” mentality. How many hotels walk on the dark side by writing/sponsoring their own glowing reviews and/or posting negative ones for their competitors will never truly be known.

Offenders are not just mom and pop operations. Let’s not forget Peter Hook*, a senior executive at Accor Hotels who took it upon himself to write awesome reviews for his own hotels while posting negative ones for competing brands. He got caught when the TripAdvisor Facebook app linked his anonymous username “Travare” to his Facebook account — after he had posted 106 reviews in 43 cities!

This incident happened all the way back in 2013… so how have things changed? Elementary, Watson. The bad guys have gotten much smarter.

*Self-fulfilling prophecy: He described himself in his Twitter bio as the “Director of Propaganda” for Accor hotels in Asia-Pacific.

Can you game the TripAdvisor “algorithm”?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: It has been done, and has led to some epic fails for TripAdvisor.

  1. Bellgrove Hotel, Glasgow. In 2013, this “hotel heaven,” a hostel for the homeless, made it onto the list of TripAdvisor’s 100 best places to stay, thanks to the efforts of pranksters who posted numerous five-star reviews.
     
  2. La Scaletta, Italy. Italians know their food, fashion and automobiles. Apparently they also know how to expose the flawed “algorithms” of the largest review site in the world. Read how a non-existent restaurant made it to the #1 spot. I gotta give it to the Italians on this one…the phone number for the restaurant was that of the city’s police station! Prendere in giro! The final burn: In December 2014, the Italian Antitrust Authority fined TripAdvisor €500,000, complaining that the site had failed to adopt controls to stop false reviews while promoting its content as “authentic and genuine.”
     
  3. The Shed at Dulwich, South London. All the British food jokes aside, London now has a ton of exciting chefs and restaurants competing for dominance in a growing food and beverage scene. Enter freelance writer Oobah Butler. His fake restaurant in South London became “London’s Top Rated Restaurant” on TripAdvisor. And this was all happening in 2017, not that long ago.
     
  4. The Riu Imperial Marhaba, Tunisia. This story is really tragic. Thirty-eight people were shot at this hotel, and it had closed its operations. Yet TripAdvisor included it on its coveted “2016 Traveler’s Choice Award” list. Makes you wonder, when do you become too big to do basic research when making your award lists?
     

PSA: Don’t put your life in the hands of a review site.

Let’s take a brief moment to address something terrifying about TripAdvisor: Profits will always be more important than people.

For me, the darkest side of TripAdvisor’s unchecked power and accountability was exposed in 2017 by The Milwaukee Journal, which uncovered how reports of rape and assault at some all-inclusive resorts in Mexico were deleted from their site. These two publicly posted excerpts really highlight the problem:

Exhibit A:

Milwaukee Journal: Why were these warnings deleted?

TripAdvisor: They were “determined to be inappropriate by the TripAdvisor community,” or removed by staff because they were “off-topic” or contained language or subject matter that was not “family friendly.”
 
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked to see the posts that were removed. The company refused.

Exhibit B:

When there were murmurs that the US Federal Trade Commission would be getting involved, TripAdvisor put out an official response via The Verge and Engadget. Here is an excerpt:

“We are not aware of an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission nor have they contacted us. TripAdvisor is a global user-generated content platform that enables travelers to post positive and negative reviews and forum content about their experiences. We receive 290 pieces of content a minute and need to ensure that information posted on our site adheres to our content guidelines to ensure the integrity of these posts. We stand by our publishing guidelines and how they are applied.”

What I heard:

  1. The FTC is not coming after us, we are funded and have tons of cash for lawyers, so all is good with us.
     
  2. We get 290 pieces of content/minute for free. You really think we should be expected to hire enough people to go through it?
     
  3. We stand by our “publishing guidelines”… too bad about your death, robbery and sexual assault.
     
  4. Now if you’ll excuse us, we will go back to selling ads to hotels and restaurants.
     

The fact of the matter is, when you book a room at a hotel and make the decision solely based on the “world’s largest review site,” you are sometimes taking your life into your own hands. Remember, just as with Facebook: it’s a free site and they owe you absolutely nothing.

Do you use TripAdvisor to research personal travel?

People on my blog ask me a ton of personal questions. Should I feel like a celebrity? Short answer: No.

Whether or not I personally use TripAdvisor is a common question. Yes, I do. But, like anyone who does research on TripAdvisor, I’ve had to learn how to analyze what I’m seeing. I almost feel like Sherlock Holmes when I am reading a hotel or restaurant’s TripAdvisor page, looking for clues and using astute observation to determine what’s really going on.

I do not have a degree in psychology or behavioral sciences, but I have to say that I am a Quantico-level fake hotel review spotter. The sheer number of hours I have spent on TripAdvisor has given me almost perfect clarity. I feel like Neo in The Matrix…making the bullets slow all the way down. (Here is a link for some of you young readers.) The fact is that anyone (with a little practice) can spot the low-quality reviews posted by competitors, tricksters and desperate owners.

Here is my typical process, in case you want to sharpen your own methods:

  1. Look Beyond the Algorithm. I check to see how heavily the hotel is investing in TripAdvisor advertising. The amount money a hotel is spending on TripAdvisor advertising equates to how much time, energy and money is NOT getting spent on things that matter. Example: I can see when a hotel general manager’s bonus has been tied into their TripAdvisor rankings. That means the GM is spending a ton of time online, instead of in the hotel lobby talking to guests. As a user, you need to realize that TripAdvisor stars and rankings are guidelines, not commandments. To find real value, you have to dig deeper than the surface and play with the price and location filters. As with any set of data, you have to segment to win.
     
  2. Are They Trying Too Hard? I look out for hotels that press too hard for you to leave reviews online, offer special prices in exchange for reviews, etc. When a hotel steps into desperation mode, you know a lot of time and energy is going into collecting the volume of reviews and not the quality of the product itself. I have seen it all…from hotels offering to “complete” the review for me, to them sending me 10 emails requesting a review, to placing TripAdvisor review cards in the W/C. Remember folks: Desperation is never attractive.
     
  3. ‘Everything Is Awesome.’ Oh, great… I now have that song from the Lego movie stuck in my head! For those who don’t know, here is a gift that is sure to take over your day (and night!). These hotels are easy to spot because everything there is awesome. It is impossible to run a hotel that is all things to all people. When I see a barrage of awesome reviews non-stop over a short period of time, it pretty much signals that there is something going on that deserves more scrutiny.
     
  4. Go Direct. What do I do when I have a question/doubt? Email the hotel. It’s easy. Click on the contact page and reach out to a real human who might be able to answer questions, make recommendations, etc. Believe it or not, it works 99% of the time! If you do not have a positive experience doing this, you will know what’s behind the curtain of the TripAdvisor reviews and rankings.
     
  5. Diversify. TripAdvisor is not the only review site out there. Don’t forget the little search engine that is out to take everyone’s lunch. Google’s hotel reviews are a good source for quick concise content. Before I dive into TripAdvisor and start psychoanalyzing their “trusted” reviews, while getting hit with terrible banner ads and being yelled at to “book the best deal I will ever see in my whole damn life”… I locate the hotel on Google and see if there are some usable reviews. Let’s not forget there are a ton of professional travelers that post some truly amazing long-form hotel reviews. Here is a link to one of my favorite hotel review sites. They are not the “biggest review site,” but they are definitely covering a decent spread of small and large hotels in long story form with clear photos.
     
  6. Log Off. Last but not the least. Friends don’t let friends browse TripAdvisor while logged into their account! Right now is a pretty bad time for privacy. Let’s not divulge more information about ourselves to a multibillion dollar corporation! You don’t need them to serve you more “targeted” banner ads that you ignore, while they are heavily pushing hotels to buy these useless ads. TripAdvisor’s “Just For You” recommendations is not a feature designed to make your life better…it’s an avenue to sell more ads.
     

PSA #2: TripAdvisor’s homepage tagline evolution tells a story.

There is no hiding the fact that American companies love their taglines. TripAdvisor went after the whole trust thing hard for the longest time, until trade law finally caught up with them.

2006: “Get the Truth. Then Go.”
2010: “World’s most trusted travel advice”
2011: (April) “Over 45 million trusted traveler reviews & opinions”
2011: (September) TripAdvisor is banned from claiming that their reviews are “trustworthy” and must remove the following phrases from their website, courtesy of British Advertising Standards Authority:

  • “Read real reviews from real travelers”
  • “Reviews you can trust”
  • “More than 50 million honest travel reviews and opinions from travelers around the world”
     

2013: “The World’s Largest Travel Site” (The word “trust” is completely gone.)

2018: “The world’s largest travel site. Know better. Book better. Go better.”

Are TripAdvisor’s sponsored placements and ads a good idea?

Note: This is probably the most common question I get.

Short answer: No

Long Answer: Don’t pay to drive traffic to OTAs. They definitely don’t need your help making more money. If you need “brand exposure,” invest in your service and product instead. Investing in impressions and click-based ads on a platform that is not connected exclusively to your website and booking engine defies logic. Unless you are P&G/Unilever/General Electric with money to burn…spending money on banner impressions is a huge waste of your marketing dollars.*

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom … not the end.”
— Commander Spock, USS Enterprise

How about you invest in these 5 things instead:

  1. Make a better hotel website.
     
  2. Invest in better hotel content and photos.
     
  3. Get a better hotel booking engine.
     
  4. Improve your product value.
     
  5. Invest on Google, and drive direct traffic.
     

Bonus tip # 6: Subscribe to my blog. It’s free!

*I refuse to debate folks who love to talk about how much traffic VOLUME they get from TripAdvisor, or how well their campaigns are currently performing. I get it, you read things on the internet. I will someday run ads for the hotels I am working with ONLY when I can link the ads directly to the hotel’s website from TripAdvisor. You know, like the cool option I have with Google? If I am spending on ads, I want to exclusively close them on my most profitable channel. Thank you.

What do you think of the good ol’ TripAdvisor business listing?

Short Answer: This prehistoric marketing tactic by which you spend money for a link, which is declining in volume every year, deserves to be in a marketing museum.

Long Answer: I am old enough to remember when TripAdvisor launched their infamous Business Listing for hotels. I am also old enough to remember when you could get some pretty interesting results on Google from listing in online business directories. Wow, this took me all the way back to the late 90’s, early 00’s!

Fast forward to 2018. TripAdvisor still successfully charges a lot of money for placing a link to your hotel website. I must hand it to their marketing machine for showcasing the yuge value of this link. The word “convenience” gets thrown around a lot. How helpless are hotel guests that they cannot open another tab in their browser and just Google the hotel that has piqued their interest on TripAdvisor?

Here is the kicker. Over the past several years, the volume of traffic from a TripAdvisor business listing has dropped across the board for all hotels that I have worked with. The success of the new TripConnect CPC and InstantBook products has something to do with this. Why sell you a click for just a flat fee? Why not make a % commission on top of it by converting those clicks. The whole convenience argument starts to fall apart when you realize that anyone booking travel in this day and age has at least 5-10 tabs open on their browser.

So I cannot understand why hotels continue to pay for a simple link to their website from a page on a third party site. Possible answers:

  • Convenience. You really think someone smart enough to read online reviews cannot open a new tab in their browser and Google you? Spending thousands of dollars every year to save your guest a click?
     
  • Fear. There is heavy speculation that your TripAdvisor rankings ‘allegedly’ might decline when you stop advertising with them. Lawyers, pay attention that I am using the word “allegedly.”
     
  • Habit. There is the “we have always done this and it’s now a part of our annual budget” reasoning. An average hotel in NYC is probably paying 10K to 15K for a link. Now imagine they took that cash and spent it on better coffee for guests in their lobby. Or how about renting puppies to hang out with the guests on weekends? Imagine the possibilities!
     

How do I deal with business listing hyperinflation?

Short Answer: Just say no.

Long Answer: Only in the hotel business can you have the audacity to ask for more money (2018 vs 2017) for a link to YOUR own website from a page where YOUR guests have contributed all the content. But wait, there’s more! You are getting fewer clicks than before. It feels like an episode on Black Mirror.

But this is actually happening. TripAdvisor has raised the price of their business listing for every hotel I have worked with in 2018 (that’s over 70 hotels). This is happening even when the total number of referral clicks from TripAdvisor has gone down for ALL properties when comparing 2018 with 2017 YTD. But, guess what? You can keep your old rates if you start buying TripAdvisor sponsored listings! Alrighty then.

Can you imagine a hotel asking for a higher rate, while sharply reducing the value of their hotel product compared with the previous year? People would lose their minds and go right to….oh snaps!….TripAdvisor to post a barrage of negative reviews.

Sometimes it really feels  like that hotels are stuck in the sunken place. Get out!

Do I have to promote my new hotel with TripAdvisor Sponsored Ads?

Short answer: No.

Long Answer: Here is a simple two-question test you can use to find the answer for yourself.

Question 1. Is the ego of the owner/operator tied to TripAdvisor rankings?

Then yes, you will have to run banner ads on TripAdvisor, get little or no reporting in return, and listen to someone talk about Billboard Effect in your marketing meetings. Everyone will be pleased and there will be high fives all around.

Question 2. Is the owner/operator a professional who wants to generate net operating income while offering a good product?

Then no, there are better options for promoting a new hotel. You need to perfect your product first and then grow organically. Organic growth is much more permanent than plastering the internet with banner ads that nobody cares for. In addition, you need to target guests at several different points in the buying cycle. There are many other channels where you can list your hotel and get exposure, just to get a baseline on your newly opened product. There is even this little billion-dollar hotel booking site out of Amsterdam and another one in Bellevue than can help you get exposure without annoying people with sponsored listings. (Alert: these sites also offer banner ads, so watch out for that!)

Are your revenue and TripAdvisor rankings related?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: There is no denying that your revenue is going to take a hit if you lose your rankings. But please understand that it is not the end of the world. To make a profit, you must diversify. Google, Expedia and Booking all have reviews too; don’t put all your review eggs in one basket. Recovery from a TripAdvisor meltdown is possible, but your pricing, marketing and product quality need to be in full alignment. Please do not tie your distribution to a review website.  That way, when the TripAdvisor “algorithm” is not your favor, the odds might still be in your favor.

Pro tip: Do not tie your personal sanity to TripAdvisor. Stay focused on the real world and engage with your guests in real time. The saddest thing I’ve seen in relation to TripAdvisor was at a trade show.  A hotel owner was in tears pleading with TripAdvisor staff, saying that his negative reviews were affecting his marriage. Don’t be that guy; don’t give so much emotional power to a review website!

Conclusion

TripAdvisor is a social media network that uses free content to make money. Your hotel is a physical brick and mortar business in the real world that people can experience by booking a stay. Before you know it, someone will acquire TripAdvisor; then the new owners will figure out more ways to increase their bottom line. You cannot obsess over it, or automatically spend your hard-earned revenue on buying advertising without thinking it through. You are not in high school anymore. In the long term, it really does not matter what people say about you. Run a good hotel, work hard, be kind to your guests, and it’s inevitable that you will make money.

About Vikram Singh

Vikram is Vice President at MCR Investors, the seventh largest hotel owner-operator in the US. In the course of his career, Vikram has provided high-level services, including portfolio-wide audits and asset turnaround strategies, to real estate investment funds and hotel groups in the US and abroad. His strategies have helped power some of the biggest and most successful hotel equity turnaround deals in the last decade. As one of the leading experts in the hospitality, digital marketing and revenue optimization realm, Vikram is a frequently requested speaker at industry conferences worldwide. He is a perennial favorite of audience members everywhere because he emphasizes action-oriented strategies and is never boring. He writes the popular hospitality and travel marketing strategy blog: www.wordsofvikram.com.

Contact: Vikram Singh

vikram@wordsofvikram.com

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