It’s no secret that most travelers will eventually end up on TripAdvisor when planning their vacation. It has become the Google of the travel world, where people go for honest, unbiased reviews of hotels, restaurants, sights and activities by fellow travelers. Except the information on TripAdvisor is anything but honest and unbiased, and it’s only getting worse.
This is an excerpt and summary of a much longer article published on Medium titled What You Don’t Know About TripAdvisor: How the World’s Largest Travel Monopoly Ultimately Hurts Travelers & Small Businesses
If you’ve only seen the good side of TripAdvisor, be prepared to swallow the red pill. Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to vacation planning, especially in expensive destinations like Paris, so this in-depth article will attempt to show you what’s behind the curtain (the summary is first if you just want the main points). The purpose isn’t to rant, but to provide information travelers can use to make better decisions when planning a trip, and to raise awareness in general about how TripAdvisor’s profit-driven practices affect both travelers and small businesses.
What Every Travelers Needs to Know about TripAdvisor
1. Created in 2000, TripAdvisor built its brand on the trademark “World’s most trusted travel site”. But after countless lawsuits in multiple countries, by 2013 TripAdvisor quietly removed the words “trusted” as well “honest” from all of its website marketing (now it’s just the “World’s largest travel site”).
2. An entire industry of “reputation management” companies exists which businesses can hire to create highly believable fake reviews, “fix” their reputation if they’ve received bad reviews, or sabotage their competitors.
3. Even when reviews are posted by honest travelers, there are many good reasons why these are still completely useless to the average traveler when trying to plan a trip (and how spending hours trying to decipher them is a waste of precious time).
4. Hotels which opt to pay for TripAdvisor’s hefty “Business Listing” package get preferential treatment, increased visibility and “access to traffic”, no matter their reviews, rankings and ratings by travelers.
5. Hotels can’t ask for their listing to be removed, but unless they pay for the pricey Business Listing subscription TripAdvisor removes the hotel’s contact information (phone number and website) from the listing (so users have to go on Google to find their phone and website).
6. Hotels, restaurants and other small businesses can lose a significant part of their business if they receive fake negative reviews or get red-flagged by TripAdvisor for “suspicious activity”, yet they often have no recourse except to take the website to court, and many simply don’t have the financial resources to do so.
7. TripAdvisor prominently positions the tours and activities which can be booked through Viator, a company it bought in 2014, at the top and center of their pages. These companies listed on Viator pay 20–30% commissions. So TripAdvisor is blatantly promoting their own companies’ business listings above companies which are independent, even if the latter have better reviews and ratings by the anonymous users.
8. TripAdvisor encourages travelers to book directly through its own website booking system, but takes zero responsibility for any issues with the service booked when travelers experience problems (ie overcharged on their credit card, show up with a booking confirmation but the hotel has no record, etc). This is compounded when booking through TripAdvisor for tours, because they then go through Viator’s system instead of directly to the actual tour company.
The Summary: A complete lack of transparency, follow the money
So to put it all of these points into context, TripAdvisor started in 2000 and built a huge following as a “trusted source of travel information”. Once it gained a dominant share of the market, the number of fake reviews skyrocketed, resulting in multiple court cases around the world. But instead of taking measures to verify and guarantee the reliability of the reviews, they simply changed the “trust” slogan to “the biggest” and began making money as a booking engine, charging companies for preferential visibility, acquiring the booking engines like Viator to profit from the tours they supposedly recommend without bias, and pressuring companies to give up 20–30% of their sales in commissions for added “access to traffic”. The lack of transparency hurts travelers because they think all of the businesses are fairly represented on TripAdvisor, and because their size and power now means they are too big to ignore, pressuring small businesses to work “with” them in order to protect their business reputation. Travelers also don’t realize that when they use third-party booking sites that it represents a serious bite into any business’s revenue, and they make up for that by charging more, so eventually the consumer ends up paying for TripAdvisor’s commissions.
Read the full — and rather lengthy! — article published on Medium for an explanation of these points in detail, as well as the argument for why even the “honest” TripAdvisor reviews, rankings and ratings are still unreliable and ultimately useless: What You Don’t Know About TripAdvisor: How the World’s Largest Travel Monopoly Ultimately Hurts Travelers & Small Businesses