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What You Don’t Know About TripAdvisor Can Hurt You

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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

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  • I appreciate that you mention that TA/Viator takes a cut, and it is true- they absorb a significant 25% of what the customer pays, so yes of course we bump up the price somewhat to cover their commission! Viator is also quite pushy about cancellations and reservation rejections, and this year they have gotten aggressive about emailing and even calling repeatedly when customers try to make last-minute bookings and you don't respond within a certain number of hours. It's also true that I get a significant amount of bookings directly through Viator every month, and the TA reviews certainly help our SEO when travelers are looking for my kind of service. It puts tour providers in a tricky position unfortunately =(.

  • You're the greatest for exposing this supposedly "open" website of Trip Advisor. I've written to bunches of travel bloggers and newspapers and no one seems willing to tell this story…Trip Advisor free travel advice… not likelyDo you think you can find Trip Advisor reviews of tour guides on Trip Advisor? Sorry, that's not likely. Do you think you find tour guides with the highest ratings on Trip Advisor? Good luck with that. Trip Advisor now highlights only tour companies paying them 25% of their earnings. Worse than that, travelers may never see the reviews they leave on Trip Advisor… now they are directed to reviews from a completely different website.With over 300 million users, listing $1.2 billion in profits, TripAdvisor bought Viator, the world's largest tour guide referral website. In July, Trip Advisor began to highlight only companies paying Trip Advisor/Viator 25% of their earnings and they are helping to drive independent tour guides out of business. Sneaky system…When a traveler is planning a vacation and visits the Things to do section of a given city, they are directed to a page with a prominent heading, Shop Tickets and Tours. Below this they now see prominent (grey) boxes listing, Day Excursions, Walking Tours and Family Friendly Tours. Almost all independent tour companies offer all of these tours, but you can't find them there. The traveler will only be directed to companies paying Viator 25% of their income.Nowhere is it listed on these prominent (grey) boxes that they will be directed to "sponsored content" by Viator/Trip Advisor. In fact nowhere on any of the Viator offers does it honestly state these are all "sponsored content".Users may not notice the change, but it is not TripAdvisor reviews the traveler then sees, but reviews posted to the Viator website. In other words, most travelers don't see reviews submitted to TripAdvisor on the Trip Advisor website! Only if a traveler ignores the Viator offerings, and begins to scroll far down the page they find, "sightseeing tours". This is all a subtle way to drive independent tour guides out of business since to many users, sightseeing tours implies bus tours with someone droning away on a microphone not the personalized tours independent tour companies offer. On the almost impossible chance a traveler gets this far, it is the first time they can read about tours actually rated by Trip Advisor users.Tour guides from Germany to Australia are feeling the pinch. As an example, in 2010, Curt Milburn opened a one-man tour company, Big Hat Tours in Munich, Germany. Tourists clearly liked his personal approach submitting over 600 five-star reviews for private and small group tours and Big Hat Tours was awarded Trip Advisor's "Certificate of Excellence" for seven years in a row. Now after the recent revamping of the website, requests for tours to independent tour guides like Curt have evaporated.A way that is still available on the website is to hit the little "search" button (microscope symbol) and type in "private tours" to find the actual reviews of Trip Advisor users to reach the best guides in the city. It was the honest reviews of travelers that created Trip Advisor and as the integrity of the website erodes, it may be travelers may begin to look elsewhere for help planning their vacations.

  • Thanks for this info. Do you recommend a more reliable site where travelers can find reviews of restaurants, hotels, etc., by other travelers?

  • May I congratulate you on this outstanding investigative report. Long ago I saw a suspicious pattern on Trip Adviser and realized it could not be relied on. Thank you again for this meticulously researched exposé.

  • I have used TripAdvisor since its inceptioin and have never been disappointed. The reviews and room tips have always steered me in the right direction. So, I'll continue using it based on my personal experience.

  • Thank you everyone for your comments! It's always great to know about other people's experiences. The article has gone viral like no article I have ever written before in the 15 years of travel writing, and the number of private emails I have received from both small businesses, travelers, and even industry insiders who used to work for TripAdvisor is very telling! There seems to be a huge fear in speaking out against TripAdvisor publicly, which really is ironic considering it was originally the place where travelers could speak out against the businesses for the first time. Now TripAdvisor has become bigger and more powerful than any single travel business, and no one feels safe enough to say what they really think. So, again, thank you for participating in the discussion, and for spreading the word! Regards, Heather (who Lydia has inspired to book a Fiat 500 to explore France this summer, lol!)

  • What an insightful article Heather! Thank you so much for the warnings. I will not trust Trip Advisor anymore. I have been enjoying your e-mails immensely and will trust you when I visit Paris again for recommendations. I always use Rick Steves books, but there are some locations he doesn't review, so I would trust you. I will definitely pass on this well written expose of Trip Advisor to family and friends to take their statements "with a grain of salt". It is so much better to trust local people in the cities I have visited as to which restaurants to dine at or for quick bites. Thank you again!

  • Hi Heather,Thank you for the above article re Trip Adviser. I agree – so much so that I now use no travel advisory companies and travel freelance – hire a Fiat 500 and drive! Each night, using Google, I search, book and pay for the next night's accommodation. No problems, no mess ups! I have just travelled 3500 kms across France, all of which was stunningly beautiful!Cheers,Lydia Harman

  • Thank you for this post. TA was the first place that listed comments and reviews that I found back when it first began. Viator was helpful too. And after a few years, negative reviews started to disappear, and you cannot update your review – I tend to use the same places and companies if I love their service, price etc, but my comments were removed as if they were advertising. It's good to have this information in print out there. I was unaware of the paid version, very naive of me after so many trips, but not unexpected.I now do some research on TA and then I track down the smaller operators individual websites and book direct. I am not a fan of bulk booking sites, such as the accommodation ones, and now seek to contact individuals.

  • I have submitted many reviews to trip Advisor. it could be a coincidence, but since Trip Advisor bought La Fourchette I have seen a very negative turn of events. Any review that I submit which is less than favorable for restaurants who are high on TA's list do not get published. I normally express a balanced review, but sometimes the food quality is below par or the owner/manager is observed throwing garbage into the street – things potential customers deserve to know. I have lost any belief in Trip Advisor's impartiality and will no longer read or write their reviews. And full disclosure – I am seeking every possible public forum to communicate this.

  • I still use TA for restaurant research, but with several caveats. Reviews over 6 months old are useless (IMHO), I throw out strikingly great or poor reviews when others are consistent, I also look at where the reviewer is from to gauge cultural issues, etc. The "net" result is TA reviews are but one component. BTW, I never use it for hotels as I once wrote an accurately bad review for an in town swank hotel in a major US city and was contacted by them and essentially offered a bribe to take it down.

  • Thanks so much for this article. I have long been disenchanted by TripAdvisor being the owner of 2 self contained accommodation properties. One property is listed on TA but the only way my other property can be listed is if I use and pay for Flipkey. I used to pay for a business listing (around $360) until I spent 6-12 months arguing with TA about our location and that the way we were listed no-one would ever find us. We are #1 of 1 in our location! Wow! If someone did find us they would be whisked away by TA's lure of booking direct with someone else or by the list of all of the other properties nearby. Yet if you visit the page of one of the properties nearby are we listed as an alternative? Of course not. Last year I had a sales rep from TA hounding me to pay $300 per month – not year – for a business listing saying I would more than get it back from our bookings that would be generated by TA. The hounding stopped when I suggested that if it was so good that perhaps they could give me a 3 month trial which would prove I would get the bookings. Oh of course they couldn't do that. Your article was spot on. I used to use TA all the time when planning a trip. I am about to delete my TA apps from all of my devices. Cheers!

  • Thanks, Heather, for another very useful article. As a retired educator who now travels, teaches, and consults with other travelers, I'm glad that you've brought this dubious source to so many readers' attention. I always recommend your newsletter in my travel classes!