On Message: TripAdvisor is a victim of its own success

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

Mistrust and legal attacks have come to dog the travel review giant. Has it grown too much, and with too little competition?

Marketing and comms professionals in the travel industry privately admit they’re in a quandary over how to deal with TripAdvisor, which although hugely successful has become something of a monster.

A month ago TripAdvisor became the biggest travel site in the world. But one of the great ironies in the development of the internet is that despite its extraordinary ability to democratise the world, certain brands are gaining an unhealthy dominance.

The vast majority of people use Google to surf the web for information, partly because it has always been a brilliant search engine, but more so because it’s pre-loaded on most PCs and Macs. And when one subsequently searches for, say, a hotel, it is TripAdvisor that dominates the first page.

Frequently when I search for info about a hotel I have real trouble finding the official site, having first to trawl through dozens of TripAdvisor reviews.

What’s the problem with that, you may ask? This has happened because TripAdvisor is what people want to read. It is because they trust its independent reviews, which are far more objective than a hotel’s marketing-driven site. But are they really?

It is difficult to say TripAdvisor is a victim of its own success when it continues to grow so quickly, but any big brand must keep an eye on long-term stakeholder trust.

Recent talk of hotels linking up to sue TripAdvisor is symptomatic of a wider problem: too many parties now cynically manipulate the internet’s democratic power for their own ends.

One always had a healthy distrust of TripAdvisor ratings, because only a tiny minority of guests ever bothered to post reviews – and those that did were likely to be those who had a particularly good or bad experience, distorting the picture.

However once hotel marketers cottoned on to the power of TripAdvisor ratings in terms of bookings, it was just too tempting to start posting a few ‘anonymous’ positive reviews. And, of course, the natural progression was to post negative reviews of competitors. 

This has apparently got to a point where some have began to threaten legal action against ‘defamatory’ write-ups.

But what amazes me is how few hotels actually respond to criticism via TripAvisor, something which the site – ostensibly at least – encourages them to do.

They don’t do so partly because they fear it draws further attention to a negative aspect of their property, but moreover because they recognise it’s easier to simply counter one negative review with two positive ones.

This is a mistake, because the long-term effect is diminished trust in the whole TripAdvisor project. Personally I have more respect and trust for a hotel that meets negative criticism head on – and gives a constructive response.

I wouldn’t be so naïve as to predict that TripAdvisor’s potential is now limited, but I do think everyone would benefit from a more honest and transparent exchange of views.

Furthermore, we would all benefit from some more competition, and real alternatives, to the behemoths that TripAdvisor and Google have sadly become.

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