Preferente has been able to interview Stephen Kaufer, TripAdvisor cofounder and CEO whilst its company is being investigated by the advertising watchdog ASA after receiving a complaint on behalf of thousands of hotels that its claims to provide trustworthy and honest reviews from travellers are false.
─ You have been successful in something that the online agencies have failed at, making a brand global. What is your secret?
I’m not sure there is just one secret, but we realized early on that travel was a very important purchase decision for just about everyone. It isn’t just the money… it is the entire vacation experience. No matter how much vacation time you get, it is precious time, whether it be a solo adventure or a trip with family and friends. TripAdvisor was created to help make that trip a great experience, by allowing everyone on the internet to share the good and bad of past vacations. Now, rather than trust a brochure, travellers get the real scoop from millions of other travellers. I think we’ve succeeded over the past 11 years because we’ve always been driven to present the most candid and honest information to travellers. And the travelling public seems to agree, as they keep coming back in ever greater numbers.
─ What impact has the emergence of online reputation had on the tourism industry?
Online travel reviews have hugely changed the way the travellers can plan their holidays – they add an independent view of where to go and stay giving another level of assurance that their hard earned travel Euro is spent wisely. By example, some recent PhoCusWright research we just commissioned shows 96% of users agree that TripAdvisor hotel reviews “Help me make better informed decisions”.
For the travel industry, a site like TripAdvisor has provided massive opportunities to build and promote customer loyalty, compare themselves to their competitors and reach global audiences – all for free. It means all tourism businesses can compete on a far more even keel, with the small guys, who have no or little marketing budgeting, being able to compete with the big guys. We hear countless stories of how travellers connected with an “amazing” hotel or restaurant or attraction that they never would have known about without the breadth and depth of reviews on TripAdvisor. That’s the positive power of internet democracy in action. And, of course, there are some hotels that have long been delivering terrible customer service, in rundown establishments, that can no longer hide under a popular brand name, or prey on roadside travellers who don’t think they have another choice. The power of the internet and reviews can shine a big light on unscrupulous establishments.
─ Do you think online reputation has given consumers more power over companies?
I think online reviews have meant that no one can hide – all experiences, bad and good, can be publicised to the world. As an owner or manager in the tourism industry, you either ignore this customer feedback or you don’t. But, it’s interesting to note that when you do provide a place for freedom of speech, it’s not all about rants – the average score for hotels on TripAdvisor is four out of five, with five being highest. I’d also add that we’ve always offered the ability for establishments to offer their perspective on any review published on our site, with a management response. At the end of the day, we want all opinions to be shown on our site. To the question of who has more power, I think the companies with their brand budgets still have way more power… but TripAdvisor at least allows an average consumer voice to be heard.
─ Do you believe the brand TripAdvisor to be one of your main assets?
I had the idea for TripAdvisor when I was planning a trip with my wife. I was looking for a very special place and surfing the Internet for information. I visited many pages containing only editorial information for destinations, and spent a lot of time looking for traveller´s opinions. It occurred to me that there should be an internet company devoted exclusively to providing information to plan the perfect trip easily. So I created TripAdvisor.
In a nutshell, I am very happy to see that so many people all over the world share my passion for travelling and sharing experiences, and it makes me proud to see that TripAdvisor has turned into the largest travel website in the world that helps travelers plan and enjoy the perfect trip.
─ How important is transparency to a business such as TripAdvisor?
Very important! We are absolutely committed to remaining unbiased. Our goal is to provide users with useful information based on the experiences of other travellers that wish to contribute to the community with their own reviews and advice. We do not edit their comments nor treat reviews on one property differently to another. Nor, of course, would we ever allow a hotel/restaurant/attraction to “buy” their way to the top of our popularity index.
─ In the last few days you have retrieved the claim ‘reviews you can trust’. Do you expect this to affect consumer confidence in the reviews posted in TripAdvisor?
These claims and wordings used on TripAdvisor are constantly evolving to reflect different aspects of the business. This claim, “Reviews from our Community”, now visible on the hotel pages is an example. With this new wording we wanted to highlight the importance of our loyal community, passionate travellers that want to offer their advice to other travellers. The other claim “Reviews you can trust” can still be seen in other parts of the site to reflect that we consider TripAdvisor to be a trustworthy source of information. This evolution of our messaging has been implemented gradually on our different sites since June until August this year.
─ Do you think that the user notices when a review is based on interest?
We know the average TripAdvisor user reads dozens of reviews before making a decision on a property that’s right for them. We cannot forget that we are dealing with personal opinions, reading reviews from people with different points of view… And that is the beauty of what we call the “wisdom of the crowds”… you can get the gist and see past the subjectivity, choosing the best option to suit your needs.
─ Have you thought about improving the filters?
Obviously, we take the legitimacy of our content very seriously. If users didn´t find our information useful and reliable, they simply would not visit us. Our filters are in constant evolution and improvement to scan reviews for suspicious material. As an example, we have a filter that looks at IP addresses as just one of the ways we catch people who try to write multiple reviews of a single hotel (this is the reason why we recommend guests not to write reviews from the hotels they stay at, as they may appear to be written by staff). As soon as a review is flagged we have a team of inspectors that analyse it in depth case by case. Back to that PhoCusWright research; it found that 98% of respondents find TripAdvisor hotel reviews to be accurate of the actual experience – so the systems are doing a pretty good job.
─ You assure that you have an expert team of specialists who investigate the reviews identified as suspicious. How many people exactly are we talking about?
I’m sorry, but we don’t disclose the size of our investigation group. Suffice to say that it has been growing, as TripAdvisor has been growing, and operates globally.
─ Each month you keep breaking records of unique visitors. How do you manage to handle such a large volume of reviews?
It would be impossible to manually read the more than 25 contributions we receive each minute. Also, our experience in these past 11 years has taught us that automated tools are far more effective.
- There are reviews on your website that are several years old and that may refer to establishments that have since been remodeled. Are you studying any measures to prevent certain reviews being outdated?
We believe all reviews are useful, but clearly newer ones are given more credibility. If a property has been re-modelled we urge owners and managers to update their listings (it’s free to do!) and use the Management Response tool if a review refers to issues with the since updated property. Can you imagine the great impression you would make if a user read the timeline of reviews and saw that you had remodelled your property to offer a better service? This is why we urge property owners to pay attention to what their clients have to say and answer them. It is important for their voices to be heard as well.
─ Have you thought about implementing a system that requires users to prove that they actually stayed in that hotel they are reviewing?.
No. We believe all travelers, not just the one individual who made the reservation or has the receit, is entitled to write a review. We also know that quantity matters when forming an opinion on whether this particular hotel is the right one for you, so we want to make sure all hotels have enough reviews to give travelers enough information. Requiring a proof of stay would dramatically reduce the number of reviews on the site, which would be counterproductive to our goal of helping our visitors.
─ Have you rethought your decision to go public in the recent weeks?
No. We are very excited and very much looking forward to this next stage in the life of TripAdvisor.
─ Your business has a profit margin of 50 percent. Do you feel like the envy of any entrepreneur?
Of course I’m very pleased and proud to have co-founded a company that has been so successful. I am even more proud when I think of how our site has improved the vacations of so many people around the world. And then I remind myself that there is so much more we can do!