Unmasking truth in online travel reviews: Are context and verification vital?

Reputation hawks often use the specter of fake reviews as the driver for travel businesses to secure their services – some have even claimed that around 10% of all social media reviews will be fake this year.

And with Nielsen reporting that 92% of consumers place more trust in word-of-mouth recommendations than any other form of media, the importance of the ubiquitous review remains paramount.

Nonetheless, larger sites such as TripAdvisor have shied away from doing direct reviews in favor of maintaining the status quo – and with 150 million reviews, this status quo is enormous.

TripAdvisor has also integrated social media for increased context, adding the ability to see other friends that have traveled to a destination or reviewed a particular hotel.

So what does this mean for travelers looking for accurate online travel reviews – and the companies seeking to profit on these reviews?

tripadvisor screen

TripAdvisor is unassailable…right?

At this point, the aforementioned enormous status quo is insurmountable – there’s just no other startup review site that can pierce the armor of 150 million reviews. The moat grows wider by the day, and thus TripAdvisor will maintain its edge on this front likely forever.

TripAdvisor’s strategy early on was to offer up the review cache to paying partners via an API. By getting the reviews off-site, the company was able to benefit from brand-building on partner websites, while the partners were able to show reviews specific to a property without having the burden of collection.

This all changed rapidly once TripAdvisor announced a shift into meta. At the time of the launch, TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer said, “there hasn’t been a bigger upgrade to our user experience in the history of the company. ” This shift, while driving by the business reality of growing metasearch traffic, put it in direct competition with many of its client OTAs, metasearch sites and intermediaries.

Many of these partners had already been implementing their own solutions prior to this switch, not only to recapture direct traffic but to also ensure more accuracy through verified reviews. Hotel chains such as Starwood began collecting its own reviews directly, and larger OTA players such as Booking.com and Expedia curating their own guest reviews.

So TripAdvisor saw the writing on the wall, and had fewer qualms about the potential threat of a meta search product to partners – if partners were going to go their own way with reviews, then they needed to shore up the offering by using the incredible asset that is TripAdvisor’s community – and the searches already being made on site.

In fact, this trove of reviews is exactly what led the company down the metasearch road – why farm out reviews to other sites when they can keep the traffic on-site with a dual review/meta product.

However, one key differentiator existed in this new TripAdvisor model: the lack of verified reviews. TripAdvisor has made no concerted effort to ensure that particular reviews were made by actual customers of the business.

This strategy mirrors other larger websites focused entirely on reviews, such as Yelp, which don’t verify reviews directly and instead focus energy on eliminating fake reviews and managing accuracy of reviews algorithmically.


True verification is difficult without owning the transaction

The only real way to ensure that someone stayed at a property is to match a credit card number with a PMS entry that shows a particular guest using that specific credit card and government-issued ID to check in.

Another way that is much more popular is to do on-property or post-stay guest satisfaction surveys, which allow hotels to capture reviews and feedback in an offline venue. However, this information must then be shared online somehow for the property to receive any extended value from a visible online review.

Geo-location can also be a bit of a verifier – obviously there’s no proof of transaction or actual stay – but now that both TripAdvisor and Yelp allow guests to leave reviews from a mobile phone, there’s the ability to also geo-tag a review to attach some spatial context.

It’s complicated, and that’s why heaps of companies offer online reputation management, review curation and general guest feedback gathering for the hospitality industry.

For its part, TripAdvisor is pleased with the breadth of its review content – and sees no financial or customer imperative to implement a verified review system. A spokesperson says:

“We believe every experience counts, not just the one where you paid the bill.

If we required people to submit a receipt, then a lot of people who have had a genuine customer experience wouldn’t have a voice and that goes against what we stand for.

If you have a table of two and a table of 12 at a restaurant, under a verified model you’d only be allowed one review for each table. We don’t think that is fair.”

He adds that verified reviews are less vital as the company has extensive algorithmic protection in place to prevent fraud.

“Because of the deterrents we have, and the detection techniques we use, the amount of fraud attempted is extremely small.

When PhoCusWright surveyed our community, 95% of them found TripAdvisor hotel reviews to be accurate of the actual experience. If people didn’t find the reviews helpful, they wouldn’t keep coming back.

Travelers want transparency through the wisdom of the crowds. More than a quarter of a billion people use our site every month to plan their trips and read TripAdvisor’s more than 150 million reviews and opinions – the sheer volume of reviews on TripAdvisor means you can make an informed decision.”

love-hate buttons

Content Context is king

The true conclusion in the online review space is that context is now king. Every day, endless inventory and pricing categories are uploaded to the GDS and distributed worldwide, to the point where nearly any customer can see every available price/schedule permutation in a manner of seconds.

If TripAdvisor has “more than 150 million reviews and opinions,” then how is one user supposed to come to terms with the reality of a particular place before booking or visiting?

Now that all of the information is at the disposal of each search, the challenge becomes winnowing that down and provide some contextual decisions to help determine closer fit.

Context becomes even more essential when considering two realities: the sheer number of reviews and the mobile experience. First off, seventy percent of travelers look at up to 20 reviews in the planning phase. That sort of time suck – and related analysis – is not generally appealing. Secondly, consider this the mobile experience.

Ben Jost, CEO of TrustYou, sees this massive bulk of content as the biggest problem facing the travel industry.

“Everyone’s talking about Big Data in travel, but no one really says what that means. I think we have a huge context problem in the industry.

The content problem has been replaced with a context problem. The search/buy experience is still the same – 10 results, some price filters, some pagination and lots of reviews and pictures. Then you may have a rating, but that’s only for that particular website. I think that’s broken – price comparison and price shopping is not hard anymore, but the value proposition and unstructured reviews are still difficult.”

In fact, Jost fully believes that the old model of search is dead – and that includes TripAdvisor.

“Without having to read and read and read, and after the tenth review, the user maybe comes to a conclusion about the hotel. But then moves on to page two and it’s all different. Things have been improved, but it’s not optimal.

There’s a next step, and a normal evolution that after you have enough content a meta layer comes into play. It happened for prices and now it comes into reviews. It’s a hard, Big Data problem, and now we don’t have a data/content problem but we have a context problem.

Context is the Next Big Thing. Especially with mobile, users now want to be able to quickly find necessary content on the small screen.”

TrustYou is addressing this view with its verified review meta layer, where it aggregates and processes reviews from trusted sites and provides a comprehensive overview about what most people are saying according to categories like Location, Ambience, and Service, among others.

ReviewPro also has a similar meta product, the Global Review Index, that provides a comprehensive overview that doesn’t rely on any one site to accumulate the actionable data.

The TripAdvisor spokesperson points to social proof as the primary way that TripAdvisor works to provide context to the enormous trove of content that the site has.

“TripAdvisor has added social proof to the site through several initiatives. For example, visitors who want to enjoy a more personalized experience can do so with the help of their Facebook friends.

In 2011, TripAdvisor also began adding badging to the site to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of our active community of reviewers. These badges serve as just one more way users can determine which reviews are most relevant to their trip-planning experience.

We continue to work to provide our community with all the insights they need to make informed decisions in order to plan and have the perfect trip.

So context to content is really the next phase, and is the true promise of Big Data – the ability to make sense of the data on the aggregate.

Finally…do consumers even care about verified reviews?

This is the core issue to the conversation, as it’s not immediately clear that consumers are clamoring for some means of verification for the reviews they are already consuming rapidly.

Do consumers even care? What about social integration? Who’s a better reviewer than a friend? It trumps any other reviews, verified or not, because the user can make an independent decision.

Michelle Wohl, marketing boss at Revinate, simply doesn’t think the current review system needs fixing.

“I don’t think the current system is broken. Growth in traffic to review sites and latest TripBarometer report shows that consumers are increasingly relying on review data for booking decisions.

If the system was broken, traffic would be slowing and people would be writing fewer reviews. And, from a hotelier standpoint, it has improved.  Hoteliers now have access to tools that help them solicit reviews from guests after they check out, so they’re able to drive more public reviews from verified guests.

What I have seen and heard is that consumers value volume and recency of reviews more than verification. I think we all have had the experience of going to Yelp to read a review and if there are only a few, old reviews, you immediately start looking for a new place.”

RJ Friedlander, co-founder of ReviewPro, sees consumers still interested in reviews – especially because consumers are more savvy in their analysis:

“I do not think that customers have review fatigue per se but the there are different use cases that are important for different customers depending on the trip they are embarking on.

Customers want to read individual reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, Booking.com and the more than 100 OTAs and review sites that exist around the world.  This will not change overnight.

However, they also want a summary of what is being said across all channels and the ability to filter hotels based on Meta Review level data and analytics.”

And also, the review system is achieving results in its current format:

“The review system is far from broken.  This is evident in the increasing importance of reviews/online reputation management across all areas of the industry.  Numerous studies site the growing influence that reviews are having on both leisure and business travelers.

On the hotel side, we see a significant increase in the level of engagement and use of online reputation data and analytics across all segments.

And, the number of stakeholders incorporating reputation analytics into their day-to-day routine, objectives and KPIs is seeing a marked increase across all regions and segments of hotels.  The current review system is evolving and adapting to better serve the needs of both travelers and hoteliers but is far from broken.”

Humans will be humans, and will likely never stop caring what others have to say about a particular travel experience. This sort of social proof has, and always will be, compelling. And just like meta transformed travel search, the only logical way to make sense of the review firehose is via a meta layer on top of it all that pulls out trends for faster analysis and comprehension.

This context is essential, and in and of itself provides a level of accuracy as far as the “wisdom of crowds.” The more reviews, the more likely that the hive mind provides an accurate impression, and technologies that are able to facilitate access to this underlying truth will thrive in the transparent age of endless reviews.

NB: Unmasking, TripAdvisor, Love-Hate images via Shutterstock.

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Nick Vivion

About the Writer :: Nick Vivion

Nick helps brands blog better at Ghost Works, a boutique blog management service. Nick was previously the Director of Content for tnooz, where he oversaw the editorial and commercial content as well as producing/hosting tnoozLIVE.



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  1. Frank Lawton

    Good article. I happen to think verifiable reviews do matter and use Expedia not Tripadvisor. I have seen enough ‘evidence’ of manipulation (there are proper studies on it), and that despite what people think they cannot detect false reviews and there are a range of other distortions. However agree most people do not care about verified hence TAs growth. But I think TAs days are numbered (in terms of market share) now that other review sites have got some volume eg Most hotels now have are enough Expedia reviews to end up with lots even if the viewer goes into categories eg review type or reviewer type. So long as the hotel has about 20 reviews inside the most refined search possible they “match’ TA ie they can capture the attention of the person searching. So now that Expedia and TA are “equal” at an individual’s search level a point of difference like verified will over time decrease TAs market share. Using social media (friends) etc will increase verifieds acceptance eg it only takes 1 person in a group of say 10 to harp on about verified for all the 9 others to change if they “like’ that person.

  2. Nick Whitfield

    Thanks for this article Nick, it’s a really interesting look into the evolution of customer reviews in the travel industry.

    I do feel however that you’ve omitted a huge section of the industry – verified reviews that are ‘Google-friendly’ from independent providers such as Feefo. Expedia, Hotels.com, Booking.com, Travelzoo and countless others are all using the service and represent a significant portion of the market.

    Anyone that has completed a transaction with a business using the service is invited to provide a rating and review, which then displays unmoderated (save for a profanity filter) and in real time on the merchant website. The feedback data is also sent directly to Google, in order to generate ‘Seller Ratings, or stars in paid search results. This helps consumers to find feedback from previous customers, even from the first touch point.

    For merchants, having both quantitative (ratings), and qualitative (written reviews) data means that it offers truly actionable insight, with trends and insights easily visible.

    For consumers, it means that they can find trusted customer feedback in search results, on a merchant’s homepage or (if relevant) individual tour, hotel or ‘product’ pages.

    Bringing this back to content versus context – By supplying customer feedback in search results and on your own page, provided it is from a trusted, independent source – you can actually shorten the research demands of customers, by not having to leave the traditional purchase pattern (search – website – purchase) because the right content, is already being provided to them at the right time.

  3. Faraz

    Amazon recently rolled out “verified purchase” across their reviews. Given their scale, its conceivable over a few years consumers start to understand what ‘verified reviews’ means and come to expect them when they are shopping online for all products including travel. Although, TripAdvisor may still not be affected because their system, for the most part, works and their really is no competitor.

    So, I think verified reviews become more important over time, and consumers will prefer them, but until there is a real competitor to TripAdvisor, it may not matter.

  4. Steve Collins

    Firstly, I am a top contributor to Tripadvisor because I like reading reviews prior to travelling, so I feel that I should add reviews after my trips are completed. I never review whilst on the road, and my reviews reflect my true experience.

    I have been investigated by Tripadvisor because whilst in Rotorua, New Zealand I chose to use a local tour service based mainly on the grounds that the owner and I shared the same nickname. He also had top ranking at the time, which influenced my decision. I wrote a glowing review because the experience was genuinely excellent. Because I did state in my review that I chose the firm because of the nickname I was investigated and the tour provider lost his ranking. After lengthy communication between myself and Tripadvisor they made the decision to publish my review and restore the tour provider’s ranking.

    This experience proved to me that Tripadvisor does at least investigate suspect reviewers, and also that they do give reviewers the opportunity to plead their case.

    I don’t agree with Jeremy that you should buy a guidebook to influence your decision. I’ve written a couple of guidebooks and they date very quickly – they are good for in-depth information about a place, but are practically useless as an up-to-date reference on quality of service.

    I do think, though, that Tripadvisor is given too much credibility. My attitude is based on the small number of reviews about any one hotel or attraction that are submitted. When you consider reviews for hotels, for instance. You may find that a typical hotel attracts a few comments per month – yet those hotels have hundreds of rooms and high occupancy rates, so the vast majority of guests do not add reviews no matter how good or bad their experience. Reviewers often form just a tiny percentage of the total number of guests, so whilst their reviews may be interesting they certainly do not provide an overwhelming perspective.

    The fact is that people like reading reviews more than they like writing them. I think that reviews do help some people make decisions, but direct word-of-mouth recommendations from family, friends or colleagues are probably more influential that any of the review sites.

  5. John-Pierre Cornelissen

    Does Tripadvisors ReviewExpress not help in getting more verified reviews?

  6. Gadi Bashvitz

    Thanks Nick, relevancy scores for reviews are very important. Having the context of who the reviewer is and the type of trip they took helps a lot in determining whether the review is relevant to me. At OLSET we have algorithms that take into account factors around the number of reviews, the reviewer type, the traveler type and the ratio of positive and negative sentiments. Travelers find these factors to be very useful.

  7. Jeremy Head

    If you want context… buy a guidebook. Simple. No need for Big Data… just real expertise from a pro writer.

    • Michael

      Not so simple. Frommer is not Steve’s. Rough is not Let’s Go. And who’s really writing the books? So not simple,


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