The world’s biggest travel site has turned the industry upside down – but now it is struggling to deal with the same kinds of problems that are vexing other tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter. By Linda Kinstler
Photograph: Getty/Guardian Design
Should one be so unlucky as to find oneself, as I did, lying awake in bed in the early hours of the morning in a hostel in La Paz, Bolivia, listening anxiously to the sound of someone trying to force their way into one’s room, one could do worse than to throw a chair under the doorknob as a first line of defence. But this is not what I did. Instead, I held my breath and waited until the intruder, ever so mercifully, abandoned his project and sauntered down the hall. The next morning, when I raised the incident with the hostel employee at the front desk, he said the attempted intrusion had just been an innocent mistake, a misdirected early-morning wake-up call gone wrong, and what was the big deal, anyway? Fuming, I turned to the highest authority in the world of international travel, the only entity to which every hotel, restaurant, museum and attraction in the world is beholden: I left the hostel a bad review on TripAdvisor.
TripAdvisor is where we go to praise, criticise and purchase our way through the inhabited world. It is, at its core, a guestbook, a place where people record the highs and lows of their holiday experiences for the benefit of hotel proprietors and future guests. But this guestbook lives on the internet, where its contributors continue swapping advice, memories and complaints about their journeys long after their vacations have come to an end.
Every month, 456 million people – about one in every 16 people on earth – visit some tentacle of TripAdvisor.com to plan or assess a trip. For virtually every place, there exists a corresponding page. The Rajneeshee Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune, India, has 140 reviews and a 4 out of 5 rating, Cobham Service Station on the M25 has 451 reviews and a rating of 3.5, while Wes Anderson’s fictional Grand Budapest Hotel currently has 358 reviews and a rating of 4.5. (At the top of the page, there is a message from TripAdvisor: “This is a fictional place, as seen in the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. Please do not try to book a visit here.”)
Over its two decades in business, TripAdvisor has turned an initial investment of $3m into a $7bn business by figuring out how to provide a service that no other tech company has quite mastered: constantly updated information about every imaginable element of travel, courtesy of an ever-growing army of contributors who provide their services for free. Browsing through TripAdvisor’s 660m reviews is a study in extremes. As a kind of mirror of the world and all its wonders, the site can transport you to the most spectacular landmarks, the finest restaurants, the most “adrenaline-pumping” water parks, the greatest “Hop-On Hop-Off Experiences” that mankind has ever devised. Yet TripAdvisor reviews are also a ruthless audit of the earth’s many flaws. For every effusive review of the Eiffel Tower (“Worth the hype at night,” “Perfect Backdrop!”), there is another that suggests it is a blight on the face of the earth (“sad, ugly, don’t bother”; “similar to the lobby of a big Vegas casino, but outside”.)
TripAdvisor is to travel as Google is to search, as Amazon is to books, as Uber is to cabs – so dominant that it is almost a monopoly. Bad reviews can be devastating for business, so proprietors tend to think of them in rather violent terms. “It is the marketing/PR equivalent of a drive-by shooting,” Edward Terry, the owner of a Lebanese restaurant in Weybridge, UK, wrote in 2015. Marketers call a cascade of online one-star ratings a “review bomb”. Likewise, positive reviews can transform an establishment’s fortunes. Researchers studying Yelp, one of TripAdvisor’s main competitors, found that a one-star increase meant a 5-9% increase in revenue. Before TripAdvisor, the customer was only nominally king. After, he became a veritable tyrant, with the power to make or break lives. In response, the hospitality industry has lawyered up, and it is not uncommon for businesses to threaten to sue customers who post negative reviews.
As the so-called “reputation economy” has grown, so too has a shadow industry of fake reviews, which can be bought, sold and traded online. For TripAdvisor, this trend amounts to an existential threat. Its business depends on having real consumers post real reviews. Without that, says Dina Mayzlin, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, “the whole thing falls apart”. And there have been moments, over the past several years, when it looked like things were falling apart. One of the most dangerous things about the rise of fake reviews is that they have also endangered genuine ones – as companies like TripAdvisor raced to eliminate fraudulent posts from their sites, they ended up taking down some truthful ones, too. And given that user reviews can go beyond complaints about bad service and peeling wallpaper, to much more serious claims about fraud, theft and sexual assault, their removal becomes a grave problem.
Thus, in promising a faithful portrait of the world, TripAdvisor has, like other tech giants, found itself in the unhappy position of becoming an arbiter of truth, of having to determine which reviews are real and which are fake, which are accurate and which are not, and how free speech on their platform should be. It is hard to imagine that when CEO Stephen Kaufer and his co-founders were sitting in a pizza restaurant in a suburb of Boston 18 years ago dreaming up tripadvisor.com, they foresaw their business growing so powerful and so large that they would find themselves tangled up in the kinds of problems that vex the minds of the world’s most brilliant philosophers and legal theorists. From the vantage point of 2018, one of the company’s early mottos now seems comically naive: “Get the truth and go.”
Many of the difficult questions the company faces are also questions about the nature of travel itself, about what it means to enter unknown territory, to interact with strangers, and to put one’s trust in them. These are all things that one also does online – it is no coincidence that the some of the earliest analogies that we once used to talk about the digital world (“information superhighway”, “electronic frontier”) tended to belong to the vocabulary of travel. In this sense, the story of TripAdvisor, one of the least-examined and most relied-upon tech companies in the world, is something like a parable of the internet writ large.
The travel guide is an ancient genre, one that has never been far removed from the questions that trouble TripAdvisor LLC. For nearly all of human history, people have wanted to know everything about where they were going before they got there. The Greek geographer Pausanias is often credited with authoring the first travel guide, his Description of Greece, sometime in the second century AD. Over 10 books, he documented the sights and stories of his native land. Of Lake Stymphalia, in Corinth, for example, Pausanias writes: “In the Stymphalian territory is a spring, from which the emperor Hadrian brought water to Corinth … at one time man-eating birds bred on it, which Heracles is said to have shot down.” Today, on TripAdvisor, Lake Stymphalia gets a meagre rating of 3.5, below the average of 4: “It is more like a swampy marshland … there isn’t really anywhere to chill out and relax so we didn’t stay long,” writes one reviewer. Beneath this review, and beneath all TripAdvisor reviews, is a disclaimer: “This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.”
When TripAdvisor was founded, in 2000 – six years after Amazon, four years before Facebook and Yelp – consumer reviews were still thought of as a risky endeavour for businesses, a losing bet. Amazon first allowed customers to post reviews in 1995, but it was a controversial move that some critics derided as retail suicide. When TripAdvisor launched, it did so as a simple aggregator of guidebook reviews and other established sources, keeping its distance from the unpredictable world of crowd-sourced content.
Kaufer envisaged TripAdvisor as an impartial referee, providing “reviews you can trust”, as one of its former taglines promised. But as an experiment, in February 2001, he and his partners created a way for consumers to post their own reviews. The first-ever review was of the Captain’s House Inn, on Cape Cod, which received four “bubbles”. (TripAdvisor uses “bubbles” rather than stars to evaluate companies to avoid confusing its ratings with more conventional luxury hotel ratings.)
Soon, Kaufer noticed that users were gravitating away from expert opinion and towards the crowdsourced reviews, so he abandoned his original concept and began focusing exclusively on collecting original consumer input. He hoped that selling ads on the site would be enough to keep the company afloat, but when it became clear that this wasn’t bringing in enough money, his team shifted to a new model. From late 2001, every time a visitor clicked on a link to a given hotel or restaurant, TripAdvisor would charge the business a small fee for the referral. Within three months, the company was making $70,000 a month, and in March 2002, it broke even. “I think they call it a pivot now,” Kaufer said in 2014. “I called it running for my life back then.”
By 2004, TripAdvisor had 5 million unique monthly visitors. That year, Kaufer sold TripAdvisor to InterActiveCorp (IAC), the parent company of the online travel company Expedia, for $210m in cash, but stayed on as CEO. It seemed like a good deal at the time – as Kaufer told Harvard Business School’s student newspaper in 2013, none of the founders were previously wealthy, so the windfall was a “life-changing event”. But he eventually regretted selling out so early on: “In hindsight, this was the stupidest move I ever made!”
For the next few years, TripAdvisor continued to grow, hiring more than 400 new employees around the world, from New Jersey to New Delhi. By 2008, it had 26 million monthly unique visitors and a yearly profit of $129m; by 2010, it was the largest travel site in the world. To cement its dominance, TripAdvisor began buying up smaller companies that focused on particular elements of travel. Today, it owns 28 separate companies that together encompass every imaginable element of the travel experience – not just where to stay and what to do, but also what to bring, how to get there, when to go, and whom you might meet along the way. Faced with such competition, traditional guidebook companies have struggled to keep up. In 2016, Fodor’s, one of the most established American travel guide companies, was bought by a company called Internet Brands.
Over time, hoteliers largely accepted that TripAdvisor wasn’t going away, even as they watched it turn their industry upside down. “The online world has changed pretty much every industry, but hospitality beyond recognition,” Peter Ducker, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality, told me. “For a long time when [TripAdvisor] first came out, hoteliers didn’t like it. We didn’t want to air our dirty laundry in public,” he said. Now, though, “hotels have learned that a) it’s not going away, so get over it, and b) you can use it to your advantage … They use good TripAdvisor ratings in their marketing materials, because to a lot of the public, that means more than a star rating, more than a government accreditation. It transcends borders.”
By 2011, TripAdvisor was drawing 50 million monthly visitors, and its parent company, IAC, decided that the time had come to spin it out as a separate, publicly traded entity. Its IPO was valued at $4bn, but in December, on the first day of trading, shares fell. TripAdvisor was in new and uncertain territory, and no one knew how the company would fare on its own.
TripAdvisor had become a tech giant, but its leadership did not quite realise that yet. The year it went public was the final year that TripAdvisor published its annual lists of the “Top 10 Dirtiest Hotels” in the US and Europe. A couple of months before the IPO, Kenneth Seaton, owner of what had been voted “America’s dirtiest hotel” (the Grand Resort Hotel & Convention Center, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee), filed a lawsuit against TripAdvisor for defamation, claiming $10m in damages. The suit was tossed out in 2012, after the judge ruled that any review posted to TripAdvisor is an opinion and therefore protected under the first amendment. Seaton appealed, but the original verdict was upheld on the grounds that the use of the word “dirtiest” could not count as defamation as it was no more than “rhetorical hyperbole”. TripAdvisor won the legal battle, but it still decided to scrub the “dirtiest” list from its site. “We want to stay more on the positive side,” Kaufer told the New York Times.
In 2012, the media behemoth Liberty Interactive purchased $300m in TripAdvisor shares. TripAdvisor had become an established giant of the travel industry, an inevitable part of even the most cursory vacation planning. As the company sought to clean up its public profile, its audience grew, but so did the pressure to turn a profit. “When [platforms] start to commercialise, it changes the DNA,” says Rachel Botsman, a lecturer at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School who has chronicled the rise of the reputation economy. “When that happens, it’s a problem.” Many of the website’s most loyal users feel most aggrieved by the way the site has changed.
On the forums, which are still organised into pixelated manilla folders reminiscent of early-90s computer graphics, users seek out companionship and camaraderie. On the Disneyland Paris forum, one of the most active communities on the site, people swap stories of when they first fell in love with the park, which they affectionately call DLP. In one typically tender post from a few years ago, a user celebrated DLP’s refurbishments: “It was so sad to see how shabby some things had become over the last few years, (Captain Hook’s proud red galleon now looked like a pathetic pink derelict hulk) but I always tried to see past that, and still feel the Magic there. How fantastic that everyone can now see the park as it once was!”
The most prolific TripAdvisor contributors – people who have written at least 500 posts over six months – can become “Destination Experts”, responsible for patrolling forums and making sure no questions go unanswered. Bill Hunt, a retired photographer, began posting to TripAdvisor in 2005 and is now one of the site’s most active reviewers: he has posted 51,345 forum comments and 30,023 photos from his travels. “People will ask what the view is from row three on the starboard side of the plane. Well, I try to help,” Hunt told me over the phone from his patio in Phoenix, Arizona.
Hunt has been using the site almost as long as it has existed, and he isn’t too impressed with how it has evolved. “Let’s just say that I’m not the biggest fan of many of those changes,” he told me. “From the moment they went public, their focus became the generation of revenue.” Brad Reynolds, an American living in Hong Kong who has uploaded over 6,406 reviews, 28,514 forum posts, and 72,061 photos, also feels disappointed by the direction that TripAdvisor has taken. “It’s not quite as … community-friendly now as it used to be. In the early days, the active users were very much enthusiasts,” he told me. “It’s become a bit more impersonal in recent years.”
In 2015, when TripAdvisor introduced a programme called “TripCollective Member Recognition”, awarding Boy Scout-style symbols to users for the number, diversity and popularity of their posts, the forums revolted, complaining the new system was patronising. Disgruntlement with the symbols bled into an anxious discussion about the proliferation of fake reviews, and whether the site was losing its soul: “TA can remain effective only if reviews are written for altruistic purposes, to assist others with your information, hoping that when you need information, it will be given for that purpose,” wrote a user named captainmcd.
The forums don’t do much for TripAdvisor’s bottom line and, scrolling through them, one might get the impression that the company has forgotten they exist – their design looks like it hasn’t changed since 2000, and unless you know they’re there, you’re unlikely to go looking for them. But this, staff at TripAdvisor assured me, is not quite the case. “Our forums are like a secret weapon,” says Jeff Chow, the vice-president of product and consumer experience, who speaks in a buoyantly earnest patois that mingles idealism, elation and corporate jargon in a way that is occasionally hard to follow. “They are actually crafting our North Star.”
I met Chow earlier this year at TripAdvisor’s headquarters in Needham, Massachusetts, which are nestled into the side of the Route 128 highway, next to a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Every floor is named after a different continent, every conference room for after a different country. The company logo is an owl with binocular eyes – one red and one green, because the site is supposed to tell you where to go and where not to go. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the new headquarters, an owl mascot joined Kaufer and the governor of Massachusetts in celebration. The gleaming reception is designed to resemble a hotel lobby. On an interior wall, there is a word cloud: “We love TRAVEL; Act like an OWNER; We’re better TOGETHER.” Employees are free to bring their dogs to work and to eat their complimentary gourmet lunch in the outdoor amphitheatre.
The office would not be out of place in Silicon Valley – “We’re very Google-y,” Brian Hoyt, senior director of corporate communications, told me – but it must be admitted that the side of the highway in Needham is not Silicon Valley. In the early 1990s, Route 128 was known as “America’s technology highway”, the east coast’s answer to California startup culture. But by the end of the decade, the 57-mile corridor had lost its lustre as its tenants were sold, shuttered or moved. Today, TripAdvisor’s neighbours are companies such as Raytheon, Oracle and Microsoft – stolid, established, imposing firms, the kinds of places where wearing hoodies and jeans at work is just another passing fad.
TripAdvisor fits nicely into this milieu. In his public appearances, Kaufer has the vibe of a middle-aged dad who is slightly peeved at being the focus of attention. He wears thin frameless glasses, branded black fleeces, khakis and smart shoes. He is earnest and, refreshingly for a tech executive, shows no apparent interest in making himself seem more exciting than he really is: “Most people assume I am an avid traveller who would like nothing more than to roam the world for three months,” he told the New York Times. “Not true. The company was born of an average traveller’s desire to plan a great trip for a precious week or two of vacation time.”
TripAdvisor was built in Kaufer’s image. The company caters to the middle as a point of pride. Dermot Halpin, who runs the experiences and vacation rentals divisions, said earlier this year that while on Airbnb “there’s a little bit of looking down their nose” at more generic vacation activities, such as taking a bus tour or visiting the Eiffel Tower, TripAdvisor is “very much in the mode of celebrating all those things”. When I visited company HQ, Bradford Young, vice-president and associate general counsel, put it another way: “One of the reasons that people generally think so fondly of TripAdvisor is that we’re in the vacations business. Vacations are awesome, right?”
Except, sometimes, they’re not – you might get sick, you might get lost, your luggage might get delayed, your flights cancelled, and just occasionally the place you booked might turn out to be nothing like it seemed online. Often, the reasons for this might be perfectly innocuous. Other times, they might not be. By the time TripAdvisor floated, the fake review market had started to explode. “Throughout history, nothing has changed – reputation has always been faked, bought, amplified, inflated,” says Botsman. “On TripAdvisor, this is happening on a scale that we’ve never really seen before.”
All of a sudden, reviews could be purchased and exchanged on a massive scale, new businesses could hire “reputation management” companies to help suppress bad reviews and promote good ones, and established businesses could pay for negative reviews of their competitors. Review farms, the reputation economy’s answer to call centres, proliferated in China and south-east Asia. “You have a thousand guys in a room. They can write in reasonably good English, and they get an assignment with the details of a product, then they just start posting reviews,” Noah Herschman, a retail industry architect at Microsoft in Hong Kong, told me. Researchers at Cornell found that real reviews tend to use more “concrete” terms such as “bathroom”, “price”, and “check-in”, while fake reviews tend to use more scenic ones, such as “vacation”, “husband” and “business trip”.
Though companies such as TripAdvisor and Amazon already had fraud-detection measures in place, fake review companies quickly learned to work around them. “The black market understands where the market is going way before the average user, before the average brand,” says Botsman. In autumn 2011, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority opened an investigation into TripAdvisor, and eventually ordered it “not to claim or imply that all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted”. TripAdvisor changed its motto from “Reviews You Can Trust” to “Know better. Book better. Go better.”
These days, at any given time, several hundred TripAdvisor employees are working on content moderation, about a third of those in fraud detection. “Generally, people who post fake reviews do it with a motivation in mind, to move the ranking up or down,” said James Kay, TripAdvisor’s senior media relations manager. “In the last three years we’ve shut down 60 companies selling reviews, and there are many more that we’re well aware of.”
TripAdvisor’s in-house forensic analysts use fraud-detection software – the same kinds used to detect credit card fraud – to flag suspicious patterns. But given the sheer amount of reviews on TripAdvisor and the increasing sophistication of the fakes, there is no hope of identifying and removing them all. Last year, Vice writer Oobah Butler managed to get his shed listed as the #1 restaurant in London by soliciting fake reviews from family and friends and posting images of gourmet-looking dishes made from shaving cream and bleach. Before joining Vice, Butler wrote fake TripAdvisor reviews for restaurants, £10 per entry; “this convinced me that TripAdvisor was a false reality,” he wrote of the experience. For Young, fake reviews represent “an iceberg problem”. As he explained: “TripAdvisor can see the 10% that is sticking out of the water. [But] there is 90% or some unknown percent that is very dangerous and problematic that it is not visible to us.”
TripAdvisor also employs a small team of investigators who work in the field, sometimes posing as hoteliers online to expose a review farm. First, they find posts on sites such as Facebook and eBay advertising review services. Then they pose as a business owner looking for fake reviews and settle on a price, and through this process, they collect enough evidence to shut down entire networks of fake review peddlers. In the run-up to the 2018 World Cup, for instance, thousands of fake reviews of hotels and restaurants in Russian cities hosting matches began popping up on TripAdvisor. According to Kay, TripAdvisor investigators found 1,300 suspicious accounts, removed 1,500 reviews from the site, and put 250 restaurants on a “special watch list” of establishments that might attempt to buy fake reviews. They also shut down 18 paid review companies, including one named tripadvisorboost.com.
Recalling the days before online discourse became tainted with the suspicion of fraud and fakery, Thales Teixeira, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, grew wistful. “When reviews came out it was the best thing, just independent people like you and me [contributing],” he said. But now things are somewhat murkier. “Consumers need to be careful when they’re reading reviews,” he said. “We’re not in Kansas any more.”
In Kansas, earlier this year, a cattle farmer named Randy Winchester decided to take his daughter to a fun park in Branson, Missouri, where visitors can see the largest herd of Scottish Highland cattle in the midwest. As it turned out, Winchester was a bit underwhelmed, so he returned home and gave the park a mediocre rating on TripAdvisor. “All in all a decent experience but had we paid more than the $10 I would have been disappointed,” he wrote.
Soon, a man identifying himself as the owner of the fun park began bombarding both Winchester and his daughter with calls and messages, threatening to sue them. Winchester, appalled by the owner’s conduct, downgraded his review from three to one. In April, he found himself facing a $25,000 lawsuit from the owner of the park, who claimed the review constitutes libel.
Incidents such as this are part of a worrying trend. Genuine reviews, which can be difficult to authenticate and expensive to defend, often pose more serious difficulties than fake reviews, which the company is reasonably skilled at discovering and deleting. The truth is a far bigger problem for TripAdvisor, which has lately become entangled in debates over free speech that it has struggled to resolve.
Faced with bad reviews, some American businesses turn to what are known as “Slapp” suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation). In many cases, when a business files a Slapp suit, its objective is not to win in court – US free speech laws protect negative reviews – but to bully the reviewer into deleting the offending comment. While many states have passed anti-Slapp legislation to protect consumers from censorship and mounting legal fees, most are not strong enough to discourage businesses from pursuing them.
From 2015 to 2017, TripAdvisor users removed more than 2,000 reviews from the site as a result of harassment by business owners, according to Kevin Carter, TripAdvisor’s associate director of corporate communications. Businesses have also developed more subtle tactics designed to stop critical reviews from appearing in the first place. In July, Australia’s largest property developer was fined $3million for suppressing negative reviews of its rental apartments by withholding the email addresses of disgruntled guests from TripAdvisor, ensuring that the company could not prompt them to write a review. In an infamous case a few years ago, a boutique guesthouse in Hudson, New York added a provision, in the fine print of its contract with guests, stating that a single negative review posted online would result in a fine of $500. In this case, the hotel’s strategy backfired. After the policy was mocked in the pages of the New York Post, the hotel received more than 3,000 negative reviews on its Yelp and Facebook pages. Soon afterwards, it shut down.
Yet although TripAdvisor has fought to keep legitimate reviewers from being hounded into removing their posts by litigious owners, it has also struggled to come up with a coherent idea of which posts it is willing to defend. The company has a long list of rules on what speech is and isn’t allowed: all posts must be unbiased, first-hand, recent, non-commercial and free of profanity and hate speech, for instance. But while these categories seem relatively clearcut on paper, they can be ambiguous in practice.
The question of what language is permitted on TripAdvisor is not purely theoretical. The same question is currently bedevilling other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which have struggled to face up to the tangible effects their virtual worlds can have upon the physical one. Millions of travellers rely on TripAdvisor to inform them about their destinations – which bars or hotels they should try, and which ones to avoid – and the company’s content policy dictates what travellers can find out about their destinations before they set off. And in some cases, insufficient information can have tragic consequences.
In December 2010, an American woman named Kristie Love wrote on TripAdvisor about her recent stay at a Mexican resort hotel near Cancún. One night, Love found that her key card wasn’t working and asked a security guard for help. “Within minutes he grabbed me and forced me into the jungle/bushes and raped me,” she wrote. Almost as soon as her post went up, it disappeared from the site, and Love received a notification from TripAdvisor saying that her post breached the site’s “family-friendly” policy.
The next year, another woman reported being assaulted by a security guard at the same hotel. Love fought to have her original post reinstated, but TripAdvisor wouldn’t budge. Though the company’s family-friendly policy has since been revised, it is not consistently enforced, and its provisions are rather vague. On 1 November 2017, an investigation by Raquel Rutledge, a journalist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, found that TripAdvisor had a habit of deleting posts detailing sexual assaults and other violent crimes on the grounds that they either violated the family-friendly policy, contained second-hand information, or hearsay, or they were deemed “off topic” by site moderators. “There’s no way to know how many negative reviews are withheld by TripAdvisor; how many true, terrifying experiences never get told; or for site users to know that much of what they see has been specifically selected and crafted to encourage them to spend,” Rutledge wrote.
On 7 November, TripAdvisor’s market value crashed by $1bn when its stock price dropped from $39 to $30 per share, its worst-ever day on the stock market. A couple of weeks later, the US Federal Trade Commission opened an ongoing investigation into the company’s business practices. “For a long time, [companies] could claim that their role was largely proactive, that all they had to do was put safeguards in place to reduce the risks of bad things happening,” says Botsman. “We’ve seen a massive pendulum swing – it’s now their responsibility when things go wrong. This is a whole new era of corporate accountability.”
The day Rutledge’s story broke, TripAdvisor issued a public apology to Love, and hastily announced the introduction of a “badge” system that would label establishments where similar incidents had taken place with a red caution sign and a message from the company suggesting that users “perform additional research” before making a booking. But because TripAdvisor prides itself on providing the most up-to-date information, the badges will expire 90 days after the incidents are brought to the company’s attention.
Kristie Love’s post was restored to the forum where she originally posted it, buried behind thousands of other posts. Since the badge system was implemented last year, TripAdvisor says that “nearly a dozen” properties have been flagged for users, a figure that is staggeringly low given the millions of hotel listings that it proudly boasts. The company is reluctant to badge properties because, as Young put it, “TripAdvisor is not a factchecking business.” He added: “While we will moderate as aggressively as needed for our guidelines, we weren’t at the restaurant and we weren’t at the hotel. And accordingly, it’s not our place to weigh in on the facts of the review.”
The hotel where Love was raped was badged for 90 days on TripAdvisor.com, and for just three days on its mobile app. (TripAdvisor says the warning was up on mobile for the entire 90 days and that any disparities were due to product updates.) Then the warning disappeared.
Despite its recent difficulties, the number of reviews on TripAdvisor keeps growing. At present, more than 200 new posts are uploaded to TripAdvisor every minute. “We hear from time to time, like, ‘Don’t you have enough?’” Young told me. “There’s never enough. You want one from yesterday, not from last week, not from last month, not from last year.”
Since its crisis at the end of 2017, TripAdvisor’s stock has recovered, nearly doubling in value from the low point in November. Today, businesses can partner with TripAdvisor through simple cost-per-click advertising, sponsored placements, instant booking (TripAdvisor receives a 12-15% commission for direct bookings), and marketing services. In a recent earnings call with investors, Liberty CEO Greg Maffei was ebullient about its performance. “Trip had a fantastic quarter, full stop,” he said, referring to the company as one might refer to a favourite son.
Even so, TripAdvisor is still worth only half of what it was in June 2014, and its shares dropped again in August after it missed its revenue forecast. Booking.com and Expedia, which together accounted for 46% of TripAdvisor’s annual revenue last year, largely due to marketing deals, cut back on their advertising spending. Where Maffei saw positive results, the travel industry news site Skift saw warning signs. TripAdvisor had grown by only 2% in the second quarter of 2018, it pointed out, using the words “anaemic” and “sluggish” to describe its situation.
One reason for the lacklustre results might be that the company has simply stretched itself too thin. Over time, TripAdvisor has grown so large that it has become difficult to explain what it is, exactly: it’s not quite a social network, though it encourages users to “like” and comment on each other’s posts; nor is it a news site, though its business is staked on aggregating legitimate sources to provide an up-to-date portrait of the world; nor is it simply an online marketplace like its competitors Expedia.com and Booking.com. When TripAdvisor first started, consumer reviews were a new and exciting thing; now they are everywhere.
TripAdvisor used to promise its users a kind of escape, whether that be simply daydreaming over a vacation or actually booking one. The internet, too, has long been thought of as a place where one goes to get away from where one is. Travel and tech have both been championed as sectors where the normal rules do not apply – if what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, you might as well move fast and break things. Yet at a moment where such adages now seem horribly outdated, the future of TripAdvisor and similar enterprises seems less certain than it once did.
“My sense is that TripAdvisor, from a character perspective, is trying hard to do the right thing, but like all tech companies, they’re at the very first stages of the governance of how these things work,” says Rupert Younger, director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation. “They didn’t construct these sites thinking they’d be catering to half a billion people.”
Shortly after I learned of Love’s story, I looked for her review on the page of the hotel in Mexico where she had been assaulted, and soon received an email from TripAdvisor inviting me to book a room there. Once you search for a destination on TripAdvisor, the company won’t easily let you forget it. “Ready to finalise your plans?” it read. A few weeks later, another email appeared: “Hi Linda. Book the best of La Paz.” I recalled my ill-fated trip to Bolivia and the attempted break-in. Another week passed, and another email came: “La Paz is selling out fast,” read the subject line. “Hi Linda. Don’t miss out on La Paz.”