After a stream of negative stories from hacked-off hoteliers, TripAdvisor has taken steps to engage better with hospitality. President of TripAdvisor for business, Christine Petersen, tells James Stagg how the site scrutinises reviews and what steps it is taking to root out fraud
What's your background with TripAdvisor?
I've been with the company for seven years. I started when TripAdvisor was 30 people. We were in a tiny office building in Massachusetts with a dotcom site and that was it. We had a few million visitors a month compared to 50 million today, so we were considerably smaller. I've seen the business and its influence grow.
How many UK businesses are on the site?
We have just under 34,000 hotels and B&Bs and 44,000 restaurants.
Who is your customer, is it the user or hotelier?
It's both. But much more so in the past year. We started a group that I run called TripAdvisor for business in May 2010 because we knew we weren't paying enough attention to the market. We had a wonderful consumer-facing site but we'd left the relations with the hospitality industry in the dust. But that group is very much our customer now, while it may not have been in the past.
Reviews seem to be posted without being checked. How do you go about policing them?
They don't go straight up. First of all we have fraud filters in place. They are automated ways at looking at the data that comes in, searching everything. Every piece of content has some kind of fingerprint attached - we are able to look at all the variables. There are IP addresses, patterns, e‑mail addresses, days of the week, times of the day - every conceivable piece of data even down to obscene and abusive language.
Do you have a team scrutinising reviews?
We also have a large team involved in content quality and integrity - they make up 10% of our workforce. Our filters scan reviews for biased material, monitoring a wide range of attributes associated with electronic correspondence. Suspicious activity is then flagged for further inspection by our team which uses a variety of additional confidential investigative methods designed to identify potential fraud.
But the most important quality that we have is 50 million people a month using our site. We wouldn't have them if we weren't doing it right and if they didn't believe their fellow travellers' opinions. Also, 50 million people can tell us when we've got it wrong. Beside every review there is a button saying "report this review" and plenty of people use it. When they do we go back and investigate.
Many people would suggest there would be more integrity if people were asked to leave their details and some proof they'd visited the establishment
On that front there are a couple of things we are doing. In terms of giving details, we get almost 30 pieces of information in every minute so there is no way we could ask for receipts and match them.
There is also a lot of information on the reviewer behind the scenes. So, if you're looking at a review you can look at who the contributor is and check out how many reviews they've written. Most people look for those with a track record.
Through our third party research we've found that 77% of travellers ignore extreme comments and make a general assessment.
Is it possible for a fraudulent review to get posted on TripAdvisor?
No fraud detection system is perfect. A suspicious post could appear on TripAdvisor but even if one makes it to the site for a time, chances are, among the incredible volume of opinions you will find on TripAdvisor, it won't have a significant impact.
For those that try to manipulate the system with widespread or multiple attempts, our tools are exceptionally effective at identifying them. We weed them out, and we penalise business owners accordingly.
For a hotelier it is understandably upsetting if reviews are posted that they know are fake. What is the process for rooting out fake reviews and removing them?
To that end, since we started the business group we have introduced a number of initiatives to make ourselves more accessible. We knew right off the bat that was a problem.
One thing we did earlier this year was hire a director of customer service and we're rolling out a dedicated customer service phone number. Unfortunately we had so many enquiries at times that we weren't getting and filtering all the questions and queries.
What I would also say to operators is to write a management response. Not just to the good ones but the bad ones as well. The hotelier has the last say, the customer can't come in again.
How about a drip feed of negativity from a competitor?
We want to know if that's something a hotelier suspects. If we find it to be true that a hotelier is either boosting their own property with reviews or disparaging another, we will use the red badge to say as much.
But we don't use the red badge lightly. At the most we have 100 of our 520,000 properties listed globally with a red badge.
What is the rationale for red badging a business?
We don't put a red badge up without telling the hotel. You can tell by how few we have that it is reserved for very serious cases.
In these instances we have all the background that we need. We will either have evidence that someone at the property is boosting it or is making disparaging comments about competitors.
It's never for an isolated incident or something written by a guest in the lobby. We have a system of verification and a decade of experience.
Should operators stop guests from logging on to TripAdvisor from their hotel to avoid suspicion?
Depending on other patterns we've seen the guest may receive a verification e‑mail but that would not be a leading indicator to us of an issue. However, we do say within our guidelines that we recommend that the guest waits until they get home and reflect on their experience before writing a review. But if something is written from a lobby it might flag our content team to take a closer look but by no means would it disqualify the review.
Why did you remove the reviews you can trust slogan?
I think it was site testing and part of a general site redesign. It wasn't conscious. It's still there on the tourism, attractions and restaurants pages but not on the specific part of the hotels page. It's completely separate to the ASA [Advertising Standards Authority] investigation. We go through weekly site updates where multiple things are changing.
Operators have complained that their highly acclaimed business is ranked lower than a nearby operation that is clearly of a lower standard. How does the popularity index work in this regard?
The popularity index is just that - it's popularity. It's reflective of the taste and opinions of the people that come to the site.
I agree that sometimes I'll go to a destination and ask why a burger joint is number one and a Michelin-starred restaurant number four. But it's representative of who's coming to the site. It's all about the score and freshness of the reviews.
HOW TO BOOST YOUR TRIPADVISOR RATING
Though operators shouldn't incentivise guests to post on TripAdvisor, the site does encourage hotels to ask guests to write a review.
"It's always a bad idea to incentivise guests," says Christine Petersen. "We suggest they ask everyone to write a review and we have lots of tools that can help with that."
In addition to the new customer care group, the website has also worked hard to improve its management centre, where operators can find the tools that can help promote feedback.
Petersen adds: "It includes lots of tools that help people promote their business on the site, understand how they're doing, compare themselves to competitors, as well as offering code to include in e‑mails to encourage feedback. Within the management centre there is loads of free insight."
* Meanwhile, TripAdvisor seeks to engage through live events and webinars. This month's events are in Liverpool on 15 November and Exeter on 17 November. Anyone keen to attend should visit www.tripadvisormasterclass.com.
The site is also hosting Business Listing webinars for registered and non-registered owners in English on 14 November and 12 December. Visit http://tinyurl.com/tripadvisorwebinars for details.
INNOVATIVE MARKETING IN HOSPITALITY CONFERENCE
Christine Petersen will be speaking at the Innovative Marketing in Hospitality conference being held at the King's Fund, London, on 28 November.
The day-long conference will tackle online and offline approaches to boosting business, dealing with the biggest challenges for any hotelier, restaurateur and publican responsible for generating revenue.
Petersen will be joined by speakers from Google, Groupon, Individual Restaurant Company, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Dukes London, Strattons hotel and restaurant, Chilango and Fallowfields hotel and restaurant.