You’ve just arrived at the JW Marriott when your phone starts to shimmy. The GPS has tracked your location, and now this message appears: “You’ll like the Marriott, especially if you get a city view. Ask for an odd-numbered room above the seventh floor. Cindy at the concierge desk will have the latest info on restaurants. But make sure your rate is under $200. For $209, you can get in at the Westin, which is seven blocks closer to tomorrow’s meeting.”
That’s a text message from the near future, according to the two ex-Microsofties who own and run Seattle-based Raveable, a hotel-rating website. Highly personalized yet composed by a computer, it will arrive on your PDA automatically and free of charge. Sound fanciful? Understand that Raveable, which launched a year ago, is already doing the hard part. As you read this, its computers are tirelessly quantifying reviews that consumers have posted on TripAdvisor and elsewhere around the Internet, pulling out keywords and phrases from the unwieldy—and often barely readable—commentary and weighing them by date and site reliability. The result is a snapshot of opinion, without the need to slog through entry after entry.
It’s just the latest tool for helping travelers solve the conundrum: Where to sleep? “Imagine if hotel chains had to turn over their guest satisfaction surveys to the world,” says CEO Philip Vaughn. “That’s essentially what we’re doing.” Coming later this year is increased personalization and enhanced writing that will enable users to get a feel for a hotel, not just a value judgment. “Soon you won’t be able to tell the difference,” Vaughn adds, “between our computer and a human.”
It all starts with a human, though. And most likely, the human starts on TripAdvisor. The popular site, which was bought by Internet conglomerate IAC in 2004 and spun off as part of Expedia, gets more than 32 million visits a month—six times the number of hotel rooms in the U.S.—and generates annual revenue of $350 million.
TripAdvisor relies on the volunteer efforts of travelers who relate their experiences at various hotels, much as restaurant diners do for Zagat or music listeners do for Amazon. The company launched in 2000 as an Internet search engine that pulled travel information from existing sources, including message boards, guidebooks, and magazines. At first, users added comments about hotels as a means to emote, not with any idea that they were contributing to the construction of a database. “We were actually a little nervous about whether the site would just turn into a gripe site,” says cofounder and CEO Stephen Kaufer.
As it turned out, most contributors offered praise, not pans. And as in Olympic figure skating, extremist opinions tended to cancel out. Reading through the accumulated mass of impressions, perhaps giving additional credence to posters who tended to spell correctly, a user could piece together a composite portrait of a property, then reserve a room there with just a few clicks.
It helped that TripAdvisor tapped into a philosophical battle that had just started to play out on the Internet and continues today. At issue is which carries greater validity, a single expert—film’s Roger Ebert, wine’s Robert Parker—or the aggregated rantings of the hordes. Experts can’t offer ongoing updates, for how often can someone eat at a particular restaurant, let alone revisit the same hotel? On the other hand, they do provide a professional perspective untainted (one would hope) by hidden agendas. And since opinions can be posted anonymously on TripAdvisor, fraudulence remains an issue.
Kaufer believes the site has become adept at spotting reviews written by employees, ex-employees, competitors, or anyone with an ax to grind: a team of “quality assurance specialists” schooled in spotting credit-card swindles, identity theft, and other malfeasance reviews each posting, aided by “proprietary automated tools.” Still, suspicions remain. Earlier this year, the CEO of the British Hospitality Association announced that European hotels would seek governmental regulation of rating sites, which have the power to damage business with unwarranted criticism (as well as enhance it with effusive praise). “I am in favor of all these methods of modern communication,” Bob Cotton told the Independent. “But we need a fair crack at the whip.”
It’s clear that Raveable’s scores can’t transcend the raw material it gets from TripAdvisor, TravelPost (800,000 monthly hits), and the other consumer-driven sites. But it does mitigate a particularly devastating review with a preponderance of data. “If the first review you see on TripAdvisor is a bad one, you’ll need to read about fifteen good ones to make up for it,” Vaughn says. “That’s not a problem with us.” Users’ first impressions of a property will be its score and ranking, not a vivid accounting of a hair ball discovered in the sink.
An earnest Texan, Vaughn, 33, learned to interpret consumer preferences while working for Gallup. A year on, his site gets 50,000 visits a month. That’s a drop of rain in the ocean compared with TripAdvisor, but the business is sustainable, Vaughn maintains, because he and cofounder (and head techie) Rafik Robeal have scant overhead. They own little equipment beyond laptops, have no full-time employees, do their programming themselves, and lease computer time for pennies an hour from Amazon’s data center. “We can run the website from a coffee shop,” Vaughn says. “The whole thing costs less than a thousand dollars a month. It costs us more to print business cards.”
Raveable’s vision of the future is compelling, but it isn’t the only one. In New York, a serial entrepreneur named Elie Seidman, 35, has founded Oyster, a website that resembles an online, real-time version of Fodor’s and Frommer’s guidebooks, but with high-resolution photography. Unlike Raveable, Oyster has paid professional reviewers who travel the country staying in hotels. So far, the site—which launched last June—covers only select U.S. cities and Caribbean resorts, but its presentation is striking. And though a single trip by an Oyster reporter can cost more than Raveable spends in a month, its funding is exponentially higher, too. Since March 2008, venture capitalists have invested some $10 million.
Seidman’s plan is to hang on until the future bends back to resemble the past, just with a different delivery system. Consumer feedback is an engaging novelty, he believes, but ultimately travelers value expertise. “That’s how people have planned their journeys for the past fifty years—by consulting experts,” he says. He argues that the reviews crunched by Raveable are written by consumers who have no basis for comparison—if they’ve stayed at Miami’s Fontainebleau, they probably haven’t been to the Eden Roc—and no trained eye through which to filter their experience. TripAdvisor is “garbage in, garbage out,” he says. “Every hotel, no matter how good or how bad, gets a bunch of twos and a bunch of fives.”
So far, the market has validated TripAdvisor’s approach. But because of its very heft, it may not be able to act nimbly as the Internet evolves. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Internet, it’s that it doesn’t stay still for long. “TripAdvisor is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the category,” says Greg Slyngstad, who serves on the board of Kayak, which owns TravelPost. “But it’s not going to react as quickly as a Raveable or a start-up can.”
Having identified two emerging trends—websites’ interaction with GPS systems and social networking—Slyngstad is partnering with Rich Barton, who founded Expedia and currently runs the real estate site Zillow, to buy TravelPost. Their plan is to modify it into a hotel-rating tool that taps into social media, effectively splitting the difference between TripAdvisor and Oyster. The information you get won’t be from anonymous users, but it won’t be from trained experts, either. Instead, you’ll be matched up with friends and acquaintances—or perhaps even friends of friends or celebrities, as on Twitter—who’ve recently visited your destination. “Better than one hundred strangers or one expert,” Slyngstad says, “are three or four people you know and trust.”
Vaughn and Robeal also appreciate the power of social media. Recently, Raveable started offering its users content from travel bloggers whom it judges to be reliable. It sorts them by category and lists them by the number of posts and the hits each generates, which keeps new content flowing in as bloggers battle to move up in the rankings. This only works if Raveable can get the posts for free, but that’s the beauty of it: these bloggers are already writing for free. Raveable is merely providing a bigger platform, rewarding them with a modicum of fame. The same recompense motivates contributions to TripAdvisor. “It’s amazing how many people are spending vast time and effort writing on TripAdvisor and getting nothing in return,” Slyngstad says.
That’s now, of course. Tomorrow may be very different. Slyngstad believes TripAdvisor may soon need to pay frequent contributors in order to keep its information proprietary. That would blur the philosophical lines, for if TripAdvisor’s best-known writers go professional, how different are they from Oyster’s? Not very, even Seidman admits. “You don’t have to work for the New York Times to be an expert anymore,” he says. “You can be a tweeter or blogger with ten thousand followers.” Whether that makes you more capable of rendering judgment on a hotel than the guy mowing his lawn down the block is an open question, and one that each of the hotel-rating websites would answer differently. “It will all come down to what consumers value,” Seidman says. For the moment, they seem to value having it all.
Ideal for those who want the full picture—in all its occasionally gory detail—of what other travelers have experienced.
Drawback: One bad apple can spoil the bunch.
If you’re numerically minded and want the range of opinions crunched into irrefutable stats, this is the site for you.
Drawback: You’ll get a snapshot of public opinion, but no feel for the property.
Use this if you find the masses untrustworthy and want expert (or at least professional) guidance.
Drawback: Only a limited number of popular destinations are covered.
An alternative to TripAdvisor with innovations involving social media in the works.
Drawback: Lacks TripAdvisor’s critical mass.