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.