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.