Skift Q&A: TripAdvisor CEO on the Bright Future of User Reviews
Stephen Kaufer appearing on CBS. / CBS News
Most of the traveler leads that TripAdvisor passes along to online travel agencies and hotels don’t come from its hotel metasearch search results pages. They come from the property pages where travelers read reviews and gawk at the photos. This is a huge differentiator from the competition and will afford TripAdvisor a big advantage in the long term.
On the surface — at least to an outsider — TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer is a mild-mannered guy. The online travel review brand’s leader is methodical, carefully contemplating each question before providing an answer, and he never raises the decibel level. In public at least.
But when it comes to matters of fake reviews and the reliability of the tens of millions of reviews on his site, there is no quit in Kaufer. He’s convinced that his most-important constituency — travelers — is satisfied with the perspective they get on TripAdvisor.
As Kaufer puts it, “The system works.”
Skift sat down with Kaufer at TripAdvisor’s Newton, Massachusetts, headquarters earlier this week, and discussed fake reviews, TripAdvisor’s acquisition strategy, the advantages it sees over competitors in hotel metasearch, and the company’s roadmap for the future.
A few interesting takeaways from the Skift Q&A below:
- It is full-steam ahead for TripAdvisor’s user-generated content. Don’t expect TripAdvisor to become a hybrid of verified and unverified reviews.
- TripAdvisor commends Yelp for cracking down on fake reviews, but believes it has an advantage over Yelp in blocking fake reviews because TripAdvisor is a travel company.
- You can expect TripAdvisor to continue with its strategy of buying small startups, as it announced with Oyster this week. Everything, including large acquisitions, is on the table.
- TripAdvisor believes it has a significant advantage over other hotel metasearch players such as Kayak and Trivago because of TripAdvisor’s hotel reviews, user photos, hotel room tips, and forums.
- Consolidating TripAdvisor’s myraid apps is on the agenda.
Skift: Let’s talk about fake reviews. Yelp admitted that 25% of its reviews never get published because they are fake. And there has been a New York State investigation about fake reviews. Do you find with TripAdvisor that a large percentage are knocked out before they are even published because of your efforts?
Kaufer: We are always improving our algorithms to automatically catch suspicious behavior and launch our investigations. For the record I applaud Yelp’s efforts to root out, and name and shame, the folks who are trying to post the fake reviews, and sue them in various cases.
Skift: Yelp has sued them?
Kaufer: Yes, Yelp has sued a couple of companies, including a law firm. I tip my hat, Amen. Yelp is telling the world that authenticity is important. We have been on that same mantra since day one. We have arguably more ability to catch folks that are trying to defraud our system than Yelp simply because we are in the travel vertical as opposed to local.
Skift: Why would that give TripAdvisor more of an ability to spot take reviews?
Kaufer: It is a little easier to detect patterns and understand behavior because people live in a single town and use Yelp in a single town most of the time. Whereas people travel and they don’t always go back to the exact same place.
Our sort of “carrot and stick” approach says if we catch you trying to fraud our system, the penalties are meaningful. On the flip side you can use our Review Express tool and ask your guests to come write reviews on TripAdvisor. You can upload your [customers'] email addresses and we’ll send a note out and you’ll get more reviews.
When we ask our travelers — and we ask all the time — is that restaurant, hotel or attraction living up to its billing on TripAdvisor, the answer is yes. The system works. And so while everyone continues to wonder and ask about it [fake reviews], it is everyone except our travelers who use the site, rely upon it, and swear it never steers them wrong.
Skift: How do you ask the travelers whether the reviews are living up to their billing?
Kaufer: It is surveys, it is focus groups, anecdotal evidence, friends. It is a variety of different methods over time. There have been some external studies saying, hey, where do people find the information most helpful. Do you trust the review sites and they list the order in which they trust them, and TripAdvisor is alway top.
Skift: So all the noise is coming from everyone but your core group of users?
Kaufer: I think it is very reasonable for an Internet-savvy consumer to be skeptical of what they read, be it on Amazon, eBay, on TripAdvisor or be it on CNN. I think all travelers need to do is try TripAdvisor to find out that the wisdom of the crowds really works better than anything else out there. With our traffic stats: That’s what’s happened. They’ve tried it. It’s worked so they come back, and that’s how we keep posting such amazing traffic numbers.
More About TripAdvisor:
- TripAdvisor’s New Program Launch Will Bring In Small Hotels Like Never Before
- TripAdvisor Launches a Redesign of the World’s Most Popular Travel Review Site
- Does Expedia Have TripAdvisor Spinoff Remorse?
- 5 Big Travel Brands and Their Current Moment of Identity Crisis
Skift: You bought Oyster with its professional reviews, and you recently started integrating verified reviews from American Express cardholders. Do you see down the road TripAdvisor becoming more of a hybrid of verified and unverified reviews?
Kaufer: You are barking up the wrong tree. We went after Oyster for the photos. The photos are multilingual, they are unbiased. They tell it like it is. You get to see it in the photo. The Amex partnership is not about verified reviews for us at all. It is about affinity with the American Express customer. And that customer who, like a Facebook-connected person who wants to see where their friends are, the Amex customer wants to identify with other Amex cardholders. So those reviews labeled as American Express help deliver that.
Kaufer: I’d say we look back and we are very proud in our track record of buying companies that range from a pure asset purchase — just a website, no people — all the way to our more typical buying the whole the team, management, everyone included to continue to run the business. If history is any judge of future performance, we would expect that to continue because we’ve been pleased with the results. I’m not ruling out bigger. We have the financial strength to do something quite a bit bigger, but that is less in our DNA.
Skift: I noticed with your hotel metasearch that you are integrating a lot of B&Bs, and it says contact the hotel for availability. It seems to me like you are becoming much more comprehensive than even Booking.com. How do you view that?
Kaufer: It’s less an overall numbers game than do you have all the overall content, the reviews, the photos, and the pricing and availability for the properties that consumer want to stay at. We are very broad and very deep in all of those, and we are very clear that want broad availability for every property that is open for business.
Skift: Are you working on a direct booking option in your metasearch as Kayak, Hipmunk, and Room77 have done, and so many others?
Kaufer: That is not something you see on the site now, is it?
Skift: No. There has been so much discussion about your hotel metasearch. How’s it been going, and what kinds of changes have you made to it in the last couple of months?
Kaufer: We have certainly changed around the display, the prices, there are some that include tax, not including tax, those sorts of things. And some of those do vary by country, by the way. I’d say it has been a little more fine-tuning on the display side and a fair amount of work on the supplier-facing side to help our clients. Most of the leads that we generate for our clients don’t come from that search results page. They come from the individual property page.
Our audience isn’t just looking for the best price, they are looking for the best property at a price that they can afford. They may see all these properties are available. They may skim the prices to get a sense, and then they may click into a specific property to look at the photos, to read the reviews. Then they say, yes this is the property they are interested in. Let me see who has it for sale at which point we might show 12 or 16 different offerings. The top three being highlighted, but then everyone is actually shown because we want to present it as a comprehensive choice.
Skift: Does that dynamic give you a huge advantage over other metasearch players? The fact that you have all of that content on those hotel pages?
Kaufer: We think we are a better resource for picking which hotel you want to stay at than any of the other meta players. They used to have a usability advantage when we had popups and they had meta. Now we believe that’s gone away so now I think you can look and say, well, with the millions of candid photos, the 100 million-plus reviews, the wisdom of friends and all that extra advice I’m getting, plus our forums, plus the restaurants, plus the attractions, plus the mobile app, and the room tips, and the list goes on. The other metasearch players have strong offerings. They are just not as complete for selecting a hotel, nor as complete for meaningful trip planning.
Skift: Expedia spun off TripAdvisor about a year before metaserach got hot, hot, hot. Do you expect to see a lot more consolidation in the travel metasearch landscape? There’s been a big investment in Skyscanner. And would Room77 or Hipmunk be attractive to anyone as the next puzzle piece?
Kaufer: I know the folks. Those are two good companies and two good products. It is a little unclear to me who the natural acquirers would be and with the big OTAs pairing up with metasearch engines, plus Travelocity doing their Expedia deal, you could envision, I guess, Orbitz buying a meta player, but it is not clear that they need to.
Skift: You haven’t really gone after restaurants in a big way. You have a lot of restaurant content, but it hasn’t been a strategic goal in the way that hotels is.
Kaufer: That is true. Usage pattern for restaurants on TripAdvisor varies by device and varies by geography. If you live in the U.S., you are probably less familiar with our restaurant offering than if you live in Europe, where it is incredibly popular. There isn’t quite the financial benefit to the company in restaurants versus hotels, but there is a huge value proposition to consumers in their local market, and especially when they are traveling if they don’t have the list of favorites that they want to go to.