Is TripAdvisor, with its Instant Booking push, trying to become primarily a place where you can complete a hotel booking without leaving the site or one that refers you to a third-party website for the transaction?

The answer increasingly is: It depends who the customers is.

After many months of experimentation that’s ongoing, TripAdvisor may be hitting its stride as it is increasingly personalizing the hotel-search results a consumer sees depending on factors such as users’ search patterns regarding hotel rates, types of hotels, and whether they booked hotels on TripAdvisor before or mostly clicked on a link to navigate to an online travel agency or hotel site.

Meanwhile, InterContinental Hotels Group, and TripAdvisor announced today that IHG would be joining TripAdvisor Instant Booking. With nearly 5,200 properties, all of IHG’s brands, ranging from InterContinental to Kimpton and Crowne Plaza to Holiday Inn, will be participating.

TripAdvisor Instant Booking launched in the U.S. in August 2015, and has expanded globally, but IHG was the most notable big hotel chain that hadn’t signed up until now. In the interim, Marriott, Starwood, Hilton, Accor, Best Western, Wyndham, Hyatt, and La Quinta had all signed on.

IHG had been boycotting TripAdvisor Instant Booking until now as it preferred to emphasize its direct-booking strategy but has been convinced to participate.

We’re primarily a booking Site, no we’re Mostly a search site

On TripAdvisor today, it appears that changes in its hotel search algorithms have moved the site away from an earlier approach when it seemed to be giving preference at times to its own Instant Booking, or Book on TripAdvisor, feature over metasearch and its links to partners.

“In the event of a [pricing] tie between Instant Book and meta, we will take into consideration what we know about the user to determine what is preferenced in the View Deal results,” said TripAdvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt. “We look at a number of factors such as price and hotel style etc., including what channel they typically prefer to book.”

TripAdvisor typically presents hotel prices in two boxes: TripAdvisor shows a featured provider’s offer highlighted with a yellow View Deal label underneath in the center box, and the grid on the right usually highlights three other offers in a much smaller font.

I recently conducted a TripAdvisor search for a hotel stay in New York City for April 30 and of the 30 hotels presented in the search results, all 30 displayed the metasearch offer — and not the Book on TripAdvisor link — in the featured View Deal box. [See the first chart below.]

Of the 30 hotels that TripAdvisor displayed, 22 of the results, or 73.3 percent, had an Instant Booking option in the secondary right-hand box, and there was no Instant Booking option for eight, or 26.6 percent, of the hotels.

TripAdvisor Instant Booking Versus Metasearch In A NYC Hotel Search

How ManyPercentage
Hotel Listings30100%
Instant Booking Preferenced00.00%
Metasearch Option Preferenced30100.00%
Had Metasearch and Instant Booking Options2273.30%
No Instant Booking Option/Meta Only826.60%
Price Difference Meta vs Instant Booking00%
Price Difference Among Meta-Only Deals on First Results Page450%
No Price Difference Among Meta-Only Deals on First Results Page450%
Featured Meta Partner Also the Instant Booking Partner1150%
Featured Meta Partner Not the Instant Booking Partner1150%
Online Travel Agencies as Instant Booking Partners1986.40%
Hotels as Instant Booking Partners313.60%

Source: Skift

So TripAdvisor was pushing me, in particular, to book a hotel on a partner site and not on TripAdvisor 100 percent of the time, although I had the option shown to Book on TripAdvisor in the less-featured right-hand box 73.3 percent of the time. This likely has something to do with my TripAdvisor search history: I’ve booked two hotels on TripAdvisor since late 2014, and I frequently use the hotel search for personal use and to research stories.

The way TripAdvisor displays hotels results changes frequently based on partners bidding for position and other factors. But the following two screenshots of the Distrikt Hotel Times Square in a TripAdvisor search result show in a small way how TripAdvisor is personalizing putting Instant Booking or metasearch in front of your face depending on who is doing the searching.

The first screenshot below, captured Wednesday, shows my TripAdvisor search result for the Distrikt Hotel featuring a Hotels.com metasearch offer of $145 in the View Deal box. I could select View Deal and book the stay on Hotels.com if I chose this featured option.

There also is a smaller “TripAdvisor” Instant Booking link for the same rate in the right-hand box. By downplaying that TripAdvisor Instant Booking link, TripAdvisor is subtly encouraging me, based on the algorithm’s perception of my preferences and past search behavior, to choose the metasearch/Hotels.com option in the View Deal box.

Ironically, in this instance — and it is frequently not the case — if I decided to click on the TripAdvisor link in the right-hand box, it would likewise be Hotels.com as TripAdvisor’s booking partner. So I could book the hotel by navigating to Hotels.com or I could book the stay right on TripAdvisor by selecting the “TripAdvisor” link, and then Hotels.com would process the booking and provide the customer service in the background.

However, unlike my search result shown above that gave preference to the Hotels.com metasearch option, The Distrikt Hotel display shown below in the following screenshot, captured Tuesday, features a TripAdvisor Instant Booking result, with the Distrikt Hotel itself as the partner, in the primary View Deal box.

A TripAdvisor employee sent me his own personal search result for the Distrikt Hotel above, and there are probably several reasons the site pushed him the Instant Booking option through TripAdvisor/Distrikt Hotel while it conversely showed me in preferential way the metasearch option via a link to Hotels.com.

There are likely several reasons why we were shown different results. Among them, the TripAdvisor employee had previously used Instant Booking to make a reservation at the Distrikt Hotel, and I predominantly navigate to partner sites when using TripAdvisor to look for hotel stays.

Also, when the TripAdvisor employee captured the search result on Tuesday, the TripAdvisor Instant Booking offer for the Distrikt Hotels was $134 while the lowest metasearch result from Booking.com and Expedia.com was $149.

All things being equal, if there is a lower rate, whether it comes through Book on TripAdvisor or a metasearch partner, the cheaper price would likely command the featured position in the View Deal box.

After all, for the price-conscious consumer using TripAdvisor, low rates take priority.

The main point, though, is that TripAdvisor is producing varied hotel results, in terms of whether it is giving priority to Book on TripAdvisor or metasearch, depending on which consumer is doing the searching and it’s based on their search history and other factors.

In contrast, earlier this year, it appeared as though TripAdvisor was tilting things more toward Book on TripAdvisor and possibly downplaying the metasearch option.

Is TripAdvisor Getting Its Act Together?

Asked at the Skift Forum Europe in London earlier this month to comment on the progress of TripAdvisor’s Instant Booking transition, the CEO of rival Kayak, Steve Hafner said, “I think anyone who reads their financial reports and tracks their stock price knows how that’s going for them. Which is not well, unfortunately.”

“But they’ve made those changes. So if you’re looking at TripAdvisor now you’ll see that there is no real bias toward their booking path (Instant Booking), which makes a tremendous amount of financial sense.”

Metasearch may have a  conversion, and therefore a commercial, advantage for TripAdvisor during its transition so TripAdvisor could be improving its margins by curtailing any bias toward Instant Booking.

“I think Steve’s [Kaufer, TripAdvisor CEO] turned that ship around,” Hafner said, adding that TripAdvisor would likely be producing some “good quarters” ahead.

It should be noted, though, that Hafner’s statements should be taken in the context of the fact that he said he’s rooting for TripAdvisor’s success as a way to stall the rise of Kayak competitors Google and Trivago in the hotel arena.

Hafner isn’t the only one, though, seeing things trending TripAdvisor’s way, although we’ll get a better idea when TripAdvisor reports its first quarter results on May 9.

In a note to investors Monday, Dan Wasiolek, a Morningstar senior equity analyst, wrote that TripAdvisor’s website traffic “rebounded 17 percent month over month in March to 150 million visitors, according to SimilarWeb, above Trivago’s 20 million (up 12 percent) and Kayak’s 33 million (up 5 percent).”

Wasiolek also points to TripAdvisor “reaccelerating” in Google search popularity versus Trivago and Kayak as optimistic signs.

“We expect metasearch competition to remain intense,” the Morningstar analyst wrote. “However, we believe the market is discounting TripAdvisor’s network advantage — source of its narrow moat — which recent signs of improvement in its website traffic appear to support.”

In an apparently modified strategy, TripAdvisor is finding religion in being agnostic about where its users book hotels. While TripAdvisor is increasingly promoting personalized booking options based on users’ search history, the company doesn’t care if you click to a partner site or use Book on TripAdvisor — as long as there is a transaction that makes TripAdvisor’s coffers go ching ching.

Photo Credit: InterContinental Hotels Group has joined TripAdvisor Instant Booking. Pictured, a woman uses her phone at the InterContinental San Juan in Puerto Rico. InterContinental Hotels