The world’s biggest travel site has turned the industry upside down – but now it is struggling to deal with the same kinds of problems that are vexing other tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter.
TripAdvisor is to travel as Google is to search, as Amazon is to books, as Uber is to cabs – so dominant that it is almost a monopoly. Bad reviews can be devastating for business, so proprietors tend to think of them in rather violent terms. "It is the marketing/PR equivalent of a drive-by shooting," Edward Terry, the owner of a Lebanese restaurant in Weybridge, UK, wrote in 2015. Marketers call a cascade of online one-star ratings a "review bomb". Likewise, positive reviews can transform an establishment's fortunes. Researchers studying Yelp, one of TripAdvisor's main competitors, found that a one-star increase meant a 5-9% increase in revenue. Before TripAdvisor, the customer was only nominally king. After, he became a veritable tyrant, with the power to make or break lives. In response, the hospitality industry has lawyered up, and it is not uncommon for businesses to threaten to sue customers who post negative reviews.
AdvertisementAs the so-called "reputation economy" has grown, so too has a shadow industry of fake reviews, which can be bought, sold and traded online. For TripAdvisor, this trend amounts to an existential threat. Its business depends on having real consumers post real reviews. Without that, says Dina Mayzlin, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, "the whole thing falls apart". And there have been moments, over the past several years, when it looked like things were falling apart. One of the most dangerous things about the rise of fake reviews is that they have also endangered genuine ones – as companies like TripAdvisor raced to eliminate fraudulent posts from their sites, they ended up taking down some truthful ones, too. And given that user reviews can go beyond complaints about bad service and peeling wallpaper, to much more serious claims about fraud, theft and sexual assault, their removal becomes a grave problem.
Thus, in promising a faithful portrait of the world, TripAdvisor has, like other tech giants, found itself in the unhappy position of becoming an arbiter of truth, of having to determine which reviews are real and which are fake, which are accurate and which are not, and how free speech on their platform should be. It is hard to imagine that when CEO Stephen Kaufer and his co-founders were sitting in a pizza restaurant in a suburb of Boston 18 years ago dreaming up tripadvisor.com, they foresaw their business growing so powerful and so large that they would find themselves tangled up in the kinds of problems that vex the minds of the world's most brilliant philosophers and legal theorists. From the vantage point of 2018, one of the company's early mottos now seems comically naive: "Get the truth and go."