As co-founder and CEO of TripAdvisor for over 16 years, I have seen my share of newspaper column inches dedicated to the impact that our platform has had on the travel industry.  While I’m gratified that many of these articles are positive, from time to time I do see some articles that question whether travelers’ reviews on the site help or hurt a business. Over the weekend, I read one such article by a professional food critic who had some pretty strong opinions about TripAdvisor and our community of travelers and businesses, and I disagreed with almost all of them.

It got me thinking back to why I started TripAdvisor in the first place. I wanted to create a website that gave travelers access to a wealth of useful information, from people like themselves. Until TripAdvisor, unbiased information sourced from travelers about their individual experiences had not been easy to find.

Professional critics were around in those days, of course. And while they served a purpose to the handful of businesses selected for a review, millions of businesses in cities, towns and villages would never get the benefit of being frequented by a professional critic. Those businesses had to fight to survive.  For many of them, investing heavily in marketing would be the only way to stand out.  However, realistically, most small business owners don’t have marketing budgets just sitting around their coffers, waiting to be spent.

But then something changed. The Internet and TripAdvisor, in particular, changed how travel information was shared between ordinary people.  We became one of the first sites to give travelers a global platform and a voice. I would love to say it was intentional, but it wasn’t. When we created the ‘write a review’ button on our site we had no idea the extent to which consumers would embrace it.  There were certainly plenty of skeptics at the time who thought only those with an axe to grind would post reviews. Or that regular customers couldn’t really offer the same level of helpful insight as the paid “experts.”

Fast forward 16 years, where today we get over 230 new pieces of content on the site per minute and over 340 million unique visitors a month come to see what other travelers have to say. Our travel community has grown to such an extent that we are now the world’s most visited travel website. And the skeptics were wrong: the vast majority of the reviews are in fact positive.  In fact, hotel reviews average higher than 4 out of a possible 5-bubble scale.

But more than that, the TripAdvisor travel community has fundamentally changed the way we travel. Our community’s voice has done more to improve service standards than professional reviews ever could. And 8 out of 10 business owners agree. Our community has helped small businesses all over the globe reach a global audience; to grow and succeed based on the quality of their product and the service they offer, not the size of their budgets or the savviness of their marketing efforts. Whether it is the small B&B in Yorkshire that within two years was attracting guests from all over the world thanks to the positive feedback they had received. Or the resident of a South African township who, with no money, was able to build a successful local tour business because of hard-earned positive reviews from travelers on TripAdvisor. I hear stories like this all the time from owners who have seen the benefits that customer reviews on TripAdvisor have brought to their business.

I feel very lucky- we have built a business that helps travelers, and continues to grow every year.  And it also helps hospitality businesses large and small get more customers, improve their experiences, and in more cases than not, get the property and its team well-deserved recognition.  And yet, I still hear some people question whether a model that is built around transparency and democratizing opinion can really work.

What is interesting is that the criticisms I hear often come from two opposite ends of the debate. On the one hand, there are those who say we should engage in greater levels of censorship to counter fraudulent reviews. On the other hand, we are critiqued that our guideline process is too stringent.  Both viewpoints are flawed in their own unique ways.

There still exists a belief that a proof of purchase must be presented before a customer would be allowed to express their opinion, a belief even more prevalent in the restaurant industry.

Travel is one of the few industries in which this argument still survives. Imagine a world in which no-one was allowed to express their opinion about the latest blockbuster movie unless they could produce a cinema ticket to prove they had seen it. I hope we wouldn’t tolerate such an obstacle to the freedom to express our points of view. Yet some people believe exactly that when it comes to people enjoying a meal out. What about the opinion of that guest who didn’t pick up the check?

Interestingly, most advocates for a receipt before you can write a review don’t realise that most attempts at review fraud are committed by the very people who have the easiest access to receipts – a small minority of business owners trying to boost their own profile unfairly. Far from catching fake reviews, all it would do is censor those genuine customers who, quite innocently, don’t have or can’t find their receipt.

We believe in a traveler’s freedom of speech and a traveler’s right to write about their trip.

We know most reviewers have entirely genuine motives.  However, we also know some don’t, which is why we have strict guidelines about what we allow people to write in reviews. We are not blind to the challenges that a site like ours faces. We receive millions of contributions from millions of travelers. On the contrary, our very business depends on acknowledging and overcoming those challenges to ensure that TripAdvisor remains useful to the travel community.

We recognize that we have to strike the right balance between giving genuine customers the platform they deserve and protecting that platform from those who would seek to manipulate it.

Preventing the manipulation of the system is why we place controls on the content we publish. Reviews are not published instantly. Instead they go through a tracking system that looks at hundreds of indicators to spot when content is not genuine or does not conform to our guidelines on what is family-friendly and relevant.

TripAdvisor is aggressive when it comes to fighting fraud, and we believe the vast majority of our efforts have been successful in ensuring travelers have access to unbiased reviews about hotels, flights, tourism attractions and restaurants.  Our review guidelines and content integrity program at TripAdvisor helps solve for these challenges on a daily basis.

It is why we invest heavily in our team of content specialists, recruiting those with extensive expertise in fraud detection.

It is why we adopt best-in-class technology borrowed from the banking industry and continually look to improve the processes and safeguards we have in place.

It is why we also give all business owners a voice and encourage them to reply, and the means to report any content to us if they believe it breaks our rules.

We don’t claim to be perfect. We know there are times the site has misinformation or something isn’t categorized the right way.  But here are some things we do know and believe:

  • Research tells us that 93% of TripAdvisor users globally find the hotel reviews to be accurate of their actual experience.
  • Ultimately, the power of community and the scale of TripAdvisor’s global reach helps make travel for everyone better in the long term.
  • The voice of the traveler is the self-regulating force that helps good businesses rise and gives poor performers the feedback they need to improve.
  • Like any business, TripAdvisor is also open to feedback to better serve our community of travelers and business owners.

By giving customers a voice we have helped millions of travelers take better trips. We have helped countless deserving small businesses get discovered and thrive where once they would have struggled. I am, and will always be, immensely proud of that, and so grateful to the whole of the TripAdvisor community who together have made this happen. Professional critics are free to disagree, but I am going to stand by the hundreds of millions of travelers and millions of business owners who also know from their own experience that TripAdvisor is a force for good for both the traveler community and for the global travel industry.

– Steve Kaufer, President and CEO