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User-Generated Content and Travel: A Case Study on Tripadvisor.

Peter O'Connor Institute de Management Hotelier International, Essec Business School, France oconnor@essec.fr

Consumer generated content is rapidly gaining traction as part of the purchase decision making process. After examining the implications for travel businesses, this paper focuses on TripAdvisor.com, the largest online network of travel consumers to establish its current practices and challenges. Using a sample of London hotels, it was shown that the system displays detailed, rich and relevant data for use by consumers in their travel planning. Analyses also suggest that the belief that the system is compromised by false reviews posted to enhance a hotels reputation or tarnish that of competitors is unfounded. Little evidence was found of characteristics that typify false reviews. Keywords: Travel, social networks, user-generated content, electronic word-of-mouth.

1. Introduction
Just as the diffusion of the World Wide Web as a mainstream consumer media in the mid-1990s had important implications for commerce, another revolution currently in progress will potentially have similar effects. The Web is evolving from a businessto-consumer marketing media to one where peer-to-peer generation and sharing of data are the norm. Collaboration has come to the fore in a manner unimaginable in the past. As a result, it has become more difficult to carefully craft a marketing message and position it in front of the consumer. This change has important implications for business, not least the travel sector, which had hither fore embraced the web as a marketing and selling mechanism and now need to adapt to its changing characteristics. This paper examines the implications of user generated content for travel businesses, focusing in particular on hotel reviews on TripAdvisor.com, the largest online network of travel consumers. Current practices and challenges are established, areas which need further research identified and advice for industry practitioners as to how to best cope with this phenomenon offered.

2. Background
There is no denying the radical transformation that the World Wide Web has brought about. It has enabled new, more efficient, ways of communicating; of distributing and accessing information; and of doing business; helping to act as a dissolver of boundaries and a catalyst to globalisation (Puri, 2007). One of its key benefits has been the incredible access to information it provides to consumers (Bellman et al, 2006). During the consumer decision making process, potential customers can now access this vast pool of data to help evaluate alternatives. Their information search process is facilitated by search engines - websites which act as the front end of


complex categorisation systems that trawl the web categorising every page they encounter. The ease with which consumers can use such sites to search has turned the web into a user-driven, non-linear repository of information. As a result, instead of the marketer dictating how information is presented and consumed, the user is now in control. Website visitors no longer necessarily enter through a site's home page and browse as they would a brochure (Schipul, 2006). Instead they use search to hunt for, and transport them directly to, specific pieces of information. As will be discussed below, a series of developments collectively known as "Web 2.0" further revolutionise this process by radically altering the origin of information. Consumers are no longer dependent on web site owners to publish the information they seek, as they can increasingly rely on unfiltered, dynamic and topical information provided by their own peers. This change has prompted a change in the power relationship between vendors and customers, and was one of the reasons why Time magazine nominated "You" as person of the year in 2006. Increased quantities of information can be both a blessing and a curse. Often the sheer quantity of information available can complicate the decision making process, as consumers do not have the time or ability to examine all data or compare all options (Bellman 2006). The abundance of alternatives can be overwhelming, leading to confusion, sub-optimum decisions or dissatisfaction with choices made (Smith, Menon & Sivakumar, 2007). Increased scepticism among consumers is also driving many to question the quality and credibility of information found on the web, much of which is generated by marketers, who naturally stress the benefits of their products. In the off-line world, word-of-mouth plays a pivotal role in overcoming these challenges and helping consumers understand what to believe (Looker, Rockland & Taylor- Ketchum, 2007). As Smith, Menon and Sivakumar (2007) point out, in an information intensive situation, consumers actively seek others' opinions as a means of managing perceived risks. This type of information, often referred to as 'world-ofmouth', is perceived as being more vivid, easier to use and more trustworthy than marketer-provided information (Smith, 1993). And while in the past, world-of-mouth implied people talking individually or in small groups by the water cooler, the Internet has turbo-charged world-of-mouth into a mass communications media, be it a with predefined group of friends or with thousands of online-but-connected strangers on an online community (ComScore, 2007). Thus while a dissatisfied customer used to tell ten people about their experience, now thanks to web-based consumer opinion platforms, they can potentially influence thousands of their peers (Hennig-Thurau et al, 2004). By making it easier for consumers to disseminate their viewpoints, and facilitating access to such opinions, the Internet is having a profound effect on how consumers shop. 2.1 Social networks The term "Web 2.0" emerged in late early 2004, originating in the work of Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media. However, despite much media hype, a formal definition has still to be agreed-upon. Wikipedia defines it as a "perceived second generation of

49 web-based services - such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools and folksonomies - that emphasise online collaboration and sharing among users". Irrespective of definition, Web 2.0 sites share common traits - being participatory, collaborative, inclusive, creator / user centric, unsettled and very information intensive (Dearstyne, 2007). In particular, Web 2.0 affects how individuals create, exchange and use information. An example from publishing illustrates this concept, with the traditional publishing model typified by Encyclopaedia Britannica being contrasted with the flexibility, speed and topicality of Wikipedia - an online encyclopaedia whose entries are created by; continuously edited by; and used by millions of individuals. The logic behind this approach this is that over time, successive modifications will result in entries that are more comprehensive, more relevant and more current that those found in paper equivalents - a process that has been termed the "wisdom of the crowd". Folksonomies (more commonly known as "tagging"), whereby users classify web content using their ovm words, follows a similar philosophy. Sites that leverage these user generated tags (such as Digg, Slashdot or Del.icio.us) allow consumers to find content as it is perceived by their peers rather than how it has been classified by site owners. Other socio-technological developments usually included in the Web 2.0 portfolio include social networking (or community) sites, RSS feeds, user generated content such as blogs, photo or video sharing, podcasts, virtual worlds such as Second Life and syndication. The underlying common denominator is a kind of online democracy, with content provided by consumers for consumers (Milan, 2007). According to Carroll & Rosson (2003) social networks have their origins in support interactions among neighbours in a community. These typically facilitated information exchange, discussion and joint activity related to local events or issues and concerns within the community. However their context has been transformed by the development of electronic communications and the Web. No longer are such networks limited by physical location, as now communities of individuals with similar interests can be formed virtually, interacting primarily in the online environment (Hennig-Thurau et al, 2004). Valkenburg et al (2006) identify three different types of online social networks - dating sites, where participants' primary objective is to find a partner; friend sites, whose objective is to help members establish and maintain a network of friends; and common interest sites, whose aim is to bring people with similar interests together and facilitate information sharing / communication between participants. One of the key effects of social networks is the support they provide during the consumer decision making process. According to Puri (2007), there are online forums for just about any consumer product you can think of, from coffee to consumer electronics, where consumers discuss their experiences, provide their opinions and share news and advice. Such sites harness the two-way communication ability of the Internet to not only allow consumers to read other consumers' unedited and unfiltered opinions, but also collect and aggregate data from large numbers of similar people at a low cost (Hennig-Thurau et al, 2004). As Dellarocas (2003) points

50 out, this means that for the first time in history, "individuals can make their personal thoughts, reactions and opinions easily accessible to the global community". The Pew Internet & American Life Project now estimates that nearly half of all US Internet users have published their thoughts or otherwise created content online (Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy, 2007). Consumers' motivation for doing so varies considerably. Despite what might be expected, venting frustration about negative experiences seems to be a relatively minor reason for posting a review. Desire for social interaction, concern for other consumers and potential to enhance their own self-worth were the top motivators identified in a 2004 study (Hennig-Thurau et al, 2004). Amis (2007) estimates that social network sites now have as much influence on consumers as television and more than newspapers. Furthermore, content on social network sites is extremely search engine friendly, with the result that user's opinions usually rank highly on consumer searches for information on products or services. Thus such sites have become a prominent part of the marketplace, influencing both online and offline purchases. Dellarocas (2003) points to anecdotal evidence that consumers are increasingly relying on online peer opinions as inputs in a wide range of decisions including which movies to watch, which stocks to invest in and of course which products to buy. Smith, Menon and Sivakumar (2007) claim that consumers prefer such peer recommendations over other forms of input. Because social networks are usually formed between consumers with similar interests and are peerto-peer, the opinions expressed are perceived to be both relevant and unbiased and are thus more likely to be believed by today's sceptical consumer than advertisements or professional input (Smith, Menon & Sivakumar, 2007). Commercial sites are also trying to make use of the user generated content phenomenon to help convert surfers into buyers. For example, retailing sites such as Amazon.com and ebay.com encourage consumers to write reviews about products purchased on their sites and use these reviews as promotional tools. Social network sites are not without their problems. While, as discussed above, consumers often turn to such sites to reduce their information overload problem, the proliferation of sites and sheer quantity of user reviews, comments and feedback available may in fact complicate the decision making process (Bellman 2006). In such cases, credibility and trust become even more important, and the absence of contextual clues to aid interpretation can be problematic (Dellarocas, 2003). We normally use a variety of contextual clues (such as for example, a person's facial expression) to help evaluate opinions. Such clues are naturally absent in the online environment, making interpretation more difficult. Sites often display demographic or other data about reviewers (for example, the length of membership, their location, etc.) to help build credibility and trust. Others allow readers to provide feedback on the quality of reviews, incorporating each input into a rating of the reviewer. Puri (2007) also highlights the problem of authenticity. The anonymity with which individuals can post content on social networking sites has led some commentators to question the legitimacy of such ratings. While registration is required on many

51 systems, an identity can be changed by simply registering an alternative email address, making it in effect easy to manipulate the system. Unless appropriate safeguards are in place, participants can post dishonest reviews to enhance their own reputation or tarnish that of their competitors (Dellarocas, 2003). Left unchecked, such actions compromise the quality and utility of the entire system. 2.2 User-generated content and travel The Internet undoubtedly plays an important role in the travel planning process. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project (2005), searching for travel related information is now one of the most popular online activities. Within travel, the Web 2.0 topic receiving most attention is clearly user reviews. Here individual consumers are solicited to provide both quantitative and qualitative feedback on destinations, hotels or other travel experiences that they have visited, which are then amalgamated to generate overall satisfaction scores. Thus instead of the expensive, glossy, perfectly posed photos included in brochures or adverts, a customer's image of a hotel may actually be determined by comments or candid photos posted by prior guests on social network sites. User generated reviews and scores are now routinely built into online travel agencies sites (see for example Expedia.co.uk or Priceline.co.uk), impacting display order and undoubtedly influencing the potential customer's choice. However research by Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy (2007) indicates that reviews posted on such sites are less credible than those posted on dedicated review sites, as the former are (correctly or incorrectly) perceived as being less objective because of the commercial interests of the site. The most prominent stand-alone user-generated review site within travel is undoubtedly TripAdvisor.com, which is discussed in more detail below. The growth of user generated content is clearly affecting travel consumer decisions. Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy (2007) quote statistics from Complete, Inc that suggest that almost half of travel purchasers used consumer generated content in their travel planning, and nearly one third said that they found the input useful. Harwood (2007) quotes research from Nielsen / Netratings on information sources claiming that usergenerated content websites were cited as the most reliable information source by over a fifth of respondents, nearly double its nearest rival - travel agency sites. Most readers perceive travel reviews are being more likely to provide up-to-date, enjoyable and reliable information in comparison to what is provided by travel service providers (Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy, 2007). Frequent travellers in particular see peer reviews as superior and are more likely to be highly influenced (Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy, 2007). The latter also claim that more than half of users consult online reviews every time they plan a pleasure trip. Most use them at the beginning of trip planning to get ideas or to narrow choices, with a smaller number consulting them later in the planning process to confirm their selection (Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy, 2007). Reviews are particularly important for the accommodation product, with relevance for other travel products much smaller (Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy, 2007).

52 2.3 TripAdvisor Trip Advisor, part of Expedia Inc., operates a variety of consumer facing user generated content websites including bookingbuddy.com, independenttraveler.com, seatguru.com, smartertravel.com and of course TripAdvisor.com (TripAdvisor.com, 2007). According to comScore Media Metrix (2007), taken collectively this set of sites attracts nearly 30 million monthly visitors (by way of comparison, travel publisher Frommer's sells about 2.5 million guidebooks each year), making it one of the most popular sources of travel information on the web. TripAdvisor claims to have over five million registered members and to feature over 10 million user generated reviews and opinions on over a quarter of a million hotels and attractions worldwide (TripAdvisor.com, 2007). According to Travel Weekly (2007), about 8% of all leisure travellers who used the Web for travel research visit TripAdvisor. In 2007, the site was named one of the "Top 25 Travel Milestones" by USA Today. It was the only website included in the list and was cited as being instrumental in changing the way in which consumers research travel. Part social network, part virtual community and part blog, like all Web 2.0 sites TripAdvisor is difficult to categorise. However it's clear that its primary function is the collection and dissemination of user generated content - reviews, ratings, photos and videos - on a highly specific domain, namely travel. Its most prominent value adding features are its user generated reviews and ratings. Travel consumers can go onto the site and consult quantitative and qualitative feedback on any hotel, restaurant or other travel attraction, all posted by other travellers. When adding their own reviews, users are asked to rate each experience on a five point scale (from excellent to terrible), and to consider issues such as check-in, location and quality and comfort of the room. Reviewers are also asked if they would recommend the property to their best friend, whether they were travelling alone, as a couple or with family, and whether they feel that the experience in question is suitable for different types of trips (e.g. a romantic getaway, a family trip with children, etc.). Lastly reviewers are offered the opportunity to upload candid photos and video to support their review. All data entered by users is examined by TripAdvisor to insure that it conforms to content guidelines. Once approved, reviews are added consecutively to each property's page and displayed indefinitely. The quantitative data provided by users is consolidated to generate a summary score and rank the properties within a destination in terms of overall popularity. Details of the algorithm used to calculate this ranking are not public knowledge, but take into consideration the quantity, quality and age of the reviews submitted to the site. TripAdvisor also claim the calculations take external data into consideration by incorporating "guidebook entries, newspaper articles and other web content to determine traveller satisfaction" (TripAdvisor, 2007). This index (known as the TripAdvisor Traveller Rating) is then used to determine the order in which properties within a destination are displayed to subsequent visitors, with the most popular shown at the top of the list. Hotels have the opportunity to post a management response to each review, but requests from hotels to remove or edit reviews are not entertained.

53 The problem with authenticity noted earlier is one of the key challenges face by TripAdvisor. Several press reports (and a large amount of hotel industry buzz) call into question the legitimacy of the review system (see, for example, Keates, 2007 or Milan 2007). Unlike travel reviews posted on online travel agency sites, TripAdvisor does little to verify that the reviewer has stayed in the property being reviewed, although the company claims that each review is assessed by personnel trained in fraud detection (Reiter, 2007). As a result, there is a widely held belief that many reviews are not genuine - posted in some cases by jealous competitors to decrease a hotel's rating, or in other by the hotel itself in an effort to improve scores. (One of TripAdvisor's competitors, SideStep.com, estimates that approximately 2 percent of its own reviews are bogus (Reiter, 2007)). TripAdvisor attempts to minimise the problem by posting notices prominently throughout the site warning that fake reviews will not be tolerated, and that hotels attempting to manipulate the system will be penalised in their rankings and have a notice posted indicating that they post fake reviews. The "power of the crowd" that typifies Web 2.0 sites is also relevant here. As the number of reviews grows, the impact of fake reviews falls as they are overwhelmed by genuine consumer generated content.

3. Research Methodology
Given the growth in Web 2.0 site in general and social media in particular, the objective of the study was to explore how hotels are presented on TripAdvisor as an aid to helping managers better understand how they can manage their image and positioning on the site. Other objectives included investigating if relationships existed between hotel characteristics such as star rating and positioning on the system; to establish if hotels were using their right to reply; and to search for evidence of dirty tricks among reviews. Hotels were chosen as the category to be studied as research had shown that travellers consider user reviews to be more relevant for hotels than for other travel products (Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy, 2007). One hundred hotels were randomly selected from the 1042 listed on TripAdvisor.com for the London market. Each listing was analysed and selected characteristics (including its star rating, its TripAdvisor Traveller Rating, its rank within the London market, its average rate and the number of reviews listed for that property) were recorded. The five most recent reviews for each hotel were also analysed, in particular to establish demographic characteristics of the reviewers. Parametric and non-parametric tests were then used to investigate key questions. A summary of the findings is presented below.

4. Research Findings
As can be seen from Table 1, the sampling process resulted in a variety of hotel types being included in the study, with 3-star and uncategorized hotels the most highly represented, which corresponds well with characteristics of the London market (Mintel, 2007). The mean ranking of hotels sampled was 383, with rankings in general showing a relationship with star rating. Similarly overall rating of properties

54 was found to move in line with star rating. An exception to both comments is the scores for 5-star properties. Both average rank and average rating for 5-star properties were substantially below those of 4-star or even 3-star properties. However analysis failed to show that these differences were statistically significant, indicating that the findings could have occurred by chance or due to some external factor. Nevertheless such an anomaly deserves further investigation and should be examined in more detail in subsequent studies. An average of 75 reviews was displayed for each property. Such a high number is important as research indicates that consumers evaluate reviews in the context of other reviews and other contributions by the same reviewer (Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy, 2007). Once again the number of reviews increased in line with star rating, with 5-star properties again being an exception to the rule. It is also worth noting that despite prominent notices throughout the site that hotels posting fake reviews would be "named and shamed", no such notices were encountered on any of the property listings studied. Table 1, Hotel Characteristics

For each property in the sample, the five most current reviews were analysed in more detail. Taken as a whole, these had similar mean and median rating scores to the summary scores presented on each property's page. An analysis of means and standard deviations reveal no significant difference between the summary and sample scores, suggesting that examining the most recent five reviews was sufficient to form an impression of reviews as a whole. In general, the narrative of reviews was shorter than expected. The mean number of words per review was just 157 words, with a standard deviation of 62. This is surprising as previous research on Trip Advisor had indicated that the majority of users noted detailed descriptions as being important when evaluating a travel review (Gretzel, Hyan-Yoo, & Purifoy, 2007). "Candid" photos, taken by consumers, were included on practically all reviews (92%), increasing the richness of the information available to readers. The ability to upload video clips is a relatively new TripAdvisor feature, and no consumer generated video was encountered during the study. Lastly, despite the facility of a right-to-reply being offered by TripAdvisor, few management responses to consumer reviews were encountered during the study. Of the 500 reviews analysed, responses from hoteliers were only found in two cases (0.4% of the time). Characteristics of the person

55 posting the review were also examined. Analysis revealed that a typical reviewer posted an average of 4.5 reviews, and had been a member for an average of 10 months at the time of posting.

5. False reviews
As discussed above, one of the challenges faced by social network sites is false postings. Many people (including Trip Advisor itself) suspect that at least some reviews are bogus - posted either by other hoteliers to drag down the scores of their competitors, or by hoteliers themselves to do the inverse or push existing negative reviews 'below the fold' so they will not be seen at a glance by casual surfers. A simple examination of the review data seemed to support this theory. Dellarocas (2003) points out that one of the most important factors in considering the credibility of a reviewer is the overall number of reviews posted (irrespective of whether they are positive or negative). In this study, many of the most extreme scores were from reviewers with only a single review - either extremely positive (5 out of 5) or extremely negative (1 out of 5). To investigate if such findings were statistically significant, reviews from reviewers with only a single review were selected, and their mean rating score compared with the rest of the sample. As can be seen from Table 2, their score was significantly lower than for the sample as a whole or for reviews where the reviewer had posted multiple reviews. Similarly, the standard deviation was significantly higher for single review scores, indicating more extreme responses. However this does not imply that single reviews are false, merely that such reviews are more extreme. This in itself is understandable, and reflects a well known phenomenon with guest comment cards, whereby extremely negative or extremely positive customers are more likely to provide feedback. Keates (2007) identifies several factors that might indicate a fake review - including scores that differ greatly fi-om the average, mentioning nearby properties as superior and having written about only one hotel and visited the site only once - on the day that review was posted. The latter point could be particularly important in identifying fake postings, as TripAdvisor estimate that over 97% of reviewers return to the site to plan their next trip (Reiter, 2007). Thus to identify reviews more likely to be false, reviews where the reviewer registered on the same day as their single review was posted and never subsequently returned to TripAdvisor (dubbed, for the purposes of this study as 'suspect' reviews) were selected and compared with other reviews. As can be seen from Table 3, suspect reviews were more likely to be at extreme ends of the scale than either other single reviews or multiple reviews. The number of suspect reviews that gave a rating of one is particularly high at over one-third. While these findings do not conclusively prove the existence of false reviews, such a high proportion of extreme reviews, with the reviewer in question having joined and posted their review on the same day and never subsequently returned, is highly suggestive.

56 Table 2, Analysis of single reviews

**p<0.05 Lastly an analysis was performed to see if there was evidence of fake reviews being posted by hotels to minimise the effect of negative reviews. The sample was analysed to identify single reviews giving the property an excellent rating, which were immediately proceeded by a review giving the property a very poor score (1 or 2). In total, 20 (4%) cases were identified that fit these criteria. These were visually inspected and a subjective judgement made as to whether they might be false. Only a small number (five or 1%) were phrased in exclusively positive terms, suggesting that they might be false and entered by someone connected with the property in an attempt to manipulate the system. Table 3, Analysis of suspect reviews

6. Conclusion
It's clear that although they are relatively new concepts, social media and user generated content are rapidly gaining traction among travel consumers. All hotels sampled on Tripadvisor.com had been the subject of multiple reviews, where consumers voiced their opinions about experiences in that property. Given the number of visitors to the site, it's clear that this content is being consulted; the guest experience is becoming essentially transparent; and reviews are having an effect on consumer decisions. And given the increasing numbers of web-savvy consumers, increased focus on social media and the continued growth of online travel sales, its importance can only grow in the future. Given such potential influence, it would seem logical that hotels would spend time managing how they are presented on such sites. Yet this study calls into question how seriously hotels are responding to this issue. As was discussed above, while a hotel cannot get negative reviews changed or removed, sites such as TripAdvisor do provide a "right to reply" facility where properties can respond to criticism. Yet this study shows that this facility is rarely if even used. This is particularly worrying. While word of mouth cannot be controlled, it can be managed and must not be ignored (Looker, Rockland & Taylor, 2007). On today's Web, the model has changed from where brand image was set by suppliers to

57 one where it is forged in continuous dialogue with consumers, often at the virtual point of purchase (Milan, 2007). Hotels thus need to be more proactive, engaging in dialogue with customers to protect their brand image (Ellis-Green, 2007). If they do not react, once again they will be left behind, just as they were at the beginning of the Internet boom when online travel agencies were able to capture massive market share while hotel companies sat on the sidelines trying to figure out the rules of the game. The biggest threat to sites such as TripAdvisor is a loss of credibility. As was discussed earlier, there is considerable feeling in the hotel sector that many reviews posted on such sites are bogus. While far from conclusive, this study suggests that such fears are unfounded. While some reviews are suspect, the vast majority do not conform to the criteria suggested by Keates (2007) for the identification of false reviews, namely extreme scores and a solitary visit by the reviewer to join and post the review. Thus, in spite of the absence of the threatened abuser notices on property pages, it appears that TripAdvisor is doing a good job of policing its system. To succeed in the future, hotels need to actively embrace the concept of social media and try to leverage these developments to generate incremental business and build customer loyalty. Meeting customer expectation has become more important than ever, as the Internet has changed the ease with which they can share their experiences, with others. Hotel companies need to become more proactive at both monitoring and managing how they are being represented on social network sites. As the latter continue to grow in importance, their influence on travellers can only increase.


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