WORLDWIDE In December, TripAdvisor customer reviews disappeared from Google Places listings, causing a stir among hoteliers. Whereas a previous Google search for “hotels in West Hollywood” would have populated Google Places listings—among other results—with guests’ comments from TripAdvisor, these customer reviews suddenly disappeared from Places pages.
Lauren DeGeorge, senior account executive at hotel Internet marketing firm Hospitality eBusiness Strategies, discusses what lessons hoteliers should take from the controversy to ensure their e-marketing strategies stay ahead of the technological curve.
The removal of these reviews was addressed initially as a “glitch” by Google, but was later confirmed by TripAdvisor as a strategic decision to block the search giant from streaming its content into the popular Places listings. Asserting that Google Places does not enhance the “experience of selecting the right hotel,” TripAdvisor blocked access to its reviews and stated it would further evaluate the situation as Google Places continues to evolve.
Though the issue has not been resolved since then, some TripAdvisor customer reviews still appear occasionally in certain destinations. TripAdvisor claims Google has refused its requests to stop using content from TripAdvisor.com.
Content on Google Places, which is a recent initiative by Google to provide users with the richest and most relevant information about local businesses and entities, is far deeper and broader than any other search engine, phone book or data provider’s content. Ultimately, it will provide a major competitive advantage for Google on the mobile web.
So why would TripAdvisor block Google Places from accessing its reviews? There are a variety of reasons:
- TripAdvisor, owned by Expedia, is a part of the FairSearch campaign, a group lobbying against the proposed acquisition of ITA Software by Google. This could be a “warning” to show that even mighty Google could suffer at the hands of other major players in the travel sector.
- The ability to read reviews on Google Places means a user does not have to visit TripAdvisor, diminishing the site’s traffic, advertising reach, appeal, etc.
- Google Places streams other popular review sites, such as Yelp and Frommers, lessening the significance of TripAdvisor.
Rather than showcasing reviews from TripAdvisor, Google Places now lists reviews based on the quantity per site, for sites that allow Google Places to display their reviews. For example, the Google Places listing for a boutique hotel in Marina del Rey shows reviews in the following order:
- 157 reviews from TravelPod.com
- 58 reviews from TripAdvisor.co.uk
- 6 reviews from Travel.Yahoo.com
- 5 reviews from Hotels.Uptake.com
Similarly, Google Places displays the following reviews for a luxury hotel in Paso Robles:
- 23 reviews from Yelp.com
- 16 reviews from Hotels.com
- 5 reviews from RealTravel.com
- 5 reviews from Reservations.HotelGuides.com
- 2 reviews from TravelPost.com
For hoteliers, the importance of travel consumer review sites should not be ignored. A recent poll conducted by MSNBC shows that 86% of travelers rely on review sites to choose hotel accommodations. The world’s largest travel site, TripAdvisor, boasts 20 million members and more than 40 million reviews. Its monopolistic grip on the hotel customer review space is maintained by more than 10 million unique visitors per month—almost double its closest competitor’s traffic, according to Yahoo Travel.
Any online monopoly functions against the best interests of the hospitality industry, and this should serve as a wake-up call for hoteliers to steer the traveling public toward other sites. Hotels must resist being held captive by TripAdvisor and refuse to remain at the mercy of one collection of opinions on one single review site.
Who are TripAdvisor’s closest competitors? Aside from Online Travel Agencies’ reviews, travelers consult Yahoo Travel, Frommers, TravelPost, MyTravelGuide and Yelp, among others. These sites used to pale in comparison to TripAdvisor’ influence, but with the recent changes in content streaming, reviews from these sites are now much more highly visible on Google Places pages.
What should hoteliers do?
The message from this Google-TripAdvisor controversy is clear: hoteliers need to focus their energies away from TripAdvisor and help foster several viable competitors within the consumer review market.
As TripAdvisor and Expedia flex their muscles, so too must hoteliers. Proactive efforts to monitor, manage and respond to reviews on TripAdvisor alone are now wasted in the eyes of Google. Hoteliers must acknowledge other customer review sites deemed legitimate, relevant, search- and user-friendly.
Among others, the following sites stream reviews to Google Places: TravelPost.com, Yelp.com, Frommers.com, RandMcNally.com, LATimes.com, InsiderPages.com, HotelChatter.com, Travelocity.com, Hotels.com and Priceline.com. Users can also review the hotel directly on its Google Places listing.
To enhance their Google Places listings, which affect their local and mobile marketing strategies, hoteliers must request and promote publically accessible reviews on other consumer generated review sites (except for online travel agencies) through electronic CRM, guest satisfaction surveys and customer review pages.
Step 1: Implement electronic CRM cards asking guests to review your property on sites other than TripAdvisor, including your own.
In your post-stay email, invite guests to consider joining the Frommers, Yelp and Rand McNally communities to discuss their vacations and their favorite things about your hotel. Concentrate on websites with publically accessible reviews that are easily viewed by users and easily indexed by search engines.
This is one practical step in a long-term strategy to lessen TripAdvisor’s monopoly on customer review sites, and to enhance your hotel’s online visibility.
Your post-stay email should also include a link to your website’s guest satisfaction survey, explained in further detail under Step 2.
Step 2: Add a guest satisfaction survey to your hotel website that includes a section for guests to share their experiences.
For hotels with bad reviews on TripAdvisor (whether fair or not), a guest satisfaction survey on the property website is a blessing, rather than the all-too-familiar TripAdvisor negative review kiss of death. Allowing guests to review your property directly on your site keeps them engaged with your hotel, avoids negative reviews on other sites and provides you with concrete operations feedback.
Positive reviews can and should be used on other channels, including Facebook posts, Twitter tweets and customer reviews pages. They add additional consumer-generated content to your social media profiles and to your website, rendering both of them more personal and engaging, and increasing the opportunity for direct revenues.
Step 3: Include a customer reviews page on your hotel website that poses general questions about a guest’s stay and offers a rating systems and a comment box.
After careful review, publish the top reviews and direct site visitors to this page. This page should also include links to your hotel’s profile on other top (non-OTA) review sites and should encourage guests to continue the conversation there.
Name the page “Share Your Experience.” This call-to-action will let site visitors know their feedback is valuable, and that they can engage and interact with your hotel on its site at any time.
HeBS recommends that hoteliers resolve to adopt 2011 as the year of multi-channel marketing to the hyper-interactive travel consumer. This includes using streamlined customer-centric strategies across all available media—engaging, interacting with and marketing to travel consumers on all platforms, at all potential points of purchase.
In order to expand their reach, hoteliers must make the necessary efforts to communicate with guests where they are. No channel should be ignored, particularly any existing customer review site. In 2011, smart hoteliers will proactively request reviews from guests on both established and up-and-coming sites, join in the conversations, respond to comments and share them with guests on other media. If a guest leaves a positive comment on TripAdvisor, ask him or her to visit your profile on another site and consider leaving an additional review. Expose interested consumers to every up-to-par, optimized and branded representation of your hotel online. Use each channel to compliment and promote the rest.
HeBS’ perspective is that hoteliers need to focus their energies away from TripAdvisor and toward other Google-friendly review sites. Google Places will become more and more important as it focuses on local and mobile search. TripAdvisor will become less and less important as smart hoteliers acknowledge other recognized, relevant and overlooked customer review sites—and the ignored customers interacting with them.
Whether or not Google Places and TripAdvisor reconcile—whether or not TripAdvisor’s members’ reviews fully return to Google Places listings—shrewd hoteliers will understand the implications behind these bold changes and will act on them.