Steve Kaufer is the founder and chief executive of TripAdvisor — a site that made headlines recently when it warned that some of its hotel reviews might have been manipulated. I asked Kaufer about the site, the credibility of user-generated reviews, and the future of social media.
Q: When it comes to user-generated hotel and restaurant reviews, I think it’s safe to say TripAdvisor is by far the most dominant site. Can you give me a sense of the size, traffic and overall influence of TripAdvisor?
Kaufer: TripAdvisor has nearly 25 million reviews and opinions on more than 490,000 hotels and attractions, more than 11 million registered members, and operates in 14 countries and 10 different languages. We have more than 25 million monthly visitors to our site, and have acquired 13 other travel brands. In terms of influence, a May 2008 Jupiter consumer travel survey reported that 76 percent of people find reviews from like-minded people most useful.
Q: Let me ask you about last week’s Beat of Hawaii-Arthur Frommer dust-up. TripAdvisor is now warning users about hotels gaming in the review process. Can you tell me why you decided to do this, how long you’ve had these warnings, and how many reviews are affected?
Kaufer: We’ve been posting the warnings since 2006. We view our red badge and rating drop as the best punishment for properties trying to manipulate the system. A couple of people have asked why we don’t drop these properties from the site entirely. We think the red badge is a better punishment, and provides more information to travelers so they can make the most educated and informed decisions before they book. We also wouldn’t want hotels with very poor traveler reviews to use such a banning on the site as a loophole to get out. That’s exactly what poorly run properties want — to be taken off TripAdvisor.
Q: One of the things TripAdvisor uses to catch bogus reviews is a computer program. Why can’t the algorithm tag these fake write-ups?
Kaufer: We have three primary methods to insure review integrity. Prior to posting, every review is screened and a team of quality assurance specialists investigates suspicious ones. This group brings a wide range of professional experience, including expertise in credit card fraud, loss prevention and identity theft. We also use proprietary automated tools to help identify attempts to subvert the system, and our community helps screen our content and report suspicious activity. These systems do catch the vast majority of suspicious reviews.
Q: What would you say to readers of your site who are concerned about the integrity of your hotel and restaurant reviews?
Kaufer: We believe our 23 million reviews and opinions are authentic, unbiased, and from real travelers, which is why we enjoy tremendous user loyalty. The sheer volume of reviews we have for an individual property allows travelers to base their decisions on the opinions of many and provides an additional safeguard. After all, any individual review is just that… a review by one person who may or may not have the same tastes as you, or be in a good or bad mood when they wrote the review. But when looking at the average of hundreds of reviews for a single property, the collective wisdom shines through and presents a complete picture of the property.