Helen Edwards: TripAdvisor and the beginning of the end for UGC

The time has come for commercial sites that rely on user-generated content to admit the model's flaws and move on

When scholars come to write about the meteoric rise and subsequent decline of user-generated commercial content, they will seize upon one brand as a totemic example.

TripAdvisor was there from the start, launched at the dawn of the century on a wave of founder passion and the new possibilities of the internet. It took influence away from promoters and 'expert' critics, and handed it to the people who actually stay at the world's hotels as paying customers.

User-generated images of shoddy bathrooms and cramped corridors were juxtaposed with the glossy versions crafted by the hospitality brands; no-nonsense customer reviews - poor spelling and flawed syntax adding to the sense of veracity - would show up the absurdities of the breathless promotional prose.

Here was the dream of the free and open internet, harnessed for both commercial gain and public good. In its heyday - around now - TripAdvisor would influence one in four travel decisions, and claim 56m users.

Seeds of decline

The decline is yet to come - but here's what the scholars will tell: the flaws of the user-generated model were the inverse of its strengths, with the seeds of decline sown into the model itself.

User-generated sites such as TripAdvisor eventually begin to sag under the weight of their own banality. Millions of offhand comments - 'the breakfast was nothing special' - become digitally ossified in the ever-sprawling tentacles of the site.

There they stay, creating an uncomfortable temporal tension. Whereas no-one would take seriously a guide book from 2002, there is something about the immediacy of the internet that lends unjustified currency to decade-old reviews. Readers start to feel tripped up by dated content, and the criticised brands feel they can't move on.

Trust starts to become an issue, as stories circulate about 'insider' reviews purporting to come from customers. As no reviewer is compelled to use their real name, accountability is absent.

Even where reviews are taken at face value, readers start to wonder whether they would have any affinity with those posting. Perhaps the person who raved about a resort is a 25-stone, redneck creationist and, well, you are not.

Random opinions

'Free and open' begins to prompt a troubling response: 'Why should I take note of what any random person has to say'? An academic study published in 2012 would corroborate exactly that: people making purchase decisions crave advice from others whose views they have some reason to value.

The decline really sets in when hospitality brands begin to chase the metric directly, rather than improving what it purports to measure. They hustle guests for five-star reviews, and offer incentives to remove bad ones.

Smart managers see the looming crisis and disengage with the site, preferring to focus energies on nurturing guest loyalty. Savvy consumers begin to look for more knowledgeable, better-written and researched reviews from accountable sources.

Expertise and editing come to be valued again by people who care about how they travel and what they buy. 'This is for everyone' is still the truth about the internet - but that does not mean it has to be 'by everyone'. User-generated commercial content fades; it's been an interesting trip, but it's over.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw

30 SECONDS ON: TRIPADVISOR

- Started in 2000 by entrepreneur Stephen Kaufer, TripAdvisor now employs more than 1200 people and boasts revenues of $450m.

- With a founding mission to help travellers 'plan and have the perfect trip', the business has courted controversy with many of the holiday and leisure firms that help to generate its revenues.

- Last year, Dragons' Den's Duncan Bannatyne branded the site 'despicable and cowardly' and considered taking legal action after a 'dishonest' review compared one of his spa hotels to the sitcom hotel Fawlty Towers.

- To test the system, reputation-management company KwickChex submitted three fake reviews for a restaurant (two identical, and all on the same day). A month later, the restaurant was '17th best in London' and the reviews were still up.

- In the face of criticism, TripAdvisor generally takes a defensive stance, extolling the virtues of free speech and stating that they offer businesses the right to respond.

- More expert and edited competition may be on the horizon - last week, Google completed its acquisition of Frommer's Travel Guides. This, in addition to the Zagat Guides purchased last year, puts Google in a strong position to challenge TripAdvisor's online supremacy.

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