One of the truisms of working on travel websites is that people like reviews.
Certainly, if you’re creating a website about the whole world and you need content quickly, it’s probably much easier to coax users into typing in whatever they want rather than send a bunch of ex-journos off to swan around resorts for you. But the issues around user generated content become more subtle as the volume of content scales – a fact that TripAdvisor is having to face up to of late.
The business benefit of having people review what you do as a business is rarely questioned. However it’s noticeable when you pick out some Internet darlings that they do not allow reviews of their own products.
- Apple Store allows reviews of accessories made by other companies but not of Macs or iPhones.
- eBay allows reviews of its users but not of its own selling experience.
- Google ask people to rate shops but not their own shopping interface.
So there is a difference here – and it’s the difference between being a retailer (where your success relies on selling stuff, and you don’t really mind what you sell) and a manufacturer (where you can’t choose what you sell because you’re invested in the thing you make).
Also for customers there are problems with reviews. It causes two very specifically Internet-accentuated anxieties:
1. Am I making the right decision? It’s been reported that when people go to TripAdvisor, and often it is towards the end of their decision-making process that they do, 15% of the time they will leave with a different decision about their holiday or hotel booking. Frightening. TripAdvisor’s business is reliant on driving people’s anxiety to check and compare details until they are positive they have got the best option. Meanwhile displaying advertising to lure people to another option.
2. Who are these people, and can I trust them? Often it’s not so much the content of reviews that affects people because as the number of reviews scales up you will tend to get both positive and negative content. At this point people start to ask, how can I tell who wrote this – and based on that, can I trust this content? Amongst many ways to tackle this issue (Amazon have their “Was this review helpful to you?” interface; TripAdvisor asks people to enter what type of group travelled on the trip), the most powerful one is yet to be exploited. With Facebook’s understanding of the social graph, the point where websites say “Your friend XXXX rated this 7/10” can’t be far off.
Both of the above factors start to create a vortex of procrastination where decision making becomes very hard, especially on high-ticket items. This is both a problem and an opportunity.
For providers, it’s a problem because an unverified and unvalidated complaint on certain websites can cause major headaches and time trying to rectify. Whether you do this by getting involed in the conversation or updating your own content to reflect the questions being asked, it can feel like chasing your tail. (Indeed on TripAdvisor it’s very hard as a hotelier to get involved in the conversation, which may be why they have just hired a big wig to sort this out…)
It’s also an opportunity. Techniques of persuasion can be used to play on those emotional triggers that cause us to choose one thing over another while ignoring some of the more rational parts of our brains. Ironically, many clever marketers are more likely to use these techniques than faithfully correcting the issues that caused negative feedback.
In either case, there’s a tyranny at work here. Openness and transparency can drive a certain kind of information overload – one that increases both information supply and demand, with neither consumers or suppliers particularly benefitting.