Crikey intern Jess Gregory writes: As the year winds up, the Christmas holiday season kicks off. But how do you pick one hotel over another? How do you know if a famous old hotel is just cruising on its reputation from the 1920s or still holds up? Where do you find those tiny hotel gems, where service is impeccable and its four rooms deem it too small to make the guidebooks?

Probably on the internet. But which travel review sites should you trust?

Recently the British Advertising Standards Authority investigated online review giant TripAdvisor after receiving a complaint from online reputation company KwikChex.com on behalf of thousands of unhappy hotel owners. Apparently tourists are threatening to leave bad reviews for hotels if they don’t receive free upgrades or compensation if things go wrong.

The investigation would consider whether the website’s claims that it provides honest and real reviews were in breach of the advertising code. Following this announcement it was reported that TripAdvisor had changed the slogan on its hotel review site from “reviews you can trust” to “reviews from our community”.

Given the website’s dominance of the online travel sector — described on its website as the “world’s largest travel site” –the results of the investigation could greatly impact the credibility of a burgeoning business model. In 2007 digital research company ComScore published a study of 2000 US internet users which showed the efficacy of online reviews in affecting purchasing decisions.

The study found that 87% of hotel review viewers said that the review had a “significant influence” on their purchase and 40% subsequently made a purchasing decision based on the review. Meanwhile 97% of interviewees who had made the purchase based on an online review said the review was accurate of their experience.

TripAdvisor is not alone in the proliferating world of online travel reviews, and with a plethora of websites, forums and the traditional guide book to choose from, where can the confused nomad turn for a gentle push towards a comfortable (or perhaps more lush) place to sleep? Crikey takes a look at the main contenders …

The front runner:

Well we couldn’t leave it out. TripAdvisor has cornered the market in user based online hotel reviews. Not only does it carry more than 50 million reviews on its own site, it also owns many other user based travel websites that now appear as TripAdvisor ‘travel brands’.

User based review site VirtualTourist, for example, had developed into a “real worldwide community” long before it was acquired by the TripAdvisor Media Group in July 2008, named ‘Best Travel Blog’ in 2004 by Travel and Leisure magazine, and one of the ‘big three’ travel websites in 2005 by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

There are now 19 “travel brands” owned by TripAdvisor Media Group covering various forms of community based travel forums: from personal travel blog promoter TravelPod to vacation rental property reviewer FlipKey — who incidentally reviewed VirtualTourist following its acquisition to their parent company.

TripAdvisor rigorously defends its reviews as “trusted advice from real travellers” but it is worth noting whom the company ultimately reports to. TripAdvisor does not provide its own booking service for the hotels they review — instead offering links to several major Online Travel Agencies to ‘Check Rates!’ — but the company is owned by the world’s largest Online Travel Agency (OTA) Expedia. This global OTA competes with sites such as Priceline and Kayak, as well as dominators of the local market Webjet and Wotif. Interestingly enough TripAdvisor lists Priceline among other OTAs as a ‘Business Partner’.

In terms of usability, it isn’t hard to see why TripAdvisor thrives. The format of the website is uniform and easy to navigate, providing a neat backdrop for a staggering amount of content. A large fan base ensures that hotels in almost every city across the globe have plenty of reviews to choose from, and users can even modify their search results according to lifestyle factors (such as hotels for kids, or a business trip).

Another key feature of TripAdvisor is the ability to ‘red flag’ hotels that appear to be influencing their reviews, arguably an effective way to reinforce unbiased content. However it is worth noting that Kwikchex.com (http://www.kwikchex.com/) has suggested this feature has been used by the website to ‘punish’ hotels that complain about misconduct (an allegation that is yet to be proven).

Online “experts”

In contrast to the user based model, a number of websites have embraced the word of the expert, employing the work of reviewers according to particular assigned standards.

Oyster: owned by private equity firm Bain Capital (who also owns companies such as Toys R Us and Domino’s) — provide reviews compiled by “expert hotel investigators”. The “investigators” provide untouched photos of the hotels they review, which they have themselves taken during their visit. Oyster also boasts the work of their “local reporters” who provide “insider’s” advice in regards to food, drinks and activities once you get to your destination.

The “independent” content is a key selling point for the website, and it is keen to point out that unlike its competitors Oyster does not rely on marketing material from hotels to produce its content. This said, a large part of Oyster’s business also comes from its booking service (for which it incidentally offers a price guarantee) for which commissions from the hotels it offers bookings for are likely to be received.

At this stage Oyster’s range of destinations is fairly limited, with the predominant number of cities and beaches from the United States. However they are keen to expand their horizons, with new reviews in cities such as Stockholm and Montreal available. The reviewing system is based on a “pearl” rating, with set criteria for reviewers to abide by. Price is deliberately excluded from this criterion, in order to maintain continued relevance in light of fluctuating hotel rates.

Cranley: also adopts the “expert” formula. Launched by two British Chartered Accountants the site is based on “models employed by independent audit firms, corporate ratings and information providers.”

Unhappy with the vague and inconsistent nature of other review websites, Cranley rates its hotels based on a 12 star system, though all of the hotels reviewed so far have fallen into the 6 category (which roughly equates to a 3-4 star rating) or above. The Cranley destination spectrum is also fairly limited, with a focus on Britain, Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Oman and Jordan, and the USA.

Cranley fiercely promote the independence of their content, asserting their position as “the world’s foremost provider of independent hotel information and ratings”. They do not take bookings for the hotels they review, instead linking to the hotel’s website for further information. The website also summarises any hotels yet to be reviewed, providing a wide spectrum of choice. Little information is given about the reviewers themselves, however Cranley are clear in advising that they retain full editorial rights over their reports.

Despite its independence and well researched credentials, there is one problem with Cranley: it looks really, really boring. The entire website is fitted out in various shades of grey, hardly encouraging a sense of excitement at finding somewhere lovely to stay. This said; it is certainly a great place to start if you’re looking for comprehensive, detailed information.

Other “expert reviews” sites:

Plenty of smaller sites offering ‘expert’ reviews appear in a simple search, often more localised sites with hotels from a particular country or just a smaller range of locations. This reviewer was particularly impressed by sites such as Hotel Guru and The Travel Editor.

TripAdvisor has certainly cornered the market in terms of user based hotel reviews but there a number of contenders who have certainly built their own reputation on the format.

Local travellers can share their stories and experiences on sites such as Holiday Watchdog.com in the United Kingdom and Fossick closer to home. These websites compile user written reviews to create a combined overview of information on various types of accommodation.

According to websites such as these, integrating the opinions of various travellers provides a wider and more prevalent account of a hotel’s performance than traditional ‘expert’ reviews, online or otherwise.

Another interesting point with ‘traveller community’ sites is the question of membership. While Fossick welcomes input from anyone willing to write it (“Yesterday’s guests can add reviews,” they say on their website) others ask for membership (often free) to ensure reviewers are accountable for their work.

Writing a review is not the only way that travellers can get involved in the conversation about their favourite (or most hated) places to stay. Many travel websites (see OysterFodorsConcierge.com and a plethora of others) offer viewers the opportunity to ‘comment’ on their reviews, often highlighting forgotten details or (dis)agreeing with the reviewer’s interpretation. As with any user based source of information, the validity of the review is often debatable but membership to the site can ensure that should you question a user’s advice you can literally question them using an in-site messaging service.

On a relatively giant scale, Wiki have added their voice to the user based travel conversation with Wikitravel. According to the site’s developers Wikitravel is a “humungous” project to create a travel guide of the entire world, and they call on all and any travellers to help them out. However, at this stage there is very little information in relation to particular hotels, and appears more as a general guide to each city. They do have a discussion forum in the WikiTravels Extra section of the website for users to share their love or hate for a particular place.

The benefits of collaboration: 

Online travel agencies have become big business as travellers seek the deal that will leave them with the most spending money once they get to their destination. But they still want to know about the accomodation they are booking, and it is essential for many OTA’s to supply information to consumers about the hotels they have on offer.

All the major players on a global and national scale (think Orbitz, Travelocity, Webjet, Wotif, Hotels.com.au, Lastminute.com.au) offer tidbits in areas such as location, types of available rooms, proximity to local attractions and the like. They even display a range of pictures to give you an idea of what you’re forking out for.

But beware. These sites often rehash marketing material from the hotels themselves in both picture and text formats. They are also in business with the hotels they provide information for, negotiating commissions for the bookings they take.

Websites of this nature make no claim to independent editorial and can change the material posted at any time. Hotels even have the option of ‘self-rating’ their services. However it is worth noting that many OTAs offer the opportunity for ‘guest reviews’ where users can provide their own account of a particular accommodation site, either named or anonymously.

Old school professional reviewers:

Despite the rise of online, there will always be a true contingent of tangible review followers. Guides such as Frommers, Fodors, Rough Guides and Eyewitness continue to provide readers with pocket sized professional reviews from local or staff writers. Travel guide giants Lonely Planet downsized their Australian division earlier this year but the blame was primarily attributed to the strong Aussie dollar and the travel tradition continues in the UK.

Packed in with a plethora of other travel information, space for hotel reviews can seem limited but travel guide loyalists continue to praise their advice. Many guide publishers have expanded their product range — creating online guide versions as well as user communities for their readers to share experiences. The rise of the smart phone has also seen some guides move into areas such as apps for the iPhone.

So whether you choose collaborative, expert, online or otherwise to choose your next hotel, understanding where (and at what price!) that information has come from may help you find your five star experience.

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