Inside travel: TripAdvisor

To mark TripAdvisor's 10th birthday, founder Stephen Kaufer reveals the secret of its success
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The Independent Travel

Why did you start TripAdvisor?

I was looking to take a vacation to Playa del Carmen in Mexico with my wife, and the travel agent gave me three brochures of resorts, assuring me that they were all delightful. Now, it's not that I'm a sceptical individual, but I had no idea when this travel agent had last been to this destination – and obviously she was getting paid to send me to those places. So I went on to the internet and spent three days researching as best I could. And I got tons of results, but all featuring the same pictures and paragraphs, straight out of the brochure. All of that led to a "gosh, maybe I should start a business" moment, to help address this problem for everyone else. Now, there's a website that features 35 million views and opinions.

What's the secret?

We concentrated on collecting as much as we could of unbiased commentary. We went for reviews, photos, lists and forums for interactive bulletin board messages. We added video. Now almost all those who come to the site rave about the candid photos. Our website is now in 14 languages, so TripAdvisor is the world's most popular travel website.

Are consumer reviews the best way to book a holiday?

I think people like to read a professional opinion, and on the website we have links to lots of professionally written content because we believe it is valuable. What professional opinion can't do well is provide 300 perspectives – which is about the average number – on a single hotel in a city. What 300 gives you is a great perspective on good days and bad days at the hotel. And the hotels that always deliver on expectations are the ones that stay in the top 10.

What makes people write reviews?

When we ask users why they took the time to write a review for TripAdvisor, the most common answer is: "We're grateful for the reviews that we read on your website before we took our trip." So they want to give something back.

Should people trust TripAdvisor's reviews?

I always advise people to ignore the very best and the very worst. Inform your judgement on the 298 in the middle. Every property will have a good day and a bad day, and there are reviewers who just wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

How do you stop people providing distorting reviews, or hoteliers hyping their brand?

First off, our software is remarkably good at catching people who are trying to manipulate our rankings, plus we have a team of detectives who are particularly good at tracking down this internet phoney business. But let's take the worst-case example that there are four phoney reviews for a hotel that has 300 reviews. You are now at just over 1 per cent. Ignore the best and ignore the worst, and you are going to find the right answer.

Is TripAdvisor a potential threat to hotels?

If you are a complacent hotelier, if you prey upon travellers who don't know any better, then yeah, you're probably going to get negative reviews and your business is probably going to go down. What's often overlooked is the fact that TripAdvisor is a free marketing vehicle. Independent hotels do not have the multi-million pound marketing budgets of the big chains, but they're often sold out because they're sitting on page one or two of TripAdvisor because they deliver a fantastic service.

What does the future hold?

Mobile is taking over the world, and something that enables you to find the right information when you're on the go is something that has traditionally been in the realm of the guidebook, but TripAdvisor has a very popular mobile website now. Also, on TripAdvisor there's a new facility that will be rolled out in the UK in early July, where you can use Facebook to get advice from your friends directly. It takes the wisdom of what all these anonymous strangers say, and enhances it with those gems of trusted advice from the people who know you the best.