April 13, 2018 · Pete DiMaio

What’s Really Happening at TripAdvisor? 3 Questions We Can’t Answer…

Typically our TravelBoom articles and news are action-based and full of specific items you can do to make your hotel’s marketing more effective.  That’s not the case for this article which will raise a lot more questions than it answers about TripAdvisor and the plethora of odd things that all seem to be happening all at once at the travel planning giant.
Since the beginning of 2018, we have been noticing some very odd behavior from the TripAdvisor results, customer service response time, sales rep strategies, and overall communication.  What is most odd is that we have found communication from TripAdvisor to us, our clients, and industry partners has seriously degraded.  This leads us to starting asking some pretty conspiratorial questions like, “Is TripAdvisor being bought out?”  Aside from the far fetched questions, here are the specific odd happenings and questions we have.
Our biggest question, and one that will likely answer all our other questions, is why has TripAdvisor all but stopped responding to agencies and hotels alike?  One thing we do know is TripAdvisor is famous for one of our favorite sayings, “always be testing” so it is no surprise that changes are always going to be coming… Though in this conspiracy theory article are the changes signifying something greater?
You can also listen in on this topic on Episode 84 of the TravelBoom Hotel Marketing Podcast right here.

Question #1: Why Is TripAdvisor Using Sponsored Positions To Sell Business Listings?

We have been noticing something very odd in 2018 for several of our clients across the country. TripAdvisor has been approaching properties with hearty increases in their business listing costs.  We have seen the performance of business listings steadily decrease over the years as TripAdvisor has driven more customer clicks through their successful TripConnect CPC and InstantBook programs, so this business listing decline in performance comes as no surprise.  Given this decline in performance, it’s interesting, then, that TripAdvisor is trying to force hefy price hikes. However what is more interesting is that TripAdvisor reps are offering to allow businesses to keep their 2017 rates if they are willing to participate in Sponsored Positions.
Why is this an odd strategy for TripAdvisor?  Because there is zero accountability for Sponsored Positions, as I detailed in a December post “TripAdvisor Sponsored Positions: Everything You Need To Know.”  As an agency and steward of my clients budget I can’t in good conscience recommend anyone throw money at a marketing opportunity that offers no measurable return on investment.  The only place I can see Sponsored positions being effective is for either quality new properties trying to get a foothold in a market, or properties who have improved their properties and working on regaining their positions.
We spoke with TripAdvisor and they did admit that there is practically no reporting available for Sponsored Positions and they did not have a timeline for reporting to become available.  Will more reporting become available in the future?  Will TripAdvisor hold the line as hotels push back against being forced into spending money with no accountability?  I don’t know the answers just yet, but it does beg the question of why they would be pushing Sponsored Positions so aggressively when the platform is clearly not ready for prime time.

Question #2: Why Has Traditional Hotel Rankings Dropped So Significantly?

We have seen a disturbing trend for TripAdvisor rankings over the past 30 days, corresponding closely to the integration of vacation rentals into the main search results.  Specifically we have been monitoring properties in the Myrtle Beach, SC market and found that many properties have fallen nearly 30 positions.  What is most interesting is the top results in the market now contain several properties that are not even open.  Case in point, the Waikki Village, a 1960’s era motel, which is currently holding the #7 spot and previously was nowhere to be found.
This massive ranking shift has happened in the past, last year specifically, which lead to TripAdvisor acknowledging there was an error in their algorithm and addressed it within a few days.  However this time the issue has been occurring for well over a month and we are not able to get any type of response from the TripAdvisor staff.  Meanwhile the properties with the drop in rankings have seen significant drops in revenue.
Is this a result of TripAdvisor trying to reshuffle the deck now that there are many, many, more results (read Vacation Rentals) for any given destination?  Will this, like times in the past, be addressed with an algorithm update and rankings go back to normal?  Honestly we don’t know and the lack of communication from TripAdvisor leads us to believe the people answering the phones don’t know either.  Regardless of the answer what is clear is your TripAdvisor ranking has a direct correlation to revenue from TripAdvisor.  This means that whatever TripAdvisor does to address the issue we as hoteliers need to always be thinking of ways to give our guests the most amazing stay experiences so that or rankings improve.

Question #3: Why Are We Seeing So Many Reporting & Management Issues?

Our final question for TripAdvisor is why have they been having so many reporting problems this year?  Granted every company with complex products will run into reporting issues, however these issues seem to go a bit deeper.  We have been facing three primary reporting issues among various clients:

InstantBook performance reporting with impression share.

We at TravelBoom are big fans of InstantBook (and big fans of TripAdvisor overall, even though it doesn’t sound like it now), however we have been struggling with accurate reporting for quite some time.  In this case our reporting woes surround the impression share reporting.  As you know Instant book offers two levels of investment, a 15% commission level guarantees at least a 50% impression share and a 12% commission level guaranteeing at least 25%.  Since the onset of InstantBook we try to stay with the 12% rate since we have found that we were still getting well in excess of 75% impression share and didn’t see the value of paying the extra 3% with no discernible benefit.
However at the beginning of the year we noticed booking volume from InstantBook began to drop.  Since we know TripAdvisor has publicly stated they are pulling back on InstantBook, in favor of the more profitable Trip Connect CPC, this was not a big surprise.  What is concerning though is that in act we were seeing some properties with as little as a 2% share.  After a lengthly call with the TripAdvisor team they shared that they were aware of a reporting issue and working on a solution, though the actual impression share was fine.  As shown in the adjacent screenshots we are still showing significant discrepancies between the contracted guarantees and reported actuals.  In this case a 15% commission client should have no less than a 50% impression share, not the 6.33% being reported.  We are taking TripAdvisor at their word that the actual impression share is accurate, however after months of continued inaccurate reporting we are starting to question if the issues are bigger than just a reporting problem.

No reporting for the new Sponsored Positions

Our second major question from a reporting perspective, and one that goes back to our 1st question in the article, is why is there literally no reporting available for Sponsored Positions?  Basically when running a Sponsored Position campaign as we are for testing you are only able to see the number of times your business was shown, and number of clicks. We also asked our TripAdvisor contacts this as it relates to how we can measure the success of the program and were not able to get an answer.  For now the complete lack of reporting for this new position leaves us unable to recommend the program, since it can’t be judged on performance, and makes it nearly impossible to track, since there is no reporting.  Our question to TripAdvisor on this one is how can they expect hoteliers to adopt the program when there is no reporting available?

The Mysterious Case of TripConnect CPC Not Working

The third major question we have as it relates to reporting and performance is the very mysterious issue where hotel TripConnect CPC programs were turned off at the beginning of the year.  If you’ve been accustomed to spending thousands a month on the CPC program and seeing upwards of 500% return on ad spend you can imagine the shock many advertisers felt when the program was inexplicably unavailable for  several weeks in January.  The program settings in the TA admin were all setup and all systems looked good most independent properties were not receiving any clicks.  Oddly enough the CPC program was running for the OTAs, primarily booking.com.  Now we are still not sure if this was a regular system update to how individual properties feed rates to TA, we do know that the down time impacted both independent hotels and flagged properties as well.  What is most interesting is while the system was reporting zero clicks and zero money spent, our TripAdvisor rep did say that the program was running but the reporting was just down.  After the system returned to normal our clients did not receive invoices for the clicks during the time that the reporting was down, which leads us to believe it was more than just a reporting issue.

Tip: Learn how to convert OTA guests into direct bookers with our free guide!

Let’s wrap up this conspiracy laden article on TripAdvisor with a few closing thoughts and theories.  First we must admit that TripAdvisor is a massive organization that likely just has a few growing pains that will be resolved over time.  Perhaps the lack of communication and vague responses are simply a symptom of being understaffed on the customer service side.  But that’s no fun… What are some other possible reasons for all the recent TripAdvisor headaches?

  1. Conspiracy Theory #1: Selling Out. TripAdvisor is in the process of getting bought out and looking to make the the company look as good as it can.  Pumping up sales numbers by forcing hotels into Sponsored Positions, reducing customer service staff/costs, pulling in vacation rental listings would all make sense if you’re looking to sell.  And it’s not like an acquisition by Booking Holdings (aka Priceline Group) has not been talked about a lot in the past year, https://www.fool.com/investing/2018/01/11/priceline-group-inc-should-acquire-tripadvisor-inc.aspx .
  2. Conspiracy Theory #2: Arming Up. Another theory is the revenue potential from vacation rentals is just too good to pass up and we are seeing a revamping of who TripAdvisor is and who they will become.  AirBnB is booming and VRBO/Homeaway/Expedia are growing, it could only make sense that TripAdvisor jumps in feet first.  The vacation rental integration on the main search results, ranking shake up, and products like Sponsored Positions all point to this being a possibility.
  3. Conspiracy Theory #3: It’s Aliens. Though far fetched, ancient alien theorist Dr. Giorgio A. Tsoukalos might me right.  We’re not saying it’s aliens… but it’s aliens.

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