This paper analysis the functionality of TripAdvisor and how it effects both local and visiting communities. Term Paper for Anthropology of Tourism with Kathleen Adams, PhD, Loyola University Chicago.
Every minute, 115 new opinions are added to the ever growing database of 190,000,000+ reviews on TripAdvisor. The free website serves potential researching tourists using TripAdvisor as an encyclopedia of travel to research, compare, book, and rate every aspect of a trip—from flight to hotel, restaurant to attraction. In this context, these tourists who rely on TripAdvisor will be referred to as strategists. With a simple sign-up, anyone can join the community of reviewers to add opinions and advice for various destinations. With such a global presence, it seems reasonable to ask why tourists rely so heavily on TripAdvisor to make their decisions? What effect does TripAdvisor have on the local businesses to which the strategists are planning to visit?
The Tourist’s Dilemma & The Mechanics of TripAdvisor
Answering these questions requires a broader understanding of the Tourist’s Dilemma—the quandary of where to tour when there are so many possibilities welcomed by today’s globalized world. Paired with an understanding of how Consumer Generated Media (CGM) works, discovering the motivation of strategists to visit TripAdvisor becomes clear. A proper analysis of the effects of CGM may be assessed on local economies to discover that TripAdvisor is beneficial to the tourist, yet detrimental to the turates, or locals, that provide for their visitors. The TripAdvisor site refreshes majority consumer interest while fueling its own top choices for destinations. In discussing the vicious cycle of tourism, R.W. Butler reminds one that “it can be expected that even attractions of the tourist will lose their competitiveness…” meaning that every destination is subject to continual reevaluation (1980:9). Therefore, rather than relying on quality and authentic experience, TripAdvisor sends its readers to the most frequented tourists sites, often determined through popularity, accessibility, and location.
Before assessing the true functionality of TripAdvisor, it is vital to understand the consumer base who flock to the site. Travel is becoming more assessable through “increasing affluence, additional leisure time [and] the availability of desirable places to visit” (Prideaux 2002:323). Cheaper travel paired with technology to discover new destinations (such as TripAdvisor) fuel the Tourist’s dilemma, resulting in welcomes anxiety on where to go and what to do.
Nguyen Thai remarks that “perceived uncertainty mediates the relation between choice-set size and destination evaluation” (2017:38). This means that when planning a trip, there is a significant number of available destinations which can lead to overwhelming feelings of choice. This “choice overload phenomenon” fuels a need for some type of help in the decision making process (ibid). As discovered through an analytical study, Thai concludes that “tourists go through multiple stages in their decisions because their limited analytical capacity forces them to decompose the complex decision into manageable steps” (ibid, 39). A common and rational step is consulting a CGM. Because “uncertainty is the underlying mechanism that mediates the effect of choice-set size,” the Tourist Dilemma can be solved through TripAdvisor (ibid, 48).
TripAdvisor has attained its status due to the shear amount of people that use it. As a crowdsourced website, large amounts of people “collaborate through their recommendations in a ranking system as a collective good” (Ganzaroli 2017:503). A contributor has the option for numerical and textual reviews where they can provide specific detail and advice through journaling, while “numerical ratings are the overall reflection of information in [their] text reviews” (Zhang 2016:283). Together these ratings are combined to position different sites relating to their popularity. While quite modest, TripAdvisor does lack specificity in its algorithms. Rating is determined by efficiency through its collaborative recommendation.
TripAdvisor organizes its reviews based on “the extent to which the problem can be easily represented; the extent to which its solution requires self-motivated people, and the extent to which its evaluation includes a large number of experienced users” (Ganzaroli 2017:503). As this is quite subjective and can be misleading, Zhang et al have attempted to create a more efficient algorithm for TripAdvisor, where the site would “only provide several most important influential factors for tourists” (2016:283). Specifically, they note that for restaurants on TripAdvisor, tourists can only rate restaurants on four criteria: food, service, value, and atmosphere (ibid:283). It then becomes clear that while beneficial, TripAdvisor’s functionality is limited due to this narrow processing. Nonetheless, this understanding is important when assessing the rationale of strategists to consult the site.
A Strategist’s Draw to TripAdvisor
It is easily understood that growing accessibility to technology and travel push potential tourists, or strategists, to a database for planning. In efforts to escape the Tourist’s dilemma, TripAdvisor satisfies a strategist’s need for help. TripAdvisor is itself the most beneficial to a strategist through its ability to demonstrate human-like attitudes and quality of its information to reveal the trust embedded into various reviews.
As TripAdvisor is an online site, the elusiveness of internet is an unavoidable obstacle. The engineers and designers of the site have cleverly worked around this vagueness by branding TripAdvisor as a community of contributors. As Werner Kunz acknowledges, “a sense of community belongingness relates positively to greater attendance at offline gathering” (2015:1823). The bios of reviews show experience, number of recommendations, and previously visited places—all which encourage relationship building and information exchange. The lack of face-to-face human connection is then easily replaced with the familiarity of similar interests and credibility when reading reviews. This creates a greater sense of community by promoting effective communication “especially for relationship building with a stranger (ibid, 1826). Through this active comfortability then, there is evidence that strategists will use TripAdvisor to “seek avenues to satisfy their curiosity and the urge that entices them to leave their own environment and visit new places” (Prideaux 2002:318). While a surface skim of the importance of human-like site seems minor, it remains integral to fomenting the quality of information in a review to perfect trust rooted into a review. It is vital to recognize that “by facilitating customer-to-customer information sharing about travel experiences,” TripAdvisor empowers travelers to consult their community of knowledgeable friends to be able to “build a tourism package for themselves” (Filieri 2015:177).
TripAdvisor has prioritized the quality of their website. As Filieri et al describe, “the [greater] quality of the information that consumers retrieve, the more they will perceive the website to be of high quality, which will both lead to customer satisfaction and trust in the CGM website” (2015:181). It is important to note that the online nature of TripAdvisor makes quality even more difficult to tackle. Vásquez supports this, reminding that “the traditional lack of reliability associated with self-reports becomes further amplified in online context, where identity has become a fraught and often-contested category, and where issues related to ‘authenticity’ and ‘representation’ abound” (2010:1714).
Recently however, a phenomenon of fake reviews has persisted. This would challenge the quality, and ultimately the trustworthiness of a CGM, because reviews would be inaccurate. In 2015, after a businessman created a site for a fake restaurant, the UK Advertising Standards Authority recognized that “not all consumer reviews are necessarily written by real customers,” which led to a drop in TripAdvisor traffic (ibid, 175). This demonstrated that TripAdvisor needed to maintain trust, without which would deter strategists from relying on the site.
To ensure trust, then, a website must capitalize on the quality of its product. Similar to ensuring a community feel, TripAdvisor has “introduced a badge system to show the different levels of expertise of reviewer” which allows a strategist to assess the credibility and quality of each review. This solidifies TripAdvisor outside each specific review, forcing the strategist to assess each review independent from TripAdvisor itself. In being a platform for conversation then, the CGM succeeds at providing quality information. Filieri supports this, stating that “if travel consumers perceive the reviewers as credible sources they will believe that the website is reliable in that it has effective mechanisms in place to avoid spammers who post deceptive reviews” (ibid, 176). Therefore, a substantial review from a credible contributor clearly has more quality than one that is short, superficial or emotional with incorrect descriptions. Similarly, if there is any competing information, “travel advisors can prime and boost customers’ self-confidence by asking and reminding them of their expertise and/or knowledge about traveling” (Thai 2017:49). The quality of the review is thus vital to the promotion of reliability of the site.
When a review is current, valuable, credible, useful, relevant and complete, a strategist will trust a CGM because “they will think it comes from real customers and not from biased information sources” (Filieri 2015:176). Through the community that TripAdvisor promotes and the quality of information instilled in contributors, strategists are able to trust the CGM. Customers visit a CGM to get help about travel information from other customers who have experience to help a strategist. They build trust through the “quality of the recommendation” and with “the previous customers who, by describing their previous experiences, help other consumers to assess [that] quality” (ibid, 181). Therefore, “trust and sympathy are central mediators to relationship development” (Kunz 2015:1826). Simply put, a strategist leaves TripAdvisor happy because they can trust the reviews they read, self-assessing the quality of each while feeling comfortable in a welcoming community.
The Other Side: TripAdvisor in the Local’s Eyes—A journey to Venice
Unfortunately, Butler’s vicious tourism cycle persists to disenfranchise local businesses that rely on TripAdvisor for revenue. Fundamentally TripAdvisor “intervenes in the structure and organization of tourist flows” (Ganzaroli 2017:509). This is due to the efficiency that the CGM welcomes. Tourism exists in its own market, with the invisible hand of supply and demand naturally dispersing wealth to the society (Prideaux 2002:335). Essentially, TripAdvisor can unexpectedly bolster the attractiveness of the most popular sites despite their possibly poor quality. Using knowledge from Zhang et al on how TripAdvisor categorizes and sorts its reviews, the most reviewed will stay at the top of a search, gaining the most online traffic (2016,283). Thus, the most popular sites continually get the attention of new strategists.
To exemplify this further, Ganzaroli draws attention to Venice. Here, “the most popular restaurants become even more popular largely independently of the quality they offer” (2017:509). The ancient Italian town attracts millions of tourists eager to witness the famous architecture built on water. With the large seasonal influx, there are some periods of the year where the city cannot hold both tourist and local. TripAdvisor marks Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Basilica as the must see attractions, yet these too are the areas of mass transit for locals. Therefore, residents’ lives “are often inconvenienced by the presence of too many tourists” (ibid, 504).
This is significant when looking at the spatial distribution of highly rated restaurants. Notably, the average TripAdvisor customer overestimates the quality of the experience restaurants offer in Venice” (Ganzaroli 2017:508). 80% of TripAdvisor reviews in Venice are within 800 meters of St. Mark’s Basilica (ibid, 509). While these reviews are trustworthy, the fact remains that they are subjective in their quality. Importantly noted, “the vast majority of tourists will not return and do not have enough time to acquire information on the quality” of the full sample of Venetian sites (ibid). When rationally seeking businesses invest in quality, their incentive will go unnoticed because TripAdvisor’s reviews are cyclically fueled on a site’s location. Even, “if restaurants invest in quality and customers perceive this, a restaurant’s ranking may improve in the short run” because of their entrenched location and inability to satisfy their goal of serving more tourists (ibid, 509). Due to the community of visiting contributors, no local perspective is included in algorithm, so the central sites entrench their popularity regardless of quality.
The Duality of TripAdvisor
For strategists, TripAdvisor is a present worthy of excitement. By creating a cohesive and welcoming environment, a community of fellow contributors waits to share experience and answer questions. The platform organizes various reviews to define itself as a quality website, where strategists can make their own judgement on reviews, both objectively positive and negative. Through this, TripAdvisor succeeds by instilling trust in its customers.
While benefiting tourists and strategists, TripAdvisor is simultaneously detrimental to the communities it describes. The quality and accuracy that draws strategists is redundant and impractical for the sites that are so attractive online. This is because TripAdvisor is engineered to bolster the top rated sites based on a minimal, general and subjective numerical rating systems. Similarly, the majority of reviews are written by visitors, so the full set of potential locations remains absent from the collection of popular destinations. The algorithm with which TripAdvisor presents results creates a cyclical entrenchment of popular places negating the true of quality of a site while favoring proximity and friendless to tourists.
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