If You Compile It, They Will Come


Can a website offering 1,300 reviews have any hope of competing against a website with over 50 million reviews? Possibly. It's all how you go about it, and it speaks to some larger themes in the industry. Luckily, we have a real-life example to examine.

You likely know about travel industry review behemoth TripAdvisor.com. It recently celebrated reaching its 50 millionth crowd-sourced review, largely of hotels. There's little question that TripAdvisor is the place to go if you want the real story on a planned hotel stay. Or is it?

In reality, TripAdvisor has lots of issues surrounding it. First, while everyone in the reviews game believes more is better, I'd suggest TripAdvisor has reached a point where it has a "big data" problem of its own: more information than can be usefully processed or analyzed by the user. My TripAdvisor experiences have always been the same: lots of reviews available, with half of them extremely positive and half of them extremely negative. I leave every TripAdvisor session paralyzed by indecision: the hotel could be great or it could be horrible. In short, I generally leave feeling more worried than informed.

Layer on top of that increasingly vocal complaints about hotels gaming TripAdvisor, and fraudulent reviews (both good and bad). There have been news stories suggesting a whole cottage industry has sprung up to post fake positive reviews (for your hotel) or fake negative reviews (for your competitors). Indeed, one reputation management firm is now publicly claiming that as many as 10 million of TripAdvisor’s 50 million reviews may be fraudulent.

Finally, TripAdivsor has adopted a number of opaque processes to fight false reviews with automated tools. As a consequence, many of the reviews submitted never appear online at all. Presumably these are false reviews, but who knows for sure? The deeper you dig, the more the wisdom of crowds seems to be more like a Tower of Babel.

The fix to what ails TripAdvisor may be an entirely different approach. Enter plucky star-up Oyster.com that supplies one review per hotel -- its own. It sends its own people undercover to the hotel, and they write detailed reviews documented with candid photos. Oyster.com currently has only 1,300 reviews (perhaps 1% of all hotels worldwide), but its reviews are detailed, unbiased and unambiguous. It's not a new idea; a service like this has been available to travel agents for years. But this is a consumer play, one that's going toe-to-toe with one of the biggest review sites on the web.

Do they stand a chance? Well, it's inherently fraud-free, it provides detailed and comparable information, it makes it easy for me to reach a conclusion ... in short, what's not to like? Obviously, it's got to scale its coverage quickly, and that's not easy or cheap, but the content is compelling, trustworthy, definitive and let's not forget, proprietary. Monetization? Through hotel bookings tightly integrated with the content.

With all the focus on crowdsourcing and automation technology, maybe there is a place for good, old-fashioned human writing and editing after all!

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