User reviews to assess the quality of an establishment,
a restaurant, an hotel, a touristic destination, a service, etc.

The TripAdvisor & TheFork case study

With automatism, before booking a hotel or a restaurant we surf on the Internet, we rush to look at user reviews to assess the quality of the establishment.

TripAdvisor was created in the 2000’s when social networks did not yet exist. Since then, they had all the time to evolve and perform an enormous data-mining with user ends data and comments. People all have the same reflex to book a restaurant or a hotel on its application. TripAdvisor has over 1 billion reviews published on its platform in 28 languages and 49 countries. More than 4 million restaurants are listed into their database.

Anyone can post a review on the platform about a restaurant or hotel, even if they have not eaten or stayed there.

Unfortunately, everyone today everyone is convinced that, in addition to a website, a wide digital presence is mandatory. “Word of mouth” is still the most reliable information you can get from a friend, but sooner or later if I want to go and dine in a city you don’t know very well, I will go into Google and type in “restaurant geneva“, “restaurant rome“, “asiatic restaurant“, and so on. Very few words that brings us always on the same intermediary platforms: TripAdvisor, Booking, etc. Of course the first in the ranking list, because they they operate like a “telephone book”.

But how do all these platforms always come up first when you do a search in a search engine like Google?

It’s very simple, on the one hand they hold the directory of all the establishments, addresses, cities, countries, etc. That is to say, all the information that the user will enter in his search engine, and on the other hand, an optimal indexation provided by many employees and internal arrangements with GAFAs. Indexation is made trough the enormous amount of online data they hold listed on their platform (let’s say naturally), with the help of SEO experts.

If a restaurant has its own well-designed, well-indexed website that complies with the latest web technologies, it will be always difficult finding them with a simple Google search. And since search engine users are in a hurry, even being on the tenth page of the results will not be enough…

In reality, we manage to scam the world notoriously through social networks, there is always the tendency to follow whatever the influencers would like to see. And of course, some people seems disappointed that the big “picture” they are advertising does not correspond to the reality of they have expected.

The more reviews we publish, the more visible we become. How does the ranking work?, what are the interactions via an algorithm? No platform will explain how its algorithm (core business) works, so we can only observe how it behaves and on what criteria. One thing is certain, the collection of our data, posts, reviews is necessary for these intermediate applications to continue to exist and make billions. And more fortune they they cash in, more they can invest to be on the top of the online market, create clones, join-ventures, etc.

The same reasoning applies to TheFork, created in 2007 and heavily advertised on Mediaset Italian-based mass media company that owns the largest private commercial broadcaster channels in Italy. TheFork belongs, or course, to the same company TripAdvisor.

TheFork takes CHF 6 in commission at lunchtime and CHF 8 in the evening. A restaurant owner will therefore pay CHF 32 for a reservation for 4 people.

The ultimate goal of TripAdvisor is to bring in as much money as possible. To monetise all this traffic and all this information, they have premium reservations, advertising. For example, by offering 2 meals for the price of one (even if often the customer comes only for the free food and never comes back).

The rating becomes the reputation of the restaurant, one funny and real example of a bad rating was submitted by customer to a sushi restaurant saying that they “served raw fish”. Not everyone has the same taste and ratings are very subjective. You have to judge for yourself not according to a nice dish photo posted on Instagram.

Theses platforms are a diktat, but you have to keep a grip on them. For example, have your own reservation system.

If I go to a village in Italy, the phone is still culturally a way to communicate between humans, without much artifice, directly. Moreover, when you call, a human voice may offer to you alternatives, other prices that do not correspond to platforms like Booking, arrangements, flexibility, etc.. In short, it’s a very simple way to keep a direct link with your customers: “You can ask question and you do not receive only standardised answers“.

A good establishment, a good e-commerce, is proved when the customer comes back. The human factor is still important insofar as it is there to build customer loyalty.

Establishments are adapting by using other more “community related social networks” such as Instagram or FaceBook.

In the digital world there is a lot of fiction. To gain visibility without paying for it, we’ll jump on Instagram, FB, Linkedin or YouTube. Any possible method to gain new audience, new customers and at the same time a lot of BS.

Of course, if we pay we will have an advertising campaign to increase our notoriety, more visibility (number of clicks) and try to push people to buy, to make a reservation. With Facebook, for 1 week and a budget of CHF 300, the algorithm promises to reach about 100k people. And so what ? Not all customers are stupid. We’ll never know if the promise audience is really interested in my product no matter which price. And since many users hate publicity on TV, they usually mislike adverting on internet. But we live in a society with still a lot of ingenious human beings and many will buy something they think they are doing a good deal or something they don’t really need.

With the premium TripAdvisor subscription (CHF 600 / year) you can have additional options (storyboard, highlight the best reviews, etc. Pay for “cheating” or real advertising? But come on… the days of selling you clicks are over, it’s like selling you air.

On the other hand, if a restaurant is really bad, paying for premium services is useless and would impact negatively the advertising platform.

Once these platforms have taken control of the web, there is a whole parallel market that develops. Sites that sell fake reviews, but well written reviews that match the image of the establishment, with verified accounts (approx. CHF 14 for one good review!).

The UBER example

Uber Taxi and Uber Eat workers (who are not employees under Swiss law) are also manipulated by their algorithms.

Once a new driver enters the market, the algorithm makes sure that he is very busy with bookings. a strategy so that they do not feel discouraged at first. But in the medium to long term, waiting times and empty runs increase.

The note ***** that the customer gives to the driver will create the driver’s CV. Of course, Uber doesn’t care about the authenticity of the note, the aim is to keep drivers on the market who have an optimal reference and act as robots (or slaves).

However, users can have control of these habits if they develop what we call a “digital awareness”. Digital awareness and digital security should now today taught in public secondary schools.

PM/CTO @DIGITALABS, October 6, 2022