Changes to TripAdvisor’s Popularity Ranking algorithm earlier this year, proclaimed by the company as designed to improve site experience “for travellers and businesses alike” have been slammed by many hoteliers, who find the new algorithm capricious and unhelpful.
Some owners allege the new algorithm is damaging their business and say protests about it to TA are falling on deaf ears.
The story began a few months ago, when TA decided to alter the algorithm that determines the rankings a hotel or restaurant can obtain through reviews. TA said the move was to address the arrival of new establishments which could unfairly rise quickly in the rankings, to rank higher than longer established ones, often on the back of just a few positive reviews.
While the theory seemed sound, some hotel operators claim the altered algorithm favours larger hotels, which are likely to bring a higher dollar return to TA.
TA says its “enhanced ranking” produces a more accurate representation of a business’s performance over time.
“These changes were not undertaken lightly and were carefully designed and tested to improve our rankings algorithm in some very specific ways, while maintaining the accurate standings of existing properties with great reputations among TA members,” it stated.
Some owners, however, deny the algorithm is working in the way claimed. Instead, they say many properties with long-track records with TA have plummeted in the ratings despite great reviews.
Margaret Lomas runs Serenity Point at Maui Bay in Fiji (www.serenityfiji.com), a high-end, five-star boutique hotel catering for three couples maximum, which opened last August and rose quickly in the TA rankings.
“We are one of only two of the 24 hotels in our area which offers a complete all-inclusive experience in a luxury setting,” Lomas told Global Travel Media.
“We deserved every word of our feedback and reviews and each review is genuine.”
Lomas says that at the start of this year, her property was beginning to enjoy increased bookings, with guests quoting TA as their source.
“When searching for high-end, boutique luxury on the Coral Coast, number one was Nanuku and number two was us (despite having a much smaller number of rooms). The traveller then just needed to decide if they preferred a large establishment which allowed children or a smaller one which allowed only adults.
“When you look at the reviews, we are actually the only hotel of the 24 to have only ever exclusively received 5 bubble reviews, making our review average 5 out of a possible 5.
“The new algorithm immediately plunged us to number 8, despite no new reviews. We then received 2 more 5 bubble reviews and fell to number 11. Two more reviews moved us further down to number 15. Ranking above us are two hotels which I know, from personal experience having stayed with them while renovating my own hotel, would be 2.5 star on the world standard.”
Lomas says that for the past eight weeks she has received no new bookings “and the reason is simple – as a traveller, if you were to find me, then look at TA for a luxury boutique hotel, you would see that Nanuku is number 1 and I am number 15. Which would you choose now?”
Lomas says the main issues that owners posting in the TA owner’s forum have established, are as follows ;
- The quantity of reviews that you get seems to have some bearing. This of course immediately makes it impossible for smaller hotels to climb the rankings as they will never have the quantity. My best hope, even if I could somehow achieve full occupancy, would be about 3 reviews a week or 150 a year as opposed to 500 – 1000 by large hotels.
- The recency of reviews matters – again, small hotels cannot compete in the recency stakes as they often have periods of vacancy when no one is at their hotel.
- The quality is considered, but this does not seem to feature as a dominating factor. One owner did an analysis to find that although they had the highest quality of reviews over a one-month period, they did not move up the ranking, instead falling for that month.
- Even taking into account all of the above, no pattern can be established and all hotels now move randomly up and down, with smaller hotels no longer featuring in the top rankings. Virtually all small hotels which formerly ranked high now rank low.
Lomas alleges that TA refuses to engage on the subject and has made communication by owners impossible – unless it is to talk about paying for a product.
“The ‘email us’ section has been replaced with a knowledge base and the phone numbers listed on the owner’s site disconnect when you ring them,” she says.
Another property to have experienced similar problems with TA is Playa Maya (www.playamaya.com) in Mexico, a small hotel (about 20 units) on the beach in central Playa del Carmen. It has been open for 14 years.
Manager Stephen Ryberg told Global Travel Media that Playa Maya has been “consistently popular and well reviewed and had a good reputation throughout our history, including on TA, where we first appeared in 2004.
“Over the subsequent decade, and despite our small size, we were consistently well ranked in their popularity index of about 200 properties in the same area, spending much of that time in the top 10. Over the past year or two, as competition stiffened and the area continued to grow and more people became more and more internet and social media savvy (not our particular focus), we were more often ranked in the teens, but still were at least in the second half of the top 20, and thus still seen by quite a number of users of the TA site.”
Ryberg continues: “We regularly received guests from there, as we knew either from their own mention of it or from their reviews appearing on the site or perhaps their posts in the forum on the site that features discussion of Playa. We were conscientious about responding to complaints and carefully monitored the ranking, knowing that while it did not function as a very accurate or ideal tool to sum up our business, nevertheless it was very important because of TA’s effective monopoly in terms of directing people (at least in much of the US and Canada) to lodging possibilities while travelling.
“Over the years we would see occasional jumps or drops of anywhere from 2 to 5 places in the ranking, which were easily enough seen to be the result of a string of positive reviews or, on the other hand, a negative review or two.”
Then came TA’s algorithm change.
Ryberg says that in late January or early February this year, the hotel we began to see successive drops of a few places every couple of days, despite no negative reviews being posted, “indeed, even despite positive reviews appearing.
“This went on and on until we were well out of the range we’d ever been listed in all those years, down into the 60s. I started a discussion on the TA forum dedicated to (and limited to) business owners, describing this unprecedented situation, and asking if others had noticed anything similar.”
The reaction, Ryberg says, is that reports “just started flooding in from all over”, from the US, Europe, other parts of Latin America, New Zealand and other places.
“The most common type of reaction was, ‘Same here!’, followed by reactions of frustration that it made no sense,” Ryberg relates.
“Then people began sharing their reports of how TA was reacting, and those were quite similar to: as in our own case, people reported submitting official requests to TA and having their tickets changed to status ‘closed’ without sufficient explanation or in multiple cases, without any response at all.
“Some took different routes of contact, even emailing the office of TA CEO Steven Kaufer directly (as we also did), but again to no avail. Many theories were put forth but none fit the bill in terms of explaining the results being seen.
“When TA did answer, their answers were at times self-contradictory. For example, continually stressing that the changes to their ranking algorithm were implemented to reward the consistent performance of business over time rather than a quick string of a positive results from newer businesses, but nevertheless turning right around and noting that recency of reviews was indeed a factor in the ranking calculations. But at no time did their vague explanations really accurately explain what was actually happening in the rankings.”
The rankings seem to be rather capricious, according to Ryberg.
“We and several others reported a brief return to normalcy perhaps a month or so after the changes began to be seen. We woke up one morning and discovered that we were right back at #19, for example, even though we were in the low 70s the night before, and not a single review hit in the interim.
“This lasted for about 3 days, and then suddenly we were back mired well down the list in the 70s, where we remain to this point.”
Ryberg explains: “As you can see there, we compare our review results on TA with those of 5 other properties, and are better than they are in every possible category, from total number of reviews to the percentage that are excellent, the percentage that are positive (excellent or very good, combined), and the percentage that are negative. Yet all of them rank well ahead of us, 1 of them 40 places ahead and all but 1 of them at least 20 places ahead.”
Ryberg says that many observers have presented ideas about what may have changed, such as increased focus on the size of a business “or how much a business pays to TA for its particular class of listing, or whether (in the case of lodging, at least) a booking agreement is in place, etc.
“We don’t know,” he admits, “and TA doesn’t say, nor does it even answer our requests (though interestingly they did step in and delete a dozen or so of our posts from that owner’s forum discussion, for reasons that remain unclear). But we figure that while we don’t know what TA is now using to rank businesses, it is clear that they have changed the system and that reviews posted by their users no longer determine rankings.”
Ryberg says there seems little owners can do “other than get that message out to the public, as we have started to do via social media and in our direct communications with them and so forth, and perhaps wait for some other travel oriented site to rise to challenge TA’s hegemony in the area…”
“In more immediate, practical terms, many of the owners on the forum have noted that they will no longer be paying for any listing on TA, and it looks like we are headed the same direction.
“Makes little sense for us to keep paying them some USD 500 per month to include contact information for our business on their site when users would have to go as far through the ranking as the 70s just in order to see us in the first place.”