New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody talk about… well, London, actually.
If by ‘everybody’, that is, you mean everybody on TripAdvisor.com, which publishes its annual report of user activity today.
According to the statistics for 2013, London is the most reviewed city on the site, which has more than 260m users each month.
TripAdvisor says London’s locations have been reviewed a combined 459,000 times, easily beating off competition from Rome, Paris and New York, which was the top US city with 305,000 write-ups on its bars, restaurants and hotels.
While American travellers continue to make the most contributions to TripAdvisor, British tourists are in second place and, it turns out, are a rather eloquent lot, writing 660 words per review, a tally beaten only by those from Singapore and the Philippines.
‘There’s quite a strong review culture in the UK at the moment,’ said TripAdvisor’s communications manager, James Kay.
The most popular domestic attraction to be reviewed by Britons this year is the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros Studio in Hertfordshire, which has more than 8,400 reviews.
But it is London that is the king of cities on TripAdvisor. ‘We’ve become the review capital of the world,’ said Kay.
While London is the world’s most sought after city, TripAdvisor has become the online destination of choice for millions of travellers. Founded 13 years ago by Stephen Kaufer, the site has transformed the way in which we conduct our holidays. But has it been for the better?
‘When TripAdvisor first came along, there was a myth that it was a place where people went on to vent or moan about a bad experience and therefore most of the reviews were negative,’ said Kay. ‘We find the opposite is true. You’re much more likely to get positive reviews than negative reviews. The average rating that’s given on the site is just over four out of five.’
But sometimes the reviews have been a little too positive – fake praise for a premises dished out by friends or family of the owner, or the owner themselves – is something that has drawn criticism.
TripAdvisor says each review goes through a rigorous tracking system. If the system – and the 200 people who check reviews after they are red flagged – finds something fishy, the property in question is warned by TripAdvisor about the suspicious behaviour.
If those warnings aren’t heeded, a premises can be given a ‘red badge’, the site’s way of telling its users that the reviews may not be exactly what they seem.
Kay insists the red badge is a last resort and that TripAdvisor attempts to work with businesses before going down that route.
The other criticism levelled at the site is that it helps scrap individuality, as millions of people follow what others have done on holiday rather than setting their own agenda. A study earlier this year by MIT University in the US claimed sites such as TripAdvisor encouraged ‘positive herding’, but that the majority aren’t always in the right.
However, Kay said: ‘For most people, the holiday that you pick is going to be one of your big expenses of the year. You want to make sure when you’re spending your money that it’s going on something that’s going to deliver, so you want as much information as you can get about that place. If you bought a new car, you wouldn’t buy it blindly for the mystique value of it. You’d want to know what you’re getting. And I think the same is true for a lot of people when selecting holidays.’
He said TripAdvisor has had a ‘democratising effect’ on travel. ‘We’d be perfectly open in saying that you would be able to find critics of us in the industry,’ he said. ‘Some people have been wary of the amount of access we have been able to give to customers to have their own voice.
‘But I think service standards have been able to improve as a result of the feedback people have had access to on TripAdvisor. A lot of hotels use TripAdvisor as a means to pick out what they need to improve.’
He said TripAdvisor gave tiny players the ability to compete with global hotel chains. ‘If you look at small hotels, essentially we’re a marketing platform for those businesses. If you’re a small B&B in Herefordshire or somewhere, there’s no way you could ever be able to afford to spend a marketing budget that would get you access to millions of people. What we’ve done is level the playing field.’
A few years ago, people hit the tourist trail armed with a guide book and a pen, and while those tools still have their place (anywhere without wi-fi, for instance), TripAdvisor has changed the landscape.
‘It has transformed the way we now look at tourism and travel experiences,’ said Stephen Page, professor of tourism at Bournemouth University.
‘It has led to a much closer engagement between travellers and businesses by shaping and helping to form opinions of products and experiences.’
While reviews at both positive and negative extremes are to be taken with a pinch of salt sometimes, Prof Page said TripAdvisor had challenged hotels to deliver the service standards they advertise – anything less results in negative feedback the world can read.
He said: ‘It moves the notion of service quality away from simple quantitative measures to allow people to read richer and deeper analysis of individuals’ experiences of travel and tourism that were largely hidden away from public view.’