04 – Understanding TripAdvisor’s 2018 Algorithm Update

by | July 11, 2018 | Suite Spot: Hotel Marketing Podcast

In this episode of Suite Spot, we reflect on the recent changes to the TripAdvisor algorithm. Host Ryan Embree is joined by guest Patrick O‰'Brien, Digital Product Manager and head of the reputation solutions at Travel Media Group.

In the What's News segment, Ryan discusses the changes to the ranking factors for the TripAdvisor algorithm. InThe Suite Spot, Ryan and Patrick break down the timeline of the TripAdvisor algorithm change and how Patrick and his team are communicating the changes to hoteliers. Patrick walks us through the known factors of the TripAdvisor algorithm and the newest factor released in the change. He also shares his analysis of the impact that the change is having on a hotel‰'s overall city ranking.

In the Q&Asegment, we give tips on the best ways to take on this algorithm change in stride and also weigh the decision of wiping your TripAdvisor page. To submit a question for future episodes, call or text 407-984-7455.

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Episode Transcript

Our podcast is produced as an audio resource. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human editing and may contain errors. Before republishing quotes, we ask that you reference the audio.

Ryan Embree: Welcome to Suite Spot where hoteliers check in and we check out what's trending and hotel marketing. I'm your host, Ryan Embree.

Ryan Embree: Okay. Hello, and good morning everyone. Welcome to another episode of Suite Spot. I am your host, Ryan Embree, as always. In case you missed last week's episode, we actually had a special edition where we recapped the 2018 HITEC conference in Houston and had a couple of our colleagues here at Travel Media Group from our product and development team give their key takeaways from that conference. So please check that out if you haven't yet. So in today's episode, we are going to be talking about the recent TripAdvisor algorithm change. We're gonna be looking at the news coverage surrounding that. I know a lot of hoteliers out there, have a lot of questions concerning the change. They've seen some changes in their ranking and just wondering kind of what we know so far about this change. We're going to be looking and talking to Patrick O'Brien who's our product development manager for our reputation programs here at Travel Media Group.

Ryan Embree: He's going to give us some insight on what he has found about this TripAdvisor algorithm change and how it has affected some of our current partners reputation-wise. And then lastly, we're going to be actually answering some questions regarding the TripAdvisor algorithm change that hoteliers might have. So in the, What's News segment today, there was plenty of news coverage about this TripAdvisor Algorithm, algorithm change when it first was released. Hoteliers were talking about it, owners, everyone really in the industry, but specifically we're going to hone in on our blog post on Travel Media Group site after the statement was released from TripAdvisor that there was a change. We wrote this blog as a guide and a blueprint for hoteliers on kind of what to expect. So in the past, the way that TripAdvisor had ranked it's hotels was really based on three main factors that was review Quality.

Ryan Embree: So the star rating of the review. Quantity, which is the number of reviews and Recency. So with those three factors, TripAdvisor had used this to rank it's hotels historically. Now with this change, they actually introduced a fourth factor and that's Performance Over Time. So is this factor that a lot of hoteliers are pointing to as they're seeing substantial moves in their city rank. Now, although TripAdvisor is not going to share, you know, its formula or algorithm publicly, it has gone out and made a statement that these four factors do determine really a foundation of how it ranks its hotels. So it reputation experts in the industry. We felt, you know, it was our obligation, our duty, you know, to really kind of help hoteliers make sense of this new change and maybe put a strategy together to kind of help them. We know how critical it is being, you know, in the top five of your market versus the bottom five of your market.

Ryan Embree: So a change like this could obviously have a huge, huge impact on revenue. But with that being said, we're going to bring in our own reputation expert at Travel Media Group, Patrick O'Brien. You might remember him from the HITEC episode recently and he's going to help us kind of make sense of this. And we're going to hopefully kind of guide you through this change.

Ryan Embree: Hey, good morning, Patrick.

Patrick O'Brien: Good morning.

Ryan Embree: Thanks for coming on. So I wanted to get started and kind of going through this chronologically, right? You had figured out this TripAdvisor algorithm change, kind of like the hoteliers were figuring out. You know, there wasn't much notice, but what was the first thing that tipped you off that something out there was, was happening with these rankings.

Patrick O'Brien: Sure. So we go in and we're obviously for our client hotels, through our client support team and through the reputation team, we're typically looking at trends and things that are going on with those hotels and making sure their performance is moving in the right direction. I'll also go in and start looking at markets and trying to understand, you know, is this market getting more reviews than normal and you know, how are hotels performing in that. And um, it was literally as I pulled up the page, started noticing, you know, one or two of our hotels that overnight, one hotel in particular overnight dropped 66 spots. Ultimately when you went to TripAdvisor, they hadn't been flagged, they had dropped. So I, you know, started looking at competitors and is this an isolated incident? [What] is going on? And now these competitor graphs and charts that we typically look at which traditionally have, you know, kind of basic trend lines now kind of look like a lie detector test and they were bouncing all over the place just within a day.

Patrick O'Brien: Um, so we reached out to TripAdvisor at that point and tried to get an understanding and see what may be going on. I think at that point we got the standard answer that was yes, they had, they did verify that they had made a change to their algorithm that the change was - had produced some unintended results that they were in the process of fixing that and things will be back to normal in a couple of weeks. Ultimately, you know, we're in three months later and you know, things haven't shifted back to where they were. But in essence, the algorithm really kind of created a new baseline for hotels. But it was, it was basically an overnight change, so there was no gradual, um, you know, change for these hotels. It just, um, I think it was right around the second week of March that it happened.

Ryan Embree: Absolutely. And, you know, kind of, as I alluded to, I mean seeing a drastic drop like that without any sort of learning curve. I mean, that can really impact business. Um, so I'm sure that this was, you know, obviously it was a shock to you, I'm sure it was a shock to our partners. Um, how do you, you know, communicate that sort of change with, you know, the partner properties that we talked to because 66 spots. I mean, that's, that's huge.

Patrick O'Brien: Yeah. That was in that market. I think it was like a 25 percent drop in City Rank, which is a major financial impact for that hotel. Um, unfortunately, the answer that we got from TripAdvisor is not necessarily the best thing to communicate out to our customers as well as even, you know, our sales team and our client support team. It's just not enough information that's gonna create more questions than answers.

Patrick O'Brien: So, um, we started, I started doing an analysis of different market types, so we were looking at destination markets like Daytona Beach and larger cities like San Diego and even small markets like Maitland, Florida. I'm trying to look at any consistencies outside of sort of the normal, um, consistencies were TripAdvisor's always looked at quality, quantity and recency. Um, were there other factors that may now be playing a bigger part in that algorithm? So, we started looking at their involvement with a certificate of excellence. Um, were they also part of the Business Advantage program with TripAdvisor? I was looking at 12 month predicted scores. So where was their trend in 12 months? Was that may be playing a factor into it? Also if they were part of TripAdvisor Instant Book Program and, you know, even going as far as were they offering any special rates on TripAdvisor and did that maybe give them preference and showing sort of, you know, their participant as an advertiser with TripAdvisor.

Patrick O'Brien: Um, in doing that, we really didn't find any concrete evidence in markets. Uh, you know, uh, you started to see some commonalities, but there was really nothing that we could pinpoint on, um, so we continued to sort of monitor it. We did end up getting a little bit more formal communication from TripAdvisor, which indicated that they, you know, they were looking now at including alternative accommodations. Um, you know, you've got the rise of Airbnb in now, you know, business travelers and leisure travelers have a lot more options than just hotels and um, you know, they've been very successful in reviews and, and, and capturing part of that market. So TripAdvisor wanted to be part of that. So now they wanted to show their customers and their audience, um, you know, a bed and breakfast, and you know, vacation rentals and add those into the mix as a viable option for the travelers when they're in the market.

Patrick O'Brien: So we can kind of started looking at that. And then we started noticing sort of consistency over time. And, um, as you really started breaking down what was going on, you know, [we] had one property that dropped 25 percent and another property that had risen, you know, 40 percent. Um, so these are monumental shifts in, in city rank. When you started looking at, you know, how have they performed over time, they hadn't seen any major rises, but they've consistently been, you know, typically having good service if you wanted to get an increase, but in good ratings. But it had been this consistency over time that really was the main factor. And then a little while later TripAdvisor did come out and say, "yes, we are looking at consistency over time as, as a factor in our algorithm."

Ryan Embree: So, so what you're speaking to is that performance [over] time. Right? And that's, you know, the, the fourth and major factor now that TripAdvisor is including and, and that's why we're seeing these big shifts. So, um, can you just kind of explain that performance [over] time and what that means?

Patrick O'Brien: Yeah. So ultimately I think what

Patrick O'Brien: TripAdvisor did, um, was really smart. Um, you know, being on the other side of it and having customers or being a hotel, it is not necessarily what you want to see, but um, unless you're on the upside of that, but um, what they were doing is, you know, for, for TripAdvisor, they've got their own customer base and there's really ultimately one reason that anybody leaves. You can break everything down to one reason that anybody would leave a negative review and that ultimately comes down to: their expectations weren't met. Um, you know, it may have been that, you know, the pictures on the website, we're old and it wasn't, um, you know, they got there and it didn't look the same or they'd read reviews and service was going to be great and now they got there and that's, that wasn't the service [they expected], but it's ultimately a negative review because expectations aren't met. And for TripAdvisor,

Patrick O'Brien: If they're showing reviews of this property that are, that are really good and their customers are getting excited about potentially staying there. And then they're having this negative experience, they're probably not going to utilize TripAdvisor in part of their research anymore. So you know, what they were doing is smart, is um, you know, they're implementing this algorithm which takes out sort of that gray area. It's very black and white. And so what the Algorithm looks at is, you know, have you continually provided good service. And so if you've, um, the hotel that you, one of the hotels that we first noticed that had that 25 percent drop 'em, they had done a reset on TripAdvisor about 18 months prior. Then they'd had, you know, a couple of little hiccups in the beginning, started utilizing our reputation management program, had really done good and then, you know, they got to a good spot and said, don't you know, we don't really need to participate as actively in this.

Patrick O'Brien: And then they started dropping off, started noticing the trends of where they were heading in about two or three months before the algorithm change, picked back up. Well, the algorithm's looking at that and saying, "you know, over this 18 months, you're all over the place. The probability of me, you know, recommending you to a traveler and them having a good experience is less than this other property. And so I am going to show the property that has more probability of, have a good experience and therefore good reviews and the customer's going to come back to TripAdvisor." So again, it is very smart, but it is, um, you know, where they were, they went in and ultimately started looking at now like if you get 10 years of reviews, you know, have you always been, um, providing good service, has it always been clean as it always been updated and versus, you know, is there somehow that you're just all the sudden changing things. Um, and so that, that's what they're looking at in it. It's really for the benefit of TripAdvisor's end user. Um, and that that's where they make their money. That's the service that they set out to provide. And so it is a smart play on their part.

Ryan Embree: So from a hotelier's perspective, you know, it, it really serves them best to get something going now because this performance [over] time is, is moving forward, is going to be implemented in their ranking. So this is really the time to get started and really, you know, start really focusing in on that reputation.

Patrick O'Brien: Definitely. And I think

Patrick O'Brien: that, um, you know, really for reputation management, um, there's no shortcuts to it. It's maybe like a diet, you know, you start dieting and lose the weight, you feel great and you're like, oh great, now I can go back to everything I used to do, not exercising, you know, eating all the foods that I love and now you're back where you started and then, um, you know, it, if you want to be successful in that, it's a lifestyle change. And that's really what it is for the hotel is, it's an operational or an organizational change. It's not just, "hey, I'm going to start focusing on asking people to leave me reviews." It is, "I need to be involved in every aspect of managing that as a part of my business and in being successful at it." So it is a long-term strategy if you haven't been doing it in the past, you need to get involved in doing it as quickly as possible and um, and just making sure that, you know, this is your product, this is your service. So that has to be managing guests' expectations has to be a vital part of that operation in order for you to be successful.

Ryan Embree: Absolutely, and I love that analogy that you gave with, with having a diet because it is, you know, we talked to these hoteliers that say, you know what, they get reenergized refocused and say, uh, you know, in the next couple months let's get as many five star reviews as we can. And then it's exactly what you said - it drops off. Now TripAdvisor is going to kind of see through that quick spike of five-star reviews. And so if you're not being consistent, you're not going to be rewarded.

Patrick O'Brien: Exactly. And again, the hotel that I mentioned earlier, that, that is exactly what had happened to them. They started doing really good, um, you know, they had some different things come up at the property, but then they just stopped really focusing on reputation for a while and all of a sudden it's inconsistent and that that's what TripAdvisor is going to look at.

Ryan Embree: Awesome. Awesome. Well, interesting stuff. We've actually got in our Q&A this week. I think a question that you, would be a very helpful as a resource to help with if you still have the time.

Patrick O'Brien: Sure.

Ryan Embree: Alright. So for the first time we're actually going to have two questions in our Q&A and the first one, Patrick, I want to start off a hotelier asked - and I'm sure a lot of hoteliers are asking this right now, you know - "how do I regain my city rank after this algorithm update?"

Patrick O'Brien: So again, it's um, yeah, I think it comes down to that consistency and making sure your doing the things. I'm at the property level to, uh, to be successful. And so that is gonna come down to, you know, working with your guests during stay to make sure that everything and providing that service also following up with them post-stay, surveying, asking every guest to leave a review and building up that content so that, you know, you still have that quantity and that consistency of reviews and hopefully positive reviews coming in. It's also going to be responding to every review, uh, and making sure that you're having that dialogue with those guests posts stay. One of the things that our team does as well is, um, you know, we go in and look at all reviews and we're doing Sentiment Analysis, um, on, on reviews.

Patrick O'Brien: So we look at, right now I'm over 40 different elements in every review and we start trying to understand sentiment on, on each of those aspects. And with that, that becomes to me really important because you've got a lot of content out there. Um, and so by understanding sentiment, you can organically improve your ranking. So, you know, if my bathrooms are overall, every time somebody mentions my bathroom, it's a one and a half or two-star rating for that one element of the reviews. But when that, when bathrooms are mentioned in the review, maybe my average score for a review is three and a half or four stars. If I can lift, you know, either through renovations or updates and looking at, you know, the data that's in those reviews, if I can fix that and maybe I move the overall rating for bathrooms up to a four-star organically, that's what's been pulling those review scores down.

Patrick O'Brien: So that's going to lift it up as well, which, which will help out. So you can kind of identify those opportunities. Um, but you can also, on the flip side, look at the things that people are talking about really positively. Um, as I mentioned earlier, the reason that people leave negative reviews is because expectations weren't met. And so if I go through, and I start identifying the things that people who are coming to my market and specifically my hotel are really interested in are the big value propositions for them. And now I start changing my marketing message to reflect those, well obviously a lot of people are coming to the market looking for whatever that value proposition is and if I'm reflecting those accurately on my website, on OTAs and blogs, wherever, I'm going to convert those travelers and I'm already going to have met their expectations. It's what they were looking for and I'm identifying that and making sure. So organically you'll kind of lift the ratings that way as well. So, um, you know, it really is, again, ultimately just making a reputation management, not a checkbox, but really in an organizational foundation or an operational foundation for your business.

Ryan Embree: Absolutely. And you know, I think your advice is great there. You know, you can't be passive anymore about your reputation management, you know, TripAdvisor and this new algorithm change is really forcing the hoteliers' hands to really act and be active when it comes to their reputation management. Like you said, it's not just checking a box, it's using that sentiment analysis to improve your hotel, to ultimately improve your ranking. So a great answer there. Um, let's get into the second one and this one is for hoteliers that might be - just bought a property or just did some major, major renovations. We know that those hoteliers have the option to reset their TripAdvisor page. Go back down, blank to zero. What advice would you give those hoteliers when it comes to this algorithm update?

Patrick O'Brien: I guess first and foremost is you do definitely want to take a look and make sure it is going to be worth it. So, you know, when you bought the property were they have one and a half or two-star rated property, um, and it just got consistently terrible reviews and now you bought the properties, new management and you're making some updates or if you're doing renovations at the property were those renovations killing, you know, your, your online ratings? Or you know, was everything fairly positive? If things were fairly positive, I would probably advise against looking at a reset because now you've got that kind of longer foundation, consistency of reviews. But it really would be then working with guests and future guests to highlight those, um, you know, through conversations that you're having with them while they're on property in post-stay communication and getting them to leave reviews.

Patrick O'Brien: Um, but if you are going to do it, then you also need to have a plan in place for immediately really working and trying to, you know, motivate your guests to leave reviews so that you can build that content up quickly. And you know, so that is going to be, you know, probably in upper echelon or an increase in service: really working with your hotel staff to make sure that every communication they have with a guest, you know, they're finding out how everything is going and then, you know, maybe mentioning, "hey, you know, feel free to leave us a review online" and then following up with that messaging and kind of motivate these guests that have had this great experience to comment on that so that you can build that up. But do realize that you're probably going to see a slow start in the beginning. It's not going to be as quick as it was in the past, but again, then just making it part of your daily operations to continue to manage that reputation and build that up and you will see the growth and the movement back up. Um, you know, again, we've had hotels that have reset that were impacted by this algorithm change. And yes, they were given a new baseline. Um, but now they're doing everything proper. They really are actively managing the reputation and, and they're seeing, they're seeing that city growth back up .

Ryan Embree: And I think that's what a hotelier sometimes overlook when it comes to, uh, uh, TripAdvisor reset, you know, they're so quick to just want to have that blank slate, but at the end of the day, you know, we do know those four factors, right? And although if you get a couple of five star reviews, five star reviews right off the bat, you are taking care of that quality and that recency side, but you're also neglecting the performance over time and also the quantity. So it's definitely a harder question than just every time reset it. I think. So, really interesting stuff, Patrick, I really appreciate you coming on the show today. Great episode. If you have any other questions, um, you know, again, we opened this up to our listeners here to hear your questions for hoteliers. Anything that you want to know about digital marketing, you can call or text us at 407-984-7455. That number again, 407-984-7455. Patrick, I want to thank you for coming in today.

Patrick O'Brien: Thank you again for having me!

Ryan Embree: And we will see you next time. To join our loyalty program. Be sure to subscribe and give us a five star rating on iTunes. Suite Spot is produced by Travel Media Group, our editor is Anne Sandoval, with cover art by Bary Gordon and content support by Amber Wojcek. I'm your host, Ryan Embree, and we hope you enjoyed your stay.

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