Travel and the Paradox of the Internet

Travel is a category that illustrates the paradox of the Internet. There’s never been more information available to consumers — and that’s the problem. I’ll provide a recent, personal example to elaborate.

My wife and I wanted to go away for a couple of days for our upcoming anniversary. But we decided not to get on a plane (based on the fact that our two young children can only do about two nights at their grandparents’). With driving distance as the primary consideration (cost is of course another) I set out this weekend to book hotel reservations.

Into the abyss I went . . .

The consumer is in control, right? Yes, but the entire process is out of control and pretty exhausting, partly because there’s so much information online to sift through and consumer. Case in point: I visited all of the following sites multiple times (not in order):

  • TripAdvisor
  • NY Times travel section
  • OpenList
  • Citysearch
  • Frommers
  • Google
  • Yelp
  • Yahoo Travel
  • SideStep
  • Kayak
  • FareChase (Yahoo)
  • TravelZoo
  • Orbitz
  • Travelocity
  • At least 25 individual hotel sites
  • Misc other unbranded travel sites

I kid you not.

Compounding the problem, the availability of so much information leads to a kind of “magical thinking”: there’s a deal lurking just around the corner if I visit just one more site. Consequently, you search until you reach some sort of de facto saturation/exhaustion point and feel like you’ve seen everything.

There’s no single site — even the meta-search sites — that is comprehensive. There’s no single site that can be entirely trusted. In other words, there’s no single site I can visit and feel satisfied that I have complete information.

TripAdvisor is not the only site with user-generated reviews of hotels but it’s still the most comprehensive. The problem with TripAdvisor is that the site hasn’t found a good way to synthesize and present all its reviews. It shows “most popular” hotels in a given area, which is a cumulative ranking based on user reviews. That’s helpful but incomplete. The numerical rankings based on categories (e.g., 4.0 for service) are only marginally helpful. Then there’s the problem of the sheer volume of reviews.

Furthermore, every single hotel featured on TripAdvisor, almost without exception, has several “this is a wonderful hotel” posts, followed by a couple “I’ll never come here again” or “terrible service” reviews. While the detail provided on the site is extremely helpful in many cases (and illustrates the power of user-generated content), it can also be frustrating and confusing. “Do I trust reviewer A or reviewer B?” Hypothetically, you can go with the consensus, but almost never is there a consensus. You have to trust “the majority” opinion which is not easy to gauge unless you scroll through lots of reviews.

People are typically looking to user reviews as one of several criteria in travel (i.e., price, availability, location) to confirm that they’ve made a good decision. In contrast to Yahoo Trip Planner, visitors to TripAdvisor don’t typically start with user generated content (except for the hotel popularity ranking).

Marchex/OpenList has done a nice job of providing a simple summary feature to give users an “at a glance” indicator of community approval or disapproval:


Users can filter (using a pull-down menu) among “most liked,” “least liked,” (why?) “most reviewed,” “alphabetical.” There are also challenges; filtering by “most liked” for example reveals numerous restaurants that are liked by 100%. That should change over time with more reviews however.

The point is not to recommend that others adopt the identical approach but to adopt something conceptually similar. What users need are proxies for dozens of reviews, summaries that show them at a glance what the general sentiment is. They should then be able to drill down and read the full text of reviews if they’re interested. But the TripAdvisor approach is generally unwieldy and points to the problematic future for many UGC sites. One could argue that even Yelp is now on the cusp of needing to do something to address a similar problem (in the SF Bay Area) — too much content.

The Internet has given consumers more choice and, theoretically, more control. But it’s also overwhelmed them with too much information. This is why trusted brands matter: enabling consumers to cut through the noise. The more noise, the more consumers resort to familiar sites and brands. This is one reason why Google is so strong and holding. But brand strength online is also largely a function of the content and feature set.


Related: Local and Social Media Are Joined at the Hip

4 Responses to “Travel and the Paradox of the Internet”

  1. Neal Says:

    call a travel agent 🙂

  2. Andrew Goodman Says:

    Hi Greg,

    After all that – TripAdvisor “only marginally useful.” I know what you mean.

    I think that we’ve definitely seen Gen 1 of these kinds of site give it their best shot, and it’s been found wanting.

    Sites like Judysbook tried to improve the approach to at least determining the trustworthiness of reviewers and reviews, but this wasn’t very rich, and they ran aground before they were profitable.

    I think perhaps “Gen 3” of these kinds of sites can provide a richer experience that ups the customization, peer sharing, and trustworthiness of info… but it’s a gradual process of figuring out not only how to leverage the wisdom of the crowd, but also to encourage quality, so it’s less like a mob and more like a peer group.

  3. Greg Sterling Says:

    Hi Andrew:

    Even though there are now a range of sites trying to formulate or offer what they think are “Travel 2.0” it seems whatever that’s going to mean hasn’t yet arisen. Maybe it’s something more aligned with the structure and mechanics of a social network. To that end, I very much like Yahoo Trip Planner, although it doesn’t solve many of the Trip Advisor problems.

    Marc Barach of Ingenio recommended to me yesterday the book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. You can see a lecture re this topic from Barry Schwartz on Google Video:

  4. Information Overload Driving Community Adoption « Screenwerk Says:

    […] noisy and frustrating medium in many ways. I’ve written fairly extensively about my personal frustrations with online travel. There’s more and more information online and it has become unwieldy to manage and navigate. […]

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