TripAdvisor Q&A: The Future of Travel and the Social Web

5/23/12Follow @gthuang

TripAdvisor has been thinking about social technologies for a while now. Back in 2006, the Newton, MA-based Web company (NASDAQ: TRIP) rolled out a new social network, called Traveler Network, to help its users connect and share travel reviews with each other. The firm’s CEO and co-founder, Steve Kaufer, helped lead the project from beginning to end, even as it proved difficult to get consumers to sign up.

“It was a colossal failure,” says Adam Medros, TripAdvisor’s vice president of global product. And Kaufer owned up to it, saying the experience taught his team “a lot of things not to do.”

At least it failed quickly. In 2007, Facebook opened its platform for app developers, and TripAdvisor took advantage with its “Cities I’ve Visited” app, which lets users put pins in a map to show where they’ve gone, as well as share travel experiences with their Facebook friends. It was the start of a fruitful partnership between the companies; TripAdvisor has one of the most popular travel apps on the social network’s platform, and more recently it has built on that popularity to show users travel reviews from their Facebook friends (and friends of friends).

Now Facebook has just gone public, of course, and people are wondering what the ripple effects will be for social technologies and business models across various industries. Online travel is a sector we care about, especially in the Boston area where, besides TripAdvisor, we have companies like ITA Software (now part of Google), Kayak (reportedly getting ready for its own IPO), and Goby (now part of TeleNav), as well as upstarts like Hopper and WaySavvy. And seeing as TripAdvisor is one of the East Coast’s biggest consumer Web companies, period, it makes sense to check in with the 12-year-old company in our back yard.

While the Facebook IPO doesn’t directly affect TripAdvisor, it’s a watershed moment for the social Web and, as such, is a good excuse to ask questions about the future of social and online travel. “It’s been a very fun and exciting and transformative ride,” says Medros, who has worked at TripAdvisor since 2004, after getting his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Here are some highlights from my recent chat with Medros (see photo), edited for length and clarity:

Xconomy: What does Facebook’s IPO—and social tech more broadly—mean to TripAdvisor?

Adam Medros: It’s a huge validation of Facebook as a platform and the vision they have of making the Web more social. Travel is a big expense. It continues to be something where people are nervous about, is this hotel going to be great? We want to make it easier to plan that trip. What social does is it layers on top a wonderful amount of, not quite serendipity, but discovery of the hidden gems.

X: I’m glad you mention discovery, because I feel like a lot of websites are moving away from travel “search” and trying to do “discovery” instead—because a lot of times you don’t necessarily know what you’re searching for.

AM: We wrestle with this a little. People come to TripAdvisor with an idea of where they want to go, but within that city they want to know where to stay, where to eat, what to do. The next level above that is the inspiration level—where should they go? Social has potential to play a part in solving that, to generate ideas from places that people you know have been. It really comes back to some behaviors that we see that make social so powerful. Social has the element of this consumption of your friends’ content and lives, without having to be in constant contact. You get this firehose of what your friends are doing, but then you pick and choose what you want to pay attention to.

X: A big criticism of TripAdvisor is that the user reviews aren’t always trustworthy. Is social-network vetting the answer?

AM: We think the answer to trust, at the end of the day, is volume. People say, “Why don’t you guys verify reviews?” Because that would reduce volume. None of that is going to solve the trust problem. But when you have a lot of volume, people who are trying to influence rankings can’t overrun the wisdom of the crowds. Now if you see friend-connected content, you see how they’re connected to you. Once you see that, your belief that these are real people is smoothed over.

X: How do you see Google affecting the competitive landscape in online and social travel?

AM: We work closely with Google on other fronts, from a search and marketing perspective. We haven’t seen the same opportunity in social with Google that’s made us want to invest there yet. We ultimately want to connect the platforms our users care about to our own platform of travel content. Certainly Google has extended beyond its traditional search center point to other areas like [Google] Places. I don’t think that they have any intention to stop doing that. But we don’t see [travel] users seeing that as compelling.

X: What does TripAdvisor need to do better in the future?

AM: We are global, and we really have a tremendous amount of scale. With that comes some amount of complexity. Our site can at times feel a bit overwhelming—there’s a lot of information. Travel is not one-size-fits-all. We’re constantly trying to work on how do we simplify, how do we give users easier ways to sift through information and make it more tailored to them. Using the wisdom of friends, and social, is one element of that. We’re continuing to experiment with things like mobile. What is it that users want to do on mobile devices? How people use tablets versus phones is really different.

X: You worked at Amazon back in the dot-com years (1999-2000). What lessons did you take from that experience?

AM: Amazon still holds a special place in my heart. They were a pioneer in this notion of user generated content. It’s a very powerful way to make decisions and discover new things. That holds true with what TripAdvisor is trying to accomplish. In my eight years here, I’ve often referenced what we did at Amazon, in terms of making great recommendations for you and helping you choose amongst many worthy candidates. Amazon has been fantastic on execution and in its focus on users. They have similar problems we wrestle with—massive amounts of information, making recommendations, and how to filter content.

X: Putting you on the spot…which company will be worth more in 10 years, Amazon or Facebook?

AM: That’s a tough one. I think it’s Facebook, because Amazon’s retailer margins would give me a little bit of pause. And you don’t shop every day. But the wild card in it all is, Amazon has extended way beyond retail into the cloud and so forth. So I wouldn’t count them out.

X: OK, complete this big, sweeping tech-trend pattern: search, social…what’s next?

AM: It’s got to be mobile. That continuous stream of information will be augmented by social and search, but ultimately will be delivered real-time with location layered on top of that, with the context that location brings.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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