Thoughts on Social Travel – My Own Social Graph Isn’t Good Enough

I have been doing a lot of travel lately, some for work and some for fun. The one thing that continues to stun me is the dominance of TripAdvisor as a source of reviews whenever I go to a new place and start looking for restaurant or hotel reviews. It reminds me a lot of looking for restaurant reviews and only finding Citysearch before Yelp came along and shook things up. While generic search queries might return a diverse set of sources, specific queries (restaurant x in town y) almost always have several TripAdvisor responses in the top set of search results.

I know Yelp is continuing to expand globally, and it couldn’t happen fast enough for my tastes. When I saw TripAdvisor release their Instant Personalization, I thought it might be cool. But it doesn’t solve my problem. Some time you need to see someone else’s solution to really figure out what it is that you’re looking for. I’ve heard some of my friends who travel say that they don’t trust TripAdvisor rankings because they might be written by employees of the places being reviewed, by people who’ve never been to the place in question, or generally don’t feel “real” (whatever that means). I don’t care so much about the trustworthiness of the reviews and reviewers – I care more about relevance and utility. If someone astroturfs a review but it turns out that it’s a place I like, that’s not as bad as a genuine review whose conclusions strike me as odd.

Whenever I’m planning a trip to a new place, I always ask myself the same simple question:

For someone with my tastes and interests, where should I eat and where should I stay when I’m in a new town?

There are a number of reasons why I think the TripAdvisor status quo is ripe for some disruption. I’ll try to summarize them below:

1. My perception of TripAdvisor’s search results is that they are self-reinforcing
On my last trip, I sat next to a couple who described TripAdvisor as “their bible” – they only go to places that are highly rated. So I went to a number of the highest-rated places and they were largely filled with out of town people, many of whom were either clutching guidebooks, printouts of TripAdvisor reviews, or made comments that led me to believe that their decision to show up was influenced by something like TripAdvisor (if not the service itself). I’m sure some of those people will go back home and dutifully review those places. Which will add more reviews to the top places. And thus the cycle continues. I don’t know much about the TripAdvisor ranking algorithm or how it works, but I think most people tend to look for the highest-rated places and start there. If for some reason those places don’t seem interesting or appeal to them, they move on.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach – taking into account the density of reviews and the ratings seems like a rational way to do things. But it does have the overall effect of driving many casual visitors to the same set of places and concentrating reviews in a set of locations that already have lots of reviews.

One small hack I’ve been using to get around this is to just skip most everything on page 1. Those places are probably good, but there are so many other places that could be great, will probably have fewer tourists, and might be more my style. I usually start hunting on page 3 of the results, where the review density is generally lower and then I ask the concierge or some local people if the places that look interesting to me are any good.

One of the things I’ve always really liked about Yelp reviews is that I can generally get a lot of context about the reviewer. Is the person from San Francisco? Have they reviewed other places I like? Do they reference other restaurants in their reviews? Those things are what help me figure out the reviewer’s context, bias, etc for reviews.

2. I can’t make heads or tails of most TripAdvisor reviews once a place has been reviewed about 20-30 times
If you read the reviews of the top places in any given city, you often end up with the same pattern:
1. A bunch of really positive reviews about the place
2. A few people who had wildly different experiences and call the place overrated, terrible, or not worth a visit
3. A bunch of reviews in between that are very measured in tone

That’s simply not useful to me. Yes, you could read through 10-15 reviews to try to get a complete picture of the restaurant or place in question. That’s time consuming. And at the end of the day, you don’t know anything about the people behind those reviews. You don’t know where they like to stay, what their standards are, what they’re accustomed to in terms of service, and what their idiosyncracies are. I bet there’s probably a review buried in there written by someone like you – I challenge you to find it.

There’s another, more subtle problem that I often find with reviews. Many times, people make comments about the quality and price of the food, especially at restaurants. I think it’s fair to say that not everyone has the same idea of what constitues “cheap” or “expensive” or “best meal we had in town” – this can make it extremely difficult to figure out what to expect. Sometimes people will give you clues in their reviews – they’ll say things that tip their hand about what they consider to be fair prices or other places they’ve been that rank highly to them. This drives me nuts. Even services that include some kind of rough price expectation, the actual bill can vary wildly depending on what you order. I have another hack for this. I often tend to look for reviews written by people who travel without children and as a couple, which is a rough proxy for how I often travel. But that takes some detective work on my end to figure that out. It should be easier.

3. Using my social graph is not good enough – I want people with my tastes, not people I know.
While I do put a lot of stock in personal recommendations and referrals when I’m traveling, there’s no guarantee that my friends will have the same travel or lodging tastes that I will. Some are into ultra-deluxe. Others are really into hostels and low-budget accommodations. Ditto on food. Like most people, I’m generally able to filter the appropriateness of a recommendation based on the source.

But that doesn’t work at web scale. There are probably many other people out there with my tastes in dining and lodging who are not inside my social graph. Those are the people who’s opinions and thoughts I’d like to read. As I mentioned above, one of the hardest things to figure out about TripAdvisor is who the person is behind the review. I don’t mean whether they’re a shill or a real person – I mean you don’t know what they consider good, bad, or other.

I haven’t used Hunch, but maybe that’s something that Hunch or a similar service can help deliver.

3. There’s lots of other really good sources of data out there that could be used to help me find similar people.

The reason I’m so excited about this problem is that we now have more data sources that could be used to address this problem. For example, I have almost 2,000 foursquare checkins and a decent number of Facebook checkins too. That tells you a lot about the places I like to go and the intensity with which I like to visit them. Why not use that data (as the corpus grows) as a key input for restaurant or travel recommendations? Look, you know where I like to go and you can find other people who like to go to those places too. It seems like a critical, and previously-unavailable, data source that could be an important foundation for a next-generation service here. I have to believe this is on the roadmaps for foursquare and Facebook

Okay, that’s a lot of stuff to post. Hope you enjoyed it. As always, feel free to leave some comments.

  • Khalil

    I have a solution for that problem.nI was a Tourism Consultant for public and private organization. That’s where I would start.nThe platform should be targeted to Public Bodies who need data to promote their region, city, etc…nnThis would be a simple system like four square but you checkin in the city. You would have all tourists/Travellers in the city plus some local people who would be acreditated by the public body.nnSimple Status Messaging platform like twitter. I would use Status.net.nnThe Local Toruism Board manage the data, the business is B2B we host the platform for the Cities. Needles to say that it is connected to twitter, facebook, etc..nnYou just ask a question and you have responses from real people who are going to go there, who are there and have been there.nnIf you are interested I can send you a 5 screnshot description.: )

  • Your prayers have been answered: http://www.gogobot.com

  • Hey Charles – couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I have suffered with the same problem for years, then finally threw up my hands and started working on a solution. nnWe launched Gogobot (www.gogobot.com) in November in private beta with an aim towards making planning trips fun again, tapping into the wisdom of your graph as well as a community of passionate travelers, to ultimately offer a pandora for travel, offering smart recommendations for you based on your relationships and your interests.nnWe still have some work to do, but would love to have you check it out and let us know what you think.nn

  • Wenwen_lam

    i know this sounds terrible… but you might want to try asmallworld. Its always done the trick for me…

  • Great post Charles. The way we plan travel and make decisions about places are changing with the convergence of the social graph and more data than ever before. At http://www.gtrot.com we’re working to deliver more relevant travel data from people you trust. That involves friends and also the travel experts. nnWe’ve been working hard the past few months and we’re hoping to make travel planning and sharing even easier. I’d love to hear your thoughts. nn@gtrot | @br_ttany

  • paul jan

    hey charlesnnthis is exactly what’s happening, although i don’t know if anyone is specifically focused on travel as a verticalnncheck out google recent announcements re: places and hotpot. facebook also hoping to do this with placesnnwhat you describe is basically mobile + social + local. people are figuring out mobile, and social…local is where i think it’s going to be tough. merchant acquisition becomes a huge challenge. that’s why groupon is worth $6B…they’ve been able to scale thisnnbut this seems to be a NA + WE thing i.e., doesn’t fix your international travel / tripadvisor dilemma. sounds like a business opportunity to me…

  • Charles – I agree with all of your points. Our goal at Wanderfly (www.wanderfly.com) is to inspire people to travel more by simplifying the discovery process and making it more fun and enjoyable.nnPart of the current problem is the experience itself – it’s time-consuming, complicated, and stressful, the polar opposite of actually taking the trip. We think that much of this can be solved through the UI and simplicity of an app – controlling the amount of information that is presented at one time, instead of overwhelming users with a multitude of data points and features. Product features must be balanced with a clearly defined user path.nnThe other piece is the accuracy of the recommendations. Your point that user reviews and data from the social graph aren’t enough are spot on. It doesn’t matter that one of my 1,000+ Facebook friends recommends something, if I don’t think there is any credibility in the recommendation. For this reason, we’ve been careful in rolling out the social features on our site, and instead built our foundation by aggregating the opinions of trusted, credible sources. We see a lot of opportunity in combining these with smart uses of the social graph, as well as a variety of other data points that will together create a more personalized ranking of destinations and things to do there. nnWe’ve only been live since October but have a lot of exciting plans in the works, so check us out and let me know what you think.nnCezary / Wanderfly

  • Cool, I’ve gotten lots of pointers to it and I met one of the founders yesterday. Will check it out.

  • I will definitely check it out – thanks for pointing me to the service.

  • I will check it out – thanks!

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  • http://whatser.com connect your Facebook and Twitter and start following the people you trust on where to go. We won’t post anything without your permission and love feedback. Thanks!

  • http://whatser.com connect your Facebook and Twitter and start following the people you trust on where to go. We won’t post anything without your permission and love feedback. Thanks!

  • Leo

    Hey Charles,nnI definitely agree with some of things you said above… Someone should just mimic the netflix interface. Best. EVER!

  • JB

    Checked out hunch.com – it does not do it for me, not well organized and insufficient reviews to deem reliable.  I do agree that preferences are so varied but honestly think yelp has to build into its’s v2 version.  Tried many restaurants from yelp and mostly good but there are some that are clearly preference based.