Image: BootsnAll.com
John Brecher / MSNBC.com
Peer review sites — such as BootsnAll.com — have been around for awhile, but have grown in popularity compared to printed guidebooks.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/26/2007 6:06:47 PM ET 2007-03-26T22:06:47
PART 2 OF 3

Thank you, rossbo1, alas1976 and the rest of you folks who have recently stayed at the Doubletree Hotel Santa Ana. Based on the information you generously shared online, I now know what to expect during my family’s upcoming stay:

The beds are soft, but firm; the parking is free, yet ridiculously expensive; and the chain’s signature cookies are very good, no better than Mrs. Fields and hardly ever available.

Welcome to what some have dubbed Travel 2.0, that unfiltered, open-ended universe where anybody with an ISP can discuss their comings and goings and what they found (or hope to find) along the way. The dialogue continues to evolve — just last week, Priceline.com added reader-generated Zagat reviews — and, for better or worse, it shows no sign of dying down any time soon.

Routes, reviews and romance
“Surveys show people are more influenced by Web sites than traditional media,” says Jeffrey Grau, senior analyst with eMarketer.com. “They’re making [travel] decisions based on peer reviews more than magazines and TV shows.”

And there are certainly plenty of peer reviews to choose from. Five years ago, you might read the comments at TripAdvisor.com or IGoUGo.com or ask a question at BootsnAll.com or Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum. Printed guidebooks were still king.

Today, everybody and their sister is a virtual guidebook writer. Looking for a Mexican beach getaway? Jetncia24 on Gusto.com suggests you head for Huatulco “before it’s taken over by Senor Frog’s and McDonald’s.” Need a condo for six in Aspen? Mama Gretch (self-proclaimed “wicked smaht girl from Boston”) has a suggestion on Yahoo! Travel.

Or maybe you’re looking for something more personal. Maybe you’re looking for people with similar interests, a sense of community, or even someone to share an upcoming adventure with. Taking their cues from the likes of MySpace and Friendster, sites like TripUp.comand Eons.com are essentially social networks with a travel twist. Defined by the ages and interests of their members, the vibe is either Match.com or Modern Maturity.

Who ya gonna trust?
Still, you may not want to ditch your guidebook just yet. “We’re not necessarily competing with Frommer’s and Fodor’s,” says Gusto CEO Jeff Wasson. “We’re providing another source of information.” And, yes, sometimes that information is invaluable. Even the best guidebook can’t cover time-sensitive issues such as menu changes and the latest renovations.

On the other hand, no guidebook would go on a 1,146-word tirade accusing a hotel’s employees of everything from incompetence to outright theft (as one Doubletree Santa Ana reviewer did). Apparently, you should also consider staying elsewhere if you don’t like the smell of French food (“you will need a noseplug”) or overly toasty hot tubs (“103°C”). I’m guessing that last reviewer actually meant Fahrenheit, but still, it does raise questions about accuracy and expertise.

Or what about the reviewer who waxed rhapsodic about the Doubletree’s “decadently luxurious beds” and “elegantly understated decor”? I’m glad the writer liked it — he or she chose to stay anonymous — but the commentary certainly blurs the line between personal opinion and promotional copy.

Who are these people — and how much stock should you place in their opinions? After all, that scathing review could be from an angry ex-employee, just as the glowing one could be by a PR pro posing as John Q. Traveler to promote a client property. Buzz marketing is a growing business, and bogus reviews will always bedevil Web sites that allow anyone to post an opinion.

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Fighting back with new features
So, how to separate fact from fluff? Some Web sites, like Priceline.com, only allow users to review a hotel if they’ve actually booked a room on the site. Others analyze IP addresses for multiple submissions or employ editors who read all reviews, flag suspicious ones and reject those that don’t pass muster. Perfect screening is impossible, but progress is being made.

Consider Gusto’s Grabber tool or the Trip Planner from Yahoo!, both of which were introduced last year. Designed primarily to allow users to collect trip-related information (hotels, flights, maps, photos) in one convenient place, such personal itineraries may also provide relief from bogus reviews. After all, it’s a lot easier to plant a positive review or two for a client than to create a full-on (and fully believable) trip log covering an entire vacation.

The idea, says Jasper Malcolmson, director of Yahoo! Travel, is to utilize the “collective intelligence” of the online community to aggregate multiple sources of information: “It’s not just getting one person’s input; it’s leveraging this encyclopedia of travel knowledge to drive personal recommendations.”

It’s a bit like eBay, adds Jeff Wasson, where sellers’ reputations are determined by the buyers who deal with them. Transferred to the world of online travel, reviewers who prove themselves trustworthy will rise to the top; those who don’t will fade away.

Clearly, the evolution of Travel 2.0 will continue, but that will have to wait for another column.

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