It always starts with a search. According to Google, a typical traveller researches a trip over 16 different internet sessions before booking, having visited an average of 32 websites on desktop and mobile devices along the way. That’s a complex decision-making process, generating a ton of information, advice and opinion for the would-be traveller to sift through. Plus, at every stage, there’s a marketer trying to insert their product or service between you and your decision. This is business as usual in the travel industry.
The travel web is growing in both size and sophistication. Reputable magazines like this one inhabit the internet as well as newsstands; bloggers publish books; and newspapers operate websites. There are sponsored YouTube videos, Twitter publicity stunts, and Instagram images of a million different sunsets. Holiday advice is more abundant than ever. But just how trustworthy or objective are the pages we surf before we click on the ‘book’ button?
The trouble with reviews
TripAdvisor, the biggest user-review website, hosts 125 million opinions, 17 million photos, and clocks around 260 million visitors every month. A 2013 survey by World Travel Market identified the site as the number one planning resource for UK holidaymakers: 27% of the 1,000 travellers polled rated TripAdvisor ahead of personal recommendations (18%), guidebooks (14%) and, yes, even specialist travel magazines (5%) — well ahead of apps, blogs and social networks.
But media coverage of TripAdvisor often focuses on the ‘fake reviews’ and companies gaming its system in order to climb higher up its recommendation lists. Why? “Every major service industry faces the challenge of fraud, and we are no different,” says James Kay, TripAdvisor’s senior media relations manager. “Every review goes through our tracking system, and we use automated tools and algorithms to spot patterns of activity. We can spot what is normal reviewer behaviour and what isn’t — fraudsters inevitably leave behind patterns and traces that we can and do catch. The amount of fraud attempted is extremely small.” So, when one slips through, that’s news.
Many mainstream hotel booking websites mimic TripAdvisor, but with one important difference: they only permit reviews from verified guests who have booked through their own site. “We host more than 10 million reviews from customers who have stayed in those hotels, so readers can have complete confidence that the views expressed are authentic,” says Alison Couper, senior director of global communications at Hotels.com, which runs unadulterated reviews. “Fostering loyalty is all about trust, so our reviews have to be a true reflection of the hotels we offer,” adds Couper. Hotels.com also displays TripAdvisor reviews — as does hotel chain Best Western. It takes confidence to do the same — and it works.
Triptease takes a different approach to trust. Its elegant website mixes the informative — hotel and resort reviews — with the engaging experience of thumbing an iPad magazine. “We have a real-name policy on Triptease,” says founder Charlie Osmond. “We encourage people who work within the industry to create their own photo-reviews. We just insist they make it clear they may have a bias.” Contributors include journalists, industry executives and bloggers.
The content machine
Like traveller reviews, blogging has been part of the online landscape for at least a decade. The reputation of bloggers as independent-minded travellers who tell it like it is has been hard-won. But freewheeling travel is an expensive business, and bloggers who rely on their words to pay the bills increasingly find themselves as mere cogs in the content marketing machine.
Let’s rewind a little: what exactly is content marketing, and how does it affect your next holiday? Hannah Smith, content strategist at marketing agency Distilled, defines it as, “the creation and sharing of content in order to attract, acquire and engage current and potential customers. Essentially, it’s about using content to create profitable relationships with customers — to encourage them to buy and continue to buy from you.”
Creating content in order to sell travel is not a new strategy. “Remember, Pan Am published inflight magazines in the 1940s,” says Smith. But compared to traditional copywriting, modern content marketing is often cleverer and more creative. Recent updates to Google’s search algorithm have caused a significant bump in its popularity — these updates pushed websites with fresh, quality content higher up Google’s search rankings.
And, where do hungry travel marketers turn for all that content? To the logical place: an army of eager, skilful writers who are already active online. As one piece in the marketing jigsaw, bloggers are a perfect fit. Savvy and authentic, they speak to an audience in a way a traditional advert or promotional campaign rarely can. They are increasingly fluent in the language of modern marketing, too. Meanwhile, the stereotypical blogger — a passionate, eloquent hobo armed with a keyboard and a shoestring budget — slips further into myth.
“Consumers are now savvy enough to know that brands talk,” explains Patrick Smith, media editor at Buzzfeed, an online publisher that runs sponsored content and native advertising (‘editorialised’ advertising) alongside top-quality journalism. Increasingly, travel brands pay writers, photographers and videographers to talk on their behalf. I’ve been a guidebook writer for a decade, and have written thousands of words for Frommer’s and others. However, in 2013, I wrote more destination guides for travel providers than I did for traditional publishers.
The question is: can this type of content ever be impartial? “When you’re paid by the brand — be it the hotel or the destination — you’re working for the brand and they’re your first priority, when really the reader should be,” says Pam Mandel, a freelance writer who blogs at nerdseyeview.com. She’s right; there’s always a selection bias in the background. When I write a story on Bologna for self-catering accommodation provider HomeAway, do I cover the city’s hotels? Of course not. But ours is an ad-savvy generation. If content is clearly marked as advertising or advertorial, or runs on the advertiser’s website, there’s no problem. We enjoy it, take what we need and filter accordingly.
Sheriffs of blogland
But what if paid-for, advertorial content is made to look just like a neutral review? In November, the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) clarified its rules relating to online advertorials: “A blogger who is given money to promote a product or service has to ensure readers are aware they’re being advertised to. On top of this, the rules also state that falsely presenting yourself as a consumer, ie giving a view that appears to be opinion but that is actually paid for, is a misleading practice and is prohibited under consumer protection laws. If they are paid to say something positive then it becomes an advertisement and they must disclose it.”
Needless to say, the best bloggers are assiduous in their approach to honest, professional disclosure. “I disclose every partnership with a tourism board or company who offers me a discount in exchange for a review or mention,” says Becki Enright, who blogs at backpackerbecki.com. Kash Bhattacharya of budgettraveller.org agrees: “When addressing the issue of disclosure, I think about the big picture. As my blog evolves and my brand grows, being transparent helps reinforce my credibility and integrity.”
But not every blog takes the ethical high line. Talk to bloggers and you’ll hear tales of valuable links paid-for and inserted surreptitiously into posts. They’ll tell you about ‘influencers’ offered payment to comment on a company website or post on Facebook pages, undisclosed commercial relationships, and of ‘transparency treated as a footnote’.
Legitimate agreements between bloggers and the companies or marketing organisations hiring them are increasingly prescriptive. In return for a stay and a fee, bloggers are contracted to tweet and blog, to post to YouTube or Instagram. In theory, they are free to say what they like. In practice, these trips — sometimes known as ‘buzz campaigns’ — are part of a carefully planned content marketing operation, and may remain subject to ASA rules.
“If the blogger can offer their views freely and without prejudice then it is unlikely to be viewed as an ad,” says an ASA spokesperson. “If a blogger is taken on the condition that they blog positively and the advertiser has some right of approval over the content, the ASA would likely take the view that this represents payment and control, and therefore makes the blog an ad. Not disclosing an ad in a blog is not just in breach of the advertising code, it’s also in breach of the law.” This also applies to social networks: “The rule of thumb on Twitter is for the author to use #ad or #spon hashtags, to denote to followers that it’s an ad.”
There is a legal precedent here. In 2010, the UK Office of Fair Trading investigated a campaign by blogger network Handpicked Media, under the 2008 Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. The case was eventually closed. “We represent over 300 sites and they are all aware of how important it is to disclose whether they have been paid to write an article or a tweet,” explains Handpicked Media’s founder, Krista Madden. “There are many sites who work illegally, do not disclose, and who get away with it. Unfortunately, it’s still happening.”
There’s no doubt that paid content is now standard fare on the web. “I don’t think that maintaining the line between PR and journalism is a priority for many bloggers today. Trust isn’t a component of buzz by definition. Buzz is mostly marketing, rather than information,” says Pam Mandel. When Sean Keener, CEO of the Bootsnall Travel Network, polled readers on sponsored content, “90% of respondents did not trust it — nor content with a disclaimer such as, ‘This trip was paid for by X, but the opinions expressed within are my own’.”
Needless to say, these inherent conflicts weren’t created by blogging and content marketing in themselves. Writers, journalists, bloggers — anyone reporting on travel — needs to experience it in order to describe or review it. And travel is expensive. Magazine editors have struggled with this for years. “A big advertising win could make or break the business in the short-term, but a lack of editorial integrity might damage it in the long-term,” explains Triptease’s Charlie Osmond. Jason Clampet, head of content and co-founder at Skift says: “The problem with bad travel writing and bad content marketing share is that everything is always ‘good’. If everyone is always saying happy things — either in an ad or editorial — it hardly matters if it’s sponsored by a tourist board or appearing in a trusted magazine.” In other words, the issue of trust becomes a moot point.
So, where should a traveller turn for the truth? Pam Mandel offers this advice: “I search review sites for bad reviews, to see what people are complaining about and when. If the complaints are consistent — rooms are dirty, food is overpriced — I change my plans. I dismiss blog posts that are full of unrelated links to sites offering cheap flights or airport parking — these are typically paid links and, because of that, I don’t trust the other content.
“I tend to trust those blogs where transparency feels like an overall approach, where the blogger is not just jumping from press trip to press trip, but also funding their own travel. I also like to find out that a blogger has worked with a credible editor.” Look for established publications with decades of experience behind them, alongside newer sites by writers and photographers producing ethical, entertaining content.
For travel insights you can trust, caveat lector — reader beware — is a maxim that applies as much as it ever did. But the truth is out there, and it’s out there in greater abundance, and with a greater diversity of voices, than ever before.
Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)