Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Starwood's Reviews, Part 2: Publish Reviews, Don't Host Them

In yesterday's post, I declared that "Starwood has made what will prove to be a seminal move in the hospitality space". When making this statement, I was focused mainly on Starwood's decision to publish reviews within their website, as opposed to their decision to host their own reviews. I talked with Jack a little today and we both realized that I had glossed over this important distinction.  Let's define the two strategies right away, so that we can then get to analyzing pros/cons of each...

  • Reviews Posted to Brand.com: This strategy uses a product like Revinate's Buzz or even standard products from TripAdvisor to publish 3rd party reviews on a property's website. Shoppers go to the hotel's site to read reviews and can continue to shop from there. 
  • Hosted Reviews: This strategy involves a solution like Customer-Alliance or BazaarVoice to generate proprietary reviews that live on a brand's website and nowhere else (or at least on no other third party review sites). 
So which is the better strategy? Well, regardless of which one hoteliers might be considering, the objectives for Review Optimization fall along these major points:
  • Let's start with the basics: Hoteliers must bring reviews to their own websites. See yesterday's post for more detail.
  • At all costs, hoteliers must promote and ensure authenticity and unbiased publication of reviews. This holds true for "hosted reviews" as well as "third party reviews on brand.com"
  • To the greatest extent possible, hoteliers and 3rd parties must offer greater utility in filtering and searching reviews vs the review sites. (Again, see yesterday's post for more.)
  • Enabling social sharing of reviews is a good idea and worthy of testing and learning. I very much applaud Starwood for their features in this area. In my opinion however, it is not a strategy that will yield significant results at this time. It will in the future, but there are more immediate goals to reach first, like...
  • Reviews must be leveraged for optimization in TPIs/OTAs and search engines. Even if these channels are not necessarily preferred, they cannot be ignored.
  • Above all else, hotels must optimize for Google maps/places. They must do it now. This includes driving reviews to Google. The Android mobile platform is growing too quickly and Google Hotels will be a viable player in this space within 24 months. This advice is most urgent for limited service and urban hotels that are most likely to be booked last minute, but is still valid for vacation destinations as well. Of course this is tied deeply to natural/paid Google search too.
Defining the objectives for review optimization helps us to define a best-possible review solution and to rank existing options. With the above points in mind, my thoughts on these strategies are...
  • I strongly support "reviews posted to brand.com": it enables all optimization strategies while still drawing traffic to your own site. While this strategy lacks social sharing functionality, the opportunities for optimization in third parties and Google are simply too big to ignore at this time. Yes, it's true that readers can still be tugged away to TripAdvisor by navigating deeply into the reviews, but I think it is a current fair tradeoff for having the reviews on brand.com to begin with. 
  • I am less enthusiastic regarding "hosted reviews". While this strategy does have the current advantages of social sharing  and better "review browsing" features, I think the cost is too dear in terms of lost optimization in the third party world. Plus, I cannot vouch for this first-hand, but I have to assume some onerous business process work for matching up reviews with actual reservations. 
In the near future, we will see products evolve to meet the overall set of best-practice features and functionality. I think there is a place for hosted reviews, particularly in their ability to replace current guest-sat surveys. They simply cannot be deployed at the full expense of 3rd party reviews. At least not yet... Anyone have a patent on the idea of a reverse TripAdvisor yet? It aggregates all "hosted reviews" into a single public site...