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mar 24 2009

Is TravelPost the "TripAdvisor Killer?" A hotel reviews site with big ambitions

Calling itself "the most comprehensive hotel information site on the Web," TravelPost relaunched today with the intention of becoming the largest hotel reviews and information site—and displacing TripAdvisor.

The site scours more than 200 websites, such as Yelp, IgoUgo, Yahoo! Travel, and Epinions, to pull more than a million guest reviews from more than 140,000 hotels worldwide.

TravelPost's most impressive trick: Users can filter for reviews to only read those written by persons like themselves. Only want to see the opinions of travelers aged 45 to 60? Click a link, and that's what you'll get. Only want to hear from budget-conscious businesswomen? Filter the search results accordingly. Don't trust the reviews of a particular website? Just blacklist it, and that site's user-generated reviews will be banished from your personal search results. Other hotel metasearch sites can't do that.

TravelPost has all the usual trimmings for a travel website, too, with short descriptions of the hotels, photos of rooms, and Google maps of locations. In a twist, the room rates it quotes are based on a search for prices posted at dozens of online travel websites in the previous 48 hours (on a rolling basis).

TravelPost has a tough slog ahead in trying to dislodge its competitor. TripAdvisor is the most visited hotel and travel community website, with more than 8 million U.S. users each month. (Full disclosure: Budget Travel partnered with TripAdvisor to produce its Best Values 2008 story about the best-rated hotels that charge less than $250 a night.)

The biggest problem facing TravelPost is that it starts off with about one-tenth of the hotel reviews as TripAdvisor. Most individual hotels have fewer than 10 reviews, which isn't enough to convince the typical consumer to make a purchase, according to research by Bazaarvoice, a firm that powers review systems for online retailers.

Out of the gate, TravelPost has some pluses and minuses. It's definitely less cluttered than TripAdvisor—after you use it a couple times, the hotels you're interested in might start showing up much more quickly than they do on TripAdvisor. You don't have to click–click–click through lots of pages first.

On the minus side, TravelPost's formula for calculating an overall rating can sometimes be wildly out of sync with TripAdvisor's overall rating, making one wonder about a hotel's true worth. Take, for example, The Alexander Inn in Philadelphia. At this writing, TravelPost averages the ratings of guest reviews across dozens of websites and gives The Alexander Inn a rank of #45 out of 81 hotels in the city. Meanwhile, TripAdvisor ranks it #3 out of 88 hotels, a big difference. Not every hotel listing I looked at had as large a discrepancy as that, but several did.

Of course, you could argue that TripAdvisor's reviews are the ones that may be questionable, as Arthur Frommer and others have.

TravelPost general manager Ross Weber told me that his site will continue to fine-tune its algorithm for calculating a hotel's overall rating and that it may give additional weight to hotel-review sites that are especially popular or well regarded and to hotels that are heavily searched for.

Another worry about reviews is that, while Travelpost doesn't pay travelers who write reviews (and neither does TripAdvisor), TravelPost does include reviews from sites, such as IgoUgo, Epinions.com, and BedandBreakfast.com, that reward reviewers with cash, frequent flier miles, or chances to win gift cards. Compensating reviewers may make the reviewers biased, according to observers like reporter Dennis Schaal. TravelPost responds that if you distrust any hotel reviewing website for any reason, you can "filter out" that site by clicking to exclude its reviews from your search results.

Many hotel owners say they're excited about TravelPost. Soon, it wlll let them post rebuttals to reviews they don't agree with. It'll also allow them to visit just one website to monitor all of the conversations that are happening about their properties, rather than having to look at dozens of hotel-review sites.

There are a few things we wish both sites would add: We'd like to see a graph of the rates over time at a particular hotel, so that you could see if prices have been rising or falling, just as sites like Farecast and FareCompare have helped travelers detect trends in plane ticket prices. We'd also like to see estimates of surprise fees (resort fees, early checkout fees, self-parking fees) posted next to the hotel rates, the same way TripAdvisor has begun to estimate fees for checked bags and other add-ons with its flight metasearch feature (tripadvisor.com/flights).

UPDATE: March 30: UpTake's co-founder has a detailed analysis of TravelPost and the hotel review industry.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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