Business

TripAdvisor to personalize data for travelers

Newton-based company begins to customize data, helping visitors narrow their searches

Wendi Clarke, human resources director at the Revere Hotel in Boston, posts fresh TripAdvisor guest reviews of the hotel every Monday morning.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Wendi Clarke, human resources director at the Revere Hotel in Boston, posts fresh TripAdvisor guest reviews of the hotel every Monday morning.

For years, TripAdvisor has tracked all those clicks you’ve made on its site, the search for hotels in Bar Harbor with sea views or all-inclusive resorts in Aruba with swim-up bars, and it has logged the time you spent gawking at luxury digs in London before finally booking a budget hotel.

Unlike other big Internet companies such as Amazon and Google, which have been recommending products and aggregating lists for users based on their search histories, TripAdvisor hasn’t done much with its growing mountain of data.

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Now the Newton company is finally wading into the data-personalization trend, launching a “Just for You” feature on Tuesday that will automatically customize results for each user, based on his or her browsing history and click patterns.

It will also add more filtering options for users to further narrow results beyond the broad categories that TripAdvisor had previously used to organize travel information.

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The idea is for users to see travel recommendations that suit their tastes, budgets, and other interests that TripAdvisor has been able to measure through browsing patterns.

For example, there are about 1,000 hotels in London listed on TripAdvisor. Now users can narrow that huge list down to, say, independent budget hotels near Earls Court that allow pets and have swimming pools. As certain features are searched for more often, such as swimming pools or pets, the tool will begin to automatically include them in other searches.

“It makes complete sense for TripAdvisor to do this,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco. “In fact, it will improve the usability of the website, because part of the problem is that they have this massive amount of information and the consumer feels like they are drowning standing under a waterfall of ratings and reviews.”

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The new feature is far different from TripAdvisor’s major tool, the simple popularity index that ranks establishments based on reviews and ratings.

It marks TripAdvisor’s first dive into personalization and the biggest change for a website that has become one of the most powerful forces in travel.

“We know every hotel in the world, and now we’re going to be able to show you what the best hotel is for your trip,” said Barbara Messing, chief marketing officer at TripAdvisor.

“Because TripAdvisor has so much data and so much scale, we have the ability to do it smarter than anyone else in travel.”

TripAdvisor tracks data on users through log-in accounts, IP addresses, and site history. The company examines how much time a user spends on a page, and her pattern of viewing and clicking, and feeds all that information into a powerful search tool to develop customized results.

The company said it does not follow any activity on websites other than its own, unless members grant it access to their Facebook accounts. It also said prices will remain consistent for all travelers.

Amazon Inc. pioneered personalized searches more than a decade ago, and now “it’s hard to find a website that doesn’t do it,” said Azer Bestavros, director of the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering at Boston University.

Bestavros said TripAdvisor probably spent a lot of time trying to understand the context of each click users made, and how to use that information to improve browsing and search results.

“It’s a big undertaking because of the market research they would have to do,” Bestavros said. “What is the impact on how people use the site?”

Indeed, TripAdvisor’s senior vice president of global product, Adam Medros, said it was hard to develop analytical tools to personalize the results in a way that was relevant to travelers with unique tastes and agendas.

“Personalization is the kind of thing that if you get it wrong you look silly,” Medros said. “I’d love to have had it two years ago, but all good things take some time.”

Catherine Tucker, associate professor of marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Business, illustrated TripAdvisor’s challenge using her own travel preferences.

When she travels for business, Tucker said, she wants a quiet hotel with a comfy bed; with her 6-year-old twins in tow, a “spectacular pool” becomes the only priority.

“Trying to build a personalization algorithm that works out which travel personality I have on any given day is very hard,” Tucker said.

TripAdvisor’s business of aggregating reviews from travelers was initially resisted by many in the hotel industry.

But in an acknowledgment of its sway over millions of potential customers, many hospitality businesses now actively work to improve their standing in the company’s ratings. Some encourage guests to rate their experiences on TripAdvisor; many go onto the site to personally respond to negative reviews.

At the Revere Hotel in Boston, managers use TripAdvisor to motivate employees. The hotel’s current ranking — 21 of 77 hotels in Boston — is displayed in large numbers on a bulletin board in the employee cafeteria, next to a target goal of 18, along with reviews from guests.

Revere Hotel employees encourage guests to post positive reviews and hand out TripAdvisor luggage tags and other materials at checkout to remind them.

General manager Simon Mais said that TripAdvisor’s new Just for You screening feature should raise the hotel’s profile among select groups of travelers.

“We are very excited about it, because it will tend to get more of our target consumers to the hotel,” Mais said.

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.
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