Expedia’s Emily Pearce: User Reviews Rule the Roost

When traveling to a faraway spot, I like to know there’s a comfy bed waiting for me (preferably the clean kind that won’t provide inspiration for bed bug haikus). Enter Expedia, which offers professional content (hotel descriptions and photos) alongside Emily Pearceuser-generated content (guest ratings and reviews).

When I research products and services online, strangers’ opinions matter. Would I book a Days Inn in Santa Fe with a two-star rating and guest reviews littered with adjectives like creepy, dingy, filthy, and sticky? Um, no. What about a four-star hotel described by guests as historic, charming, convenient, and comfortable? Bingo.

But how does Expedia, which receives 20,000 reviews each week, ensure the process remains free of shenanigans and relevant to a wide variety of users? And how does the company plan to remain relevant in an era of social media sharing? To answer these questions and more, I turned to Emily Pearce, who oversees user-generated content at Expedia.

Just the Opinions, Please

Content Ping: Do you have a sense of how important reviews are to people visiting Expedia.com?

Emily Pearce: We’ve found that reviews are quite important to shoppers–at least ten reviews, to be exact. Ten tends to show varied enough opinions to aid shopper confidence in their decision making. About 72 percent of hotels shopped are those with reviews.

Content Ping: Tell me a little bit about how reviews have evolved on Expedia. Is there anything you’ve learned that has changed how reviews are collected or displayed?

Emily Pearce: Collection and display are ever evolving to incite customers to write reviews and digest them in a way that is relevant and helpful. The submission form has gone through a lot of changes through the years in an attempt to make it easier for customers to share their stories and want to share their stories. A long form can be daunting, but not asking enough questions may compromise their value to shoppers. So it’s trying to find the right balance through trial and error where we watch our submission and review funnel numbers closely.

Our review display underwent a revamp at the end of 2011 to freshen up design, display guest photos, add more filtering, and highlight data we know shoppers like, such as the percent recommend. Now we have bullet points for pros, cons, and location data for people that like to scan a page, a new verified reviews logo, the ability to “thank” reviewers, and review sharing. For being relatively new to our program, customers are really taking to the added functionality and we’re seeing big growth in thank-you votes and photo submissions.

More and more, consumers want to hear from other consumers. Verifying that the reviewer booked with us and stayed at the property adds a layer of trust you can’t get from unverified reviews.

Content Ping: Approximately how many reviews get submitted to Expedia each week? And how many total reviews are on the company’s site?

Emily Pearce: We receive about 20,000 reviews a week and (as of this moment) there are 2.8 million Expedia reviews displayed on our sites. We’re also starting to display Hotels.com reviews, which brings our display numbers to at least 6 million verified reviews. Adding to this are TripAdvisor reviews we pull in for properties that are still growing their internal review numbers.

Content Ping: What kind of review process does Expedia undertake before reviews are posted?

Emily Pearce: After submission, reviews are sent through machine moderation looking for profanity and then a manual moderation process to weed out inappropriate comments and customer service issues we escalate internally. We value authenticity and the voice of the customer so there’s no editing involved at any stage.

Content Ping: When did the Expedia Verified Reviews program launch and why did Expedia elect to verify user-generated content before it’s published?

Emily Pearce: Expedia reviews have actually always been verified, we just recently started to toot our horn about it. We essentially relaunched the program at the beginning of the year with new functionality, design, and verified-reviews callout. We verify to guarantee that we’re receiving a genuine experience from someone without a vested interest in the property. More and more, consumers want to hear from other consumers. Verifying that the reviewer booked with us and stayed at the property adds a layer of trust you can’t get from unverified reviews.

Reviews are no longer an island; they can live in multiple places and reach eyes they wouldn’t have [without social media].

Content Ping: In your opinion, does fraud pose a major threat to the future relevance of user-generated content?

Emily Pearce: No, I don’t think so. It’s definitely a shame that it’s occurring, but the media coverage has to be inciting more companies to really look at their process and make needed improvements that will hopefully put the pay-for-reviews people out of business. Smart tech and business decisions, such as verified reviews, will make all the difference. Companies have to protect their integrity or shoppers will go elsewhere. I also believe there are more people out there creating genuine user-generated content than scam artists.

Content Ping: Amazon, Yelp, and other popular e-commerce sites are reportedly locked in a constant cat-and-mouse game with fraudulent reviewers. Is this true for Expedia as well?

Emily Pearce: No, not true for Expedia. I’m not sure if it’s because travel is more of a big-ticket item and requires follow-through, but it may be too much trouble for fraudulent reviewers. You have to have booked on Expedia, paid for, and checked in and out of a property in order to receive a review solicitation email to be able to contribute a review. Not that it hasn’t happened, but I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve personally seen reviews written by an invested party. We investigate every accusation that a posted review is fraudulent and also have our moderators watching for potentially fraudulent submissions.

Content Ping: Approximately what percentage of reviews get filtered out during the vetting process?

User-generated content is proving more meaningful to customers over glossy marketing descriptions.

Emily Pearce: We lose about 5 percent of reviews to rejection during moderation, a low number compared to other companies. We want the positive and negative reviews, and we’re trying to show the full picture of a property. If shoppers don’t have the spectrum of opinions, it’s harder to make an informed decision and they question the program value for sure.

Content Ping: What is Expedia’s policy towards correcting or editing reviews?

Emily Pearce: We have never corrected or edited any review submissions. We have a strong stance against review editing. You lose the authenticity and trust not only in the reviews, but the program. Not that I wouldn’t love some spellcheck every once in a while.

Content Ping: Some popular hotels on Expedia have more than 400 reviews. What is Expedia doing to connect searchers to the reviews that would be most relevant to them?

Emily Pearce: This is an ongoing discussion of what more we can do, but right now we’re offering filtering by date, rating, and language. More helpful, we also ask reviewers to tell us to whom they would suggest the property for on the submission form–students, couples, families, business travelers, and “other” with a free-text field–and you can filter and review by those criteria. By analyzing the text we receive in the “other” field we’ll be able to better tailor our filters for other prevalent traveler types that emerge.

Content Ping: I noticed that TripAdvisor makes it easy to share user-generated content via Facebook. How is the rise in social media impacting the review process?

Emily Pearce: It’s adding an extra layer we didn’t have in years past in a great way. Reviews are no longer an island; they can live in multiple places and reach eyes they wouldn’t have otherwise. People expect basic “share” functions on any website. We have “share” buttons on the submission confirmation page so reviewers can share their own review and buttons for each review on the sites to give shoppers the option to share. We’re striving to make it as easy as possible for people, and we’re working on new ways to connect review contributors and consumers.

Content Ping: How do you see user-generated content evolving over the next five years?

Emily Pearce: I think interaction is going to get more personal and fostering community will be the focus. Communication and functionality are great, but superficial relationships will not prove meaningful. There was the Facebook boom and trying to get lots of “friends,” but I know a lot of people that are now taking a step back and starting to edit their connections. We’re going to have to work harder for that limited market share in a person’s life; there’s going to be a need for even more investment.

UGC is often proving more meaningful to customers over glossy marketing descriptions, and I can see that shifting even more over the next five years. We’re discussing new ways to incorporate our UGC throughout the site; we have so much rich, valuable data straight from our customers that would be relevant if surfaced on many areas of the site.

Emily Pearce

Emily has a degree in print journalism from Central Washington University. She’s been with Expedia since 2005 and with the Traveler Reviews program since 2006. 

Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her family and two Boston Terriers. With two young children, free time is hard to come by, but she still finds time for good books, musical theater, delicious food, and shopping.   

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