While some may refer to one aspect of TripAdvisor'sBusiness Listings' practices as LinkGate, CEO Stephen Kaufer counters that TripAdvisor is "not selling any SEO juice."
Thousands of hotels are now paying TripAdvisor to list their phone number, email address and website homepage on TripAdvisor domains, but the source code uses a no-follow rule, meaning the link can't be indexed by search engines.
So, if some hotels assumed there would be some SEO benefit, then they were wrong.
Kaufer says TripAdvisor, a unit of Expedia Inc., follows Google's recommendations by inserting a no-follow in the code.
"We really don't want to ever be accused by Google or anyone else of offering a service that could be construed as buying a link," says Kaufer, sitting in a conference room at TripAdvisor headquarters in Newton, Mass.
"It's not going to hurt anyone else's SEO ranking," he points out. "It just doesn't help it. And we never ever imply if you buy a link you'll do better in search results. It's irrelevant."
TripAdvisor launched in November 2000 as a business-to-business venture, a vertical search engine for travel, which sought to license its technology and destination content to portals such as AOL, Yahoo, MSN and GDSs like Sabre, Amadeus and Galileo.
There were few takers -- other than Lycos for $2,000 per year, Kaufer says -- and TripAdvisor almost went out of business in 2002.
However, along the way someone suggested -- Kaufer thinks the idea came from a friend of his outside the company -- that TripAdvisor solicit consumer-written hotel reviews. After all, ordinary people were posting book reviews online.
Some 35 million hotel reviews later, with dozens of new ones flowing in every minute, TripAdvisor had found its mojo.
"It scales, man," Kaufer says, laughing.
Was putting a "write a review button" on TripAdvisor.com Kaufer's best decision in his decade-long tenure?
"Yes," he says. "Full stop."
But, until the beginning of 2010, when TripAdvisor introduced Business Listings, hotels couldn't place direct links within their TripAdvisor profiles even as TripAdvisor expanded to 21 countries, leveraging content about hotels, travelers' reviews and advertisements from online travel agencies and suppliers.
Many would agree there is a lot of resentment from hotels about the way things have gone down, but Kaufer doesn't see it that way at all.
"Most hotels love TripAdvisor because it's a one a one-way street -- they pay nothing and a ton of people find out how great their property is and go and stay there so they are sold out all day long," Kaufer says.
I interject that hotels may fill lots of rooms, but TripAdvisor's efforts largely turn into hotel bookings for the likes of Expedia, Travelocity and other advertisers -- and the reservations do not take place on hotels' own websites.
Kaufer starts raising his voice. He's not yelling, but he's getting very passionate about the subject and this line of questioning.
"It is tough to find a hotelier who complains they get too many bookings from Expedia or Travelocity or anyone else," Kaufer says. "If they complain, they can drop off their [online travel agency] systems or go direct. And, some of the best hotels in our environment don't have a relationship with Expedia and they are still rated number one."
Kaufer adds: "They are getting a ton of free marketing, which is great for them, it's great for the consumer and it's great for the travel industry. We don't make any money on it [the TripAdvisor Popularity Index] whatsoever, but still they get top billing if they deserve it."
And, the Write a Review button has catapulted TripAdvisor, with 34 million unique monthly visitors, to the upper echelon.
"We are bigger than Expedia," Kaufer says. "We are bigger than the top five airlines combined in terms of traffic."
Part One of Four: TripAdvisor boss not sold on Google Travel
Part Three of Four: TripAdvisor boss sees competitive advantage growing
Part Four of Four: TripAdvisor, HomeAway CEOs spar over vacation rental reviews