Unfortunately, there is scant information online about the various options for TripAdvisor 'Sponsored Special Offer Placement'. That is the term TripAdvisor has used to describe the 'Sponsored' entry that appears in popular location searches for hotels right in the prime number one position.
This term was used in an article on tnooz in July 2015, but very little information about these mystery links exists elsewhere including on TripAdvisor.
Here is an example of a current 'Special Offer Placement' when searching for Sydney Hotels in July 2016 (see the yellow 'Sponsored' label).
You could be forgiven for calling these simply 'Sponsored Links'. But that might not be wise, because Googling 'TripAdvisor Sponsored Links' will bring up older articles related to the Google Adsense Ads which were also known as 'sponsored links'.
This is best explained with some screenshots...
Here is what 'Sponsored Ads' or 'Sponsored Links' used to look like:
'Sponsored Special Offer Placement' listings were quietly introduced in early 2015 and appear in popular location results on TripAdvisor as the first listing.
Although they do have a 'sponsored' label and have a very light background color to show they are not real results - I believe many people will not notice these subtle differences.
While information is scarce, it is clear that they are accessible only to businesses that participate in subscription based business listing program. In other words, to be eligible for these sponsored listings you first need to be part of the business listing program.
It is also apparent from press releases and the behaviour on the website that these listings rotate. That means there is no way to consistently appear at the top.
That means that any perceived benefits of appearing here must be divided between all the other properties are participating in the program. Or in other words, the more competitors that have sponsored listings - the less value this becomes.
I believe these sponsored listings are of no advantage to anyone. Here's why:
From a TripAdvisor Users Perspective
These listings add no value whatsoever. They devalue the number one advantage that TripAdvisor offers their users - their popularity index based on social proof.
With the integrity of the index now diminished by these random sponsored listings what does TripAdvisor have that other that sites can't offer?
Unfortunately, not much at all. Trivago (owned by Expedia) for example has an aggregated and more transparent index rating that ranks hotels from 0-100 making it much easier to compare hotels.
And because many of their reviews are verified from real travellers, they are much less susceptible to fake reviews.
The 'Sponsored' label can easily be overlooked surrounded by all the other distractions of booking buttons, coupon offers and other icons.
As almost all business listings have an associated special offer now, there seems to be absolutely no reason to feature one of these 'special offers' at the top of listings (from a user's perspective).
From Management's Perspective
Based on my discussions with property owners and just common sense - this cannot be seen as a win for anyone in the industry.
You worked bloody hard for your 5 Star TripAdvisor reviews and popularity rating. To have that undermined by a random, rotating listing that dominates the top position is not good for anyone (apart from those not in the top 25 listings).
If someone assumes you are the at the number one position by mistake, and is then disappointed with their experience they may post a less than flattering review... People click on the 'number one' spot because they want the best. They have been conditioned to do this in Google search results for years -- and that is a hard habit to break.
And they certainly won't be trusting TripAdvisor the next time they are searching for the best hotel.
From the Contributor's Perspective
TripAdvisor relies on it's community to submit reviews for which they are not paid. This is done for many reasons, sometimes because people feel they want to reciprocate or pay back great service.
Often, people leave five star reviews based on altruism. They get a warm fuzzy feeling from spreading the good word.
As more and more people discover their reviews do not carry the same weight as they did before (because of these sponsored listings) they may think twice about providing free content.
Why should they take the time to reward a business on TripAdvisor with a 5 Star Review when the number one position is actually a meaningless rotating advertisement?
I don't understand why TripAdvisor is still persisting with these sponsored listings. I can see why it was used in the past as an incentive to get hotels subscribed as business listings but it's relevance now is very questionable.
Maybe they may feel if they remove this incentive, their business listings would suffer and so would their share price in the short term.
But once they fully integrate direct bookings into TripAdvisor they will be under even more pressure and scrutiny to remain unbiased. That's because there may be the temptation to favour properties with higher commissions or conversion rates.
In the face of such strong competition, removing these sponsored listings would seem to be of benefit to everyone and a step in the right direction to restoring some trust.
Chris Jack is the editor of Locus Focus and a professional hotel photographer based in Brisbane with over 20 years experience in digital marketing. He also hosts the weekly "Sharper Hotel Marketing" podcast.