When I first noticed this behaviour on TripAdvisor a few months back I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I thought that surely this was a mistake or something they were just testing on a small scale.
Let me explain very simply what is happening as at January 2017. In Australia (and probably in other countries—this is harder to test) when a potential guest of yours is viewing your TripAdvisor profile and clicks on 'Professional Photos' they are opening Booking.com with your profile shown (and all your competitors!).
Furthermore, while the guest might assume your 'professional photos' are official photos provided by management, these are the TripAdvisor-arranged professional photos and not your photos at all.
Here is a video to prove it:
Why This is a Big Deal
Firstly try to imagine how a guest would navigate the TripAdvisor site. Once they're viewing your profile they're very interested in your property.
This is your time to shine and put your best foot forward. Intrigued by your property—and close to seeing your 'Hotel Website' link (you know, the one that TripAdvisor makes you pay for) and booking directly with you—they innocently click on 'Professional Photos' expecting to see some good quality, professional photos.
Instead they are shown an affiliate listing from Booking.com in a pop-up window which isn't your individual profile on Booking.com—it's a generic listing which includes all the competing properties.
An affiliate link means that a cookie is stored on your computer and any future bookings on Booking.com will result in a commission paid to TripAdvisor.
Here is the affiliate tag in the URL of the pop-up window:
In our opinion, this is a form of treachery for the guest, who expects to see your professional photos but is instead shown a Booking.com window underneath the TripAdvisor-commissioned photos and not your 'professional photos' at all!
To make it even worse, the underlying reason for this appears to be financial. TripAdvisor is making 40% commission on the total booking fee Booking.com charges (assuming they deliver more than 500 bookings a month which is highly likely!).
This would not be so bad if it weren't for the fact that TripAdvisor charges for premium listings on its site to show links to your hotel website in order to encourage direct bookings.
Booking.com Affiliate Agreement
Another interesting aspect to this is that according to this condition of the Booking.com affiliate agreement:
4.6.1 The Affiliate agrees not to contact, solicit or accept any Hotel (i) as its business partner for bookings or reservation (directly or indirectly) on or through the Affiliate Website(s), (ii) for sale of advertisement space or other (online) advertisement or marketing purposes (whether through banners, click-through, (text) links, pop-ups or otherwise) on the Affiliate Website(s), or (iii) for any other reason.
It would seem that TripAdvisor is in blatant violation of this condition by selling other advertising space on their site in the form of sponsored and premium listings. This, of course, is a matter for Booking.com, but is interesting nonetheless.
I read the entire Booking.com affiliate agreement, and it mentions nothing about 'pop-ups'. It does refer to the requirement to follow "Third Party Spam Guidelines" which would include the Google Webmaster Guidelines.
Violation of Google Webmaster Guidelines?
The Google Webmaster Guidelines mention numerous spam practices which they summarise very simply in one statement by saying:
Don't deceive your users.
TripAdvisor may also be in violation of the Google Webmaster guidelines, which clearly states:
Redirecting is the act of sending a visitor to a different URL than the one they initially requested.
That is exactly what TripAdvisor is doing. They are redirecting a user to the page they intended to (their 'professional photos') while at the same time opening up another URL to Booking.com.
While this is being done at a website link level rather than a SERPS level (search engines results pages), it absolutely violates the spirit of Google's guidelines.
Google explains this very well:
These quality guidelines cover the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behavior, but Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here. It's not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn't included on this page, Google approves of it.
Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.
What TripAdvisor is doing is deceptive and is hurting not only their users' experience, but that of their so-called partners—the hotels that pay them for premium listings in the hope of obtaining more direct bookings.
What We Believe Should Change
TripAdvisor should change the 'Professional Photos' link to 'Management Photos' and stop placing cookies on people's computers and confusing them with pop-ups from Booking.com. That is the very least they should do, especially if they are taking money from you!
Hoteliers: please share the above video, provide feedback to TripAdvisor and otherwise get the word out about this deceptive behaviour.
Getting TripAdvisor to do the right thing will, in my opinion, have a massive material impact on direct bookings to hotel websites.
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.