One of the vestiges of cheap, low-quality ads has been the "pop under" format often employed by travel search engines which would produce multiple mini-browser windows for airfares and hotel rates. In the last quarter, TripAdvisor began moving away from pop-unders in favor of Google-like "meta search" results for its display ad partners in the hopes of raising the quality – and the prices – of its display advertising offerings.
Earlier this month, during the company's Q4 earnings call, TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer told analysts that meta search and display results began to be rolled out across its smartphone offerings at the end of the year and would complete a transition to the format over the next six months. Read the Seeking Alpha transcript.
The move reflects growing competition from others in the travel space such as hotel meta-search sites like Kayak, Trivago, and Room77. On top of that, pop-unders may be endangered as a lead gen tool as the movement of consumers to mobile and tablets increases.
"TripAdvisor's old M.O. was, when a user would search on the site to make travel plans, all their partner pages would appear behind the main browser window," notes Jefferies analyst Brian Fitzgerald. "Typically, you would execute a search for travel on TripAdvisor, the Priceline site would pop under, Expedia would pop underneath, Orbitz would pop underneath and so on. Then when you clicked on that, those online travel agencies (or, OTAs) would trip for that lead. It's essentially a kind of traffic arbitrage -- pull in traffic with your reviews and value-added services and then deliver traffic to your advertising partners that converts (yielding advertising ROI for those partners)."
And while consumers would often complain about the annoyance that would come with multiple windows being triggered by a search, enough would click on a partner site to make it worthwhile for TripAdvisor and its advertisers. But things have been changing. For one thing, response rates to this inventory have gotten weaker and that put pressure on TripAdvisor to move towards something cleaner and more straightforward.
So TripAdvisor has started integrating all the search query results into the core page – providing what is known as meta search. But with the layer of display ads, TripAdvisor, like a number of other sites, including Google, have employed a hybrid: meta display. When you execute a query on TripAdvisor, you get the results on the page along with a map which pinpoints locations in users search results.
"It's not too different from what the other meta-search engines are doing or even Google is doing if you look at Hotels.Google.com," Fitzgerald says. "It delivers a better user experience and as usage patterns continue to migrate to mobile and tablet, that's a better type of presentation for the applicable form factors."
That's not the only cosmetic improvement TripAdvisor has implemented. Filters have also been added to make the search function and resulting display ads more appealing to users by segmenting results according to things like price, property type, chain, all of which provides for greater ability for consumers to drill down on the type of hotel most suitable to their interests. The idea of structuring its ads this way also dovetails with TripAdvisor's main function as a reviews site. Results can better match ratings by users generally or be more specific, such as matching ads to business travelers or family vacationers, people with pets, etc., Fitzgerald suggests.
The ads and results can also be integrated with TripAdvisor's social media tool, "Trip Friends," which lets users see if any of their Facebook friends have stayed at a given destination.
TripAdvisor says it's "always looking at ways to improve the user experience and we’re constantly experimenting with new features and functionality to help travelers plan and have the perfect trip," adding that "The enhancement allows users to see hotel pricing options at a room level detail and availability from our booking partners, all on one page."