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TripAdvisor, Independent for a Year, Pushing Hard on Social, Mobile Apps

..We all know how popular TripAdvisor is; the mainstream media tends to write about how to use the site from a consumer perspective. We know the company—which has been independent of Expedia for just over a year—has made recent acquisitions in mobile (EveryTrail) and social (Where I’ve Been, Wanderfly) tech. But what is TripAdvisor doing in these areas that stands out as new or different? And where does the company fit into the bigger future of things like local discovery, user-generated content, recommendations, and personalization?

It’s helpful to get a street-level view of what TripAdvisor is trying to do. I’ll take a crack at its social-travel efforts here. Last May, I spoke with global product vice president Adam Medros, who set the table by explaining the company’s philosophy when it comes to social tools. One takeaway was that TripAdvisor sees sharing and recommendations as a layer that can help travelers with inspiration (where to go, what to do) and personalization (the volume of user reviews is great, but only your friends really know you).

I recently followed up by paying a visit to TripAdvisor’s headquarters, located in an inconspicuous building in Newton Highlands, just off Route 128. (For the youngsters out there, 128 used to be the center of the tech world. Really.) There I got to shoot the breeze with Jamie Conroy, TripAdvisor’s director of social products, and longtime communications guru Brooke Ferencsik.

The first point I took was that TripAdvisor is really trying to expand its network of members—36 million strong and growing. Specifically, it is looking to provide members with easier and more useful ways to add content and interact with each other. “We’ve been leaning in to our social integration,” says Conroy. (When exactly did everyone start “leaning in”? I digress.)

Through its evolving integration with Facebook, TripAdvisor is trying to help users of the social network “express the facets of their personality that travel represents,” Conroy says. That means the kinds of places they’d like to go, types of restaurants they frequent, and so forth. Last spring, TripAdvisor added a “friend of a friend” feature, which extends the networks of users looking for travel reviews beyond their first connections—which vastly expands their reach if they’re looking for advice on a particular city or region, say.

So, on the travel planning side, TripAdvisor tries to bring to bear its volume of reviews (some 75 million) of hotels, restaurants, and attractions, while also surfacing more personally relevant reviews from users’ friends and contacts. Conroy calls this “the wisdom of the crowds plus friends.”

TripAdvisor also has an early version of a trip-journaling product out, whereby you can put the whole life cycle of a trip in one place—and add photos, comments, and updates that you can share with friends when you get back.

On the mobile side, the company recently released a “city guides” app for iOS and Android devices. These are essentially crowdsourced guidebooks for popular cities from Austin to Athens, based on TripAdvisor content. You can download the guides to your phone and read them offline when you’re traveling. Indeed, more of the company’s users are moving to tablets and phones, Conroy says, and “the user interfaces with TripAdvisor will grow in number and in ways we haven’t thought of.”

That all sounds reasonable and useful. I wondered what percentage of TripAdvisor users are currently on mobile vs. Web. Conroy and Ferencsik couldn’t give a hard number, but Conroy said a “significant chunk is mobile” (and that presumably is growing).

So how does the competitive landscape look right now? Between Google, Facebook, and dozens of online travel and discovery  startups (see Hopper, Spindle), everyone seems to have their own approach to achieving scale and/or finding new ways to slice data and content. “We’ve always been pushing the edge,” Conroy says. “We’re pushing on user-generated content, pushing on social, pushing on mobile. In order to be successful in social travel, you need to operate at scale, or it’s going to feel like an echo chamber. You get there, and there’s not much content there.”

Conroy also has thought a lot about the multiple-screen aspect of travel planning and sharing. One key theme is simplicity, he says, especially as the screen size shrinks. TripAdvisor didn’t have a mobile app for a long time, and its teams had to figure out how to “distill it all down, all that knowledge,” he says. “We’re a very data-driven company. We saw from our logs that people were accessing the site on phones. OK, so what are users using on their phones? What do we need to bring to that?”

The company built out its mobile presence accordingly over the past couple of years, and now it releases “dozens of new features every week,” Conroy says. “Some things work out really well, and some things don’t.”

One issue is that tablets and smartphones are two very different experiences. In terms of travel content, “the tablet is more akin to a desktop,” Conroy says, whereas “the phone has to support more, but be more focused on the in-market experience [while traveling].” And, of course, photos and maps can be bigger and potentially more interactive on tablets—and TripAdvisor has spent a lot of time working on that recently.

Conroy’s biggest lesson learned in his four years at the company? “I’ve gained newfound respect for how complex travel is, and how people travel around the globe,” he says. “The key is finding features that translate well across the globe. Everyone approaches travel differently. It’s a challenge figuring out how to roll out product globally from day one.”

Lastly, I asked Conroy about the company’s biggest challenge in 2013. “Hiring,” he says. “It’s a very competitive environment,” particularly in engineering and product design. He sums up the prototypical TripAdvisor employee as “moving fast, trying things, failing fast if needed, and making calculated bets.” As he emphasizes, “speed wins.”

Overall this fits pretty well with what CEO and co-founder Steve Kaufer told me a year ago about where the company is headed—particularly in international markets, and culturally. “We pay a lot of attention to how do we keep the entrepreneurial feel of the company going strong,” he told me at the time. “I never wanted to work at a big company. Our mission is to keep TripAdvisor a ‘small’ company.”