In short: It’s the algorithm, stupid. Or in this case: It’s the stupid algorithm.

Share story

Famished after a two-leg, cross-country flight rife with delays and scarce on nutrition, I tapped open Google Maps on my phone and scanned the area around my Los Angeles International Airport hotel for some place interesting to eat.

At the get-go, two white circles with fork-and-knife symbols appeared: McDonald’s and Denny’s. Not for me. I typed in “restaurants,” and a few red circles with similar symbols appeared — like Carl’s Jr. and a hotel cocktail bar. Pass. Mariscos Moni (“Simple shack for seafood and Mexican grub”) sounded promising but was closed.

OK, I wasn’t in Koreatown or Silver Lake, but was this the best Los Angeles could do? Only after zooming in, block by block, did some tiny red dots appear, representing Thai, Somali and Greek spots. And then Melo Burger, an “old-school, 24/7 burger stand.” Bingo.

But why had chains popped up first? Isn’t my smartphone supposed to know me better than that? Could they have paid for exposure? Had an algorithm gone awry?

As travelers, we’re ever more dependent on apps and online services that show us what to eat or where to sleep. Yet we (or at least I) often forget those sites are not public utilities that exist to make us happy but for-profit businesses trying to make a buck.

Analyzing the apps

I decided to look at four food-finding apps with maps — Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor and the much-improved MapQuest, each of which produced wildly different results for that area around LAX. I also looked at the websites of some big players in hotel searches: Booking.com, Expedia and Trip­Advisor again. The goal: to examine if companies can pay to gain visibility.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as it’s transparent.

The food side was more straightforward. All four companies said there was no direct way for restaurants to pay for higher visibility in their listings or on their maps, except through clearly marked advertisements. A Google spokesman, Joe Osborne, was unequivocal: Search results “have nothing to do with any sort of commercial relationship.”

So why McDonald’s?

In short: It’s the algorithm, stupid. Or in this case: It’s the stupid algorithm.

Google doesn’t share many details about its search results, but it shares enough. “Local results are based primarily on relevance, distance and prominence,” reads a support page called “Improve your local ranking on Google.” Review scores play a role, but brands “that are familiar to many people are also likely to be prominent in local search results.” Congratulations, McDonald’s. Sorry, Banadir Somali Restaurant.

MapQuest also said businesses cannot pay for a boost. Its clean, attractive results are a mash-up of more than 40 data sources. Yelp and TripAdvisor base their choices largely or entirely on user reviews and also said it was impossible for businesses to pay to raise their visibility.

But restaurants can influence their success with customers indirectly by paying for what Yelp calls an “enhanced profile” and TripAdvisor a “business listing.” Such companies don’t appear higher; they appear better. In Yelp’s case, improvements include a photo slideshow, the elimination of competitor ads from their profile page and the capacity to insert “call-to-action” buttons — to print a coupon, for example.

Despite similar setups, Yelp and TripAdvisor searches yield different results. Darnell Holloway, a spokesman for Yelp, said the site cultivates community participation, leading to more reviews by locals than you might find on TripAdvisor.

Suit yourself

Which is better? That’s up to you. An adventurous visitor to Taipei might use Yelp to seek local favorites; less daring types might prefer TripAdvisor reviews written by travelers with similar tastes — even filtering for English-speaking family groups (or solo Russians).

Lodging sites were far more complicated. When you plug in a destination and dates on Booking.com and Expedia, the order of results is largely determined by how frequently customers reserve a particular property once they’ve clicked on it, the “conversion” rate.

Whether that is beneficial to the consumer is up for debate. It is definitely beneficial to Booking and Expedia, which would prefer closing the sale before you try another site (or take a nap).

But hotels can also pay, one way or another, to nudge their way up the list.

Luckily, users can escape some of the manipulation by personalizing results, sorting by review score or price and applying filters.

One last thing: Google Maps and Yelp and their competitors show just about every restaurant that’s out there, whether it’s a paying partner or not. But most lodging sites are incomplete: For example, hotels and inns not willing to fork over a hefty commission on bookings won’t be listed.

Some innkeepers and independent hoteliers have told me it’s a small price to pay for exposure. But others opt out. You won’t see two of my favorite lodgings — Bowen Farm Bed & Breakfast in Stanton, Ky., or Friendly Bike Guest House in Portland — on either Booking or Expedia. Their customers find them through other means: word-of-mouth or old-fashioned news coverage.

Bottom line: The pickiest among us (those who strive to find that homey Kentucky inn or local Los Angeles burger joint) need to be more diligent. For the rest, Yelp and Booking and the like are miracles of convenience and will usually lead you to pretty good choices, especially if you keep in mind that their bottom line is always the bottom line.