The country’s top online travel conference, the PhoCusWright Executive Conference, wrapped up the week before Thanksgiving. The theme this year was “Web 2.0 Confronts the Establishment.” Like other once-dominant topics — metasearch, disintermediation, et al. — this theme and the accompanying hype will subside as the Web travel community digests the new entries in the Internet space.

For those not in the cyberspeak loop, Web 2.0 refers to the proliferation of user-generated content on the Web. It’s now all the rage in the online world. Sites like MySpace.com, YouTube.com and Facebook.com have led the way, collecting millions of users and creating thousands of networks of “friends.” They have also grabbed headlines with eye-popping valuations and buyouts led by News Corporation and Google.

User-generated content can be very useful, but too much of this could-be-good thing does not help travelers’ decision making. In fact, the explosion of user-generated content is creating confusion for two reasons: first because there is too much information to process and second because the information is plagued by credibility problems.

Reviewing sites

In the travel sphere, the push to user-generated copy and traveler reviews is in full swing with an extensive roster of new and not-so-new entrants all trying to collect and share travel information.

TripAdviser.com is a granddaddy in this field, having launched its first collection of user reviews in February 2000 (eons ago in Internet time). But, like other websites that aggregate user reviews, TripAdvisor has found itself facing a problem: Imposters and hired shills are stuffing the ballot box with biased reviews.

Newer sites such as Yelp.com, which serves up restaurant reviews (among other things), and old-timers like Yahoo.com, Citysearch.com and MyTravelGuide.com are all finding they are subjected to these planted reviews, and several high-profile exposés have called all such reviews into question. Though there are thousands and thousands of honest reviews, the presence of bogus commentary leads travelers to ask, “Who can I trust?”

Sites like Orbitz.com, which includes user reviews with its online hotel descriptions, have addressed the trustworthiness problem by restricting reviews to clients of their own who have actually stayed in the properties under review.

Sharing sites

Yahoo now leads the charge to allow travelers to share itineraries and information that they have collected and created. IgoUgo.com, launched four years ago, provides many of the same community functions but without the itinerary sharing. It focuses on sharing message boards, destination information, reviews and travel journals.

Two new entrants, RealTravel.com and Gusto.com, have developed competing sites that allow users to plan trips, read shared reviews, write blogs and publish scrapbooks of travel experiences. These sites are based on the premise that travelers are interested in following the travel experiences of others and perhaps actually following in their footsteps — listening to their opinions and using other people’s itineraries as a start to travel planning.

Between the reviewing sites and the sharing sites, Web 2.0 has clearly roared into the travel space. Even venerable legacy travel players like American Express are paying heed and have begun including some community features on their new business travel Web sites and consumer portals. But the jury is still out on how best and most effectively to integrate this technology.

The industry should be careful. Outside the travel landscape, Web 2.0 technology has been used to deceive consumers and to create fantasy worlds where products can be touted. For example, Honda has used the Web 2.0 space to promote its new, hip Element, using a talking crab that carries on Web conversations with “friends” on MySpace.

More insidiously, Sony Pictures, while promoting movies, creates the impression that moviegoers can actually log in and have online chats with the stars of coming attractions. These “chats” add to the before-release buzz. In fact, thousands of men and boys who think they are chatting with a hot, 16-year-old starlet are actually receiving messages back from a team of 30-something males ensconced in a room full of cubicles. I find this disturbing, never mind that the Sony promotion gurus claimed they always “let the consumers in on the deception” … eventually.

Web 2.0 will not take over travel Web sites, just as metasearch engines did not kill the online travel agencies and disintermediation did not kill the middle men. The emergence of these trends resulted only in a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Good Ship Internet.

Information without context is a waste of time. Sources without credibility are useless. Data without some kind of organization is indecipherable. When it is used carefully and within a controlled community, Web 2.0 can be a useful tool to provide direction and feedback. But unrestrained, unorganized, unverified and unprioritized information will only gum up the travel works and bog down the traveler’s decision-making process.