Image: TripAdvisor.

Online travel specialist TripAdvisor (TRIP -0.59%) found itself in a tough position at the beginning of 2016. Concerns about the global economy, and its potential impact on travel, had made both its shares and those of rival (BKNG -0.40%) fall sharply. Coming into Thursday's fourth-quarter financial report, TripAdvisor shareholders had only modest expectations for sales growth, and thought that earnings would actually decline from year-ago levels.

Yet TripAdvisor's results were better than that, pointing to a much-better finish for 2015, and generating positive momentum to carry into this year. Let's look more closely at the latest results from TripAdvisor, and what they say about the online travel company's future.

TripAdvisor finishes the year strong
TripAdvisor's fourth-quarter results reversed what had been tepid performance in previous periods. Total sales climbed 7%, to $309 million, which continued TripAdvisor's overall slowdown, but was nearly double the growth rate that most investors were expecting to see. Adjusted net income grew at a much healthier pace of 27%, to $66 million, and that produced adjusted earnings of $0.45 per share, up $.10 from the previous year, and topping the consensus forecast by $0.12 per share.

What made TripAdvisor's performance all the more impressive was that weak foreign currencies held back its growth. Revenue would have been five percentage points higher in constant-currency terms, and adjusted operating earnings would have been $9 million greater during the period.

A closer look at TripAdvisor's three main revenue sources showed a continuation of the same trends seen in past quarters. Click-based advertising, which makes up more than half of TripAdvisor's total revenue, fell 1% from year-ago levels. But display-based ad revenue rose 17%, and sales from subscriptions, transactions, and other sources climbed an even steeper 23%.

Region by region, North America once again led all markets, with a 12% rise in revenue. The Asia-Pacific region followed, with 8% growth, but both the Latin American and Europe/Middle East/Africa segments posted roughly flat revenue figures compared to last year's fourth quarter.

CEO Steve Kaufer celebrated TripAdvisor's results. "The fourth quarter capped off an important year for our business, as we continue building the best end-to-end user experience in travel," Kaufer said. The CEO pointed to total user reviews and opinions topping the 320 million mark as a sign of the continued loyalty of what he called "the world's largest global travel audience."

What's ahead for TripAdvisor in 2016?
Kaufer is excited about the prospects that TripAdvisor has over the coming year. "We are building on [our] advantages by launching instant booking globally and enabling more users to seamlessly book places to stay, things to do, and places to eat." So far, TripAdvisor hasn't managed to diversify itself away from its concentration in the hotel business, where it still gets almost 85% of its revenue, but it hopes to make moves in the right direction in the future.

Still, TripAdvisor will have to make sure that it can sustain margins in order to keep its growth rates up in the future. Concerns about margins have plagued, because the level of competition has gotten so fierce that many of those following the stock worry that hotels and other travel-services providers will start demanding better deals from Priceline, TripAdvisor, and others. One key advantage TripAdvisor has over Priceline is that its Instant Booking system actually encourages hotels and others to make their inventory directly available, letting them call the shots on pricing decisions, and catering to clients who are looking for more lucrative arrangements than what they negotiate with Priceline to receive.

TripAdvisor shareholders celebrated the unexpectedly strong results, sending the stock up 15% on the day following the announcement. TripAdvisor isn't out of the macroeconomic woods yet, but its past efforts show a resiliency that should help it weather tough times in the industry in 2016.