Wednesday, February 01, 2012

TripAdvisor - Maintain a Healthy Scepticism is a travel website that claims to assist customers in gathering travel information, posting reviews and opinions of travel-related content and engaging in interactive travel forums. TripAdvisor was a pioneer of user-generated content. The website services are free to users, who provide most of the content. Its sites have regularly claimed it has "reviews that you can trust" and that it had "more than 50 million honest travel reviews". Sadly this is not true and UK's Advertising Standards Authority has ordered TripAdvisor to rewrite some of its marketing claims.  

Concerns over what the ASA described as consumers being fooled by fraudulent posts have been around for a long time. Back in 2006, after getting complaints from readers The View from Fez warned travellers to be cautious about using TripAdvisor. Then, in April 2010 we published (see story here)  the results of a London Sunday Times investigation that showed:

1) “Guests” who have never even stayed at a hotel can boost or depress its rating by posting fake reviews.
 2) Poorly rated establishments can lift their reputations from one to four stars in a matter of hours by posting fictional positive reviews.
 3) Some establishments attempt to damage the reputations of rivals. So tough is the competition that even top hotels and restaurants would consider placing fake reviews to maintain their status.

In November 2011 The Times revealed that more than 80 hotel and B&B owners claimed to have been blackmailed by guests who threatened to write bad reviews if they didn't get paid. The Times continued its critique of TripAdvisor in today's edition, saying that "fake reviews have forced restaurants and hoteliers out of business and caused great distress to bed and breakfast owners."

In September 2010 a group of over 420 hospitality operators considered taking TripAdvisor to court over unfounded and unedited reviews posted by the website’s visitors.

Now the Advertising Standards Authority has laid down the law to TripAdvisaor and says the ruling served as a warning to all sites with user-generated material. It said that two hotels and the online reputation firm Kwikchex, which represented others, had complained that the claims were misleading since they could not be substantiated. The advertising body said it acknowledged that reviewers were asked to sign a declaration that their reviews were real and that they had no incentive or competitive interest with the places commented on.

Don't major on trustworthiness if fake reviews can appear” -  Guy Parker ASA chief executive 

The ASA ordered the site to not claim or imply that all its reviews were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted. "This should be regarded as a benchmark ruling which applies to all web sites which make claims about the reliability of their user-created content," said the ASA's spokesman Matthew Wilson.

ASA Chief executive Guy Parker said that advertising rules policed by the authority applied to companies' claims on their own websites. "This is a classic example of the sort of thing that members of public are complaining to us about," he said. "Advertisers must apply the same scrutiny to their websites, as they do to their campaigns in paid-for space. And don't major on trustworthiness if fake reviews can appear."

The homepage now contains no reference to the word "trust" and simply describes itself as "the world's largest travel site". However, its international address - which is accessible in the UK - continues to describe its content as the "world's most trusted travel advice" in the corresponding part of the page. It adds elsewhere that "you'll find real hotel reviews you can trust".

TripAdvisor has responded saying that there is a “healthy scepticism” of user reviews in general and that “mitigated the effect of any fraudulent content that might occasionally come to a user’s attention”. In its submission to the ASA TripAdvisor said due to the non-transactional nature of its model it was not possible to verify every reviewer by reference to credit card or reservation details.

Meanwhile, major hotel chains are opting to avoid the trust problem completely by adding customer reviews to their own websites with a majority opting for verified reviews rather than incorporating TripAdvisor reviews. Starwood, Marriott and Four Seasons have all launched customer reviews on their websites since October 2011 and others are planning to do the same.

Will the ruling and the adverse publicity have any effect on TripAdvisor? Most people The View from Fez talked to thought not. As one English owner of a rental property told us, 'Unfortunately there are a lot of tourists who are what we call Starbuck's tourists - they are like lemmings, following the herd. It doesn't matter what country they are in they want Starbucks coffee, McDonalds burgers and their only travel research is on TripAdvisor.'

Christina, a veteran traveller told us "I was already suspicious about TripAdvisor reviews after the last place I stayed in Fez had one hundred percent positive responses. This ruling confirms my suspicions."

For the true TripAdvisor sceptics, there is a website :