TripAdvisor, hotels and the public seal of approval
We’re living in “Have Your Say” times. Thanks to social media and online forums it takes seconds to find out what hundreds of other people you’ll never (fortunately) meet think about almost any given subject, experience or venue.
When you search online for a hotel in this word-of-online-mouth culture, one of the first things presented to you are past-guests’ critiques; the rooms are too small, the Wi-Fi irritatingly pricey. In devising a wisdom-of-the-crowd global feedback book, TripAdvisor has allowed the value- and choice-seeking leisure and unmanaged business traveller huge sway over the hotelier.
How should the hotel industry react, if at all, to all these pesky reviews?
Scott Davies, UK Commercial Director at Amadeus, an IT company which powers much of the airline and hotel industry’s booking engines, thinks that this more immediate and transparent global review of customers’ experience should guide the way that hotels provide services to customers.
“Maybe service failures are dealt with more promptly and bluntly in the review culture than before,” he says.
Though TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer has been quoted in the media saying that people talk about a positive experience in order to “give back to the community”, Davies and fellow Amadeus executive Simon Taylor agree that consumers are far more likely to go out of their way to write a negative review than a positive one on an unsolicited review system like TripAdvisor.
“It’s entirely human nature – we tend to talk about things that need improvement rather than something which we enjoyed immensely. We’re critical beings. This applies also to feedback forms sent by hotels after your stay, says Taylor.”
How should hotels deal with a bad review? Taylor, who is a hotel specialist for Amadeus, explains: “If they manage it correctly, hoteliers can show how committed they are to customer service, to not only respond on TripAdvisor but take it offline and put that review right. There are a lot of hotels that don’t do it, and there are good ones who respond to each one, good and bad. When I’m booking personal holidays, I would be more likely to choose a hotel where the management obviously care about guest reactions.”
The worst hotel I’ve never stayed in
A boomerang criticism levelled at TripAdvisor since its launch 11 years ago is how to deal with the reviews whose facts aren’t right. Not a transactional site, TripAdvisor can’t guarantee that people who review properties on the site have actually stepped foot in them.
Extreme outlier comments can easily be spotted and ignored when looking at popular properties, but it just takes one strongly negative or positive comment to influence a perspective guest’s view at lower density properties that accrue only a handful of reviews. According to Davies, “Broadly speaking, consumers should be wary of any venue that doesn’t have a large amount of reviews – without that you don’t have a representative sample.”
The Guardian reported in January this year that UK reputation management firm KwikChex, acting on behalf of over 1,000 hoteliers who have threatened legal action against TripAdvisor for damaging their businesses with malicious or unfounded reviews, estimates there are at least 27,000 legally defamatory comments on the site. Over 2,000 hotels are now involved.
Asked about this, TripAdvisor spokesperson Emma O’Boyle wrote to me that, “All reviews are screened to ensure they meet our posting guidelines. No fraud detection system is perfect, which is why we devote substantial resources to battling fraud and continually improving our fraud detection efforts. It is also illegal in the UK and other countries to post fraudulent reviews on TripAdvisor.”
KwikChex, who regard review fraud as a “significant global issue that is growing fast in terms of scale, severity and sophistication”, have recently released an update on the situation, sent to me by the organisation’s co-founder Chris Emmins. “The number of fake reviews [on TripAdvisor] is difficult to estimate but there is ample evidence that abuse is on a large and global scale.
“These include tens of thousands of legally defamatory comments, harassment, racism, bigotry, graphic accounts of sexual attacks, lewd and offensive language, drug taking, prostitution, personal insults against named individuals and hearsay. Either their claims of efficient screening are false – or they condone such behaviour on their site.”
Davies tells me that comments planted by the hotel, or a competitor hotel, are less prevalent than people think. “Sure, some hotels may employ people to write biased reviews, but this is the exception rather than the rule. It is also rather obvious to most people that the review won’t sound quite right.”
But advertising agencies are known to employ writers tasked with subtly seeding online forums, and I’d wager that unlike a team of researchers in the news recently, the average lay reader does not perform a stylistic analysis on reviews to judge their accuracy.
There are several ideas being mooted by the travel trade to ensure valid reviews. The venue could issue codes to the traveller; this is a role that the travel industry and the travel agent can start to play, thinks David. “They own the booking; they can play a bigger role in trafficking the valid reviews into the right space.” Receipt scans are another slightly more cumbersome option.
As for the KwikChex/TripAdvisor affair, the former has now reported the latter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK, “citing misrepresentation, misleading statements and unlawful practices of advertising using reviews where no substantiation is available and from a source where fraudulent reviews are known to be posted.”
The ASA have now confirmed that they will investigate issues surrounding fake or defamatory reviews.
Reviews by their very nature are sure to displease some, be unfair to some; others will deserve the criticism. For venues attracting good, authentic reviews, TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel site, provides a free and powerful marketing tool, promoting them to over 45 million visitors a month. And those visitors use the site to book rooms.
The site recently commissioned a survey of over 2,100 travellers, which revealed that 81 percent of travellers find user reviews important when determining which hotel to stay at during their trip. TripAdvisor’s spokesperson also directed me to a PhoCusWright study* which showed that 98% of respondents have found hotel reviews on the site to be accurate of the actual experience, with 69% stating the reviews to be highly or extremely accurate.
“The average hotel rating on TripAdvisor is a favourable four (out of a possible five),” says O’Boyle, “so most of the feedback hospitality owners and managers receive is positive.
Also, to address hotels’ concerns, TripAdvisor for Business (T4B) was launched last year. In an email response to me, O’Boyle writes that this is:
“… a division devoted entirely to improving trade relations and helping the industry get the best out of TripAdvisor. This includes TripAdvisor “masterclasses”, free sessions where business representatives hear from industry experts on best practices in online hospitality marketing strategies.
Earlier this month TripAdvisor also launched its new “Management Centre”… which allows hoteliers to post a public management response to any review on their property… to thank the good and offer their perspective on the bad. Since reviewers are not able to reply to management responses, business owners effectively get the last word. If a property owner has an issue with a traveller review, they can raise this through the Management Centre through which it will be investigated in full.”
Hotel chains are coming round. Some, like Premier Inn, have started to push TripAdvisor content onto their websites. Simon Taylor points out this shows hotels (and travel agents/bookers) are becoming less scared of this arena; “they know their customers are going to look at it, so why not put it in one place?”
Wading through hotel reviews can be a time-consuming and oft nauseating experience, especially when filtering out comments from people with obviously very different tastes. To help funnel the bilge, you can now filter comments by type of traveller. A “Trip Friends” feature shows which Facebook contacts have visited or reviewed a destination. Hotels can also be filtered by brand and budget, while an amenities tool can show properties with a business centre, free Wi-Fi, shuttle services etc.
O’Boyle tells me that her site “posts an average of 26 reviews, opinions and photos every minute and we believe that the sheer volume of content allows travellers to get the facts, spot trends among reviews and determine whether a property is right for them.”
The Facebook effect
As it evolves, TripAdvisor must be careful not to promote specific hotels or savvy users will start to wonder whose interest the site is working for. This is the fine line that Facebook has to tread; if you have large corporations selling to you on it, it’s no longer the personal social network you signed up for.
TripAdvisor’s O’Boyle again: “[We are] committed to remaining unbiased and we accept positive and negative reviews, regardless of our relationships with hotels. Properties that advertise on TripAdvisor or hotels that buy business listings do not benefit in any way with their ratings on the site.”
We must keep an open mind. Travellers have eagerly fallen on TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced commentary to help firm up their hotel choices for hard-earned holidays, apparently preferring this method to ‘professional’ opinions in traditional media. But if guest reviews aren’t seen to be properly validated and policed, consumers won’t know where to look – or whinge.
* July 2011 PhoCusWright survey of 3,641 respondents.
(Main caption: Cropped TripAdvisor logo. REUTERS/Handout)