Two of the world’s most popular travel review sites have found themselves in the middle of a corporate war over the authenticity of consumer reviews brought on by a company representing hoteliers.
At stake is the ability of consumers to contribute reviews of hotels and airlines without being intimidated by service providers who they judge to be sub-standard.
That has proved to be one of the key factors that has made TripAdvisor.com and airlinequality.com a huge success among travellers, even though some travellers have abused the system – by demanding bribes from hoteliers, for example, to avoid a bad review.
UK-based “reputation management” company Kwikchex Ltd first went after TripAdvisor in an attempt to limit damaging reviews of hotels and has now launched a successful action against the consumer ratings company Skytrax Research, which runs airlinequality.com and also the world’s most highly rated annual air travel awards, the World Airline Awards.
Kwikchex sought and received rulings from the UK Advertising Standards Authority – against TripAdvisor in January this year and against Skytrax last week. Both companies were found to have made unsubstantiated claims in their advertising.
Kwikchex had attacked “exaggerated claims by TripAdvisor regarding the trustworthiness of reviews on their website, which are all unsubstantiated - without even verification that authors of comments left on the site are genuine customers of the businesses they were reviewing”.
“We know that a substantial number are false - both positive and negative reviews and this has been proven many times,” Kwikchex said.
Now Skytrax has been forced to change the wording in its advertising following a second approach to the ASA from Kwikchex.
Most of the five rulings by the ASA against Skytrax were highly technical, but centred on whether Skytrax could substantiate customer reviews of airlines when Skytrax deleted review email details after 24 hours to protect the privacy of reviewers.
In fact, as part of its campaign against review sites, Kwikchex is demanding that businesses reviewed by TripAdvisor.com and airlinequality.com should be able to contact the reviewer – a process that would almost stop the system of consumer reviews in its tracks.
Both TripAdvisor.com and airlinequality.com refuse to allow that.
While hoteliers have complained that malicious reviewers have damaged their businesses, if businesses know the identity of a consumer reviewer, they can pursue them or even harass them. In fact, a Canadian restaurateur did just that, pursuing a consumer who posted a review at restaurantthing.com, and now faces possible jail time for defamatory libel.
“Because Skytrax did not have the ability to track a review back to its source after the first 24 hours, and therefore could not demonstrate the verification process to which any one particular review on the site had been subjected, we concluded that they did not hold sufficient evidence to substantiate the claims ‘Checked and trusted airline review’ and ‘REAL travellers with REAL opinions!,” the ASA said in its ruling.
But Skytrax said in a statement: “After complaints to an advertising regulator by a self-appointed critic of review sites, Skytrax were requested to change some review website wording.
“In applying this data privacy process to personal details, the ASA said we could not track a review back to its source after this 24 hour authentication period. A strange way to reward openness and an honest commitment to respect our users, but they are the regulator.”
Skytrax says in its Editorial Policy at airlinequality.com: “It is accepted that a dissatisfied customer is more likely to submit feedback about their travel experiences than a satisfied customer.
“Skytrax do not want to run forums that portray a prejudiced level of comment for airlines or airports, and our web editors apply a judicious and careful policy to publication of comments. We stress that all reviews we feature are users' opinions, and should be considered as just that - the user opinion and not a declared fact.”
There is much at stake, but I think it will take more than a group of businesses that have copped bad reviews from their customers to sink these web juggernauts. Both systems can be abused because a small percentage of people can and do behave badly, but Tripadvisor.com and airlinequality.com are both brilliant concepts, in my opinion, and I think they deserve their followings.
Since Tripadvisor was first discussed in a blog last year, have you used airlinequality.com? Have you ever used an airline on the website’s recommendation and found it didn’t earn its reputation? Do you share Kwikchex’s concern that both websites need further curbs?
•In response to this blog, TripAdvisor's Asia-Pacific advisor, Jean Ow-Yeong, released a lengthy statement to Traveller's Check on Tuesday, November 13, 2012:
"TripAdvisor democratised the travel industry. The company was built on three key principles: to give travellers a voice and place to share their experiences, to promote transparency in the travel industry, and to create a level playing field for travel businesses to reach travellers, regardless of size. These principles continue to be the lifeblood of our company.
Nothing is more important to us than the authenticity of our reviews. We have a world-class international team of specialists who spend 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, making sure our reviews are real.
TripAdvisor is the world’s largest travel site. We have more than 60 million visitors to the site monthly and more than 32 million registered members globally. People continue to join and visit TripAdvisor in increasing numbers because of the usefulness that the traveller reviews and opinions provide.
According to a recent research by PhoCusWright, commissioned by TripAdvisor*, 98% of respondents have found TripAdvisor hotel reviews to be accurate of the actual experience. 92% of respondents agree that TripAdvisor hotel reviews “Help me pick the right hotel for my travel needs”.
It is also important to note that the majority of reviews submitted on TripAdvisor are positive and indeed the average rating for is currently 4 (out of 5),
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) took a highly technical view around two marketing phrases that was used in a limited capacity on our UK site only. We have confidence that the 60 million users who come to our site every month trust the reviews they read on TripAdvisor, which is why they keep coming back to us in increasingly larger numbers to plan and have the perfect trip. The ruling has had no material impact on our business. In fact, the number of UK users of the site has grown 30%** over the last two years (**source: comScore August 2012).
We feel the ruling was unrealistic in its expectation of sites likes ours in that the ASA upheld the complaints on the basis that we could not provide 100% certainty that every single review on the site was written by a real traveller and could be trusted. No system, verified or not, could provide this. We made the changes to the marketing copy on the UK website as requested.
We stand by the proven model we already have in place, because we believe all travellers, not just the one individual who made the reservation or has the receipt, are entitled to share their honest feedback about where they have stayed. Verification or requiring a proof of stay would dramatically reduce the number of reviews on the site, and we know from user feedback that our visitors value both the quantity and quality of the reviews available.
Our community of travellers is at the heart of TripAdvisor. Firstly, without them consumers wouldn’t have the millions of reviews, opinions and photos from which to tap into before making an informed decision as to which property is right for them. In addition, consumers can send a direct message to other reviewers for more information about their stay through our member-to-member messaging on the site, see another reviewer’s travel style (e.g. splurge, thrifty) and also find out about a traveller’s trip purpose (e.g. leisure, business). And, for consumers who have a Facebook account, they are also able to see the reviews of their friends by name, and their friend’s friends.
Another great way to get more detail on TripAdvisor is through our forums. The majority of posts are answered by the community within 24 hours.
We understand the importance that the reviews and opinions on TripAdvisor have to properties and businesses listed on the site. TripAdvisor has been monitoring tens of millions of reviews submitted over the past decade, and as a result, we can identify patterns of suspicious activity by utilizing sophisticated filters and behavioural modelling to scan reviews. We monitor and evaluate hundreds of different attributes associated with electronic correspondence, such as IP address, the type of browser being used and even screen resolution of the reviewer’s device. Suspicious activity is then flagged to our investigations team of dedicated agents who use a variety of additional confidential investigative methods designed to identify potential fraud.
We have a world-class international team of nearly 100 content specialists. This team is able to work in all 21 languages that we support on our global sites. The team has a wide range of fraud detection backgrounds, from a range of industries, and utilise sophisticated data mining, visualisation and analytic tools to uncover trends and patterns of abuse.
As well as our automated tools, we encourage our community of travellers and businesses alike to report any content they feel is suspicious or inappropriate. Every single report is investigated by the team above and any review found to be in breach of our policies will be taken down immediately.
We recommend that owners contact us via the Management Centre, on the TripAdvisor site (www.tripadvisor.com.au/owners), using the links provided to ensure that their queries are channelled to the teams that are best equipped to deal with their enquiry as quickly and efficiently as possible.
For all published reviews, we also strongly encourage owners to give their side of the story by posting a management response to reviews on their property. This gives the business the last word and allows users to read both sides of the story before making a decision on whether a property is right for them. We strongly encourage business owners to take advantage of this feature, so their voice can be heard as well.
According to a recent research by PhoCusWright, commissioned by TripAdvisor*, 84% of users agree that an appropriate management response to a bad review “improves my impression of the hotel” and 78% of users agree that seeing a hotel management response to reviews “makes me believe that it cares more about its guests”.
*According to a September 2012 PhoCusWright survey of 2,739 respondents. Participants for the study were solicited at random through a pop-up invitation link on TripAdvisor.com."