The website that compiles millions of holidaymakers' star ratings could face legal action, reports Kira Cochrane.
In quiet moments, Jared Blank likes to kick back by looking at reviews of the world's greatest hotels on TripAdvisor. Specifically, the terrible reviews.
Blank is a long-time analyst of the travel industry and a user of TripAdvisor - the consumer review site that has become one of the world's biggest travel resources, attracting 41.6 million users a month and featuring 40 million reviews of hotels and restaurants worldwide. But the pettiness and hysteria of some of the complaints baffle him.
"No melon is ever ripe enough for people on TripAdvisor," he says. "There are hotels that rate in the top five in the world and people are still complaining. I'm always shocked by the comments: from the quality of the fruit to the mobile-phone reception on an island in the middle of nowhere, to whether the person on the front desk was smiling sufficiently upon their arrival. It blows my mind."
I look up the TripAdvisor reviews of the Ritz in London. Out of 279, 166 give the hotel five stars but 27 give it just one and their reasons are varied and revealing. "Beware the stuffy and outdated dress code," warns one. "Apparently being dressed head-to-toe in Armani and having a Prada handbag isn't good enough for this officious and petty hotel."
Visitors praise the helpful staff and comfortable beds but there are complaints about a musty smell, the paucity of gluten-free treats at afternoon tea and, as Blank predicted, "rotten fruit". It is a window into a delicious alternative world: one of disgruntlement for the reviewer, schadenfreude for the reader.
In fact, those reviews of the Ritz sum up all that is simultaneously brilliant and annoying about TripAdvisor: its celebration of consumer power, of the right for everyone's opinion to be heard and accorded equal weight; and the bewildering contradictions in its reviews.
No one is more annoyed by TripAdvisor right now than entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne, who is considering legal action against the site, which he has called "despicable and cowardly". Bannatyne, who features on UK reality TV show Dragon's Den, complained that a "dishonest" review compared his Charlton House spa hotel in Somerset, south-west England, to Fawlty Towers and asked TripAdvisor to remove the posting.
"They have tried to bully me, they have sent threatening letters and emails, they have urged me to shut up but they won't speak to me directly," he says.
He says publishing defamatory or fake reviews is a threat to hoteliers, who cannot fight back.
A spokeswoman for TripAdvisor, Emma O'Boyle, then issued this statement: "We offer hoteliers the opportunity to respond to every review written on TripAdvisor. However, in the case of Bannatyne's hotels we have had several worrying examples of individuals being intimidated by Bannatyne and his hotel representatives. TripAdvisor has a zero-tolerance approach on bullying as we defend the freedom of speech."
The current size of the site must have been inconceivable when it was set up 10 years ago in Massachusetts, after an epiphany experienced by its co-founder, Stephen Kaufer, while booking a holiday to Mexico.
He had gone to a travel agent and been given three brochures "but I had no idea when this travel agent had last been to this destination", he said in an interview last year. "And obviously she was getting paid to send me to those places." So he decided to set up a resource allowing people to say what they really thought about their holiday experiences.
One of the site's most popular features is its 6 million photos - snapshots that show the real size of the rooms, the state of the carpets and curtains and the quality of the breakfast. The terrible reviews prick the pomposity of hotels that would once have gone unchallenged; no establishment is above a negative review on TripAdvisor.
The result has been a seismic shift in power, from hotelier to consumer. Where once we were vulnerable to the quirks and rudeness of countless Basil Fawltys, we now have a source of both warning and redress.
But is TripAdvisor taking the joy out of travel? With its dense tangle of information on everything from the size of the towels to the brand of coffee a hotel uses, the site has become a bramble patch to negotiate. You can look at reviews grouped by rating (five stars is "excellent", one star is "terrible") and by type of traveller - people who were away on business, for instance, or on holiday with their family.
But on some level this adds to the difficulty of sleuthing out a verdict. The English-language reviews are most likely to have been written by an American (13.6 million of the site's users are from the US), so consumers have to try to figure out whether they would have the same expectations of service and style as, say, a father of four from Florida. You can end up spending as much time choosing a place to stay as you spend away on holiday.
If TripAdvisor has caused frustration among consumers, it has sparked fury in the travel industry - Bannatyne is not alone. Many hoteliers are enraged about the material posted about them and are fighting back.
An "online reputation services" company called KwikChex, acting on behalf of more than 1000 hoteliers, says it estimates there are at least 27,000 legally defamatory comments on TripAdvisor, "allegations that are false and should, if necessary, be tested in court".
Chris Emmins, who runs KwikChex, is in the process of contacting TripAdvisor about some of these comments, with a notification saying: "We regard these reviews as suspect, this user may now be open to legal action, please inform them."
"We're hoping that people will reconsider their comments, particularly if they are a competitor, and remove the material they've posted," Emmins says. "In virtually every country, when it comes to defamation, the judge will ask what opportunity the defendant has been given to correct the situation, so we're going this route to say, legally, we've done everything we can."
After that, Emmins suggests, they'll take further legal action against the defamatory reviews that haven't been taken down.
While the arguments swirl, TripAdvisor is growing (there are 21 new posts a minute), with an average of 300 reviews a hotel. The Bellagio in Las Vegas has the most, with 4793 and counting.
A travel expert and writer who runs the website The Indie Traveler, Sara Benson, says she loved the site when it first started, because "it was full of savvy people, who were very technorati and experienced travellers but now it's such a tidal wave of raw data that it almost makes you want to give up".
Not only is there a slew of information, it's not clear how much of it is reliable. Travel writer Edward Hasbrouck reported that at a marketing conference in 2006 a top advertising agency publicly declared it had a division "devoted to seeding online forums and bulletin boards with targeted content".
While eBay users can only post a review on something they've purchased, TripAdvisor is not a transactional site - it doesn't sell holidays, so anyone can post a review without having to prove they've stayed in the hotel about which they're commenting.
When I ask O'Boyle whether there might be moves to make people verify their stay, she points out that "it's illegal to post fake reviews on the site in [Britain], the US and a number of other countries and we do penalise hotels that have been found to be manipulating it.
"We have a number of measures in place to make sure that the reviews on the site are legitimate, we've got a whole content team that's responsible for finding and eradicating the fake reviews," she says. "If the reviews people read didn't match the reality and the experience, people wouldn't keep returning and we wouldn't have 53 per cent year-on-year growth."
Benson believes our growing dependence on TripAdvisor is potentially making us less adventurous as travellers. "We're more risk averse," she says. "If a place isn't listed on TripAdvisor, or doesn't have good reviews, people don't want to try it."
- Guardian News & Media