Since it was founded in 2000, TripAdvisor.com has revolutionised the way people buy travel online by giving them access to reviews of accommodation providers around the world by other ordinary consumers.
TripAdvisor took buying hotel rooms out of the stone age where you had to rely on pot luck, the word of friends who had been there or a trusty old travel guide like Lonely Planet to strip away the advertising hype and give you a true rating.
But it has always been a leap of faith to trust that TripAdvisor's consumer reviews were the real thing. At first, there were allegations that hotels were manipulating the system by "planting" positive reviews to counteract the honesty of damning consumer opinions. Now the discussion is about whether the opposite is happening.
The latest controversy erupted after TripAdvisor.com named a hotel in Singapore the worst in its 2011 list of Asia’s Top 10 dirtiest hotels. The New Paper in Singapore reported that Goldkist Beach Resort’s manager, Vikas Gupta, last year wrote a letter to TripAdvisor and Expedia Singapore inviting the online hotel review site to inspect the resort and subsequently remove it from its list of dirtiest hotels.
“The negative reviews on TripAdvisor continued to give us problems," Gupta said. "Thereafter, we decided not to continue loading room inventories into Expedia.com.
“Not long after, our guests started calling and e-mailing us to say their positive reviews on Goldkist were not appearing on TripAdvisor. Also, when I replied to some of the negative reviews on TripAdvisor, they were not published.”
Gupta said Goldkist had also received an e-mail from TripAdvisor asking the resort to “sign up for an annual subscription” and join its business listings. “On many online forums, hoteliers had said that once they paid the subscription, TripAdvisor would remove the negative reviews about them,” Gupta said. “Perhaps if we subscribed, we wouldn’t be listed as the dirtiest hotel in Asia.” Annual and monthly subscriptions are capped at a fixed amount and are tiered according to the number of rooms and the hotel’s location. Depending on hotel size, annual subscriptions range from $US360 to $10,500.
According to The New Paper, TripAdvisor denied Gupta’s claims, saying its hotel ratings were not tied to business listings. More than 1000 hoteliers around the world have threatened to take legal action against TripAdvisor for damaging their businesses with allegedly malicious and unfounded reviews.
The lawsuits are being pursued by KwikChex, a British "reputation management" company, on behalf of a group of clients. A founder of KwikChex, Chris Emmins, said the company estimated there were at least 27,000 legally defamatory comments on TripAdvisor — “allegations that are false and should, if necessary, be tested in court”.
The New Paper submitted a positive review about Goldkist to TripAdvisor. Two days later, the newspaper submitted a negative review about Goldkist, using a different username. The next day, the negative review was published on the website without any verification e-mail from TripAdvisor, the paper says.
As for the positive review, TripAdvisor sent two e-mails asking for verification, asking: “Is this your review? Action required.” The recipient had to click on a link provided in the e-mail to verify that he or she wrote the review. The newspaper did so.
The latest Goldkist review to be posted on TripAdvisor labels the hotel "a disgrace to the nation".
Other travel booking sites have also got in on the reviewing business, but they, too, haven't been far from controversy.
A hotel in Queenstown, New Zealand, has just discovered that travelocity.com mistakenly put bad consumer reviews of an American hotel under the wrong name. The error has been rectified but not until well after the damage was done.
It seems to me that consumers will react with great anger should they discover they've been lied to or deceived by any website that has put itself out there as a punter's pal, when in fact it was just a sharp business, complete with the necessary morality bypass. The danger of that is that consumers, especially travel buyers, have never had so much power and they will have no hesitation in acting collectively to destroy cheats.
Who are the websites you trust to consult before buying travel? Are there other reliable ways you have to make sure you're not going to be dudded? Have you come across instances where a hotel that was recommended has turned out to be a hole?