Reviewing TripAdvisor: Low Marks for Responsibility
By Scott Thomas
In recent weeks others in the travel and tourism industry have been highly critical of review site TripAdvisor for various shortcomings in its administration of its online lodging reviews (and other reviews, as well). The concerns expressed are world-wide, not simply the complaints of a few, in a small part of the world.
This post is an attempt to gather and synthesize the concerns, to try to identify the core problem, and to suggest improvement.
Recent Complaints About TripAdvisor
In the United Kingdom, Paul White’s Bed And Breakfast Club blog has taken TripAdvisor to task for allegedly fake reviews that have been maliciously posted to damage a property. Paul suggests that TripAdvisor could have listed hotels give a code to their guests, that could be entered to validate the authenticity of the review.
More recently, Heather Turner, in her Chef Forfeng’s Blog, has questioned mysteriously disappearing reviews that were favorable to a property, vanishing from TripAdvisor. In addition on several innkeeping forums, such as the members-only forum for the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (PAII), or the public Innspiring.com forum, innkeeper problems with TripAdvisor frequently surface. We have documented some of them here on AboutTheInn, as well, calling for greater responsibility from TripAdvisor, among others.
Unfortunately, TripAdvisor’s responses to nearly all of these concerns, whether made via blogs and forums, as mentioned above, TripAdvisor’s own Owner’s Forum, or efforts to make direct contact by phone or email, all seem to result in one of two standard responses. The first is utter silence – leaving the innkeeper with the clear impressions that (a) there is no procedure to handle problems innkeepers may have with the review process, and (b) TripAdvisor really doesn’t care if the reviews are genuine or not. The second “response” is the provide boilerplate statements to the effect that reviews are “validated” by a secret process and decisions to post them or remove them are also a secret process, and no further information will be provided. Clearly, the second “response” is no better than the first – no response at all.
Sometimes, in defense of TripAdvisor’s intractable refusal to validate reviews or to explain why valid reviews are removed, statements are made to the effect that TripAdvisor is actually a very small company and incapable of reading every review. Yet, in Paul White’s article linked above, he refers to TripAdvisor’s claims that human beings read every review. Clearly both statements cannot be accurate.
Making Matters Worse
To add financial insult to the unresponsive injury, TripAdvisor has begun (in 2010) offering a “business listing” to properties, with a sliding scale of very high rates, based on size of property. For this payment, the property gets a “nofollow” link from the property’s listing page on TripAdvisor to the property web site. A nofollow link is one that does not pass any search engine credibility with it. You might think that paying for a business listing would give the property owner the ability to communicate with TripAdvisor and to expect some measure of responsiveness. For the most part, you would be wrong.
On the positive side, TripAdvisor does seem to allow business listing customers to communicate with it. However, the responses they receive do not differ significantly from those given to non-business listings.
No Control Over Management of Listings
In fact, an even bigger problem is the way TripAdvisor allows for “management” of a listing by a business. First of all, a property has no choice whether it appears on TripAdvisor or not. They list properties they find, and that people review. You can only remove your “listing” if the property is out of business. You can sign up for a free account to manage a “listing” (allowing for uploading photos and videos, changing some of the details about the property, etc.). You then have limited ability to edit the listing, and can post management responses to reviews. However, if someone else signs up for a free account, claiming to be authorized to manage the listing, they, too, will be able to make changes. It appears that no attempt is made to verify that the person seeking a management account is authorized by the property.
How does this change when the property purchases a business listing? From all appearances, it does not change at all! Someone else can still claim to be authorized to make changes, apparently without TripAdvisor verifying their authority.
Declining to Correct Errors
What happens if information is incorrect, or worse, maliciously false? For the most part, nothing. TripAdvisor simply hides behind American laws protecting site operators from liability for information posted by others. In fact, even when the false information is posted by TripAdvisor, via its parent, Expedia.com (such as incorrect room rates), it claims it is free from any responsibility for the error, as it was posted by someone else.
The Core Problem
The common theme in all these areas is TripAdvisor’s desire to bury its figurative head in the sand, pretending that it has done no wrong and therefore bears no responsibility for the perceived problems. They avoid responsibility for false reviews by taking the position that they are not responsible for content posted by others, or that the reviews meet the TripAdvisor guidelines (even though they are demonstrably false, or that the guest did not stay at the property).They duck responsibility for missing reviews by saying the reviews were removed for reasons that are kept secret. They claim they are not responsible for errors, as the information is posted by others.
The one message that comes through loudly and clearly from TripAdvisor is, “It is not our fault.”
The small properties, whose continued livelihood depends on favorable reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, are the ones harmed by this attitude. But TripAdvisor’s own reputation suffers, as more and more properties who have been harmed find their voices and speak up.
Some Suggestions for Improvement
Yet the solution would seem to be relatively simple (technical issues may be present, but are surely not insurmountable). Take responsibility. Make the effort. Here are some concrete suggestions:
- Provide for a system of verified reviewers. PAII’s CEO, Jay Karen, has been suggesting for over a year that TripAdvisor find a way to allow for reviewers to be verified, so that a review by a verified reviewer would carry more weight than an unverified reviewer. Other sites do this. Why not TripAdvisor?
- If you’re going to accept paid listings, then act like a responsible directory. Give a proper account to the business, so they can manage the listing and limit who can make changes to those who are authorized.
- Listen to the property owners (or authorized representatives). When they say a guest didn’t stay with them, pull the review until it is verified. If they tell you the information provided by a reviewer or relating to pricing, etc., is wrong, take responsibility to make it right. If you don’t trust the owners, then put a footnote with the information saying, “Provided by the property owner.”
- Listen even more closely to the properties that are paying for a business listing. They are paying for, and should be entitled to, a right to be treated as paying customers. At least give them a fair shake. Explain why a review is removed. If the owner disputes it, then give them a way to prove its validity to you.
TripAdvisor, we know the guests find the information useful. We just want to make it more reliable. And, if we’re paying for the privilege, then we also want you to respect us as paying customers, instead of as if we were dangerous thieves, trying to steal bookings from unsuspecting guests.
At this juncture, we give TripAdvisor only 1 of 5 stars for responsibility.
The ball is in your court, TripAdvisor. Are you willing to take any responsibility?
UPDATE August 25, 2010:
Earlier today TripAdvisor posted the following on the PAII forum:
We identified a bug that resulted in some of our members’ reviews being removed from the site. While this affected only a small fraction of our community and properties on the site, we value every review and opinion and expect to have these posts republished as soon as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience to our community and the property owners, and appreciate your understanding.
Certainly we’re glad to hear that a bug was found and it was corrected. No question about that. Also good to hear that it only affected a small fraction of the TA “community.”
But this creates a new problem: If it was a bug, that means it was a problem caused by TA and its technical people. Somehow that doesn’t quite square with the responses they had given, saying removing a few reviews wasn’t a big problem and claiming they were removed in accordance with TA’s policies. In other words, TA, were you just giving pat answers before and ignoring the facts, or is that what you’re doing now to try to salvage your reputation?
Besides that, it is nice to know it “affected only a small fraction” of those on TA, but how many is that? Or are there other reviews that have been removed for other reasons?
Does this fix that problem? I suppose time will tell.