Daily Mail: I recently did a rather depressing experiment. I logged on to the most popular hotel reviews website, TripAdvisor, and – using a fake name, fake email and fake postal address – I posted an effusive report on a terrible establishment. My review was put up, unaltered, within hours. I am not the only skeptic. Tests by reporters in Britain, France and America show how easy it is to promote poor hotels to the top of the TripAdvisor popularity table with a handful of bogus reports.
TripAdvisor says its site is self-policing and users read it with ‘the right level of skepticism’. They need to. This year, it published a list of its ‘top 25’ UK hotels: one was in administration. It has now closed.
TripAdvisor can be useful. Four in five travelers check review sites before booking a hotel, and TripAdvisor is the most popular, covering 450,000 hotels worldwide. But it is as risky as asking the man sitting next to you on the bus where he goes on holiday. TripAdvisor is loaded with whingers, oddballs and Americans, who may have very different tastes from you or me.
More seriously, TripAdvisor is open to abuse, in my view, because of its seeming failure to screen out collusive or malicious reviews. Its owners claim reviews are put up only after being scrutinized by its staff, and that sophisticated programs are used to check against fraud. But, in my own experience, these defenses are so flawed as to be useless.
As The Good Hotel Guide editor, my concerns may be dismissed as self-interest. But we are a tiny business specializing in small hotels in the British Isles and are not competing with TripAdvisor. We track every review sent to us, know who the writers are and how sound their judgments are. If readers disagree, we send an anonymous inspector to spend a night at our expense.
TripAdvisor, by contrast, is a big, profitable international firm, yet its methods can appear shameless.
In reply to a hotel’s complaint that a critical report was planted by a competitor, it wrote: ‘Since reviews are posted by members on an open forum, and we do not verify the information posted in this, we are unable to provide you with proof that this member . . . actually visited [your] hotel.’
I am bombarded by hotels complaining about the effects of TripAdvisor. Tim Brocklebank, owner of The Rosevine hotel in Portscatho, Cornwall, says that when he told a couple who cancelled a booking at the last moment that they would have to pay a fee, they threatened to write a bad report on TripAdvisor.
He says: ‘I am all for constructive feedback, but TripAdvisor is now being used in the most unpleasant way.’
TripAdvisor is awash with serious allegations. At the last count, there were 19,208 references to food poisoning, 22,236 to theft and 42,418 to bed bugs. Such unchecked accusations are made by anonymous reviewers who may not have even stayed at the hotel. Hotels can put up a management response, but it usually requires the threat of legal action before a review is removed.
Hotels are fighting back – but the result is little better. Many reviews are by owners’ friends, family or PR firms.
At The Bloomsbury hotel in York, a guest said she had put a positive review on TripAdvisor and wanted to know what she would get in return. She said an Edinburgh guesthouse she knew was giving free weekends for the best reviews.
France’s Office of Fair Trading is considering a case brought by French hotels that claim that TripAdvisor is bolstering its parent company, Expedia. They claim that if users try to book at a hotel which has not given a fee to Expedia, they are told no rooms are available but are offered alternatives at nearby hotels which are paying ‘partners’. A judgment is due in October.
TripAdvisor has so far declined to comment on its defense in the case. A group of British hotels is also considering legal action against TripAdvisor for defamation.
Why is TripAdvisor seemingly so careless of its reputation? TripAdvisor says it does care about its reputation, defends its screening process and gave the following response: ‘We have more than 45 million monthly viewers and all reviews are screened to ensure they meet our posting guidelines.'
'We receive an average of 26 contributions per minute. Thousands of reviews posted each week are positive and negative. We believe the sheer volume of content allows travelers to focus on reviews most relevant to their travel needs. Owners can dispute any review and our team will investigate. As well as being against our guidelines, it is also illegal in the UK to post fraudulent reviews on TripAdvisor.’