Tuesday 25 July 2017

Smart Consumer: 35 million web travel critics can't be wrong or can they?

Bill Tyson

'Huge disappointment. So went elsewhere." Who would want to stay in a hotel with a review like that?

Wouldn't it be much better to go to one described as: "Inn-credible. Excellent room. Even better hosts."

Actually, both comments are online reviews about the same hotel on TripAdvisor.com.

Another poster cites a "bad, bad experience" about a hotel that one former guest "cannot wait to go back to".

These are examples of the often contradictory reviews offered by websites such as TripAdvisor.com.

These sites offer travellers useful data posted by millions of people after visiting hotels from Bundoran to Bangalore.

But how can you ensure that so many postings -- 35 million on TripAdvisor alone -- by anonymous amateur "critics" are accurate and fair?

Most people accept a few bad reviews as inevitable and look at the average rating from hundreds of visitors.

And the biggest criticism from users is that there are too many flattering postings that look suspiciously like they were planted by hotels looking for a cheap way to advertise.

Not surprisingly, hotels take exception to the minority of critical postings.

Hundreds of UK hotels recently threatened TripAdvisor with legal action over what they claim are unfair and even allegedly malicious postings.

The controversy has also erupted here where 6,000 hotels, restaurants and B&Bs have come under scrutiny from TripAdvisor's critics.

Hayfield Manor, a five-star establishment in Cork city, has received 333 reviews on TripAdvisor, of which 267 rated it as excellent and 40 as "very good" earlier this week.

Manager Ettienne van Vrede, while not taking legal action, is taking exception to comments of a "personal" nature.

"One mentioned Fawlty Towers, I felt that was unwarranted. Certain comments made are very personal. There should be some guidelines," he says.

Maybe Fawlty Towers references shouldn't be taken too personally in online reviews; TripAdvisor has 1,639 alleged "Basil Fawltys" running hotels all over the world.

Mr Van Vrede nonetheless believes TripAdvisor.com is a "great boon" for consumers and he checks it out when he's going on holiday.

He also makes full use of the facility to respond to reviews. However, problems arise when a hotelier tries to have potentially defamatory material removed from the site, he says.

"I did contact Expedia, the parent company. There was no response. There needs to be a point of contact when something is not right. They need to work with the hotels," he says.

The support forum of TripAdvisor appears to bear out Mr Van Vrede's point, effectively hoisting the site "by its own petard" -- that is, a bunch of anonymous online critics.

A posting from "Broadland Wanderer" complains that three restaurants she reviewed in Co Durham, UK, were actually listed as being in Colorado, US. She complained: "I've several times tried to update the location details, and also sent an email to TA over the course of the last week. As yet nothing has happened." Two days later she repeated the complaint, which was echoed by other posters.

Another top Irish hotel to take issue with TripAdvisor is the award-winning Inchydoney Lodge & Spa, Clonakilty, Co Cork.

It fired off a letter recently threatening legal action over allegedly untrue comments on the site despite being given a four-star rating.

Proprietor Des O'Dowd says he encourages "feedback on all guest experiences whether expressed in person or through an online forum such as TripAdvisor".

"Online forums are now every bit as important and influential as the official reviews from Failte Ireland and the AA in our business," he says.

However, he is concerned that the standard of reviews by anonymous posters may not match up to its influence.

"TripAdvisor claims to give 'reviews you can trust' and we believe they need to put processes in place to make this a credible claim.

"In our experience the significant majority of reviews are genuine and can be trusted. However, with such influence we feel comes also a responsibility to put in place checks and balances to ensure that all reviews are accurate and indisputable."

Journalists and professional critics who have to tiptoe through a minefield of defamation law before publishing anything even mildly critical are amazed at the stuff that internet sites have been apparently getting away with.

TripAdvisor posters often use the extreme negatives journalists are trained to avoid such as "worst", "filthy" and "fraudulent" -- often in capital letters and with multiple exclamation marks -- which are difficult to prove even if true.

They would have our libel lawyers reaching for apoplexy pills, while those representing potential plaintiffs would rub their hands at the prospect of a handsome payout.

Paula Mullooly, partner with Simon McAleese Solicitors, says the problem with internet defamation is that the site could be based in a jurisdiction with very different libel laws, such as the US where most internet giants, including TripAdvisor, are based.

"I could get a judgment here but what assets do they have in this jurisdiction?" she asks. Irish and UK libel judgments are generally not recognised in the US as our draconian laws are considered contrary to the First Amendment.

Traipsing across the Atlantic to sue doesn't make much sense either as laws are much more lenient in the US and user-generated content is legally protected from defamation suits.

A plaintiff could sue an individual based in Ireland for defamation online and it has been done. But how do you identify the poster? And would it be financially worthwhile suing someone who may not have any money?

But as sites such as TripAdvisor grow wealthier and influential, they are coming under the legal cosh.

TripAdvisor was recently warned to remove the most wounding criticisms or face legal proceedings from hundreds of hotels in the UK, according to KwikChex, a Bournemouth-based reputation management firm.

KwikChex clients suspect some poor reviews are invented by cranks, exaggerated in the heat of the moment, or posted by business rivals to damage successful competitors.

It claims that owners who contacted TripAdvisor found the site "overwhelmingly hostile and intransigent" even if presented with evidence casting doubt on specific criticism.

TripAdvisor maintains that it does its best to ensure accuracy by employing specialist software -- called 'algorithms' -- and many moderators to spot rogue postings.

Every posting allows users to report suspicious views and business owners to respond to criticism -- or praise.

Many unverified reports on serious issues such as bedbugs have been confirmed by officially documented cases of infestation.

However, many others are unsupported, particularly allegations of food poisoning that are difficult to pin down.

"We checked reports that supposedly had food poisoning: no one had reported it to the local authority. Food poisoning is a complicated issue: it could have happened at home," said KwikChex's founder Chris Emmins.

TripAdvisor is one of the most popular websites in the world and now faces calls to devote more resources to the kind of fact-checking and screening associated with more traditional media.

Oliver Dempsey, founder of www.tradesmen.ie, warns "you need to be careful about websites that allow people to post anonymous feedback or only use an email address".

His website enables customers to get quotes online for all sorts of jobs and includes feedback from customers on their experiences.

"We require people to leave a mobile number which we must verify before any comment is posted on the website so at least there is that added layer of security," he explains.

Oliver says he is not surprised that hoteliers are suing TripAdvisor, adding: "If the hoteliers don't win, I hope that at least TripAdvisor and sites like it will be forced to make better efforts to validate feedback in the future."

Irish Independent

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