Should TripAdvisor be regulated?

TripAdvisor has its good points, but also its bad points. It has grown so large that it has absolute decree on everything it does with no checks or balances. Here are a few examples that my business has fallen foul of over the past couple of years.

Guilty, because they say so

In January 2015, I received an email from TripAdvisor. We were number 1 in Weybridge at the time and the email read:

It has come to our attention that individuals affiliated with your organization may have submitted positive reviews of your property with the intent to improve your ranking on TripAdvisor. This is strictly against TripAdvisor policy as outlined here.

Please discontinue any attempts to subvert our system immediately.

Penalties have been issued to your listing and TripAdvisor is now actively monitoring your property for further submissions which violate our policies.

I was confused as I had no idea anybody in my team had submitted a review, and we always tell the team not to because of this situation. We already had hundreds of great reviews, and have consistently won Certificates of Excellence since 2011. Naturally, I queried the edict.

After several emails back and forth, the only outcome I managed to get was that:

  • Trip Advisor would not tell me who the individual was “to protect the rights of the reviewer” (though they stated they had absolute proof that it was an employee).
  • Despite deleting the alleged review, Trip Advisor applied a penalty of 6 places in the listing which would “gradually reduce over time”.

I have an issue with an organisation like Trip Advisor telling me they have “absolute proof” that it was an employee but refusing to provide any evidence to back this up so that we can deal with it. Here’s the email:

We are limited in terms of what information we can offer regarding review violations, due to the privacy agreement we engage in with TripAdvisor members, regardless of whether they are biased or not with their opinions. However, I can tell you that we have evidence that this activity is originating from within your property by members of staff.

I responded that I had spoken with my employees and was assured by them that they had not made any reviews. I mentioned that we offer free public WiFi also, so it’s possible somebody just left a review while they were visiting the restaurant. Trip Advisor responded:

You mention that you touched base with your on-site staff, and I encourage you to also reach out to any additional employees who may be affiliated with your business. Our dedicated team does not take these notifications lightly, and as I mentioned, we have evidence that a review was submitted from someone employed by your business.

I am sure that if you have spoken with all of your employees and partners and have reminded them of our content integrity policies, this activity will not continue going forward.

Unfortunately at this time we cannot make any changes to your listing as we must ensure that our policies are applied consistently across all listings on TripAdvisor. However, I assure you that over time the penalty will gradually diminish.

Curious. They are now mentioning that it could be somebody “affiliated” with my business, such as off-site employees (which we don’t have) or “partners” (which could mean anybody who runs a company we may have spoken to at some point – which is a little vague). But they reiterated it was an employee, so basically refused to accept my word yet refrained from providing any actual evidence.

There’s also the little issue of being threatened by a guest a few months earlier who decided at the end of the meal they were unhappy, having not said anything throughout the evening, and insisted I give the group a healthy discount as it would be in my best interested because “they knew somebody very senior at TripAdvisor.” Naturally, I did not succumb to the threat, though maybe they made good on their promise?

The other issue I have is that the “gradual reduction” of the penalty never seems to have happened. About 10 months later we were still hovering around position 6-7 so I contacted Trip Advisor who told me:

I can assure you that we have a consistent policy in place which works over time with our popularity index to gradually diminish any penalty assigned to your listing. Where there have been no additional violations since our original concern in January, I am implementing a penalty mitigation plan on your listing. Please understand that any future violations will result in the full reinstatement of the penalty on your property.

As you can see, it appears the mitigation plan appears to have only been put in place in November, rather than a gradual reduction since the original alleged incident.

In the following May, after more consistently good reviews but no apparent change in our position I contacted Trip Advisor again and got a more scientific reply:

As my colleague previously mentioned, a penalty mitigation plan on your listing was implemented at the point of your last conversation. The details of how our penalties are assessed and removed are proprietary and I am unable to elaborate on those procedures. However, I can assure you that we have a consistent policy in place which works over time with our popularity index to gradually diminish any penalty assigned to your listing, barring the detection of any further suspicious activity.

We can certainly understand your concerns with the accuracy of your property’s TripAdvisor Popularity Index. This rating is not merely an average of all of the reviews published on your listing but is calculated through a sophisticated algorithm based on the quality, quantity, and age of submitted reviews. The more recent and positive reviews a property receives, the better its overall rating.

As I hope you’ll understand, specific details about our ratings system are proprietary and cannot be disclosed. We can, however, assure you that these standards are applied consistently and universally to every listing on our site.

If you’re reading closely you’ll see that the original email from TripAdvisor said quite clearly that “the penalty would reduce over time.” However, had I not contacted them after 10 months, no penalty reduction would have occurred. We’re now over a year after the apparent diminishing effect was finally put in place, and we’re still at the same position in the rankings.

The message is clear: We’re Trip Advisor. What we say goes. Trust us or face the consequences. Well, face them anyway as you can’t do anything about it.

The Gagged Business

The issue here is that some reviewers (I won’t call them guests as these ones are certainly not the welcome variety) seem to think it’s OK to post toxic comments about your business that are clearly so biased as to almost be laughable. TripAdvisor allows them as they “meet content guidelines” even if they are completely false.

You can’t get TripAdvisor to remove them, even if you have evidence to refute them. For example, one reviewer of my business claimed to have had 2 starters and 2 mains and feels ripped off because the bill was £100. The reality was that there were 3 people who had 3 starters, 3 mains, several soft drinks, and bottled water and the bill was £94 including 12.5% service (i.e. £84 plus service). Now, £84 is not close to £100, and when you divide by 3 you get £28 per person, not the implied £50 per person. Almost half. But TripAdvisor’s only recourse for me was:

  • You can post a reply to the review
  • You’re still stuck with the negative effect of a fathead’s vitriol on your ranking

In this case, I did actually get the review removed because the fathead in question decided he would slander me. Had I not flagged it, it may still be there today.

Sadly there are a handful of individuals that simply show the extremist nature of reviewers on the Internet who think it’s OK to post bile (I referred to this as the TripAdvisor generation previously). I am well known in local circles for posting suitable retorts to these reviews, though I am getting fed up with the fact that an organisation like TripAdvisor essentially promotes the ability to post nonsense that you can do nothing about, other than being downgraded as a result. No wonder they removed “trusted reviews” from their tag line.

Yet TripAdvisor allows reviewers to flag management responses – which are supposedly manually approved before going live. In my experience, if they are flagged they are usually pulled and you have to start all over again with your response. The deck seems stacked in the favour of the reviewer – they can flag your response and have it removed because they don’t like it, but you can’t do the same to their review.

This leads me to conclude that, in its present form, TripAdvisor is a fundamentally flawed system that allows for woefully distorted, subjective “reviews” from unhinged individuals to sit alongside more genuine, objective reviews.

It is a form of gagging on the business as we do not have the same freedoms of speech as reviewers.

And for that reason alone I propose that TripAdvisor should be regulated.

Update: January 2017

I was assaulted in my restaurant on a Tuesday evening while I was opening up – essentially because the guy (dressed smartly no less) took umbrage to the fact that we could not serve him food because we wouldn’t be open for a few minutes as it was 10 minutes before 6pm and there were no chefs on-site, even though the door was open.

A day later a new review pops up on TripAdvisor stating that I am “Unhinged” and a “clearly unbalanced individual”. In my book, this is libel so I flagged the review to TripAdvisor. They responded that the review was perfectly acceptable as it “meets community standards”.

In my book this is libel. But TripAdvisor said it met their guidelines.

TripAdvisor needs more than regulation. Since it now supports active defamation of specific individuals in a business (which is actually prohibited by its own guidelines) it should be subject to a full investigation and compensation payments sought for all affected individuals.

Read Further: ‘Every part of it is untrue’ – we investigate how far can you REALLY trust what’s on Tripadvisor (Mirror Online)

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2 Responses

  1. We visited a restaurant the trip advisor awarded with certificate of excellence. Sadly this is a bull. We wrote our review and the owner responded at the same time and despite the hour difference. 5 positive reviews added immediately and then integrity team from trip advisor emailed us alleging it is the wrong restaurant we visited! Clear violation of their own terms and conditions and violation of freedom of speech. Our review is based on the actual food, preparation, lighting, toilets, kitchens, service which the owner while not present didn’t like. As owners pay trip advisor a fee to publish the reviews they themselves write,their staff, friends and tourist most of the time. Sadly our review and own experience is wipe clean from the trip advisor. Not only they just advertise on payment, don’t inspect themselves but also remove simple facts their paying customers didn’t like. They must be regulated from health, food and fire authorities and also by tax office. Unacceptable.

    1. Sorry to hear you were victim of an unscrupulous operator. I commented on the fact that TripAdvisor allows restaurants to pay to advertise on my recent post Has TripAdvisor Lost its Relevance and discussed how this makes the platform less relevant as a source of unbiased reviews and becomes just yet another directory service. Not all restaurants pay, but it sounds like the ones that do get some preferential treatment. We refuse to pay and TripAdvisor offers zero support. We have also found that a lot of our customers no longer consider TripAdvisor relevant either.

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