Tripped Up By Trip Advisor
Did you see the news reports some time ago about Oscar’s restaurant, described as “amazing” and “mind blowing” Michelin-stared food, built in the hull of an old fishing boat amid reefs and shipwrecks in Brixham, Devon? Staff in scuba gear will swim to catch whichever fish you desire, cook and serve it to you.
Yes there was a catch – it didn’t exist. Made up by a disgruntled businessman fed up with fake reviews on TripAdvisor.
You can read the full story here if you missed it. But therein lies the theme of our first blog –
CAN YOU BELIEVE THE REVIEWS?
Review sites – love ‘em or loathe ‘em, they’re here to stay. Consumer power is one of the best things to have come out of the awesome resource that is the Internet. If a product or service does not deliver its promise the consumer has the power to fight back with a few simple clicks online. Sites such as Amazon, Yelp, eBay, TripAdvisor and TopTable allow you, the customer, to say your bit.
If you are looking into a new purchase, be it a TV, a holiday or booking a restaurant then chances are you’ll head for the internet to do your research before making a decision. According to a recent study* 90 percent of respondents who recalled reading online reviews claimed that positive online reviews influenced buying decisions, while 86 percent said buying decisions were influenced by negative online reviews (Survey of Customer Service).
You can see why online reviews have become so important to small independent business like us at the Retro Bistrot. In the cut-throat world of online marketing, where a competing product – or restaurant – is only a click away, what people say about us online can have a powerful impact. It’s no exaggeration to say that online reviews can make or break a small business.
But can you trust the reviews you read? Can we, the business owner, be confident that all reviews are genuine? Do those leaving reviews make an effort to be honest and fair in their judgment – a judgment that will most likely stay in print, online for a very long time, coming up every time someone clicks on that business name?
The original concept behind online reviews was, like many ideas in their infancy, pure and positively brilliant. But inevitably as the idea becomes reality the rot sets in. The freedom of the Internet also allows for misuse and abuse. The press has been alive in recent months with stories of fake online reviews both here in Europe and in the USA.
At the end of 2012 Amazon declared it was cracking down on thousands of fake book reviews. Several mystery writers, including R. J. Ellory and John Locke, admitted to using various forms of manipulation, such as creating deceptive online identities.
In 2011 TV Dragons Den star, Duncan Bannatyne, started a campaign against TripAdvisor, complaining that a “dishonest” review compared his Charlton House spa hotel in Somerset to Fawlty Towers and asked TripAdvisor to remove the posting. “They have tried to bully me, they have sent threatening letters and emails, they have urged me to shut up, but they won’t speak to me directly,” he said. He says publishing defamatory or fake reviews is a threat to hoteliers, who cannot fight back.
An “online reputation services” company called KwikChex, acting on behalf of more than 1,000 hoteliers, said at the time that it estimated there were at least 27,000 legally defamatory comments on TripAdvisor
One of the business people involved in that action was Frank McCready, owner of the Old Brewery Guesthouse in North Yorkshire; he set up a website entitled ihateTripAdvisor.org.uk to raise awareness about the damage that misleading TripAdvisor reviews can cause. He says: “TripAdvisor’s successful business model appears to be based upon a minimum of checks, an arrogant disregard for accuracy and truthfulness, and a customer-service regime that is virtually non-existent. It is too easy for hotels to write their own reviews, or pay others to write them. It is too easy for reviewers to post untruthful or damaging reviews, or for hoteliers to ‘sabotage’ their competitors.”
Even TripAdvisor makes a tacit admission that you cannot trust all the reviews. A spokeswoman said: “Our advice to travellers is to throw out the anomalies that appear overly critical or overly complimentary. What is left is the collective wisdom of the community.”
Have you actually been there?
You don’t have to trawl the Internet for long to find others who’ve taken against the apparently arbitrary nature of TripAdvisor reviews. Tripadvisor-warning.com are a small group of people “that are tired of the way TripAdvisor chooses to conduct their business, mainly because of the total lack of consideration towards “owners” in the hospitality world.”
One of their biggest beefs against the site is the view that “TripAdvisor doesn’t feel the need to validate damaging reviews, they just post them, with absolutely no consideration about the consequences”.
“Is it fair,” they continue, “or even right that TripAdvisor posts reviews like “Hotel stinks” Owners Arrogant and rude” Sheets stank of urine” Mold on the walls” Rats in the room” Fleas in the bed”? If they are true, then YES we should be told, because places like this do not deserve your business. However seeing as TripAdvisor cannot assure the reviews are true and come from a validated user they should NOT be posted”.
Bob Cotton, the former chairman of the British Hospitality Association, says that at the very least, every effort must be made to ensure that reviewers have been to the hotel or restaurant they are damning or praising. Such a stipulation has helped to make eBay the success it is – you can only comment on a provider with whom you have done business.
TripAdvisor’s response is to say that travellers would miss out on valuable customer service experiences, such as when a friend or family member pays for the room, or when a visit does not involve an overnight stay.
Simply making people register their details would be a start, but it would undoubtedly lead to a sharp fall in TripAdvisor’s user numbers and its revenue, so it is unlikely to be countenanced.
Cotton said: “Websites have a responsibility to ensure that [a reviewer] has actually stayed at the hotel. You can’t ban these online comments – that is like de-inventing the atom bomb. But common sense should prevail.”
Toptable is an excellent example of a site that allows you to book online and to leave a review but you can only post a review if you have actually dined at that restaurant.
Interestingly enough the reviews of the Retro Bistrot posted on TopTable are more often positive but above all honest and based on a genuine experience.
Thin End of the Wedge…?
Our grumbles are just the tip of the iceberg, however.
Many business owners on TripAdvisor are seeing a worrying trend. Customers are threatening to write negative reviews unless they receive a refund, upgrade, freebies, or other request. Earlier this year TripAdvisor was obliged to launch a new feature as part of its management tools to help business owners who are being blackmailed.
It works both ways. Some businesses have also played dirty by anonymously posting their own laudatory reviews. Now there’s an even simpler approach – offering customers a refund in exchange for a positive write-up. As a spokesperson for review site Yelp said, “The proliferation of fake reviews is a huge problem for e-commerce and recommendation sites that depend on user ratings. At the end of the day, if consumers don’t trust the content, then there is no value for anyone.”
TripAdvisor’s slogan used to be ” Reviews you can trust.” Strangely enough they no longer use that slogan…
Honesty is the Best Policy.
On a final note, we’ve been advised to “play the game” but our game is one of honesty and integrity. We work hard to deliver a positive experience, excellent food and wine in a welcoming environment with a sense of personality. We accept all feedback that helps us deliver the best and we welcome that feedback whether positive or negative – as long as it is honest and considered.
What do you think – as a local business yourself or as a customer? How much importance do you place on an online review? Can you trust the “collective wisdom” of the consumer? Do you stop and consider the fairness of your words before you press ‘publish’ on a negative review? Does the vast and contradictory nature of online reviews leave you totally confused? We’d love to know, so please leave your comment.
Oh – and if you have the urge to say something positive about the Retro Bistrot then here’s your chance…!!