Two of the world’s most popular travel review sites have found themselves in the middle of a corporate war over the authenticity of consumer reviews brought on by a company representing hoteliers.
At stake is the ability of consumers to contribute reviews of hotels and airlines without being intimidated by service providers who they judge to be sub-standard.
That has proved to be one of the key factors that has made TripAdvisor.com and airlinequality.com a huge success among travellers, even though some travellers have abused the system – by demanding bribes from hoteliers, for example, to avoid a bad review.
UK-based “reputation management” company Kwikchex Ltd first went after TripAdvisor in an attempt to limit damaging reviews of hotels and has now launched a successful action against the consumer ratings company Skytrax Research, which runs airlinequality.com and also the world’s most highly rated annual air travel awards, the World Airline Awards.
Kwikchex sought and received rulings from the UK Advertising Standards Authority – against TripAdvisor in January this year and against Skytrax last week. Both companies were found to have made unsubstantiated claims in their advertising.
Kwikchex had attacked “exaggerated claims by TripAdvisor regarding the trustworthiness of reviews on their website, which are all unsubstantiated - without even verification that authors of comments left on the site are genuine customers of the businesses they were reviewing”.
“We know that a substantial number are false - both positive and negative reviews and this has been proven many times,” Kwikchex said.
Now Skytrax has been forced to change the wording in its advertising following a second approach to the ASA from Kwikchex.
Most of the five rulings by the ASA against Skytrax were highly technical, but centred on whether Skytrax could substantiate customer reviews of airlines when Skytrax deleted review email details after 24 hours to protect the privacy of reviewers.
In fact, as part of its campaign against review sites, Kwikchex is demanding that businesses reviewed by TripAdvisor.com and airlinequality.com should be able to contact the reviewer – a process that would almost stop the system of consumer reviews in its tracks.
Both TripAdvisor.com and airlinequality.com refuse to allow that.
While hoteliers have complained that malicious reviewers have damaged their businesses, if businesses know the identity of a consumer reviewer, they can pursue them or even harass them. In fact, a Canadian restaurateur did just that, pursuing a consumer who posted a review at restaurantthing.com, and now faces possible jail time for defamatory libel.
“Because Skytrax did not have the ability to track a review back to its source after the first 24 hours, and therefore could not demonstrate the verification process to which any one particular review on the site had been subjected, we concluded that they did not hold sufficient evidence to substantiate the claims ‘Checked and trusted airline review’ and ‘REAL travellers with REAL opinions!,” the ASA said in its ruling.
But Skytrax said in a statement: “After complaints to an advertising regulator by a self-appointed critic of review sites, Skytrax were requested to change some review website wording.
“In applying this data privacy process to personal details, the ASA said we could not track a review back to its source after this 24 hour authentication period. A strange way to reward openness and an honest commitment to respect our users, but they are the regulator.”
Skytrax says in its Editorial Policy at airlinequality.com: “It is accepted that a dissatisfied customer is more likely to submit feedback about their travel experiences than a satisfied customer.
“Skytrax do not want to run forums that portray a prejudiced level of comment for airlines or airports, and our web editors apply a judicious and careful policy to publication of comments. We stress that all reviews we feature are users' opinions, and should be considered as just that - the user opinion and not a declared fact.”
There is much at stake, but I think it will take more than a group of businesses that have copped bad reviews from their customers to sink these web juggernauts. Both systems can be abused because a small percentage of people can and do behave badly, but Tripadvisor.com and airlinequality.com are both brilliant concepts, in my opinion, and I think they deserve their followings.