grouchy consumers



New York Times

The Sunday Review


Panning Salon

Rand Renfrow
Published: December 17, 2011

The record $52.4 billion spree shoppers went on from Black Friday through Cyber Monday was really just for show. Beneath the holiday spending, consumers are grouchy. You can sense their mood just by scanning the posts at consumer-review sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp.

“Produce59” at Trip Advisor had this to say about a room at the Comfort Inn & Suites in Fredericksburg, Va.: “The heating/AC unit was nice and quiet; however, the thermostat is on the wall, so turning the knobs directly on the unit will not get you any results.” We’ll keep that in mind. (“ExArmyRN” had this nit to pick: “It would have been nice if the mini-refrigerator had a small freezer section.”)

Viaggio Ristorante and Lounge in Chicago is positively reviewed, but “Johnny T.” logged in at Yelp to say this:

“The salad was passable … The orecchiette was … a little less than a-ok. Serviceable, perhaps… I enjoyed the white beans but there was no heat to the dish … This was bland. I added red pepper flakes to the dish in search of some sort of seasoning. At the end of the meal, I was left feeling confused.”

Who are these people? I’m not sure, but they are more exacting than professional critics.

If you’re staying at, say, the Econo Lodge in Cave City, Ky., what do you expect at breakfast time? “Tropicanadan” weighed in at Trip Advisor: “The breakfast was adequate but unremarkable.” Really? At an Econo Lodge? In Kentucky?

If the consumer-review Web sites are any indication, the American consumer has become a pain in the neck. Maybe we were spoiled in the blinged-out 1990s and early ’00s and have yet to adjust to hard times. Take “Lisa C.,” of Millbrae, Calif., posting as follows at Yelp after having visited a Starbucks with her boyfriend:

“the barista … looked at me confused when i said ‘grande hot apple chai’ as if he didn’t know what it was … then he said ‘apple juice infused into chai tea?’ i responded, ‘yeah…’ my bf usually gets that ‘ice vanilla latte with restretto (sp?)’ and they stared at him too … my drink didn’t taste that well … something was off balance and i ended up tossing it…”

We used to understand that convenience comes at a price. The food you get at McDonald’s or Burger King is not meant to be a major culinary event. But now the chains, perhaps in response to customers hopped up on Food Network shows, have gone upscale. McDonald’s plans a $1 billion, Starbucks-like makeover of its restaurants, and Burger King has Whopper Bar restaurants. With the new frills come new expectations. After visiting a McDonald’s in San Diego, a Yelp contributor, “Caroline B.,” wrote:

“The Gelato was some of the worst I have ever had in my entire life. The ‘Watermelon’ looks like pink colored wall putty and had no discernible flavor of fruit of any kind. No one in our group was able to stomach it. I actually threw it away.”

She went on to say that she was no fan of the restrooms. Not because they were dirty. Because of their “faux marble and faux flowers.”

You can’t help wondering whether a full-fledged depression might be the only real cure for what ails us.

Jim Windolf is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 18, 2011, on page SR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Panning Salon.
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Mob rules; interesting look at the direction the internet is taking these days

Mob rules when twitterverse crowd turns feral

Bruce Guthrie

December 4, 2011OPINION

'There's a downside – it's appalling what people will say anonymously.'‘There’s a downside – it’s appalling what people will say anonymously.’ Photo: Phil Carrick

Recent roastings of public identities portray a very antisocial social media.

HAVE you noticed how social media is becoming distinctly antisocial? Whole communities of hecklers are springing up all over the place.

The most obvious victims in recent weeks have been broadcaster Kyle Sandilands and the embattled national carrier Qantas. Both were torn apart on Twitter and Facebook after ill-advised public comments and actions. Even the Prime Minister and her partner are not immune – Julia Gillard was called a whore by one tweeter last week, another said Tim Mathieson was gay.

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Sandilands copped plenty after he called a female journalist a ”fat slag” because she reported on the poor ratings of his recent small-screen effort. Twitterers lined up to take pot shots at the acerbic radio and TV host using the hashtag ”vilekile”. Soon there was an online petition calling for his removal from radio and Mark ”Chopper” Read challenged him to a fight. It doesn’t get much more antisocial than that – I’d probably pay to see it, though.

They were at him on Facebook too, with pages including the indefensible (but quite clever) ”Ran into Kyle Sandilands this morning, put it in reverse and hit him again”. That had 99 ”likes” when I last looked.

Qantas was similarly under siege after some bright spark in the marketing department invited twitterers to submit examples of luxury Qantas experiences. The debacle was best summed up by a mid-week tweet that suggested Qantas now stood for ”Quite A Number of Tweets, All Sarcastic”.

While the attacks on Gillard and Mathieson were indefensible, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the broadcaster or the airline. Sandilands behaved boorishly and Qantas tried to cynically use social media without really understanding that it’s the voice of the mob – and sometimes the mob can turn on you.

Of course, digital strategists prefer to call them the ”crowd”. Either way, social media is about empowering people so they can be heard. Traditional media and their agents – editors, news directors, producers – are no longer the gatekeepers of public opinion. And, as the CEO of Deloitte Digital, Peter Williams, told me: ”The crowd’s proving more and more that it’s got teeth … my gut feeling is we are only scratching the surface.”

Which will no doubt disturb companies and individuals busy building their brands. Some can be brought down in as few as 140 characters, with one of the most popular forms of antisocial media being fake Twitter accounts. Rupert Murdoch, Andrew Bolt and Qantas boss Alan Joyce are among the many parodied in barbs of about 25 words, endlessly retweeted.

Much of what flows from this people power is positive – think Arab Spring. But there’s a downside too, as we saw during the London riots, when Twitter was used to flag assembly points for bovver boys. And it’s appalling what people will say anonymously.

While Sandilands, Qantas and the PM can deal with the challenges thrown up by antisocial media – they have large marketing machines behind them – others aren’t as well placed.

Former undercover cop Colin McLaren, who now runs a restaurant and boutique accommodation near Bright, believes some aspects of social media threaten small businesses. ”It’s disillusioning people in the restaurant business,” says McLaren. ”Some of them are just packing up, saying they’ve had enough.”

While his property, Villa Gusto, has been well received by critics and customers – its restaurant was awarded a chef’s hat in the latest Age Good Food Guide – he’s noticed disparaging comments appearing on the travel site TripAdvisor, which relies on user-generated material for its content.

He’s not alone. Recently, The Age reported that Allan Parker, owner of Gigi’s of Beechworth, was considering legal action over a posting on TripAdvisor that described his restaurant fare as ”like dog food but more expensive”. Parker believes it was written by a disgruntled former staff member.

In Britain, more than 700 hotels and restaurants are threatening legal action against the US-based site, claiming malicious and anonymous postings are damaging their businesses. In response, a TripAdvisor statement said in part: ”Our more than 35 million reviews and opinions are authentic and honest from real travellers, which is why we enjoy tremendous user loyalty and growth.”

That said, there seems little doubt that some social media are being used to square-up and no doubt there will be wider calls in the future for stricter controls, as there were during the London riots. I’d argue social media has produced much more good than bad, but watch this space.

The ire of users can even extend to single-subject blogs. My favourite is the local one devoted to telling the world about the shortcomings of a national retailer who sold the author a dodgy doona.

Two years after the blog was written, it still shows up in the top 10 results if you Google the retail chain. Beats walking up and down the street all day with a placard.

Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The AgeThe Sunday Age and Herald Sun.

Twitter: @brucerguthrie

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Hotels blackmailed with bad reviews

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TripAdvisor reviews used as blackmail



TripAdvisor Reviews Used as Blackmail

TripAdvisor LogoAccording to hotel owners, guests are using reviews on TripAdvisor to blackmail them. About 80 hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are claiming that customers are threatening to give them a bad review in order to get discounts or upgrades. This is happening even if the guests have had nothing wrong during their stay. A hotel could lose bookings, worth tens of thousands of pounds, due to a bad rating on the site.

One hotel was threatened by a guest that it would get a poor review on TripAdvisor if they weren’t given a 50% discount on their stay. In another case, the owner of a venue tried to charge a guest for damage that the customer caused to a room, but the hotelier wound up being forced to back down after a poor review was threatened.

There are more than 50 million reviews written by guests about hotels, airlines and restaurants on the travel review website. Hotel owners say that TripAdvisor’s model is unfair because it permits anonymous reviews, and there are many times that there is no supporting evidence.

Good Hotel Guide editor Adam Raphael says that he has heard of cases where people call a hotel and threaten to leave a horrible review before they even get there in the hopes of being given a discount. TripAdvisor says that they take blackmail allegations very seriously, as it is strictly against their guidelines and could also be illegal.

In one case that is still involved in legal action, the owner of a Sussex hotel says that a guest demanded nearly £1,000 after claiming to have suffered food poisoning. When the hotel refused to pay, following evidence from other diners that the meal was eaten and hadn’t caused the illness, the guest posted a nasty review on TripAdvisor. There are also frequent examples of guests causing extensive damage to rooms and forcing owners to back down by threatening to post a bad review.

TripAdvisor was launched in 2000 and now has 45 million unique visitors every month – ranging from business travellers to holidaymakers looking for accommodations. However, its business model of allowing people to post reviews anonymously, often without evidence to support their claims, has been slammed as unfair. Even hotels and rival venues have been accused of submitting fake reviews to boost or impede bookings, and the company has been working to keep this to a minimum.

It was reported last month that the owner of the Riverside Hotel in Evesham, Worcestershire launched legal action against TripAdvisor after the company placed a ‘red flag’ on its review page in August. The message said that they believed the hotel was posting suspicious reviews. The hotel was ranked number one in the area, and owner Deborah Sinclair claims the message caused a catastrophic 75% drop in bookings.

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Let´s start our “fam” trip with the TALF- Trip Advisor London forum

TALF is the core of Trip Advisor´s civilian militia. Look around and send a comment with your email, which I will not post.

Share your knowledge about London!
Add a new Traveler Article!

arrow   Add a new topic
arrow   Need Suggestions? , phenomenal page, However it was constructed with, in my humble opinion, a form of sweat shop labor.
Come on share your knowledge for free or maybe not totally free you might get a t shirt or maybe even a little companionship and let´s work hard to make Expedia and its owner Barry Diller a little richer from your sweat!!
More coming on the not so secret, secrete society of Trip Advisor brethren.
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Coming soon, “Who is Who” at Trip Advisor

The Tallfies, the invisible hands of Trip Advisor and its staff.

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Here is an example of the kind of active role Trip Advisor plays in manipulating properties popularity indices

Online reviews: Controversy growing amid charges of fake reviews, defamatory comments

November 15, 2011. 7:48 am • Section: Digital LifeSTAFF

Recently I wrote a story about user-generated reviews and the growing controversy over the issue of fake reviews. In the wake of the story, a Nova Scotia eco-retreat that makes guests sign an undertaking that they won’t post online reviews, said TripAdvisor followed up with a ‘punishing 1-star’ review that appeared soon after the story was published.

“We thought you would be interested to know that as soon as your article appeared online (within 12 hours), TripAdvisor published a review held since mid September in which the reviewer mentions the Lodge’s privacy agreement. It is, of course, a punishing 1-star (meaning “terrible” in the TA system) review,” wrote Vaughan Perret, co-owner of the Trout Point Lodge.

Here is the story:

“The décor reminded me more of my mother-in-law’s nursing home as frankly, I have stayed in more up-to-date Travel Lodges.” — Excerpt from a review by a hotel guest on TripAdvisor

“What a wonderfully written review! I strongly recommend that you take up writing fiction for a living.” — Excerpt from the hotel manager’s response to the review

User-generated reviews have been alternately hailed as giving voice to consumers and denounced as unreliable, open to fakery and other abuse.

For consumers, they can be a valuable tool, tapping in to the collective opinions of others on everything from the reliability of a particular toaster to the quality of food at a restaurant to the welcome they can expect at a resort.

For businesses, they can be an important barometer of customer relations and provide a potential boost in custom. But unfavourable reviews can cost them business, plus the anxiety of coping with critics who can shelter, at least initially, behind the Internet’s cloak of anonymity.

Some businesses — such as the United Kingdom’s Saint Martin’s on the Isle Hotel — appear to take the “best defence is a good offence” approach to online reviews, if the above excerpts from TripAdvisor are any indication, reacting with stinging rebukes of their own when a guest posts an unfavourable review.

One Nova Scotia eco-retreat has taken the fight against user-generated reviews a step further, insisting guests sign an agreement promising they won’t post about their experiences at the lodge on any online sites without written permission.

Most recently, a Florida food company sued Yelp for defamation, claiming the site showed negative reviews ahead of positive ones.

And in the United Kingdom, the Advertising Standards Agency has launched an investigation into TripAdvisor following a complaint by the online reputation-management company KwikChex, which represents 2,000 hotels, alleging that many of the reviews are fake or simply unreliable.

Online reviews may give consumers the power to become published critics, but others maintain that power is being abused, with stories of bogus reviews and manipulated rankings raising questions about the reliability of user-generated critiques.

Reviews, for a price

To write a review, all you need is an account with Google Places, Yelp or one of the many other sites that host such critiques. While such reviews may appear legitimate, some are bought and paid for: The going rate seems to be about $5.

“We are looking for people who already have accounts or would create an account on one or more of these Review sites: Google Places, Yahoo Local, Yelp, Insiderpages or CitySearch so that you can write reviews for businesses for us,” reads one Craigslist ad.

“Many businesses and Marketing Agencies contact us that want positive reviews for their business and clients.” Another ad offers $5 each for 100 reviews, promising they “can be done easily in one day.”

Bogus reviews are such an issue that Cornell researchers developed an algorithmic method to detect fake online hotel reviews, which successfully identified fakes 90 per cent of the time in a database of 400 genuine and 400 planted reviews.

The “opinion spam” can range from “annoying self-promotion of an unrelated website or blog to deliberate review fraud,” the researchers said. And depending on the product being reviewed, up to 30 per cent of reviews might be fake, estimates a researcher from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Fake reviews may not just extol a product’s virtues; they could also be negative, posted by a rival business to hurt its competition.

In one case of faked reviews in 2009, Belkin — maker of networking and computer-related products — issued a letter of apology after it was discovered that one of its employees was paying people to post positive reviews of Belkin products.

But despite the pitfalls and the controversy surrounding them, online reviews — like the genie that won’t be stuffed back in the bottle — are here to stay.

Consumers aren’t about to start keeping their opinions to themselves now that they have found a global audience.

That is not a bad thing.

The sheer volume of reviews may function as a bit of a filter for the bogus ones. Reading one review may give a skewed perspective, but looking at a number of reviews can balance out biases.

“I trust them in aggregate,” said Darren Barefoot, co-founder of Vancouver’s Capulet Communications and co-author of Friends with Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook. “No one is particularly reliable.”

Just as asking one friend’s opinion of a movie isn’t as helpful as getting that of 10 friends, he said, online reviews are most useful when considered collectively. And Barefoot said he tends to look at star ratings such as those on

A kind of rate-the-reviewer system, some sites let readers vote on whether they find a review helpful, and many will deliver a star rating based on the average rankings of all the posted reviews on the particular item or service.

Legal options

Difficult as it can be for businesses to take the criticism levelled against them online — often from anonymous posters — Barefoot advises them not to ignore it.

“Leaving something alone is almost always a bad idea,” he said. “Ignoring comments, putting your head in the sand is not going to make the critics go away. You have to engage with critics and you have to engage with the people who love your organization.”

In seminars and workshops for businesses, Barefoot uses the example of Saint Martin’s on the Isle Hotel as an illustration of how not to respond to unfavourable online reviews.

“The first piece of advice we give on that is to treat the person like they are standing in front of you,” he said.

Not all businesses take that advice. Indeed, some are taking a more aggressive response to online critics, in some cases suing for defamation.

The Federal Communications Decency Act in the U.S., however, provides a degree of protection for user-generated review sites, giving them immunity from liability for content posted by the site’s users.

While defamation laws are different in Canada, practically speaking it can be costly and time-consuming for businesses here to seek redress for what they may consider defamatory reviews.

Vancouver lawyer David Wotherspoon — a partner in Fasken Martineau whose practice focuses on intellectual property, technology and defamation — said if someone is publishing words that are defamatory, it is almost impossible to get a preliminary injunction to stop that because of the high value courts place on freedom of speech.

The very nature of the Internet almost guarantees the offending words will spread widely and there is the so-called Streisand Effect.

That term refers to how attempts to stifle online publications can sometimes backfire. It dates back to 2003, when entertainer Barbra Streisand attempted to have images of her Malibu home removed from the Internet, a move that only focused attention on them and led to a huge increase in online viewing.

Even in cases where a plaintiff gets a favourable ruling, if the defendant is based in a different country, enforcing an order for damages can be an onerous undertaking. With online user-generated reviews it may be more effective to simply write a letter asking that the offending post be removed, according to Wotherspoon.

“Say I post something you don’t like [on a review site such as Yelp],” he said. “The easy solution for Yelp is they just pull it off. I can complain and receive a solution through one letter that I would likely never get in the courts.”

Companies that host user-generated reviews, meanwhile, are protected by the defence of innocent dissemination.

“Because they don’t in fact have knowledge of the content that is posted, at least initially, they are not going to be held liable,” said Wotherspoon.

As soon as the company is put on notice about defamatory content, however, it is no longer covered by innocent dissemination.

Wotherspoon said he thinks legitimate organizations such as Yelp act responsibly. “That may be why I am not seeing a lot of disputes over the abuse of user-generated reviews,” he said.

Yelp, which has been the subject of defamation suits in the U.S., changed some of its practices last year after class-action lawsuits were brought against it. One change was a provision that now allows businesses to see reviews that have been filtered out by the site’s algorithmic process, which seeks to weed out fake reviews.

“We were pretty quick to implement the review filter,” said Yelp spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose. “Basically it is looking for patterns of abuse or suspicious behaviour. I am the first to say the filter is not perfect. From time to time it will suppress the review of a legitimate customer.”

Ichinose said 85 per cent of the reviews on Yelp give a three-star or higher rating. A three-star rating ranks the business as “A-OK.”

David Doyle’s company has experienced the good and bad of user-generated reviews. Doyle, vice-president of sales at the Apple specialty dealer, said the important thing for businesses is to track and respond to comments, whether they’re positive or negative.

In one recent incident, a customer who used the company’s service department wrote what Doyle described as “a terrible Yelp about us.” When Doyle investigated, he discovered the customer’s phone number had been written down wrong — which meant Simply hadn’t been able to contact him regarding an item left for servicing.

The Yelp reviewer withdrew the unfavourable post when the confusion over the phone number came to light.

Doyle said Yelp has so far filtered out two reviews posted about Simply, one a four-star review and another a critical review.

“I think they are making an effort to make it a more credible experience for people,” he said. “At the same time, they’ll take out the good ones with the bad ones.”

Threats remain

Still, other companies are less willing to join the discussion, upset not just by negative reviews but by consumers who use such tools as negotiating devices, threatening to post bad reviews unless the business acquiesces to their demands.

Nova Scotia’s Trout Point Lodge has come under criticism for its policy forbidding guests from posting anything online about the lodge or their experiences there.

But co-owner Vaughan Perret said since the policy was instituted last May, only one guest has refused to sign the legal agreement, which is a condition of staying at the hotel.

The lodge gets an average four-and-a-half star rating out of five from the 56 reviews on TripAdvisor, but a prominent advisory on the page now warns: “TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that this hotel requires guests to transfer their intellectual-property rights for any online publications or reviews related to their experiences as a guest to the hotel, which will discourage publicly available online feedback. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans.”

Perret said the lodge relies primarily on word-of-mouth when it comes to recommendations.

“We have had problems with TripAdvisor,” he said. “Many innkeepers have had problems with TripAdvisor.”

Perret said the anonymity of the Internet can make it “a really uncivil place.” That, he said, plus the lodge’s commitment to ensuring privacy for its guests, prompted the policy regarding online postings.

“I really haven’t had any choice but to take the road I’ve taken,” he said.

Perret said that on at least three occasions guests have threatened to post bad reviews unless the lodge agreed to their demands for discounts.

“The blackmail thing has come up, for sure,” he said.

Although user-generated reviews may be more common than ever, the concerns being raised are almost as old as the Internet.

Robert Slade, a data communications and security specialist who follows the issue of online reviews, had his first experience with suspect reviews back in the 1990s. His first book on anti-virus technology had just been released and virus writers, he said, launched a determined attack through Amazon.

“They wanted to do as much damage to my book as possible,” he said.

Slade doesn’t put much store in user-generated reviews, speaking instead of a new type of caveat emptor: buyer beware, not only of what you’re thinking about buying but of what’s being written about it.

“I seldom look at users’ comments,” he said. “I may look at a few, but I certainly hesitate to make a decision on that basis. I’ve found the quality of comments really is not worth looking at. There is an awful lot of ‘I liked this, I didn’t like that, this is the best thing in the world, this is the worst in the world.’ ”


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