The User Review Phenomenon: Big Money & Retaliation
“Objective” review sites sell a new kind of entertainment in part through sensationalist reviews and forum chatter, and make money by selling advertising and links to Internet reservation sites. A glance at www.tripadvisor.com will reveal numerous links to its sister enterprises such as hotels.com and expedia.com. TripAdvisor is about selling advertising and acting as a gateway for corporate reservation sites. Checking on the veracity of the review content is often left aside. As a TripAdvisor employee put it in a forum discussion, explaining their editorial policies: “The ‘truth’ is always subjective.”
TripAdvisor claims to publish “more than 20 million unbiased reviews and opinions, covering 250,000+ hotels and attractions.” Travel writer Vijay Verghese of Bangkok has recently (September, 2007) noted the increasing trend of the traveling public using review sites as weapons, often perpetuated by persons he calls “Aesthete Travellers”:
Times have changed. These days you don’t simply call a hotel to make a reservation. You call them, bully them, hint at legal action, threaten to leap off a high place – like from atop the toaster – and, finally, mention that dreaded “online review”, all to get $5 knocked off your bill. Sometimes it works. Despite travel giant Expedia’s best efforts to filter out scams – including complex algorithms to detect fraud – the “unbiased” hotel reviews on TripAdvisor.com are often peppered with blackmail and stealth attacks.
Verghese’s independent observations are confirmed by numerous other investigators, including the Times newspaper of London quoted below.
Our research has found similar instances at several properties where people looking for discounted rooms have threatened posting bad reviews on tripadvisor.com as a way to coerce management.
In one e-mail to a small inn in Costa Rica in 2006, one person who received a polite e-mail telling him that the Inn was full, continued to demand a reservation over a long period of time and ultimately wrote the following:
I will be detailing these unfortunate series of non-communication events on Tripadvisor and giving you the lowest possible rating. Your lack of responsiveness has delayed my reservations making for three weeks while waiting for your reply. Best Wishes, Mike
[name of inn and listing page on tripadvisor.com]
(The next one won’t be too good.)
Should sites such as tripadvisor.com be able to act as weapons of blackmail for anyone with Internet access? Is it still the innkeeper’s prerogative to refuse accommodation to those it considers undesirable or has no room for?
In a similar instance, a couple seeking a discount off of a stay wrote scathing reviews and posted negative comments to forums on tripadvisor.com and travellibrary.com. They contacted the property to demand a refund, and ultimately received it. In return, they pulled the reviews and forum postings.
Giving in to such blackmail by hotel management may seem as bad as the blackmail itself, however many innkeepers (and increasingly restaurateurs) are at the mercy of these powerful travel “review” sites that exercise no true editorial control over their increasingly influential publications. Such is not what the U.S. Congress anticipated in 1996 when it passed the Communications Decency Act grating sites like tripadvisor.com immunity from legal action for its role as an Internet publisher.
Even when tripadvisor.com in Boston was contacted by the hotelier to report the latter instance of blackmail, nothing was done until the reviewer him- or herself pulled the review and forum posting. travellibrary.com did pull the review when notified of its nature, but this web site has since been bought by TripAdvisor, LLC.
In another example, a small inn recently received threats of posting bad reviews to tripadvisor as a way of getting out of a cancellation policy. Staff found their behavior so strange and threatening that they recorded more than 45 minutes of conversation with them, including the threats of posting bad reviews. Without fail, two bad reviews full of untruths appeared on tripadvisor.com within a month. The inn’s management contacted the party to inform them that if they did not correct factual errors or remove the reviews, that a legal action for defamation would be forthcoming. They also wrote to TripAdvisor asking that the blackmail reviews be removed. TripAdvisor refused to do so.
A Tourism Business’ Dilemma & Rights: TripAdvisor Acting as Judge & Jury
What’s more, when TripAdvisor learned of the inn’s communication with the “reviewers” it wrote the following message to the inn attempting to cow the accommodation owners into dropping their threat of legal action:
Travelers rely on TripAdvisor to be an unbiased source of travel information.
TripAdvisor has reason to suspect that you and/or others in your organization have attempted to influence your position on our site by threatening reviewers to get them remove or edit unfavorable reviews.
As outlined in our FAQs at
it is a strict violation of TripAdvisor’s guidelines to attempt to manipulate our ranking system. We have a procedure for penalizing businesses who make such attempts.
This is official notification that your property is now being actively monitored by TripAdvisor for suspicious activity. You must discontinue any attempts to subvert our system.
Please respond to this email to acknowledge receipt of this notice. (emphasis added)
The inn responded by telling TripAdvisor that it was fully within its legal rights, and in many common-law jurisdictions it is mandated by law, that a party defaming another be contacted and asked to remove or correct the offending material, no matter what TripAdvisor’s “guidelines” might be.
This non-U.S. based accommodation owner was not trying to “manipulate” a ranking system, but merely and lawfully to have defamatory material removed or corrected, material being used to defraud and blackmail.
A brief investigation has found at least three other properties with the same pattern: if any accommodation business threatens legal action either against TripAdvisor or reviewers, they receive this “official notification,” have defamatory warnings placed on their listing, and have their rank on the web site manipulated. So much for objectivity.
Moreover, TripAdvisor will not honor requests to have a listing removed completely, and routinely buys ad words on sites such as Google using the business’ trade name.
Indeed, the mainstream media and the traveling public most often blame the tourism industry for posting fake reviews to buoy their ratings on TripAdvisor and gain more business. For instance, Catharine Hamm of the Los Angeles Times in a piece circulated by the Tribune Newspapers, emphasizes the 1st Amendment right to free speech and even promoting the idea of “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP) with hoteliers who threaten those writing defamatory reviews or reviews written with the attempt to blackmail. According to most legal experts in common law jurisdictions, when a review is defamatory, or is written with the intention to do harm, or is so negligent that it does harm a hotel business, the 1st Amendment or similar legal rights end.
TripAdvisor pretends to take on quasi-judicial status itself, giving out “official notifications” as though they had some right to do so. Hamm quotes a communication received from TripAdvisor about the issue of the hotel threatening legal action for defamation:
Brooke Ferencsik, senior manager of media relations for TripAdvisor, said, “It is rare that a hotelier threatens a reviewer with legal action, but if we are made aware of such an instance, we will send out a letter to the owner alerting them that their property will be actively monitored by TripAdvisor for suspicious activity and that they must discontinue any attempts to subvert our system. We also make them aware that we have a procedure for penalizing businesses who make such attempts.”
This begs the question: how, exactly, does TripAdvisor, LLC and its parent company Expedia “penalize” businesses; and are these quasi-judicial actions, “official notifications” regarding “suspicious activity” and their attendant “punishments” legal?
The Inn that threatened legal action for reviews published by TripAdvisor that attempted to blackmail it? TripAdvisor has never responded to the management, but did place the following “punishment” message on the inn’s tripadvisor.com page in 2008:
Alert: This property has attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews. Please take this into consideration when researching your traveling plans.
This “alert” has subsequently been changed to the following, published prominently in red:
The same message appears on dozens of hotel property listings—those that TripAdvisor is “punishing.”
Thus, a hotel property being blackmailed by defamatory material published by tripadvisor.com with no exercise of editorial responsibility is then damaged and defamed further by TripAdvisor itself! As travel expert Pauline Frommer commented in a 2008 interview with ABC News, “online hotel ‘reviews’ are often more like advertisements. ‘A good review, or 10 good reviews, or 20 good reviews translates into thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for that hotel,’ Frommer said.” TripAdvisor clearly knows that it is damaging a property’s business with such editorial content.
Notably, informational content on tripadvisor.com not authored by 3rd parties is not subject to the immunity granted to web site owners by Congress in 1996, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Thus, TripAdvisor, LLC can be sued for content—like the “alerts”–that it is responsible for writing and publishing. In 2008, Deirdre Kiely sued TripAdvisor for its employment practices. She was a “web content editor” hired (allegedly illegally) as a contractor—exactly the kind of person who manufactures and fine tunes content for the web site in a way not immunized by legislation in the U.S. The same could be said of TripAdvisor’s “Popularity Index,” its listing of the Top 10 Filthiness Hotels in various regions, and other content authored by TripAdvisor itself.
Several lawyers in the United Kingdom have said that a law suit against the web site’s parent company is likely, as reported by The Times and Travolution.com. One attorney told a Times reporter that TripAdvisor’s claim that it only publishes the subjective opinions of others “may not be a strong enough defence where reviewers have defamed a hotel by making unfounded claims that could affect its reputation.” Indeed, in most jurisdictions outside the United States—such as the United Kingdom and Canada—TripAdvisor has absolutely no immunity as a publisher of defamatory material.
Our investigation has concluded that there is a very strong likelihood that actions by TripAdvisor to “penalize businesses” include controlling the property’s rank by:
• removing positive reviews
• causing TripAdvisor employees or contractors like Deirdre Kiely to write negative 1- and 2-star reviews
• strategically withholding or posting reviews
• otherwise manipulating the supposedly scientific “popularity index”
Examples of such punitive “reviews” include those written by the following TripAdvisor users:
Our investigation has unearthed at least 3 specific examples of TripAdvisor content editors removing positive reviews to manipulate the ranking and “popularity” of individual accommodations listed on its site: one each for properties in Costa Rica, Canada, and the United States. In all of these instances, positive reviews were removed and negative reviews appeared within a very short period of time. In one example, a bed and breakfast went from ranking #1 in its geographic area to ranking last because of these editorial manipulations.
The Power of Internet Reviews and TripAdvisor’s Decaying Reputation for the Truth
Travel writer Vijay Verghese continues his tongue-in-cheek analysis:
Aesthete Travellers will stop at nothing to secure a harmonious stay. Hoteliers report they’ll even threaten to “blow up” the place if the rate is not dropped. And it’s not just the Hamas delegation we’re talking about.
Others hint at brutal online hotel reviews with deeply disturbing outcomes fraught with bad grammar and misspellings. Guests who have enjoyed a perfectly comfortable stay will turn up at the check-out counter complaining about trivialities hoping to get “compensation”. Usually this means a free night, or a free stay.
The Times of London has kept a keen eye on tripadvisor.com and other travel “review” sites:
These examples are just the tip of an iceberg. The entire industry of reviewing hotels and restaurants is in the midst of a revolution that risks leading customers up the path to Fawlty Towers.
The traditional published guides, often compiled by independent inspectors, are struggling, while online sites where checks are few are proliferating.
A London Sunday Times investigation has shown:
1) “Guests” who have never even stayed at a hotel can boost or depress its rating by posting fake reviews.
2) Poorly rated establishments can lift their reputations from one to four stars in a matter of hours by posting fictional positive reviews.
3) Some establishments attempt to damage the reputations of rivals. So tough is the competition that even top hotels and restaurants would consider placing fake reviews to maintain their status.
The best travel guides have traditionally been compiled by professional inspectors who visit hotels and restaurants incognito and fiercely guard their impartiality. But it is a costly business and one that can no longer compete.
Travel & Leisure has published on “Who can you trust,” detailing fake negative and positive reviews appearing on tripadvisor.com for New York hotel that had not yet opened. As travel blog beatofhawaii.com has noted “Perhaps TripAdvisor’s motto, ‘get the truth, then go,’ needs to be changed to, ‘try to find the truth, and go.’”
TripAdvisor pretends to its viewing public to have established editorial criterion and methods for catching false postings. However, investigations have shown this is far from the truth. Competitors routinely run smear campaigns using tripadvisor.com as a weapon. In addition, as already shown, guests or potential guests use such sites as a means of blackmail, demanding discounts or free stays from management.
As www.beatofhawaii.com has noted, it goes against TripAdvisor, LLC and its parent company Expedia’s financial interest to combat fraud and thus reduce content:
TripAdvisor, a unit of Expedia, obviously serves first and foremost to further their global travel marketing business. TripAdvisor makes money through their affiliate (link click) program and through advertisements. The value of that marketing business is in no small part based on the number of reviews as well as the number of visitors to the site. Reducing the number of visitors and reviews in order to limit the amount of fraud will likely also have significant negative financial impact on their marketing.
Our investigations have revealed two examples of obvious fraudulent reviews and postings: a Canadian property was maligned for months in the TripAdvisor forums with TripAdvisor refusing to act to prevent the activity in any way, when a user suddenly also announced they had submitted a terrible review of the property. It was early May, and the accommodation had not yet opened.
A Costa Rica eco-lodge recently had a review posted giving it an overall rating of 1 out of 5, saying the owners were haughty, and stating that the place was filthy. The reviewer stated that he stayed there in October, 2008—the place was closed the entire month and the owners had not been present for months, having turned management over to locals. The company has written to TripAdvisor asking them to remove the review. After 5 days, the TripAdvisor “Hotel Relations” department wrote back:
We have looked at the review in question and determined that it does meet TripAdvisor’s listing criteria. Therefore, it will not be removed. Please understand that TripAdvisor is not an arbitrator of disputes between guests and hoteliers, but is merely an open forum for guests to express their experiences. In order for us to maintain our integrity as an open forum, we must allow our members to freely express their opinions as long as they meet our listing criteria. Our decision to allow this review to remain on the site is not an indictment of your hotel or the situation in question in any way; we are simply staying consistent with our policy.
In fact, TripAdvisor supposedly has zero tolerance for fake reviews, and all reviews must be based on an actual traveler’s experience. In this example, TripAdvisor is manipulating content, position on its popularity index, and star rating with malicious intent or at a minimum editorial negligence.
The Times continued:
Last week The Sunday Times was able to post reviews on TripAdvisor giving top ratings to six London hotels that had consistently been criticised as “the worst ever”, “a horror” or “disgusting”.
One hotel in west London had received consistently bad reviews on TripAdvisor, with guests describing it as a “hovel” with “stains everywhere”. Yet when a Sunday Times reviewer awarded it top marks, no one checked on the discrepancy.
TripAdvisor, which insists that all its reviews are read by moderators, later admitted that it could not spot all fake postings but aimed to stop concerted campaigns to raise the reputations of establishments.
tripadvisor.com’s registered trade mark is “get the truth, then go”; yet our investigation has also revealed that non-existent hotels and resorts can get a listing on the web site within days—that is, TripAdvisor performs absolutely no due diligence to even determine if a hotel actually exists or not. More importantly, TripAdvisor itself hires people to write content, including creating listings for fake hotels. Under federal legislation, if TripAdvisor is an “information content provider” and not just a web site that posts the content of others, it loses any immunity from being sued for its web content. It is certainly within a tourism or accommodation business’ legal and ethical rights to protect itself against the negligent and intentional harm perpetuated by TripAdvisor, LLC.