Saturday, June 13, 2009

Update and Flashback: The Truth About TripAdvisor and Professional Reviews

After writing my previous post about the issue of hotel-review manipulation on TripAdvisor and the merits or demerits of professional reviews, someone at TripAdvisor reminded me of a fascinating Travel Weekly roundtable discussion that focused on some of the same themes.

Check out this exchange between Arnie Weissmann, Travel Weekly's vice president and editor in chief, who moderated the discussion; Tim Zagat, co-founder of Zagat Surveys; and Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer's Travel Guides:

"Weissmann: If a consumer sent something to the Zagat Survey that struck you as insightful and authoritative, but was the only person to voice that opinion, would you print it?

Zagat: If the opinion says what other people are saying, or more or less says what people are saying, we will print it. And we like to find opinions that are especially well said.

Weissmann: So if somebody had an observation that struck you as insightful, but they were a minority of one ...

Zagat: We would not print them. We never print a minority of one. But you don't find that. What you find is that there are themes. I mean, these reviews practically write themselves.

The average restaurant in New York has got 1,000 comments on the survey, but the first 100 people say it all, and the others say the same things again and again and again. Pick a restaurant. How many ways can you describe it? Or a hotel?

Frommer: Wasn't it Ibsen who said that the majority is always wrong?

Would you not rather rely on the prognostications or the appraisals by Frank Bruni, the ...

Zagat: No.

Frommer: ... restaurant critic ...

Zagat: No.

Frommer: ... of the New York Times ...

Zagat: No.

Frommer: ... than on 100 New Yorkers ...

Zagat: No.

Frommer: ...who have no ...

Zagat: No, no, I would absolutely not, and I will tell you why. First of all, 100 people who filled out our surveys on a specific restaurant will have gone there an average of 11 times each. That means the restaurant has been visited 1,100 times. Frank Bruni has to write another review next week, so he goes once, twice, three times, maybe four.

Frommer: But Frank Bruni has a basis for comparison.

Zagat: What the hell does he have? A Ph.D in taste buds?"

I love that last quote: "What the hell does he have? A Ph.D in taste buds?"

The answer for consumers -- and to travel businesses -- is that you should probably blend restaurant and hotel reviews from the Frank Brunis of this world with hotel reviews written by guests and restaurant patrons, too.

But, as you can see from the above exchange, people like Frommer, who as a guide-book publisher has a vested interest in promoting professional reviews, have a deep distrust for the opinions of average travelers because Joe and Betty Vacation haven't earned their Ph.Ds in room service or hotel-check-out.

Yes, Mr. Frommer, the majority can be wrong, and solitary and minority opinion can inform.

But, in hotel or restaurant reviews, don't dismiss the majority opinion, either.

After all, Joe and Betty Vacation may have an insight that Bruni wouldn't have considered in 5 million years.

@BeatofHawaii kicked off the latest -- what @UpTake characterizes as -- "@TripAdvisor review manipulation kerfuffle," by pointing to TripAdvisor's practice of posting warning notices alongside hotels that allegedly have gamed the hotel-review system.

And BeatofHawaii (Jeff) subsequently clarified his position, tweeting that he values traveler reviews, but "92 fraud badges don't scrape surface of problem. Feels like TripAdvisor wants traffic and reviews at virtually any cost."

We agree that TripAdvisor's reputation and business is at stake when hoteliers muck up the works and encourage fraudulent reviews so I'm sure TripAdvisor will do everything it can to police its hotel reviews.

I like Priceline's approach, which it recently modified.

Priceline stated: "Most hotels now feature a detailed guest scorecard. The scorecard ranks the hotel’s popularity among Priceline hotel guests and shows when a hotel is ranked among the top-rated hotels for a specific city. Also, each hotel receives a guest satisfaction score in 5 different satisfaction categories -- overall quality, cleanliness, staff, location and dining. Unlike other hotel review services that allow anyone to post a review, the scorecards are based on surveys that hotel guests receive after they’ve completed their stay."

In addition, Priceline took steps to make it easier to enable travelers to search reviews based on their own demographic profile or interest.

Priceline states: "Now, guest hotel reviews can be sorted and grouped according to 7 different traveler types -- solo travelers, groups, seniors, couples, families with teens, families with young children and business travelers. This gives potential hotel guests the ability to search their hotels through the eyes and experiences of like-minded travelers. also offers exclusive hotel and restaurant ratings and reviews from Zagat Survey, LLC."

Any hotel-review system can be manipulated to some extent, and that's especially true, as @RobertKCole pointed out, when it comes to smaller, non-chain properties.

Priceline's policy of limiting hotel reviews to authors who booked their stay on Priceline diminishes the number of potential reviews, but greatly enhances their credibility.

I don't know if TripAdvisor would be able to institute such a policy since it is a research and planning site and doesn't handle bookings.

But, one thing TripAdvisor could and should do immediately is to take the additional step of banning, for a set time frame, the display of hotels that haven't played by the rules and have earned review-manipulation notices.

Then, TripAdvisor, we'd know that you really are serious about the problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am an owner of a small B&B that has had a very defaming review posted on the tripadvisor site for a period of 18 months they ahve refused to remove it and even when CCTV was sent as proof of the untruthfulness of the review they still refused to remove it or post my response, I eventually contacted a Solicotr and they have posted a contradiction under the review so why ahve they posted the review if they know now that it is untrue, recently a review was posted that did not decribe our B&B and I contacted TA and sent a PM to the reviewer, TA never ansered but the reviewer sent a return PM to say they beleived they ahd stayed here and decribed the building inside, which was totally wrong, I then tried to contact the reviewer again to tell them that the description was not of our B&B but TA have blocked me from sending any further Private Messages and as the perosn did not stay here I have no way of contacting the reviewer, my solicitor has told me to hire an attorney in Boston to take an order forcing TA to indetify the reviewer under an Freedom of Information Act, which I may do, because TA is not only open to abuse from very good hoteliers and marketing people small B&Bs are suffering from people being able to place unverified or fact checked reviews on that site, I did not put my B&B on the site, it was placed there by Ta and I want to be removed I have no desire to have our B&B reviewed by people who dide under the cloak of TA and a screen anme, constructive critism is always welcome but reviews over cancellation policies and charging for not showing up is not a just review, I ahve an email from TA stating that they DO NOT fact check reviews so anyone can post either a negative review or a positive review and no one is held accountable.