The price of truth in the case against TripAdvisor
Ever posted a bad review on TripAdvisor? It’s a pretty satisfying way to blow off steam after a rotten experience, but, while carefully crafting your missive about unidentified stains on the bedding and £25-a-night Wi-Fi, did you consider the possible consequences?
Online reviews now carry such weight that just one negative comment can go a long way towards ruining a business. There are plenty of hotels that deserve a good shoeing, but in some cases bad reviews are exaggerated, inaccurate, or just plain untrue. Now reviewers who post malicious or fraudulent reviews are being threatened with legal action.
We’ve previously reported that online reputation management company KwikChex is taking action against TripAdvisor and similar sites on behalf of around 800 disgruntled hoteliers. Now KwikChex is preparing to issue lists of thousands of reviewers that it says could face libel action and possible criminal prosecution. “We anticipate the first list being published in two to three weeks time,” KwikChex founder and CEO Chris Emmins told Bitterwallet.
Individuals on the lists will be given 14 days to either substantiate or remove offending posts. So could you be in trouble? We think probably not, unless you’ve made some pretty serious allegations against a hotel, or made a deliberate attempt to damage its business.
Human nature means we’re far more likely to take the time to post about negative experiences than positive ones. And the anonymous aspect means it’s easy to embellish the facts – or even completely make them up. There are likely to be many bad reviews that are pure fiction, posted by conniving rivals, bitter ex-employees and other disgruntled parties.
(On the flip side, there’s little to stop unscrupulous Basil Fawlty-types posting glowing reviews to big up their properties – something that the KwikChex action doesn’t aim to, although TripAdivsor themselves can and do reprimand guilty parties)
So how does KwikChex differentiate between malicious or fraudulent postings and genuine bad reviews? “Our focus is on comments that allege criminal behaviour or negligence, or that bear the hallmarks of originating from a competitor or a person with a specific grudge,” said Emmins. “We’ve seen attacks on new businesses that are characteristic of competitor attacks. There are many trigger indicators that cause comments to be suspect.”
As for TripAdvisor, it already allows hoteliers to post management responses and dispute contentious reviews, and also takes undisclosed steps to combat fraud. (“Unfortunately, we can’t tell you exactly how we do it, since that might offer potential offenders a roadmap to subvert our system.”) The website has stated that it won’t release, publish or endorse any list of reviewers accused of posting fraudulent reviews unless compelled to do so by a court of law.
“I think it is fair to say that no site will be compelled to contact users that are listed,” Chris Emmins told us, suggesting it’s unlikely that TripAdvisor reviewers will end up having their collars felt. In which case, why go to the trouble of issuing the lists in the first place?
Well, KwikChex stands to make a pretty penny. In order to be involved in the court action, hoteliers must join its “Promote & Protect” scheme, which costs £195 per property per year. The add-on “True Review” scheme, which deals with review site ratings, costs an additional £89. With 800 hoteliers signed up, the financial rewards for pursuing this cause stretch into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
That's before any legal action that may be taken against the individuals involved, should the disputed reviews remain online. And with 40 million hotel reviews on TripAdivsor, there's plenty of scope for Kwikchex to represent many more irate hoteliers.
Kwikchex is adamant this action is about protecting their clients from the harm caused by unfair reviews. “The sole concern for KwikChex in the context of online reviews is to help establish whether they are false,” Emmins said. “Freedom of speech and the truth are paramount.”