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17 Mar 2015

TripAdvisor and the question of trust

Posted on March 17, 2015 by

Last week TripAdvisor celebrated 15 years, racking up over 200 million reviews and a word count of over 10 billion since launching (originally as a b2b site).

Review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp have undoubtedly revolutionised the travel and leisure industry, giving power to the consumer, as well as operators and the opportunity for great experience to outplay marketing spend – as it should.

TripAdvisor

But TripAdvisor’s landmark year comes as the government watchdog body the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA), launches an inquiry into review sites, addressing concerns over the trustworthiness and impartiality of reviews.

The government-backed consultation will look into how consumers are using review sites and the extent to which we are influenced by them as well as the role of media companies, online reputation managers and search engine optimisers.

A survey by Deloitte showed that 80 per cent of UK consumers read online customer reviews and 60 per cent trust the reviews.  On this basis, that’s one in five of us who don’t trust the reviews we read but could this scepticism increase now the government watchdog is exploring these concerns, putting the issue of trust into the public spotlight?

Trust has always been a huge issue for review sites such as TripAdvisor (a company built on the trust of genuine peer-to-peer recommendations) which a few years ago removed the phrase ‘reviews you can trust’ from its marketing.

Interestingly, on its website TripAdvisor states: ‘We have zero tolerance for fake reviews!’ and ‘Very rarely, we will encounter a review that violates our review guidelines’. Yet the number of times TripAdvisor has come under fire for misconduct (recently fined 500,000 euros in Italy over false reviews) and the number of fake reviews which have been exposed seems to contradict these guidelines entirely.

Fake restaurant review

Then there’s recent controversies over the restaurant owners fighting back on review sites; posting insults, abuse and comebacks to negative reviews, which can surely only damage the reputations of the restaurants in question and the review sites even further, and put many people off reviewing in the first place.  The Yelp Law in California has been introduced to remove the fear of writing negative reviews and protect customers after several restaurants took legal action on the back of their feedback on the site but that’s not going to stop sites becoming a battle field for users.

So, what next?  It seems as though TripAdvisor is already moving away from its original review site model, offering price comparison in 2013, launching an instant booking platform in May 2014 and most recently, acquiring a number of restaurant and attraction booking sites.

I hope, for the sake of consumers that the CMA inquiry will offer an opportunity to combat misleading, unreliable reviews once and for all.  People will always want to give their opinion and, with TripAdvisor moving into new territories and no longer being completely objective, there’s a huge opportunity for a new model to own the consumer review space, offering a fresh, trustworthy approach.

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