TripAdvisor: What to do about the pipe bombers?

There’s no doubt that review sites – TripAdvisor, FoodSpotting, FourSquare (and the rest) – play an important role in today’s tourism network (note: network, not industry. I’ll explain why next week…).

But a lot of people in tourism are unhappy with the review sites, and not because they’re scared of criticism – but because they’re pissed off since it’s so damned difficult to defend one’s self on them.

Take Charles van Tonder of Knysna’s 34° South  (full disclosure: he’s a client, and it’s my favourite spot for breakfast).

“I have wonderful memories of working for The Discount King [Tony Factor] in Johannesburg in the early eighties. One of his pearls of wisdom was not to react to destructive criticism in the public arena. ‘Don’t go down there,’ he would remind me in that rasping sandpaper voice of his. It’s a lesson I never forgot.

“As a result we at 34° South take criticism we receive on Tripadvisor constructively, we never fail to analyse where things went awry and to learn from the mistakes we made (and it’s especially helpful when some details about time, waiter, managers, etc. are supplied).

“However, as much as we get plenty of positive input from TripAdvisor, it is the ‘pipe bombers’ that intrigue me. They can normally be recognised by their excessive use of inflammatory language, exaggerated adjectives, exclamation marks, capital letters, etc., etc.

“You can see they’re trying to create as much damage as possible without really wanting to improve anything – similar to what a pipe bomb does when it’s thrown into a busy market.”

I’ve had many discussions with him about TripAdvisor, and his main objection is that it doesn’t apply the rules equally to both sides.


Negative reviews are helpful: fake and libelous reviews are wrong


But I think the central problem with TripAdvisor is that reviewers are allowed to remain anonymous. If the company required reviewers to use their real names and photos of themselves (and perhaps even if it had a verification process), the fake review would largely disappear, and the libelous review would be easier to address.

Take the case described in ‘An Owner’s Story’ on TripAdvisorWatch.  An unpleasant telephone call late at night lead to a fake review the following morning. Trouble is, the property is in France, and the review was written on a computer in Australia within hours of the call.

No way a genuine guest could have got from one place to the other in that amount of time.

This brings me to the second problem which (I’m not being dramatic) is probably a human rights issue: the right to confrontation. You have a right to know who your accuser is, and to confront him or her.

The Constitution of South Africa entrenches the right to confrontation: Section 35(3)(e) says that an accused has the right “to be present when being tried”.

According to this article  (not sure who wrote it, but I found it on the UNISA site):

‘Colman J made the following pertinent remarks regarding the rights of the accused in S v Motlatla: 

‘“The right to confrontation means more than that an accused person must know what the state witnesses are saying or have said about him, or that he shall be able to hear them saying it. There must be a confrontation in that he must see them as they depose against him so that he can observe their demeanour, and they for their part must give their evidence in the face of a present accused.”’

I know it’s a bit of a leap from witness to accuser, but I think the idea is supportable.

By the way, this right is also established in the Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment to the American Constitution

I would argue that a negative review is in effect an accusation (of bad service, bad faith, bad food, or whatever), and therefore that reviewers should not be allowed to post anonymously, no matter whether the review is positive or negative. (But I’m not a lawyer, of course.)

My third problem is one of fairness: what’s good for the reviewer should be good for the reviewed.

TripAdvisor seems not to apply its rules equally to both sides, and it’s (often) been accused of bullying. And there are also those who believe that its default attitude to complaints from business owners is ‘suck it up.’

For this reason, I’m with the writer of ‘An Owner’s Story,’ who said that the site needs a ‘sandbox’ policy:

‘I thought this process [of removing a fake review] unnecessarily drawn out and unfair to us and other owners in the same position, and so I posted a message on the TripAdvisor forum called “Help us make TripAdvisor better!”. The post was entitled “Fake and Defamatory Reviews”: I proposed that where an owner challenges a fake review – either the person did not stay there, what they have said is untrue, or they have confused one accommodation with another – then the review should be “sandboxed” i.e. suspended until TripAdvisor can complete investigations. Just leaving fake or malicious reviews on view for up to two weeks was unfair, I argued. I made no mention of our particular case.

‘Unfortunately, some other TA forum members did refer to our particular fake reviews, and so TripAdvisor pulled the thread on the grounds that it called into question TA policy (God forbid anyone should do that!) and related to a specific review on TA.’

My fourth problem is standing: is TripAdvisor really as authoritative as it would like us to believe?

Just one example here: from Adam Raphael, editor of The Good Hotel Guide, writing for the Daily Mail (‘Can you really believe what you read on TripAdvisor? How poor hotels make their way to the top of the charts’)

‘I recently did a rather depressing experiment. I logged on to the most popular hotel reviews website, TripAdvisor, and – using a fake name, fake email and fake postal address – I posted an effusive report on a terrible establishment. My review was put up, unaltered, within hours.

‘I am not the only sceptic. Tests by reporters in Britain, France and America show how easy it is to promote poor hotels to the top of the TripAdvisor popularity table with a handful of bogus reports.

‘TripAdvisor says its site is self-policing and users read it with ‘the right level of scepticism’. They need to. This year, it published a list of its ‘top 25’ UK hotels: one was in administration. It has now closed.’


We need to talk about this


Actually when you think about it, reviews and review sites are integral to the concept of responsible travel – which is defined as ‘creating better places to live in, and better places to visit.’

The principles of responsible travel demand that everyone in the travel network takes responsibility for their effects on the people they meet, and on the environment – so every review would ideally be designed to help the reviewed host or company to improve its triple bottom line (the financial, social, and environmental results of what we do).

Lofty ideals indeed, but still… change starts with discussion, which is why a number of people from around the world have decided to get together for a series of four conversations about review sites in the run-up to, and during, the global Responsible Travel Week 2014 (February 10 – 16). 

We’ll be doing this via Google+ Hangouts – which are nicely explained here, and which are live broadcasts that anyone (i.e. – you) can watch on YouTube.

These broadcasts will be hosted by Ron Mader, founder and editor of  (the world’s oldest responsible travel site), and the Planeta Wiki – who’ll be talking from Las Vegas. I’ll be taking part from Knysna, and we’ve invited speakers from Europe and other parts of the world, too.

And if you want to ask questions or make a point or two – use Twitter. We’ll be watching the hash-tag #RTYear2014




Here’s the schedule, with links (which will go live when the broadcasts start):

“If Responsible Travel is about creating better places to live and better places to visit, everyone in the network must shoulder their responsibilities to the destination, the environment, and themselves. Based on insights gained from the three run-up Hangouts, this discussion will focus on the role of peer review sites in Responsible Travel.”


Even more ways to join the conversation

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Have a great tourism week!