The Competition & Markets Authority is set to investigate specialist review sites such as TripAdvisor as part of an inquiry into concerns about trustworthiness and impartiality. But what is wrong with review sites and what questions should the CMA be asking?
The huge increase in the number of reviews posted about visitor attractions, hotels and restaurants has been both a blessing and a curse for the leisure industry. On one hand a large number of positive reviews can amplify the traditional word of mouth recommendations that many with limited marketing budgets have always relied on. There is also an option for business to respond and rectify negative reviews, which they would be unlikely to have in an offline forum.
However, the sites are not immune to abuse by managers, visitors and competitors alike, and questions about how non-genuine reviews are managed have to be asked.
Visitors have been known to use negative reviews or the threat of a negative review as a way to get freebies, and we have seen hundreds of examples of businesses trying to expose this with extremely risky inflammatory responses. We’ve seen these stories go either way, from, ‘Manager sends hilarious response to complaining customer’ to ‘PR disaster as business posts outrageous response to complaint.’ What guidelines will the CMA recommend for review sites to deal with dishonest customers?
Competitors are able to post fake negative reviews about each other. Will the inquiry address whether this underhand tactic be controlled and policed?
The final question of impartiality is how sites manage the huge numbers of completely made up reviews posted by the owners themselves. Will the sites have to tighten up their policing of fake reviews posted in bulk by overseas agencies?
The tourism industry will never go back to the days where it didn’t have to use online platforms as a reputation management tool – and most organisations wouldn’t want to! However these questions need to be asked. We welcome the inquiry and any resulting national debate around the ways that these sites can become fairer platforms.