The Advertising Standards Authority in the United Kingdom has found user review sites TripAdvisor and Skytrax have made unsubstantiated claims in their advertising.
TripAdvisor allows users to review and rate hotels, restaurants and tourism destinations, while Skytrax enables users to review airlines on its site AirlineEquality. Both companies have come under fire in Australia for hosting fake reviews which are malicious or not posted by real users.
It’s a common problem across user review sites with restaurant review site Urbanspoon attracting criticism this week after ratings were given by “users” to Melbourne café St Ali North, which has not even been opened yet.
In the UK, “reputation management” firm Kwikchex has been leading a campaign against the authenticity of user review sites which culminated in a finding by the ASA against TripAdvisor earlier this year and a finding against Skytrax last week.
The ASA ordered TripAdvisor had to stop claiming reviews were real, honest and trusted.
The ASA said it was concerned that consumers might be fooled by fraudulent posts since the entries could be made “without any form of verification”.
The advertising watchdog described the TripAdvisor case as a “benchmark ruling which applies to all web sites which make claims about the reliability of their user-created content.”
In its investigation last week of Skytrax the ASA looked at claims reviews are made by “checked and trusted reviews” and “REAL travellers with “REAL opinions”.
It also investigated claims that the website contains “more than five million” traveller reviews and trip ratings and that each airline’s star ranking is reviewed on average every 2-3 months.
The ASA found some of the claims made by Skytrax had not been substantiated and the website agreed to change the trusted and genuine wording used for user reviews as it could not track a review back to its source after a 24-hour authentication period it also agreed to change claims about its ranking review frequency in the UK.
Edward Plaisted of Skytrax said in a statement the review site had not been accused of posting false or defamatory reviews.
“With over 1,400 airlines and airports featured on our website, not one of these companies has ever complained about user reviews being false, defamatory or unfair,” he said.
“We have always stated that reviews we feature are users’ opinions, and should be considered as just that – the user opinion and not a declared fact.”
Virginia Haddon, spokesperson for TripAdvisor in Australia, told SmartCompany the review site had made the changes to advertising copy required by the ASA but felt the regulator’s ruling was “unrealistic”.
“We feel the ruling was unrealistic in its expectation of sites likes ours in that the ASA upheld the complaints on the basis that we could not provide 100% certainty that every single review on the site was written by a real traveller and could be trusted,” she says.
“No system, verified or not, could provide this.”
Tourism and Transport Forum chief executive John Lee told SmartCompany an increasing number of travellers in Australia were using sites like TripAdvisor and Skytrax in making their travel decisions and Lee says the sites can provide useful information.
“However, people are also increasingly aware of the potential limitations of sites like these and are using other sources of information to cross-check ratings,” he says.
Lee says while the vast majority of the feedback on these sites is genuine user-generated content, the sheer volume of information means it is not possible to screen all comments.
“This may result in instances where companies post their own positive reviews, or competitors post unfavourable comments, potentially skewing the ratings,” he says.
Given the tie-up between T-Qual and TripAdvisor, Lee says it is in the tourism industry’s interests that TripAdvisor is a reliable source of accurate reviews.
“Transparency must be paramount, otherwise it diminishes the value of that partnership,” he says.
Lee says it is “a difficult question” to know what tourism operators should do about inaccurate reviews.
“Reviews are a matter of perception and people have different expectations. However, businesses should be granted a right of reply to any review,” he says.
“TripAdvisor’s reputation rests on the accuracy and robustness of the reviews, so they should understand the potential damage a false or vexatious review could do to a tourism business.”
Tourism Accommodation Australia NSW director Carol Giuseppi agrees with Lee that sites like TripAdvisor and Skytrax play an important role in the Australian tourism industry.
“User review sites are extremely influential in Australia – because they are consumer-led they are perceived as independent and trustworthy,” she says.
Giuseppi says she is aware of tourism operators in Australia who have suffered from fake reviews.
“There are a small percentage that do exaggerate any wrongs and in some cases make unsubstantiated claims,” she says.