TripAdvisor, the travel review website, may have to change the way it operates if proposed changes to defamation laws go ahead and a new complaint being considered by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) is upheld.
The website has come under increasing pressure from hoteliers and restaurateurs who claim that many of its anonymous reviews are either fake or defamatory. The issue was at the heart of Channel 4’s recent documentary Attack of the TripAdvisors.
The website is already being investigated by the ASA over the way it advertises its content. A report is likely to be published in the coming weeks. Should the complaints be upheld, many of the claims made by TripAdvisor about the reliability of its reviews may have to be scrapped.
TripAdvisor recently replaced its long-established slogan “reviews you can trust” with “reviews from our community” on all of its hotel reports. It claims this was not in response to the ASA investigation.
Several hoteliers are also taking legal action individually against the website for alleged defamation and subsequent loss of earnings. They are presenting their case through KwikChex, a “reputation- management” company.
Proposed changes to defamation laws being considered by the Justice Department could prevent sites such as TripAdvisor from publishing reports by anonymous reviewers.
The Joint Committee on the Defamation Bill, which drafted the proposals, said: “We wish to promote a cultural shift towards a general recognition that unidentified postings are not to be treated as true, reliable or trustworthy.”
It has also been revealed that a second complaint is being investigated by the ASA over the way hotels and restaurants market their businesses using positive reviews from TripAdvisor.
“The whole issue is coming to a head,” said Chris Emmins, co-founder of KwikChex. “Should these new regulations be accepted, TripAdvisor will have to alter its methods fundamentally.
“Laws and regulations are starting to catch up with the way the digital world has evolved. It’s not a witch-hunt; we just want to see the right thing happen.”
This week, TripAdvisor started a support line for disgruntled business owners – a development likely to be viewed as an attempt to appease them.
The company said it wanted to send a “strong message about our commitment to delivering quality customer care for accommodation owners”.
The support line has been criticised by early users. Katie Mackay, who owns Tiroran House on the Isle of Mull, called the number to complain about a four-year-old review that relates to a section of the hotel that has since been rebuilt. She says she was told that the review could not be removed unless the entire hotel had closed.
“It was the same response I’ve always received from TripAdvisor,” she said. “They were polite, but they didn’t change anything and just read aloud the terms and conditions you can find on their website.
“The effect of negative reviews is huge. There are 68 reviews of our hotel on TripAdvisor, and 62 are positive, but if a bad review is sitting at the top, there is a massive impact on bookings.”
She said the rejection of anonymous reviews would create greater accountability.
Meanwhile, one rival website has used the criticism of TripAdvisor to promote its own product. This week Feefo – which specialises in retail reviews and requires proof of purchase before accepting reports – promised to deliver “the kind of authenticity that TripAdvisor is widely criticised for not guaranteeing”.