/ Travel & Leisure

Do you trust online travel reviews?

Thumb votes on computer keyboard

Should travel review sites be censoring their user-generated reviews to avoid the risk of getting sued? It might help their bank balance, but it wouldn’t help holidaymakers relying on them for honest opinions.

A number of hotel companies are up in arms that reviews of their properties have been posted on Tripadvisor that they believe are false. A row has broken out with a number of hotels reportedly threatening to sue Tripadvisor for defamation.

The travel industry has a love-hate relationship with review websites. A few years ago some of the big tour operators had their own review sites. One that I know of used to take down the negative reviews and keep only those that were positive or – at worst – neutral. There was a fear that anything negative about a hotel or resort would result in reduced sales.

Real reviews from real people

Travel is a product we can’t try before we buy. We rely on as much information as possible to reassure us that we’re making the right choices. We hope that the hotel will be as clean as in the pictures, that the food will be to our tastes and that it really does have a pool that would fit more than three people in it.

Holidaymakers have learned the hard way that we can’t always rely on the beautiful photographs in brochures and the travel agent’s patter. Review sites are an opportunity to understand a view from real people; people like us.

People find online reviews reliable

In 2009, 25% of holidaymakers used online reviews to help determine their holiday plans –more than those who used newspaper travel articles or TV advertising.

Online reviews were also thought to be quite reliable. Visit Britain research showed that on a scale of one to seven (where one is not at all reliable and seven is very reliable) online reviews score about 4.5. That score is on a par with the reliability of travel agents and tour operators.

Our trust in these sites will depend on how likely it is that we can believe in the honesty of these reviews. We want to know the good and the bad and hope that the people posting comments honestly reflect their actual experiences.

Reviews are a powerful tool for travel and one that we want to be able to depend on when planning our future holidays.

Sophie Gilbert says:
30 September 2010

If I were a hotel owner and thought a comment on Tripadvisor was unfair, I wouldn’t sue Tripadvisor, because that would also be unfair. Two wrongs don’t make a right. What I would do instead is what I’ve seen at least one hotel owner do: he replied to what he thought was an unfair comment on a website and said exactly why he thought it was unfair. This is the intelligent way to go about it.

I would also think that hotel owners would actually find websites like Tripadvisor useful. Some people (myself included) aren’t very good at complaining there and then, but will more easily write reviews on websites afterwards. Hotel(B&B etc) owners can then act on the criticism, if it’s fair of course, and ultimately make their business more efficient.

I agree Sophie. Sites with user reviews or user-generated content are a great way for companies and brands to interact directly with its customers. Just as you can’t stop people from talking about their experiences in ‘real life’, it’s naive to expect that removing reviews will stop word getting out that they provide poor service. Much better to deal with it head-on.

We hope that more companies will do exactly what you’re suggesting here on Which? Conversation and respond to people’s comments. It makes it a far richer experience for the users. Most people also appreciate the fact that companies are listening and taking people’s concerns on board rather than attempting to wipe them out altogether.

Daniel Hood says:
1 October 2010

Business will be in even more of a panic when they find out about a new Global Consumer Intelligence Network (GCIN) soon to be launched. Their objective is to create a new global facebook type entity for consumers.

“A Global Consumer Intelligence Network (GCIN) aimed at achieving one mission…Allowing you the consumer to gather and share vital intelligence both positive and negative on any size business or individual that provides goods and services across the planet. We plant the seed and you make it grow.”

So it’s a place for networked consumers to gather, share, join forces, coordinate and unleash mayhem. After all that’s happened in the world, who wouldn’t want to expose those organizations who don’t play by the rules no matter how large or small.

The power of the internet

Daniel – we edited out the links because they don’t work yet!

We recently had a “Leisure Break” with a well-known operator who had, we assumed, a fairly good reputation for quality and value. We had not checked any reviews in advance of booking nor while we were anticipating the holiday. We do not assume that the expectations excited by the brochure will be fully realised but neither do we expect a serious shortfall bordering on deception. In this case the stay disappointed us in several respects, mainly to do with accommodation, some significant [spoilt the holiday] others minor [get over it]. After returning home we looked at the Tripadvisor reviews and reactions were split roughly 50/50 – people either semed to have enjoyed their holiday very much or have had a lot to complain about and even cut short their break in a couple of cases. Guests on inclusive coach tour packages seemed to have got what they expected but independent travellers seemed to fall into the latter category. In our opinion all the reviews were genuine, honest and trustworthy and we could see the justification for the comments in each case depending on the priorities for the holiday. What seemed strange, however, was that no action appeared to have been taken by the company over three or four years to rectify or ameliorate the things that had provoked adverse reviews – they were still evident [and sometimes worse] during our stay. The company had not taken the opportunity provided by the website to give feedback on the reviews; perhaps they do not read them or just do not care because they clearly do have many happy customers [but the guest demographic for these adult-only leisure breaks is ageing rapidly and declining in health and mobility so the operator should use these reviews as a wake-up call for attracting the next generation which might no be so tolerant]. Travel reviews are a very useful medium for researching and selecting a holiday and should not be at risk of litigation. They are a valuable part of the process for consumers to make sure they get what they want or at least be aware of what they might get. They are also a very good way to give feedback on a holiday that is impersonal [but not irresponsible], does not embroil the customer in contentious correspondence, does not expose the customer to the risk of any sort of retribution, and both emphasises good features of a hotel or tour and alerts others to potential drawbacks. After all, if operators took comments, criticism and complaints in a good spirit at the time and dealt effectively with deficiencies they would have nothing to fear from travel reviews. So far as I can judge, over the hundreds of reviews I have read [and in many cases compared with the reality], the overwhelming majority are fair comment and in terms of negativity are understated rather than otherwise, decent people having a tendency to give credit where it is due and not exaggerate trivial complaints.

I’m told – how true it is, I don’t know, that competitors do write unflattering reports, so tend not to accept reviews written by people who live locally, especially if it’s a small, individual hotel or B & B. I write a personal message to one or two reviewers to ask for more details, as I can’t understand how there can be so much disparity e.g. room filty versus room spotless!!??