Q: When is a customer review not worth reading? A: When it’s been astro-turfed.

Customer recommendations can influence our buying decisions, but can we always trust them?

TripAvisor, until yesterday part of internet-based travel website Expedia, is its own man now. It has a sparkly new identity on Nasdaq and the freedom to diversify its advertiser base to include Expedia’s competitors for the first time.

If you haven’t come across it before, TripAdvisor is a travel website where users can say what they think of places they have visited. In new-media speak it has a lot of “user-generated content”. It’s free to users and makes its money by advertising to visitors who come looking for good quality authentic advice. The site has 20 million members and claims that it and its competitors, such as Yelp and Frommers, have grown because “people put trust in the reviews of other consumers”.

Those in charge must be concerned, then, by the decision of the UK’s advertising regulator the Advertising Standards Authority to ban TripAdvisor from claiming that its users’ hotel write-ups are “reviews you can trust” from “real travellers”, after a complaint that the site does not verify its ratings.

Is it really possible that competitors would post bad reviews, or that others would fabricate good ones to go online? Well, some people think so. Fascinatingly, TripAdvisor is the first case where the ASA has tackled so-called “astroturfing”, where paid advocates post online content that gives the appearance of real “grassroots” support.

TripAdvisor has also been under attack by a “dragon”. Duncan Bannatyne, from the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, threatened legal action against TripAdvisor after it posted a review from a guest at his Charlton House resort in Somerset comparing it to Fawlty Towers.

“One of my hotels has recently been a victim of a rogue review, containing obvious lies, which I made TripAdvisor aware of,” said Bannatyne.

“After I criticised TripAdvisor for failing to act on dishonest and damaging reviews, they removed four five-star reviews in what I can only assume was an attempt to punish me for speaking out.”

Just who can you believe these days? Well, one of the parties involved in the ASA investigation was a company called KwikChex who are, apparently, an online reputation-management firm. KwikChex will look after your reputation and accredit your claims, at a price. Does this mean we shouldn’t trust something unless it has been validated by someone else? Who is to say we can trust the people being paid to say we can trust the first guys? Do we need someone to validate them too? Where will it all end?

While word-of-mouth advertising is a powerful thing, I wonder just how we should interpret what we see online these days? Whose recommendations should we trust in this increasingly digital world? Real people’s opinions, given face-to-face, are perhaps still the best ones.

Mark

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