The Battle For Trust On Trip Advisor

Regular viewers of the BBC consumer programme Watchdog in the 1980s might remember the regular ‘holiday horror’ reports. Nearly every week, the programme featured a ubiquitous rubbish hotel in the Mediterranean which had managed to con holiday-makers into believing they were a functioning hospitality business with a roof. When interviewed, the poor customers – usually called Richard and Susan from Sevenoaks, Kent – held up photos they had taken showing an unfinished concrete shell that looked more like a 1970s Beirut car park. Their own images were juxtaposed against glossy hotel promotional photos of models laughing merrily by the pool being fawned over by flunkies in waistcoats. In the backdrop, the hotel architecture would be a temple of modern design – shining, majestic…… and sporting a roof.

Up until the arrival of TripAdvisor people like ‘Richard and Susan’ would have found it pretty difficult to solicit accurate feedback about hotels. Consumers held less power and were more reliant on the trust they placed in a brand or product. TripAdvisor works so well because it’s able to rank hotels and restaurants according to actual customer reviews, and these peer reviews are treated with a high degree of reliability. Essentially what TripAdvisor is selling is trust. But in the past 18 months, the trustworthiness of their reviews has been called into question, not least by the Advertising Standards Agency who recently ruled that Trip Advisor “could not claim or imply that all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted”. The ASA’s ruling followed on from a campaign from website KwikChex who are representing hoteliers who claim their businesses have been subjected to malicious negative reviews on the site.

The TripAdvisor authenticity debate is one that stirs up a lot of strong feelings. On one hand there are business owners who object to the fact that people can say what they like in a review and that reviews can be unfair, wrong or even written by hostile competitors. On the other hand there is a strong body of people who believe TripAdvisor reviews still give users an enormously reliable picture of destinations, hotels and restaurants. Personally I’ve come down on the side of TripAdvisor on this one. The site has worked to expose and clamp down on businesses writing their own reviews and sockpuppet reviews from rival businesses. TripAdvisor might not be perfect or even 100% reliable but it’s a lot more trustworthy than corporate marketing spin, glossy PR pictures and advertising slogans.

Fundamentally user-generated reviews and their incorporation into online and social media are a reaction against one-way elitist media – from the puffed up marketing brochure to the magazine  advertisement – which have all suffered from a crisis in consumer trust. Since the 1970s, trust in businesses and their messages has fallen sharply. According to The Edelman Trust Barometer 2012, the depth of mistrust has imploded since the current financial crisis, and people are much more likely to trust their peers compared to business leaders. The rising trend for trusting ‘people like us’ sits perfectly with the ability and ease with which people use and rely on internet reviews, and the trend certainly isn’t going to decrease anytime soon.

Author: Paul McGarrity is Director of Octave Online Communications, an internet marketing consultancy helping businesses benefit from online marketing strategy and campaigns.