Review Sites: Who Watches the Watchmen?

Catchy title, huh? Too good to be mine, of course. I’m quoting Alan Moore’s 1980s magnum opus comic-book-turned-movie “Watchmen” set in a dystopic, Cold War-dominated Manhattan, where an era of superhero watchdogs has come and gone, and the world teeters on the edge of nuclear destruction. Scrawled in graffiti across dingy, crime-laden back alleys is the phrase “Who watches the Watchmen?” thematically exploring the debate of police oversight and double-checks—nigh, triple-checks—on the institutions we are told to blindly trust.

The big buzz in the hotel industry has been the recent lawsuit against price fixing in the hotel industry. Both sides, I’m certain, have facts to back up their claims, and every hotel manager no doubt has an opinion on the matter one way or another. Personally, I don’t see the plaintiffs getting too far on this one, both in terms of injunctions against the majors and online travel agencies or even in compensatory damages. However, I believe it to be part of a budding mindset amongst hoteliers.

We’re scared and rushed for time—sometimes too rushed to be scared. The landscape of hotel reservations and coordinating guest services is increasingly an electronic endeavor. Events, trends, websites, systems, reviews, and apps all have to be monitored on a daily basis. Most Internet-based booking services are geared toward offering the cheapest prices while neglecting brand features. Any person can now derail your reputation through a series of well-placed online remarks.

In short, too much of the industry’s locomotion is falling out of our grasp. I see the recent price fixing lawsuit as a manifestation of this percolating frame of mind. We recognize the need to fight back in order to retain our control and our liberty to conduct business fairly. We just don’t know how to fight back. Not yet, at least.

Reviewing review sites
OTA rate parity is itself a vast issue, not including any of the suspected price fixing. Instead of debating whether that lawsuit will bear fruit, I instead want to push another hot button: third-party review websites. To clarify, there’s extensive overlap between online booking agencies and travel review sites, as is the case for Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak, Hotwire, Travelocity and many others. For now, let’s stick solely to the latter.

To illustrate this, I’ll start with the neighbor dilemma, something a colleague experienced firsthand. A relatively new property had a tiff with a neighbor—nothing to do with actual operations, but rather the concern of reduced property values because of noise, traffic and parking challenges. The neighbor expressed his concerns to the municipal government, which rejected him outright. Not satisfied with the official outcome, the neighbor turned to social media for revenge with a series of scathing reviews. It was immediately apparent  the reviews were fictitious because they contained confidential information and were  posted within 24 hours of the municipal government’s decision.

These things happen, and they wouldn’t be that big an issue if the review website were more compliant to urgent requests. When the GM appealed to have the defamatory comments removed, he was stonewalled with boilerplate replies and denial of responsibility. And so the reviews sat there in full view for two weeks while the review website “diligently” processed his plea.

A micro example, yes, but who knows how many potential customers were turned away during that time.

Then I read in The New York Times on Sunday, 26 August an article titled, “The best reviews money can buy.” Although more a portrait of online book reviews, the message is clear and easily transferrable for hotels. Consumer reviews are valued for their verisimilitude. But, what happens to this illusion of truth when, as the editorial cites, it’s estimated that as many as one-third of online reviews are dishonest?

On a similar note, for a nominal fee you can buy Twitter followers and Facebook fans, or bribe your way into 5-star bliss on TripAdvisor. Google these terms yourself if you have any doubts. This said, what measures are and should be in place to effectively differentiate between bona fide opinions and those solicited?

Looking for intervention
Initial thoughts run to government oversight. The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines stipulating that companies or products publicly declare all paid-for endorsements, but their jurisdiction ends with the 50 states.

Policing the Internet? Good luck. Just ask the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect IP Act about that one. Likewise, every third-party review site stands behind its own policies. They take fabricated appraisals seriously. However, these are mere words on a page and don’t speak to actual policing methodology.

Whenever user activity edges on nefarious, as in the neighbor dilemma, it’s still an arduous process of seeking corrective action from the website administrators whose hands stay clean throughout the ordeal.

As for preventing a libeler from posting in the first place, each site has its own system of checks and balances, but if users keep their profanities and trolling language under wraps, it’s all but a guarantee their venomous remarks will make it on the page. Either way, hotels remain at the mercy of the travel review sites with little to no power to reprimand them for any apparent negligence.

Enough of the potential for anonymous harm. Let’s focus on the damage created by too many positives. And there’s a fleet of oil tankers full of positives. In fact, according to the 2008 study at the University of Illinois cited by the New York Times article, as much as 60% of all product reviews on Amazon are 5 stars and 20% are 4 stars. That’s a serious skew, and hotels aren’t excluded. Perform a casual browse through TripAdvisor and the story reads the same.

Positivity in online evaluations has become a marketing tool much like everything else. But putting all claims of fraudulence aside, if every review is a raving approval, then how’s a consumer to gauge what is actually superior?

With so much capacity for maligned falsehoods and solicited affirmations, it calls into doubt not only a hotel’s credibility on such a website, but the system itself. The illusion of truth is faltering. People no longer trust what they read online, or, at the very least, assess reviews with a jaded eye. Third-party travel review websites were designed as external customer advocates and hotel watchdogs, but who is watching over them?

Many argue  the intrinsic nature of free market economics acts as the foremost regulator—the genuine reviews will inevitably drown out the fictitious ones.

The cascade of events goes like this: Someone pays for a slate of highly positive reviews. A bona fide consumer reads these reviews and bases a purchase on them. Then, aggravated by the discrepancy between the reviews and the reality, this consumer pens a corrective discourse for others to know the truth.

Although I’d love for laissez faire to rule the day, the numbers don’t add up. In this case, the authentic review is one among perhaps dozens. How would a second user accurately distinguish real from fake, especially if there are more solicited appraisals still in the queue? Should he or she simply ignore every review that’s a 5-star ovation? By the numbers, such a consumer would then be disregarding more than half of what’s out there!

A step in the right direction
Another solution is already being put to good use by message boards across the Web, and its rollout would seem unavoidable for travel review websites. Remove anonymity by forcing users to post through their Facebook accounts or with verified credit card information—a step in the right direction, albeit Facebook accounts can still be forged and revealing names on credit cards might be seen as a breach of confidentiality.

Most travel review sites tied into an OTA have similar systems in place where users can only post a review once a purchase has been made, but even this has some gaping loopholes. Purchase orders can be faked and oftentimes the review doesn’t have to be for the hotel last booked.

Despite these potential solutions on the horizon, again, they are mere words. We need actions to be taken to restore credibility and make the system fair for all—now, not tomorrow. At the present, we’re the patsies. It’s the hotels that inevitably suffer from waning consumer trust and diluted brand recognition while the real culprits walk away scot-free.

I can’t understate the volatility of these conditions. In times of crisis, even when the consequences are elusive, the only way to effectively promote a change for the better is to band together. Instead of presenting a class-action lawsuit for price fixing, perhaps one should have been filed against online travel review websites on the grounds of negligence and vicarious liability. I welcome the lawyers to chime in—particularly one willing to work on contingency!

(Picture courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment. Article published on Hotels New Now on October 1, 2012)

Larry MogelonskyReview Sites: Who Watches the Watchmen?