Star power: the trouble with TripAdvisor

Along with Yelp and others, the travel-review site lets us share our opinions about restaurants, hotels and much more. But how trustworthy are user reviews, and how do they affect business?

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Online reviews and crowd-sourced ratings have transformed the way consumers make decisions. Advertising is no longer a one-way flow of information. Instead the feedback loop is constant: you can find online critiques of everything from pubs and yoga studios to car parks and Garda stations.

The websites TripAdvisor and Yelp, which both have offices in Dublin, attract 340 million and 142 million unique visitors, respectively, every month. The consensus they gather displays prominently in internet search results, giving them the potential to make or break a business.

That can be empowering for prospective customers but alarming for proprietors, who cannot opt out of these services or control their ratings. While most of the sites’ reviews are positive, people are free to call things as they see it. “Save yourself a trip,” reads one TripAdvisor review of the Giant’s Causeway. “Visit your local builders’ yard and take a quick look at the nearest stack of blocks – job done.”

Navigating the spectrum of opinion can be tricky. A hotel in Tralee, for example, has received just as many excellent ratings as terrible ones on TripAdvisor. Which is more likely to sway you: the review titled “Most amazing day of our lives” or the one comparing it to a convent? Given the variables of taste and timing, one might wonder why we seek the wisdom of crowds in the first place.

“Because it works,” says James Kay of TripAdvisor. “Fundamentally, what the wisdom of crowds gives you is access to hundreds of opinions, not just one, and the weight of that provides quite an accurate account. People want to get a true picture of a place rather than glossy marketing. Essentially, the negative experiences people have are as much a part of that picture as the positive ones.”

Management responses play a crucial role in this. If a negative review is handled professionally, it can turn the reader’s viewpoint around, says Kay. But if they see an aggressive or defensive reply, it can compound the issue and have a far more negative impact than the offending review.

Last year, when a review of a Cork hotel likened its exterior to a building in Chernobyl, the manager came back with a polite point-by-point response. He also wrote, “Unfortunately when a review starts by comparing the hotel to one of the greatest man-made disasters and loss of innocent life of the 20th century, I am unsure as to how my efforts to find a resolution would have proceeded.”

The level of scrutiny inherent in such exchanges has had a pronounced impact on the service industry. According to TripAdvisor’s own research, 73 per cent of businesses in the UK have taken steps to improve standards as the result of an online review. A study at Harvard Business School found that a one-star increase in the rating of an independent restaurant on Yelp boosts revenue by between 5 and 9 per cent.

Astroturfing

Combatting the threat of fake reviews, which is known as astroturfing, is a bit like detecting credit-card fraud, says Kay. Each review passes through about 50 automated filters before being assessed by a content-analysis team. (Users can also flag inappropriate posts.)

There are three types of fraud, Kay adds. “Boosting” means attempting to raise a property’s ranking, “vandalism” is trying to damage other properties, and “optimisation” is where people offer positive reviews for payment.

Nick Munier, the restaurateur and MasterChef Ireland presenter, was singled out in a suspicious review of Pichet, the Dublin restaurant he co-owned, in 2013. It criticised him for being rude to a table of customers and tapping his watch disapprovingly. But Munier said he wasn’t working that night, did not wear a watch and would never treat customers that way.

“I have a love-hate relationship with these types of platforms,” says Munier, who now runs Avenue restaurant in Temple Bar. “I’m old school, in that I feel if you have a criticism it’s best to say it there and then, so we can rectify it. The hardest part for any business is to read the escalation of a grievance online. Like anything else, it can have a snowball effect. Sometimes you’ll think, Well, that never happened – why are they saying that? It can weigh heavily on you and the rest of your staff.”

There’s a balance of pros and cons to online reviews, Munier adds. He’s always open to constructive criticism but prefers it to be shared transparently, if not in person then by someone who can stand over what they say by identifying themselves and saying when they visited. He suspects that people who don’t do this may be reviewing with ulterior motives.

“I try not to read the unreasonable stuff, but the problem is you can’t help yourself. You’re drawn to reading what other people think of you. It’s awful. That’s the society we’re in now: everyone criticises everybody. You just have to take it on the chin, continue being happy in what you’re doing and stand behind your product.”

Credibility is an integral part of online reviewing, says Emily Cunnane of Yelp. The platform filters its reviews to prioritise trustworthy content, although anyone can view which results have been omitted. Part of that process means placing weight on the opinions of regulars such as the Yelp Elite Squad: select contributors who participate consistently.

“You’re always going to trust the recommendation of a friend over an advertisement, because you know that person’s taste,” says Cunnane, who has contributed nearly 600 reviews of her own. “That’s the same thing we try to create: a community of people who know their stuff, who are out and about, exploring new things.”

Elite members are rewarded with invitations to exclusive free events held in conjunction with businesses, such as pottery painting or a cocktail masterclass. For the sake of clarity, reviews of these events are kept separate from reviews of the businesses in question.

“It’s a social thing,” says Cunnane. Elite members “get to meet up with each other and try new places. Then, afterwards, they’ll write a review of the event on a special event page we’ve made, so that it doesn’t impact on the rating of the business. The idea is that they may tell people about it, bring their friends back and then write a proper review” on the business page.

Cristin Larkin is a Dublin-based Yelper who has amassed more than 800 reviews and retained Elite status for five consecutive years. She enjoys the community aspect of Yelp, likes using it to discover new places and believes a good reviewer is someone who writes honestly while putting effort into providing useful information. “I know I’m no critic,” she says, “but I’d like to think what I write promotes businesses that deserve the recognition.”

A hair salon once tried to make up for a string of bad experiences by offering Larkin a free consultation and cut with its head stylist. She didn’t accept the offer, as she didn’t want to appear to be soliciting freebies, but she wrote an updated review to reflect her appreciation.

Blogs

“Sometimes I can be a little too personal and harsh. Then I feel guilty about it, and I go back and edit the review,” she says. “Other times the business has gotten in touch, to try to make things right. A business that handles a complaint well will always get me back on side. I love great customer service, and businesses should be commended for it.”

Ketty Elisabeth is a food blogger and tour guide better known as French Foodie in Dublin. She says feels that online reviews are not representative of the wider public, as most people don’t feel the need to share their experiences. Still, she recognises how influential they can be.

“People have always trusted word of mouth, but online our voices can have unprecedented reach and impact,” she says. “When you’re travelling and don’t know a place, the easiest thing to do is read online reviews. The only problem is you don’t know who is behind them.”

Elisabeth relies on the recommendations of blogs she trusts. Trust is something she knows can be difficult to establish, as brands and businesses often treat bloggers like free marketing tools. Having developed her own platform, Elisabeth maintains a clear disclosure policy and always pays for the meals she writes about.

She also recognises that, ultimately, whatever voice we choose to listen to will remain a subjective one. You can love a place your best friend hates, Elisabeth says, and it doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

“Online reviews are all about personal experiences, and people should keep that in mind,” she says. “It’s not about being an expert, and I don’t think you need to be a chef to know if food is good or not. I’m not a critic, and I never pretend to be. I think my readers know this, but what’s important is that they have trust in me and my integrity.”

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