Reputations at stake
September 24, 2010 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Beleaguered B&Bs on the blunt end of TripAdvisor reviews are threatening legal action.

The power of consumer testimonials is well documented, but this isn’t the first time businesses have cried foul over dodgy reviews.

Local director service Yelp caused so much anxiety it spawned a whole community of aggrieved businesses. They don’t see the problem.

Undoubtedly, some users do exploit the system — and occasionally get caught.

One site offers its view on how the lawsuit may affect the future of user generated content.
posted by londonmark (40 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have as a mover in New York City, and my boss basically told me that it made more sense financially for him to give 100% refunds to unsatisfied users than to let them write bad reviews on the net.

"I can either refund the person their $500.00 for a move, or suffer thousands in lost revenue from people turned off by bad reviews. It's a nightmare. Before websites like these, when people were being unreasonable, I had some leverage. now I have nothing."
posted by orville sash at 7:37 AM on September 24, 2010


Before websites like these, when people were being unreasonable, I had some leverage.

Equally, before websites like these, consumers had to believe the massive lies businesses tell about their services. And yes, this particularly applies to British B&Bs and hotels.
posted by ninebelow at 7:40 AM on September 24, 2010 [19 favorites]


From earlier this week: Cancer patient 'thrown out of hotel after posting TripAdvisor review'‎.
posted by ericb at 7:42 AM on September 24, 2010


Oh, I agree absolutely, ninebelow. It's just a view from the inside, so to speak.
posted by orville sash at 7:42 AM on September 24, 2010


When a place is truly wonderful, it gets huge swarms of glowing reviews on Yelp and other places. The folks who use these sites are always looking to out-compete one another, and that means writing a review about anything they can, and being seen as trustworthy by their peers.

If 1 review in 100 is claiming rats, and the other 99 say "really clean," I'm gonna believe the really clean. The whining that these business owners do in these articles seems to amount to, "people are complaining about my business, and they're actually getting heard! OMG!" Instead of trying to silence Yelp and the like, why not do your damned job, and maybe encourage satisfied customers to give good reviews?
posted by explosion at 7:47 AM on September 24, 2010 [11 favorites]


So UK folks, The Guardian -- baldly always pro-business like the Wall Street Journal or just having fun with this disconnect because they can?

From

"I hate to ever think it but are there people out there who still have a problem with the colour of someone's skin?" [Ferdi] wrote. "I think I'll be staying away and would recommend to any other 'ethnics' to do the same. I don't think they like our sort around there."

Later:

The Guardian tracked down Ferdi, who commented on the reception he got at Brook Barn. He insisted his remarks were honest and not malicious - and did not accept he was accusing the B&B of racism.

"I was simply writing about my experience," he said. "I'm not out to wreck anyone's business. But when I left I felt crap. I thought about it for a few days and thought it was important to make them know I felt like that. It's all about opinion."



Still though, as awful as I actually think Yelp is, I don't feel much sympathy for business owners either. And no matter what the Guardian's slant, the article didn't help with that. As soon as I find out a place like that has a "management response" function, then there's no excuse -- especially not "I don't understand the Internet."
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:48 AM on September 24, 2010


There are two types of services on review sites such as yelp (sorry, I haven't used tripadvisor). Places you use frequently and cheaply (ie restaurants) and places you use once, but are pricey (ie movers). In both cases, it does not pay to trust just one good or bad review. But as an example, take two movers. One has generally all 3 star reviews; people moved, and their stuff got there. The other one has 50% 5 star reviews, and 50% 1 star reviews (with some people claiming they held their possessions hostage for more money). Now which one are you going to chose?

The real value in these types of websites is in people getting honest reviews of business they don't know and are interested in trying out (especially ones who's services they are only going to use once, ie b&bs and movers). If your review website is cultivating an atmosphere of mistrust and amplifying ex-employee anger, you're not serving your customers well.

Which reminds me, time to go leave a good review for my movers.
posted by Phredward at 7:50 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Local director service Yelp caused so much anxiety it spawned a whole community of aggrieved businesses. They don’t see the problem.

Two weeks ago: Yelp successful in defamation and deceptive acts and practices case. The case was dismissed.
posted by ericb at 7:50 AM on September 24, 2010



I wonder how John Cleese would handle a poor review?
posted by notreally at 7:51 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


So UK folks, The Guardian -- baldly always pro-business like the Wall Street Journal or just having fun with this disconnect because they can?

I think it's usually more left-leaning than the WSJ. Not sure what that quote was about except maybe bad journalism.
posted by londonmark at 7:52 AM on September 24, 2010


Defamation Claim – Protection Under Section 230
Interactive computer service providers are immunized from liability (i.e., they cannot be held responsible) for content that is provided by third parties. So long as the website is not an “information content provider” itself, any claim made against the website will be preempted by the Communications Decency Act, at 47 U.S.C. 230.
posted by ericb at 7:52 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


How 'bout Amazon and book reviews? The reviews need to be separated from the point of sale. Give the creators a break!
posted by Faze at 7:54 AM on September 24, 2010


Other cases where websites were protected under Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. 230.
posted by ericb at 7:56 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder how John Cleese would handle a poor review?

Misanthropic to a fawlt, I suspect.
posted by dersins at 7:59 AM on September 24, 2010


Most people don't look at a single bad review out of dozens of glowing good ones, unless the good ones all look spammy. It's unfortunate that aggrieved ex-employees can cause damages like this, but it's also good to be able to see user reviews that are not mediated by the company itself.

If you don't understand the internet, you need to hire new people who do understand it.

I'm not clear about the racism story. The B&B was full, so she couldn't show him rooms, but why could she not show him the pubilc areas?
posted by jeather at 7:59 AM on September 24, 2010


I think it's usually more left-leaning than the WSJ.

The Guardian makes the New York Times look like the Washington Times or like Fox News had a print arm.
posted by JPD at 8:02 AM on September 24, 2010


The B&B was full, so she couldn't show him rooms, but why could she not show him the pubilc areas?

Because he had dark skin, and the B&B was "full."
posted by explosion at 8:03 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just as a point of reference regarding Trip Advisor's popularity in the UK - Every single person I spoke to about their summer holiday (vacation) this year had checked the reviews on Trip Advisor before booking. Literally every single person, albeit from a sample of my social circle.

I use it too, and the site is extremely good. I booked 7 hotels over the summer and read the reviews of them all.

A reasonable number of the reviews have to be discounted because they were written by idiots, eg people that review a 3* hotel and give it a poor score because they had to carry their own bags to their room. But if you read a few pages of reviews, especially the ones with photos attached, I've never disagreed with the prevailing opinion when I've gone on to stay there. And its utterly invaluable for weeding out "dirty" hotels, a massive hate of mine.

One thing I would say to hotel operators - Engage with the site. The operator has a "right to reply" feature where they can comment on any review. I'm always heavily swayed by the hotels that comment on all reviews, from "Glad you enjoyed the stay" to detailed explanations of what they're doing to fix a problem. That kind of customer service creates an emotional connection with the reader, and emotional connections are much more powerful sales tools than factual ones.

That or sue them into oblivion. Whichever is easier for them I guess.
posted by samworm at 8:07 AM on September 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


Because he had dark skin, and the B&B was "full."

Which is his explanation. But as his review has been removed, I can't tell if she only refused to show him the rooms, or she wouldn't show him around at all. I'm inclined to the second, only because she called the police over a single bad online review, which sounds absurd to me.
posted by jeather at 8:07 AM on September 24, 2010


The problem I experience with sites such as these is the polar ends -- the aggravated evil ones like the folks in the article are complaining about and the seemingly insider-written spammy perfect ones. I get that motivation to write a comment would be greater for those who have experienced the extremes (and companies would like to boost their comments/ratings), but then I feel like I'm left with a really lop-sided picture of the place. It feels like we're almost there with the review-by-consensus, litigation doesn't seem appropriate and I'm not sure it'll help fix this. Civic duty, anyone? Anyone?
posted by Sweetdefenestration at 8:10 AM on September 24, 2010


In the case of Yelp, it didn't help that they had (have? hopefully not) a pretty sleazy business model; allegedly their salespeople would call up business that had gotten bad reviews and promise to bury them in response for paying up and becoming some sort of 'Business Owner Accounts'. (The methodology is allegedly by using paid reviewers—whose reviews are uniformly positive—so that the effect of the negative one is diluted. So the Yelp CEO's claim of not deleting negative reviews would still be technically true.)

Doubtless some businesses were just whining about the bad-but-justified reviews, but others were legitimately complaining about what they perceived to be the 'protection racket' aspect of things.

Although I still use Yelp for obtaining reviews (there are some places where it is basically the only source for finding restaurants), I no longer contribute—just doesn't seem like an organization that I want to be working without pay for. Having been burned before by companies that took user-generated content and then absconded with it, it's sort of a once-bitten-twice-shy issue. It might be different if they were doing the straightforward "create a good website, sell ads" thing, but when they get into selling spots in search results and allegedly paying people to write reviews, then the potential conflict of interest just seems too big to ignore.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:11 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


One thing I would say to hotel operators - Engage with the site. The operator has a "right to reply" feature where they can comment on any review. I'm always heavily swayed by the hotels that comment on all reviews, from "Glad you enjoyed the stay" to detailed explanations of what they're doing to fix a problem. That kind of customer service creates an emotional connection with the reader, and emotional connections are much more powerful sales tools than factual ones.

Which works well for internet-savy businesses. Unfortunately a working knowledge of the internet isn't necessary to run a b&b. As one of the hosts in the article stated "I don't understand what is going on." Some of the best, and quaintest B&B's are run by older folks who might not understand the web.

That being said, I rely on TripAdvisor for every single place I stay. Every. Single. One.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:14 AM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


The funny thing is seeing hostel reviews on TripAdvisor. Pretty pointless compared to the hostel review sites. It's often someone who had no idea what they were getting into and was SHOCKED at the shared dorms or bathrooms.
posted by smackfu at 8:21 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was the first to (positively) review my waxist on Yelp. It drummed up a ton of business for her. She was so pleased that I got free or discounted services for years. Now it is the first that that appears when you google her name or our town + wax/waxing/bikini wax. (I had found her on an obscure LiveJournal entry about weddings in my town. She has no web presence.)

Over 5 years, she got a ton more 5 star glowing reviews.

A year or so ago, she called me very upset. She had gotten her first less-than-5-star review. It had been a new client and it was the only new client that she had had in the recent past (and other comments matched up with that woman's experience.) Basically, this woman had never been waxed before and had read on the Internet that certain things should be done. They weren't done. She also mentioned that the waxist answered the phone in the middle of the session (which she did but it was actually a family emergency with her kid being violently ill.) Anyway, my waxist was very worried about this. I encouraged her to call the client back as a "follow up" and say that she does that for all brand-new clients. She begged me to write a rebuttal Yelp post, which I did. Because the other Yelper was new and an infrequent user, the post got buried eventually.

The Yelp started calling her asking her to open a business account to bury the bad review!

Anyway, this story illustrated how important Yelp is to small businesses.
posted by k8t at 8:29 AM on September 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I usually dismiss any review where the reviewer goes out of their way to say that the staff is "rude" These are usually thin-skinned people who you will never please and will go on to complain about everything.

I have stayed at probably hundreds of places from small pensiones to luxury hotels. I cannot say anyone has ever been rude to me. Sure, sometimes people seem like their not having a good day and have been a bit short with me. But I am non-paranoid enough to realize that it is not about me, personally.

The Indian man may indeed have encountered a B&B owner who was a bit aloof. It was, I am sure, he not her that decided to make about his skin color.
posted by vacapinta at 8:29 AM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


One thing I would say to hotel operators - Engage with the site. The operator has a "right to reply" feature where they can comment on any review.

We just used a move my wife found on Angie's List. They had all good reviews save one, and the one didn't make a lot of rational sense. They used this reply to point out that this woman was the most unpleasant, bigoted person any of the movers that day had ever dealt with in their lives, and asked that the bad review be taken with some caution.

We used them, and they were tremendous. We need to go leave a good review.

You simply have to, as a user, take the aggregate comments. Anyone can have one bad experience where their server had a bad day, or the weather during their stay was bad and they took it out on the resort, and report unfairly. And business have to relax and realize that. If people l are buying off bad reviews...they should probably consider providing better service to 90% of the people, and asking users to report such.
posted by stevis23 at 8:41 AM on September 24, 2010


I recall looking up a couple of my favorite professors on one of those "rate your teacher" thingers, and being astonished how many negative reviews they'd gotten from people who simply had no idea what they were talking about. Complaining about classes that relied on discussion instead of lectures, or projects instead of papers, or moaning about law school adjuncts who actually practiced in the field "wasting time" by telling stories to contextualize a point of law. I also saw teachers who knew almost nothing about the material teaching out of a textbook and assigning regurgitation of the material, getting high praise for their insight from people who hadn't come into the class with some knowledge of the subject matter. Or a teacher who played favorites and held grudges, whose decisions and grades I repeatedly (and successfully) had to appeal to the head of her department, being lauded by people she hadn't assigned to her shitlist. You'd have a professor who thought the Middle East was part of Africa and who showed up an hour and a half late for her own final, because she wanted it to be 12:30 to 3 instead of the 11 to 2 timeslot the university had assigned, getting a much higher aggregate score than the fantastic professor who led discussions about a play instead of lecturing us about what it meant.

I guess my point is, these sorts of user-review aggregates are sketchy as hell. No real obligation to investigate the truth of the claims they're publishing, not a lot of recourse for the person being slandered - and nothing at all can be done about someone being unfairly promoted. All the unreliability of a Wikipedia, plus all the anonymous vindictiveness that so characterizes the internet.
posted by kafziel at 8:57 AM on September 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


The trouble that any review site has is that people who are merely satisfied don't tend to write reviews. This is why this behavior described above is actually a good thing, because it encourages people to review anything, even if they don't care too much either way:

the folks who use these sites are always looking to out-compete one another, and that means writing a review about anything they can, and being seen as trustworthy by their peers.
posted by smackfu at 9:03 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reputation systems are seriously problematic. We'd have more reliable information if you were required to have some kind of proof that you're a real customer when writing a review (maybe a verifiable number provided by your credit card web site). Otherwise any system you come up with will be overrun by sockpuppets. Hopefully consumers realize this when making buying decisions....
posted by miyabo at 9:07 AM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Along those lines, Amazon now marks reviews as "Amazon Verified Purchase" if you bought the item on Amazon.
posted by smackfu at 9:09 AM on September 24, 2010


There was a driveway snow clearing service here in Ottawa that pretty much reneged on hundreds of homeowner contracts a couple years back. A check with the BBB (Better Business Bureau) turned up a surprising number of positive reviews nonetheless that quite possibly mitigated the development of any sort of organized class action. A few weeks later, an enterprising type with more than a point-and-click understanding of how computers worked traced the IP addresses of every last one of the positive reviews and sourced them all to a computer in the office of the snow clearing company.

Bad service, like good, comes with its consequences and a whole pile of research before making any major commitment to a good, service or experience can really help reduce the risk implicit in "Caveat Emptor".
posted by Mike D at 9:24 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


User-generated reviews are not the problem.

The problem is that Yelp! and TripAdvisor and such services allow anyone to say anything they like, while maintaining no recourse for the entities implicated by the comments.

Say you own an apartment complex. You have a terrible manager who is rude to residents. Upon reading resident complaints on ApartmentFinder.com, you investigate and eventually fire the manager. You then hire a wonderful, wonderful kind manager. The negative reviews about "that bitch" who "called me trashy and threw me out on the street" are still up. ApartmentFinder will not take them down.

So what do you do? You can post a message yourself that says, "We hired a new manager! Everything is better now!" but you have to click a button that swears you are not the owner of the property if you wish to comment. If ApartmentFinder sees your comment, they will delete it.

But lest you imagine that ApartmentFinder leaves you no recourse, they oh-so-generously allow for a "Manager Account" able to respond to comments--for $2,000 each year. Now imagine that you own 50 apartment buildings. You have to shell out $100,000 to make sure your online image stays as gleaming as your real life image does.

Have you never noticed these sites are free to post on? And they are not innundated with ads? That's because the revenue stream from this business model is allowing people to comment (and be honest...who ever comments except for the pissed off people?) and then charging businesses to respond to the negative comments.

This is not social networking, this is extortion. Yes, it ensures that customer service standards remain high, but no recourse is made for when the standards have indeed improved.

Just like Google said everyone should change their name when they turn 18, apartment complexes have begun to change their names every time they are sold for precisely this reason. That isn't easy to do if you own a franchise of a McDonald's, though.
posted by jefficator at 9:52 AM on September 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


One of the problems (I think) is that people just don't understand the star system.

People automatically assume that a 5* hotel is better than a 3* hotel, when the reality is that it's just a difference in what facilities a place has. With a few thousand pounds, I could turn my garage into a 3* hotel for a fiver a night. It would still have bare walls and a cracked concrete floor, but I could get it up to 3* standard.

We really need a system where you get stars for the available facilities and diamonds or octothorpes based on the size and cleanliness of the actual hotel room.

That's kind of what's happening in Trip Advisor, and the owners of Fawlty Towers-esque hotels are getting negative reviews because people don't agree that having tea and coffee making facilities makes the broom cupboard anything other than a broom cupboard.

While we're at it, if anyone could recommend a hotel room within walking distance of the West End for next weekend, I'd be really grateful.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 10:12 AM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know how other people use these sites, but I tend to pretty much ignore the ratings and simply pay attention to the qualitative aspects of the reviews. Well-written reviews (and legitimate ones) will usually include details about the experience that give nuance and inform you in unexpected ways. They won't just tell you that the room was dirty or that the food sucked. I'm more interested in knowing that the restaurant has the most amazing bloody mary you've ever had because of the rosemary-infused vodka or that the Titanic soundtrack played in the dining room ruined your enjoyment of the meal. You can almost always discount the angry rants unless they are the overwhelming trend.

I use both Yelp and TripAdvisor. The former can be pretty unreliable in that mixed reviews or even good reviews won't really tell you if you'll like a place, because there's enough bozos out there who will give Pizza Hut an enthusiastic 5-star review, but universal poor reviews will definitely tell you if you'll hate it. For some reason Trip Advisor seems more useful, and has helped me find some really fantastic hotels, whereas Yelp really only seems to help me avoid some bad businesses.
posted by amusebuche at 10:17 AM on September 24, 2010


who ever comments except for the pissed off people?

I do. These reviews are invaluable when deciding where to stay in an unfamiliar city, so I always give a complete review the places I've stayed. I give my background and expectations, and then a description of how the place met (or not) those expectations. 95% of reviews say, "This place sucked" or "It was loud" or "The restaurant next door was great!" or "This place was really nice." The other 5% are useful. Do your part by adding to it.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:00 PM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I too have noticed some dodgy reviews on TripAdvisor. Anyone can sign up 20 or more accounts and write themselves lots of glowing reviews. They really do need to weed this stuff out, as it is the "#1 out of 562" ratings are completely meaningless.
posted by Lanark at 12:01 PM on September 24, 2010


And yet other services like Groupon are now using Yelp as a guide to whether or not they should let a business offer a deal on Groupon! Ugh. I ran into this one recently -- a colleague a few counties over had a lot of success with a Groupon and I thought I'd run one, too. Got in touch with Groupon and they said there wasn't enough reviews on Yelp, etc for them to allow me in. I pointed out -- not very nicely, I really must say, but I was kind of pissed off -- that they'd let my colleague in who isn't even as well known as I am, and that hey, look, here are a TON OF NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS about my business and how cool it is, right on my damn Press page, in front of your face Mr. Groupon Salesdude!

This massive reliance on Yelp and the like leads to other stupid stuff on down the line...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:18 PM on September 24, 2010


Talk about a failure of imagination. People have been talking about the "reputation economy" for ages. (Yes, including whuffie.) But I've yet to see one that predicted this level of disastrous confusion, back-biting, and underhanded tricks.

Science fiction and "future trends" articles never seem to account for, you know. Lying. And idiots.
posted by ErikaB at 12:58 PM on September 24, 2010


But I've yet to see one that predicted this level of disastrous confusion, back-biting, and underhanded tricks.*

Don't get me started on BzzAgent!

The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders. [NYT's Sunday Magazine cover story].

* -- ericb waves and winks at ErikaB.
posted by ericb at 3:07 PM on September 24, 2010


* -- ericb waves and winks at ErikaB.

I think you want MetaFlirter, down the hall.
posted by hippybear at 3:20 PM on September 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


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