‘We’re at the mercy of TripAdvisor’

By Nicholas Robinson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Enough: operators want to see change from TripAdvisor
Enough: operators want to see change from TripAdvisor
Looking at negative online reviews of pubs makes for grim reading, especially when the businesses embroiled in them are victims of bogus accounts of meals written with the purpose to blackmail, damage a business’s reputation out of spite or simply to inflict as much stress as possible on an operator.

This is by no means a phenomenon, but an all-too-regular occurrence that has been widely publicised by The Morning Advertiser​ (MA​) in recent years, as well as the pub victims themselves on social media.

Legal regulation act

The advice website TruthAdvisor.co.uk, set up by hotelier, pub owner and former consumer rights campaigner Jonathan Greatorex, makes use of Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013.

“The law is very clear,” Greatorex says. “It only applies to businesses in England and Wales but the company hosting the comments can be based anywhere in the world. Quite simply, if there is a review that is factually inaccurate, or contains opinion that cannot be supported by fact, then the law is black and white.

“If you serve a notice to TripAdvisor, and that notice has to be built in a certain way, they have to either give you the name and address of the person who wrote the alleged libellous comments, or it has to take the defamatory comment down within 48 hours.

“Nine times out of 10 they will be unable to provide the name and address of the person who posted the review, so they will have to take that comment down.”

The legal advice can be accessed in full at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2013/3028/contents/made

To some operators, their opinions of online review sites are as simple as “can’t live with them and can’t live without them”. However, to others, they are platforms that do nothing other than aggravate and cause anguish.

One man, though, has taken drastic action in the face of his dissatisfaction with review sites such as TripAdvisor​ (TA), which seems to be at the centre of almost all complaints from operators.

Hotelier, pub owner and former consumer rights campaigner Jonathan Greatorex recently set up TruthAdvisor to offer operators advice on how to get stinging spurious reviews about their venues off the platforms (see Legal regulation act box on right).

The new site is not a competitor to TA that offers only positive reviews of venues, but an advice portal for victims of illicit write-ups. On his site, Greatorex says operators suffering from false reviews can use the ‘full force’ of the law to have them removed.

However, at this point, MA​ would not advise seeking legal counsel from someone other than a legal professional.

In a recent interview with MA​, Greatorex said: “I had a growing frustration with TripAdvisor because the stock response they would give to any negative review would be to say ‘it complies with our guidelines’. While these reviews may well comply with their guidelines, if something is factually incorrect, I felt there had to be a method of dealing with it.”

One of the biggest gripes for many in the trade is the focus review sites like TA place on customers, with little thought for the businesses being reviewed. Heath Ball, licensee of Top 50 Gastropub the Red Lion & Sun in Highgate, London, laments that operators are often “at the mercy of TA” to get reviews removed.

“They (TA) have guidelines, but most of the time they will say a [negative] review is within their guidelines,” he explains.

“It’s frustrating because it takes minutes for a customer to post a untrue negative review, but it can take days for us to get it removed. The whole site is customer-facing and not really for operators, yet they (TA) want you to promote their site and pay for advance listings too.”

A recent altercation in the Red Lion & Sun with a customer shows how review sites such as TA are being used by some to unfairly blackmail independent businesses. “A customer called my general manager over, complaining that he should have more slices of roast beef on his plate and started taking pictures of the meal, threatening to upload them to TA if nothing was done about it,” explains Ball.

Still unhappy

After talking to the customer and explaining the portions were the same for all, as well as offering a free dessert and removing the service charge, the customer was still unhappy.

Consumer reviews in numbers

  • 1,500 consumers quizzed
  • 78.8% cite poor-quality food as a reason to review
  • 68.6% would leave a negative review for rude staff
  • 1.9% would leave a negative review for long waiting times
  • 87% would leave a glowing review
  • 16 to 29-year-olds are the most likely to leave a negative review
  • 3.4 reviews made by individual diners on average per year

*Data supplied by Fourth (August 2017) based on a survey about TripAdvisor

Ball said: “He told my manager he didn’t want anything for free and made the following comment on the way out: ‘for years restaurants had the power to do as they wish, now I have the power with TA!’ Seriously, what the actual heck?”

To a certain extent, the way customers interact with eating-out businesses has changed now the likes of TA have become a bigger part of their decision-making process.

Arguably, people are less likely to complain in person at the time of an issue, but will write an angry review online at home, operators say. However, this approach means any issues are unlikely to be resolved properly in the best place – in-house.

This shift in behaviour is notable to Brendan Padfield, owner of the Unruly Pig, Bromeswell, Suffolk, who is up front about the issues he’s experienced with TA. “There are subtle customers who will visit [your pub], make no comment or complaint, eat the whole dish and then complain and ask for money off [later online],” he says.

“Last week, I had an email from a customer making special requests for a number of menu changes ‘as a TripAdvisor user’,” adds Padfield. “I wrote back saying we would be happy to accommodate the needs in any event. But we would have done that anyway and there was no need to mention TripAdvisor in the request.”

The thought of a customer dangling the threat of a bad TA review over an operator’s head, even before entering the establishment, verges on bullying. While consumers have the right to receive the goods and services they are paying for when eating out, threatening a business’s hard-earned status is nothing short of dicey.

However, the Red Lion & Sun’s Ball believes something has changed at the tech firm, saying he recently made a complaint about a review he deemed to be unnecessarily negative and received a reply from TA within 40 minutes. “I reported a review to TA and said it didn’t follow their guidelines and had a response within 40 minutes, which said the customer had 48 hours to reply.”

It’s absolutely against the spirit of our site to use TripAdvisor’s name to try and claim discounts or freebies that would not be available to other guests

– TripAdvisor

To be fair to TA, bosses have put in place stronger-than-ever checks and balances to help businesses on the website deal more efficiently with review issues.

But first, it’s important to understand the scale of TA. Since 2015, the website has grown from 200m reviews and opinions posted to over 600m.

More than 270 ‘contributions’ are made to the site each minute now, compared with 125 three years ago. The number of venues on the site has grown from 2.4m to 4.6m during the same period. Unique visitors to the site have also grown from 315m a month to 455m.

“It’s absolutely against the spirit of our site to use TripAdvisor’s name to try and claim discounts or freebies that would not be available to other guests,” a TA spokesman told MA​.

“Our advice to pub owners when they receive such a threat is to report it to us straight away. We have a dedicated tool that managers and owners can use to alert us to the threat of a blackmail review before any such review is submitted to the site.

‘The threat’

“In most cases, the person making the threat won’t follow through with it by submitting a review, but if they do, reporting the threat to us early helps our investigators’ efforts to identify the review and prevent it from being published on the site.”

In recent years, the review site has launched features including a subscription package giving operators the ability to ‘pin’ good reviews at the top of their page, as well as access to a range of review and management tools.

This month, TA unveiled a new feature allowing pub users to see exactly who is viewing their page, after it gave businesses the opportunity last year to alter details about their businesses. And in June last year, the site advised that responding to customer reviews would increase diner engagement.

Meanwhile, data about review sites revealed by Fourth, which polled 1,500 consumers, showed the main reason for customers leaving negative reviews was down to poor-quality food. Almost 80% of diners responding to the survey said they would leave a bad review if the food they were served was sub-par.

TA comments:

TripAdvisor says: “Our aim is to provide comprehensive information to diners on the options available to them, which is why we aim to list every hotel, eatery and attraction that is currently open for business. Ultimately, if a business is open to customers, then we believe those customers have a right to share their experiences with others and what is what our platform is designed to provide. Just as you can tell your friends and family about an experience you’ve had in person, we believe in people’s right to share those same thoughts and opinions online.”

However, for many operators, the fact their business is part of the website is as big an issue as any other because owners have no choice in whether their site is registered with TA or not.

“Ultimately, if a business is open to customers, then we believe those customers have a right to share their experiences with others and that is what our platform is designed to provide,” the spokesman says.

Chef-patron Stosie Madi of the multi-award-winning Parkers Arms in Clitheroe, Lancashire, has a real bone to pick around this topic, saying “the option to not feature on the TA site” would be welcome “because I do not agree with the way it is regulated”.

Businesses can be something of sitting ducks on the site, as they are “so open to instant malice, which isn’t fair”.

Ball is also somewhat dismayed at the fact there is no opt-out for businesses on the site or the fact there is not even an opportunity for pubs to say “the following business does not approve of reviews/personal comments from untrained critics and therefore will not engage in replies to reviews”. The Unruly Pig’s Padfield concurs, saying offering a choice would be an obvious improvement on the site.

Jemima Withey, owner of the Turks Head in Woodbridge, Suffolk, is also in agreement, but says the country gastropub’s position on the website is of value to the business.

Withey has a no reply policy to TA comments, unless “we feel like we have to”. She adds that other review platforms such as Google and Facebook are becoming more important to the business, but says there are rarely negative comments about the business posted on those platforms.

It is clear a chunk of operators will not see eye to eye with TA on all of its policies and the review platform will not yield on giving pubs the choice to be listed or not.

However, as TA gives more advice to operators and people outside the organisation find solutions to their problems, there is more to come from the long-running debate.

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