Kwikchex, the online reputation management firm behind the successful complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) about TripAdvisor, has indicated it plans to push for a code of conduct for online review sites.
The ASA this week announced that it was upholding the complaint that TripAdvisor's advertising messages about the trustworthiness of its reviews were misleading.
Kwikchex, along with two hotels, challenged whether the claims "reviews you can trust", "read reviews from real travellers", "TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travellers" and "more than 50 million honest travel reviews and opinions from real travellers around the world" were misleading because it did not verify the reviews on its website and therefore could not prove the reviews were genuine.
The ASA agreed with the complaint and ruled that the advert must not appear again in its current form.
"We told TripAdvisor not to claim or imply that all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted," it said in its adjudication.
Chris Emmins, co-founder of Kwikchex, welcomed the decision. "We did this because we think that the greatest impact is very much on small businesses," he said. "They have only a few reviews; it is not as if there are loads of them on there. And particularly when it comes to unsubstantiated food poisoning and other elements like that, they are absolutely devastating. But this is just the tip of a huge iceberg."
Emmins said that although his business would continue to take the legal route to have false or malicious reviews removed, he wanted to see more co-operation with review sites, with the aim of establishing a code of conduct based around proposed changes to UK defamation laws.
"I think the real stepping stone here should be a voluntary code of conduct by review sites which should be fundamentally based on the proposed changes in UK law," he said. "They are eminently sensible - they do not stifle freedom of speech but they do protect businesses much more. We are going to recommend those with a slight variation as a code of conduct for all review sites. I don't see why, other than lack of diligence and perhaps not caring, that review sites shouldn't take that up."
But TripAdvisor was unhappy with the ASA's ruling and claimed it "flew in the face of common sense and is out of touch with the millions of real people who use and trust consumer review sites like ours every day."
TripAdvisor said in a statement: "The ASA has taken a highly technical view around some marketing copy that was used in a limited capacity. We have confidence that the 50 million users who come to our site every month trust the reviews they read on TripAdvisor.
"We feel the ruling is unrealistic in its expectation of sites like ours. The ASA upheld the complaints on the basis that we could not provide 100% certainty that every single review on the site was written by a real traveller and could be trusted. No system, verified or not, could provide this.
"We completely stand by our independently endorsed review integrity processes, and we know our users trust TripAdvisor because they understand that the sheer volume of reviews allows them to get the complete picture of a property and make an educated decision based on the opinions of many before they book."
Meanwhile, small hospitality businesses which have been on the receiving end of suspected false or malicious reviews on TripAdvisor welcomed the ASA's ruling but questioned the long-term effect it would have.
Mandy Davidson, director of the Cock and Bull, a Michelin pub guide-listed restaurant in Balmedie in Aberdeenshire, which last year threatened to sue the online reviews website over a suspected false review, said: "I welcome the ruling by the ASA and hope that it will send out a message to users of the site to maintain a degree of scepticism when basing their travel decisions on TripAdvisor reviews. Unfortunately, I don't think it will act as a deterrent to those who wish to manipulate the system for their own benefit."
Meanwhile, Mike Pemberton, owner of the Cafe at Brovey Lair in Thetford, Norfolk, who is still fighting a suspected malicious review of his business said: "While it is very good that TripAdvisor is not allowed to make those ridiculous claims, it doesn't help to get rid of the reviews of people like us that already exist and are still there."
By Neil Gerrard
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