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TripAdvisor has been banned by the UK’s advertising regulator from claiming that its users’ hotel write-ups are “reviews you can trust” from “real travellers”, after complaints that the site does not verify its ratings.
The holiday site’s reviews typically rank high in web search results, with some hoteliers claiming bad ratings – some of which they fear may have been posted by competitors – can have a serious impact on trading.
TripAdvisor argues it has created a level playing field for independent or boutique hotels to compete against larger chains with much bigger marketing budgets.
Two hotels and KwikChex, an online reputation management firm, made submissions to the Advertising Standards Authority last year that TripAdvisor could not prove its reviews were genuine, making its marketing claims about “trusted advice from real travellers” misleading.
In its response to the ASA, TripAdvisor said that no review site could guarantee 100 per cent accuracy but that fraud was at an “extremely low level”.
It argued that its fraud detection systems and “substantial resources” devoted to removing fake reviews ensured the “practical impact” of fraudulent reviews was “effectively negligible”.
Nonetheless, the ASA upheld the complaints against TripAdvisor.
“We understood that reviews could be placed on the site without any form of verification, and that whilst TripAdvisor took steps to monitor and deal with suspicious activity, it was possible that non-genuine content would appear on the site undetected,” the ASA said in its ruling.
“We did not consider that consumers would necessarily be able to detect and separate non-genuine reviews from genuine content, particularly where a hotel or other establishment had not received many reviews, and nor did we consider that a hotelier’s response in itself would go far enough to alert consumers to, and moderate, non-genuine content.”
The ASA has banned TripAdvisor UK from claiming or implying that “all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted” on its UK site. Other international versions of TripAdvisor are unaffected by the ruling.
Last year, the ASA expanded its remit to include regulation of online marketing and social media, with new powers to “name and shame” serious offenders on its website and through search engines.
After beginning its investigation in September 2011, TripAdvisor is the first case where the ASA has tackled so-called “astroturfing”, where paid advocates post online content that gives the appearance of real “grassroots” support.
Allegations of astroturfing were also at the heart of a recent clash between Wikipedia and Bell Pottinger, the Chime Communications-owned public relations agency which the online encyclopedia said had made anonymous edits to clients’ pages, breaching its rules.
TripAdvisor said in response to Wednesday’s ruling: “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, which is why they keep coming back to us in increasingly larger numbers to plan and have the perfect trip.”
TripAdvisor was spun off from its parent company Expedia on to the Nasdaq stock exchange in December, where it is now valued at $4.4bn. Shares in the company, which rose by 30 per cent during January, closed 4 per cent higher at $32.91 on Tuesday.