These Review Sites May Actually Be Hurting You.
While Google and Facebook take the number-one and number-two spots respectively for online review sites, there are two other review sites that merit discussion: TripAdvisor and Yelp. These sites continue to thrive in their own right and can still be extremely valuable for tour operators. So, which of these should you care about?
While it touts itself as the number one site for travel reviews, TripAdvisor is no stranger to controversy. The website has undergone a transformation in recent years, going from pure review site to a more social media-oriented experience, but it began steering away from its claims of providing unbiased feedback even before this switch. In fact, in 2012 the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority disputed TripAdvisor’s use of the words “trusted” and “honest” to describe its reviews, forcing the site to change its slogan to “the world’s largest travel site”. Then, in 2014, the site was fined €500,000 by the Federalberghi Federation of Hoteliers in Italy for “fail[ing] to adopt controls to prevent false reviews, while at the same time promoting the site’s content as ‘authentic and genuine’”.
False reviews pose an issue for any review site, but TripAdvisor seems to have been especially unlucky in this regard, whether that be the made-up Italian restaurant that made its way into the site’s ranking system or PromoSalento, a company which was found posting fake reviews in exchange for payment. To TripAdvisor’s credit, they seem to be working to improve their ability to catch fake reviews by using a tracking system that inspects all reviews before they go live and have helped catch and put an end to 60 paid review companies. While I want to give credit where credit is due, the site does seem to be the poster child for problematic review sites. And, until it keeps its name out of the media for scandals such as those listed here, it will continue to struggle.
If that’s not enough, TripAdvisor has also been accused of bias in favor of its own recently acquired booking software, Bókun. Chris Torres of the Tourism Marketing Agency wrote about the President of TripAdvisor Experiences’ announcement that tour operators using Bókun would be given preferential treatment. Even though they’ve since walked that statement back, it still should concern tour operators that a seemingly “independent” review site is so closely intertwined with both a booking software (Bókun) and online travel agency (Viator). It seems almost impossible for such a well-connected business to resist the temptation to promote tour operators who use TripAdvisor’s own software over those that don’t.
However, I’m still a big advocate for TripAdvisor since they are still the go-to site for many travelers (like myself) who are looking for tours. Vendasta has them ranked fifth out of the top ten review sites with a little under 30 million monthly users. In their quest to stay relevant, TripAdvisor recently transformed itself into what it calls “the world’s first travel feed”, where users can follow other users and see what they’re posting in a similar way to the world’s leading social media sites.
Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking, but I like to think that TripAdvisor’s dedication to keeping itself relevant means that the site will continue to be a major player in travel reviews for years to come. Or, maybe they’ll be unable to keep up with the number of scandals and will be forced to rely on their vast portfolio of other businesses. At the end of the day, it’s anyone’s guess.
Pros: Biggest travel-dedicated site in the review world; recent transformation to a more social media-esque site
Cons: Numerous scandals; close connection with Bókun and Viator makes them vulnerable to bias
The verdict? I’m stuck on this one. TripAdvisor is problematic, but I just can’t seem to steer away from using it as my go-to for reviews, both when researching a tour company and leaving a comment of my own. In any case, I still think it’s worth asking your customers to leave you a TripAdvisor review, if only because of its continued dominance in the travel industry. Continue sharing that review link!
The last of the massive review sites, Yelp isn’t exempt from controversy either. While the site boasts several million monthly users — about 33 million per month via the Yelp app, 69 million via mobile web, and 62 million via desktop web as of December 2018 — its strict review filters and emphasis on advertising have led many to suspect its reviews are less than impartial.
For a site that was created as a method of sharing recommendations about popular locations like restaurants, hairdressers, and more, Yelp’s review filter seems to be far too strict, often hiding legitimate reviews. According to Original Review, “If a review isn’t ‘recommended,’ it won’t show up on your page, even if it’s 5-star, enthusiastic, and glowing. It all depends on who leaves the review, and whether Yelp’s algorithm deems them a legitimate reviewer. If a person who’s relatively inactive online, or doesn’t seem to have an online ‘presence’ Yelp finds significant, their reviews are hidden.”
I did some testing to see where my own Yelp reviews ranked. I have only written three in my lifetime, so I definitely fall into the “relatively inactive online” category. In one of my reviews for a local restaurant in my hometown, my review did not appear until the second page, despite being newer than at least five of the reviews on the first page (including several which were over a year old). Another of my reviews for a hair salon was not listed at all and showed up in the “Not Recommended” section, despite the fact that the review was 100% positive on top of being indicative of my experience:
I’m not alone in my experience: according to Post Modern Marketing, “roughly 25% of all reviews are not recommended by the algorithm.”
Even more concerning is the claim by many small business owners that refusing to pay for Yelp advertising has led their rankings to drop. A man near Dallas, Texas had this issue. According to CBS DFW, “He said after months of non-stop phone calls from Yelp, he claims his favorable rating dropped after he finally told the company he would not pay for advertising.” A lawsuit was launched against Yelp, alleging that the site was manipulating reviews in exchange for advertising revenue. Although the court ultimately dismissed the case, it did have a landmark ruling that said Yelp was within its rights to manipulate reviews. Yes, you read that right: Yelp is within its legal rights to penalize businesses that don’t advertise with them.
Post Modern Marketing paints an even clearer image of the issue: “They [Yelp] say they don’t extort businesses, but when even your own shareholders have sued you for ‘undisclosed business practices, including but not limited to requiring business customers to pay to suppress negative reviews,’ something ain’t right.” To be fair, Pierre Zarokian of the Search Engine Journal makes a good argument for why he doesn’t believe there’s a connection between advertising with Yelp and a business’ positive reviews. After working with search engine marketing for many years and dealing with sites such as Yelp, he’s come to this conclusion: “I hate to come to Yelp’s defense, because I dislike many of their practices, but I do not think that Yelp would risk so many lawsuits and their public image just to close a deal.”
In any case, the fact is that the site is legally entitled to manipulate reviews in exchange for advertising is concerning.
Pros: It’s a big site with a big name; millions of active monthly users
Cons: Stringent filter that hides 25% of reviews (including many positive ones); court ruling that the site is allowed to manipulate reviews in exchange for advertising revenue (despite the site’s claim that it doesn’t do so)
The verdict? Steer clear of Yelp. Its falling stock prices in recent years are indicative of both its lessening market sway and its potentially damaging business practices. Your energy is better spent promoting Google Reviews, TripAdvisor, and Facebook.
If you missed part 1 of this series where I discussed Google and Facebook, you can check it out here.
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