A pending bill would prohibit retribution for negative TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews

The recent passage of the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 in the House of Representatives raises a new question about the reliability of online reviews for travelers.

User-generated reviews on websites such as TripAdvisor.com and Yelp.com contain information from people who claim to have stayed at a hotel, dined at a restaurant or visited an attraction. About 9 in 10 travelers consult these reviews, but only half of them trust what they read, according to surveys.

You don’t have to look far for the reasons.

Some businesses try to rig their online profiles by submitting flattering reviews of themselves, paying guests to write puff pieces about their stays or trying to muzzle those who are unhappy with the service they received. And some companies are known to place negative reviews about their competitors.

“You might think you’re always reading accurate reviews,” says brand strategist Rachel Weingarten. “But at times, you’re pretty much going in blind.”

The proposed law, which would prohibit companies from imposing penalties or fees against reviewers, would effectively offer these reviewers more freedom to express themselves online, particularly when they have had negative experiences.

The House bill goes to the Senate for consideration and will then be presented to the president for signature into law.

The question is: Will the new law make the process any better?

“The Consumer Review Fairness Act will essentially make it illegal for companies to prohibit their consumers from leaving honest, negative reviews or criticisms about their goods or services online,” says Joe Sullivan, an attorney with the Atlanta law firm Taylor English. Sullivan consults with companies to determine how to respond to user-generated reviews.

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“It ensures that consumers have the freedom to tell the truth,” says Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, who testified in support of the law before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Online review sites also have supported the legislation. Laurent Crenshaw, Yelp’s director of public policy, says something needed to be done about the increasing number of “gag clauses” being slipped into contracts.

The most common example is a vacation home rental owner who stipulates in the fine print of a contract that he may keep a deposit if a guest leaves an unflattering review.

“These clauses can have a chilling effect on consumers and businesses alike,” Crenshaw says. “People nationwide expect to have their legitimate speech protected.”

Trying to silence a reviewer with tactics such as the gag clause is “an unscrupulous way of preventing critical reviews from being published,” says Adam Medros, a senior vice president of global product at TripAdvisor. “The result is an incomplete and thus less reliable collection of information for reviewers, and an uneven playing field for that business’s competitors. Curtailing the freedom of expression of Americans is simply wrong.”

But what constitutes freedom of expression?

“It is a fairly common misconception that the First Amendment grants the public an unfettered right to voice an opinion,” says Kathleen Kirby, a partner at the Washington law firm Wiley Rein, who has expertise in First Amendment issues.

In fact, she says, the First Amendment prohibits the government from dictating what citizens may say — but it does not prohibit private companies from trying to do so.

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In other words, a business can still sue you over a negative review, even one that’s true. The most common tactic would be what’s called a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP — essentially, a nuisance lawsuit designed to shut down a critic.

“These lawsuits are often used by businesses to threaten and intimidate consumers to remove reviews and other content online,” explains Michael Lai, a co-founder of SiteJabber.com, an online review site. “Consumers, not wanting to be sued and often not having the resources to fight a costly lawsuit, will often back down and remove their online reviews — even if they know they are on the right side of the law — for fear of legal retribution.”

The current bill would not halt that practice.

Questions remain about other aspects of consumer review sites. I have interviewed dozens of travelers who write online reviews, and virtually all of them reported a positive experience. Their write-ups were published promptly and are still online months and even years later.

But not all of them. Danielle Rollins, a bookkeeper from Dallas, recently complained that her one-star hotel review on a popular travel site had been “held in purgatory” while another five-star review published instantly. “The one-star review posted — eventually,” she says. Although it’s unusual, others have reported that their reviews — negative or positive — never went live.

Rollins’s experience, and those of others like her, continue to raise suspicions about the reliability of online review sites. And it leaves you wondering if travelers need to be protected from more than just vindictive hotels, restaurants and vacation rental owners.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Jim

    Better answer to the question would be it depends!

    You have to take everything with a grain of salt. You can’t trust every review, but you can’t dismiss all of them. It’s the law of averages, if a business has 500 reviews for example in a really small market, the potential scam reviews from owners and the bogus reviews for competitors would eventually be made statically irrelevant but the real reviews.

    You almost have to throw out the glowing reviews and the really terrible ones and look in the middle.

    I won’t trust a Yelp rating for a business that has 3 reviews, but if there are 1500 reviews you know the truth is in there somewhere.

  • Joshdent

    I think you have to be critical and smart when reading the online reviews, but there often is a lot of valuable information beyond whether or not a property is “good” or “bad”. If I am thinking of vacationing at a resort, for example, I would check it out on TripAdvisor. In addition to getting a sense of the overall quality of the resort, reviewers leave tips and information you might otherwise not get from the hotel website. “The pool is great but closes at 6 pm.” “It is a super long walk to the parking lot if you need to use your car” “This hotel is huge but unfortunately has only one elevator” “in the off season most of the amenities are not offered” those are the types of tidbits I benefit
    most from in reading the online reviews.

  • jah6

    I agree.

  • Blamona

    Most readers know to take take the “bulk” of the opinions. It goes both ways, bad reviews can come from competitors, trolls (your other post) disgruntled ex-employees, even pros looking for freebies. The truth has 3 sides usually, theirs, yours, and somewhere in the middle.

  • Bill

    Jim, you echoed exactly what I was thinking when I voted. I also look for detail in the review. In many of the reviews that I have left, I try to point out specifics, either with staff, location or offerings, in an attempt to give my reviews more validity. It’s often apparent who are the shills and who are true reviewers, especially if you look through the reviewers history. Or, if you see restaurants/businesses/hotels with primarily three and four star reviews and a couple of one star reviews, you might find that those are the people (some of whom we’ve seen here) who are never, ever satisfied … no matter what.

  • Jim

    I can’t agree more with your points. Great advice!

  • Altosk

    I hope this passes. Remember the company that sued a couple for leaving them a negative review? (Actually, I think it was two–one novelty gift company and another was a pet-sitting business???)

    I also hate “bribe for review” schemes. I was looking for a kiddie dentist for the Princess and I found one that had a lot of glowing reviews. Made an appointment, went there, it was okay…and on the way out I was given a card telling me if I left “a 5 star review on Google or Yelp, I would receive a $25 gift card.”

    Ah. Didn’t they call this “payola” in the 80s and 90s?

  • pauletteb

    I’ve had several reviews posted on TripAdvisor and one declined (but they explained why; you can’t have your name embedded on photos you submit). I did spot bogus negative reviews about a hotel I know well. Two very similarly worded negative reviews (obviously submitted separately by two women traveling together) listed complaints about amenities this particular property doesn’t even have. Maybe they did have a bad experience, but why not just say what was wrong instead of making stuff up?

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I find that you can usually sort out real reviews from the chaff, and I look at negative reviews mostly to see if there is anything intolerable for me (because I probably have lower standards that some other travelers).

  • taxed2themax

    With the recognition that, with very minor exception, most all airline/hotel/restaurant reviews will be materially subjective in most aspects, I think you have to look at the writer.. Not all reviewers can or will share the same personal value position as you, may not come from the same background or have the same “interest” in something as you.. This to me, does not make them (these reviews) bad or wrong per se, but simply recognizes that who you are plays a role in what you write.. and therefore, as the reader, I think there is something to be said for taking the time to understand where the author is “coming from” if you will..

    Sure, there will always be reviews that are dishonest or are done for what I’d call improper purposes.. and that does not always come from the businesses end either.. It is not unknown for a customer to essentially demand or make implicit threats for a bad review unless something of perceived value is given.. So, while I agree that any kind of situation where anything value is given to one party to the other — with the explicit or implicit understanding that it will have an effect on the review (to include not writing one at all), then I think that’s a problem. I don’t really care who is who in that dynamic, for me, it’s all negative.

  • Michael Anthony

    The bill sounds great, BUT, I’m most concerned about bogus reviews, since they could unjustly ruin a business. Some are easily spotted, but many are not, in particular if you are new to a city or the business. I personally take them all with a grain of salt.

    I do like on Amazon, for example, that some reviews have a “verified purchase” label, but don’t know how you could translate that to other services reviewed. But even that doesn’t work always. Recently, one of the best UK mystery writers had a ton of one star reviews. I couldn’t believe it. Upon reading them, it appeared most must have obtained the book before US publication. The US title was changed because the European version, out 6 months earlier, was in words not used in the US. A simple note withe title “published as “x” in Europe, would have solved it, but still the one star reviews didn’t even bother to review the book, since they felt duped. And perhaps rightly so, but still.

  • Vicki

    I don’t really trust them for good/bad; I use Yelp mostly to get an idea of what kind of food a restaurant has, on the theory that a statement about quality is more likely to be paid for or gamed than the simple fact that the menu includes, say, beef chow fun or steamed lobster.

  • DChamp56

    Maybe a third choice “Some” would have been better because I couldn’t say yes or no… but some I believe and some I don’t.

  • joycexyz

    I probably read it here, but there are ways to interpret a review. E.g., overlook superlatives and look for specific reasons why the reviewer feels the way he or she does.

  • S363

    This! The last sentence! That’s why if the poll with this article is to have any validity at all it must have a “Maybe” choice too.

  • James

    Many years ago (before they were publically traded) I would post reviews on Yelp. I recall a review for a local restaurant that was something like, “This restaurant advertises hours to 9PM, but every time I;ve gone by at 7PM they are closed.” About a year after posting that, the restaurant complained to Yelp that I can’t fairly review them since I didn’t eat there — Yelp pulled the review, no questions asked, and ignored my requests for clarification. So I pulled all my reviews and left — it was clear (in retrospect) that since their financial model is dependent on the advertising of those reviewed, they have no incentive to allow negative reviews.

  • Michael__K

    you can’t dismiss all of them

    If there are 10 or 20 reviews, all positive, maybe you should dismiss all of them if you knew that the business suppresses negative reviews with financial retaliation.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I analyze the reviews at TripAdvisor to find the “truth”.

    1. I throw out the reviews from people with only one or two reviews and they are located in the town of the hotel because I think that they are locals trying to prop up a local hotel or competitors trying to prop up their hotels.

    2. I read the negative reviews (one and two stars) to see if there is a trend, a common theme, etc.

    3. I read the other reviews to spot trends, themes, etc. This summer, I booked a property for our family vacation…the property received high grades except for two things: 1) Wi-Fi rarely worked and 2) the front desk was ‘not friendly.’ We booked it and the Wi-Fi rarely worked and the people in the front desk wasn’t friendly.

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