Is TripAdvisor censoring negative reviews?

occidentalTripAdvisor, which appears to have weathered a fake-review scandal thanks in no small part to a plausible explanation from its chief executive, has never been accused of pulling any punches. Until now.

Mark Leon stayed at the Occidental Grand Hotel in Cozumel, Mexico, earlier this month. He posted two reviews: An account of a “wonderful” restaurant called Capi Navegante. And a scathing write-up of the Occidental.

Guess which one got posted?

Before we continue, here are the TripAdvisor reviews for the Occidental Grand and Capi Navegante.

See the unflattering review from gatormark91? Until late yesterday, it wasn’t on the site.

Leon picks up the story:

[Our] stay at the Occidental Grand was terrible. The food bad, the room A/C was terrible and the room stank, there were swarming flying termites in the room, and management would not move my room despite only being half full.

So I went to TripAdvisor on my return and posted a scathing, and completely honest, review.

Leon received two emails from TripAdvisor promising the reviews would be posted “within 24-48 hours.” But only the positive restaurant review appeared on the site. His critique of the Occidental was missing in action.

I used no foul language in my review, but I was very, very detailed about my experience, and how it was not handled well by the hotel manager.

This property is only receiving about 1/4 to 1/8th the bad reviews on Tripadvisor than it is on other travel review sites. I trusted TripAdvisor to guide my travel choices, but now I am not sure that they can be trusted.

If I had seen the number of bad reviews that other sites had, I would have made different plans.

I really want to know what happened to my review. If it was disallowed for some reason, I should have been notified. Right now its looking to me like they are cherry-picking positive reviews. I made expensive travel plans based on their scoring of the hotel, and my trip was ruined.

I contacted TripAdvisor on Leon’s behalf on Monday afternoon. I heard back from my contact almost immediately, promising I should hear back from the company “sometime tomorrow.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Leon sent me another email, asking about the review. I asked TripAdvisor for an update. “I’m tied up until shortly after 4:00 but should get you something soon after that,” my contact said.

At 8:17 p.m., I received the following response from TripAdvisor.

Since the reviews in question were submitted to TripAdvisor by Mr. Leon, and not by you, we need to hold off on commenting until we get direct consent from him to speak with you about them. Sorry for the delay; I’ll be back in touch when we hear from Mr. Leon.

It is my experience that companies citing “privacy concerns” are more concerned about their own privacy than that of their customers, but I’m willing to give TripAdvisor the benefit of the doubt. If and when it has a response, I’ll post it here.

In the meantime, Leon’s review is up on the site.

This incident raises a few important questions. Why did TripAdvisor publish the positive review but not the negative one? Weren’t the positive, allegedly fake reviews getting it into trouble? Shouldn’t it be more cautious with those, rather than the negative ones?

Also, why hold a review without explanation? When a review is rejected — as Leon’s apparently was, initially — he’s entitled to know why.

If TripAdvisor wants to maintain its credibility as the leading source for online travel reviews, I think it needs to be more transparent with its members.

Update (11:30 a.m.): Leon just received the following note from TripAdvisor.

TripAdvisor was contacted by Chris Elliott of National Geographic Traveler regarding your recently submitted reviews.

Your first review of Occidental Grand Hotel in Cozumel, Mexico was flagged as it contained comments about other reviewers, which may not have met our guidelines. Your submission was pending a more in-depth review by our content moderators. While our reviews are usually processed within a few days, occasionally it takes our moderation team a little longer.

In the meantime, your second, edited review of this property was determined by a moderator to meet our guidelines, and was published last night.

Please note that the issue with your original review was not that it was negative; you’ll notice both positive and negative reviews posted throughout the site. We do our best to uphold our traveler review standards to ensure that the content on our site is relevant and helpful to travelers.

We’re happy to comment on these reviews with Mr. Elliott as well, but would first like your permission to discuss your submissions publicly. We respect your privacy and want to ensure that you approve the disclosure of details about your reviews.

We appreciate your contributions, and we look forward to addressing any concerns you have about your submissions.

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