Is TripAdvisor still letting hotels rig their reviews?

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By Christopher Elliott

TripAdvisor is a regrettable by-product of the information revolution whose user-generated ratings too often hurt travelers and travel companies more than they help.

As I’ve noted in the past, the company cynically monetizes the labor of its unpaid contributors while making virtually no effort to verify its reviews.

TripAdvisor doesn’t promise its readers much, but the least it can do is to live up to the few guarantees it makes.

Even so, when I heard from Ellen Garland, who charged the company with allowing a hotel in Anguilla to brazenly game its ratings, I didn’t want to go there.

Review rigging and the quest for the number-one spot

It’s a no-win proposition for me. The TripAdvisor contributors who read my site, and who would defend anything the company does, will just have another reason to click away (as if they didn’t already have enough reasons) and it would further strain my relationship with the company (as if it could get any worse).

But when has that ever stopped me?

“On TripAdvisor, the more ratings you get and the more positive they are, your property is elevated to a higher status,” explains Garland.

She has been monitoring the reviews for Meads Bay Beach Villas in Anguilla, which, at the time she wrote to me, held the number-one rating among properties on the island.

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She adds,

It is an OK place, but does not deserve to be number one. Yet it has consistently ranked number one because the owners offer free stays for a review via contests or for liking them on Facebook.

TripAdvisor has told me this is against their rules, yet they have chosen to not do anything about it.

I think it is wrong and unfair that because this property is net savvy, they are allowed to continue to fool the public and are rewarded with a number one spot for cheating.

Garland was trying to get an answer about Meads Bay’s reviews, which is why she turned to me. She says repeated requests to TripAdvisor had gone unanswered.

Encouraging fair reviews and consequences for violations

This isn’t the first time TripAdvisor has given a legitimate question a vague answer or none at all. Historically, that’s how the company deals with some readers who call the company’s reviews into question. And as I’ve said in the past, it’s absolutely no way to treat the very people who are often writing the reviews that the company so effectively converts into revenue. (Here’s our ultimate guide to finding a trip advisor.)

So my advocacy team and I asked TripAdvisor. Here’s what it had to say:

Property owners are welcome to encourage their guests to submit user reviews upon their return home, but they are not allowed to offer incentives, discounts, upgrades, or special treatment on current or future stays in exchange for reviews.

If a business listed on TripAdvisor has offered an incentive for a review, we urge travelers to tell us about it. We will investigate every case and contact the business to ensure they fully understand our guidelines. If a business continues to break our guidelines we will apply a penalty.

In the case of the Meads Bay Beach Villas, the owners were notified about our guidelines and they immediately ceased their competition in May last year. A number of suspicious reviews were also removed at the time. If the owners break our guidelines again they will be penalized.

OK, so if I’m understanding this response within the context of the original complaint, someone reported Meads Bay to TripAdvisor a year ago. It wasn’t the company’s vaunted fraud-detection algorithm that spotted the suspicious reviews. And TripAdvisor told the property to knock it off, but took no meaningful action, allowing its number-one ranking to stand. (Related: This is a dangerous vacation rental, Tripadvisor. I want a refund!)

Now, it’s possible, of course, that Meads Bay truly deserves recognition as the best hotel on the island, even with the fake reviews removed. But I’m skeptical.

I suppose I should be happy that they deleted some of the questionable reviews after Meads Bay was reported. But TripAdvisor’s actions — or lack of actions — may have repercussions beyond Anguilla. Other hotels watching this will interpret this move as a license to buy favorable reviews and not to worry about what comes next.

The slap on the wrist won’t hurt — that much.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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