Hotels connect the dots between guests and online reviews

Hotels want to know who you are. Especially if you’re reviewing them anonymously.

An increasing number of image-conscious properties have begun connecting the dots between unbylined write-ups that appear on such popular travel sites as TripAdvisor or Yelp, and your personal information, such as your loyalty program preferences.

If you write a positive review, you might expect a reward from the hotel — a gift basket or a discount on your next stay. Pan a property, and you could get a concerned e-mail from the general manager asking you to reconsider your review. Or even a black mark against you in the chain’s guest database.

John Baird, a lodging consultant in Jacksonville, Fla., says that hotels now use locations, dates and usernames that appear online to triangulate a guest’s identity. Once they find a likely match, the review is added to a hotel’s guest preference records, next to information such as frequent-guest number, newspaper choice and preferred room type.

“If the post is positive, I can give them a gift basket when they return,” he said. Negative? That can generate an e-mail inviting the guest back for a free stay or offering frequent-stayer points as an apology.

“I think matching reviews with guest names is a great idea,” he added.

But travelers aren’t sure. After hearing about one international hotel that retaliated against travelers who slammed the property, Helen O’Boyle, a Seattle-based computing consultant, is troubled by hotels that name-match. Once identified, she said, the travelers were tagged as “problem guests” in the hotel chain’s reward program.

O’Boyle is careful not to reveal any information that might help a hotel identify her online. “Let’s just say that I’m glad my ratings site nicknames don’t look like my real name,” she told me. “And now, if I’m writing a bad review, I fudge the dates a bit and don’t mention any particular calamities that might be identifiable with what the hotel knows I experienced — just in case.”

Online review sites such as TripAdvisor don’t forbid the posting of personally identifiable information. Unregistered visitors can access details about any user, including an age range, gender, location, “travel style,” whether they travel for business or pleasure and even who they travel with. Registered users can send another reviewer a private message through the site. Although TripAdvisor has an extensive privacy policy, the site readily admits, “No Web site can guarantee security.”

April Robb, a spokeswoman for TripAdvisor, said the site considers any effort by a hotel to pressure a guest to remove a negative review to be “fraudulent.” Whenever a hotel owner attempts to contact a guest who has posted an unflattering review, a warning appears: “TripAdvisor may penalize owners who attempt to remove reviews through inappropriate threats or coercion,” said Robb.

But privacy policies aren’t the biggest obstacles for hotels trying to connect the dots. Rather, it’s a hotel’s inability to match a name with absolute certainty that makes this exercise more art than science, according to Barry Hurd, the chief executive of Seattle-based 123 Social Media, a reputation management company that works with more than 500 hotels.

“It’s hard, because the review services try to anonymize the reviews and the data. They want people to just tell the truth and to assure them there won’t be any repercussions,” he said. “Hotels, on the other hand, want them to put a name on the review — so that they know who you are.”

Both Hurd and Baird, the Jacksonville analyst, say that an overwhelming number of hotels want the information for the right reasons: either to reward a nice review or to reach out to a negative guest to patch things up. And that may be true, for now.

But Hurd says that technology is evolving so fast that in the future, every hotel representative could have a toolbar on his or her computer that reveals everything about a guest at the click of a mouse — every review, guest preference and even the likelihood that you’ll be positively or negatively inclined toward your stay.

There’s no telling what hotels could do with that information.

Since the first column I wrote about hotel guest profiles more than a decade ago, I’ve been deeply concerned about my own privacy as a traveler. Any time a hotel delivers my favorite newspaper (this one, of course) or leaves a fruit basket with apples (Pink Ladies) I get a little suspicious. How did they know?

If they found a way to connect that information with what I write about the hotel industry, I’d probably be reading the Pennysaver and eyeing a fruit basked filled with brown bananas. That hasn’t happened yet. But it could be only a matter of time.

O’Boyle’s advice works for me, but I’d offer a few additional recommendations. Don’t use your real name when you review a hotel, and make sure that your Internet handle doesn’t give away anything about your identity. Zero out your geographic location, and wherever possible, don’t answer profile questions such as “I travel with” or “My travel style.”

And never, ever, include any information that could identify you in the review itself. That’s one dot you probably don’t want a hotel to connect with another.

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