As you book your hotel for the up-coming Christmas holidays, you might, like many of us, check-out the customer reviews posted online at sites such as TripAdvisor. Some of us may have had suspicions about such testimonials and now the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has estimated 30% of online testimonials might be fake.
How un-Australian! Yet it seems in the pursuit of a dollar, some Australian companies are going to extraordinary lengths to manipulate the reviews that customers post online.
Policing this area is a challenge. Often misbehaviour is only unearthed by the authorities being alerted to the crime by a competitor in the same industry.
The ACCC is not backward in taking legal action however. Just last month the ACCC commenced action in Court against Meriton, Australia’s largest provider of serviced apartments, for allegedly doctoring the testimonial process by devising a scheme where reviews by unhappy customers were misdirected and didn’t reach their TripAdvisor destination. The ACCC alleges Meriton’s conduct is misleading or deceptive.
According to the ACCC here is how this one worked: TripAdvisor offers a service called “Review Express” where participating businesses provide TripAdvisor with email addresses of recent customers who have consented to passing on their details. TripAdvisor then emails the customers, prompting them to submit a review of their experience with that business.
The ACCCC alleges that between November 2014 and October 2015, Meriton took steps to prevent guests it suspected would give a negative review from receiving TripAdvisor’s “Review Express” email to avoid them posting potentially negative reviews.
This was done by inserting additional letters into guests’ email addresses provided to TripAdvisor so that the email addresses were ineffective, and not sending other guest email addresses to TripAdvisor. This practice is referred to as masking.
The ACCC’s statement of claim says that on November 20, 2014, Meriton’s Administration Co-ordinator sent an email to Meriton staff (including managers of Meriton properties) which says:
“In order to ensure complaints are not carried onto TripAdvisor, I strongly recommend that each property add a “Emel!MSA’d’ column in their duty log spread-sheet […] Of course this won’t eliminate negative reviews completely, but at least it will streamline masking guest bookings more effectively and capture all guests who have recorded a complaint … MSA Kent Street have recently implemented this showing great results with their reviews so I wanted to share it across properties as well”.
Naturally, the public’s confidence in TripAdvisor (and that business’ own model) relies on trusting the independence of the reviews posted.
The ACCC also alleges that Meriton failed to send TripAdvisor the email addresses of the majority of guests staying at a number of their hotel apartments during periods of time when there were specific problems experienced at those hotels. One example was Meriton’s Bondi property that had problems with the interruption of its phonelines, there was no hot water and the lift wasn’t operating.
Another example was at Meriton’s Kent Street property in downtown Sydney when there was an evacuation of one level of the hotel due to a damaged gas line which caused the hot water to fail, and it is alleged that the guests that encountered that problem had their email addresses altered.
Meriton has advised that it will be defending the proceedings in the Federal Court.
Have there been other examples of this type of misconduct? 3 past cases pursued by the ACCC give a further insight into the type of conduct (or misconduct!) that goes on:
- The Federal Court ordered last year that Electrodry Carpet Cleaning pay penalties after adjudicating that the company had posted, and requested that its franchisees post, customer testimonials about the quality of its carpet cleaning services when those customers were fabricated and the services had never been provided.
- Citymove, a furniture removalist, paid penalties following action by the ACCC for fabricating customer identities in the posting of two testimonials on Google + and one testimonial on YouTube.
- A solar panels supplier was caught by the ACCC for false video testimonials posted on YouTube.
These types of cases serve as a warning and demonstrate the way that the law of misleading conduct applies to the internet (and social media in particular) in the same way that it applies to any other conduct by a business.
It is important that businesses ensure that any customer testimonial used to promote the business is from someone who is actually a real customer and that has actually used the product or service of the business and that the view or opinion given is an expression of that person’s own feelings, based on their experience.
An important sub-thought is that the content of the testimony itself must be accurate because the fact that the customer believes a certain view would not prevent it from being misleading if that view was wrong or out of context when the business knew about such inaccuracy.
Online testimonials can be highly effective and are a genuine marketing tool. When using those tools, keep in mind the importance of ensuring that the statements posted online are accurate and genuine, avoiding the making or inducing false or misleading representations which would breach the Australian Consumer Law.
Such manipulation of online reviews is, of course, not limited to Australia. There have been various episodes around the world. More than 300 million travellers use TripAdvisor to research their trip each month, with more than 115 new contributions posted every minute!
It would seem statistically reasonable that a portion of those reviews are fake. One of the recent controversies involved a senior executive at Accor Hotels in Asia posting dozens of glowing reviews about the company’s properties and negative ones about its rivals!
The executive, Peter Hook was caught-out by the introduction of TripAdvisor’s new Facebook app. Unlike the TripAdvisor website, where reviewers are identified only by their user name, the app displays a name, photograph and location, taken from each users Facebook account. On social media, Hook described himself as “director of propaganda”.
Since Christmas is approaching, its apt to finish with the highlight of one of the top TripAdvisor spoofs. This involved a mocked-up version of the TripAdvisor website with a review on The Inn in Judea, ranked number 1 for speciality lodging in Bethlehem, a 5 out of 5 rating and described as “memorable” stay.
The Inn’s overall rating is 95%, with a negative review also featured from a tax collector who moans about the clamour of animals at 3.00 a.m. There is also a posting under the name Mary, advising about the general lack of hygiene.
The webpage was sent to TripAdvisor via Twitter. TripAdvisor replied to the tweets saying, “This made us smile”.
With this article’s focus on the manipulation of customer reviews, it’s fitting to finish on a lighter note with the following thought:
Please write all complaints legibly in this space – .