With Meriton allegedly filtering its negative TripAdvisor reviews, Dr Matthew Beard fears the PR damage caused far outweighs what they limited.
Like many Australians, I’ve used TripAdvisor to decide what accommodation to book when travelling for work or pleasure. It’s an incredibly useful tool that allows prospective guests to decide where to stay based on the experiences of previous guests at a hotel. If the hotel has a low score full of bad reviews, I probably won’t stay there.
I’m much more likely to stay at a hotel ranking over 4.5 stars – like so many of the Meriton Serviced Apartments. Presumably the huge numbers of positive reviews correlate to a top-quality service.
But this might not be the case. If evidence provided to the ABC is to be believed, Meriton has been “gaming” the TripAdvisor system to manufacture better reviews than it deserves. This is not only against TripAdvisor’s rules, it totally undermines the social function of a review.
The charges against Meriton are twofold. First, customers who had bad experiences were not invited to provide TripAdvisor reviews. Second, Meriton offered customers incentives to improve reviews, according to allegations which have not yet been proven.
The first charge seems less damning – nobody is obliged to actively seek negative reviews. If I owned a restaurant I might be ashamed to serve cold soup. I would resolve to do better in future. But I would be an idiot to suggest the customer tell the world about their cold soup.
However, if it was conventional practice for me to invite every restaurant customer to write in my “review book” at the end of their meal, I would be being dishonest not to invite my disgruntled customer too.
The ABC reports that “every guest at Meriton is supposed to be emailed a TripAdvisor feedback form after their stay.” In this case, declining certain guests to provide reviews on the basis they may be unhappy is disingenuous. It demonstrates Meriton’s failure to uphold values to which it has explicitly committed.
If Meriton has a formal arrangement with TripAdvisor to invite every guest to provide a review then disingenuousness will not be the only ethical issue – breaches of contract and failures to meet obligations to others will have to be considered too.
This aside, we can perhaps understand a business aiming to minimise the publicity of negative reviews. Although disingenuous, we can understand the desire to avoid public criticism.
The hotel industry is an intensely competitive environment and TripAdvisor enjoys an unusual amount of power for a third-party app. Negative reviews can – and in my own experience have – proved the difference between booking a hotel or not.
TripAdvisor understandably frown on the deception Meriton are alleged to have undertaken, but they also helped create the environment that made such deceptions appear necessary.
This is not to excuse the alleged wrongdoing but to take note of the context in which it is said to have occurred. However, these same excuses are less compelling when considering how Meriton are said to have dealt with existing negative reviews.
If someone negatively reviewed my restaurant and I offered them money to retract or improve the review, I would be guilty of bribery. Worse still, I would be undermining the integrity of the review system on which I and all other authors rely.
The function of a review is to be a public service, not a marketing tool. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Meriton appear to see them. As one leaked email reads, “We do take TripAdvisor feedback very seriously as it is a strong marketing tool for our product.”
Of course, reviews can be incidentally good for marketing. If word spreads that you have a high-quality product, more people are going to buy it and you’ll make money. That’s why businesses seek reviewers to begin with.
Meriton clearly recognise the power of reviews. But their actions – if the allegations are true – undermine the good reviews they have actually earned. By bribing negative reviewers to change or remove their appraisals, Meriton have dented the integrity of TripAdvisor – the system on which they and the entire hotel industry rely.
A review – if it is to be a review – is only an incidental form of marketing. It isn’t deliberate, and therefore cannot be manipulated. If it is, it shouldn’t be labelled as a review anymore – it’s advertorial. Calling it otherwise is nothing more than a fabrication.