Posting Peer Reviews On Your Website: A New Debate

by , Apr 9, 2012, 6:23 AM
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The debate over how best to handle peer reviews on hotel websites continues to rage. While there is now growing consensus for hotel brand websites to allow guests to view customer feedback, the debate has shifted to what sources make this data believable and to what degree do hotels curate the feedback to screen out false information or negative issues that have long been remediated without changing the authentic tone of the reviews. 

When I wrote almost a year ago on MediaPost about the growing imperative to post reviews, I urged brands to take the plunge, largely because consumers are placing such high value on the information and to ignore this fact and force people to go elsewhere for peer guidance was foolish.

A few weeks after my article ran, Starwood and other brands formally announced that they would start to post reviews on their websites. While I’m unwilling to attribute cause and effect, it was part of a sea change in the industry toward the concept of posting reviews.

The challenge, however, is finding a way to post reviews that work equally well for the hotel and consumers. Many brands remain wary of the veracity of reviews from TripAdvisor and other sites as there is no method of verifying that the reviews have been posted by actual guests and there continues to be reluctance among hoteliers to show any negative posts. The fact that the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK recently ruled that there was enough doubt about the source of the postings on TripAdvisor that the site could no longer claim the reviews were generated by “real travelers,” did nothing to inspire confidence in the available content. It has also been reported that some hotels are paying agencies to post positive reviews for them, while also posting negative reviews for competitors. Even though it’s impossible to determine how widespread the practice is, it is another possibility that calls into question the credibility of review sites.

Further compounding this apprehension is the reality that clicking on a TripAdvisor review posted on the hotel’s site will connect the user back to TripAdvisor and present them with a host of ads and opportunities to book another property. And, even if they do ultimately book your property, there’s a good chance they may do it through a third-party site, forcing the hotel to incur additional fees. It’s far from ideal.

Fortunately, brands are soldiering on. 

With the dramatic relaunch of the Four Seasons site, it has selectively curated excerpts from some positive TripAdvisor reviews and highlighted them on the site. If it had stopped there, it might have felt a bit disingenuous, but, to their credit, they’ve also included an adjacent link that connects to the TripAdvisor site and the full complement of reviews. Yes, it does allow you to wander off and view other hotels, but Four Seasons is showing the confidence in its brand (and customer) such that it has obviously decided the convenience and value to the user outweigh any potential risks.  

Other brands, like Starwood, have chosen to build up their own volume of guest ratings, which gives them potentially more control to ensure that the post is from a real guest. However, it does take time to build up enough volume to be meaningful (on a recent visit to Starwood.com, I found the Four Points Norwalk was still waiting for its first review), and there’s still the potential perception that the reviews aren’t coming from a neutral, unbiased third party.

So what is a property to do?

Well, some factors are fundamental to the discussion. As noted in my original story, there is a fair amount of research that shows that consumers increasingly disbelieve feedback that appears only positive and lacks authenticity and they can quickly discern false postings. Rather than try to eliminate negative feedback, hotels are successfully using it as an opportunity to post a response and address the problem, as consumers are more likely to book a hotel that is publicly addressing negative reviews.
While TripAdvisor has no doubt taken some blows, I do wonder if some of the negativity around the site isn’t exacerbated within the travel industry community who remain sensitive to its influence and popularity. Flawed as it may be, it’s still a hugely popular site and one that consumers have learned to use as a tool. Rather than dismiss it, I encourage brands to look at how it can best be leveraged while minimizing the impact of the redirect, at least until other viable alternatives gain similar stature and believability.

One such option is a service called GuestBook.com which hotels can use to invite guests to post their own comments about actual stays which can then be posted on the hotel’s website. My colleague Maureen O’Hanlon recently wrote about a test of the system that was conducted by the HSMAI Resort Best Practices Initiative. It found that guests using an invitation approach posted reviews at levels that were equal to or greater than what was being posted to TripAdvisor over a similar period of time. And, since these same properties experienced no decrease in the number of reviews posted to TripAdvisor during the test, it also led researchers to believe that it was actually generating new reviews, the vast majority of which were positive and coming from guests who would not ordinarily have posted. Certainly, a good thing in a world where customer feedback is fueling interest and trust.

No doubt most hotels would like to ensure that peer reviews are from real guests they can validate and to exert more control over the whole process. Regardless of which approach you choose, you should work to be transparent. If you’re managing the reviews yourself, let consumers understand how the reviews are solicited and posted and give them every reason to believe what they read— both good and bad.

The fact remains that consumers continue to want to have their choices validated through peer reviews and if you don’t make it easy for them to find reviews on your site, they’ll seek out assurances through other channels.

That’s something over which there is no debate.

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