TripAdvisor under the spotlight after Advertising Standards Authority ruling

Public trust in TripAdvisor, the world's most-used travel review site, has been hit by a regulator's ruling that it can no longer claim to have reviews by 'real travellers'. But PR professionals are split about how this will impact on the online management of travel brands' reputations.

TripAdvisor: reviews have been questioned
TripAdvisor: reviews have been questioned

The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that TripAdvisor's UK site must remove the claim on 1 February, following questions about how it verified its ratings.

Diffusion's MD Daljit Bhurji believes the ruling will strengthen the confidence of brands and PR professionals to challenge negative reviews: 'Brands and PR agencies will be much more focused in terms of acting as the eyes and ears of brands online and making sure the ASA is alerted. Online monitoring will become even more important.'

But Fleishman-Hillard's SVP and senior partner, MD, digital, David Lowey said the impact of the ruling would be 'next to nothing'.

'Yes, it is a formal ruling from the ASA, but all it impacts is the marketing language that TripAdvisor and similar review companies can use. It barely even opens a door for organisations to challenge negative reviews,' he said.

The news brings the issue of online image management and 'astroturfing' back into the spotlight, following recent controversy over online reputation cleaning on Wikipedia by agencies Bell Pottinger and Portland.

Travel PR agency Brighter Group MD Steve Dunne said the practice of faking reviews by hotels and agencies had reached its peak two years ago. But he added the site was still a major reputational concern for clients. He said he has held nearly 20 internal meetings to discuss issues presented to clients by TripAdvisor since July.

Rooster MD James Brooke said: 'I am sure there are some agencies still taking the unprofessional approach of trying to upload positive reviews. The issue will not go away, as there will always be a few that will try to get around the rules.'

Lowey called on hotels and related firms to pursue an online strategy that is 'ethical, transparent, and search-engine savvy', by placing more emphasis on inspiring loyalty and word-of-mouth recommendations. 'Use Foursquare and other online tactics to create a digital presence that can help dilute the impact of review sites,' added Lowey.

Also read: Danny Rogers: TripAdvisor needs to trade on trust

And: Edelman takes swipe at ASA on TripAdvisor ruling

How I see it

Jack Irvine, executive chairman, Media House

I absolutely agree with the ASA's decision. I am not normally one for a heavy-handed approach or overzealous legislation. However, if sites such as TripAdvisor cannot adhere to the guidelines and crack down on people leaving false or unfair reviews, then they should shut up shop.

Daljit Bhurji, MD, Diffusion

The days of the Wild West on the web are over, as publishers - and TripAdvisor is a publisher - will be held to a much higher standard by both consumers and regulators. The ASA ruling is a wake-up call for a post-Leveson reality of what sites like this are going to face.

In numbers

50m Number of users who access the site every month worldwide*
100k Number of businesses signed up to TripAdvisor in the UK*
30 Number of countries in which TripAdvisor operates*
5,531 Complaints to the ASA about online ads from March to September 2011**
Source: *TripAdvisor; **Advertising Standards Authority.

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