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Free speech. We all think it’s our God-given right, but are we exploiting it? Twitter, Facebook, blogs and reviews all give the consumer a perfect platform to play the critic.

Sure, sometimes our complaints are completely justified; the coffee shop round the corner really shouldn’t have served us that cold coffee and stale cake, but sometimes our grievances are because we’ve set our standards too high and then we turn to social media to vent our anger which is arguably unjustified.

Consumers are demanding greater quality for lower prices. This is fair enough within production, where costs can be cut simply by improving efficiency. But within the service industries, the expected quality should correlate to the price the consumer is paying.

I watched a programme (The Attack of the Trip Advisors) on Channel 4 recently where a business owner felt forced to sell her family run B&B due to the stress caused by visitors’ reviews on Trip Advisor. 

Although the points in the reviews were often factually correct, many seemed more petty and vindictive, rather than helpful and balanced information for a review.

One of the business owners on the programme stressed that Trip Advisor is not being used in the way it was intended, but has instead become a place to scrutinise travel experiences and say things you wouldn’t dare to say to the persons’ face. 

The result is detrimental. A vent of anger about water having been left in the kettle, or the curtains not blocking out enough light, when read by a fellow Trip Advisor user can deter themfrom visiting that accommodation. Consumers are demanding a luxury package, but at B&B prices, and they’re not afraid to announce it to the world when these demands aren’t matched. This seems a little unfair on the business owner.

Trip Advisor is full of vicious remarks and personal attacks directed at business owners. Is this actually just a new form of bullying? Furthermore, who’s responsible? Trip Advisor for providing the platform and allowing these posts? Or the reviewer themselves who argues that the business owner is irrelevant when they write the review as it’s not about friendship; it’s about business.

Business owners are bearing the brunt of our online moaning. Once we post something on social media there’s no going back. It may not even be factually true, it may even be written by a competitor as an unlawful dig.

The post is now there for others to see, believe and formulate their now biased opinion on. They may even decide to comment, ‘like’ and perhaps ‘retweet’ the post, kindly helping to escalate the falsity. 

Even if the review is true, social media platforms don’t allow for a ‘sentence time’. If one commits a crime, they serve their time in jail, but once the sentence is complete, they are released back into society and given a second chance. When a review commenting on the dirty sheets or unsatisfactory food is posted online, it’s there for life. Even five years on, other site users may see the review and it may sway their opinion of the business.

So here’s the real question; is there a dark side to social media? Can we ever be sure that what we are reading is factually correct and that it is being posted by a genuine reviewer, rather than a conniving competitor?

As a user of these sites we may not care about the validity of comments, as it is easy to just approach an alternative business. Unfortunately when the posts or reviews deter customers, the business owners’ livelihoods are affected.

Do these social media platforms give consumers too much control in the on-going power struggle between reviewers and businesses? 

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Published 14 November, 2011 by Caroline Morris

Caroline Morris is Innovations Director at Sky IQ and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

7 more posts from this author

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harvey bennett

take a look at the research released by TNS this month. they reckon that positive comments out-weigh negative comments. their sample was 72k in 60 countries. http://static.tnsdigitallife.com/files/Digital_Life_Press_Release.pdf

while there are comments out there which are undoubtedly rants the number of legitimate perspectives gives a much broader perspective. users are far more likely to take in mutliple sources/reviews than take one anecdote as gospel.

over 4 years ago

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Alex

Personally having watched the programme I dont think you can argue that reviews have too much power. For too many years some UK businesses have made good money offering services that are not consumer focused. Yes there will always be people who complain for no reason, but if an overwhelming number of reviews are bad than the business has to address the faults. In the programme all the businesses featured had a number of bad reviews not just one person being spiteful. On the opposite side, businesses with great reviews are making profit by offering great service, should they lose good marketing because others cant match their standards? If businesses want to be successful they need to offer a service that recognises that every customer is a potential reviewer.

over 4 years ago

Aliya Zaidi

Aliya Zaidi, - at Mrs Aliya Zaidi

Interesting blog post and really relevant in the light of a couple of social media "fails" that happened in the last week.

No doubt social media is changing corporate communication and empowering customers by giving them a voice, but I think businesses do need to be aware of the potential pitfalls, and I'd possibly even go further by suggesting that companies recognise the customer is not always right.

Here are some examples from last week:

1) British Gas - accidentally sent an auto-tweet during the two minute silence and got a barrage of complaints from Twitter suggesting British Gas had no respect.

This was a very human mistake and British Gas did the right thing by apologising, though some customers were still unsatisfied with the apology. I think it's important to recognise that a) the social media team did not see the tweet simply because they were observing the two-minute silence and b) if social media makes brands and companies appear more human, then we should make allowance for human mistakes.

2) The second example is Waitrose who had an incident in one of their stores where a mother and disabled child were insulted in-store by another customer and the abusive customer was given a free coffee by a member of staff.

This was a bad mistake by in-store staff, resulting in several negative comments on Waitrose's Facebook page. Though the social media team acted swiftly and apologise, this did not resolve the dispute. Customers reported the social media team had not responded when in fact, they had. Arguably, what Waitrose could have done better was to respond several times to make their apology more visible.

An interesting question is whether this sort of response on Facebook is justified when the company has taken all the necessary steps to resolve the situation. It's true that social media can make us faceless, and sometimes, that can result in mob mentality.

over 4 years ago

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, MARKETING at Reevoo

Your point about 'sentence time' is really interesting. There are all sorts of things in the way of dating reviews, and sorting by recency, to try to combat this. Out of date reviews are misleading for consumers as well as businesses: after a spate (or a couple) of bad reviews, businesses often focus in on that area, and improve their performance.

We're looking at a few ways to solve the recency-relevancy problem. For example, one aspect of our review solution used by Octopus Travel only uses reviews from the last 6 months to calculate the overall rating of Octopus' service.

It really seems like bad reviews are often taken more seriously by the business reviewed than by consumers reading the review.

All the user testing and research we've done into reviews - and we've done a great deal, as you'd expect from a social commerce company - suggest that ordinary consumers are quite savvy users of bad reviews. They balance the reviewer's opinion with their own opinion of the reviewer and their priorities.

Complaints that seem overly finickity or irrelevant (for example, I wouldn't care about a hotel having no childcare facilities, since I have no children) are discounted.

over 4 years ago

Hannah Rainford

Hannah Rainford, Social Media Manager at Jellyfish Online Marketing

I think that most of us are guilty of losing our cool with certain brands over social media. I know that I am!

When I've lost my cool regarding a brand on social media, I have been most impressed when the brand has contacted me to sort the problem out. A great example is Orange. I could not solve a problem by talking to them on the telephone. I took it to Twitter, and the Twitter @OrangeHelpers account solved the problem in minutes. Social media offers brands a chance to mend ways in a public space with their customers.

In answer to your question, yes there is a dark side. It's up to the brands to stay alert, monitor conversations and respond accordingly. Brands cannot afford to ignore social media anymore.

over 4 years ago

Aliya Zaidi

Aliya Zaidi, - at Mrs Aliya Zaidi

Hi Hannah,

I think you're right, but what about when the brand has already responded and done everything they can to resolve the situation, and the customer is being unreasonable?

Is it ever okay for brands to say the customer is not always right?

over 4 years ago

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clare

The issue of competitors deliberately 'planting' fake reviews needs also to be addressed in any argument about Trip Advisor or social media question. Our surf camp has come under repeated attacks by competitors and it seems the better we do, the more vulnerable we are. Trip Advisor has not managed to stop these fake reviews on our part as the anonymity of the 'reviewer' puts the emphasis upon us to 'prove' the review is fake. The last two reviews on our hotel are both written by competitors as they contain many factual errors and several clues as to their real origin, but T.A. have chosen to leave them on. The business owner gets just 200 characters to 'prove' themselves before T.A. check the review meets some obscure guidelines, none of which have been put in place to ensure fairness for the business. We offered to provide written evidence that these reviews are indeed fake, but T.A. did not even respond to us. Only 5 months ago, we got a T.A. badge for 'excellence' but this didn't weigh in our favour.

We long for the demise of Trip Advisor, even though we are still the #1 in our category. Dealing with genuine criticism of guests is fair, but defending yourself against fake reviews is a whole different story. Anonymity of reviewers will be their eventual downfall as people wise-up to the fact that many of the reviews just cannot be trusted. To speed up their demise, stop reviewing, period.

over 4 years ago

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Todd

Yes, review sites have a lot of power that is why so many people use them. I'm a frequent user of TripAdvisor and Yelp and I must say that from a user stand point, I have NEVER been steered wrong by the recommendations. Also when you break it down the majority of the content on TripAdvisor is positive. And yes, some people have high expectations on a beer salary but most people can filter through the crap to get good content. If someone is complaining about the water left in the kettle, to me that is a review that I will discount and move on.

I laugh at Clare and her bit about the Demise of TripAdvisor, but yet you still keep the TripAdvisor Badge of Excellence on your website. Don’t you think that this encourages people to go to their website and then review you after that had a horrible experience? Lastly your reviews on TripAdvisor are 98% better than the rest with only 2 bad reviews out of 72. I’d say you’re doing just fine. From a user, if you had all positive reviews I wouldn’t even consider heading your way. Do to, that would seem unrealistic as no one is perfect. Food for thought….

over 4 years ago

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Susan Kuchinskas

I use TripAdvisor, Yelp and other social media tools extensively when researching lodging. I enjoy spending time finding just the right place to stay. I think I am like most people in that I have a sense of proportion about what's a legitimate complaint. And TripAdvisor has the little graphic showing the ratio of excellent, very good, etc. reviews.

The public is smart enough to understand that if a property has 45 excellent or very good reviews and four terribles, it's probably a great place to stay.

Business owners are constantly advised to contact negative reviewers and try to make it right -- and then move on.

Perhaps this B&B was really terrible. If she was unable to do what it takes to garner good reviews, it's probably better that she closed. If she was obsessing about a few negative reviews, she probably wasn't suited to running a small business.

over 4 years ago

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Alexandra

I'm traveling with Trip Advisor since 2009 so it's safe to say that I rely on the reviews and that I wish I had discovered TA earlier.

I know reviewers (including myself) are posting their subjective opinions, but even though I don't believe everything I read, I can not afford to ignore them.

The fact that I can read reviews which were written years ago gives me the opportunity to see if things have changed for the better.

I'm convinced that the most interesting reviews, those that have the potential to weigh heavily in the decision making process, are those which award hotels 3 out of 5 stars, so what I would like to see more on TA is the management's response to the less positive reviews.

As a potential customer, I must admit that I turn my attention to those hotels which are recommended by more than 80% of the reviewers and then, based upon my personal values and expectations, I decide if the opinions posted by others are relevant or not.

Over the last 3 years I've seen the darker side of social media (from fake reviews written by competitors, to bitter posts from customers who demanded luxury services without the luxury prices), but I've also seen TA taking action.

And I've seen the benefits of social media: I spent 3 amazing holidays in hotels recommended by other TA members. That had nothing to do with just me being lucky, so... Start reviewing, period.

over 4 years ago

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Frank Lawton

Hi
Good article. This may be of interest to readers.
I have recently been researching stuff to do with SEO and Adwords especially in terms of rankings so had a look at Trip Advisor (which I have used previously to decide on hotels) to see where ratings seem to naturally "fall" simply to illustrate a point i was to make about selection issues etc in the SEO paper. I did not like what I found. I looked at the top 4 rated hotel sites in 2 cities. I created some averages so that I could apply them to see how far each site's numbers varied from what might be expected. 2 sites of the 8 have appear to have engineered their results to do with excellent scores. Both hotels are ranked number 1 by Tripadvisor. so I went into one of these sites in some detail and found they had a huge number of excellent ratings from people who have only posted this 1 review and who posted and joined at the same month. Further more the glowing praise was much longer, more detailed and more comprehensive than the average posting. It would appear that many either did visit and were spoon fed the info by hotel staff to put on tripadvsor while at the hotel or worse they are completely fictitious people created by the hotel or were posted in by local and offshore friends of the owner saying whatever they were asked to say.

So here is a tip. if considering booking on the basis of trip advisor ranking and the hotel is in the top few you need to do a few quick calculations
. work out for each site what percent of its excellent are of its to total reviews. then work out what is the average for say 4-5 top sites (it was around 65% for the top 4 ones I did). if the hotel you are thinking of staying at is say 7% more the the average ( say over 70% if the average is 65%) then be suspicious. Have a look through some of that sites excellent responses - use the date filter to see some early ones where artificial boosting seems to most obvious. If maths is not your strong point and there is enough interest I can set up a blog with a few formualas built in so you can just add the numbers and it will do it all for you. I do not have the faith I once had in the information contained in some sites. Sadly tripadvisor is so sucessful and so widely used now it inevitably was going to get twisted by those after the almighty dollar.

over 4 years ago

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