The recent furore surrounding Tripadvisor and the various court actions being planned around defamatory reviews of travel destinations has unearthed the ugly side of social media in the travel industry. 
Revered as the must-view site for travellers deciding on resorts and accommodation, a series of bad reviews has caused many hotel owners to kick back at what they feel is an unfair representation of their brand. However, such activity may cause more harm than good in the long run. 

The important point to remember here is that it is communities, and not companies alone, that define and shape a brand. Community share of voice plays a huge role in shaping public perception of a brand and with this power also comes great risk to those who challenge it. There is a real danger in doubting or criticising review websites such as Tripadvisor as the potential for backlash and negative reaction can make matters even worse for the brands involved.

Tripadvisor quote themselves as providing “unbiased reviews, articles, recommendations and opinions” and if somehow this approach is challenged and found not to be true there may be a case to take Tripadvisor to task and ask for greater transparency in terms of author sourcing.

However, if the businesses involved in this case are challenging user generated content and the use of social media as a whole, they will have a much tougher (and riskier) job on their hands. Tripadvisor will almost certainly play the freedom of speech card, and it would be hard to say reviews are defamatory if it’s found that as published, that someone has experienced these services. If this is the case, they are only giving an opinion, and who are the hotel owners to challenge this? It’s likely that if this case continues, other big names such as Google could swing their considerable weight behind freedom of opinion, as searches for independent reviews on a number of products are a significant use of search engines.

In fact search engines revolve around people’s opinions, whether this is explicit (in searches on reviews) or implicit (in gauging trends based on searching habits and website usage). Ultimately, if individual cases can be brought against proven examples of ‘black-hat SEO’, e.g. people deliberately forging false and negative reviews to damage a competitor, then the challengers have a chance, but as a collective moving against UGC and the power held by TripAdvisor and similar sites, this is very dangerous ground indeed.

However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that hotel brands also harness a lot of power, and the latest twist in this drama has been the blacklist Websites set up by some independent travel brands, naming and shaming customers who haven’t paid, behaved badly or have unfairly brought the brand into disrepute.

Although many may say that this tit-for-tat action is a fair retaliation by brands, the whole situation is running the risk of becoming a farcical war, and both sides can be sure it won’t stop here.

Maybe the focus moving forward should be for brands to concentrate purely on perfecting their service and customer communications as much as possible, so that positive reviews increase and any negative comments are likely to be ignored or disregarded.

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