Uproar in Britain over TripAdvisor's "dirtiest hotels" list has reignited calls for tighter regulations to ensure that consumer reviews on such websites are legitimate.
Bob Cotton, president of the British Hotel Association, said he and other hotel association heads in Europe were planning to talk to the European Union about strengthening laws governing review sites.
"The line I am taking is: At the end of the day … you can’t stop them from doing what they are doing, but I think what we should be asking is that they ensure that if they do put comments on, that the person at least stayed in the hotel," Cotton said.
Cotton said hotels would like to see a law that makes websites responsible for verifying the validity of reviews before they are posted.
"I was in a meeting a few weeks ago with my counterparts across Europe, and we thought that was a sensible approach, to have a conversation in Brussels," he said. "Customers want to know if the comments that are made are genuine."
The debate is far from new. As long as consumer-generated-review sites have been around, there have been questions about whether some hoteliers have gone online, posing as consumers, to boost their reputation or trash their competitors.
In response to news reports about the uproar in Britain, the American Hotel & Lodging Association conducted an online poll asking readers of its daily SmartBrief if they thought such standards were necessary.
Seventy-nine percent of respondents responded that, yes, "the system makes it too easy for competitors to unfairly tarnish or destroy a hotel’s reputation."
Twenty-one percent said no, that "the system is democratic and the number of legitimate reviews will nearly always outnumber the bogus ones."
Brian Payea, a spokesman for TripAdvisor, said there are already laws on the books in the U.S. and E.U. that make it illegal to post fraudulent reviews. And he said TripAdvisor aggressively investigates allegations of fraud.
"If you submit a review, you actually have to click that you agree to abide by these standards," he said. "And the U.S. and European standards are specifically called out in that document."
He noted that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo last year won a $300,000 settlement with a cosmetic surgery company that posted false consumer reviews on its website. That case is believed to be the first to target a practice that has been dubbed "astroturfing."
TripAdvisor also has an area where owners and managers who are registered with the site can report questionable reviews, he said.
"When the hotels let us know they think it is happening, that gives us the ammunition to launch an investigation, and we’ve had some of those turn up some very interesting stuff," Payea said.
TripAdvisor has a number of penalties it can impose if it finds hoteliers have written reviews about themselves or their competitors, including dropping the properties ranking on the site’s popularity index, he said.