Expedia touts 'verified' reviews

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No sooner had Expedia shed TripAdvisor in a public offering than it launched an online feature that certifies some user reviews of hotels as having been “verified.”

Known as Expedia Verified Reviews, the feature is a clear attempt to counter skepticism about the veracity of user reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp.

To qualify as a verified review, the writer must be a traveler who booked reservations through Expedia, and the stay must be authenticated by the OTA.

The verified-reviews feature has already launched in much of Western Europe and Asia. John Kim, senior vice president of global products at Expedia, said the company would roll it out in the U.S. and the rest of Western Europe this month.

“The innovation we are launching is a more relevant way to target reviews,” Kim said. He added that Expedia authenticates reviews by checking the writer’s booking history on Expedia and verifying a non-cancelled reservation at a hotel.

“We have introduced an ability for reviewers to target reviews based on interests,” Kim said.

By launching the feature, Expedia, which was overtaken last year by Priceline.com as the largest U.S. online travel agency as measured by revenue, appears to be addressing a hot-button issue: skepticism about whether user reviews are legitimate.

The number of monthly visitors to travel-review sites, online travel agencies’ review pages and travel blogs jumped 35% between 2008 and 2010, research firm PhoCusWright reported earlier this year. Such growth has fueled suspicions about whether some positive reviews are being written by the hotels themselves or some negative reviews are being authored by competitors.

“They’re recognizing that there’s a concern of accuracy and legitimacy of reviews online,” said Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group.

He cited a recent research document by his company reporting that more than half of U.S. leisure hotel guests “expressed some concern” about the credibility of online travel reviews.

Such growing concerns about the legitimacy of reviews are best typified by the recent prospectus for TripAdvisor, the spun-off division of Expedia that was founded in 2000 and began trading Dec. 20 as an independent public company on the Nasdaq exchange.

Before Expedia spun off TripAdvisor, it warned potential TripAdvisor investors of possible liabilities in the form of legal claims stemming from user reviews.

The 184-page prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in July warned that TripAdvisor could be subject to legal expenses related to claims ranging from defamation and libel to negligence.

Additionally, this summer TripAdvisor, in what may or may not have been a nod to such concerns, changed the slogan on its hotel-review pages. While TripAdvisor’s home page says “Find Hotels Travelers Trust,” the wording was changed on individual hotel pages to “Reviews from our community.”

At the time, TripAdvisor called the wording change “part of our ever-evolving communication efforts, this time highlighting our commitment to our all-important community.” It did not acknowledge any concerns about hotel grievances.

Harteveldt said the launch of Expedia’s new feature on the heels of the TripAdvisor spinoff was no accident, given that both companies are competing for page views from travelers. Expedia hosts about 6.5 million user reviews, compared with more than 50 million on TripAdvisor.

Kim declined to specifically address whether the timing coincided with the TripAdvisor spinoff, saying only that the company was “trying to satiate consumer demand with its own unique approach.”

Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.

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