A U.K. reputation-management company is soliciting plaintiffs and financial support within the travel industry for a class action against TripAdvisor, alleging that the travel-review site’s unverified reviews can be false, defamatory and libelous.
KwikChex, based in Dorset, England, said it has complained to TripAdvisor that unverified reviews hurt sales at many smaller hotels and other businesses in the hospitality industry, but said its complaints have been ignored.
KwikChex claims to have about 120 clients. It is soliciting companies to pay 35 British pounds (about $54) each to join a group legal action against TripAdvisor, which bills itself as the world’s largest travel website. It has not disclosed how many companies have signed on for the lawsuit, nor has it estimated when it might actually take legal action against TripAdvisor.
KwikChex claims "tens of thousands" of businesses have been negatively affected by TripAdvisor’s user-generated reviews.
Among other things, KwikChex said it is demanding that TripAdvisor take the following steps:
• Remove unverified reviews that make allegations such as theft of guests’ items, food poisoning and racism on the part of certain hospitality establishments.
• Correct rankings where out-of-date or incorrect information was used.
• In some cases, compensate businesses that have been negatively singled out in Trip-
Advisor-created marketing releases such as "Worst of…" lists.
KwikChex is also seeking to have TripAdvisor remove "thousands" of reviews on the grounds that they are "offensive insults of no possible value to consumers."
Citing "expert legal advice," KwikChex said that TripAdvisor must take such actions if it wishes to avoid a defamation class action.
"These are not reviews on service, quality of food or ambience," KwikChex co-founder
Chris Emmins said in a statement last week. "They are unsafe and often unfounded accusations of criminality and personal injury for which there appears no evidence whatsoever.
"Other aspects of [TripAdvisor’s] operation also appear to actively discriminate against particular businesses, and this is exacerbated by the prolific use of ‘trusted source’ phraseology."
TripAdvisor spokesman Kevin Carter said the company would not comment on pending or threatened litigation. He referred a reporter to a statement on TripAdvisor’s website stating that the company uses "a team of moderators that examine questionable reviews" and employs an "automated tool" designed to flag questionable content.
The prospect of legal action highlights the power that user-generated review sites such as TripAdvisor are having on hospitality operators as more travelers use the Internet in search of travel information.
In its August report, Web metrics provider ComScore said that travel website usage jumped 11% from June to July, with TripAdvisor’s sites accounting for more than 13 million visitors alone last month.
Meanwhile, Google reported that its own recent poll of Internet users revealed that travelers are becoming increasingly dependent on Internet searches and user reviews, and less dependent on word of mouth, when booking their trips.
The issue of review sites’ power gained attention last February when Yelp was the subject of a class action alleging that the San Francisco-based review site had tried to strong-arm small businesses by asking them to advertise and then negatively manipulating the user ratings of companies that did not buy ads. While Yelp has consistently denied any wrongdoing, the company in April vowed to be more transparent.
A potential lawsuit against TripAdvisor and legal demands to alter how its reviews are published could have a substantial effect on one of the fastest areas of growth for parent company Expedia Inc., which is the largest U.S. online travel agency, ranking No. 1 on Travel Weekly’s 2010 Power List.
This report appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of Travel Weekly.