NEW YORK (AP) — Most consumers realize online reviews are not always trustworthy. But a recent magazine column raised new ethical questions about reviews when a traveler said he deleted a complaint after a hotel gave him a 50 percent refund.
Did the hotel buy the reviewer's silence? Or are businesses entitled to ask customers to rescind reviews if amends are made?
The review was written for TripAdvisor by Howard Olarsch, a Florida retiree who loves to travel. Olarsch, in a phone interview, said he'd complained to the hotel while he was there about mold in his room, ants and other issues, but "they couldn't have cared less." Olarsch went to TripAdvisor "to vent. ... My intent was to make other people aware what a dump that was."
After the review was posted, the hotel contacted him. "For a tidy sum of money, I was bought off and had to remove the review," Olarsch said.
Olarsch wrote to The Ethicist, a New York Times Sunday Magazine column, "to justify what I had done, to see who was the most unethical" — him or the hotel, he said.
Chuck Klosterman, who writes The Ethicist, replied in his Oct. 12 column that the unidentified hotel owner was "the least ethical actor." But he called Olarsch "a close second," adding that Olarsch's "decision to remove a review upon the acceptance of a bribe was lame." Klosterman noted that TripAdvisor's policies explicitly state that "owners may not ask reviewers to remove a review."
TripAdvisor spokesman Kevin Carter said businesses are instead encouraged to reply to reviewers publicly on the site. It's not unusual to see a negative review followed by an apology from a business detailing what's been done to make amends.
Travel guru Arthur Frommer, reached by phone, said the refund incident "is a clear ethical violation and yet it is endemic to these user-generated websites." He said online reviews are "massively manipulated by the very hotels and restaurants that are the subject of those sites. Everyone in the industry knows hotels are counseled by PR firms to generate favorable comments about themselves or critical comments about competitors."
Christopher Elliott, a travel consumer advocate, said "hotels that engage in this kind of reputation management are trying to buy their guest's silence. If a property was really concerned about good customer service, it would offer a discount before the review appeared."
Despite a general awareness among travelers about the unreliability of online reviews of all types, TripAdvisor remains a go-to site, with more than 170 million reviews and opinions, and 100 new posts every minute.
Some businesses see nothing wrong with asking consumers to remove negative reviews if complaints are resolved.
"If the refund makes it right for them and the end result was positive, then by all means they should remove or update the negative review as it's no longer an accurate depiction of their complete experience," said Chris Campbell, CEO of ReviewTrackers, a program to help businesses manage online reviews.
Kendra Stephen, a business and Internet attorney based in Florida, said that "if this hotel was my client, I would have advised them to offer the rebate and leave a response under the negative review apologizing for the problem and include the solution that was provided to the customer. This type of response would help the hotel because future customers can see that they care about their customer's concerns and they offer some form of compensation."
Then there's the other side of it: "There's also a special place in hell reserved for guests who intentionally post negative reviews for the purpose of getting a discount. That kind of extortion-by-TripAdvisor is what gives all customers a bad name," said Elliott.