Given how much the web has changed though, isn’t it about time businesses started taking back their customer reviews?
The question is not that easy to answer because there are a number of factors that affect the efficacy of reviews and their influence on consumers.
Do you remember those comment cards that were placed in your hotel room or on your restaurant table that asked you in earnest: “How was your experience?”.
How often did you fill those comment cards out and, if you did fill one out, did you ever expect to get a response from anyone.
Probably not, because you expected that this was a one-way communication process. You left your comment and it was up to the establishment to take action or not.
Regardless of whether your comment was good or bad, no one ever saw the comment except for the establishment. Â In essence, you had to trust that the company was going to do something (anything!) with your feedback instead of filing it in the old circular filing cabinet.
Trust is a powerful thing and demands a level of accountability and transparency that just didn’t exist with paper comment cards.
There was no visibility into the process of reviewing the comment cards and certainly no indication that a suggestion would be taken seriously. Â Now, however, with review sites, customers can voice their concerns for everyone to see.
Now it’s up to the company to watch and listen for comments in order to stay on top of their reputation. Â Instead of filling out a comment card, happy and disgruntled guests are going to sites like TripAdvisor and leaving their comments.
But, is what they are writing different then what they would write on a comment card?
No system is infallible and both corporate and consumer trust of sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor is being questioned. Â Recent moves by the advertising regulator in the UK and the countless complaints from hotels are an indication that, although TripAdvisor is clearly a benefit to consumers, many businesses don’t like the idea of having to compete with their own brand.
Just how impartial are customer reviews anyway? Â When you have a site as large and powerful as TripAdvisor (in terms of search engine optimization) there are going to be those that try to game the system.
You don’t have to search very hard to find all kinds of complaints about fake reviews, libellous comments, and a lack of support for businesses.
I think that most of the reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp are genuine. However, if the individual companies had better mechanisms for handling, processing, and posting their own reviews, then their customers would be less likely to turn to sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor.
Recent experience tells me, however, that hotels (for one) are still ill-prepared to handle customer feedback. After a recent trip I received a customer feedback survey that was over twenty questions long.
I have no idea how long it would have take to complete the questionnaire because answering ten questions was already seven questions too many.
Think about it though, if you stayed at a hotel and they asked you to write an honest review about your stay that would be posted without alteration on a publicly viewable review section of their site, would you do it?
Many reservation systems now capture an email address, so it shouldn’t be hard to send a follow-up email to the customer asking for feedback. I know I would take the time to complete a review if I trusted that the company was going to take my review seriously.
If the claims are true and over 70% of the reviews out there are positive, it seems to me that those reviews should be provided directly to the companies being reviewed rather than through review sites.
But do consumers trust reviews from travelers that are posted on a supplier website? Again, the question is whether or not the traveler can trust the source and the process for gathering the review.
Experience would indicate that verifying reviews or associating the authenticity of the review is key to trusting the validity of the comments left by the reviewer.
For example, if a customer was to sign-in with Facebook or identify the review with a specific itinerary number or reservation number, then the company and the viewing public would know that the review was written by a genuine guest.
Organizations like the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) are already investigating the possibility of creating a standard review structure that would allow companies to act as gateways to a larger distributed review store.
Hotels, unlike adventure operators, handle hundreds of customers a day so the available guest user base for reviews is quite high. Â With systems like TripAdvisor and Yelp, the benefit is in the sheer number of reviews and looking at the average.
If there are fake or inaccurate reviews in the system, they have very little impact overall. Â For a small operator who only handles a few hundred customers a year however, every review is important and will have an effect on the overall rating.
Assuming that operators stick with a standard structure, review content could be distributed along with standard tour content in order to help with conversion. By using a standard review structure, it is conceivable that reviews created on a related (or unrelated) website about an operator could be shared with the operator for use on their website in the same format.
Before all the SEO naysayers start going on about duplicate content, just think about it rather more objectively.
TripAdvisor does not care who books what, or links to what, on their site. Â On any given attraction or hotel page you’ll find advertising for operators who are direct competitors to the one for whom you are reading reviews.
Why would an operator who has spent time building their brand send a customer off to TripAdvisor to read reviews only to end up losing them to a competitors link? Â TripAdvisor needs the review content in order to maintain rank and drive eyeballs and clicks to paid advertising, so for them the duplicate content issue is very real.
A small operator uses reviews to help convert a visitor into a paid customer not necessarily to drive them to the site in the first place. Â The full content of the review can be used on the site without the need to link off to a third party.
I mentioned earlier that verified reviews are critical for credibility. Â I think that organizations such as ATTA and perhaps even tourism associations, have a possible role to play in setting a code of ethics around the use of reviews and for driving some adoption of a review standard.
Adding some industry validation and perhaps even oversight to the review gathering process could go a long way to ensuring the reliability of reviews.
Would standardizing the review structure and giving suppliers the ability to gather and distribute their own reviews have a long term negative impact on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor? Â I don’t think so.
I think, if anything, it would present these companies with an opportunity to aggregate data from a myriad additional sources without the need to duplicate effort. Â Imagine, if you will, TripAdvisor reviews displayed along side ATTA verified reviews gathered by the supplier.
I certainly think operators would welcome the opportunity to harness their own reviews in a more open way, but will the large brands go for it? Â Ask me again in a year.