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March 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Inside TripAdvisor: When did blackmail and intrigue become part of vacation planning?

If you write flaming reviews of good hotels — or even threaten to — watch out for the TripAdvisor police.tripadvisor

TripAdvisor is now the world’s largest online travel company, with more than one user contribution every second and some 60 million unique users monthly — more than six times the volume of Orbitz or Travelocity. And with that kind of tailwind, the website from which we all seek user-written reviews of hotels, B&Bs and restaurants is doing all it can to protect its most valuable commodity: its credibility.

That was apparent in a recent workshop TripAdvisor staged in Seattle for innkeepers keen to learn how best to manage this 800-pound, luggage-toting gorilla. Since 2007, the website’s membership has bulked up from fewer than 5 million to 44 million.

It’s in TripAdvisor’s best interest to keep the hospitality industry in its corner rather than have innkeepers and restaurateurs as adversaries, which they can become when negative reviews seem to threaten their livelihood.

But some so-called “reputation services companies,” such as kwikchex.com, are mining the lodging industry’s worries.

“There’s basically a whole industry building up around the idea of ‘we will help you work around TripAdvisor content,’ ” said Brian Payea, head of Industry Relations with Trip Advisor for Business, a division that tackles the issue head-on by helping innkeepers manage their TripAdvisor reviews and other content in an up-front way.

The specter of fake reviews planted by innkeepers, and stories of innkeeper coercion — even bribery — to get good reviews from guests, have shadowed TripAdvisor in recent years. At the same time, some hotelkeepers have mounted legal challenges based on defamatory reviews.

To guard against fraudulent reviews, whether overly positive — generated by a business about itself — or negative — from unhappy employees or manipulative guests, TripAdvisor has a crack Content Integrity Team that monitors site usage, Payea said in an interview. It’s a growing part of the company.

So in addition to being screened by algorithms that monitor content and language that can be a common tip-off to fake or abusive reviews — “we literally had rocket scientists working on this,” Payea confided — all TripAdvisor postings are subject to screening by a panel of investigators “and the ones I know have a criminal justice background and are very thorough,” he said.

Does that mean there’s a squad out there verifying whether I really stayed at the MoJo Motor Inn in Albuquerque, or whether I actually used my charge card in Spokane the day I complained about MoJo’s bad plumbing? Payea wouldn’t go into specifics. But don’t worry. The worst punishment meted out is removal of a review, or possible blackballing from the website.

For lodgekeepers, responding online to every bad review and complaint is key to building trust, Payea told workshop-goers from across Washington. Surveys show 84 percent of TripAdvisor users say an appropriate management response to a bad review “improves my impression of the hotel.”

If you’ve seen management responses online that all sound alike, it’s because TripAdvisor offers innkeepers “canned” wording that sounds responsive and sensitive. A handout at the Seattle meeting gave paragraph-by-paragraph suggestions. (Always remember to apologize.)

The next initiative for policing this busy avenue of travel industry pros and cons? Blackmail protection for innkeepers.

“It’s something we’ve been struggling with,” Payea said. “We don’t want to be used as that kind of a tool against business.”

So if a guest threatens a bad review if they don’t get an upgrade, or a refund, or some other request, managers are encouraged to contact TripAdvisor immediately. “While most guests do not follow through with such threats,” a brochure states, screeners can ensure such a blackmail review never gets on the site.

It’s a tightrope they’re walking, because without bad reviews, the honesty — and to some degree, the entertainment — goes out the door.

Meanwhile, who knew the world of hotel reviewing had become so cloak-and-dagger?

Comments | Topics: fraudulent reviews, hotel reviews, online travel advice

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