Online reviews: Can accuracy be legislated?

The state of New York recently announced some significant fines (US$350,000) levied on some 19 different companies whose online review practices were deemed misleading and unfair to consumers.

Everyone in the hotel business knows full well the importance of online reviews in the customer selection process. These critiques, for the most part, are fair. I also suspect the individuals completing the reviews are doing so out of a sense of personal satisfaction of reporting on their trip — a moral duty to their friends and others to tell all, both good and bad.

Let’s set aside the few bad apples who are reviewing properties fictitiously. All would agree those should be purged. Hotel operators who employ such external services to write reviews are missing the point: spend money on fixing the problems identified by customers rather than trying to mitigate a bad review with falsely positive overtures. Cheating reviews by this method is like faking your own blood test. The results make it difficult to diagnose and cure any problems.

Far more insidious are those reviews that downgrade a property because of issues that have nothing really to do with the operation being evaluated. Is it honest to blast a hotel because the third-party in-house restaurant overcooked your steak, the access roads were under construction or some kids were noisy in the pool? Yet I see these sorts of complaints all the time. This is where professional reviewers will continue to thrive — as benchmarks for consumers to cross-compare and ignore some of the more irrational accusations.

Setting the expectation bar

If a hotel is considered to be at the 4- or 5-star level, the bar is set very high insofar as guest expectations. If you fail to meet these expectations, guests will give a lower rating. In contrast, an identical delivery of service at a 3-star property may be considered outstanding. The bar was set lower, and expectations were exceeded.

This mindset issue is at the crux of online hotel ratings and why quite often a budget property gets a remarkably high score (low bar, over-delivery), while a higher-priced property gets a lower-than-anticipated score (higher bar, under-delivery). In the eyes of the responder, that’s accurate reporting. But to the hotelier trying to understand why a significant investment in infrastructure is getting a lower rating than a lower-priced peer, it can be devastating.

So, while even though this recent legislation is a clear step in the right direction — as well as being beneficial to hotel operators and consumers alike — more must still be done to ameliorate the fundamental problems with online reviews. First, you must fix any immediate issues that multiple past guests are spelling out online. But beyond this, you have to set the right bar (via the tone of your website, ADR, advertising material, social media, etc.) so you are constantly exceeding guest expectations and getting stellar appraisals.