How to protect against false online reviews

A recent TripAdvisor’s survey showed 89% of 50,000-plus travelers polled – and 95% of U.S. respondents – indicated reviews are influential in booking decisions. Meanwhile, 97% of American hoteliers surveyed felt the same about generating bookings.

A recent study from business analytics software developer SAS and Penn State University indicated positive reviews are the most important factor for consumers in making hotel choices.  Thus, even if a hotel offers favorable rates, the typical consumer will not consider staying there if it has overwhelmingly negative reviews.

Most hotels are aware of the significance of online reviews and many have already implemented review programs. For example, in 2011, Starwood Hotels & Resorts began integrating guest reviews on its actual website. Reviews come from verified guests, and management members read and respond to each review, good or bad.

Hotels that have adopted review programs can increase reviews and also monitor their online presence for bad or even defamatory reviews. It is important to be proactive when possible, so hotels that have yet to set up such a program should strongly consider doing so.

Generating positive reviews, legally

According to a study of 17,000 hotels published in a Cornell University School of Hotel Administration journal, initial hotel reviews “tend to be disproportionately negative,” but an increase in reviews leads to a better balance of positive and negative comments.  In other words, having more reviews will overcome the inherent sampling bias.

Business owners and corporate counsel have been advised to have a strategic plan in place to encourage consumers to review their experiences. But it is crucial to consider that under no circumstances should a hotel manipulate reviews. False and misleading reviews can be actionable under the federal Lanham Act or the Federal Trade Commission Act.

After a year-long investigation, The New York attorney general’s office recently busted 19 companies that created or purchased fake reviews. They were fined a combined US$350,000 for these misleading practices.

Accordingly, each hotel launching a review program must consider what works best for them – such as emailing surveys post-check out or setting up review platforms online – but also what is legal.

Monitoring and responding

In addition to encouraging reviews, monitoring online reputations is also important. 

Generally, a hotel cannot predict when a disgruntled guest, ex-employee or competitor will post a scathing review online. Thus, waiting to react only after a negative review appears, or hoping a bad review disappears on its own, is strongly discouraged. 

Early detection increases the success rate of stopping an attack via negative online reviews, and it makes it easier and more likely the reviews can be removed. Besides, the longer a hotel waits to take action, the greater the risk that the statute of limitations will have already expired.  

When deciding how to respond to negative reviews, it is important to consider all options. The best solution depends on the facts and circumstances of each situation. In determining which approach is best, it is important to ask questions including:

  • Does the review appear to be from a competitor?
  • Is the review likely to rank high in search engines?
  • Does there appear to be a pattern of false reviews?

One option for responding to a negative review is messaging the reviewer asking him or her to call them to discuss their grievance and taking action to appease the reviewer. This may prevent the disgruntled person from posting further negative content. If the review is false, the hotel can hire legal counsel to send a cease and desist letter to the reviewer, which often results in the author removing the false information. 

Another option is to review the terms of service of the website hosting the review to see if there are grounds to request that the website remove the false review. If the review comes from a competitor, the hotel can bring a false advertising case against the competitor. Meanwhile, if the reviewer posted a defamatory or otherwise illegal review anonymously, the hotel may have the option to identify the poster by issuing subpoenas.

Finally, if the hotel uses outside consultants, make sure they understand and have considered all options, rather than relying on a single tool. As renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow said: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Many online reputation management firms only try to bury content down search engine results.  Many attorneys will insist on sending cease and desist letters, even when there may be no legal basis. Some PR firms will generate positive content where it does very little to counteract the reviews. 

No hotel is immune from potential false reviews. Thus, every hotel – no matter how upscale or highly rated – must be proactive and have a review system in place, and be as prepared as possible in case of an online attack.

By Whitney Gibson, Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP, Cincinnati