It’s a relatively new phenomenon—customers actually shaping a brand by commenting and sharing experiences. Yet travelers rely so heavily on peer experiences that to not manage it, to not stay on top of guest comments, is to ignore one of the most important parts of your brand. The final of the four-part series “Building a reputation” focuses on the lesser discussed practice of using a company’s help to manipulate SEO and improve rankings.
INTERNATIONAL REPORT—As the necessity for safeguarding your name online becomes increasingly relevant, there are some side effects, namely people who come up with quicker, faster, easier ways of getting their hotels to the top of the results page in Google or to the No. 1 slot on TripAdvisor. This, of course, is the lesser discussed practice of black hat online reputation management.
There is a lot at stake when it comes to ORM, which is why hotels will take greater risks with improving their positions on search engines or review sites—sometimes even hiring companies to post content to “push down” a negative review.
Edward Yang, president of Paladin Reputation LLC, said his company helps clients through search engine optimization. He currently has one luxury hotel owner as a client, who declined to be interviewed.
“With the proliferation of search engines and with so many consumers that initiate their searches on Google, our (hotel) client engaged us to help improve online reputation, which is done in a variety of ways,” he said. “It’s not a quick process and there’s no silver bullet. It takes time and a concerted effort via the company to understand that a negative story, it can damage your brand or hurt your business.”
It’s not easy and it takes time and effort, Yang said.
While Yang said he puts positive content in places such as social media, blogs or corporate sites, other ORM companies advertise outright that that they post reviews to improve a company’s reputation.
For example, Hotelreputationmanagement.org, claims on its website: “We aggressively improve your online reputation so that the negative and often libelous content posted about your hotel is driven down well beyond page one, two, three, four and five of the search engines.”
A salesman who represents Hotel Reputation Management said its hotel clients might provide reviews to be posted by his company. According to David Pope, his company will post reviews on TripAdvisor “or other places where they want to be.”
From PostingOnlyGoodReviews.com: “Our reviews are designed to improve the link popularity of your website, improve your search engine rankings and bring you direct traffic from quality websites. … Our positive reviews are posted on the major review sites like Google Maps, Yahoo Local, Yellow Pages, etc.”
Another company that has gotten out of the SEO side of ORM is Cyber Investigative Services LLC.
Owner Chris Anderson said his company focuses on litigation to get defamatory content removed, but it used to offer “clean up against bad reviews.”
“We no longer offer that service primarily because nobody is really able to make it work well these days,” Anderson said via email. “So, what is working on TripAdvisor and other sites is: 1) Litigate to remove if defamatory; 2) Flood with false reviews (we don't offer this).”
Worth the risk?
So is tampering with a hotel’s online reviews worth the risk?
It’s important, but not worth breaking the law, according to Robert Cole of RockCheetah, a marketing strategy and travel industry technology consulting firm.
“Reviews are going to get more embedded and considered in ranking structure,” he said. “Whether that’s location-based or in product verticals, all of those community perceptions of a property are going to be more important, people trust reviews certainly more than advertising, and they trust word of mouth of friends probably the most, but they do trust the word of mouth of strangers.”
KwikChex.com has been involved in defamation cases against TripAdvisor and Google in the United States and the United Kingdom.
“KwikChex started as a business that verified that companies were reputable,” Chris Emmins, co-founder of KwikChex, said via email. “We carried out a number of checks and then published all the details in an easy format.”
Emmins said KwikChex got involved in the issue of false reviews because of client concerns with online defamation.
“We analyzed the situation, were shocked at the extent and severity of the problem and then started acting on it, using both legal and ethical means to defend our members,” he said. “We were successful in dealing with many cases—particularly on Google, which had failed/refused to act previously even on severe scenarios—and that got into the media. At that point, the global hospitality industry came battering at our door because of the now-well-known issues on TripAdvisor and the influence they have.”
Emmins said the company also is pointing the finger at the ORM companies, not just TripAdvisor and Google.
“Once it was realized by unscrupulous businesses and ‘agencies’ how influential reviews had become and how easy they are to place, then the die was cast—corruption started and is growing at an extraordinary rate and claims of effective screening are outweighed by the mass of evidence to the contrary,” he said.
TripAdvisor has shared little about its efforts to thwart these sophisticated review factories that advertise unique IP addresses for posting, or other sources of fake reviews. The company claims that today’s traveler can spot a fake review, but it does not offer any means of verification.
“The concept of being suspect of feedback is almost a little passé,” said Brian Payea, head of industry relations for TripAdvisor, during an interview with HotelNewsNow.com in July.
However, Cole believes “covert activity” is increasing.
“I have no idea what it is in relation to total reviews but as the importance of having high-ranking reviews becomes more important, people will be willing to take more desperate means to improve,” he said.