TripAdvisor, the consumer website for travellers, faces the threat of a lawsuit from hoteliers and others who claim they are being damaged by unsubstantiated and malicious reviews. The website, it appears, may have to fight its corner in court.
Any move to rein in this, or any other, review site, however, could set back the interests of consumers generally and those of the travelling public in particular. As the possibilities of automation increased, so the dice were loaded against the customer. Where once we could speak to a human being, we were now instructed to press digit after digit, with no option matching our requirement. We were kept interminably on hold listening to music, punctuated by scornful reassurances that our calls were "important". We were transferred to remote call centres, where we could neither hear nor understand what was being said (and vice versa). We were directed to leave messages that were never returned.
The internet has increased consumer power and started to even up the balance. Sites such as TripAdvisor have not only provided an outlet for customer frustration; complaints on such sites have also – in some cases – convinced businesses to smarten up their act. Many now monitor such review sites to gauge how they are doing, and respond. Service improves as a result.
But consumer sites are not only about complaints. Hoteliers and others may be unhappy about negative reviews, but the comments are just as often positive. People who have had a good experience are keen to recommend the business to others, or they may simply offer useful information.
Given that businesses mine so much information from the consumer these days, via loyalty cards, databases and the like, why should consumers in turn not pool the information they glean from services they have paid for? That is only fair. No one pretends that the comments are anything but subjective; these are not professional reviews. But a contributor's tone will often communicate whether he or she is someone whose judgement you might share. In all these ways, the internet is a boon.
Of course, there are drawbacks, and sometimes complaints from businesses will be legitimate. Some people may post comments out of personal or professional malice, seeking to do down a rival concern. Others may send unjustified complaints in the hope of recompense. A business might abuse the site to promote itself, under cover of an anonymous review. And some sites might allow commercial interests to manipulate the search system. How far a website is responsible for policing reviews is something a lawsuit might test.
But the minuses – real and imagined – of consumer websites are far outweighed by the pluses. The internet has given ordinary consumers a voice. And if existing sites have their wings clipped by disgruntled businesses, others will simply spring up to replace them. If a business believes it has been libelled, the mechanisms exist for it to sue. If it is simply displeased, it can do what everyone else does, and post its response online.