Earlier this year, TripAdvisor removed critical reviews and negative posts about health and safety problems, including sexual assault, at a number of Mexican resorts and hotels. These were first-person accounts designed to be warnings to other travelers.
A USA Today-affiliated paper investigated and uncovered the questionable conduct on the part of TripAdvisor, which has offered various explanations for why the content was removed. Now, after being embarrassed by negative publicity, TripAdvisor has said it will post a warning badge on pages of hotels where problems have been reported. It has not pledged, however, to stop removing controversial reviews.
The badge, which will remain for three months, will say the following:
Message from TripAdvisor: TripAdvisor has been made aware of recent media reports or events concerning this property which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing. Accordingly, you may wish to perform additional research for information about this property when making your travel plans.
The particular incident that triggered the newspaper investigation was the rape of a female American tourist at a Mexican resort. The woman tried to write about her experience in a TripAdvisor review, which was removed from the site, reportedly because it violated TripAdvisor’s “family-friendly” content rules. However, after that incident, according to the reporting, two more women were sexually assaulted at the same hotel.
Some of the media reports imply an effort on the part of TripAdvisor to suppress the critical information because of a conflict of interest. The company makes money from advertising or subscription-based products purchased by restaurants and hotels.
Without question, visible information about rapes or other criminal activity at a hotel property would have a negative impact on bookings. TripAdvisor, of course, denies any conflict of interest or coordinated effort to protect the hotels. But if such an intent did exist — to willfully suppress information about dangerous or criminal conduct at one of its advertisers’ properties — the company could be sued.
TripAdvisor is now doing the right thing by posting the badge on these properties. The question is what conditions will need to change or exist before the badge will be removed. A New York Times report says that such decisions will be made by an employee committee, without further explanation.
Beyond being the right thing to do, the new TripAdvisor badge is an effort to restore confidence after a damaging episode at a time when questions about the integrity of online reviews are being increasingly raised in a number of different contexts.