Claims on tripadvisor.co.uk, a website providing holiday and travel consumer reviews, stated "... read reviews from real travellers ... TripAdvisor is the world's largest travel site, enabling travellers to plan and have the perfect trip. TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travellers and a wide variety of travel choices and planning features ... TripAdvisor.com features: More than 50 million honest travel reviews and opinions from real travellers around the world". Review pages on the website featured the TripAdvisor logo next to the claim "Reviews you can trust" above a chart that gave details of the rating summary and percentage recommendation of the relevant location. The website was viewed in July 2011, when TripAdvisor was owned by Expedia, Inc.
KwikChex Ltd and two hotels challenged whether the claims "Reviews you can trust", "... read reviews from real travellers", "TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travellers" and "More than 50 million honest travel reviews and opinions from real travellers around the world" were misleading and could be substantiated, because they understood that TripAdvisor did not verify the reviews on their website and therefore could not prove that the reviews were genuine or from real travellers.
TripAdvisor LLC (TripAdvisor) said they provided a unique forum for travellers to obtain impartial, unbiased information from numerous sources, reflecting a wide variety of backgrounds and opinions. They said users were able to choose from any number of individual reviews that were posted on the site, and that whilst their users would not expect every reviewer to share their subjective tastes, the high level of trust that users placed in the site was demonstrated by the site’s continued growth since it was founded ten years ago. TripAdvisor said they did not claim to be 100% fraud free; no review site could guarantee that it was 100% free of fraudulent content. They said, however, that they did use advanced and highly effective fraud detection systems, and dedicated substantial resources to identifying and minimising any non-genuine content.
TripAdvisor said users would not continue to rely on the site if they did not trust the content, and they provided data showing a high volume and proportion of repeat visitors to the site. They said the number and proportion of reviews contributed by repeat reviewers was also high and growing. TripAdvisor said an independent study conducted in July 2011 showed that respondents found reviews on the site to be accurate of their actual experience of the hotels they had visited. They said, in addition, a growing number of companies had entered into agreements to feature TripAdvisor content, and a large number of hotels and other providers currently used their self-service ‘widgets’ to automatically add updated TripAdvisor reviews to their own websites. TripAdvisor believed that review content distribution was the most widely adopted of its kind in the industry and spoke volumes about the travel industry’s confidence in their website.
TripAdvisor said, whilst they were concerned about any non-genuine content, they maintained that the practical impact of small numbers of fraudulent reviews was effectively negligible. That was because research data showed that the average traveller read dozens of reviews before making a booking, and tended to discount reviews that were significantly out of line with others. TripAdvisor said their users had experience of other unrelated online review sites more generally, such as for music, books and consumers products, and as a result tended to have a healthy scepticism of user reviews in general. They believed that mitigated the effect of any fraudulent content that might occasionally come to a user’s attention.
TripAdvisor said, because trust was such a key component in the site’s ongoing success, they had invested heavily in systems, processes and resources to identify and minimise fraudulent content: they provided details of their anti-fraud systems in confidence. TripAdvisor said they also provided an opportunity for owners or managers of hotels and other locations to respond to reviews publicly on the site, and required that every review was accompanied by an active declaration from the reviewer that it was genuine and honest. They said that declaration clearly informed the reviewer that any fake reviews were both illegal and prohibited by their terms and conditions. TripAdvisor said it was not practical for them to screen each and every item manually before it was posted, and explained that their independence from the operators and the site’s non-transactional nature meant that there was no practical way for them to verify identities by reference to credit card details or reservation details, for example. They explained, however, that the techniques and practices they used to combat fraud were ever-evolving and increasingly sophisticated, and kept fraud to an extremely low level.
The ASA considered that consumers would understand the claims "Reviews you can trust", "... read reviews from real travellers", "TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travellers" and "More than 50 million honest travel reviews and opinions from real travellers around the world" to mean that they could be certain that the reviews posted on the site were from genuine travellers, and accurately reflected those travellers’ experiences of the places they visited.
We noted that reviewers were asked to agree to a declaration that their review was their genuine opinion of the hotel and that they had no personal or business affiliation with the hotel, or been offered an incentive to write a review for it. We also noted that reviewers were not asked to similarly confirm that they had no competitive interest in the place they were reviewing, or were posting a review on behalf of a competitor or other interested party, and we did not consider that agreeing to a declaration in itself would necessarily prevent non-genuine reviews from being posted on the site. Notwithstanding that, we understood that reviews could be placed on the site without any form of verification, and that whilst TripAdvisor took steps to monitor and deal with suspicious activity, it was possible that non-genuine content would appear on the site undetected.
We noted that TripAdvisor allowed hoteliers a ‘right of reply’ to critical or negative reviews posted on the site and that they believed that users of the site had a healthy scepticism as a result of their experience of review sites more generally. However, we did not consider that consumers would necessarily be able to detect and separate non-genuine reviews from genuine content, particularly where a hotel or other establishment had not received many reviews, and nor did we consider that a hotelier’s response in itself would go far enough to alert consumers to, and moderate, non-genuine content.
Because we considered that the claims implied that consumers could be assured that all review content on the TripAdvisor site was genuine, when we understood that might not be the case, we concluded that the claims were misleading.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told TripAdvisor not to claim or imply that all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted.