Last week, the Guardian reported that the UK Advertising Standards Authority had initiated an investigation of TripAdvisor over false online reviews.  The investigation was initiated by an official complaint filed by KwikChex.com, an online reputation management company.  KwikChex reportedly backed up its complaints with months of research on allegedly derogatory and false hotel reviews posted on TripAdvisor websites.  According to the ASA statement:

KwikChex has 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” are misleading and cannot be substantiated, because they believe that TripAdvisor does not verify the reviews on their website and therefore cannot prove that the reviews are genuine or from real travellers. 

So What Is the Advertising Standards Authority?

The ASA is charged with overseeing compliance with the UK’s CAP Code, a set of rules for advertisements created by the Committee of Advertising Practice, a self-regulatory body.  If someone believes an ad is misleading, offensive or makes an unsubstantiated claim, he/she can complain to the ASA. If the ASA believes the complaint is credible, the ASA can alert media organizations so that advertising space is denied or, if laws have been broken, refer the complaint to the Office of Fair Trading.

Until recently, the CAP Code was limited in application to ads in print, posters and emails, text messages and marketing communications in “paid-for-space” (i.e., banner ads and pay-per-click ads).  But in March of this year, the scope of the code was expanded to include ads and other marketing communications by companies on their own websites or on social networking websites “that are directly connected with the supply or transfer of” goods and services.  Not surprisingly, the extension resulted in a “significant” increase in workload.      

For a (possibly) humorous example on the extent of the ASA’s authority, check out this story.     

Right Idea, But Wrong Question? 

The quality of information at user-review websites such as TripAdvisor has been questioned for some time.  Just last month, Cornell announced that it had created a software program that could sniff out bogus positive hotel reviews – or what the researchers termed “opinion spam.”  Ten days later, David Streitfeld of the the New York Times wrote a mini-expose on “review factories” – companies that hire people to write positive reviews for $10 each.  As a consequence, Mr. Streitfeld reported that “the average of the 50 million reviews [on TripAdvisor] is 3.7 stars out of 5, bordering on exceptional but typical of review sites.”         

That apparent positive bias notwithstanding, KwikChex appears solely focused on proving that TripAdvisor posts false negative reviews.  A year ago, KwikChex announced that it was attempting to rally hoteliers behind a class action against TripAdvisor to fight reviews it termed “untrue and damaging to their business, or legally unsubstantiated.”   And now, in addition to the ASA, Kwikchex is trying to get both the FBI and FTC to investigate TripAdvisor’s “misrepresentation, misleading statements and unlawful practices of advertising using reviews where no substantiation is available and from a source where fraudulent reviews are known to be posted.”