On Monday, the New York Times reported on a battle between a Detroit restaurant named 24grille and the online review site TripAdvisor. The dispute arose over a single anonymous comment, buried among pedestrian complaints about limp chicken and small portions, suggesting that patrons avoid the restaurant "unless you and your family actually enjoy sharing your evening with the local prostitutes." The owners of the 24grille demanded that TripAdvisor take it down; when the site didn't respond, they sued for libel and negligence. The suit went nowhere, as 24grille's lawyers realized that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives sites like TripAdvisor immunity from being held liable for user comments, and they dropped the claim. (TripAdvisor, which screens reviews and reserves the right to remove any it deems dubious, did eventually delete the comment in question.)
24grille isn't alone in pursuing legal action. According to the Times, hundreds of hotels are planning to sue TripAdvisor over negative reviews. They say the site—which hosts millions of reviews of hotels and restaurants around the world—has failed to aggressively police potentially libelous reviews that accuse hotel staff of serious criminal activities. Chris Emmins, a founder of the British "reputation management" company that is organizing one lawsuit, tells the paper that "the world of the Internet and particularly social media has pretty much outstripped ethical guidelines, and some legal ones as well."
While I sympathize with hotels and restaurants that are being unfairly maligned online, I'm also convinced these lawsuits are a terrible idea. Even if the hoteliers win their effort—the laws in the United Kingdom might be more favorable to their claims of libel—they won't improve their reputations or their bottom lines. That's because the hotels—and other businesses that have taken to suing sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp—fundamentally misunderstand how people use review sites. When we scan reviews online, we aren't looking for gothchas—outlandish, one-off tales of awful experiences. Instead, we look for patterns. We make judgments based on the themes that emerge from many reviews, not from the crazy charges that appear in one or two. As such, there's an obvious way for businesses to improve their online standings. Rather than trying to suppress a few negative reviews, they ought to work like mad to offer the kind of service that inspires a whole bunch of positive reviews.
To see what I mean, consider, again, the prostitution allegation at 24grille. On TripAdvisor and Yelp, most reviewers describe the restaurant's ambiance as respectable, if somewhat antiseptically modern; I don't get the sense that this is the kind of place where hookers hang out. And besides, what does the restaurant's clientele have to do with the food or the service? TripAdvisor allows businesses to respond to people's reviews, and this would have been an ideal time for owners of the 24grille to pipe up. They could have challenged the guy's facts and assured patrons that the 24grille is an upstanding place.
That would have been enough to satisfy me. After all, people say a lot of false and stupid things online, and we've all grown used to sussing out the crazies from the non-crazies in Web comments sections. If most people describe a restaurant as middling and one crank calls it a brothel, I'd be suspicious about that guy, not the restaurant. That's true of most such uncorroborated reviews that allege fraud or other misconduct, I'd say; businesses are understandably paranoid about the consequences of such posts, but to most patrons, they likely ring hollow.
Instead of focusing on a few outrageous commenters, hotels and restaurants should be more concerned about the patterns that emerge from the totality of their reviews. At least three of the six reviews of 24grille posted on TripAdvisor mention slow service, and two of them are from reviewers who've posted lots of other reviews on the site—suggesting they're legitimate customers, not ringers put up by 24grille's competitors. (Both Yelp and TripAdvisor say they screen listings for such ringers—if you notice unreasonably negative comments from people who've only posted once or who are anonymous, it's a good indicator they could be from the competition.) If I were looking to get dinner in Detroit, it's these legitimate complaints that would warn me away, not a guy with a nutty story about escorts. And if I owned 24grille, it's those reviews that I'd take seriously. They're clearly a sign of something amiss. I'd post a response telling customers that I'm fixing the problem, and then I'd actually work to fix it, in the hopes that new customers will have something better to say about the place next time.
How exactly should business owners respond to complaints? The owners of the 24grille need look no further than the Westin hotel that houses their restaurant. The staff there has posted several apologetic and informative responses to guests. To one customer who complains that the hotel "deliberately turns off the a/c at night," for instance, a rep points out that guests can ask to override that energy-saving system and offers that the hotel is reviewing this policy. When another reviewer complains that his room was poorly lit, the hotel's outreach manager responded to say that the hotel had replaced the lamp in his room. These responses suggest the hotel cares about its reviews, and that attitude has apparently paid off—the Westin is ranked third of 335 hotels in Detroit.
That points to what's so transformational about sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp—at their best, they encourage businesses to do much better, and they reward owners who take a genuine interest in pleasing their customers. I've certainly noticed this with TripAdvisor, which long ago became my first stop when booking hotels. I often try to book hotels that are near the top of TripAdvisor's rankings in a particular city. And while sometimes these hotels are out of my price range, they're often far from the most expensive places in town.
Every time I've booked a hotel that rates highly on TripAdvisor, I've had an amazing time. Last year my wife and I stayed at the Derwent House in Cape Town—No. 2 of the 189 hotels in the city. The owners of this small hotel would greet us every morning with a delicious homemade breakfast. They also went out of their way to book restaurants and other attractions in the city for us, and they kept a huge catalog of DVDs on hand that we could borrow for free to watch in our room. Another time, we stayed at the River Inn of Harbor Town, the No. 1 TripAdvisor hotel in Memphis. Our neighbors in an adjoining room kept us awake for many hours on the first night. When we complained the next morning, the manager moved us to a palatial two-room suite for the rest of our stay.
It was exactly the sort of grand gesture that other guests had praised the hotel for on TripAdvisor. And it's just the kind of thing that other hotels should emulate. Sure, crazy people sometimes post on TripAdvisor, but they're easy to tune out. It's the sane people who matter—and the sane people that hotels should try to please.