That hoteliers care about their online reviews is great news for the hospitality industry. Guests spend a lot of time and money on holidays and other types of travel, and they need trustworthy, unbiased information to help them make the travel decisions that are right for them.
Any decent hotelier puts some effort into ensuring as many of their guests as possible write reviews, and that the concerns raised in those reviews are dealt with before they affect future guests, thereby improving their service and product and earning more good reviews – setting a positive and constructive feedback flywheel in motion.
Hoteliers might also offer incentives for guests to write reviews like a discount on their next stay, and if a guest has had an uncharacteristically poor experience, they might have measures in place to ensure that the guest is not prompted to write an online review. But, is this a good thing? In their desire to improve their online images, many hoteliers unwittingly fall foul of the rules often set in place for online reviews.
We have scoured through content guidelines from Tripadvisor, Booking.com, Google and Facebook to understand exactly what these review platforms deem unacceptable content. While there is some variation in the ways the different platforms describe their terms of service and content policies (you can read them at the sources listed below), the spirit of the rules is largely the same.
So, what are the rules of online reviews? What can you do to improve your online reputation without breaking them? And what nefarious tactics should you not have to tolerate being used against you…
What you can’t do
Fake reviews – These are fictitious reviews written by people who have never visited the establishment the review is ostensibly about. Usually paid for, and often sold by dubious “optimisation companies”. All the major players in the online review space forbid this, as do many regional laws.
For each of the rules, we have added some examples of where they are mentioned in review sites’ terms and conditions or government publications. These are not exhaustive lists.
Biassed reviews – almost as obviously out of bounds as blatantly fake reviews are those written by people with a conflict of interest. If you’re personally involved in the industry, it's best to just stay out of the online review writing game – even if your reviews do reflect genuine experiences.
Prohibiting or discouraging negative reviews - obviously, good hoteliers strive to rectify any issues guests have during their stay; in return for this, guests often graciously refrain from writing bad reviews. However, some hotels have been foolish enough to try to prevent poor reviews by prohibiting them in their terms and conditions or even attempting to fine guests for posting negative reviews. This is not permitted by most review sites.
Pressurising or incentivising guests to remove or revise negative reviews - when a dreaded negative review does appear on your hotel’s listing, you shouldn't try to persuade, bribe, influence or beg a guest to remove it. It’s very tempting to say “We’ll give you a stay on the house, and if we redeem ourselves you remove the review,” but sites like Tripadvisor and Google Reviews specifically forbid this.
Selectively requested reviews – Unfortunately, many hoteliers are so afraid of a negative review that they would rather get no review at all, selectively funnelling guests who they think may be critical away from leaving an online review, while only proactively asking for reviews from guests who they know have had an excellent stay. Unfortunately, selectively soliciting positive reviews is a deceptive practice, as defined by many review sites and even consumer laws.
Impersonating, supervising or acting as a guest - even if you’re copying your guests' feedback verbatim off comment cards, you can’t submit that as a review, and some sites even state that you shouldn’t supervise guests while they write reviews.
Employee incentives - offering employees incentives for soliciting reviews, for example, awarding a bonus for the highest number of reviews collected in a timeframe, or for being mentioned by name in reviews is often espoused as an excellent way to get more reviews and get staff engaged in online reputation management. But, hoteliers should be aware that Tripadvisor considers this to be a potentially misleading practice, and may penalise properties for running employee incentive programmes such as these.
What you’re protected from
Reviews as blackmail – if a guest (or anyone else) demands money, reimbursement or free services under threat of writing a bad review, that’s blackmail, and most review platforms won’t tolerate it. Be mindful, however, that you will probably need to have communicated the guest’s intention to blackmail you before they post the review, and that guests are perfectly entitled to post a critical review if their experience was poor.
Review bombing – When review platforms spot a suspiciously high number of reviews in a very short time, they will often step in to prevent “review bombing” by routing reviews through more thorough moderation, or locking down the listing entirely for a short time. Review bombing is when there are multiple fake reviews left on a single listing, usually due to it going “viral”.
Reviewers that just complain about your policies, hours or closures – Reviews should be about guests’ experiences at your property, not about their annoyance that you were closed on Christmas Day or wouldn't let them bring their cat.
Second-hand reviews – Reviews must be written by the guests themselves. Mrs Jones might be upset you didn’t upgrade her daughter to an en-suite, but she still can’t write a review on her daughter’s behalf.
Politics, religion and ethics – the internet is many people’s favourite place to vent about politics, religion and ethics, but travel review sites seem to generally agree that reviews aren't the place for sociopolitical debate – unless the comment is directly relevant to the travel experience, and may be useful for other travellers.
Blasts from the past – remember that guest who had a terrible experience with the blocked toilet in room 38? Well, if you haven't seen her review within 12 months of the incident, you're probably going to be ok.
Blatant lies – Google prohibits people from posting “False or misleading accounts of the description or quality of a good or service”. While this might be a grey area in practice, in theory, this means people can’t lie about your business in online reviews.
Although Tripadvisor has possibly the most lengthy and detailed review guidelines (possibly simply because of its tenure in the industry, and the criticism the platform has had to field), for the most part, the content guidelines are similar across the various platforms. While there are areas of ambiguity in some platforms’ rules, we always suggest erring on the side of caution.
Remember, bouncing back from a poor review is often as simple as responding to it in the right way (here are some examples), but being caught trying to manipulate your ratings or mislead potential guests does reputational damage that is far more difficult to repair. Rather encourage all your guests to give you feedback, and use it to its maximum marketing potential when it’s positive, and use it to improve your services when it's not.
Disclaimer: This article serves as a broad introduction to the many rules, regulations and terms of service that determine what content and practices are permitted in online reviews and which aren't. Although every effort has been made to ensure it is as factual and up-to-date as possible, it does not constitute legal advice.