Reviews, Ratings, and Opinions

With the recent news that Orbitz now allows anyone to review a hotel on their site, it seems like a good time to share thoughts regarding Ratings, Reviews, and Opinions.

It's an interesting turn of events: as an entire industry called “Social Media Monitoring” is being built to help organizations add structure and meaning to the influx of customer feedback that now comes at them, the Orbitz move seems to indicate a reverse trend for the Hospitality vertical: a deconstruction of its relatively long-standing public feedback mechanisms. Think about it: for nearly a decade, internet users have been able to read and share hotel feedback based on a universally accepted system of 5 stars across general service categories. It’s this kind of structure that gives the word "rating" meaning, and has, up until recently, enabled savvy hoteliers to adequately manage public feedback. To help think through the changes that the Orbitz decision will foment, let’s first define a few terms…
  • Review = A description of a direct experience with product or service
  • Ratings = A review that is quantified via formal structures 
  • Opinion = A thought regarding a product or service, regardless of level of experience with the product, which could be none 
Thanks largely to TripAdvisor, the Hospitality industry has a level of comfort and experience with public Ratings and Reviews for some time now. At large, I believe the industry could do much better in encouraging and leveraging reviews, but at least a sound tradition is established.  The move from Orbitz, however, is shifting that platform slightly away from “reviews” and closer towards "opinions". It's the particular distinction of “opinions”, especially when being shared in a forum like TripAdvisor who advertises “over 40 million reviews and opinions”, that is causing concern. Which of those 1 star ratings are “Reviews”? Which of them are “Opinions”? The combination of a weakened economic climate and the increasing influence of reviews in the hotel decision path has caused hoteliers to care a great deal about who exactly is sharing these experiences.

There are different ways to work through these industry changes, however: Those who are aligning themselves with potential litigation against TripAdvisor may or may not win a small battle, but certainly not the public opinion war. While valid issues (like timely removal of patently false reviews) are certainly valid, an undercurrent of this seems to be that hoteliers cannot determine if negative reviews are from actual guests or not. Specifically there is concern that hotels will be the victims of...
  • Unfair/inaccurate/false characterizations that are the opinions of people who have never actually been to the property, and
  • Similar statements made with malicious intent by competing hotels or community members who hold some other sort of grudge with the hotel or staff/owners of it
Hmmm. Sounds like a good 50/50 mix of FUD to me. It is realistic to expect unfair or malicious characterizations from time to time. Reviews and Social Media are, after all, a quantification of human nature – some people just have an axe to grind. But, these few outliers should not be able to bring your hotel’s reputation to its knees if you are managing your online reputation by encouraging guests to post reviews. The few unfair reviews and opinions will be washed away in the stream of legitimate feedback -- the best defense, in this case, is a good offense.

And even as services like Blippy and Swipely (and Google Checkout and something like an Apple iStore) could conceivably form the basis of a platform that allows us to tie public reviews to actual purchases, is that where organizations want to put their resources? I don’t think so: promoting positive reviews is a far less expensive proposition with notably larger returns vs hunting down opinions posing as reviews and attempting to remove them from public view. In general, the prevailing opinion among informed thinkers is the right one: modern internet users have the ability to read through reviews (real, fake, or otherwise) and distill the true broad qualities of a service. Hoteliers can and should rely on this assumption and do everything in their power to promote legitimate feedback via public channels.

Orbitz will not be the last review platform / OTA to enable “unverified reviews”. It’s good business to open up the review process to as many people as possible; Orbitz has done the right thing by enabling more people to interact with and read from its platform. This means that hotel reviews will continue to shift, in theory at least, from “review” towards “opinion” because these platforms will not be able to verify customer stays. In reality, however, Hospitality will still maintain the most structured, most universal, most quantifiable public feedback mechanism out there. Instead of looking to lawyers, Hoteliers should consider opinions more as “soft reviews” which can serve as a stepping stone to strategies that incorporate pure social media feedback (like via Facebook) into operational KPIs -- which, of course, is for another post…