Duncan Bannatyne, a UK entrepreneur and star of television series Dragons' Den, is reportedly mulling legal action against TripAdvisor following reviews published about one of his hotels.
At the crux of Bannatyne's complaint are two reviews which, he says, are dishonest, with one being posted by a reviewer which he claims did not visit the hotel. He added that TripAdvisor failed to remove these reviews.
This is not the first time that TripAdvisor has angered hoteliers by allowing derogatory reviews to be posted, it is an ongoing issue for the sector. The website's defence remains that it is merely publishing the opinions of others.
However, in this case, Bannatyne is accusing TripAdvisor of keeping inaccurate reviews on the site after he has told them they were based on a lie.
Daniel Byrne, barrister for hotels and leisure specialist law firm Thomas Eggar, said: "This means that the recipient hoster would ordinarily investigate the complaint it receives and be required to make a choice about whether to continue hosting the content. If it's in receipt of a legal letter from the complainant this is likely to comply with the pre-action protocol and explain the basis for the complaint to allow it to make its choice.
"As an international hotel review site, TripAdvisor would be understandably reluctant to make itself responsible for ensuring comments are compliant with laws the world over. However, it should be in TripAdvisor's interests that the reviews it hosts are, at least, factually accurate and consequently helpful.
"To the extent that the review that Mr Bannatyne complains of is factually inaccurate and damages his hotel's reputation in the UK, Mr Bannatyne is entitled to seek an enforceable court order. It is likely that TripAdvisor will only receive such court orders in situations where the inaccuracy is of such a nature as to cause considerable damage and where the recipient is able to fund the UK legal action and USA enforcement. Even if Mr Bannatyne is successful in this he is unlikely to change TripAdvisor's policy."
TripAdvisor said that a team of "quality assurance specialists" investigated suspicious reviews. The group has also stuck to its ‘wisdom of crowds' argument, where those reading reviews will take the majority view of a hotel, rather than that of individuals commenting outside the norm.
If Bannatyne successfully sues for defamation, blood will be scented by other hoteliers who have previously felt hard done by and TripAdvisor could find itself busy defending itself on many fronts. Much of the increased policing required on the site will no doubt be undertaken by the hotel owners and operators themselves, but verifying these claims will require untold man hours from TripAdvisor.
Indeed Kwikchex, which is warming up a group legal action against the group in the UK, this past weekend estimated that there were at least 27,000 legally defamatory comments on the website, with "several million reviews" that were out of date by more than 18 months and more than 100,000 businesses listed on the site that were closed.
For the reviewers themselves, who drive the site, the face-off may cause pause. Many of those who post bad reviews imagine the comeback from the hotel to, hopefully, be a response that the issue has been noted and resolved. Who knows, maybe they'll get a free night thrown in.
The reviewers in the disagreement between TripAdvisor and Bannatyne have themselves come under media scrutiny, isolating them from the security of the crowd. The faceless nature of electronic communication means that many people feel protected in being more vehement in their opinions than perhaps they would face-to-face.
The ruckus has come as the UK government is expected to announce that it is removing its backing for the star-based reviews system when it publishes its tourism strategy document next month. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport will instead back a collective rankings system along the lines of TripAdvisor's, which it sees as more reliable. Tourism minister John Penrose told Radio 4's PM programme that the industry was welcome to continue with a star rating system "off its own bat" but that it would be without the government's support, which after all, he said, had no such system for "cars or cornflakes".
The star-rating system has been criticised because it takes into account breadth of service, rather than standard. What it does have, however, are fully accountable reviewers. TripAdvisor's gathering of opinions has volume on its side, but reviewers whose motivation is not known.
HA Perspective: The controversy with TripAdvisor is, at least in the short-term, likely to provide yet more publicity for the Expedia-owned brand that will strengthen its hold on consumers.
And for these reasons it seems unwise of hoteliers to react in a similar fashion to Bannatyne. Rather than legal action or, even worse, campaigning against the site, a cooler and calmer response is surely better.
Most larger operators already have procedures in place for dealing with social media. The latest controversy only increases the need for a systematic approach.
The bigger picture question is how much of a role will social media play in swaying guest buying decisions? And here there is a real danger of overhyping its impact, particularly in relation to providing an opportunity for smaller operators to compete with the largest.
Hotel brands are becoming increasingly key and the smartest brand owners will use social media as a tool to reinforce their brands' position in the market, much as they are using other internet-related services such as search engines.
TripAdvisor is a powerful platform for Expedia but the big hotel brand owners will remain in control provided they invest adequately in understanding and using new technology. Some are good and some are not so good at this. It is another differentiator for hotel owners and investors to consider.