The review world is full of contradictions.
Many review sites, TripAdvisor included, have strong penalties if a business is caught incenting reviews. The prohibition makes sense in that an incentive is likely to lead a reviewer to generate a low quality, less than thoughtful review in order to receive the incentive.
There is also the question of whether the incentive was a “pay to play” arrangement that would create a conflict of interest between the reviewer and the business. Effectively the review would then be an advertisement rather than an objective review.
TripAdvisor is quite clear that there should be no incentives for a reviewer to review a business. Here is the TripAdvisor guideline:
I was offered an incentive for a review – is that ok?
No. Property owners are welcome to encourage their guests to submit user reviews upon their return home, but they are not allowed to offer incentives, discounts, upgrades, or special treatment on current or future stays in exchange for reviews. If someone has offered you an incentive for a review, please tell us about it.
If TripAdvisor suspects faked or incented reviews the penalties they will “red flag” the listing with a large notice. One blogger suggested, based on a search of Google’s index, that TA had flagged as many as 13,000 properties for having faked reviews. I think the real number is quite a bit lower as the Google search stops showing results after 263 results when you click through. Regardless, the flag is a significant penalty on the business and TA has handed out quite a few of them.
I am not a fan of incenting reviews as the potential for backlash and bad publicity far outweighs the upside. In a recent case in England, The Daily Mail had this headline: Tripadvisor bribes: Hotel owners offer free rooms in return for glowing reviews. Hardly a good situation for the hotel that was attempting to create a loyalty reward via the review process.
Clearly it is not OK for a business to incent a review. But is it OK for TripAdvisor to incent reviews? They seem to think so. I received this email from them a short while ago:
The practice is not uncommon for review sites to incent reviewers. Google was doing something similar in Portland and for which they were criticized. Their response was that there was no conflict of interest created when they were doing the incenting.
While it is true that there is less incentive for a reviewer to leave just a positive review. I would contend though that the practice, while not a direct conflict of interest, does probably lead to a lower quality of review, is hypocritical on the part of the review site owner and sends a very mixed message to the business owner, one that is often misinterpretted.
In the end, if quality of review is what consumers, sites and business owners are concerned with, then the practice of incenting reviews at both the level of the business owner and the review site should be stopped.