Friday Rant: Customer Ratings — Necessary? Valuable? and Likely Fraudulent

Don't you just love it when you need to overnight in a town that you've not yet visited and someone you know and trust can tell you where to stay? Sure, that's the perfect referral. But more often than not, we tend to rely on the judgment of complete strangers by way of on-line reviews and travel sellers. And if that's not sufficiently risky, there's evidence that hotels are stacking the review forum decks.

Try comparing a hotel's ranking across the major online travel sellers before you book your next lodging and you'll likely discover a huge variance. Thursday's WSJ reported, for example, that rankings for the Setai Fifth Avenue in NYC varied as follows: " TripAdvisor:#2, Expedia:#9, #4 and Orbitz: #133 ... [and that] Researchers say reviews have become increasingly important to push lookers into bookers."

The Journal quotes TripAdvisor saying "it knows of review 'mills' and 'reputation management' firms offering to stuff the ballot box for hotels willing to pay ... [and] some hotels have been offering incentives to guests for writing good reviews." An ironic twist, further on in the column states "the United Kingdom Advertising Standards Authority [recently] ruled that TripAdvisor's advertised claim of 'trusted advice from real travelers" was misleading, because fake comments could be posted without verification.

I'm an optimist and stories such as this make me happy that basically good honest people far outnumber unscrupulous crooks. "Pre" high tech, when the only advance in communication for the past fifty years was a land line telephone, one would arrive in a new place and ask a cabby or bartender where the best quality place to stay for the buck could be found. Sometimes their referrals were paid shilling, sometimes not.

As with so many things in life, we can't possibly expect others to share our specific standards and there can be no substitute for doing our own diligence. How long can it take to call the manager of a hotel (as one might have in times past), ask a few well placed and thoughtful questions and give it a whirl. Worst case scenario, it doesn't live up to expectations and you demand a refund for misrepresentation from the horse's mouth -- so-to-speak.

Perhaps someday, exquisitely programmed filters will improve the reliability and fortitude of ratings. For now, it's still garbage in, garbage out. When in Rome, call a friend. And perhaps the same could be said of selecting the best procurement and supply chain software and services if you want to get beyond the analyst and media hype.

- William Busch

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