ASA ruling against TripAdvisor highlights perils of user-generated content

The easy circulation of information provided by the internet has lead to the meteoric rise of user-generated content, or UGC, in recent years. Inspired by its early and successful adoption by social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook, a great many businesses have been set up to draw on the opinions and creativity of ordinary members of the public to produce reviews of goods and services on behalf of other consumers.

This model has many advantages – not only is it cheaper for ratings sites to rely on copy produced on a voluntarily basis; it also provides small businesses with affordable publicity and puts power into the hands of consumers. But there are significant challenges posed by such a system – critically, the question of how to prevent users from contributing inaccurate or malicious content.

It is because of this issue that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has recently ruled against TripAdvisor; a UK-based company that uses UGC to provide online reviews of hotels, flights, restaurants and other holiday facilities around the world. According to the ASA, TripAdvisor cannot claim that its reviews can be “trusted”, because it cannot verify their accuracy.

The ASA began investigating TripAdvisor after complaints were lodged against it by two hotels and the online reputation firm Kwikchex, alleging that the reviews hosted on the site were misleading.

In response, TripAdvisor contested it had a sophisticated anti-fraud system in place, drawing on both users and professional editors to identify and remove fake reviews. Although the ASA acknowledged this, it nevertheless felt that this system was not
effective enough to provide sufficient protection against fraudulent contributions from the some 50 million users of the site.

Matthew Wilson, the ASA’s spokesman, announced: “This should be regarded as a benchmark ruling which applies to all web sites which make claims about the reliability of their user-created content.” From statements such as these, the scope of this judgement is clear. As ASA chief executive Guy Parker put it: “Advertisers must apply the same scrutiny to their websites as they do to their campaigns in paid-for space. And don’t major on trustworthiness if fake reviews can appear.”

Here are some key points to consider about user-generated content:

• Be pragmatic: UGC is not a magic bullet – it has limitations. It’s worth thinking carefully about whether it suits your circumstances before going down this path.

• Be pro-active: Putting in place of measures that correct or adjust for the presence of malicious or deceitful copy is vital. Businesses must be prepared to manage their online profiles pro-actively, whilst advertisers must take care to police the contributions of their user-base.

• Raise awareness: As with all types of marketing, awareness is fundamental. It is important to be honest about the possibility of inaccurate, or even blatantly false, contributions.