Reports like Christopher Elliott’s February 7, 2005 New York Times story – Hotel Reviews Online: In Bed With Hope, Half-Truths and Hype – wrongly pigeonhole valuable online ratings and community sites. Nobody can argue there are bad, disingenuous people online, but this story was at least partly a victim of the cliché trap. It’s similar in spirit to a recent sweeps-scented story on a major television network about MySpace, and how teen predators use it to…duh…prey on teens (as one of my work colleagues eloquently put it).
Look…there are going to be a few rotten apples no matter where in the world you go. And that’s certainly true with ratings and community sites dedicated to hotels and hospitality. The bottom line is that everyone should maintain healthy skepticism about any opinion from anyone – including on ratings and review sites. But this story fails to tackle a common characteristic of online communities and consumer-generated media: they tend to be very good at self-policing themselves and rooting out rats. That is why it is so dangerous for businesses to hire shills or ever attempt to game the system. Sure, some rating systems and communities are better and more credible than others, but this story generalizes to the extreme.
Among the reasons ratings and community sites have become so popular is that people increasingly view recommendations from other people (like themselves) as more credible and valuable than traditional and official sources of information. According to GfK NOP, a major market research and polling firm that periodically asks U.S. consumers what are among the best sources of ideas and information about new products, 92 percent said word of mouth in 2005 compared to only 67 percent in 1977. Editorial sources dropped from 47 to 40 percent over that same period!
The information sources to be most skeptical of – especially in the travel and tourism industries – are those in that fall into the camp of so-called official news media. Not in all cases (such as the New York Times), but generally. Is there any industry that showers underpaid journalists with excessive comp trips and other ancillary schmoozing more than the travel and hotel industries? If I’m wrong, someone please correct me. That’s what the story (err, warning) really should’ve been about.
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