Not so many years ago, as the use of the internet technologies was maturing, there was a lot of talk about the leveling of the playing field, allowing the smaller businesses to compete with the larger. You don’t hear so much about that, these days. As businesses of all sizes have turned to internet marketing and social media to build relationships with customers and potential customers, the scales have reverted to the same imbalance as in traditional marketing. Big business as well as small have devoted significant effort to using these technologies, and to finding their way to the top of the search results, especially on Google.
If you’ll indulge me a bit, this scenario seems a little familiar…
For Americans of — ahem — a certain age, there was a science-fiction television series in the late 1960′s that was very popular with teenage boys, called Land of the Giants. I was a few years too old to be interested, but my younger brother was hooked on it. The show involves a group of travelers, marooned on an Earth-like planet, where the inhabitants resemble humans but are 12 times larger than the cast of heroes. Each episode involves the group seeking a way to return to Earth, while avoiding the dangerous giants. Though the giants cause problems, there is always a happy ending, except that the crew never escape.
How does that science-fiction program relate to marketing lodging properties? Or, to borrow from a television commercial, what can a 1960′s sci-fi program teach us about internet technologies? Read on…
The Land of the Giants
For the purpose of this article, the giants are not those who compete directly against us, but those who are ostensibly here to help us. There are a number of these giants. We could consider Google, of course, Microsoft’s Bing, and surely others could be added. In the travel and tourism area we could consider the likes of Expedia, TripAdvisor, and other online travel agencies (OTA’s), as well as some of the larger directories of lodging properties. You get the idea, I’m sure.
All these “giants” (I know, some are much larger than others, but to a small B&B or similar property, all of them are giants) are in business to make money for themselves and for their shareholders. That is perfectly appropriate, and as it should be. However, there is an ethical side to being a giant that some (perhaps most) of these companies seem unwilling to consider.
The Responsibilities of Giants
Nearly all of the “giants” named above have a dual purpose: (1) helping the consumer to find, or to make informed decisions about, or to book, among other things, lodging properties; and (2) helping the lodging properties to be found by interested consumers, or to provide the relevant property information to interested consumers, or to provide booking information to the consumer.
In most areas of business, the decision to provide assistance to others while seeking to make a profit for yourself, carries with it a responsibility to provide that assistance fairly and truthfully, or bear the consequences (legal consequences, civil or even, in some cases, criminal). In other words, you make money offering a useful service, that is good. If you fail to deliver as promised, or if you spread false or inaccurate information, you are responsible for any damage your error causes. To go a step further, if you didn’t know the information was false, you are not usually responsible so long as you correct or retract it when the error is brought to your attention.
Not so for our giants. They seem to do as they please, letting the chips fall where they may, and always hiding behind 5000-7500 words of legal mumbo-jumbo, the essence of which is as if to say, “We’re not responsible for any errors – ours or otherwise” and “By using our site you have agreed to this ridiculous proposition.” If that isn’t enough, they also hide behind legal protections designed to keep a web site provider from being liable for content posted by someone else. However, they use it to shield themselves from ever verifying information, so they can claim they are not responsible for errors, and do not ever need to correct their errors – even when the errors are brought to their attention.
Please understand that we are not saying that the actions of the giants are contrary to the law. We are saying that they are using the law to avoid their moral or ethical obligations to treat their customers fairly and honestly.
Let’s Get Down to Cases
TripAdvisor claims to provide “real hotel reviews you can trust” and “candid reviews.” Most small lodging properties are aware that guests often use TripAdvisor to evaluate their choice of lodging. Consequently, any review, whether positive or negative, can make a big difference to the property.
Mark Stephens, of Brewster Inn in Dexter, Maine describes dealing with TripAdvisor “like going to the dentist, you don’t want to go, but you know you have to.” Like many small lodging properties, the Brewster Inn decided to try TripAdvisor’s new (in 2010) paid business listings, providing a way for the guest to read the TripAdvisor review, and click on a link directly to the property (no such link is provided for properties who do not pay for a business listing).
Brewster Inn’s problems with TripAdvisor fall into two categories. The first is that they have several positive (5 stars, on TripAdvisor) reviews which have vanished. TripAdvisor not only gives no explanation, they respond to inquiries saying that properties who have paid for a business listing do not get any different treatment than free listings. They claim to be unable to disclose the information about why the listing disappeared.
Meanwhile the guest who posted the review was told that TripAdvisor’s automated filters had identified the review as requiring “special attention.” No explanation is given, and although this guest has taken time to reply and verify that it is a real review (it is doubtful that most guests would bother), it appears that TripAdvisor’s efforts “to ensure that the information on our site is unbiased and pure” will prevent this review from being re-published.
The second problem Brewster Inn has found is that a review was published from a guest who never stayed with them. In fact it appears that the review even states that they did not stay (the review is in German, according to an online translation, this appears to be accurate). Stephens posted a management response saying the guest did not stay, and challenged the review. TripAdvisor initially removed the review, but it has reappeared. They have not removed it, despite requests, as the guest refuses to allow it to be removed.
That doesn’t sound very much like “reviews … you can trust.”
The attitude is somewhat different with Google Place Page problems. Instead of simply refusing to correct the errors, Google provides very limited ways to get in touch with them, and then seems to make changes without any regard to the business owner’s corrections.
Business in Freeport, Maine is very seasonal, with bed and breakfasts dependent on the July-October traffic for a significant majority of the year’s revenue, and guests often choose their lodging on its proximity to the primary attraction in the area. In the spring of each of the past three years Google’s Maps (on which the location information on Google’s Place Pages – formerly Google’s Local Business Center – is based) has altered the map location for Brewster House Bed & Breakfast (not the same property – the Brewster family is related to the Brewster Inn’s family, the current owners are not related).
Initially, Brewster House claimed its Place Page, and corrected its map location, which was about a block away from the correct location. A few months later (in the spring, just as potential visitors were beginning to plan summer travel) Google removed the listing entirely, without explanation. Reconsideration was requested, and the listing eventually reappeared. A few months later (in the spring), the listing suddenly was located about two miles away from the actual location, to the southeast. Efforts to correct the location were unsuccessful. Eventually, because Google Maps gets at least its USA data from TeleAtlas, this location was corrected with TeleAtlas, and the business returned to its correct location. This year, again in the spring, the location appeared in yet another incorrect location, about two miles to the south of the correct location.
Each year this incorrect map location has caused untold damage in loss of guests, who were given the wrong location information by Google. Even though Google, as part of its Place Page procedure, verifies that the person claiming the listing is an official representative of the business, they freely change its location to a location not selected by the business!
Ironically, an early corporate slogan of Google was “Do no harm.” It is not difficult to see why they have abandoned it.
These are just two examples. We could also include examples of TripAdvisor, supposedly relying on incorrect information from its parent company, Expedia, to publish incorrect rates for properties, even after they were notified of the error, or examples of directories trying to solict bookings through their own booking gateway, to the detriment of the small property who is the paying customer of the directory, and there are, sadly, many others.
Taming the Giants
Just as there is little doubt that the laws the giants are relying on to shield themselves from legal responsibility for providing erroneous information (the provisions of the US Communications Decency Act) were never intended to protect this type of behavior by the giants, there is little chance that they giants will change their behavior unless given an incentive to change.
Other than changing the law, what are the “little people” to do? Since the problem is the giants, using force (legal proceedings, pleading with them, etc.) is not likely to be effective. However, if those who are struggling with the problems caused by irresponsible or unethical behavior of the giants speak up, and share the information with the public, perhaps the groundswell will create a chorus loud enough to shame them into a more proper behavior.
Are You Fighting the Giants?
Tell us about your struggle in the comments below, and keep up the good fight!
Scott Thomas and his wife Ruth own Brewster House Bed & Breakfast in Freeport, Maine. Scott has been working with web sites and search optimization for over 15 years. He was a technical consultant and training manager with Oracle Corporation for its customer management and billing software. He now speaks frequently on technology issues for innkeepers including property management software, social media, reputation management and related issues, and blogs about these topics at http://twitter.com/abouttheinn