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The New Payola: Online Hotel Reviews

TravelsitesThe hotel industry should be concerned about the number of hotels that are trying to pay online sites for positive reviews. Today's New York Times reports (subscription required) on the incentives hotels are currently providing to people that post "real" reviews on sites like Citysearch.com. For example, one NYC resort is "discreetly offering a free reflexology treatment to customers who posted a positive review of the establishment online."

Hotels run the risk of repeating the same mistake that the radio industry did. Let's look at the definition of payola, according to Wikipedia:

"...In the music industry, the illegal practice of record companies paying money for the broadcast of records on music radio is called payola, if the song is presented as being part of the normal day's broadcast."

Are people being paid - either in cash or for consideration for their "reviews"? The Times article is clear that the answer is "Yes". In response, the hotel industry rightly points out that the vast majority of comments on review sites are negative, which reflects basic psychology: you're more motivated to warn people about a bad experience than to share a good one.

But if readers were to ever believe they were being lied to -- there might be a backlash against both the sites and the hotels that paid for the reviews.

I think hotels should continue to encourage travelers to submit reviews, but should drop the requirement that the review be positive. Furthermore, if there are incentives involved in giving positive reviews, I think the online sites need to do a better job of informing their readers of potential biases.

Consumer Reports (subscription required) recently described the simply awful advice being given out by these so-called experts. Let's hope that the next expose isn't about outright dishonesty.

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