Dear TripAdvisor, your systems have gone rogue

What happens when you let machine learning type automated systems run your consumer communications.

Review sites need little in the way of introduction about their popularity or indeed importance to the fabric of the modern Internet. The majority of my online shopping is done on Amazon or eBay and the review / rating mechanisms on each of those (of both the product and the supplier) are invaluable in making a decision. Of course with any user-submitted content, as a consumer you need to know how to read a review – learning how to separate the fake / troll-y tat from the genuine is a bizarre new modern skill.

There are sites nowadays where the business itself is the reviews. TrustPilot is one of the biggest but one of the earliest was TripAdvisor. I recall 15 or so years ago when it was little more than consumer-submitted, independent and ostensibly unbiased reviews of popular travel destinations. Online bargain holiday hunting wasn’t a thing and you had to use travel companies. TripAdvisor was a revelation and a new way to book – no longer did you have to take a punt on the sales lies blurb from the travel company – you could now read reviews from actual human people who had actually been to the actual destination.

The Beast is Born

Fast forward to today and TripAdvisor has grown in to a monster. With allegedly 3,000 employes and annual revenues of around $1.5b, it is now a fully-fledged holiday and restaurant booking service, with some user-submitted reviews on the side. It has ‘game-ified’ the reviewer experience with pointless badges designed to coax you in to submitting more reviews. “Level up! It means nothing but we’ll make more cash!”

It has developed irritating features designed to try and make you keep coming back – for example, if you’re logged in and look at ‘hotels in Bognor Regis’ – you will get harassed with emails about Bognor Regis until you ask them to politely sod off.

As recently as 5 years ago, TripAdvisor didn’t seem to be quite the behemoth it is today. I had used it a few times to assist with our holiday-planning and so, in the interests of giving back and whatever, I started to write a few reviews. They were always a decent length and as far as possible were fair and reasoned. I would freely point out the good stuff – and the bad – in the hope that whomever was reading it could make up their own mind with some impartial information.

Within days of my first reviews, I started getting the peppy emails from them – ‘Hey Matt! You wrote it, they loved it!’ – and I’ll admit, at the time, it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that the time I’d spent writing the reviews wasn’t entirely wasted and someone had genuinely benefitted from my word. It ultimately propelled me to keep doing it. My reviewer rank rose and I started branching out to other things, like restaurants. 100 points for a review and more points every time someone liked it or commented.

The site started suggesting places I might like to review – although there wasn’t much intelligence here – they just reeled off a list of every attraction they knew about within a 20 mile radius of whatever I’d just reviewed. But a rating and a quick review meant more points, more badges, and a greater sense of superiority. I started posting shorter, crapper reviews of whatever they suggested to me – a long, in-depth review received the same number of points as a review that met minimum standards.

But things started to go wrong. The emails became more incessant. More needy. It was like they’d sucked down a bunch of their own kool-aid and needed another hit of free user-generated content from me. ‘Hey Matt! You’re just two reviews away from the next meaningless reviewer level!’. A day later. ‘Hey Matt! Have you been to any of these places? Feel like reviewing something? Anything? Please?’

And then it went wrong

Summer holidays for my family this year were France. We went to a nice Eurocamp in Brittany. It wasn’t without its issues, but it did the job. Upon return, I duly found a spare half hour to transcribe my thoughts and feelings about the place and its surroundings and donated that effort to TripAdvisor. I got my points. I got a thanks from Trip Advisor. I got some views and likes and a few more points. All pretty standard.

That was until a few weeks later, when an innocuous email arrived from TripAdvisor – but with an interesting sounding title: “Action requested on your review…”

Trip Advisor

Skipping past the ‘we believe in the right to write’ – gah – what is thing all about?

We need you to make some changes and resubmit your review to comply with our guidelines.

We noticed your review describes several locations. We want travelers considering those businesses to learn from your experiences.

For this to happen, we need you to please submit a new review to each location, describing only the experience you had with that business. The text of your original review is included below, so you can copy and paste the relevant sections into each new review.

***snip***

My jaw dropped. Despite the fact I’d spent some of my time to freely contribute a review for them, they’d effectively rejected it saying it wasn’t good enough and I should actually have provided multiple reviews.

In my review, I described our experience with the campsite but also with a couple of French markets in the local area. In the context of the review I was providing some insights for people considering the campsite as to what was in the local area – it was framed more in the vein of ‘top tips’ as opposed to actual reviews of the markets. To make matters worse, the alleged review of the markets were no more than 30 words and so wouldn’t have been accepted as reviews in their own right.

I felt certain that the initial review had not been seen and tagged by an actual human person but instead an automated system had raised my review as an issue using some nifty text analysis. But rather than then have a human review the exception and decide what to do – Trip Advisor let the system fire out the comms unguided.

(As it happens, the review is gone from my profile on the site and the email that allegedly contained the original review for me to work from – is missing more than half the review. That’s right – I’ve been penalised for writing a review of a proper length because their automated email truncated the original review. So I couldn’t actually resubmit the review without actually rewriting it from scratch anyway.)

Game on

Maybe this email caught me on a bad day, I’m not sure, but I promptly fired off a response:

Trip Advisor

This is stupid.

I’m assuming a human did not create this message so you need to check your automated systems.

If you would have read my review, you will note my references to other areas are only as points of interest to the local area and/or as some tips for your readers should they travel from the focus of the review. They are not reviews of those specific locations.

I will not submit a new review and I will not submit reviews of the other sites.

If you want to take my review down then fine but you can pretty well guarantee I won’t review anything again.

The Reply-To address in their email has a complicated looking ID string in it so I felt safe to assume that it meant it would open a case in whatever case management system they used. It didn’t, and the email bounced back to me saying the mailbox was unmonitored.

(This in itself is a major irritation of mine – the DoNotReply email addresses. But that’s a different matter.)

Annoyed by this, I waded through myriad screens on the site trying to find the ‘Contact Us’ option. Buried about 4 pages deep I finally was able to send them a message. I copy-pasted my original response. And waited.

A day later I got the response. I assumed some friendly support person would apologise, admit their mistake and we could all have a lovely big laugh about it. No harm, no foul, it’s all good.

Needless to say, it didn’t quite go like that:

Trip Advisor

That’s right – some opening twaddle but then a carbon copy of the original email:

Hello Matt,

Thank you for contacting TripAdvisor in regards to your review. I appreciate you bringing this to our attention so that we can deal with this immediately. Rest assure that I will do my best to help you with this.

Unfortunately, we are currently unable to publish your review, we noticed your review describes several locations. We want travelers considering those businesses to learn from your experiences.

For this to happen, we need you to please submit a new review to each location, describing only the experience you had with that business. The text of your original review is included below, so you can copy and paste the relevant sections into each new review.

***snip***

Now, this email purported to be from Vanessa A in the support team. ‘She’ thanked me for my understanding and apologized for the inconvenience. Despite the fact that they had now a) entirely ignored the point I was trying to make and failed to actually address it and b) still unpublished my review until I resubmitted it with additional reviews for the other locations.

I guess I was unable to rest assured that ‘Vanessa’ was doing her best to help me. They were literally holding me to ransom – over something that I’d freely given them. Did I yet believe that this was an actual person writing to me? Of course not.

Game suspended

At this point, I gave up, resolving to just ignore it and move on.

Until, that was, two days later the not unexpected ‘How are we doing’ email lands:

Trip Advisor

Experiencing a fresh batch of rage, I this time subserviently did as instructed and clicked the link; hoping that maybe, just maybe, if I told them exactly what I thought, then a real human would step in and save the day. My feedback looked like this:

0-score reviews for all the options and words to the effect of ‘eat a dick’ in the comments section.

Petty? Yes. Petulant? Yes. Did I really expect this to do something? No, but I did have a vague, lingering hope it might.

I fired the feedback in and waited. And waited. And waited. I wasn’t literally sat there waiting but figured within a few days – maybe a week – someone would see it and get back to me. But alas, no. Enough time passed that I again forgot all about it.

Game, set and match

Then it happened. A full month later I wake to an email from TripAdvisor. Excited, nervous and slightly light-headed I wondered what it could be about? Had they reviewed it all and made sweeping changes? Had they offered to compensate me for my effort? Maybe an interim period as Chief Comms Officer? Or had they dobbed me in to the feds and I was now wanted and out on the lam?

I opened the email. Heart-racing. This was it. The moment.

‘Hey Matt! You’re just two reviews away…’

Four days later I got another email from them ‘Matt, thank you! You’re on a roll!’

Who cares?

You’re probably questioning why on earth I’m ranting about this. It’s a good question. Part of me just needed to get it out. It’s utterly ridiculous how these big companies seem to have become completely disconnected from their customers and clients. Maybe if they had actual physical products it would be a bit different. Would they care more? Or would they be more entitled to treat me differently? I’m not sure.

But in my opinion – in Trip Advisor’s case – it’s even more important that they keep people like me happy. I am their product; they sell the stuff that I give them for free. Without me – at least in the early days – they had nothing else but me.

But it’s a bigger technology issue. Everyone knows that companies of this size struggle with how to moderate user-generated content. Facebook and YouTube have taken a beating in recent years in their response to keeping on top of the abusive content that gets created on their platforms. Trip Advisor themselves have had well documented issues with fake reviews and abusive content and have had their wrists slapped on more than one occasion. Using automated systems to assist with this is obvious – it’s the only practicable response on sites with so much activity. I get it.

But Trip Advisor have lost touch with reality here and they are letting their systems run their business. If my review had been filled with sweary-anger, slander, racial slurs or even just a list of keywords that needed closer inspection, then sure, by all means flag it and get me to sort my life out or banhammer me. But it wasn’t. I wasn’t trolling. It was an honest, well-meaning review (written in entirely the same way as all my prior reviews which all committed the same ‘offence’) which they rejected on the basis that it didn’t give them enough.

I sent them unhappy emails which they ignored. I sent them a low feedback which they ignored. I gave them every opportunity to give me something – anything – just a sign that they were listening.

But they’re clearly not. And for a big business which is built on a relationship with their customers, this is the ultimate sin.

I’ve been through all my reviews and requested that they be deleted. That was a couple of days ago and they’re still up and visible. Will update this with any progress on that.

Nevertheless, the best reviews I’d written have been re-posted here – although – somewhat ironically not the review that actually prompted all this – because I have no way to recover it.

Bye bye Trip Advisor.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*