Serviced apartment operator Meriton Property Services Pty Ltd has been fined $3 million by the Federal Court after being found to have deliberately altered email addresses to reduce the likelihood of bad reviews for its serviced apartments on travel website TripAdvisor.
The travel website offers a service called “Review Express” that offers the chance to create “professional-looking e-mails that encourage guests to write reviews of your business.”
TripAdvisor says that “On average, regular Review Express users see an uplift of 28% in the amount of TripAdvisor reviews for their property”, music to the ears of social-media-savvy tourism operators.
While TripAdvisor suggests Review Express will generate more reviews, there’s no suggestion those reviews will be more positive than those generated by customers who take the trouble to visit the site of their own accord.
Meriton appears to have twigged to the possibility that some customers could even file negative reviews, which would result in lower ratings for its service and therefore fewer customers.
In a case decided in November 2017 the Federal Court, Justice Mark Kranz Moshinsky found that if Meriton suspected a customer would post a negative review they would “add the letters ‘MSA’ (which stand for Meriton Serviced Apartments) to the front of the email addresses of certain guests” as “This rendered the email address invalid.”
The company even made it easy for staff to flag such customers by adding a field labeled “TA Mask” to the software used to manage booking. Applying the mask automatically added “MSA” to a customer’s email address.
Whatever method was used to add “MSA”, doing so meant the Review Express mail from TripAdvisor would not reach a customer and the chance of a negative review would fall.
Meriton was also found to “withhold from TripAdvisor the email addresses of all the guests who had stayed at a property during a period of time when there had been a major service disruption (such as the lifts not working, no hot water, etc).”
The case considered whether Meriton had misled the public and Justice Moshinsky concluded that the company had because by excluding likely-to-be-grumpy customers it “created a more positive or favourable impression of the quality or amenity of the Meriton properties on the TripAdvisor website.”
“Meriton’s conduct created an unduly favourable impression of the guest feedback about the serviced apartments, because the reviews had been solicited on a selective basis,” the judgment states. “Many guests would have assumed that, to the extent reviews were solicited, this had not been done in a selective way. Such an assumption was consistent with TripAdvisor’s guidelines for Review Express.
By engaging in the impugned practices, Meriton created an unduly favourable impression of the guest feedback about the serviced apartments.”
The ACCC is pleased as punch with the result of the case and the fine.
In a canned statement Commissioner Sarah Court said: “People often make purchasing decisions for accommodation based on the rankings and reviews they read on third party sites like TripAdvisor.
“This case sends a strong message that businesses can expect ACCC enforcement action if they’re caught manipulating feedback on third party review websites.”