If you are Airbnb, Expedia, TripAdvisor and Groupon -- big names in travel tech -- you are going to have to take your lumps sometimes because your brand is exposed in a major way and consumers and blogger/journalists love to take their shots at the big guys or girls.
A recent case about the removal of an Airbnb guest's negative review of a stay at an apartment in Lisbon, Portugal, says much about the social media challenges of being a big-time brand, user-generated content, the peer-to-peer rental market, and the state of the blogosphere and journalism.
Angela Rhodes, a travel writer, blogger and photographer, wrote a post in her Perpetual Travels blog a couple of months ago complaining that Airbnb removed a negative review she had written about her month-long stay with her husband at this apartment.
In the review, Rhodes refers to the attractive appearance of the apartment and its excellent location, but then expresses her frustration that she and her husband were not informed before they arrived that the building and the apartment downstairs, in particular, were undergoing renovations.
"... This meant that most days were very, very noisy. The host promised this work would be over in a week, but it continued throughout our entire stay," the review said.
She also took the host to task about an alleged lack of electricity and hot water in the apartment.
An Airbnb spokeswoman, Kim Rubey, says part of the review violated Airbnb's review guidelines, although she declined to provide details, citing customer-privacy policies.
However, it can be surmised that perhaps the guest's review crossed the line when she wrote: "The host also didn't pay her electricity bill so the power was turned off by a man from the power company, and it was difficult getting hold of [host's first name, which Tnooz has deleted] to figure out what had happened."
So if you are Airbnb, the publisher of another user review site such as TripAdvisor, a news site, or a blogger, what action should you take when a reviewer or commenter makes unsubstantiated allegations which may tarnish the reputation of a host, property owner, or anyone else, for that matter?
Whether review sites and blogs make themselves susceptible to libel lawsuits under such circumstances is open to debate, and a global company such as Airbnb would have to take into account that Internet, free speech and libel laws vary from country to country.
In her blog post, Rhodes wrote that the couple sent evidence about the apartment's condition in the form of "videos, texts and pictures" to Airbnb, at its request, but "it now seems likely they have taken the host's side and removed our negative review."
And, indeed, Airbnb removed the review in question.
But, it seems highly unlikely that Rhodes could have provided Airbnb with evidence that the host hadn't paid her electric bill, as alleged.
Sure, the power may have been off and you can speculate that perhaps the host hadn't paid the bill, but if you are going to soil someone's reputation in public like this, shouldn't you really have proof?
"I understand that this is a delicate issue for Airbnb, ... [about] who is telling the truth," Rhodes wrote in her blog post. "But if Airbnb wants to succeed they need to understand that their stakeholder is the customer and not the host. By all means, don't banish the host for doing business after one negative experience, but what is the purpose of a trust-based service when you can't leave a negative review?"
Indeed, negative reviews, when warranted, provide a valuable service to travelers, and serve as a hedge against hotel or vacation-rental marketing-speak.
But, it appears that Airbnb tried to work with Rhodes and her husband to try to keep an edited version of the review on Airbnb.
"Our customer service team reached out to the guest several times to discuss proceeding with the posting of the review, but never heard back from the guest," says Rubey, the Airbnb spokesperson.
And, Rhodes, the review writer, indicates in an email exchange with Tnooz that there had been some issues in communicating with Airbnb about the review. Rhodes says:
I had a couple missed calls from them but once they got through, the customer service agent told me that they took it down because it violated their guidelines. He told me that they made some changes to it and that they wanted my approval of these changes before putting it back up. He said that they tried sending it to my email (the same one you used), but that they got an error message and that my email wasn't working anymore. I received several other emails that day and don't think Gmail was down. I never heard from them again.
Rhodes says she doesn't know for certain in what way the review allegedly violated Airbnb's guidelines, and as a travel writer, she "stands behind" the review.
And, she adds that her husband works for Booking.com, the hotel site, and perhaps Airbnb -- if it indeed was aware of her husband's employment -- may have taken that into account and felt that the review was colored because it was coming from someone who was working for a perceived competitor.
Rhodes wrote in her blog post that prior to the review being removed, the couple received an apology and a coupon toward a subsequent booking from Airbnb, presumably to make up for the poor, lodging experience.
"... We may have given it another shot if our review was not removed, but if this is how Airbnb works then how can we trust that the next booking we make hasn't had a negative review that was simply removed?" Rhodes wrote in her blog.
Under a different name, Rhodes apparently chimed in about her Airbnb experience on a Quora thread entitled, Why are there so few negative reviews on Airbnb?
An Airbnb representative writes on the Quora thread that the company's default position is not to censor or delete reviews, but does so under extraordinary circumstances when the company's content guidelines are violated.
Indeed, the guest reviews you see on Airbnb these days are overwhelmingly positive, and if you are a big brand such as Airbnb, it is easy for consumers, bloggers and journalists to assume that something sinister and commercially tinged must be going on when the review portfolio is so damn exuberant.
On the journalism front, it is incontrovertible that a story about big, bad Airbnb removing guest reviews out of greedy motives makes for a much juicier article and more compelling blogosphere fodder than a more complex tale speculating whether the review was erased because it may have violated content guidelines or made unfair allegations that just couldn't be proven.
And, it might be needlessly messy to point out that Airbnb apparently tried to work with the review writer to save a version of the review -- or at least was in contact with the guest -- before the critique was removed.
Rubey of Airbnb says the company "rarely encounters reviews that violate our review guidelines."
That being said, although you can find negative reviews on Airbnb without much trying, the review crop there is overwhelmingly positive.
How can that be?
Rubey says: "The vast majority of reviews on Airbnb are positive because the vast majority of experiences on Airbnb are positive. People are entitled to write whatever they want, as long as they follow the content guidelines."
Believe it -- or don't.
UPDATE: Rhodes claims she has the proof that the host did not pay the electric bill. Rhodes says:
I find it curious that you would not ask me in advance if I can substantiate our claims? Indeed I have all the evidence I need to write a negative review: A representative from the electrical company came in person to turn it off, I had confirmation from the owner that it was the case that they hadn't paid the bill, and I have photos of the extension cord he used to get electricity from the connection box of the apartment building's elevator. I also took videos to show how noisy the apartment was. Additionally I have text from the owner showing that she was uncooperative when these situations arose.
And, when asked to elaborate on her proof that the host didn't pay the electric bill, Rhodes says "the host's husband told us he hadn't paid it in the last three months."
However, if Airbnb or any publisher had to defend itself in the legal arena, would it be sufficient evidence to rely on Rhode's version of events that an electric company employee had turned off the electricity and that the host's husband said he hadn't paid the bill in three months? (In the review, Rhodes writes that the host hadn't paid the bill.)
In this case, assuming the electric bill issue may have been part of the problem with the review, absent an email, taped phone conversation or video with the host or electric company documenting that the host herself hadn't paid the electric bill, would taking Rhodes' statements at face value be enough to publish the review?
You could think of all kinds of other scenarios, however unlikely, of why the power was out.
And no one is saying that Rhodes didn't have proof that the conditions in the apartment were subpar.
It should be noted that the above article does point out that Rhodes says the couple sent evidence of the apartment's subpar condition to Airbnb.