TripAdvisor chose to disable the account of a hotel professional who had been flagged as a Destination Expert in its Travel Forum, raising questions about the company's moderation policies.
On October 26, Michael Hraba, a project manager and communications expert for Waterford Hotels & Inns in San Francisco, was using Revinate to look through TripAdvisor's forums.
He chimed in on a few threads that were relevant. Then he says he was banned from the TripAdvisor forums erroneously when another user flagged him for review.
That's a problem, because it means Hraba can't respond to reviews elsewhere on the site, such as of hotels he represents as part of his job.
Hraba describes himself as a stellar TripAdvisor member who has written of management responses on behalf of the four or five properties he lists on the site. He says he always honors the company's forum guidelines and terms of service (TOS).
"We're all still learning, which is why this is fun. But to lock out a hotel professional without warning? Not okay."
In a message to TripAdvisor, Hraba told his side of the story:
A travel hobbyist "destination expert", unchecked and with inappropriate amount of power, simply felt threatened by a real expert, and banned me.
She was rude, and she was bullying, and the ability for a non-industry non-professional to have control over an account like MINE is *UNACCEPTABLE*. Especially when I was within your TOS.
We reached out yesterday to the user, mrsomindy, for comment, but haven't yet heard back.
Hraba says that, before posting in the forums, he tweeted a question to a TripAdvisor for Business Twitter account about whether it is okay for hotel professionals to act as Destination Experts and participate in the forums. He heard back the following tweet:
It's within our guidelines as long as u're not promoting ur biz & claiming u have an affiliation w/ TA.
The company makes clear on its forum pages that promoting services isn't allowed.
In a message to Hraba, TripAdvisor said:
"Your account was recently disabled due to violations of our guidelines regarding self-promotion, solicitation, and non-travel related content."
After three days of sending several messages of complaint, Hraba learned that his account had been re-activated. He was relieved.
Do hotel professionals get to have a say?
TripAdvisor's Travel Forum flags some members as "Destination Experts," people who are particularly knowledgeable about specific destinations and give travelers answers to all kinds of travel queries.
The main criterion for becoming a Destination Expert seem to be whether a person post often and on-topic, even if all the person is doing is Googling the information. Says TripAdvisor:
Who the Destination Experts aren't
Destination experts are not your personal travel agents. They are not moderators, administrators or members of the support team. They are not responsible for removing inappropriate content or answering site-related questions.
What Destination Experts clearly are allowed to do is identify the organization they work with, which is slightly more promotional than ordinary members of the forum are allowed. TripAdvisor's terms of service prevent ordinary forum members from indulging in regular, open advertising and self-promotion of their business, such as with links.
This leaves a big question: Is it a best practice for hotels to ethically operate inside of forums?
Says Hraba in an e-mail to concerned colleagues:
Tripadvisor needs to make a decision: ban hotels from forums and lessen the veracity of suggestions with anonymous hobbyist experts, or slap the hand of the people who don't understand Tripadvisor's own TOS.
A spokesperson answered some questions for Tnooz:
Can employees of hotels and local businesses participate in forums if they do not comment on or mention their business?
We encourage business owners to participate in our free forums and offer helpful advice to travellers, provided that they abide by our guidelines which can be found here.
Was this an isolated situation?
Out of respect for individual privacy, we do not comment on particular cases.
The forums offer a free exchange of helpful travel-planning information. More than 90% of topics posted in the TripAdvisor forums are replied to within 24 hours.
About moderation policies: Is it TA policy to disable accounts and not merely remove offensive posts when issues like this come up?
Our forum moderators have at their disposal a wide array of measures for dealing with violations of our forum-posting guidelines, ranging from removing inappropriate posts in isolated incidents of violations, to temporarily or permanently disabling accounts when repeat offenders become too disruptive to our forums.
The specific measures we take in any instance are commensurate with the situation and have the goal of keeping our forums pleasant and productive for all members who wish to use them within the guidelines we have established.
Given that Destination Experts don't moderate the forums, who moderates the TripAdvisor forums?
TripAdvisor has staff of moderators on duty every day, including weekends, and they are the only people charged with the authority and ability to moderate the forums. While all members, including Destination Experts, have the option to report inappropriate posts, they do not have the direct ability to remove posts or to ban accounts.
To contact our forum moderation team, users may select the "Forums, Private Messages and Traveller Articles" option here.
Tnooz interprets these responses to mean that hotel professionals may participate in Travel Forums, even as Destination Experts, as long as they properly identify themselves follow the rules and don't promote any services.
UPDATE: 4pm ET
Hraba has blogged a response, which encourages hotel professionals to use TripAdvisor Forums. Some highlights:
It was simply that the emails I had posted over years built up into an automated “slush-account” (or something) that then went in and pulled posts, autobanned me with no warning (Tripadvisor… come on… there can be a better system there), and then remained silent as I struggled against my own conspiracy theory nonsense and confusion.
However, the space between the incident and them interacting with me was not weeks, like it used to be (if anything at all). There was communication over the weekend, and it was resolved today… but there has been constant communication over 5 days.
I feel very compelled to pat Tripadvisor on the back on this one, ... They have worked hard to make this process better, and it is.... I just get tired of all the accounts spewing misinformation about how Yelp filters, or how Tripadvisor has fake reviews, etc. This stuff is all complex, and Tripadvisor has done incredibly well, today.
If anything, I am at fault for causing a stir while the process was still being resolved.
TripAdvisor's message to Hraba clarified what hotel owners can and can't do in forums:
All TripAdvisor members, including Owners such as yourself, are welcome and encouraged to share any travel advice they wish to offer, provided that they do not promote any business they are affiliated with, nor make negative remarks about competing businesses.
In a nutshell, we prefer that you simply identify your status in the travel industry, and your affiliation with any businesses if it’s relevant to the discussion, without including any contact information such as email address, website URLs or telephone numbers.
Many owners who participate in our forums have simply adopted a convention of signing each of their posts with their name and the name of their business, so that they do not have to explicitly disclose their affiliation in the main body of their forum posts. This is perfectly acceptable and you are welcome to do this, but again, the signature should not include any other contact information.
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