The emergence of user-generated review sites has transformed the way we choose the products we buy and the hotels, restaurants and bars we visit.
Their success should come as no surprise. Long before the Internet Age, consumers informed their decision-making by consulting friends and peers for second opinions.
Review sites promised to take this process to its logical extent by allowing you to tap into a global network of fellow consumers with nothing to gain from doing anything other than tell the truth in the reviews they posted.
Too good to be true? Many operators think so. Rumours abound of unscrupulous operators allegedly posting glowing reviews of their own properties - and damning reviews of their competitors' - on the web. There have even been allegations that hotels and restaurants are offering bribes to negative reviewers in return for removing their posts.
Now, an online reputation management business is inviting hotels and restaurants in the UK and the USA to http://www.caterersearch.com/Articles/2010/09/08/334957/Online-reputation-firm-launches-39defamation-action39-against.htm" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">submit grievances about their treatment on one of these sites, Tripadvisor. It plans to present these grievances to Tripadvisor - for a fee - and isn't ruling out the possibility of a class defamation action against the site in future.
At best, online review sites offer users a chance to get an unscientific sense of what other people thought of a business. At worst, they provide dishonest operators with an easy means of manipulating public opinion.
Tripadvisor's content policies state that it is "impractical" for it to fact-check the details of the reviews the site carries, and it concedes that reviewers are not required to prove that they stayed at a hotel to post a review of it. Despite this, many users treat its content as gospel truth.
If it and other review sites are not to continue to present a distorted view of the world, Tripadvisor must accept that it has a responsibility to work harder to authenticate users, safeguard against malpractice and ensure transparency.
Mark Lewis, Editor, Caterer and Hotelkeeper