Online reviews website TripAdvisor has not ruled out reintroducing a version of a controversial ratings system it was forced to pull last week following an angry response from business owners and reviewers alike.
TripAdvisor introduced the new system, which scored hotels and restaurants out of five without the need to leave a review, on 27 February.
The move sparked immediate concern from business owners, who saw huge numbers of ratings appearing for their business, many of which contained lower-than-average scores.
Richard Bradford, chairman of the Restaurant Association noticed that his restaurant, Porters in London's Covent Garden, very quickly received 163 ratings - more than the 151 reviews it had received.
What was more, the ratings did not appear to tally with the reviews. Porters received just 20 "excellent" ratings, despite having 56 "excellent" reviews, whereas it received 20 "poor" ratings compared with just 12 "poor" reviews.
Bradford also noticed that those people who had left ratings whose profile information could be seen appeared to have left up to 100 ratings on just one day.
Meanwhile, the ratings system provoked similarly strong reactions among the TripAdvisor reviewing community, with many talking to the forums to express their concern that the anonymous ratings were undermining the integrity of the scoring system.
One official thread on the TripAdvisor website asking users to tell the company what they thought about the new ratings attracted hundreds of negative comments in just a few days, eventually forcing TripAdvisor to amend its position and remove the ratings on Friday last week.
One TripAdvisor reviewer who has posted reviews and thousands of forum posts on the website explained to Caterer and Hotelkeeper that the large number of ratings had appeared so quickly as a result of "pop-under" boxes employed by TripAdvisor over a period of months asking users to rate establishments in their area.
"Pop-unders started appearing whenever one logged on to the site, inviting users to rate local ‘experiences'," the reviewer said. "Many of my friends, who are all well-versed in using TA and have helped many thousands of travellers over the years on the forums, were so fed up at the constant barrage of these pop-unders that they filled them all in with just one star (or in some cases five stars) in order to be rid of them.
"These people had never been near the majority of the things they were being asked to rate and, of course, had no idea they were going to be used to manipulate the overall rankings. They are all mortified."
When Caterer and Hotelkeeper put this claim to TripAdvisor, a spokeswoman confirmed it had been collecting ratings "on the site since November 2011 and via the TripAdvisor Cities I've Visited feature on Facebook for a number of years".
But despite the reaction to the system, she did not rule out its reappearance. "From this feedback, we recognise we have some work to do to ensure that ratings are as useful as they can be and so we have decided to remove displaying ratings from a business's listing page from last Friday," she said.
"We believe that the TripAdvisor community is seeking many ways to provide feedback, whether via ratings, photos, room tips or other opinions, and we will continue to look at ways to gather these opinions to help travellers plan and have the perfect trip."
She did not give a timescale for its reintroduction.
Reactions to the new rating system before it was pulled
"These ratings can be given anonymously making the management response facility defunct. Now if you get a bad rating you have no idea why!"
The Cock and Bull restaurant in Balmedie, Scotland on Twitter
"The new rating system allows competitors and the public to vandalise your position without even being here. No right to reply, no feedback - it's a disastrous new twist from TA. We will be cancelling our business listing if this remains part of TA's system."
Jonathan & Caroline Kaye, owners of the Cedar Manor hotel and restaurant, Windermere, Cumbria
"I have to say, I was amazed to be confronted with the ability to vote for restaurants I had not visited and totally anonymously. I also wondered where that "vote" went and how was it being used."
Julian Peck, owner of the Fieldhead hotel, West Looe, Cornwall
"At least with reviews you knew where they were coming from and what the problem was, and you could respond. Now with these ratings there is nothing you can do."
Richard Bradford, chairman of the Restaurant Association
By Neil Gerrard
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