Online Reputation Management Companies’ Business Practices: Scam… or… well, scam?

A wise man once said: “Don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years“.

Second post in less than a month here… feels like some kind of Guinness record or something for me. But, I digress.

Back to what we’re here for; Online Reputation Management (ORM) companies, specifically, those companies that target hotels. I’ll preface all of this with the following; monitoring and management are two different animals. Monitoring companies that will compile reviews and mentions of the hotel from around the internet definitely provide a legitimate service. I wholeheartedly believe that hotels should monitor online reviews and then manage that to the best of their abilities (ie. respond to poor ones, actually work to correct the underlying complaints in the “real world”, etc). What I have a problem with is companies that offer to manage the hotel’s reputation for them.

In a lot of industries, there are random complaint and “rip-off” websites that exist for people to vent. In those cases, an extremely negative review can have significant repercussions on a small business – given that larger outlets don’t exist in which lots of positive reviews can balance out the poor ones (whether valid or not). I suppose having someone ensure that a positive post about your business is propagated to every possible corner of the internet could help and in theory isn’t really “cheating”.

In the world of hospitality, however, there really are just a couple of players (that all happen to see significant volume when compared to similar sites in other industries): TripAdvisor, Online Travel Agencies (Expedia, booking.com, etc) and Google Local. And unlike a random “I got ripped off” site, the hotel has a decent amount of control for each of these.

So how exactly does one “manage” a reputation that’s essentially built through these review sites? Since the hotel can respond to the reviews, the only way to improve the overall rating is to add more positive ones. Since this 3rd party doesn’t actually work at the hotel, they can’t very well solicit reviews from the guests on the way out the door.

So how do they improve your ranking?

Could it be by posting a bunch of fake positive reviews?

Could it be by removing the falsified 1-star reviews they posted right before calling you?

There have been numerous stories of companies engaging in these very practices (including the company that called me today – thus the reason for the venting).

I don’t want any of my hotels to have bad reviews online. But the reality is that sometimes we do miss the mark on-property and don’t provide the service that our guests expect, so complaints can occur. The way to manage your reputation is to fix the issues that occur at the hotel and ensure that guests feel like they made the right choice by staying with us in the first place. We are in the hospitality industry after all. Crafting the perfect stay should be what we do – not pretending that every bad comment is from a pathological liar or ex-employee with a vendetta.

So while it would be nice to have someone rid the interwebs of every negative comment ever made about the hotel, I don’t see a legitimate way to do this. Posting a falsified positive review may not be easily detected; that certainly doesn’t make it right. Maybe everyone should spend a bit more time just fixing what’s really wrong, instead of trying to cover it up later.

Any you know, for an industry focused on managing reputations, I find it rather ironic that when researching any ORM company, the first page of search results includes numerous “Rip-off report”-type site results for that company’s name.

You know, maybe if they spent a bit more time managing their own reputation I wouldn’t be so quick to tell them I’ll never be interested in their BS business practices and hang up before they can complete the sales pitch when they call me.

But, then again, why should I bother being nice? If my reputation in the industry is that I call a scam artist a scam artist, so be it.

And after all, Mama did say to knock em out.

Google Carousel and the Future of Location-based Searches

Well it’s been a little while… which is putting it lightly. But with Google’s recent updates, now seemed like the perfect time to climb back up on my search marketing soapbox and grumble a bit about the big, bad Google machine – man, is the air up here thin.

So it’s mid-2013 and Google continues to be the dominant force in search. I’ve never been one to complain much about the inescapable fact that, with their market share, Google wields an enormous amount of power over the flow of traffic online (well, as far as you know I don’t complain much about… which is to say, you know I do, I just don’t take the time to type it up). However, Google seems to have a definite focus on driving searches to more Google, not necessarily to actual websites.

As an eCommerce/SEO manager for the past 4 years focused solely on hotels, I’ve noticed the significant increase in traffic flow from the maps.google.com domain. With travelers trusting more in these “local” results, it’s not surprising that Google would start to drive more traffic to those results as opposed to the broader natural results. The issue with this practice is that less and less of what is filling the pages for guests are actual organic search results. Essentially, the “top of the fold” are Google “properties”: Google Maps/Local/+, Google Hotel Finder, Google Paid Ads, and now the Google Carousel.

Google Hotel Search Carousel

Carousel, Paid Ads, Hotel Finder, Map… Check, check, check and check. Natural Search results? Not so much.

It really was just a matter of time before Google identified yet another way to increase clicks within their own site. For travelers, this new tool could be a godsend – photographs are a key driver for most travel destinations; whether it’s a small market business hotel or a high-end beach resort, no one wants to stay in a dump and photos can help quickly eliminate the garbage. But, for guests, there is more to finding the right hotel than just a single snapshot.

However, for marketers, the problems with this new tool are numerous.

First of all, those photos. If Google did a better job of allowing the OWNER OF THE BUSINESS the ability to completely control these, there wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but given that Google seems to decide almost at random what shows up plus allowing anyone with an internet connection the ability to add content to your listing, putting your best foot forward is difficult at best. The issues for those of us that work with larger hotel chains is that data is fed from the brands to these local pages and so even more of the control is lost (yes, part of the issue here lies outside of Google’s realm of control, just play along, I’m going somewhere with this). In any given search you’ll see hotel exteriors, pools, lobbies, local attractions, and God forbid some shirtless fat guy’s selfie in the bathroom mirror, all showing up as the image of the property in the Carousel. There has to be a simple way to say, “this is my hotel’s primary image”, and KEEP it that way until I decide otherwise.

The next issue is really the focus of all SEO; placement. Since these listings are basically the map results turned on their side, we’re back to worrying about optimizing a map listing in addition to our hotel’s actual website. While Google’s algorithm for map results has some of the same factors as natural search, there are more “local” factors that get involved (distance from city center comes to mind). Regardless of whether the proximity to an arbitrary longitude and latitude point on a map falls into the decision-making process of a potential guest or not, it is a significant factor in placement in the Carousel.

Wait, there’s more!

I’ve made it clear of the issues I have with TripAdvisor in the past, but at least this channel has become a consistent provider of feedback for all hotels. You know what isn’t a consistent driver of reviews; Google+. Care to guess which website’s reviews are a factor in your Carousel placement? (if you’re not sure, you’re probably not paying attention to anything you’re reading…) Google reviews! So now we have yet another channel to beg guests to leave feedback.

“Thank you for staying at our hotel, you’ll be getting a survey in your email about your stay. Oh and would you mind going to TripAdvisor and reviewing us there too? You know what; we don’t have many reviews on our Google+ local profile, could you go there and rate us too? And while I’m bothering you, I noticed you ate at our restaurant too. How’s about you head over to Zagat and tell everyone how wonderful the pancakes were?”

Lord knows when I go to small select-service hotel and spend the night, I want to get on 53 different websites and tell all 17 people I know how amazing the low-flow shower was.

Sorry, review-fatigue tangent… happens to the best of us (or at least me, anyway). Back at it…

One bigger factor here, that’s not even integrated into the Carousel, is the Google Hotel Finder. At this time, the results are not showing any rates (and aren’t yet set up to include any kind of paid ad placement). Given that the Hotel Finder IS integrated into the Local listing, there is no reason to believe that it won’t find its way into the Carousel itself. Presenting us with yet ANOTHER factor to muddy the waters – oh, and cost us money, as the Hotel Finder provides OTA listings as well as the hotel’s brand site room-rate (which would be great on its own, but since Google gets a commission on these bookings it makes perfect sense that they would want this front and center, NOT the organic link to the hotel’s own site). I’m trying my best not to gloss over this, but I really feel like the monetization of the Google properties really is the biggest issue and could have its own post. But, given my history of posting things, we’ll pick back up here sometime around Christmas maybe… ie: Don’t expect a post; just know that Google is GOING to make money off of this somehow, or else why build it.

Now that we know Google is serious about not just providing searchers with results, but also in KEEPING those guests within the Google “system” as long as possible, that huge market share starts to look a bit scary.

Travelers are making it clear that the location-based searches (ie Map listings) are a valid channel. And at the same time Google is making it clear that they are going to play heavily in that channel.

Essentially, that Google Local/Map/+/Whatever-they-are-calling-it-today listing has become another front door to your hotel. And frankly its a door that we’re forced to share the keys to.

Remember the days when keeping your own website up-to-date was enough?

Yeah, me neither.

“Hotel Finder is Alive!” or “Who Stole My Natural Results?”

Finally, Google’s Hotel Finder is being inserted into results. I know what you’re thinking, “Hooray!” or “Who cares, its just another map tool” or even “Why do you keep writing things in quotes”…

All valid comments.

Personally, I think its a cool tool. The search function with Hotel Finder is pretty slick. Being able to search for a specific area within the map is cool. But I’m not so much concerned with Hotel Finder as a tool, but Hotel Finder as a result in search.

The real issue I have with this is not so much with Hotel Finder itself (though the fact that the OTA’s are given yet another place to stick their prices and links is troubling to me). My big issue at this point is with the clutter that exists on the results page because of it.

When performing a broad search for hotels, the results page is so weighted down with “Google” that you can’t even see results for your search. In the example image, notice how much of the page is covered with paid ads and Google Places (maps results)…. all items that on-page website SEO has NO impact on.

Hotel Results Page in Google

Ads, Places and Hotel Finder - Oh My!

So while on-page keywording and link-building is our day-to-day focus here for our hotels, buying an ad on Google and placement on their map are what fill the search pages.

I don’t usually have issues with Google’s results pages as a user, I can easily avoid the paid results and find what I’m looking for by scrolling through the page and subsequent pages.

What worries me is the inevitable day when there are no pages to click, just various Google Apps filling the web. Maybe its just me.

The TripAdvisor Extortion Phenomenon

B E D B U G S: The 7 most terrifying letters in the English language to a hotel owner or manager (granted, that’s only 6 unique letters – but its 7 in total, right?) In this day and age saying “the hotel has bed bugs” is like screaming fire in a movie theater… mass panic ensues and very shortly there’s an empty building.

One of the great things about review websites is that you can inform others on how great or poor your experience is at a given property. The raw, unpolished, unfiltered reviews that make it on these sites are seen as the antithesis of the glossy images and marketing copy of a hotel’s website or commercial. “Yep, the website had a picture of a giant pool, but in reality it was tiny… and shockingly there were no models just hanging out poolside either.”

The problem with the unfiltered, anonymous nature of these reviews is that it allows for complaints that, even when disputed, permanently damage the reputation of a property.

As Kramer once said, “the cat is… meeeeooww… out of the bag!” 

But what if this is just an imaginary “cat”?

To be sure, there are issues out there. Poor service, dirty rooms, and “broken elevators” do exist. For the most part, you fix the things you can and apologize for the others and just do better in the future. However, there are times where reviews are so erroneous or faked that responding and disputing is not worth the time and effort, removal is the only course of action.  Therein lies the issue.

TripAdvisor cares only about volume of reviews, whether blatantly faked or accidentally posted to the wrong hotel; TripAdvisor is highly unlikely to ever remove a post.

And this is where the scammers have their field day.

Recently, we had a guest who was clearly out to make a quick buck at the hotel’s expense. He claimed that there were bedbugs in his room. He demanded that he be compensated for this and that if he was not he would “make sure every channel available would be aware of this incident”.

The problem with his complaint is that the Health Department and the pest control company (which has to be compensated by the hotel) that came to the hotel to perform inspections; BOTH reported finding NO evidence of bedbugs.

Even still, this guest posted on TripAdvisor about how he was attacked by bedbugs, that the manager of the hotel was incompetent, and that the hotel refused to compensate him for his luggage, clothes, blood loss and his night of sleeping on the floor (apparently, he forgot to mention “pain and suffering”). The guest went so far as to quote “Yelp reviewers” who made the same bedbug-related complaints. However, the ONLY Yelp review for this hotel was from this same guest; posted on the same day, using the same username and with some of the exact same verbiage.

So with written documentation proving there were no bedbugs, evidence from another website that shows a complete fabrication in his TripAdvisor review and the fact that anyone with half a brain can see that he was out for money, all on our side you would think TripAdvisor will remove the review.

And you would be wrong.

At this point, after TripAdvisor’s extensive non-existent review of this incident, they have told us to go pound sand. The review shall stand! The hotel will just have to suffer the consequences of allowing an extortionist to book a room.

As long as sites like TripAdvisor allow for guests to post unfettered commentary without any form of proof, there will be those who use this to take advantage of the hotels and other businesses. Quite simply, “pay me to keep quiet, or I’ll tell the world” is the new “slip and fall” grocery store scam. Assuming that TripAdvisor will never allow the hotels to fight back on their site by removing this garbage, our only recourse is to wait for to criminals to try and then provide as much information to the contrary and allow the court of public opinion to weigh in.

Sadly, that’s the way it has to be… just not the way it should be.

Why Does Hotels.com Feel The Need To Change My Google Places Number?

This blog began like so many other Social Media outlets for me, with high hopes for engaging commentary on life as I see it. Turns out, they have all followed a similar path… a couple of thoughts followed by months of neglect (Think I’m joking? Check my Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter feeds… sad, very sad). Hey, at least I’m consistent.

Speaking of consistency (killer segue!), it’s time for another rant on Google Places listings! You’re psyched, I know. But this post has a bit more focus, I promise. At this point I’m fine with the fact that Google has no regard for the business owners. It’s their database after all, so they’re gonna do as they please. And until some other amazingly functional search engine comes alone, it appears we’re going to have to play the hand we’re dealt – in this particular instance I mean that I’m going to have to verify the listings for a couple hundred hotels over and over again since the data is being changed.

No, this post is not about Google. It’s about Hotels.com.

We’ve seen phone numbers changed by random 3rd parties more times than I can remember over the past 3 years, but this week a curious thing happened; a supposedly reputable entity changed one of our hotel’s numbers to one of theirs.

I kinda expect garbage like this from stupidhotelaggregator.net sites… but to have a company like Hotels.com do this was shocking to say the least. Crazy thing is, I did a little digging and found some other hotel eCommerce folks who’ve run into the same issue with Expedia (who just happens to be the parent company of… wait for it… Hotels.com!). So, Hotels.com changes the phone numbers of a hotel’s Google Places listing and Expedia does the same thing. Hmmm. Makes you think.

Look, OTA’s are wonderful. People who are not loyal to a single brand get to view lots of options and in the end pick the cheapest place with the prettiest photos. Good for them.

The issue is that hotels have to pay a commission on that booking. All the while, they have a perfectly functional website where this guest could be booking (at a better rate to boot – cheaper for the guest and no commissions for the hotel, the proverbial win/win). So while it make be lousy for the hotel to have to pay a commission for a guest they could get for free, it’s the nature of the beast, a necessary evil that at times actually helps fill those last few available rooms for the property. It’s just business.

But having a traveler log onto an OTA and CHOOSE to book through them is 100% their prerogative. The issue is that changing information on the web to trick guests into booking through the OTA is well beyond being just business. We’ve entered the area that I like to call “being scum”.

Granted, there’s probably some moron with Hotels.com going rogue and thinking they are helping by changing info in Google to drive more business to them. But as a company, if actions like this are condoned, what other ethical gray areas does Hotels.com dabble in? Thing is, it’s not an isolated incident and the fact that it continues to happen points to some kind of larger issue. If you don’t have control of your employees, you’re condoning their actions.

I also wonder how the hotel brands themselves would feel to know that someone they pay commissions to and essentially partner with is ripping them off?…

As it stands, our only recourse is to continue to correct the issues created by Hotels.com as we find them and alert the brands to the fact that their partners are stealing their guests out from under them.

Oh, and launch a social media campaign with the sole purpose of utterly destroying their reputation. I’m thinking of a website like Hotels.com Changes Google Places Listings To Steal Guests dot Com… something along those lines.

It’s gonna be a busy year.

Who’s Hi-Jacking my Google Places?…. again…

Ok, seriously

I know I’m a little behind on ranting on this, but we finally ran into an issue with Google’s “feature” launched back in October:

http://googlesmb.blogspot.com/2011/10/faster-updates-to-local-business.html

The Google Places listing has become a pretty significant listing on the internet for like (and I’m just spit-balling here) 99.9999% of businesses out there. Given that this listing shows up at the top of just about any search for the name of a business, I can understand why Google would want the best info in them. But why does Google get to decide what “the best” is. If the business owner has VERIFIED the account, why can’t they control what info is on the page?

Managing the online reputation for over 200 hotels is difficult enough with all the lousy spam sites out there trying to syphon off bookings (and jack up the rates on guests)… but having to fight Google at the same time is just too much to deal with.

Recently we had a hotel contact us about their phone number being incorrect. Apparently, a guest called the number on the Google Places listing and thought they were speaking with a brand representative – turns out it was some random 3rd party. So the guest overpaid and didn’t get any of the points they were expecting through their brand loyalty program. We followed Google’s convoluted process to have the information fixed. A postcard was sent to the hotel weeks later (a business with a hundred different employees who could have easily misplaced or tossed out the card) and the GM eventually called us with the magic code so we could correct the info.

My first thought was how could the 3rd party change this info, if the listing had been verified and we had to get a postcard mailed to the property to correct it? But less than two months after RE-verifying the listing, the number has been changed again. Not only was the account verified, but we JUST CHANGED THE NUMBER BACK!!!

The change log in the Places listing shows the edits and “who” (magical Google robot-man, with no real profile) made the change, but not who requested the change, or why the particular items were edited. We also received no alert in our “owner-verified” email about the change.

Initially, I lashed out at the 3rd party site, assuming they had somehow made the change, and while they may have benefited from the change, they may or may not have initiated it. Basically Google’s Bots decided they had better info than what was listed.

Given the enormity of the web itself and specifically the directories out there, incorrect info is rampant. Trying to find every listing for a business and ensure that all citations include the same info is a tough task. But the bigger issue here is why would Google decide that some piece of misinformation listed on crappylocaldirectory.net is better than the info already entered in the listing? The URL on the Places page had directed people to the brand website. If you are going to pull info, wouldn’t you look here first?

If you want to know about Ford’s newest car, is Ford.com a better bet for valid info than mywebsiteaboutcarsthatimadeupthismorning.co.hk?

If the info wasn’t scraped from some 3rd-world, half-baked directory site, then it was taken from a “Report a problem” submission by the soon-to-be-served-papers-by-my-lawyer 3rd Party site. So anyone can make a comment and Google says “yup, we believe you over the owner”… makes complete sense to me. Ugh

Not sure that I have much of a specific purpose here, other than to vent about the issue. I just don’t see how to stay ahead of things like this, when the info that’s being used is being taken from any random site on the web or the word of a 3rd party out to steal from you. It’s Google’s page, I get that. But why have “verified listings” if you override what the owner says?

As I see it, a Google Bot that decides it knows better than the owner is the first step towards Skynet’s awakening. And I really don’t have time to deal with that particular apocalypse right now…

PS. If I find out for sure that the 3rd party was involved in changing the info and that it wasn’t a random update by a Google Bot, I will make it my life’s work to punish them… but this still doesn’t release Google as a guilty party. I can’t say it enough… THE LISTING WAS VERIFIED BY THE OWNER – no one gets to make a change without an OK from THAT party. At least that’s how it should be.