Tripadvisor accused of “subterfuge” over T&Cs update

UK: Online travel company Tripadvisor has denied adopting “one-way terms”, “double standards” and “subterfuge” on content use on its site, following accusations made by a number of accommodation owners and hosts.

The firm is reported to have requested unlimited access to all website content by accommodation owners and hosts – access which some owners and hosts have described as “perpetual, irrevocable, entirely transferable, and royalty-free”. They also allege that it is sub-licensable, meaning that Tripadvisor would potentially be able to make money from it without being liable for payment.

In response, Tripadvisor said the update related to terms and conditions for hotel property owners, not holiday rental properties which are listed separately to hotels on its site. It added that those terms and conditions were “purely optional for owners and not required”, and that it had listened to feedback from hoteliers on the way it had been presented.

The travel review and booking platform recently updated its terms and conditions with an email and pop-up notice within the hotel property management centre.

Mark Simpson, founder of Boostly, and owner of hospitality training group, Boostly Academy, commented on the recent update: “To me, it sounds bananas as to why anyone would have a Tripadvisor listing now. If they can steal your words, your pictures, your reviews, your everything – then it’s going to massively harm how Google looks at you, because it’s duplicating content.

“Ultimately, Tripadvisor is putting a nail in their own coffin, as they will have accommodation hosts and owners close their accounts down and go to Google My Business, or elsewhere,” he added.

Small, independent, short stay accommodation owners and hosts in Boostly’s Hospitality Community made their feelings heard on the update:

  • Anthony Duffey of Sunnyside Bed and Breakfasts in Southport said: “It’s not good. There needs to be a viable alternative so we can ask guests to leave reviews on an alternative platform.”

  • Belinda Walker of Gallery Cottages in North Devon said: “Way to drive away accommodation business owners.”

  • David and Paul Penny of Low Moor Cottages in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, said: “Appalling. We are shocked at how easily we could agree to this with a quick click. I’m hoping that I can press that ‘X’ and it goes away.”

  • Margaret Hutcheson, Daviot Lodge in Inverness, said: “I’ve had the notice and I don’t subscribe. We have been strongly warned against it. They say if you do press the button [to accept the terms and conditions] you can never get out of it.”

Alison Carsley-Lebatard of Haus Schneeberg holiday apartments in Salzburg, Austria, said she asked Tripadvisor to remove their listing if agreement to the new terms and conditions was compulsory.

In response, Tripadvisor is believed to have written back that the addition to a hotel property owner’s terms and conditions was simply optional for owners. Owners were also advised to click the ‘X’ in the top right corner of the pop-up message.

However, it appeared that there was no option to refuse the terms, so when a user clicks on the ‘X’, the pop-up message keeps returning until the user agrees. In addition, hosts said they had felt forced to give up website content rights and agree to “unreasonable” terms to remove the pop-up for good.

Free To Book published a blog on the “content grab” on 3 March: “This is just about the worst possible outcome you could ever agree to, it is completely and utterly in the favour of Tripadvisor. I don’t think it’s possible for there to be a worse agreement for independent accommodation owners.

“I cannot imagine what has possessed Tripadvisor to think they can grab it so blatantly from your website and take it forever to do with as they please, with just one click.

“Why would an independent property give over its unique content [under extremely bad terms] in order to increase the profit of Tripadvisor? The net result of which is fewer direct bookings and again, yet more commission.

“It is extremely sad and disappointing that Tripadvisor have such low ethical values in this action. This is no relationship of mutual benefit, they take everything and you get nothing. Surely this has to be totally withdrawn by Tripadvisor with a big apology.

“The damage has been done, we have now seen the disregard they have for accommodation businesses and sadly trust lies shattered,” it added.

Craig Webb, hospitality marketing coach at Webb Marketing, and manager of Cotswold House Hotel & Spa, said the change was “shocking” and warned accommodation owners to refuse the new terms.

Webb said users would get an email from TripAdvisor asking them to agree to new terms to be listed with them:

  • “These terms give them perpetual rights to all of your website content, including text, logos and images.”
  • “When you log in to Tripadvisor they make it very difficult to do so without clicking on the ‘Agree’ button. Please find the small x to close the window.”
  • “This is “subterfuge at its worst” and is designed to make you inadvertently allow them access to all of your intellectual website property forever.”

Holiday rental advisory consultant and Rentivo director, Richard Vaughton, said: “I don’t think this should surprise us, coming from this company. Whether or not it’s enforceable is another matter. Google – if you’re listening, then consider whether this is moral and fair and in your best interests.

“Perhaps SEO ranking should now be weighted according to a moral civil spectrum,” he added.

Alexandra Gori of Valletta Property Rentals said: “Is this worthwhile if they’re going to use your materials to do marketing for you, or for them but with you featured? And what about if you have acknowledged that photos are of someone else to be able to use them on your website, would they take ownership of that too? Isn’t that illegal across the world due to copyright?”

Tripadvisor owns and operates a portfolio of websites and businesses, including the following travel media brands, across which website content can be duplicated:

According to SEO software and community Moz, the unique brand, name and content on a website is “the most valuable asset for a small, independent business”, and giving unlimited access to use the content could “harm the search engine ranking of the original website and boost the ranking of Tripadvisor”.

It added that when duplicate content is present, site owners can “suffer rankings and traffic losses”.

Moz said these losses often stem from two main problems:

  • “To provide the best search experience, search engines will rarely show multiple versions of the same content, and thus are forced to choose which version is most likely to be the best result. This dilutes the visibility of each of the duplicates.”
  • “Link equity can be further diluted because other sites have to choose between the duplicates as well. Instead of all inbound links pointing to one piece of content, they link to multiple pieces, spreading the link equity among the duplicates. Due to the fact that inbound links are a ranking factor, this can then impact the search visibility of a piece of content.”

The content includes not only blog posts or editorial content, but also product information pages.

Scrapers republishing blog content on their own sites may be a more familiar source of duplicate content, but there is a common problem for e-commerce sites as well: product information. If many different websites sell the same items, and they all use the manufacturer’s descriptions of those items, identical content winds up in multiple locations across the web.

When approached for comment by ShortTermRentalz, a spokesperson for Tripadvisor provided the following statement: “First, it is important to note that the concerns in question relate to an addition to our hotel property owner’s terms and conditions – these terms and conditions do not apply to holiday rental properties that are listed separate to hotels on our site.

“Second, this particular addition to a hotel property owner’s terms and conditions is purely optional for owners and not required. We have listened to feedback from hoteliers on the way the addition was presented in our Management Centre and made changes to the design as a result – you can see the current design attached.

“Third, this addition to our terms and conditions is aimed at helping our hotel partners secure more room bookings. We know that accurate property information, such as high quality room information and photos, dramatically increases a guest’s likelihood of booking an accommodation. The updated terms ensure we can access such content in order to best feature and promote individual properties to consumers. If we don’t have access to the content on a property’s website and applications, we may have to rely instead on lower quality content gathered from other sources, and ultimately that could mean fewer bookings for that property.

“Fourth, it is important to understand the wider context behind why we made this addition to our terms and conditions. It relates to Tripadvisor Plus, a new membership program for savvy travellers, which hoteliers can now participate in directly for the first time.

“Tripadvisor Plus is significant for hotels because it represents an innovative alternative to traditional channels of distribution [such as online travel agents] by reducing a hotel’s third party commission costs [Tripadvisor charges zero commission on bookings generated through Tripadvisor Plus], enhancing their visibility on Tripadvisor, and improving their relationship with their guests.

“We believe that Tripadvisor Plus is a fantastic new way for hotels to generate bookings, and since launch the model has already won praise from prominent industry experts. On 8 March, we announced that hotels can now participate directly in Tripadvisor Plus for the first time.

“This is important context because the higher the quality of photos and room descriptions we are able to display for a Tripadvisor Plus property, the more bookings that property is likely to receive. That was the motivation behind the addition to our terms and conditions.

“Finally, on the question about the frequency with which the message is displayed in our Management Centre, to be clear on that, a hotel owner has two options available when they see the lightbox detailing the terms and conditions. They can either click ‘Accept terms and conditions’ or ‘I do not accept terms and conditions’. If they choose either option, the lightbox will not appear again. For owners that have yet to select one of the two options, we have adjusted the frequency with which the lightbox is displayed, so that it only appears once every 30 days, or until one of the two options has been selected,” they added.