Faith in Trustpilot’s review website is being undermined by firms using dubious tactics to boost their review scores, a Which? investigation has found.
The consumer champion found that Sykes Holiday Cottages, one of the UK’s largest holiday rental companies, racked up thousands of five-star ratings on the review site at a time when holidays were banned due to the coronavirus lockdown and it was being widely panned by its customers for withholding refunds after bookings were cancelled.
On further investigation, Which? uncovered evidence suggesting that the firm may not have been inviting all of its customers to leave a review in March or April, a time when many customers were struggling to get a refund from the firm. Some disgruntled customers told Which? at the end of May that they had still not been asked to leave a review.
Meanwhile, some companies also appear to be taking advantage of a system which allows them to challenge negative reviews to effectively censor criticism. Kiwi.com has managed to get 80 per cent of the negative reviews it has flagged over the last year removed from the site.
Questions about the integrity of reviews on Trustpilot come as the UK’s competition regulator investigates several major websites that display online reviews and are particularly concerning as ratings from the website also feed in to Google ‘seller review scores’, where they are relied on by millions of consumers around the world.
In the case of Sykes, Which? experts found evidence that the company appeared to be using Trustpilot’s invitation system to improve its chances of attracting positive scores, while avoiding the likelihood of receiving negative feedback.
In March, April and the first half of May, when most people were locked down in their homes, Sykes somehow notched up more than 5,000 five-star ratings on Trustpilot – at a time when almost nobody stayed in a Sykes Cottage.
Sykes uses ‘manual invitations’ rather than automated ones – meaning it supplies Trustpilot with thousands of email addresses, which are then used to ask customers for reviews. According to Trustpilot’s rules, these manual invitations must be sent to all customers. Which? heard from a number of angry Sykes customers who were in dispute with the company over refunds for cancelled accommodation, who claimed in May that they had not yet been invited to leave feedback.
Of the 5,698 invitations Sykes sent out in April, 60 per cent resulted in five star reviews. In the same period, Sykes received 718 “organic” reviews – those posted spontaneously, without an invitation – but just three per cent (20) of these were five stars.
Sykes said that during the pandemic, manual invitations were being sent after a cancelled booking had been resolved with the customer.
Since Which?’s investigation was shared with Sykes and Trustpilot, disgruntled Sykes customers have reported that they have subsequently been asked for feedback via Trustpilot, contributing to a drop in Sykes’ score from 3.8 (great) to 3.3 (average).
Sykes was reported to the CMA by Which? and investigated for its refund policy, and as a result has reversed its policy on cancelled bookings and will now offer customers full refunds.
Which? also found evidence of travel firms aggressively challenging one-star reviews in an apparent effort to have them taken down permanently by Trustpilot. Online travel agent Kiwi.com, which has made it confusing and difficult for customers to claim refunds after coronavirus flight cancellations, flagged 685 negative reviews over a 12 month period – with Trustpilot removing over 550 of them. This approach has helped Kiwi.com maintain a “great” star rating.
Companies can dispute a review simply by claiming, without evidence, that it is ‘not based on a genuine experience’. In these cases a one-star reviewer can be asked to provide additional evidence to support their review – an effort many casual reviewers may not be prepared to make, especially if they left the review weeks or even months previously.
In June, Trustpilot announced a number of positive changes aimed at boosting the credibility of reviews on its site, saying that it ‘can and will do much more’. These include adding new information to help consumers see exactly how every company invites reviews and uses the platform, more transparency on company pages, keeping ‘flagged’ reviews online while it investigates so that consumers don’t feel ‘censored’ and not sharing reviews of companies that breach its guidelines with search engines. The company has also launched a global R&D Hub that aims to tackle the behaviour that threatens trust online.
With more people now relying on online reviews, Which? expects to see other platforms take similar steps to protect their users.
The CMA has also announced the second phase of its investigation into online reviews on major websites.
As well as looking at suspicious and incentivised reviews, Which? wants the regulator to investigate the robustness and transparency of sites’ T&Cs and how effectively these are enforced; and if how sites collect, display and moderate reviews risk misleading people.
If the CMA finds that sites are failing to take sufficient measures to protect consumers, Which? expects the regulator to take strong enforcement action.
Rory Boland, Which? Travel Editor, said:
“Easily exploited weaknesses in website rules can risk encouraging manipulation of reviews by businesses, which threatens to seriously undermine the credibility of Trustpilot – a website relied on by millions of people when buying goods and services.
“It’s right that the CMA’s ongoing investigation is now looking at major websites that display online reviews, and it must take the strongest possible action against sites that are failing to protect users on their platforms.”
Dawn Collins had booked, through Sykes, to stay at a holiday cottage in Wales for half term with her family, but the coronavirus outbreak left their plans in tatters. She has spent more than £400 in total and has only recently been offered a full refund by the company. She says the first time she was asked to leave a Trustpilot review of Sykes was in June. She told Which?:
“My experience of Sykes Cottages has been nothing but stressful, they lack compassion when it is needed most. I would have supported them if they had been fair, but they are only concerned with taking your money rather than providing a good customer experience.
“As for Trustpilot, knowing what I know now, I no longer trust them to provide unbiased or reliable reviews based on real experiences with any organisation.”
Notes to editor
- Video available on request
- Trustpilot blog: ‘Our trust promise’: https://www.trustpilot.com/blog/trends-in-trust/our-trust-promise
- ‘COVID-19: CMA secures refunds from second major holiday lets firm’: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/covid-19-cma-secures-refunds-from-second-major-holiday-lets-firm
- The CMA has estimated that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews.
Rights of reply
“Any suggestion that we allow businesses to influence and manipulate their reviews on Trustpilot whilst looking the other way is simply not true and goes against our core principles in operating a trusted reviews platform that’s transparent and open to all companies and consumers and independent of both. Reviews can be requested by any company, at any stage of their customer journey or can be left by a consumer at any point, without waiting for an invitation from a business. In this instance, the customer was contacted by Sykes Cottages to write about her experience and she promptly left a 1-star review which was published instantly on Trustpilot for all to read.”
Trustpilot told Which? it has investigated Sykes and is happy it’s ‘inviting in a fair, neutral and unbiased way’.
On Kiwi, it said: ‘If any firm were to misuse the flagging function they would be breaching our guidelines and we would take appropriate action.’
Trustpilot told Which? that although inviting customers to leave reviews is the biggest driver of a higher score, the process of inviting does not guarantee a higher score, nor do companies have to pay to invite customers. It said that ‘on every company profile page, we make it clear whether the company is actively inviting reviews or not – but the causation between paying and high scores does not exist’.
It also said that although all ‘invited’ reviews are sent to Google to form part of its Google ‘seller review scores’, it doesn’t know whether ‘manually invited reviews are included’.
Which? approached Google for a response but at the time of writing they haven’t replied.
Sykes Holiday Cottages
In response to Ms Collins:
A spokesperson for Sykes Holiday Cottages said: “Any suggestion that we can or do manipulate reviews is not true.
“We’re currently looking at Ms Collins’ case to try to resolve this for her.”
In response to Which? claims:
A Sykes Holiday Cottages spokesperson said: “Every Sykes customer is sent an invitation to review their experience and all reviews, good or bad, are published. We have no influence over what they write and all reviews are genuine.”
Sykes told Which?: ‘Every customer is sent an invitation to review their experience and all reviews, good or bad, are published.’ It also said that during the pandemic, manual invitations were sent after a cancelled booking had been resolved with the customer.
‘When a review is received for which the customer can’t be verified we flag it to Trustpilot.’ It said it expects its rating to drop once Trustpilot takes account of six months’ worth of data.