In response to widespread criticism for removing claims of sexual assault from its forums to keep them "family friendly," TripAdvisor has started placing warning symbols - or "badges" - on the review pages of hotels and businesses where rape and other safety incidents have been reported.
The travel and restaurant review website has so far placed warnings on the pages of three popular resorts in the coastal town of Playa del Carmen in Mexico: the Iberostar Paraiso Maya, the Iberostar Paraiso Lindo and the Grand Velas Riviera Maya.
A red banner box now appears at the top of those pages with a warning that reads: "TripAdvisor has been made aware of recent media reports or events concerning this property which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing. Accordingly, you may wish to perform additional research for information about this property when making your travel plans."
While the warnings do not cite specific reported incidents, they are meant to alert customers of possible health and safety issues including theft, sexual assault, rape and discrimination, company spokesman Brian Hoyt told The Washington Post.
The warnings are also meant to encourage customers to do more research before booking their stays, Hoyt said, including looking up additional information outside of TripAdvisor.
"Our vetting of news reports continues, and it is likely more businesses will receive this badge as more information is reviewed," Hoyt said.
TripAdvisor will flag businesses for a minimum of three months, he said, and the decision of whether to remove the badge after a three-month period will be made by a TripAdvisor committee.
The new feature comes after a lengthy investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel documented repeated instances where TripAdvisor removed posts warning of alleged rape, assault or other injuries at some Mexican resorts.
One traveler, Kristie Love, told the Journal Sentinel that a TripAdvisor moderator spotted her post in which she said that she had been raped at a resort and decided it went against the company's "family friendly" tenets.
TripAdvisor refused to show the Journal Sentinel which posts it had deleted, the newspaper said.
The Journal Sentinel spoke with more than a dozen travelers who said TripAdvisor blocked their warning messages after they had traveled to Mexico.
In July, the newspaper began investigating the death of a Wisconsin college student in Mexico. That reporting uncovered widespread safety issues, including those tied to tainted alcohol, at Mexican resorts.
In 2010, Love posted on the website about her experience at Iberostar Paraiso Maya. The title of her post included the name of the resort, the date of her stay - and the word "Rape."
Love, 35, wrote that after a night out with friends she went back to her hotel room to find that her electronic key card had been deactivated. On her way back to the lobby, Love stopped to ask a uniformed guard for directions.
That guard then raped her, she said. Later, she said, the hotel staff would not call the police.
Last week, TripAdvisor said it issued an apology to Love for deleting her post. But the apology first appeared to be a public one, in the form of a news release addressing the Journal Sentinel's article. On November 3, TripAdvisor chief executive Steve Kaufer posted a statement on his LinkedIn page saying the company had "apologised to the victim for her experience."
But Love soon commented on Kaufer's post that no one from the company had actually contacted her. "WHAT APOLOGY?" she wrote. "I've yet to hear a word from TripAdvisor, and certainly not an apology!"
Kaufer did eventually call Love, according to the Journal Sentinel.
Love's Iberostar Paraiso Maya warning went back online in October - seven years after it was originally submitted. But the post was republished chronologically alongside other posts from December 2010 - at one point is was listed on the forum's 2,608th page.
Despite the warning at the top of its TripAdvisor page, the Iberostar Paraiso Maya resort is rated 4.5 out of 5 by reviewers, who rank it the fourth-best hotel in the area. A search engine is available on TripAdvisor for customers to search a page's reviews, but keywords such as "rape" and "sexual assault" yield no results. Love's review was posted in a separate Playa del Carmen forum on the site.
The company said that when Love's post was removed seven years ago "all language needed to be G-rated," but that the policy has since been changed "to allow more descriptive reviews on the site about firsthand accounts of serious incidents like rape or assault."
"We will continue to work to improve and evolve our moderation and publishing guidelines as we work to provide the most accurate information in the travel industry available online," the statement read.
In addition to the warnings, Hoyt said Thursday, TripAdvisor will begin to explain to users why it chooses to reject some reviews and forum posts.
Reviews in the past have been rejected on grounds of hearsay, as they would sometimes cite the opinion of someone else or include a medical diagnosis.
The policy has caused some confusion, as not all users are aware that their reviews are supposed to be firsthand accounts of their experience.
Now, TripAdvisor will clearly explain to users the phrasing or sentences in a review that violate the website's guidelines, Hoyt said, and invite users to edit and resubmit their reviews.
"In some cases, like with some of the people reported on in recent weeks, a small sentence edit can be made and the review resubmitted to be a valid firsthand experience," Hoyt said.