COMMENT

It may come as a shock to some travellers that price aggregator Trivago might not help you find the "best price" for a given hotel room. However, these travellers may well have been holidaying under the rock for the past decade if they've missed the signs that booking websites may not always offer all the answers.

There's a trust gap growing between real-world holidaymakers and virtual recommendations and it's only becoming apparent now that tech-savvy travellers have been taken for a ride.

In 2013 the Dussledorf-based site burst onto the travel web with the promise to help you "find the ideal hotel for the best price."

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Fronted by the would-I-lie-to-you good looks of Australian actress Gabrielle Miller, Trivago became a phenomenon. Bypassing the traditional domain of travel agents and hours of holiday research, it promised to save time and money for travellers. However it appears that the algorithm may not be as clear-cut as it first appeared.

The website has been found guilty of "misleading and deceptive conduct" by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. A report in The Australian revealed that instead of listing hotel rooms by best price for the consumer, they were being listed by best price in commissions to Trivago.

Australian Gabrielle Miller's 'Triavgo Girl' became the focus of an unlikely cult following. Photo / Suppied
Australian Gabrielle Miller's 'Triavgo Girl' became the focus of an unlikely cult following. Photo / Suppied

The Commerce Commission recently told the Herald that they have received eighteen complaints about the website's practices since 2015.

Misleading adverts claiming the website was listing hotel rooms by best price for the traveller is now at the centre of an ACCC case against Trivago.

Unwittingly Miller who launched a career – and something of an online cult following – as "The Trivago Girl" is now also the face of one of the most high profile breaches of Australian Consumer Law.

Anyone who has ever booked a budget room rental on Trivago might be shocked, but not surprised.

The warning signs that virtual reviews might not be what they seem are as old as the internet travel forum.

Anyone who has turned up to a rental BnB and been met with the sinking feeling of "this is nothing like the pictures" will know: the internet is a deceptive place.

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Last year it was revealed in a report by consumer advocate body Which.com that one in seven reviews left on the TripAdvisor comparison website were fake or paid-for reviews.

The website's logo of a wise-old owl which was once a ubiquitous sign of trust - from the top hotel chains to the lowliest BnB - began to lose its sheen.

The same study showed that half of the reviews left for the top listed hotels in Las Vegas were likely left by fictional accounts. High-end hotel chains were found to be inflating scores with paid-for reviews and gaming the system in any number of ways. So the news that Trivago has been misleading online customers should come as a shock to no one.

Perhaps websites like Trivago's encouraging of a pay-to-play model might explain some of the industry of fake review writers and fictional accounts.

Trivago is part owned by competitor website Expedia, and works with more of the largest travel comparison websites.

Booking websites have lost their sheen and consumer trust with travelplanners. Photo / Supplied
Booking websites have lost their sheen and consumer trust with travelplanners. Photo / Supplied

While no similar claims have been levelled at its partners, surely this is a recipe for disaster.

With so few players holding so much influence in the online booking market and so little transparency as to how search results are served up, travel booking is rife for exploitation.

Last year Booking.com was subject to a New Zealand Commerce Commission investigation for misleading "pressure tactics" and messaging. Telling users that "X number of rooms are left" or a room was "just sold" was found to create a scarcity mindset, forcing visitors to make impulse bookings.

When it was first launched seven years ago, one of Trivago's other claims was that it helped travellers find the best deals filter by "guest ratings". As with many other websites, this feature has lost its lustre with jaded travel bookers.

The power of early travel internet was being able to crowdsource the views and experiences of a vast range of travellers to help inform your holiday. Now most bookers approach each five-star review with a healthy dose of scepticism.

You might as well be better taking word-of-mouth travel advice from travellers IRL, rather than trawling the forums for potentially bogus visitor reviews.