UK travel agents have been hit by the sudden appearance of old negative TripAdvisor forum posts on the first page of Google search results.
Agents say the posts, some up to eight years old, appear to have been given a recent rankings boost and are now appearing in prominent positions below their paid adverts.
The posts, which typically warn people off booking with their brands, are undermining the effectiveness of Google advertising and have prompted complaints to the search giant.
After “a lot of haranguing”, Holiday Discount Centre persuaded TripAdvisor to take down one such negative review from 2013.
However, negative posts were continuing to appear on the first page of brand searches for Holiday Gems, Travel Republic, Icelolly and Love Holidays.
One leading OTA declined to comment “due to the sensitivities” of the issue but confirmed the issue was a “challenge for a number of travel retailers at present”.
Google, which is famously secretive about how it ranks results, insisted its systems were working as intended and “there’s no evidence of manipulation”.
Steve Campion, managing director of Holiday Discount Centre, said the issue was a “systemic problem” for major Google spenders.
“It makes you wonder why we are paying to show in these positions on Google,” he said.
“It is certainly something you have to consider when allocating marketing spend.”
The online travel agent was alerted to the problem by analytics showing a decline in return on its Google spend this year.
Campion said the impact was difficult to quantify but a “reasonable” amount of traffic would be expected from brand searches.
TripAdvisor said its forums are “a place where the community can share their opinions about all things travel” and a moderation team investigates reports of inappropriate posts.
A spokeswoman added: “In terms of how our pages are displayed in Google’s organic search results, we have no influence over this.”