Home / TripAdvisor’s Fake Reviews Sickness Goes Critical

TripAdvisor’s Fake Reviews Sickness Goes Critical

TripAdvisor JokerTripAdvisor, the leading online travel reviews site in the world, is now under investigation by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over concerns reviews from travelers may be illegitimate. A formal investigation has reportedly been launched on the heels of complaints TripAdvisor’s reviews problems have reached monumental levels.

Some 45 million visitors rely on TripAdvisor each month for travel information, reliable reviews of venues for travelers, not to mention those businesses that rely upon TripAdvisor for what can be a veritable gold mine of bookings. For some time the website has been questioned as to the validity and origins of many of their 50 + million user reviews. Most agree there is too much room for tampering with the reviews by hotel and other business owners who might create false identities and pump up their own review stats. According to Kevin May over at Tnooz, this current investigation came about because of complaints by Kwikchex, a reputation management consultancy.

The allegations by many are that, hotels were paying “agents” to “boost” their reviews – and to make their competition look bad. The Christian Science Monitor goes so far as to say the “problem” with fake reviews and endorsements if even greater than TripAdvisor’s suggested 10 million fake endorsements, CSM says we are “awash in a sea” of fake reviews. The problem is not limited to hotel beds, and flies in the restaurant soup they say.

Any Place Reviews Are?

Books on Amazon, to the new Sony technologies, anything online that can be “raved” about, can effectively be “bought” – at least the reviews and “thumbs up” on anything can. We know from our marketing and PR business, people have asked us many times to “buy” this, or “adjust” that. Product reviews on blogs, Tweets, votes on 100 social media sites, anything that requires an email signup can be “weighted” just about any way anyone wants it weighted. This is the reality of most reviews one sees.

This is not to say there are not credible reviews out there. The “source’s” credibility being key. Like word of mouth gone viral, there are trusted sources, and less than trusted ones. New York Times writer David Streitfeld elaborates:

“In tens of millions of reviews on Web sites like Amazon.com, Citysearch, TripAdvisor and Yelp, new books are better than Tolstoy, restaurants are undiscovered gems and hotels surpass the Ritz…. an industry of fibbers and promoters has sprung up to buy and sell raves for a pittance.”

What these discoveries mean, what the allegations and the investigations are leading to, is that reviews on sites like ‘TripAdvisor, without some kind of viable safeguards - well, such reviews are worthless. In the case of TripAdvisor in particular, no reviews means no TripAdvisor. If the ASA finds against TripAdvisor – the “spun off” Expedia ad monster may be doomed. Detractors will say, Expedia and TripAdvisor had time to fix this.

News from the Wall Street Journal may suggest Expedia already started distancing themselves from TripAdvisor and the potential negative backlash. CFO Michael Adler will be leaving Expedia once the TripAdvisor “‘spin-off” is completed. For the reader who is behind the curve on fake reviews and the online credibility issue, concern has been ongoing since the FTC began looking into sponsored reviews of products. “Reviews you can trust” may have just set online travel back a few years. But, there’s a bigger problem.

Get Your Red Hot Fake Reviews!

It took me exactly 30 seconds on a site called Digital Point (Craigslist like forum) to find an offer to “bump up” even the latest and most cutting edge “ranking” entity G +. The “offer” below is for clicking on a site’s Google Plus aspect, thereby “supposedly” increasing said website’s SERP’s – “Increase your Google +1 votes now & improve Your SERP for cheep.”

“These votes are from unique IP address and are real human profiles. So your +1 will last forever. NO BOTS USED. It’s safe and permanent for your website. More Visitors will find your site easier and SERP will improvement on Google search. Google has lead us to believe that +1 votes will start AFFECTING Click through Rates (CTR) On Search Engines! Think about it…Which would you click? A site with 0 +1′s OR a site with 200 people that clicked the +1 button!”

This user goes on to suggest “order payment” requirements, procedures, payment in advance, and so on. So, as you can see, the implications are rather dire where trust on the web is concerned, even for the latest technologies. Interestingly, Google and Google + may well come out smelling like a rose on this. Cracking down on G + identities, Google profiles, would greatly enhance Google’s “share” on the review and credibility side of things. Based on our own information, G + and Google would seem to be on top of this already.

On the down and discouraging side of things, this Digital Point ad even offers “packages” of G + votes. Package A, for $12, is 100 G+’s – Package B, for $24, is 200 G +’s – and Package C, for $36, is for 300 “genuine” G +’s (why the seller could not just say 12 cents a piece?). Sadly, this is no new thing. Social media and online traffic has been a cheater’s game since the beginning. Anyone who is involved knows the depth of the problem.

Another ad on just this one forum lists link building and other “gray hat” SEO tactics like a cafe menu. Another guarantees 75,000 REAL visitors for as low as $225 dollars – and this is what I found in 2 minutes. An in depth study would no doubt produce an Alice in Wonderland of fake or manipulative business dealings. It goes on, and on, and on – 10,000 REAL human visitors to your site for $7 (two days ago). The point is, even the New York Times, or the Today Show (video below) have not a real clue as to how far the “rabbit hole” of manipulation goes online.

We will continue with more once our authors and researchers have had time to gather more, but for now, watch the Today Show coverage below.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Comments

  1. says

    Like white-hat Search Engine Optimization, there is now Online Reputation Management as a discipline to attain higher rankings through the application of best practices.

    In both areas, there are also gray-hat techniques that may be somewhat questionable ethically, but applied at the discretion of the merchant or the agency enlisted to work on their behalf.

    Unfortunately, the new black-hat discipline of manipulating user generated reviews is most aptly titled FRO – Fake Review Optimization works covertly and in most cases is either contrary to website policies, or commerce related laws.

    Google’s approach to combating this issue is the somewhat controversial requirement for Google Plus users to use their own identities. This will help eliminate the ability to create an unlimited number of fictional profiles, but still may not curtail under-the-table compensation for individuals to post positive or negative reviews.

    Of course, the risk of discovery increases substantially the more people are involved in the covert activities, which may also hinder the spread of the problem.

    TripAdvisor now may be faced with the challenge of getting much more personal with its users – a tricky proposition as many legitimate reviewers may not desire to have their reviews formally associated with their true identity.

    Reviews on websites that handle bookings should produce more accurate reviews, but unfortunately, none has the breadth or depth of reviews offered by TripAdvisor (even if 100% of the bogus reviews were somehow eradicated.)

    Of course the one aspect that is being overlooked is that TripAdvisor is a very valuable site that assists a huge number of travelers discover great hotels and activities when they travel. It’s by no means perfect, but realistically, it’s arguably the best resource currently available to peruse traveler reviews.

    With the stakes raised due to user reviews impacting search engine results, the burning question is will the good guys be able to keep pace with the bad guys as business models change?

  2. says

    This is the best news for the supply side of the industry in years. Do you know that one hotel client of mine has had 157 invitations to part with money for a business listing, which is an absolute con, and despite TA being told to give it up, they insist on repeated requests, says a lot for their systems.

    It is high time the supply side had some consideration in this whole matter. No one who has not stayed at the property should ever be able to post a review and the TA model is seriously flawed here- that would have stopped a lot of the current criticism. Surely they have the resources to earn the trust of the supply side here, if Booking.com and LateRooms can do it then i’m sorry but the challenge is for TA to match this level of service.

    Even that doesn’t eliminate abuse by someone who has actually stayed and usually has a serous axe to grind, sometimes more out of bloodymindedness than anything else. Sorry but the customer is not always right.

    I am a huge advocate of reputation management, but I believe the hotel guest survey has a much bigger part to play here, at least the hotel has some control over the information it can receive that is of value to the operation, rather than what potentially can be a review from a customer who demographically is not even a target customer, a good example being a Groupon one, often, frankly, a cheapskate

    Get the truth, then go – - – - – you could have fooled me

  3. Nelson Malcolm says

    One interesting aspect of the “Help Center” for hotels is that anyone can sign up for any hotel as an “owner”, no questions asked. I signed up for hhotels in my comp set under different names tied to Yahoo / Gmail email accounts I had created. This enabled me to register as an “Owner” for all those hotels.

    I assume behind the questistion of “fake reviews” there is also the issue of fake “management responses” that one can leave?

  4. Nelson Malcolm says

    “Of course the one aspect that is being overlooked is that TripAdvisor is a very valuable site that assists a huge number of travelers discover great hotels and activities when they travel. It’s by no means perfect, but realistically, it’s arguably the best resource currently available to peruse traveler reviews.”

    How is it the “best resource” relative to reviews on OTA sites? I have read reviews on Travelocity and Expedia that are as comprehensive, and have been written by bookers. What is thye marginal utility of 500 reviews as opposed to 50 for a given hotel?

    • Phil Butler says

      @Nelson, exactly. We have to get to “know” the reviewer – stranger reviews are useless in my view. I would sooner trust a commercial.

      Always,
      Phil

  5. Tim H says

    I stay in 4 to 5 hotels a month. Most of the reviews on Tripadvisor match my experience. For every fake review, good or bad, there is a real customer that had that experience. After hundreds of reviews the general rating comes through, which is why TA is trusted. No mater how many people you pay to write fake reviews, TA has the review volume to push the true rating of the hotel to the surface.

  6. says

    Finally TripAdvisor is under some heat. TripAdvisor for some time now has lead the world to believe that no review means no bookings. I am sure the initial intention was for real reviews from trusted source, but the core concept of this firm has drifted. When a review site has become more social media related than Facebook itself, the outcome is detrimental. And to say that the vetting procedure of posting these reviews are of a high standard is a far cry from what TripAdvisor has lead us to believe. When a guest never stayed at a hotel and posts a bad review of that hotel, the accommodation industry is simply doomed, especially with the weight TripAdvisor carries in this industry. How do you know the bad review is a fake! Only the hotel can prove this. And we all know that requesting a fake review to be removed from your listing by TripAdvisor is like striking a rock with some magical wand, in hope for retrieving water!

    Unless TripAdvisor can develop a system to monitor the quality of review, a restaurant will face backlash from its competitors, saying that a 14 year old restaurant has only been opened for three months. To think the number of business who have suffered revenue under the TripAdvisor Syndrome is frightening.

    With Google plus one, we see a trend here also. But something tells me this firm is more about integrity than fame.

Trackbacks