A BBC story the other day has cast a bigger shadow on the world’s most trusted travel review entity, TripAdvisor. The lead in to BBC’s coverage begins with “TripAdvisor has hit back at allegations that it is failing to stop a flood of fake reviews that artificially boost hotel ratings.” Here’s a dissenting view the report based on information from consumer group Which?
Journalistically, especially in the online sphere, the BBC story beginning this way is about as damning an opening as you’ll see. Mobile and desktop readers just don’t dig down deeper. So, the BBC just condemned TripAdvisor without telling the story that should be told. And it needs to be told by me, an analyst who spoke out against fake reviews on TripAdvisor many times. Back in 2011, when the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was investigating the review site for fake reviews, I told readers “any system can be gamed or bought.” Pushing the limit is always going to be a strategy, it’s the nature of this digital beast.
Let me be brutally honest. If I wanted to, I could game TripAdvisor without anyone so much as having a clue. I’ll not spill the beans on how anyone could do this, for obvious reasons. But, for those who might ask, “Why don’t you?” First of all, it’s illegal in the EU. Secondly, it’s been my job over the last 25 years to help companies and individuals to get legitimate publicity and reviews doing business the right way.
I was against review sites like TripAdvisor because I knew such systems could be gamed and manipulated. But I was wrong about TripAdvisor with regard to the review Titan going the distance trying to prevent uncredible reviews. Over the years they did, in fact, do their due diligence. Who knows, maybe it was something I said? Whatever, the case, smart hoteliers are scared to try to rig the game. And this is what we advise against. I have emails to prove this.
You would not believe how many times over the last couple of years I’ve had to deal with the subject of fake TripAdvisor reviews. Yes, businesses do try to boost their popularity on these review sites. Yes, there are still shady businesses out there that sell fake reviews on everything from hotel rooms to toaster ovens. Reviews, you see, they actually have a monetary value. A very big value at the middle of the marketing funnel. I won’t get into that now. The problem with this BBC report, and Which?, the company tooting a horn over TripAdvisor, is that they only tell one side of the story.
Which? is a paid service that is a direct competitor of TripAdvisor in the UK hotels area and other segments both review companies cover. Even if Which? is supposed to be a non-profit, this still sets off gigantic red flashing warning buzzers in my head. The fact that Which? is whistleblowing the plainly obvious makes the buzzer even louder. There are fake or misleading reviews on every system – no exceptions. For one thing, opinions are just that, subjective bits of information.
I have not dug into Which? methodology, but I will be reviewing the reviewer soon. My point against BBC is their “opinion” being expressed via mainstream media by giving Which? the veritable “thumbs up” over TripAdvisor. Yes, a BBC mention making you an authority does have a huge public relations value – I know, it was my business to get such mentions for businesses like these.
So much for Which? and their opinions. What I can tell you about TripAdvisor’s efforts on fake reviews is, they do their job very well. Hotels and other hospitality businesses have come to us many times asking about “seeding reviews” and so forth. People know these systems can be manipulated, but they do not know about the repercussions if they are caught. To be frank here, the only reason TripAdvisor managed to catch the hotels Which? used in their report is because the marketing teams at those hotels were idiots. Watch the Which? video later on and reverse engineer what their research guru says about dodgy reviews.
TripAdvisor makes these repercussions abundantly clear, and the reputable PR or marketing firms out there advise their clients to leave fake reviews alone. That is unless a competitor has sent paid reviewers to damage a hotel’s reputation. Yes, this happens a lot. And TripAdvisor is on top of it. Reporting suspect reviews is something these guys take very seriously. It’s what we recommended TripAdvisor had to do, back when a lot of us technology analysts criticized these systems. Here is what TripAdvisor had to say to the Which? experts:
“The analysis presented by Which? is based on a flawed understanding of fake review patterns and is reliant on too many assumptions, and too little data…We have an industry-leading team of fraud investigators who work tirelessly to protect the site from fake reviews. We are confident our approach works, and is one of the reasons we continue to retain the trust of many millions of consumers worldwide.”
It’s too bad I’ll have to pay £9.75 per month to test Which? But it has to be done. 128,587 people follow Which? on Facebook. 62,300 people follow Which? on Twitter. And they’re proud of their recent bashing of TripAdvisor.
Is @TripAdvisoruk doing enough to prevent fake hotel reviews?— Which? (@WhichUK) September 17, 2019
We found that many hotels, including the top-rated hotel in Cairo and a London @Travelodge hotel, clearly had fake reviews on TripAdvisor.
Read our full investigation ➡️ https://t.co/NQgNKLB59a pic.twitter.com/0lvpeZXbc7
Which? is recommending companies left and right via their blog, but the deeper information is behind the paywall. What the BBC report fails to show, is how TripAdvisor admitted to Which? they’d caught hotels cheating. BBC reported that Which? “reported” fake reviews to TripAdvisor, but whoever wrote the report failed to mention TripAdvisor admitting to Whích? that the hotels in question had been caught already. Which? mentions this in their posting of the report, but no one makes a big deal out of it anywhere else. The point being, it is a big deal since it goes to the heart of the matter.
Which? even created a video explaining how they “caught” TripAdvisor being negligent in detecting fake reviews. In the video, a Which? spokesperson says her company has “hundreds” of “specialists” working around the clock to ferret out “dodgy listings” that only Which? seems capable of mitigating…
Okay, please excuse the sarcasm, I cannot help noticing the PR feel of all this. Hundreds, I cannot get past the vision of hundreds of internet geniuses scouring the web for fake reviews. Maybe they’re Chinese specialists working from the rice paddies in specialists lairs? The Which? talking head even admits TripAdvisor is taking action against cheating hotels but suggests Which? or someone would do more to punish hotels. I guess Which? would fine or even burn down convicted hotel review cheaters? Again, so sorry, but when I see Which? spraying their report all over social media, I’m reminded of PR campaigns I once set in motion.
What’s interesting about Which? methodology is the “expert” the company uses in the video. His opinions on “suspicious” activity are valid. Suspicious reviews do follow certain patterns. This is true because most who try to game such systems are lazy, they don’t get paid much, or they are just dummies that work for the businesses wanting the fake reviews. As far as I can tell, so far, Which? does not seem to have any verifiable proof of fake reviews on TripAdvisor. That is, other than the “suspicions” of their hundreds of specialists, and the admission by TripAdvisor that some hotels do cheat.
If it turns out that Which? Put this lone expert on the case of TripAdvisor, which is about a 50/50 proposition if I know anything about internet research, the whole case should go up in smoke. I’ll approach them for comment on this and to interview their “specialists.” As for Which? it will be interesting to investigate how this organization is making use of data. Until then, I think the BBC should insert TripAdvisor’s transparency with Which? into their report.
What do you think?