Bogus reviews

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3 minutes

By Adam Raphael

A decade after former President Obama described the internet as the Wild West, it is wilder than ever. So how much trust can you place in an ‘independent’ recommendation of a hotel on the web? Many are written in return for money. This week, the Guide received a sales pitch from a so-called reputation manager.

‘Hello, hope you are doing great. Our team has significant experience to add 5-star reviews on Google, Facebook, and TripAdviser to enhance your online reputation with positive comments, reviews, and posts. Enhancing the impression created by your search results, will help you achieve a higher sales conversion. Please let us know if you are interested in online reputation management. We have 100 percent success rate and are ready to sign a non-disclosure agreement.’

I have written before about one of the principal platforms targeted by these shysters. TripAdvisor [TA] is looked at by millions of travellers; used with caution, it can be useful. But it is wide open to abuse. Its claim that its algorithms protect it against collusive, bogus and malicious reviews has been repeatedly shown to be false. TA allows its reviewers to post contributions without checking whether they are from real people and whether they have actually stayed at the hotel they are reviewing. That contrasts to businesses such as Amazon which require proof of purchase before publication.

Does it matter that travel review websites remain beyond the reach of the law and are a part of the internet’s ethical vacuum? It does to the millions of travellers looking to find reliable information. More than 90% of travellers make their decision on where to stay based on customer reviews. And it also matters to the many hospitality businesses which have suffered malicious reviews which TA often refuses to remove despite evidence that they are fraudulent.

What are the authorities doing about this? Not much it seems. Some years ago, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that TA could not claim simply that all the reviews on its website were from ‘honest, real or trusted’ reviewers. TA as a result dropped its slogan: ‘Reviews you can trust’ and replaced it with ‘Reviews from our community.’ The Italian Competition Authority also fined TA £428,000 for publishing bogus reviews. The Italian regulator said that TA should stop claiming that reviews on its website were ‘authentic and genuine’. Central to its ruling was the regulator’s decision that TA had failed to prevent false reviews appearing on its website and that it did not do enough to try to find out whether those who left negative reviews had even stayed at the hotels they were criticising. This decision was eventually over-ruled by an Italian court which said that ‘TripAdvisor never asserted that all the opinions on its website were real.’

To be fair to TA, managing a site which receives hundreds of thousands of reviews every day about a huge range of hospitality businesses is a difficult task. It is also labour intensive as the Guide knows to its cost. We are determined that everything we publish either in print or online is fair and accurate.

How do we do this? A reader writing to the Guide for the first time about a hotel or B&B is listed as N1 for new in our database. If he or she continues to write, and appears to be roughly on the Guide’s wavelength, they will be upgraded to an R for ‘regular’. Finally, a few are promoted to T for ‘trusted’ because their opinions have proved to be reliable. It is from the ranks of the trusted that we recruit the Guide’s inspectors whose overnight stays, always anonymous and paid for by the company, help to settle disagreements.

The reports of inspectors and readers are continually cross-checked. This process is expensive and time-consuming, but it is hard for anyone to manipulate. That is not to claim we always get it right. But when we do go wrong, our readers are quick to point this out. The Guide is tiny in power, influence and wealth compared to the giants of the internet, but we believe we have a role to play and our readers appear to agree as you will see if you Click here.