Travel review sites need a kick up the bum!

I’ve resisted writing about this for some time but don’t feel I can any longer. It’s not an issue that specific to the luxury travel sector but it’s certainly one that can be important to it. I really believe it’s high time that travel review sites took their responsibilities a little more seriously.  A  savvy internet user will often readily identify reviews that are fake – they might be overly-positive or – if operating under a different agenda – overly negative. But spoof reviewers are getting cleverer, writing reviews that look plausible, hiding under a thin veil that might appear to show some degree of balance. Identifying these people is a more arduous task, but there are still a variety of ways in which it can be done.  Even without being privvy to such information as IP addresses, there can be some tell-tale signs. If you see a batch of reviews where all the reviewers have similar style usernames, where the style of grammar is similar, or where there is a sudden flurry of activity in a short period of time, could all be possible indicators. I’m looking at one particular hotel on Tripadvisor at the moment – a hotel which I know quite well – and the reviews are surprisingly favourable. Management is also responding to many of the reviews saying things like “We’re glad you enjoyed your stay” so it’s evident that they’re very active on the site.  “So what?” you might ask… they’re just being diligent.  Think again.  I’ve noticed that virtually all the reviewers have only ever reviewed this hotel and nowhere else. If you look through some ‘real reviews’ you’ll find it’s more common for reviewers to have been to a varying number – some might have only reviewed one place, but others would have reviewed multiple places, so it’s unusual to find that ALL these reviewers are one-time reviewers.  Actually, I say ‘all’ but that isn’t quite true.  A couple of the reviewers had reviewed another hotel just up the road from this one… and guess what? That hotel is owned by the same people and is given similarly favourable reviews! Identifying unscrupulous activity shouldn’t be the task of the users of the site – it should be the responsibility of the site owners and you would think that it would be something that’s put high on their agenda.  Afterall, their users  are – quite simply – being misled.  This can be costly to those people and to the hotels that are shed in a less favourable light relative to the competition.  It can also be highly lucrative for those who are successful with their deception. So what needs to be done?  Well, for starters, you’d think review sites would act more quickly when concerns are flagged; see here for example where it took Tripadvisor two weeks to acknowledge a concern about violation of their TOS and, more than a month on from then, there appears to be no further update.  You’d also think they would be more adept at preventing false reviews from even being published in the first place. I know that on some sites where reviews can be placed, you are only invited to post a review if you book through that site.  This would strike me as a good first step in ensuring that you are dealing with people who have truly stayed at the hotel in question, but it does of course limit the review site in terms of the number of reviews it can collate.  Unfortunately, the review sites are competing for quantity, and not just quality. Please post a comment and tell us your thoughts on the matter.  What, if anything, do you think needs to be done?

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Telegraph.

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  1. Always have to take Tripadvisor reviews with a grain of salt. Use it to learn some basics about location, room pictures, etc.. but make sure you dont live by it.

  2. Hey…great article. I sent it to my contacts on Twitter. This is a huge problem in the industry. Fake reviews make it harder to find information on all hotels – especially the good ones!

    I work in the online travel industry, and we constantly battle with comments on our blog that are clearly from industry folks, either trying to boost their hotel’s popularity, or lower the popularity of the competition.

    Luckily, hotels don’t pay us to be included on our website (pretty rare these days to have a site that just focuses on quality), so I feel comfortable when I tell people that our reviews of hotels are just the facts – but it’s pretty hard to inspire trust online these days in this climate, that’s for sure.

  3. For travel agents, these fake reviews are great because they make the personal experience and recomendations of an agent more important to the client.

  4. Yeah, the professional (or semi-pro) pyjama men (undercover social media opinion shapers) are not easy to spot, but you’ve absolutely nailed some of the giveaway signs.

    I fear, as the Internet develops, the problem will get worse and consumers will just have to get more savvy.

  5. All the more reason to ignore UGC such as TripAdvisor. I never refer to it – it (and others like it) are totally unreliable. It’s like the cheapest kind of junk TV – just an endless series of random vox-pops in the street. You end up more confused, and less informed, than you were at the beginning!

  6. With an upcoming trip, I’ve spent considerable time of late researching various hotels and have noticed the same points you raise. Some of the feedback that is so negative is often followed by a stellar review about the same thing that was the point of complaint. As a result, I don’t believe in much of what is been said.

    I believe reviews should be regulated and moderated with a clear disclosure but frankly I can’t see it happening when money talks.

  7. I quite agree, but I never look for quantity. If the review exists solely because a client has had either a fantastic stay or a lousy one then it is of use. If there are no positive or negative reviews but lots of bookings it is reasonable to assume that the establishment delivers what was advertised, no more , no less. The fact that reviewers have actually stayed there also lends it some credibility. Until review sites have a foolproof way of proving that reviewers actually stayed at the establishments reviewed, I for one will not use them.

  8. Gee I think I’m a trusting schmuck! I have used TripAdvisor alot, usually love the reviews & have not come across or been aware of this problem you speak of, but then again I’m too trusting. It so disappoints me where value is lost through greed or belief in less than. Why can’t people wake up, & provide integrity & honesty in what they are selling! I like using reviews of hotels, places to visit & airlines and appreciate you dosing me with a little 5% or more of cynicism when it comes to TA, sadly!

  9. I work in the online travel industry and my personal opinion is that I think you have to take review sites with a pinch of salt.

    Everything has a place, and if you’re going to use them to research your holiday you should look at the reviews and take an overview of the general gist of what the reviewers are saying, but don’t base your holiday on solely that opinion. Search around and get the official description of the hotel, look at its star rating and how the tour operators rate it, even call a travel agent and ask them!

    The problem with review sites is that you have no idea who is really writing the review, so it could be a travel agent, a hotelier or quite simply – if it is genuine – a person who has absolutely nothing in common with you (and may not like the same type of holiday anyway!).

  10. I used trip advisor on a trip to Ireland a few years ago and most of the hotels with good reviews were horrible! I agree that it depends on what type of holiday you are looking for.. some people like cheap and others don’t. I for one believe that you shouldn’t stay in hotels that are not as nice as your home… or at least I won’t. So to be honest after using TA for that trip, I don’t ever both going to it now, I search online and look at each hotels website.

  11. i have to agree with Kendal i always am wary with tripadvisers reviews. some are either over negative or over positive so i end up balancing them out myself and then making a decision so fari’v always been pretty spot on – long may that continue!

  12. I also agree, when I first heard of trip advisor I thought it was a great idea and would go straight to it before booking. I would very rarely use it now – some excellent hotels I have stayed at have nothing but terrible reviews and vice versa. Also the range in reviews for one place can be quite confusing. The only feature I quite like is being able to see the holiday makers photos as apposed to the polished publicity shots. I am always suspicious that half of the comments aren’t genuine and the other issue is that people have different expectations and criteria for what makes a good holiday.

  13. In theory, there is nothing wrong with the concept for the traveler review sites. The weakness is that they need a large pool of visits over a long period of time to arrive at a consensus assessment. That may work for a 1,000 room hotel. When travelers start relying on reviews for much smaller hotels, the model needs to change as there is not the same large pool to help form a stable consensus. The result is that grading can easily be swayed one way or another by very few reviews.

    The whole incentive system is wrong. A big travel review site benefits from using the 1,000s of reviews to attract potential buyers who will produce advertising revenue or booking fees from related sites. The site pays nothing to generate reviews.

    Travel review sites have few employees in the field. They rely on volunteers to supply all the content. Too often, these “Destination Expert” volunteers have their own agendas or related businesses. Self-promotion is rampant.

    Anyone who relies exclusively on any single source for trip planning is just plain lazy. These are people who read reviews for the top positioned establishments and decide that is where they will stay. They have expectations that bear no relation to what the establishment offers and then disgruntled, write unwarranted negative reviews and get away with it.

    The most consistent set of reviews is from professional writers whose job it is to write guidebooks. For example, when LP describes a place as being “primitive,” you know exactly what to expect. Unfortunately, the publishers of the guidebooks have to front all the research and publication costs in the hope that they will recoup it through sales.

    With unfiltered, non-moderated commentary on the Internet, myths are perpetrated and hotels are threatened by unscrupulous guests, visitors, competitors and anyone else seeking to undermine an operation for their own benefit. Travel review sites are enablers for this and then lash out and threaten when someone points out that the emperor has no clothes or questions content integrity on the site.

    Hoteliers are caught between a rock and a hard place and are fed up. It is a tough enough business without the constant fear of the knife in the back every time you log onto the Internet.

  14. I wish you were able to disclose the particular hotel you are discussing– it would be interesting to know. I definitely think Tripadvisor is a double edged sword. I often refer to it for information or as a jumping off point, but ultimately take any advice I receive on there with a grain of salt.

    I have remarked that a hotel can get a bunch of favorable reviews, that really don’t appear to be phony, and one or two negative reviews (that are really negative), which can throw you off kilter and make what should be an easy travel decision in to a three hour affair.

    There are people that can always find something to complain about. I shake my head at some of the reviews of places I have been to, that are flawless-that someone can complain about something so minute, it seems they just can never be pleased. Plus, the rankings of the hotels are so off, when a Holiday Inn gets ranked higher than a four-five star hotel there is a problem.

    WIth that said, some of the Tripadvisor forums are quite helpful. Before I went to Bali last year, with the volcano that was erupting in Java, there was very limited information as to its effects on the surrounding areas in the US, and there were a lot of people on the forums in Indonesia that posted frequent updates.

    I too, like the real life photos on there too, some hotels really up their glossy photo factor for their websites.

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