The fake review problem is getting worse

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MelissaK’s TripAdvisor reviews looked a little suspicious.

Maybe it was her location in Pakistan that made it hard to believe she was reviewing luxury hotels in Providenciales, a Caribbean island. Maybe it was the polished language she used, which seemed lifted straight from a promotional brochure. Or it could have been the reviews, all of which awarded the maximum five dots to the properties.

“I’ve always been a big believer in TripAdvisor,” says Bob Cowen, who owns an aerial photography company in Farmington Hills, Mich., and spotted MelissaK’s reviews on a recent afternoon. He reported her posts.

Cowen’s experience is more common than you’d think. No one knows the exact number of fake reviews online, but experts estimate that anywhere from one-third to one-half of the reviews you see are not real, according to Shannon Wilkinson, CEO of Reputation Communications, a New York-based online reputation management company.

“Few, if any, sites validate the legitimacy of their reviewers,” she says.

TripAdvisor didn’t respond to specific questions about MelissaK’s account, but several days after Cowen reported her suspicious posts, several of her reviews were removed. When I asked about them, all of her reviews vanished.

Kevin Carter, a TripAdvisor spokesman, said the account had been under investigation by its team of content specialists before Cowen reported it. Her reviews were removed, he said, because “they do not meet our submission guidelines.”

Here’s another troubling statistic: 65 percent of consumers trust the reviews on review sites, according to a recent Accenture study. By comparison, 52 percent trusted the reviews on a hotel-branded site. Reputation management specialists, disgruntled former employees and guests with an ax to grind continue to populate the Internet with false information.

Fake online reviews are such a problem that Amazon, which hosts user-generated reviews on its products, filed a lawsuit in April against several companies that it alleged sold bogus reviews. In October, it sued more than 1,000 individual reviewers, claiming they participated in the ruse.

Governments are starting to crack down on fake reviews, too. Last year, for example, the Italian government fined TripAdvisor $613,000 for publishing misleading information. That followed a seven-month investigation into whether the website had taken adequate measures to avoid publishing false opinions. That fine was overturned on appeal.

Eduard de Boer, a Netherlands-based reputation management expert, says the reason for the persistent problem is simple: “One more star increases the volume of the business significantly.”

The harm to consumers is immeasurable. Who hasn’t read a five-star review and said, “Sounds like the perfect hotel”? Studies suggest a strong link between positive reviews and bookings, but how many of those were based on a false premise?

Businesses suffer, too. Jim Stern, an innkeeper from Charlottesville, Va., has attended conferences where guests are coached by travel “hacking” experts on how to leverage the system for a free night’s lodging. “They told guests how to use fake reviews — or the threat of them — to get discounts or other accommodations,” he says. The prospect of a bad review on Yelp or TripAdvisor is too often enough to compel a hotelier to comp a room or a meal.

The fix won’t be easy. Review sites must ensure that only the reviews of actual guests get published. A movement in the U.K. called “No Receipts, No Review” calls on sites such as TripAdvisor to refuse to publish a review unless a customer can show a photo of an actual receipt.

Carter, the TripAdvisor spokesman, says that’s not practical because of the volume of reviews. Instead, TripAdvisor puts its reviews through a tracking system, “and we map the how, what, where and when of each review.”

“We back that up with a team of over 300 content specialists globally, who work 24/7 to maintain the quality of our reviews,” he said. “They investigate every review that is flagged for inspection by our system and act on the reports we get from our community, which in itself is a self-regulating force. The report Mr. Cowen provided is a good example of how a vigilant member of our community supports our efforts.”

Still, consumers who use reader-generated reviews in their purchasing decisions need to be vigilant about fakes. Perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars of business have gone to undeserving hotels and restaurants as a result. We deserve reviews that are 100 percent real every time.

How to spot a fake

Check the reviewer’s record. Look first at the reviewer’s history, says Andrea Eldridge, the CEO of Nerds on Call, a technology service company. “Fake reviews are often posted by accounts with little or no additional review history,” she says.

Show and tell. Talk is cheap, but photos of a resort or restaurant are harder to fake. “This is a proof that we really stayed in those hotels,” says Olivier Olielo, who publishes a hotel ratings site. You might think twice before trusting a detailed review without photos.

Look for extremes. “Fake reviews seem to be polarized,” says Eduard de Boer of reputatiecoaching.nl. “Extremely positive or extremely negative.” If you see a one-star or a five-star rating or a lot of superlatives in the description, chances are you’re looking at a fake.

Do you believe user-generated reviews?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • Lily

    Yup – there are many fake reviews so don’t believe everything you read. I worked for a small boutique hotel a few years ago which just opened. They wanted to get ahead so one person in management decided to get family members and other staff to post “reviews”. As I had been pretty familiar with Tripadvisor, I told them that this could lead to all sorts of problems, including having the reviews removed or the hotel removed from the website. But they didn’t care. If a post is from a brand new account, only has 1 review and gives 5 stars, and uses language/descriptions similar to what the hotel may use on their websites, it’s probably not real!

  • sffilk

    I review on Tripadvisor. I don’t review a lot, and I don’t take a whole lot of pictures when I do. As a matter of fact, I’ve only used pictures in one of my reviews, but that was because I had been on vacation and stopped at a pub, and I took pictures as a memory of my trip. As a rule, I don’t use superlatives in any of my reviews. I try to be honest in expressing my impressions, be they good or bad.

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    I am an author, and I’ve had a book come out where one of my buddies tried to ‘help’ me out by posting a glowing review that made it look like I’d written a Twain novel. He thought he was helping, but Lord I cringed when I saw it. Some people — like your hotel’s owner’s family — probably thought they were really helping boost business, when in reality, all it does is set off white flags to the consumer-savvy.

  • AJPeabody

    Let’s face it, any system can be gamed by false posters. And most people who use review sites are users, not contributors, and will not post reviews. Together, these effects increase the proportion of false reviews. So, I ignore content free reviews (“This restaurant has wonderful food and great service.”) and all bedbugs in hotels reports. I also try to review places honestly and with useful content so as to increase the reliability of Tripadvisor.

    Unfortunately, as the review site algorithms become more effective, I predict that the paid false reviewers will adapt. The Pakistani will reregister from “London.” The one and five star reviews will become two and four star. Eventually, only sites that can verify true users will be trusted. Amazon will have to crosscheck reviewers with purchasers. Trip Advisor will have to crosscheck with Booking and Hotels dot coms and Expedia and online restaurant reservation services, etc., before a review can be publicly posted.

    Until then, it will still be the lawless Wild West in review country.

  • Chris_In_NC

    I am an active Tripadvisor reviewer (level 6, > 200 contributions). I try and be honest and objective. However, recently, I had one of my reviews “removed” for unknown reasons.

    Even with the fake review problem, I still find Tripadvisor to be a valuable resource. To get an accurate picture, you have to “learn” how to interpret the reviews. You can’t take any given review at face value. If there is a problem at a property, you can generally figure out what to expect by reading multiple reviews and the management responses.

    Things I pay attention to…
    1) The reviewer’s history (ie, how many reviews, and the distribution of the reviews)
    2) The number of reviews that the property has. If there are only 1-2 reviews in the last 3 months, the reviews may not be so accurate
    3) Hotel management response (if any). A property that actively has a manager respond means a lot to me.
    4) Specifics details mentioned in the write-up.

    Things I generally ignore…
    1) Not obsessing or being worried if a hotel isn’t ranked in the top 10 percent of properties
    2) Reviews that feature inflammatory or emotional responses (both negative and positive)

    Overall, recognize that expectations and standards are different for everyone. I care less about certain things than others. Finding reviews from reviewers that are most similar to my style and importance helps me get a picture of the property.

    This year, I got “chewed” out by another TA user via e-mail, accusing me of being a “shill” or an “unsophisticated” guest. Apparently, I wrote a glowing review of a property that we found to be excellent. She apparently booked the hotel based on my recommendation and was disappointed.

  • technomage1

    If you read the reviews you can generally see which ones are fake positives or people who are revenge reviewing. I usually don’t go off the star rating as much as the text. I think the revenge reveiws burn me the most as you can simply see in them how difficult it must’ve been for the staff to deal with an unreasonable customer. Revenge reviews therefore have the opposite effect than intended because they make me more likely to try the place out, and to put an accurate review up.

  • Blamona

    I’m the queen of TA, a destination expert for Turks and Caicos (providenciales). I actually rely on forums more than reviews. I also have a business in the States, quite popular, and amazing how many haters are on the Internet (or even trolls that have never even been to my State. But I think this spills over to every business now. Purchase on line, utilities, travel– everyone asks for reviews, surveys, etc. I really think everyone is starting to get review fatigue, and many are starting to see reviews are fake or disgruntled or employee or owner driven.

  • Leslie

    Totally disagree with the last comment listed to avoid extreme reviews as they are probably a fake-I don’t leave average reviews as it is a waste of my time and does not really help the reader of a review. If a hotel or restaurant is very good or very bad then I will spend the time to leave a review stating as such and why.

  • mbods2002

    I rely heavily on reviews from consumers but always read them with “a grain of salt”. I usually always skip the 5 star ones, look at the language and spelling used, how many reviews the person has made and check 3 or 4 review sites before making a decision. I think that’s all advice from Chris!

  • KanExplore

    I do read the reviews, but am looking specifically for content that matters to me. If it says that a room’s furnishings are “dated”, it’s “ho hum, so what?” in my book. If it says, “You can’t sleep because it’s on a busy street that’s noisy all night,” that matters to me. I look for specifics and for observations that are repeated many times.

    There is no question that travel providers do care about the reviews, and this probably helps raise standards just a bit in general. I’d like to see this concept be successful, but I agree that all the fake reviews are a distinct threat to it.

  • David___1

    I try to look at “reviews” as guidelines that might be helpful. But there are lots of red flags if one looks for them. Yesterday I was shopping for a wireless cell phone charger on Amazon. One looked great! 56 reviews, all 5 stars. But then I looked at the reviews. All 56 were written on 12/31/15 or 1/1/16. Seems a little suspicious to me. I moved on…

  • Extramail

    The fact that you quoted so many reputation management experts in your story, Chris, tells me all I need to know about review sites. I don’t know who has “managed” any given review thus I don’t know what review to believe. I think I’ve done ok with my travels by asking people who have been there, done that or I take a chance and learn with each new experience. Not a perfect system but not a perfect world either.

  • ctporter

    You are not alone in that Leslie, my reviews tend to be that way also. When my interactions with the staff have been above normal I mention that because I do appreciate it when I am treated well.

  • Nathan Witt

    Requiring reviewers to submit a receipt might be a pretty onerous requirement, but there are simple steps a business like Amazon or Tripadvisor can take to help consumers know which reviews to value. A simple one is to send emails to those who have booked or purchased through the site asking for recipients to click a link in the email to provide a review, and then marking those reviews as being from verified users. You can take an extra step and group those reviews at the top of the review section.

  • CycleAZLindyB

    Another side of this is when hotels/resorts ask you to post five star reviews on Tripadvisor. We stayed locally recently (staycation) and were handed a business card by the girl who checked us in with directions and a request to post a review. I don’t think that’s any more appropriate then the fake reviews.

  • CycleAZLindyB

    I regularly get emails from Amazon and Performance Bikes asking for reviews on the products I purchased, so I guess some companies do this. I’m not going to review most of the stuff I buy, because, really, who wants a to read a review of Clif Shots, a bike jersey I got on clearance or any of the mundane things I buy on Amazon, like Fancy Feast cat food or stevia sweetener??

  • Altosk

    I look for reviews that have photos.
    I also look at the best and the worst ratings, and then one in between.

    And “terrible” reviews aren’t always fake. I had a horrible experience at a furniture store and I wrote about it. It was the only time I gave someone 1 star on yelp. I would’ve given less if possible.

    (It involved a scam. The sales person wanted me to pay him in cash, no tax, and he’d give me a 30% discount. SCAM. I can promise you that furniture would’ve never been delivered!)

  • pauletteb

    So, you simply toss out the few ultra-good and ultra-bad reviews and consider the rest with a grain of salt. Not exactly brain surgery.

  • pauletteb

    I once reported two reviews by two women who had obviously been traveling together because their negative reviews were nearly word-for-word copies. I happen to stay at that property annually, and some of the amenities the two complained about don’t even exist. Evidently something ticked them off, but they chose revenge “reviews” rather than honest complaints.

  • Carchar

    I was once asked by a lodge owner to write a review of it on Trip Advisor. He knew I liked the place and he did not tell me what to write. I do really like the lodge and am a returning customer, but I will only recommend it verbally to friends who want to visit the area. I, myself, will only get friends’ opinions on places before I go or I will try them unknown. Once, I took my chances and signed up for an Antarctic trip just from looking at the company’s website. I hoped I wasn’t making a mistake. It wasn’t. And I found out that I wasn’t the only one on the tour, who had chosen it “blindly.” I would recommend this tour verbally as wll.

  • judyserienagy

    There will always be problems with fake reviews. Makes it a little harder for the researcher, takes a little more time. I won’t book a property without lots of reviews. I read at least 25 … it’s easy to get an accurate feel for the hotel. So often negative reviews can be seen through because the guest had a bad experience with one aspect of the hotel and slams the whole place. If the reviews don’t have some detail, are just “wonderful” in every respect, I ignore them. Haven’t used anything but TripAdvisor, so far so good.

  • judyserienagy

    Very good point … I’m always on the lookout for negative information about stuff I don’t care about. I just reviewed a new hotel in Savannah … it was really fabulous but I hated the “boutique aspect” of it, felt ithe room was user-unfriendly; we were there for a week so those things get on your nerves. I tried really hard to be clear … other people might think the rooms are cool and everything else about the place really was fabulous.

  • Bill___A

    I can’t answer the poll question because I read between the lines in the reviews, some of them I believe and some of them I do not. One has to “take it with a grain of salt”. There are also some comments by hotel owners which are not very valid.

  • Long_Time_MB

    I like that Amazon posts the comment “verified purchase” on those comments where the item was purchased via Amazon. Then you know if was a bona fide purchase.

  • Louis B

    I’ve used tripadvisor for quite a few years as a tool when planning trips. About 2 years ago I started getting requests from restaurants, boutique hotels and various travel guides to write a review on tripadvisor after using their services. I try to write my reviews as honestly and constructively as possible. I am seeing more and more reviews that I find myself questioning, both too good and too bad. It really comes down to let the reader be ware.

  • DChamp56

    There should be a choice for “Some, but I decide”.
    I post reviews at TripAdvisor for various places.. and I’m wary of all reviews, and make my own judgement.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Absolutely true. “Just okay” experiences don’t motivate people to leave reviews. (The only exception being when they had clearly expected things to be considerably better than “just okay” which is why middle-of-the-road reviews on upscale places can be noteworthy.)

  • Ianto Jones

    I travel with a disability, and have an employment history of customer service management.
    I don’t always remember to post reviews, but when I do, it is often because I received 5-star service and want to boost the signal (or 1-star service and want to warn others off).
    This leads to a sparse post history, with primarily 5- or 1-star reviews.

    That said – when I am on the *phone* with customer service or tech support, and receive great service, I nearly always take the extra minutes to leave kudos with a supervisor (or their voicemail), and if not available, at least ask which email to forward the compliment to.
    It really can make a difference for some of the most abused and under-appreciated personnel that we all interact with!

  • jah6

    I use trip advisor and have learned to read between the lines. However I believe a place I stayed at in Bocas town Panama, the Bahia Del Sol, has mostly reviews written by the owner. It has all 5 star reviews and it wasn’t that good. I met the owner and he was a little sleazy.