Why fake reviews don’t really matter

Don’t believe everything you read online, especially on user-generated review websites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp, which claim to help you find the best hotels and restaurants.

At least that’s the standard warning issued repeatedly by travel experts for the last decade. The ratings are rigged by hotel or restaurant operatives, or by unhappy patrons trying to shame a business, they say. Since the sites make no meaningful efforts to stop these bogus posts, all the so-called user-generated sites should be ignored when you’re planning your next trip.

That’s wrong.

I’m not suggesting the problem of unverified reviews has been fixed. If anything, it’s a bigger issue than ever as Americans begin planning for the upcoming winter holidays. More companies are trying to manage their online reputations. Nor have any of the sites developed an effective fraud-detection algorithm that red-flags every bogus rating, as far as I can tell.

I’m convinced that you should believe what you read, or at least some of it, because the reviews might be written by real hotel guests and restaurant patrons, and they can be useful when you’re planning your next vacation. I know, because unlike the sites, I’ve taken the trouble to speak with the reviewers. And I know many are real.

As a “senior contributor” to TripAdvisor, Karin Ross has received luggage tags and water bottles from the company to thank her for her contributions, but she’s never been asked to verify if she actually stayed in one of the hotels and restaurants she reviewed. That doesn’t bother her at all.

“I take the reviews I read with a grain of salt,” says Ross, a volunteer for a health organization in Phoenix. “If you read carefully, you can see if it’s falsely inflated or defamed.”

A majority of the other write-ups she sees are “relatively accurate” and as long as she disregards the hypercritical one-star ratings and the exuberant five-star reviews, she’s confident she’ll arrive somewhere close to the truth.

And getting close seems to be good enough for most travelers.

“I’ve been a TripAdvisor user for years,” says Mary Bruels, a retired insurance manager from Gulfport, Fla. “I have rarely been burned.”

She says the trick is to learn to spot “trolls” — users who intentionally post views with extreme views that are meant to antagonize readers — and simply ignore them. That’s sound advice online, no matter what you’re doing. Like Ross, it usually means disregarding the extreme reviews.

“I’ve been pleased with the results,” she says.

More than 9 in 10 global travelers admit their booking decisions are influenced by online reviews, and just over half refuse to do business with a hotel that isn’t rated, according to online analytics firm Market Metrix. Alas, it doesn’t mention anything about whether those reviews are truthful, or whether the prospective guests even care.

I’ve asked both Yelp and TripAdvisor about the accuracy of their content on many occasions. The answers alternate between defensive and defiant. The sites are nothing more than platforms for travelers and restaurant guests to leave their opinion, they insist. Besides, they have fraud-detection programs to ferret out the fake reviews placed by reputation management operatives and so-called sock puppets, or employees pretending to be customers.

But when I ask them to share even the most basic details of how the algorithms work, they refuse. To reveal that information would be to help the bad guys game the system, they say. That may or may not be true, but it’s also a self-serving response.

The companies also seem dismissive when anyone points out that contributors like Ross, who on a recent day posted 10 reviews (oddly, it didn’t trip any of TripAdvisor’s vaunted fraud-detection alarms), are essentially unpaid workers upon whose labor they’ve built a multimillion-dollar, publicly traded business. I wonder how their shareholders would feel if they sent them water bottles instead of dividends?

It turns out I’ve been asking the wrong questions. People don’t necessarily expect the truth when they click on a review site. Truthy is good enough.

Just ask Susan Biederman, a retired fifth-grade teacher from Coral Springs, Fla., and a devoted TripAdvisor user. She says she’s “very careful” about the advice she takes from the site. Since the site either can’t or won’t catch all of the fakes, she conducts her own verification process, which includes reviewing a contributor’s social media profiles and reading other reviews by the same author.

A few days ago, when searching for hotels in London, Biederman found an obviously scammy poster who had written “glowing and superlative” reviews of five different hotels in the city. She summarily ignored them. But using the same process, she also connected with a resident of Istanbul when she needed a restaurant recommendation. He turned out to be the real deal, and even helped her by calling the restaurant to make a reservation for her.

“I was just overwhelmed, and that dinner was one of the nicest we’ve ever enjoyed,” she recalls. “What a great memory, not only for the restaurant but also for the kindness of strangers.”

Perhaps we should be looking at user-generated sites not for what they aren’t, but for what they are. They’re useful travel guides that will do the trick until technology delivers a better solution.

Something tells me our wait is almost over.

Do you believe user-generated reviews?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

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 the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • California_Dave

    I always use TripAdvisor for my research on hotels. We just returned from an 11 day driving tour of Scotland and stayed at 7 different hotels. We were not disapointed with any of them , except the beds at one were uncomfortable and needed to be replaced, which I will note in my review. When looking at reviews, I always take into account, where the reviewers are from. Americans staying in European hotels will almost always complain about the size of the room or the bathrooms. I’ve learned to view several pages of reviews to get an overall feel for the place and rely more on traveller photos over what is portrayed on the hotel’s website. I also look at reviews from other sites as well. I wish people would include more info on practical items such as a great nearby coffee spot, or restaurant, or the bus stop is right in f’ront of the hotel and #23 bus will take you directly to x museum for $1.00.

  • Wackiedon

    I always use TripAdvisor and I am a regular contributor reviewing my treks and stays. I must admit I read the negatives first and work my way up. I can spot fake reviews. For example I was looking for a T.V. for my kitchen and came upon a line in a review that states a particular T.V. is a finger print magnet due t it’s glossy frame…Now who touches their T.V. on a regular basis nowadays anyway. Now that stands out as a ridiculous reviewer so I skip that one. Any budget hotel that is too cozy and crisp without any cons what so ever I will skip. and visa versa. I have experienced extreme luck selecting my trips and stays. Always use common sense and you can be pleased with your selections.

  • jherrmannmt

    I contribute reviews to TripAdvisor and always read reviews of places where I might stay, eat, and so on. Yes, you must be careful and get a feel for any place you are reading about, but occasionally I have written a glowing review because of an outstanding property, staff, buffet breakfast…. Don’t discount all the the extremely high or low reviews, but look closely at WHAT is being singled out as outstanding or messed up.

  • Nigel Appleby

    I read TripAdvisor reviews, but I start with places where I have stayed to see how my review comared with the mean of the others to obtain a correction factr. Then for places in which I’m interested, I discount the extremely good and bad, and compare the mean the correction factor I obtained above and that seems to work for me, so fake reviews don’t seem to matter.

  • Ronay

    I do use several review websites when researching prospective trips. I
    check out info on hotels, restaurants, activities, etc., and compare
    notes. Usually, if I see a large number of good-to-really-good reviews,
    with a couple of “sour-grapes” experiences thrown in, I can pretty much
    count on the veracity of what I’m seeing.

    I also stick with
    reviews that include bits of helpful practical advice or information,
    such as directions to the nearest grocery store, or where I’ll find the
    nearest bus stop, etc. Those are likely to be written by someone who has
    actually stayed at or near the destination.

    So far (in over 12
    years of using the sites), I have been very satisfied with the results.
    Last February, I enjoyed a wonderful Aruba rental in this way.

    also contribute with reviews, even though I know the site owners
    benefit financially, because I feel like I can make a contribution to
    other travelers who could use the information.

    know I could be scammed, even with all my careful research, but even so,
    there comes a time when you finally just have to take that extra, small
    leap of faith.

  • Ronay

    I do use several review websites when researching prospective trips. I
    check out info on hotels, restaurants, activities, etc., and compare
    notes. Usually, if I see a large number of good-to-really-good reviews,
    with a couple of “sour-grapes” experiences thrown in, I can pretty much
    count on the veracity of what I’m seeing.

    I also stick with reviews that include bits of helpful practical advice or information,
    such as directions to the nearest grocery store, or where I’ll find the closest bus stop, etc. Those are likely to be written by someone who has actually stayed at or near the destination.

    So far (in over 12 years of using the sites), I have been very satisfied with the results. Last February, I enjoyed a wonderful Aruba rental in this way.

    I also contribute with reviews, even though I know the site owners benefit financially, because I feel like I can make a contribution to other travelers who could use the information.

    I know I could be scammed, even with all my careful research, but even so, there comes a time when you finally just have to take that last, small leap of faith.

  • mizmoose

    I don’t think the answer to your question is a simple “yes” or “no”. I’ve been using Yelp for the past 4-5 years and found that after a short time it becomes very easy to spot the fake reviews. Other people on Yelp do it, too, so it’s not like I have some kind of magic power.

    Clearly fake reviews come from users who a) don’t have an icon attached to their account, b) only have 1-2 reviews that are c) either 1 star or 5 star (either an axe-grinder or a shill). They are also either way over-enthusastic and detailed, or vague. Every once in a while you get the “you have to be kidding” fake reviewer who has 2-3 reviews, all for competing businesses, one of which is 5 star with glowing terms and minute details, and the other(s) a vague 1 star saying the place sucks.

    Probably fake reviews come from users that have more than a couple of reviews, but they are all submitted quickly in a short time span (a clear sign of someone being paid via a “Here’s a list, go review them” scam).

    The best part is when a business has clearly paid for people to review their place, and the Yelp autofilter catches them. Mobile device users apparently don’t get the “There are N filtered reviews, use CAPTCHA hell to see them” so the business owners decide that the reviews have been “deleted”. Then they start ranting about it on the Yelp talk pages. Basic info on how the autofilter work is part of the FAQ, but people who are trying to game the system don’t bother to take the time to read the FAQ.

    You’d be surprised how many businesses do a “Show that you reviewed our place and we’ll give you a discount” only to have it bite themselves in the ass when all their paid-for reviews are filtered out. And when Yelp regulars see a business with two posted reviews and 50 filtered reviews, they know something is up and will avoid that business like the plague.

  • jerryatric

    Sorry to see people ignore 1 Star OR 5 Star reviews. On rare occasions I have doled out both.
    1 comes to mind is Sandals St. Lucia as a 1 star. Won’t go into all the details, suffice to say when approx. 8 people get food poisoning @ a $500 a night all inclusive resort & the resort does nothing, besides advising you to buy relieve from their own shop, I rest my case. This amongst several other items.

  • Jim Daniel


    If a place has a few hundred or more reviews, it is NOT likely that “bogus” reviewers have pumped up the star status. That said, is a place has under about 50, I tend to scroll through and see if most of the reviewers are names that have reviewed only one to three places and if a lot of the reviews are from the same week. To me, that’s a dead giveaway that the owner has had a hand in the process, maybe his whole family was asked to register on YELP and give him 5 stars. Maybe his unemployed cousin was sitting there eating his fill and logged on under various pseudonyms to write them all in a few hours.
    Suspect places are the ones that just opened a few months ago and have a lot of high value reviews and a few very low ones.

  • Barron

    When accounts are linked with facebook, it’s hard to fake the reviews…

  • Charles

    We are currently planning a Europe trip and reading a lot of hotel reviews. Here are some observations:

    1) While I’m sure some companies post fake reviews, most of the hotels we are looking at in Paris and Vienna have about 1000 reviews. I find it hard to believe any significant percentage of those are fake.

    2) The aggregate is important. Reviews are a sampling and the average does tell you something about the hotel, as does the spread. Reviews over a wide range say something about consistency vs. reviews that tend of cluster. But…

    3) Keep in mind that TripAdvisor does not reset the reviews, sometimes not even when a hotel is sold. We go to an Adult resort in Jamaica where the reviews go back over ten years, seven of which it was a family resort with a different name specializing in young children and under different management. Old reviews often have nothing to do with now, but they add them into the statistics as if they do.

    4) If you are concerned about a small number of negative reviews for a hotel, be sure to read them. Usually, there is some single incident that made the reviewer mad and is unlikely to happen to you. But, they can get really ridiculous at times. We found a 1 star review where the biggest complaint was that Paris is overpriced and they got a bad meal at a restaurant that is not even at the hotel.

    5) Watch for hotels that respond to reviews. It shows they are noticing them and care about them. The only caveat is any hotel that responds to every review. Then the response usually become a slightly edited form letter and is likely farmed out to some part time employee.

  • Christina Conte

    I am a Top Contributor on tripadvisor and as well as leaving reviews, I use the site myself. I think most people can spot the non-helpful reviews (difficult customers, fake reviews, etc.) so overall, it’s a helpful source. I do get irked when tripadvisor sends me bags and luggage tags, because I’m a helpful contributor…really? They’re better off not sending anything at all!

  • frostysnowman

    We always use Travel Advisor and similar sites when researching places to stay on vacation. I think they are a valuable tool when making travel plans, as long as you remember that people have different opinions based on what “their” standards are. As one poster said below, you can probably discount some of the very good and some of the very bad and the median is usually about right.

    I’ve only posted a review on Travel Advisor once, and it was because the place was such a dump and I was so angry management had done nothing to address our issues when we complained during our stay that I felt it was necessary. So if you see my one star review of the Breakers Express Hotel, read it, look at the photos, and take it seriously.


    After a couple bad experiences with decently reviewed hotels on Trip Advisor, I quit using the site. Instead I began talking with people I know and who often regularly travel to the same cities that I do on business. We have similar expectations and needs, so these recommendations work better for me than a review from someone I cannot even verify stayed at a hotel. I know that this goes against current trends but works better for me.

    Being a very frequent traveler does not make me qualified to objectively review a hotel. I know what I like and I know good service. But I got burned using Trip Advisor when I tried it for a couple international trips about 3 years ago and see no reason to use it again.

  • Annie M

    We tell people to read the reviews carefully. Some people will never be happy regardless of how much a hotel goes out of their way to please- they are simply nitpickers. And then there are some reviews that are over filled with superlatives that you should question. But if you read the same complaint over and over you should believe them.

  • SoBeSparky

    First off, I am a TripAdvisor contributor, both to reviews and to forums.

    With that out of the way, one of the key ways to separate the wheat from the chaff, is to examine the posted credentials of the reviewer. First off, how long have they been a member of TripAdvisor? They cannot fake that. How many contributions have they made, and what kinds of ratings did they give out? They cannot fake that either. It’s posted by TA. Just a couple clicks on the reviewer’s name and you can find this out.

    Remember that regular TA posters generally have positive experiences. Why? One reason is that they tend to depend on the credible reviews themselves. So that will reduce the likelihood of a “clunker” or bed-bug infected hotel. But not always. A negative review from a well experienced TA member can be interesting reading. Why? Because these people tend to travel a lot and have a lot of comparative experiences. An inexperiencd poster might post a very negative review based on misunderstanding of local or cultural practices, for example. More that once I have seen a bad review of a Chinese hotel, only to boil down to a very hard bed on which the reviewer found it impossible to get a good night’s sleep. A little research would have discovered that in the budget two- and three-star categories of Chinese-managed hotels, very hard (rock-like) mattresses are the norm. Chinese guests refuse to sleep on soft (pillow-like) mattresses.

    Like any travel tool, user-derived reviews need to be used wisely. Don’t just look at the overall rating of anything. Check out the latest ten or twenty reviews to find out what is going on now, not last year or when it opened and had a lot of noise and dust. Yelp is coming under increasing criticism for generating fake reviews. Every source should be critically examined. When reading a guide book, many times you are getting just one person’s opinion on one day. When you look at dozens if not hundreds of reviews, you have a chance of narrowing your choices to a point where you are deciding between very good, excellent and over-the-top customer experiences.

  • commentfromme

    Your one star review is exactly the kind of one star review that we would ignore. You are the one star reviewer worth ignoring. You are using the system to take revenge. Yes, of course, we understand something went horribly wrong and you and 8 folks got food poisoning, and it was not handled in a manner that pleased you. So now we are aware of the possiblity of a food poisoning incident at a Sandals resort in St Lucia. There are 3 Sandals properties in St Lucia, and they have other fabulous steller atributes, and some mediocre qualities. But they are not worthy of only 1 star reviews. I rest my case.

  • jerryatric

    Aside from poisoning 8 people on 1 trip they had another trip to another island cancelled due to a motor breakdown. Also add mediocre food, shabby rooms, & free golf on a lousy excuse for a nine hole course costing $20 & I could go on.
    The only 5 star about this place was the service provided by staff. EXCELLENT.
    We were 16 people on this outing & no one will ever return to Sandals.
    Which Sandals do you represent. Talk about shills!

  • Travelnut

    I’ve used TripAdvisor for years. It’s never led me astray, and it’s led me to some lovely hotels that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, that were what the reviewers said they were, in cities all over Europe. I will generally read at least ten pages of reviews of 5-10 hotels, at least an hour well spent in research to make my decision. Sure, there have been the occasional “write a review and we’ll give you a free dessert” places, but they were really nice places that didn’t need to bribe me. I also read the forums – extremely helpful. I try to remember to contribute to the forum for my city occasionally to pay it forward.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    I always use TripAdvisor before I choose my hotel. The best reviews are the ones that give practical information: what bus to take from/to the airport, types of food served at breakfast and the speed of Wi-Fi if it is free.
    A couple of times a potential traveler has contacted me with specific questions about the hotel.
    It is important to read more than just 4 or 5 reviews. I try to look at least 20 reviews.

  • kwbts124

    I agree with your article. I have been reading and writing TA reviews since 2006. If anything, I know what to expect at a hotel. The more you read the better you get at spotting the “BS-great” reviews or the “hate” reviews from real people who really stayed (or ate) at the hotel or restaurant and had a notably horrible experience (usually because of their own unrealistic expectations).
    Occasionally, I got a bad feeling about a hotel (or restaurant) from the reviews, but for whatever reason I had to stay (or eat) there. Each time I was grateful that I knew what I was getting into and was able to prepare myself.

    I even read movie reviews from sites that offer side-by-side “fan” and “critic” opinions and have found the “fans” opinions (as a whole) are closer to my own taste.

  • commentfromme

    I do not represent a Sandals and I resent your implication. I spent a fabulous week at Sandals Halcyon in St Lucia this past spring. And you just proved my point. You said that , “The service was 5 star”. So the resort did not deserve a meager one star review. A red roof in gets one star reviews. You were punishing them with a one star review. You would be more believable if you had given them a 2 or 3 star review…and talked about the positives and negatives, and why you did not get fair value for your money, and why you would not return. Otherwise, your reviews are not helpful and are dismissed.

  • jerryatric

    Service by personnel 5 Star. Everything else from the rooms , golf, meals & excursions were very poor. AND I explained it all, so really 1, 2, or 3 star would not matter as I explained my experiences & those of others. There were 12 in our group & not one couple came away pleased. Then talking to others, many agreed with my assessment. For $500 nightly we all expected much better. AND resent all you want. I shall continue to rate as I please & people like you need not read my reviews. I, like many others look through all reviews & then draw a conclusion.

  • Citizentraveller

    I am a Tripadvisor reader and contributor. Tripadvisor is a great way to discover which hotels are in a particular area. From there I look at their ratings and comments, as well as information from elsewhere. Comments can be helpful, so as to be aware of less than perfect service in an otherwise suitable property. For example, the Regal Hotel at Hong Kong airport is perfectly situated a few minutes walk from the terminal but a persistent complaint is that check-in and check-out can be extremely slow. Being aware of this, I was able to feel less stressed than some others when the check-out queue failed to move (people checking out of course need to catch a flight).

  • emanon256

    I do the same, I always start with the bad. If its a bunch of laundry list complaints I ignore the bad reviews. If there is a constant theme about a major problem, and the reviewers have other valid looking reviews, I steer clear. Often times I go to a place because of the bad reviews. People will complain about something that I infant see as a positive.

  • emanon256

    I am still mad at Yelp over a bad review I gave that was filtered out. I have plenty of reviews, many good, a few bad, and a many in the middle. I gave this particular restaurant 2 stars and explained why in detail. For some reason its always in the filtered list, along with a lot of other bad reviews, and this restaurant seems to only have really great 4 and 5 star reviews on the actual displayed list. I have a friend who tried the same restaurant, and was also displeased. He gave it a 1 star review, and his is also on the filtered list. Both of us are avid Yelp reviewers. Seems very fishy to me.

  • emanon256

    I never use those things they send either. They sent me stickers once and asked me to ask hotels if they will place the stickers on their windows. Seems like they want us to do their advertising for free. Very annoying. I still write revues to help other travelers.

  • mizmoose

    That does sound very fishy, I agree completely. My understanding of the filter is that it is not supposed to affect those who post regularly and have a good record of posting clearly honest reviews.

    For what it’s worth, I would consider contacting your local Community Manager and pointing out your (and other frequent reviewer) reviews of that restaurant. It is possible that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. While the CMs cannot change the filter stuff directly I’ve read (via my local CM) that they do have an “in” to get problems quickly noticed by the right people.

  • emanon256

    Thank you, I will let them know. Another weird thing I just noticed last night, is that this particular restaurant is now advertising that if you write a 5 star review on Yelp and bring it in, they will give Restaurant Week prices any time. I will include that in my report as well.

  • Christina Conte

    Oh, yeah, I got those too! Yes, as if our reviews aren’t enough for them, now they want us to do their legwork too- not without a paycheck!