opinion
1072 days ago
 

Social media and SEO created a mutant in travel – Introducing Fake Review Optimization

NB: This is the first in a series of guest articles by Robert Cole, founder of hospitality and travel marketing strategy and technology consulting company RockCheetah. He also blogs at Views from a Corner Suite.

Welcome to the world of user generated content – circa 2011.

Headlines declare outrage on behalf of consumers and businesses alike – all wronged by egregious reviews of questionable heredity. Government trade commissions are lobbied to investigate. Shocked pundits lament the fact that anonymous reviews are not authenticated.

At the center of the controversy stands TripAdvisor, weathering the slings and arrows of attack from all quarters about the veracity of its reviews. It is a big target; sites branded by TripAdvisor represent the world’s largest travel community, now comprising over 50 million monthly unique visitors.

A decade ago, when TripAdvisor launched, it was a travel-focused search engine, explaining:

“Compiling ‘the world’s opinion’ within one website provides travel consumers with the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions.”

That description remains largely accurate today.

After climbing to become the sixth most popular global travel site as early as 2004, the pitch changed a bit, becoming:

“We do our best to provide you with the best travel information on the web.”

This is a goal which probably continues to describe the essence of co-founder and CEO Stephen Kaufer’s objective.

As the site passed the ten million review benchmark, the marketing team continually tweaked the slogan to become a bit more self-assured:

“Real stories from real travelers,” “Get advice from real travelers”

and…

“TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travelers.”

For the most part, that’s how it should work. So what’s the problem?

The world changed. The idealistic notions of content wanting to be free, and crowd-sourced information helping individuals to make new discoveries and locate better deals, has somewhat yielded to the opportunistic manipulation of processes by some for fun and/or profit.

After a rough year of defending itself from its detractors, TripAdvisor now describes itself as the more modest “reviews and advice on hotels, resorts, flights, vacation rentals, vacation packages, travel guides, and lots more” or “over 50 million reviews & opinions by travelers.”

To be clear, TripAdvisor is not evil, and Kaufer remains one of the smartest and most insightful leaders of the travel industry.

If TripAdvisor’s information was largely inaccurate or untrustworthy, the site would lose its user base and competitors would rise up to replace it. That’s not happening – yet.

The problem is that the curation process for 50 million reviews sourced from 20 million members is problematic. This challenge is compounded by the global nature of the organization, now covering 1+ million businesses in 93,000 destinations.

It seems some of the 715,000 restaurants, 520,000 hotels and 155,000 attractions occasionally dispute the accuracy of some reviews.

Unlike Google, TripAdvisor does not merely surface and prioritize the most relevant links, a process that allows Google to retain full control over the signals and weighting factors driving its algorithm.

Instead, TripAdvisor publishes content created by a largely faceless community of individuals. But where anonymous reviews should surface the most frank and honest opinions, similar anonymity allows the ethically bereft a free hand in trying to manipulate rankings.

How could two nice parents raise such a nasty kid?

In a classic battle of nature versus nurture, the idealistic panacea of social media and the efficiency boosting strategies of search engine optimization have lovingly bred and nurtured the charming discipline known as online reputation management (ORM).

In its purest sense, ORM is a noble pursuit. It possesses many admirable qualities – most importantly, reminding organizations that social media is a conversation. Of course, that was before the discipline was corrupted.

ORM started out as a sweet child – inquisitive and intelligent, eager to make friends. Like many teens, however, ORM began to hang out with the wrong crowd and started experimenting with fringe social media activities like blog comment spam and quietly rewarding bloggers in exchange for favorable posts.

Then ORM graduated to the harder stuff – SEO; living for the rush created by higher rankings and improved conversion. Once search engines started incorporating social media signals into ranking algorithms, ORM started dealing – the money allowing ORM to move out and live free from parental supervision.

Dropping off the grid, the transformation of the wayward ORM was complete. They discovered that authoring fictitious positive reviews was a simpler process than engaging real customers, while competitors tended to have difficulty satisfying irate customers which never truly existed…

The specialized field of Fake Review Optimization (FRO) was born – the evil spawn of best intentions. But first, some context…

Social media is good

The social revolution has permanently changed commerce. In its purest sense, it improved transparency for consumers and helped enlightened businesses make customer communications interactive.

Social networking is about relationships, and relationships are founded on trust. It is this element of trust that ultimately determines the success or failure of any social platform or campaign.

With the ease of sharing user generated content, trust determines what is seen, resonates and/or changes brand perception within the community.

Social community becomes an important distinction that differentiates social media from traditional peer-to-peer relationships. Within many social networks, opinions are trusted despite the absence of personal relationships. It becomes trust by association.

It’s refreshing to rely on objective opinions contributed through the generosity of strangers. It helps to reinforce one’s belief in the innate goodness of mankind.

Social media also improves commerce by validating choices that fortify consumer confidence.

The collective wisdom of the community promotes discovery, enhances context, and reinforces the relevance of others opinions. The impact of user opinions goes far beyond an isolated personal reflection of sentiment.

A consumer’s own brands

Most businesses no longer suffer from the delusion that they control their brands. Consumers have always owned brands – they just lacked the voice to tell others about it. A case in point is market reaction to corporate marketing gaffes. Social channels play the role of prosecutor, judge and jury – and justice is swift.

Look no further than two examples from earlier this year – Groupon’s SuperBowl ads and the California Milk Processing Board, both of which ran into trouble and saw the web community turn against the companies.

Social media has the ability to swiftly amplify dissent. The sweet spot between creating controversy that drives a viral legend or abruptly invites euthanasia has narrowed. The people have an unprecedented voice.

SEO is good

In many ways, those responsible for search engine optimization provide invaluable assistance to support Google’s – and other search engines – stated objective of organizing the web’s content.

By adopting various best practices, SEOs improve discovery and help their organizations create more relevant websites. Most importantly, SEOs are extremely results obsessed – as measured by page rank, backlinks, traffic, and a litany of website analytics.

Search engines also serve as a proxy for the degree of relevance, albeit algorithmically calculated. When the work of an SEO is appropriately applied, websites are organized and presented not only to appeal to the search engine spiders, but for humans as well.

Winning is measured by blog posts or service pages organically inspiring links that feed the website.

Quality websites not only naturally attract higher traffic from the links, but those links drive higher search engine ranking, which, in turn, rewards the site with higher traffic in a self-fulfilling cycle.

Significant parallels exist between SEO and hotel reviews. As opposed to being based on specific keywords, reviews are based on specific properties. Higher rankings validate relevance and dominant review sites wield authority capable of driving significant business volume.

How online reputation management breeds evil spawn

ORM covers a wide range of methods for managing consumer attitudes that can range from passive to aggressive.

Listening is often highlighted as the most critical ORM technique to gain an understanding of perspectives from various consumer segments. Active ORMs proactively engage customers to interactively manage relationships.

Aggressive ORMs can run the risk of crossing lines and find themselves accused of employing manipulative tactics to stifle criticism or incentivize others for positive contributions.

Perhaps the strongest motivation may be greed. With significant financial gains at stake for those capable of earning top rankings, the equation is simple. Some ORM groups may be more than willing to trade ethics for earnings.

With demand dictating the fees sought from those seeking higher rankings, another important consideration is that those conducting covert activities typically require higher margins as the risk or magnitude of the activities increase.

Relatively uniquely, FRO appeals to three divergent hacker motivations – intellectualism, altruism and narcissism.

For the first group, creating and populating fake hotel reviews represents an intellectual challenge – an exercise in active problem solving. Like mountain climbers, this sort confront the obstacle simply because it’s there.

The altruists harbor a very different motivation, defending the underdog. This may manifest itself in two ways, either helping the little guy, or in some cases, à la Robin Hood, hurting the big guy. These individuals may see themselves as helping guide others up the mountain, most likely bypassing the ticket window if someone else owns the mountain and tries to charge for access.

That leaves the narcissists. In many cases, their competitive nature is focused on either beating or gaining the veneration of peers. Their efforts may be an expression of power or simply fulfilling a desire to wreak havoc. This final group attempt to blow up the mountain – because it’s there.

Ultimately, the battle between the review sites fed by user generated content and the FROs, is well suited to a drug war analogy. The bad guys are often smarter, armed with more sophisticated weapons and better funded than the armies charged with bringing them to justice.

A gullible society embraces truthiness and trustularity

In 2005, Stephen Colbert coined the term “Truthiness” to describe decisions based on feelings about a subject, normally paired with a healthy disinterest in learning the facts. While Colbert’s satiric point targeted politically motivated punditry on 24-hour news channels, it also underscored a systemic challenge inherent in UGC travel reviews.

Travelers are now putting greater faith in complete strangers, not because of demonstrated expertise, but because it feels right.

The impact of truthiness is compounded by an additional factor, which I call “trustularity”.

Trustularity is the tendency in social media for followers to blindly trust popular sites/brands/personalities. It is the logical extension of the “who to follow” recommendation algorithm or seeing the gravatars of friends that follow a particular profile.

Trustularity is the winning of trust due to popularity, not through the traditional method of evaluating the character, perspectives or practices of the subject. Online, trust measurements are highly algorithmic, so instead of being earned, trust becomes a game to be won or lost.

This is the FROs game of choice.

With no vetting process or context to provide the foundation for a relationship, authority is often gained through association as opposed to being earned. The result is a culture that not only embraces the wisdom of a crowd, but also creates a halo effect that reinforces a herd mentality.

This becomes particularly dangerous when the trustularity is fueled by truthiness. TripAdvisor is big. TripAdvisor is popular. TripAdvisor, as a site, has high trustularity.

Successful fake review optimizers wrap themselves in the blanket of TripAdvisor trust to create fictitious reviews scoring high in truthiness – perhaps not factually accurate, but they undoubtedly feel right.

TripAdvisor is not responsible for this phenomenon, but is now dealing with the consequences of its success in assuming a global scale, coupled with garnering a high degree of user satisfaction.

The next two installments in this series will cover some of the techniques utilized by FROs and what can be done to limit their impact on the travel review and rating ecosystem.

NB: This is the first in a series of guest articles by Robert Cole, founder of hospitality and travel marketing strategy and technology consulting company RockCheetah. He also blogs at Views from a Corner Suite.

 
 
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About the Writer :: Special Nodes

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  1. Why the old “negative review” trick is destined to fail…

    [...] to my friend Robert Cole for his excellent "Fake Review Optimization" series on Tnooz.com (parts 2, 3, 4 and [...]

     
  2. Fake Review Optimization – How black hat masters beat the travel system | LDP Store

    [...] first installment, Social media and SEO created a mutant in travel – Introducing Fake Review Optimization, covered the fusion of social media and search engine optimization, creating an environment that [...]

     
  3. Dorian

    The veracity, or otherwise, of reviews has always appeared to be low priority to Tripadvisor. It wouldn’t be difficult for them to tidy up their review process.

    Even the monetization of their site is dubious. Every time you search for prices at a hotel they spawn a dozen or so browsers so that they get income from each of their partners rather than just one as per every other price comparison site. It’s a rubbish model for their partners and worse for their customers.

    That might sound tangental but, for my part, it’s symptomatic of the lack of transparency in the company. Probably most visitors don’t even realise that they’re owned by Expedia and populated by Expedia owned companies.

     
  4. Ralph

    It should be easy for them to monitor fake reviews coming from one person bases on IP right? Especially if it’s coming for one hotel.
    If a hotel is incentivizing guests to leave over positive reviews this is something hard to catch, but somebody applying FRO should be easy to spot no?

     
    • Phil

      No – it’s easy to change your IP address if you know how (read the link I posted). Plus with the widespread use of NAT IP address is not a reliable way of attempting to identify a person’s location anyway.

      Phil

       
    • RobertKCole

      Ralph – you are considering the most elementary methods to falsify reviews. Yes, processes are in place to catch irregular review patterns from a single IP address, but the pros are way beyond that level of deception.

      Please see the second installment of the series – http://www.tnooz.com/2011/11/15/news/fake-review-optimization-how-black-hat-masters-beat-the-travel-system/ – and let me know if you think it’s still easy to catch the professionals…

       
      • Ralph

        Yes after I posted I was thinking about it and realized myself how easy it would be to connect to a VPN of some sort or tunnel to mask an IP.
        Interesting article, will certainly read part two also.

         
  5. Phil

    It’s about time that the issue of FRO was brought into the open. It is certainly possible for unscrupulous owners to game the system – either themselves or, if they are computer illiterate, through a third party. http://tripadvisorwatch.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/how-people-fake-tripadvisor-reviews/

    Feedback from owners on the new “helpline” is not very encouraging – not surprising since the numbers given are for the Business Listing team and they do not discuss review problems.

    Meanwhile in the UK, the Report of the Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill has offers genuine owners with a legitimate complaint ray of hope:

    “The committee argues that the law has not kept pace with the development of modern communication culture. It outlines a new notice and take-down procedure for the internet, designed to provide a quick and easy remedy for those defamed online and better protection to online publishers. Internet hosts gain the protection of the law provided they act responsibly by following the new procedure. Any anonymous postings must be taken down upon complaint, unless authors are prepared to identify themselves or there is an overriding public interest in publication. The committee recommends changing the law to promote cultural change so that, over time, the credibility of anonymous postings – and the damage that they can cause – is limited.”

    Whether these recommendations will be adopted in the final bill remains to be seen.

    Phil

     
  6. Kathryn Bullock

    Hi Robert,
    Thanks for your reply which provide some helpful background to the original article. I think the games that people play with fake Trip Advisor reviews are not that dissimilar to the games people play with Twitter and other social media channels to boost their rankings. Those with an amazing number of followers who follow hardly anyone and have super duper Klout scores may well look great on the surface but dig underneath and there’s no dialogue or conversation. They give social media a bad name. People do indeed have to look under the bonnet and beyond the numbers.

    I just saw a 1 star review tonight on Trip Advisor on a hotel and found another one from the same anonymous reviewer more than a year ago for the same hotel with the exact same score – looks very suspicious given all the other posts are very positive but could cost the hotel precious business in these hard times. Trip Advisor should be doing more to validate their reviews – their reputation depends on their quality. In our new brave new world of social media your reputation is surely worth defending! Why not differentiate the anonymous reviews from those that are named – why should they be treated as of equal value? Many holiday rental sites differentiate each type of review so why not Trip Advisor? Do you think anyone would take your complaint seriously if you wrote to a hotel anonymously so why do we pay an anonymous reviewer any attention on a review website?

    I look forward to reading your next two articles. Just tried to follow you but Twitter is over capacity again – reckon this will be an even bigger issue once everyone starts installing their social plugins on their websites!

     
  7. İbrahim Canbulat

    Great
    and very informative article
    Thank you

     
  8. Kathryn Bullock

    Interesting article but there is a simple question we should all be asking Trip Advisor. Why do they not start asking people to provide a name and state their dates of stay at the hotel? This would
    1) enable the hotel to investigate their review more easily if issues are raised
    2) provide a more trusted review
    3) deter competitors from sabotaging the reputation of competing hotels and companies from loading fake reviews to boost their rankings.

    I’ve worked with hospitality clients and it is often very difficult to research a Trip Advisor review or issue if the reviewer has not provided enough information to carry out an investigation or provide a detailed reply. This is not in anyone’s best interests, so the review sits there as a deterrent to any future booker and the hotel is powerless to be able to resolve the issue raised.

    I’ve just come back from #WTM2011 where Trip Advisor have just announced that they are have set up a new European Customer Care team based in London and they do now take down all reviews that are in a dispute until they have been resolved.

    They do not promise to deal with disputes within a specified period of time but it’s a step in the right direction given the lack of response to hotels in the early days. Hotels are after all potential clients to them aswell. Part of the issue is that not all hotels have taken the time to respond to complaints in a constructive way as recommended. None of them can afford to ignore reviews as they play such a vital role in the customer’s decision to book.

    I have to say that “truthiness” and “trustularity” sound a bit like jargon for the sake of jargon which is the last thing we need to add to discussions about social media as many consumers and businesses are confused enough as to how it all works. I could not view the video as it was not available to be able to draw any further conclusions but appreciate the spirit of sharing so thanks for that and do let us know when the video is back online.

     
    • RobertKCole

      Thanks Kathryn.

      I think the answer why TripAdvisor does not ask people for names & stay dates are simple – 1) it will reduce the number of reviews and 2) guest privacy concerns – perhaps in that order.

      The problem for TripAdvisor is researching the reviews can be extremely difficult – especially when the reviewer does not want the source to be easily discovered.

      I intentionally used truthiness and trustularity incredibly important to consider when discussing social media. They go with the territory – and it is a very new territory for most. I lambasted Erik Qualman’s original Socialnomics video in a blog post a few years ago. He promoted social media (and his book) based on inaccuracies and sensationalism – here’s the link: http://www.rockcheetah.com/blog/social-media/socialnomics-should-not-be-voodoo-economics/.

      There are two more installments – the second deals with the black-hat techniques being used and the third covers some methods to improve the reliability of the process.

      Let me know what you think afet reading the next two installments.

       
 
 

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