hotel review fraud fake fraudulent tripadvisor expedia
789 days ago
 

TripAdvisor responds to a provocative study of bogus online reviews

Online reviews are a vital part of how consumers pick hotels, but the rating system used by TripAdvisor encourages small hotel owners to game it with fake reviews, says an academic study.

Published last week, the study looks at a half-million reviews posted as of October 2011 for 3,082 hotels cross-matched among TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Smith Travel Research, with additional cross-corroboration on Orbitz. You can read the study, here, as a PDF.

The researchers write:

“The net gains from promotional reviewing are likely to be highest for independent hotels that are owned by single-unit owners and lowest for branded chain hotels that are owned by multi-unit owners.

Furthermore, we show that the hotel neighbors of hotels with a high incentive to fake have more one- and two-star (negative) reviews on TripAdvisor relative to Expedia.”

hotel review fraud fake fraudulent tripadvisor expedia

The empirical analysis focuses on just two travel websites: TripAdvisor and Expedia.

Anyone can post a review on TripAdvisor, while a consumer may only post a review of a hotel on Expedia if he or she actually books at least one night at the hotel through the agency. (Expedia spun off TripAdvisor last year.)

Study says: Watch out for the franchised properties of name brand hotel chains

The study focuses on hotels that may seem the same to the average traveler yet actually have different ownership or management.

For example, the study says regional franchisees and independent owners have an incentive to artificially boost ratings for their own hotels.

Small owners are about 10% more likely to receive five-star reviews on TripAdvisor than they are on Expedia, relative to hotels owned by large corporations.

The researchers also claim the owners have an incentive to post bad reviews on hotels owned by competing regional hoteliers. The study found these owners have 16% more one- and two-star ratings than those with hotels owned by large companies located up to half a kilometer away.

A hotel that is located next to an independent hotel owned by a small owner will have 5 more fake negative reviews compared to an isolated hotel — on average.

The authors estimate that, on average, “an independent hotel owned by a small owner will generate 7 more fake positive reviews (out of 120).”

The authors say they found “relatively more positive manipulation than negative manipulation, even though the order of magnitude of the two is similar.”

The authors of the study were Judith A. Chevalier (Yale School of Management; National Bureau of Economic Research); Dina Mayzlin (USC Marshall School of Business); and Yaniv Dover (Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College).

TripAdvisor responds

TripAdvisor’s Kevin Carter responded to the study by e-mail:

Anecdotally, we know from TripAdvisor travelers that the personalized service, value and quality
that certain smaller properties offer resonates with them, as is often expressed in their reviews and opinions.

We take the authenticity of our reviews very seriously and have numerous methods to manage the legitimacy of the content on TripAdvisor, including automated screening tools that are constantly upgraded.

A team of quality assurance specialists investigates suspicious reviews which are flagged by our proprietary tools or the passionate TripAdvisor community of more than 50 million monthly visitors.

We know that the sheer volume of reviews on TripAdvisor allows travelers to get the complete picture of a property, and make an educated decision based on the opinions of many, before they book their trips.

According to a recent PhoCusWright study commissioned by TripAdvisor, 98% of respondents have found TripAdvisor hotel reviews to be accurate of the actual experience.

It’s because of the valuable advice on TripAdvisor that travelers keep coming back.

Note: The July 2011 PhoCusWright study is not available to the public, but was a survey of 3,641 respondents solicited at random through a pop-up invitation link on TripAdvisor’s US site.

TripAdvisor made a broader case for its reviews in its post on its company blog last March.

In April Robb, senior manager of content at TripAdvisor, told Tnooz:

“The majority of reviews on the site are positive. Three-quarters of all TripAdvisor reviews are rated “very good” or “excellent”, and the average rating on TripAdvisor is just over four out of a possible five.”

To put that statistic in context, TripAdvisor’s reviews are somewhat less positive on average than Expedia’s, where only users who book rooms are allowed to review properties.

The academic study claims that “hotels with a high incentive to post fake reviews have a greater share of five star (positive) reviews on TripAdvisor relative to Expedia.”

Expedia responds, too

Given that Expedia’s reviews were also examined in the study, we asked the company for its view. Sarah Keeling, director, public relations and social media at Expedia, said by e-mail:

“We believe that consumers put a lot of trust in us to provide them with the best information possible when booking their trip.

That’s why Expedia reviews are vetted and verified. Expedia takes multiple steps to ensure the validity of customer reviews, including the step of ensuring that the reviews are posted by travelers who have paid for a room in the hotel they are reviewing.”

What else could TripAdvisor and Expedia do? Another new study suggests an option

Could TripAdvisor and Expedia do more to battle fake reviews? Possibly. This summer, researchers revealed how math can be used to detect false reviews.

Researchers at State University of New York, Stony Brook, developed a formula that can detect when fradulent reviews distort the standard statistical distribution for hotel scores.

Translation: The statistical technique can’t tell if an individual review is fake, but it can tell if there is a high likelihood that some of the reviews of a particular hotel are fake. A computer could flag a hotel for having a non-standard distribution of star ratings for a manual review.

Researchers said they found fraudulent reviews 72% of the time. (The study can be read here.)

TripAdvisor hasn’t said if it will adopt this specific method of mathematic sleuthing — which was first reported in Technology Review — or any similar investigative method.

TripAdvisor’s Kevin Carter, manager, business & trade public relations at TripAdvisor responded to the second study by e-mail:

TripAdvisor uses frequently evolving and highly sophisticated filters (more than 25) to scan reviews for biased material, monitoring a wide range of attributes associated with electronic correspondence.

Suspicious activity is then flagged for further inspection by our team of dedicated agents who use a variety of additional confidential investigative methods designed to identify potential fraud.

So, for more background, we have three primary methods to manage the legitimacy of reviews:

1. Systems. Reviews are systematically screened by our proprietary site tools that are frequently upgraded.

2. Community. Our large and passionate community of more than 50 million monthly visitors help report suspicious content.

3. Quality Assurance Teams. An international team of quality assurance specialists investigate suspicious reviews that are flagged by our proprietary tools or community.

Also of note, in April, TripAdvisor did appoint Andrew Marane to the new position of Director of Content Integrity.

There’s no magic cure for policing online reviews, no technique to prescribe that will be foolproof.

In the meantime, the US Federal Trade Commission has stepped up its investigations into companies paying for positive and negative reviews online in violation of national regulations.

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK upheld a complaint against  TripAdvisor from online reputation firm Kwikchex and two hotels in January this year.

The complaint argued wording on TripAdvisor’s UK website, such as “reviews you can trust…from real travellers…and trusted advice from real travellers”, was misleading because the company could not prove reviews were genuine or from real travellers.

NB: Image of villain with laptop from Shutterstock.

 
 
Sean O'Neill

About the Writer :: Sean O'Neill

Sean O’Neill is a New Jersey-based reporter for Tnooz. He's also a regular contributor to BBC Travel.

Follow him on Twitter, Google+, and his personal site .

 

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  1. Pete

    Given that it is so easy to fake reviews, depending on just one or two reviews when sussing out a hotel is liable to produce very varied results. One solution for travelers is to go with the chains that offer a homogenized product, which is not good news for independent establishments.
    While some of the latter may be involved in frandulent reviews on Tripadvisor, most are not; the truth of the matter is that most independent hotel owners have very little idea of the importance of getting themselves visible on the Internet, and are also reluctant to forfeit the sizeable commission that they have to pay out if they want to get listed with OTAs.
    there is a discussion of this dilemma here: http://independent-hotels.info/OTAs-and-small-hotels.htm

     
  2. Stephanie Baziuk

    I feel most reviews are either from competitors who use this tool to discredit other businesses or from angry people with chips on their shoulders who will use any opportunity to vent negativity.

    Trip adviser does business a huge dis-service by posting negative comments with out disclosing the names of the people posting. Anonymity is a coward.

    Trip adviser need to take full responsibility for the damage they do to business by providing a venue where anonymous attacks can be made against a business. .

    Positive comments are to a great extent written by business or by friends and family of the business to counter act the negative. Trip adviser has forced businesses to do this for self preservation. The fact is: Most people who have a positive experience will not go to the trouble of spending their valuable time searching out trip adviser on the internet to write positive comments about their stays. People on vacation tend to stay in many hotels and they don’t spend the first week at home writing about every hotel they stayed in.

    Lets face it. Most people who operate in the range of normal, have better things to do with their time. I would like to see those who post negative comments put their money where their mouth is. I strongly support a ten dollar fee for negative posting with name disclosure. This I feel would weed out most of the BS in trip adviser.

    Exactly how bad was your experience. Is it worth $10.00 to you to make yourself heard ?

     
  3. Rob Morelli

    The fake review problem significantly diminishes the value of these sites. There needs to be some layer of accountability for reviews to be trusted. There is also a motivation problem… some people who post on sites like TripAdvisor (when not fake) often do so out of some recent experience that compels them to tell the world about it. This is usually “loved it” or “hated it”. Tout’d (www.toutd.com) provides for social accountability as you only get reviews from friends or friends of friends. You also get recommendations that are in response to a friend’s request for a recommendation. The motivation for posting a review on Tout’d is to help. This makes reviews more valuable, trustworthy, and actionable. Check it out… tell me what you think about it.

     
  4. JB

    As a respondent to TripAdvisor, I can say we tell it like it was whether or not our experience was good or bad. Last summer our pan of an Alaska hotel brought a strongly worded denial of our TripAdvisor review from the property manager. My point is who are travelers’ more likely to trust? The relatively rare 1* or 2* reviews or the 5* management-produced reviews? It’s so easy to dismiss the former as a cranky, hard-to-please traveler.

     
  5. Anthony Rawlins

    What a great debate,

    The simple questions here is do we open up our reviews system for anyone to add content or do we keep this for customers only?

    The difference is often highlighted by capturing a small amount of content, and a larger amount of more attractive, broader content.

    Yes, Expedia have been able to capture reviews of their hotels – but by only speaking with hotel customers they are missing the opportunity of capturing reviews and ratings for attractions, destinations and getting their opinions of new audiences, who they want to attract.

    Also, lets be honest, hotel reviews are pretty one dimensional. What about photos and videos of destinations! That’s what travel is about, inspiration!

    Hotel reviews have been around for over 10 years now and many companies have been very slow to pick up on capturing more engaging content.

    Trip Advisor does this well with is destination information but on the hotels reviews front, TA hasn’t really moved on that much at all since its launch.

    Companies implementing a reviews system have the choice to be the same as everyone else, and capture text only hotels reviews – or they can be adventurous and forward thinking and capture review, ratings, photos and videos of hotels, attractions, destinations, restaurants etc….

    By the way – this kind of content is brilliant for driving your social media channels too!

    Through experience, we recommend a two prong approach. Email your customers to ask them to add their hotel reviews, but also leave posting open to any online visitors to add their experiences of the destination, food, attractions etc….

    And in case you wanted to know how to do this, here you go http://bit.ly/Q600Kt

     
    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      THanks for adding your voice on reviews systems, especially the relevance to social channels, too.

       
  6. Mike

    When you click on the request pricing link on the homepage of guest comment you get “Whoops, we can’t find that page”.

    I think the idea is a good one (depending on the pricing of course), but I think people would be less likely to leave negative comments if they are still on site at the hotel. They might leave helpful suggestions, but isn’t this the job of the hotelier to communicate with their guests if they have any problems or suggestions? Another simple way to do this is email guests after their stay to see if they had any suggestions or ideas for improvement.

     
    • Andy Beal

      Thanks Mike. We moved the page, but forgot that link. I have fixed it.

      You’d be surprised at how many people wish to avoid a face to face confrontation, but still want resolution. Also, not every hotel is provided with the guest’s email address–crazy but true.

       
  7. Rajesh

    Yes. IMO, that is just one among others for remaining on top…

     
  8. Sean O'Neill

    Sean O'Neill

    Hi, Rajesh,
    Interesting thought that Google’s algorithm favours sites with lots of user engagement, so that keeps TA reviews at the top of SERPS.
    Best,
    Sean

     
  9. Rajesh

    and considering the fact that google has sufficiently changed their algos to reward user engagement and it being a know fact that they are already rewarding significant boost to sites with a lot of user reviews, fraudulent reviews are set to be too rampant in the next couple of years.

     
  10. Kevin May

    Kevin May

    Okay, we’re finished with the plugging, folks ;)

    [looking at you GuestComment ;) ]

     
    • Andy Beal

      Sorry Kevin. I’d only planned to leave just one comment, but didn’t want to leave any questions towards me left unanswered. I’m done now. ;-)

       
  11. Ryan C Haynes -

    What’s this – promote guest review technologies?

    What’s interesting about this study is potentially how desperate independent business is to try to starve-off competitors through social media, hoping rankings will lead to increased bookings. Is this another sign of the death of independent business? It’s all about chains and brands? And what could this mean for individuality in hotels?

    I’d be interested to learn what the HQ of these franchises say about these fraudulent reviews – what damage can it do to that brand?

    Whatever it means, it does show guest reviews are big business (which is why RateTiger launched a guest review management tool – there – my subtle mention!)

     
    • Olery

      Haha, sorry, just couldn’t help plugging our product after Sean’s encouragement on Andy’s.

      On topic: I don’t think it’s about ALL individual companies being desperate, but just the one’s that are not able to cope with social media. In every business (or even outside business) there is a minority screwing up things for the rest. I think this discussion is about how TA is dealing with this 10%.

      Besides that, there are also great numbers of successful cases of individual hotels that have greatly took advantage of the possibilities social media especially as a result of enabling them to reach great audiences with little resources. Just by being original or delivering exceptional services to real guests.

       
      • Ryan C Haynes -

        BTW – do you know the law here – it’s fraudulent, so what regulation does it fall under ASA? – so the hotel can be prosecuted? Or the author?

        Working in Marketing & PR, I’ve known quite a few freelance colleagues who’ve spent their days writing reviews and I know an agency that, at least until end of last year, made money from independent and hotels to write reviews for them on TripAdvisor…so it’s also a Marketing ethic…and were these reviews actually posted by an agency..?

         
        • Lori Main

          As a hotel marketing manager who responds to EVERY review we receive if it is negative and over 40% of the positive, I find it chilling that this type of activity on behalf of some innkeepers makes suspect the value of online guest reviews.

          TripAdvisor and OTA sites that allow guest exchange is not just good for the consumer, but good for the hotelier. “Reputation Management’ at its’ core allows for the hotelier to “hear” our guests. Guest insight is often enlightening and more often than not a bit humbling—- to read how a single individual made a guests stay with us one for the memory books is truly one of the many reasons this industry is so rewarding for me.

          Online review is in my estimation an incredible gift to our industry. There are myriad hoteliers that use guest input to better their product or praise the team creating the fabulous outcome.
          While it may be imperfect on some level, it is, without a doubt, a tool to aid the hotelier to respond as needed and necessary to our guests’ insights… and if I dare to state —
          isn’t this what the hotelier is supposed to do? Hear the guest and respond to their needs?

          That some are writing bogus reviews to the universe I pronounce–it will be found out if their reviews are not authentic… that is, after all, the power of the web!

           
    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve reached out to several of the franchises to ask them about these fraudulent reviews – will report back if they respond…

       
  12. Olery

    Good elaborative post! This discussion however will last and last until there will be found a way to combine TA’s open nature with acceptable verification method

    @Andy: Totally agree! The exact same reasons we had for launching, next to our online reputation tool, a similar product (Olery Feedback) in March.
    http://www.tnooz.com/2012/03/05/social-media-2/hotels-using-new-olery-feedback-system-to-head-off-social-media-pain/

     
  13. Andy Beal

    The potential for fraud at online review sites is just one reason we launched GuestComment. By using a kiosk located at the hotel, it virtually eliminates fraudulent reviews.

     
    • Sean

      Hi, Andy,
      Thanks for letting readers know about your GuestComment initiative.
      Best,
      Sean

       
    • Peter Daams

      Andy, I can see how Guestcomment is useful for hotel owners to get real-time feedback. If it’s only communicating with them then fraud would indeed be minimal. Mainly because there’s not really any good reason to post fraudulent reviews.

      But if these reviews are going out to the public, wouldn’t it still attract fake reviews? What’s stopping the hotel owner from posting a nice review on their own kiosk? Or more importantly, what’s stopping the owner from withholding the device from unhappy guests and only providing it when it’s clear the guest is happy? Or the other problem that we quite regularly see on our site – hotels actively encouraging guests to leave glowing reviews in exchange for a freebie of some sorts. All these types of fraud seem just as likely. Or maybe I’m missing some subtlety about your system that prevents that also.

      Here’s another reason why Expedia reviews might be less positive on the whole – consider the fact that Expedia would be sending these guests an invite to review the property (at least I assume they do the same as all other OTAs). This means they are getting reviews from people who may not have left a review otherwise. Typically, people who really love or really hate a place will go out of their way to review where they stayed and will head to the likes of Tripadvisor to do so. But those with mediocre experiences usually just don’t consider it worth the effort of reviewing. A prompt from the booking agent might stimulate more of those types of reviews though.

       
      • Peter Daams

        Just looking at your site I see that the hotel owner basically has control over which reviews are posted?

        “Publish to the web only the reviews you choose”

        In other words, the entire balance of reviews shown will basically be fraudulent. Or if “fraudulent” is too strong a word, at least not very trustworthy. If I was a possible customer of a hotel using a system like that I would just not believe any word of it and head straight back to somewhere where negative reviews are also allowed.

         
        • Sean

          Peter,
          Thanks for your insightful contribution to the discussion!
          Best,
          Sean

           
      • Andy Beal

        GuestComment’s first objective is to provide a conduit between real hotel guests and management. Any issues or concerns can be dealt with before the guest returns home–and potentially writes that scathing Tripadvisor or Expedia review.

        A hotel manager doesn’t need GuestComment in order to make up fake reviews for his web site. Only those hotels truly interested in seeking out guest feedback and improving, will benefit from GuestComment.

         
        • Peter Daams

          Got it – and that’s a valid service to offer.

          But when people leave fraudulent reviews on sites like Tripadvisor, they’re trying to trick other consumers into either booking or avoiding that place. They’re not really trying to trick management are they? So I don’t really see how “The potential for fraud at online review sites is just one reason we launched GuestComment” actually makes any sense.

           
          • Andy Beal

            Fraudulent hotel reviews–good or bad–are a big waste of time for hotel management. With GuestComment, the reviews are authentic, so management can spend their time fixing issues, responding to genuine complaints, or, feeling good about legitimate praise. ;-)

             
 
 

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