6 years ago

How to combat Fake Review Optimization in travel

NB: This is the third 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.

The first instalment of this series showed how social media and search engine optimization aligned to create an environment that rewards hotels with high customer ratings.

This led to the second part, providing an overview of black and grey-hat methods used to artificially improve client rankings and undermine competitors. The series continues with a further two parts: in this article, some white-hat best practices, and in the final piece, some changes that will inevitably be coming.

Black hat Online Reputation Management (ORM) groups are parasites. By making Fake Review Optimization (FRO) a discipline, they spread misinformation to game a growing social web, eager to improve travel planning and discovery through crowd-sourced knowledge.

The worst part is that FROs are smart, competitive parasites – the type that are unlikely to kill their hosts, but merely feed off of them indefinitely. Their clients tend to be hesitant to unplug in fear of losing rank and its associated volume-driving revenue stream.

Whack a FRO

Unfortunately, a reactive approach to the challenge posed by RFOs is not effective. Striking a single astroturfed review or having a single sockpuppet profile deleted is akin to scraping party ice from an iceberg.

The ability to generate faux user generated content at will, with the appearance of having it originate from disparate sources and locales, is difficult to stifle. By nature, FROs are exceptionally good at hiding and one can assume that contingencies have been planned in the event of satellite operations being compromised.

Conventional methods to track FROs like blacklisting reviews originating from common IP address, a technique borrowed from email anti-spam filters, are too simplistic, catching only those least likely to have the ability to launch large scale campaigns capable of materially impacting a hotel’s online reputation.

Circumstantial evidence such as ratios for reviews to the number of occupied rooms or the ratio of frequent reviewers to anonymous reviewers may hint at atypical levels of guest engagement. Additionally, flurries of positive reviews following posting of a negative review may appear unnatural.

Jumping to the conclusion that such flags are evidence of malfeasance is inadvisable. They may indicate a hotel is doing an excellent job of legitimately engaging its community of guests. Or, it just may be a coincidence.

Without being able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the review source was illegitimate, protests are likely to fall on deaf ears when brought to the attention of the review site or authorities.

Researchers at Cornell University claim to have developed algorithms that isolate fake reviews based on sentence structure and word utilization. While the research methodology identified certain patterns, the sources of the fake reviews were not professional FROs determined to blend in with the crowd.

Algorithmic solutions may not work at all to eradicate fake reviews. As the Google webspam team can attest, any algorithm that is not constantly improved will inevitably be beaten by those seeking higher rankings.

The ability to A/B test reviews of varying sentence structure, length, pronoun use, etc. gives the FRO an ability to quickly adapt to algorithm updates.

Flushing review spam is much more difficult than web spam. Web spam teams can create an algorithm based on hundreds of signals originating from third party sources such as backlinks, page layout and the characteristics of on-page assets.

Those fighting fake reviews have a very limited signal set which is predominantly language, IP address and profile based. Additionally, travel review sites are very hesitant to accidentally suppress legitimate reviews as collateral damage in a war against FROs.

Attempts at educating the public to be wary of fake reviews also fall short. Most popular is proposing an “Olympic scoring system” approach to evaluate reviews by throwing out the high and low scores and focusing on those remaining in the middle.

With a finite number of reviews, it is simple for a FRO to evaluate how a hotel appears under any combination of filters applied to the review set.

Others have proposed ignoring reviews over a year old and more heavily weight the importance of fresh updates. Unfortunately, reducing the sample size by eliminating the history actually assists the FRO to skew property ratings by using fewer bogus reviews.

White hat best practices to beat the odds

For hotels plagued by negative reviews, the solution is to capture positive reviews without resorting to black or grey-hat tactics. A great first step is to take a close look at one’s own operation…

Some of TripAdvisor’s most outspoken critics, who complain about attempts to remove negative reviews, operate establishments with mixed reviews from reviewers with confirmed identities.

It becomes a simple task for a FROs to capitalize on operational shortcomings that are mentioned in legitimate reviews. Marginal air conditioning, slow room service, indifferent desk clerks, etc. can all be easy targets for someone seeking to justify a lower rating – especially when the review is fictional.

By far the best strategy to avoid negative reviews is to obsessively focus on the guest experience. Every aspect of a hotel’s design and service delivery must be considered from the perspective of the guest.

The simple rule of thumb is that if something doesn’t positively impact a guest’s experience, stop doing it. When it comes to high hotel review rankings, guest experience – as measured by guest satisfaction – is the only Key Performance Indicator that matters.

Hotels have an unfathomable number of guest contact points – each is an opportunity to help transition the guest from a customer to a brand advocate. Each is also a potential point of failure that can undermine trust and quickly lose hard-earned goodwill.

A single lapse in judgment from a newly hired employee can easily undermine the exacting service standards, processes and policies established by management.

The guest experience also needs to fulfill the brand promise, especially when the halo effect is so important to cross-selling hotel brands. It is what every hotel headquarters strives for – the consumer’s assumption that the next stay will be as good as the previous one.

Unfortunately, a single disappointing stay may provide sufficient motivation for a previously loyal guest to sample a competing brand.

Hotel management must avoid the temptation to drive sales volume by over-committing and under-delivering. The consistent execution of standard operating procedures is essential. If rooms are not clean or facilities well maintained, the only thing keeping a flaw from being shared across an extended social network now is a tap on a smartphone’s camera shutter.

A video of a bug crawling on a wall lives forever on YouTube.

One guaranteed method to earn positive hotel reviews is to exceed guest expectations. Providing sufficient flexibility for staff members to bend rules in order to help solve guest problems also goes a long way to winning over a guest.

The reality of the hotel industry has always been that consistent service delivery is rewarded with loyalty. Loyalty is not transacted through frequent guest programs, steep discounts or big prize sweepstakes. Loyalty is earned – and best measured by a guest continuing to patronize an establishment despite its higher price or slightly less convenient location.

Actions resonate better than words

Hoteliers must remember a hotel stay is a personal experience and social media is a conversation. A hotel must strive for open and authentic communication with its guests before, during and following a stay.

Take action based on guest input. Every interaction with a guest is an opportunity to LEARN.

  • Listen – Actively attempt to see the issue from the guest’s perspective. Guests may have varying degrees of enlightenment pertaining to hotel policies. Understand that a guest’s perception is their reality.
  • Engage – If the opportunity presents itself, engage in an interactive discussion. Ask questions; clarify facts; determine if other guests who remained silent were also impacted.
  • Act – Fix the problem. If you are a hotel General Manager, you might consider making these the only three words on your job description…
  • Repeat – The service failure is not fixed unless it is corrected by a process that can be reliably repeated in the future.
  • Notify – If you have successfully changed operational processes based on the input of a guest – especially one who was dissatisfied – make certain that they are thanked and credited for their input. This communication will be even more powerful if the steps taken to avoid recurrence can be included, as well as relating the impact it has made on other guests.

Technology is readily available to assist in each phase of the LEARN process – both online and offline. When it comes to managing online customer reviews, the marketplace is becoming increasingly crowded with companies offering tools to actively monitor social sentiment online, interactively respond and track trends over time.

Various strategies exist for engaging customers posting both positive and negative reviews. In short, every hotel is different, as are their customers, so a single approach does not necessarily fit all. Respecting the opinion of the guest, responding with an authentic voice and providing transparency regarding steps taken to resolve the issue are essential.

No, every review does not require a response, but some with strong positive sentiment and most with strong negative sentiment deserve a response. Responding to negative critiques helps position the hotel as attentive and responsive. At the same time, engaging belligerent comment trolls can be detrimental.

Handling guest reviews is not a spare-time task assigned to an entry level employee. Depending on the profile of the property and the availability of capable, well-trained resources internally, contracting a reputable (e.g. non-black-hat) Online Reputation Management firm may be a beneficial option.

Before rushing to outsource guest engagement processes, hotels should be applying the LEARN concept as a cornerstone of their business. Hoteliers work within the HOSPITALITY industry. Four Seasons Hotels founder and chairman Isadore Sharp described the secret to hospitality best:

“The reason for our success is no secret. It comes down to one single principle that transcends time and geography, religion and culture. It’s the Golden Rule – the simple idea that if you treat people well, the way you would like to be treated, they will do the same.”

Having spent eight years working for Sharp, I can say that if you take exception with any facet of his statement, not only are you in the wrong business, but you probably deserve those negative reviews.

Provide ample opportunities for reviews

To be clear, the hotel is the sole beneficiary of a positive guest review, not the guest. They key to ethically receiving positive guest reviews is to make the process clear and simple.

Provide the guest with a clear call to action – ask the guest to provide reviews not to help build your business, but to gain a sincere understanding of their personal level of satisfaction with the facilities and service delivery. These requests can be tastefully positioned on key card sleeves, guest folios, in-room collateral, signs at the front desk, etc.

It should be noted that guests should avoid entering reviews from computers located on-property as some review sites may flag the hotel’s IP address and reject all reviews as being potentially authored by the hotel.

Make it easy for the guest to respond – Inevitably, both business and leisure travelers become very busy upon their return home, catching up with various activities that were postponed by the trip.

The key is to provide the opportunity for the guest to provide their opinion through whatever sites and/or channels that they prefer. If the guest is highly engaged with a particular social network, that is exactly the place you want a positive review to appear – highly engaged individuals typically have greater influence over a broader range of peers within their network.

A holistic customer engagement strategy can effectively introduce several social sharing opportunities without appearing too aggressive or desperate for a positive TripAdvisor review. Social sharing links may be included in emailed copies of guest folios or post-stay thank you communiques along with links for review sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google Places.

If the booking channel is known, links back to the booking site’s review platform or the hotel chain review collection site are also worthwhile.

If social profile information has been captured and a follower relationship has been established, it is perfectly acceptable to direct message Twitter followers or Facebook fans following a stay to thank them for the pleasure of their company. Note that if any return-stay incentive is provided, a request for a review should be isolated in a separate communication.

Trying to direct the user to use an unfamiliar review website increases complexity and should be discouraged. It should also be noted that an individual’s positive Google+ review could potentially have greater impact on members of a guest’s Circles than the first review they have ever posted as an unknown entity on TripAdvisor.

It’s not rude to remind a guest that you are interested in hearing an honest assessment. Evaluate all guest touch points. Simply providing a sheet of QR codes that link to various review sites upon departure is a good example. Guests with smartphones can easily trigger the code with their camera and submit a review in a taxi back to the airport or using the Wifi on the plane.

Deep linking should be used whenever possible. On a mobile device, linking directly to a hotel’s TripAdvisor review page will launch the reviewer’s TripAdvisor mobile app if they have already downloaded the app and are registered users.

Using A/B testing techniques and email analytics, one can discover the most effective means to secure reviews, including the optimum messaging, timing, review site options and form factor of the hardware used.

Brand new review sites

Starwood and Marriott recently announced the introduction of guest views on their respective websites – one can expect other major hotel brands to follow suit.

This might be considered a logical extension of Chinese military strategist Sun Tsu’s adage from 400 BC:

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Overcoming the fear of a guest airing a hotel’s dirty laundry on their own website, hotel chains have finally come to the conclusion that if these views are being expressed, it is better to be aware of them and have an opportunity to apologize, explain or respond.

This is a very smart move by the hotel chains for several different reasons:

  • Engagement strengthens guest loyalty. By engaging guests, especially frequent guests, loyalty should be increased.
  • As all reviews will be validated as actually staying at the subject hotel, fake negative reviews should be dramatically reduced compared with third party review sites.
  • Hotel ratings trend higher when customers are not anonymous. Expect positive reviews to be more prevalent than negative ones.
  • Loyal guests are more forgiving of service lapses. Past experience tends to makes guests more familiar with policies and more understanding of gaps.
  • The hotel brands can expect some loyal guests to emerge as champions that will come to the defense of the brand they love.
  • Social media is narcissistic. Guests love to brag about their travel experiences, especially when associated with a popular brand.

For the reasons outlined, don’t expect a high ratio of negative reviews. It is anticipated that this functionality will turn out to be more important for frequent guests and read more like a fanzine than a neutral third party review site.

NB: This is the third 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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  1. 5 ideas para evitar falsos reviews en los hoteles | Blog TRW

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  2. Lou Gerber

    “Researchers at Cornell University claim to have developed algorithms that isolate fake reviews based on sentence structure and word utilization. While the research methodology identified certain patterns, the sources of the fake reviews were not professional FROs determined to blend in with the crowd.”

    Actually, the commercialization effort of the Cornell Researchers can identify MILLIONS of fake reviews on TripAdvisor, so I’m assuming many are Crowdturfed. The growth rate of fakes is about 300% in 2 years.

  3. The problem of Fake Reviewers

    […] was surprised by some of the reviews I'd read of hotels in which I'd stayed. Then I came upon this: How to combat Fake Review Optimization in travel | Tnooz which was very interesting…. BigD __________________ You make your own luck. […]

  4. DigitalVisitor

    Excellent article! Definitely agree that encouraging customers to become brand advocates is a great idea. Here’s an article we wrote recently about using TripAdvisor against your own review solution that you may find interesting http://bit.ly/snS4JG

  5. Joan Court

    Our B&B operation has been running ‘the same’ since 1994. We have been very successful up until this past season. Three consecutive negative reviews have ruined our spotless reputation. B&B are gaining popularity across the country perhaps because B&B’s offer a more personal service as guests are invited into private homes. It is difficult not to “Listen, Engage, Act, Repeat and Notify”.

    Just ONE bad review can be damaging; in our case three in a row have shut us down. Our suites are designed and maintained according to years of listening. We redecorate constantly–colours wrong=paint, dont like down pillow=we add others; renovate the bathroom to suit elderly needs; even adding private kitchens with full fridge and stove for diabetic and long term guests. Cant please everyone, but when there are only one to four rooms allowed in a B&B home, it is diffiult to turn a blind eye to comments.

    Even with glowing testimonies from repeat guests, the negatives will echo over and above every time. There must be somewhere to go to post a list of “bad guests” (sneaking in dogs who eat furniture and linens;children who are left behind thinking we are a sitting service ,etc) and what negative behaviors they bring to the establishment!

    We know about these guests as we unknowingly take the booking when hotels refuse.

    But the most damaging are those that are turned away or for what ever reason never show up and then post negative comments. These are the people that only read a sleeve cover, not the book, and tell a different story!

  6. James Kennedy

    This is the single best thing I’ve read this year, I have forwarded the link to all of our hotel clients to educate them about this. Thank you Robert

  7. Stephen

    This is a great article on how important online reputation is to the hotel industry and how some people cheat the system to get a head quickly. Perhaps the best way to ensure good reviews and to ensure a guest returns is to make sure that guest feels comfortable communicating with the hotel every time. If the guest feels comfortable communicating with the hotel, good reviews will follow.

  8. Im Kampf gegen gefälschte Gästemeinungen | Customer Alliance Blog

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  9. Justin Hutchens

    Spot on. All the article needed to say was “Hoteliers must remember a hotel stay is a personal experience and social media is a conversation.”

    Replace Hoteliers with any business selling a product or service. FRO is utter bullshit. If you go to a pub with a bunch of your friends and the person next to you says “that shirt your wearing is awful and it’s offensive” then runs away.
    This is simply slander not a conversation which will be recognized by the public and your friends. If the person remains there and you can reply, “We’re having a loud shirt day at work and this was the loudest shirt i could find. What do you think?” You also give the opportunity for your friends to chime in and help out. Chances are your friends, the watching public and the person involved will laugh it all off.

    The right of reply just isn’t weighted fairly in most review and rating systems which puts the business in an immediately defensive position. As their service or product relies on democratic voting to weed out the extremities. This is a three way conversation between the reviewer, potential customers and the business.

    What i’d like to see is an article on helping businesses understand what Twitter, Facebook, TripAdvisor etc are, how they work, their value and the opportunities they present. Loyalty being key.


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