Hotel Oracle review packages
 

Inside the murky world of gaming hotel reviews (and TripAdvisor’s stealthy response)

It’s a concept that has been talked about for years – companies that work on behalf of hoteliers to deliberately seed reviews on TripAdvisor for a fee.

But we now have evidence of a company – Hotel Oracle – that is targeting hoteliers around the world (and claims to have had some success) with promises of the following:

“…writers from across the world write reviews about your establishment. These reviews are guaranteed positive, and each review is written by a different writer.”

Tnooz was sent an email from the owner of a hotel in Australia.

The hotelier says Hotel Oracle approached the company over email by explaining how it could help the hotel increase revenue by upping his hotel’s rating in TripAdvisor, offering seeded-review services in various sites like TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Hotels.com.

Entire email received from Hotel Oracle:

Dear [X],

We’ve spent a bit of time going over your Tripadvisor and Booking.com ratings.

I’ll explain the Tripadvisor process from your ie. [Hotel X]’s perspective.

Tripadvisor senior reviewers from across the world will post favorable reviews of the [Hotel X] on Tripadvisor. Minimum 4 star, and mostly 5 star.

We’ve worked with hundreds of hotels across the world – to great results, often bringing them from an early 100 rank in their region, down to a top 10, within a few months.

I noticed your rank of #3 in [Location X]. To get you to #1, we’d do the following:

1. Post the more recent positive reviews – Tripadvisor gives recent reviews more weight than old ones.

2. Post reviews using our Senior Reviewer and above account – Tripadvisor gives much more weight to reviews by senior members

3. Increase your average rating, from its current 4 to 4.5

4. Increase your total number of reviews

With the combination of the above 4, it’s possible to rank even higher than a hotel that has more reviews/a high average rating.

I’d recommend we start off with a 16 review package – gradually built over the course of 2 months. We could do it quicker if you want, but only if there’s a strong reason to. I always recommend a measured approach with clients.

The 16 review package should get you down to at least #2, if not #1. If it doesn’t I’ll throw in up to 4 reviews more.

The difference you’ll see in sales, post a much high Tripadvisor rating – will be staggering, as it has for many of our past clients. For many people, the Tripadvisor reviews of a hotel strongly influence their decision on whether to book or not.

Also, we offer Expedia/Booking.com and Hotels.com review packages – but these are priced differently than our Tripadvisor services.

Please let me know if you’d like more information, or have any further questions. Thanks!

The hotelier was concerned, for a number of reasons but mostly because the process “seems very wrong to me and illegal and also very unfair”.

We looked a little bit more into Hotel Oracle and found some interesting information:

1) The company’s FAQ page says it has been in business for four years and has served 1,500 hotels and restaurants in getting reviews up in TripAdvisor.

However, a quick look at domain information in WhoIs reveals that the website was registered only in June this year, less than two months ago.

Hotel Oracle Registration

2) The company mentions only its paid-review service in TripAdvisor, not any seeding to Booking.com, Hotels.com, despite being mentioned in the email to the hotelier.

3) The FAQ section claims the service is perfectly legal.

Our editor Kevin May posed as a UK-based hotelier and discussed with a Hotel Oracle’s representative in their online-chat-widget. Below is the conversation. [Me is May]

  • Me:7:48 AM – Hi there
  • Colleen:7:51 AM – Hello. How can I help you?
  • Me:7:51 AM – Do you have a telephone number I can call someone on, please? We’re really keen on learning about your services but would prefer to talk to someone over the phone, if at all possible? Please let me know – I am based in the UK and would be eager to chat today if possible (it’s early here – not sure where you are based?)…
  • Colleen:8:00 AM – Given the nature of the services we offer, we don’t usually encourage phone calls
  • Me:8:01 AM – Not sure I understand?
  • Colleen:8:01 AM – Basically, email is our preferred medium of communication
  • Me:8:02 AM – ok… Well, I’m just about to open a property in the UK and would like to learn more about your services – is there any chance at all that I could chat with someone today? I’d just like to learn more about how it works and if there is any risk to my property if I use such services (I had the impression TripAdvisor, for example, doesn’t particularly like seeded reviews) So, is there a chance I can talk to someone please?
  • Colleen:8:08 AM – Ok. can you send across an email to info@hotel-oracle.com, I’ll try to get someone from the sales team to talk to you
  • Me:8:08 AM – Excellent – many thanks
[Note the comment that is underlined above.]

In its services page, a user will be able to buy seeded reviews in various packages. For example: A pack of three reviews can be bought for $67.

Hotel Oracle review packages

When Tnooz contacted TripAdvisor to check whether the paid-review service is in breach of its guidelines, it replied:

“Our position on this is very clear. TripAdvisor is against any attempts to manipulate a business’s ranking on TripAdvisor through the submission of fake reviews.

“Our investigations team proactively catch those trying to solicit fake reviews for money, and we warn any business considering employing a company offering these services to be very cautious – the firm they employ could be one set up by TripAdvisor. Any business found to be using such services to deceive the consumer will be penalized.”

The interesting line here is underlined above. When we asked TripAdvisor to help us understand this better, it responded:

“What we mean is that we warn hoteliers that if they attempt to use these type of sites, they could end up visiting a site set up by our investigations team to catch owners who attempt to manipulate our rankings.

“Any incentivisation of positive reviews is strictly against our guidelines, and business owners caught attempting to do so will be penalised.

“We can’t confirm or deny which sites are or aren’t set up by us as, for obvious reasons, it would undermine our current investigative efforts.”

Get the point?

Now, TripAdvisor will neither confirm or deny if Hotel Oracle is a site created by it to catch hoteliers or restaurateurs who fall for paid-review services, but the experience when interacting with the reviewing company so far indicates not (as you’ll see from the conversation below).

What is interesting is the confirmation by TripAdvisor that it is going to such lengths as to create ghost organisations in order to track down hoteliers eager to enlist the help of such organisations which will seed positive reviews about a service.

A TripAdvisor official will not disclose how many such or

Tnooz has repeatedly asked Hotel Oracle to respond to questions regarding its practices and whether it abides by TripAdvisor’s guidelines.

This is the response we received via the chat function on its website (Me is editor Kevin May again]:

  • Colleen:2:31 PM – Hello
  • Me:2:31 PM – We are writing a story about Hotel Oracle and its tactics with regads to seeding positive TripAdvisor reviews. This is vehemently against TripAdvisor’s policies. What response do you have? We have also written directly to your company to ask for a response. We are aiming to publish our story shortly. My name is Kevin May and I am editor of Tnooz.com. My colleague Karthick Prabu has also been in touch.
  • Colleen:2:32 PM – We originally started out the service to Hotels to help hotels when competitors post bad reviews on tripadvisor. Because that’s a huge problem with the Tripadvisor listings
  • Me:2:33 PM – But TripAdvisor says what you are doing is against its guidelines. I have a statement from them clearly outlining this.
  • Colleen:2:33 PM – But the service is in the process of being stopped. So there is not much that I can say
  • Me:2:34 PM – Really? You emailed a hotelier (who informed us) just days ago pitching this particular service.
  • Colleen:2:34 PM – Tripadvisor has big loopholes in its system, which Tripadvisor themself needs to remove first
  • Me:2:35 PM – That is your opinion and we will fed that back to TripAdvisor – but essentially you are offering a service which is against the guidelines and could penalise hoteliers.
  • Colleen:2:36 PM – You need to educate yourself on the system first. Find out how big of a problem the competitors posting bad reviews really is. Anyway, we’re out after this weekend.

NB: Additional reporting by editor Kevin May.

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Karthick Prabu

About the Writer :: Karthick Prabu

Karthick was general manager for Tnooz in Asia until September 2014.

 

Comments

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  1. Gonzalo

    Its good news tripadvisor is setting up these ghost sites. However, actively offering hotels this ‘service’ by email would be entrapment in my opinion. I doubt they would go that far.

     
  2. Mandy Green

    Great work! “…we do not usually encourage phone calls.” Wow.

     
  3. Pete W

    Good investigative journalism – but you do realise that you forgot to remove the hotel’s name on the first pass? That sort of information is dangerous to not remove.

     
  4. Michael Georgeson

    Fascinating article and indeed it is encouraging to see proactive work from TripAdvisor in this space. The operator who reported this has forwarded the communication to the Accommodation Association of Australia as well and the pitch is quite blatant and almost comes off as if it is TripAdvisor sanctioned which clearly is not the case. One can imagine that some operators do get very frustrated with their status and reviews on TripAdvisor, our own research indicates well over 50% has experienced false negative reviews of one form or another but contributing to the problem is not the answer. Well done Tnooz.

     
    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @michael – yes, the pitch was certainly cloaked in terminology that made it sound it was a TA-supported initiative. Fair play to the hotelier for bringing it to wider attention.

      I just wonder how many property owners have weighed up the risk of improving their ranking against the penalties if they get caught.

       
  5. Martin Kelly

    Good work guys.

     
  6. Chris Thurston

    Great investigative journalism (OK, so might not be Woodward and Bernstein exactly but refreshing to see an outlet that actually does the hard yards).

    They may have taken the page down but here’s an archive.org look: http://web.archive.org/web/20130625114915/http://hotel-oracle.com

    And imgur: http://i.imgur.com/Itm2wFN.jpg

     
    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @chris – HA! Thanks for sharing those 🙂

      and thanks for the kind words.

       
  7. RobertKCole

    Great article – obviously a black-hat player in the reputation management space,

    As a follow-up to the series of Tnooz posts I did on the subject 20 months ago (see https://www.tnooz.com/2011/11/14/how-to/social-media-and-seo-created-a-mutant-in-travel-introducing-fake-review-optimization/), below are a variety of groups that I highlightedin the final installment that are still operating today –

    http://www.paladinrep.com: “Identifying ‘positive’ web pages, blogs, forums, articles, or pages that we control, that can be quickly elevated in the search engine rankings using optimization strategies. These pages blanket and replace negative listings”

    http://reputationmanagers.com: “We guarantee that we will rank at least 5 asset sites on the first page of Google within 90 days or we’ll give you your money back”

    http://www.reputation.com: “Utilizing our proprietary technology and tools, ReputationDefender® can drive down negative search content and promote positive, authentic content”

    http://hotelreputationmanagement.org: “We aggressively improve your online reputation so that the negative and often libelous content posted about your hotel is driven down well beyond page one, two, three, four and five of the search engines”

    Fiverr:

    Perhaps not as blatantly black-hat as http://hotel-oracle.com, but based on how they describe what they do, perhaps more gray-hat or barely toeing the creepy line… It still remains treating reviews like SEO – in many cases the same rules apply, but the difference is that there are no Google spam police changing the algorithm to combat unsavory practices.

    Or, as I also mentioned, you can do it yourself with freelancer at:

    Fiverr: http://fiverr.com/gigs/search?query=reviews ($5.00 can buy one or many reviews – fast…)

    Elance: http://www.elance.com (A recent posting for 50 500 word travel reviews per month received 3 bids at $3 per hour.)

    Very happy to see TripAdvisor being more proactive. Also fascinated to see the offer of gaming verified accocunts like Expedia/Hotels.com & Bookings.com verified reviews.

    If the fake reviewer books through the OTA, it would appear that the simply price would go up based on the margin/commission paid to the intermediary. so for a hotel charging $200/night, at a 20% OTA commission level, it would cost the hotel $40 per booking, plus whatever the black-hat agency charges.

    While one week stays would be 7x more expensive, one can imagining hotels calculating the ROI for a top ranking on the “verified reviews” site… In short, if the hotel is verifying the stays or the OTA is verifying the bookings, how much more can they be trusted than anonymous reviews.

    All interesting questions, but these only raised based on the processes of the stupid players who are not maintaining fully covert operations.. You can guarantee that the ones running totally under the radar are much more sophisticated, effective and expensive…

    As I maintained in the series of Tnooz posts, my guess is that it is going to get worse before it gets better.

     
    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @robert – yes, that was a terrific series of posts. Thx again.

       
  8. Bernie

    Terrific article.

     
  9. Vagablond

    Great story! And good catch- Hotel Oracle may be one but there are probably others. Any online review is a great resource of info for travelers if the info is truly from honest (good or bad) experiences. An attempt to stack the deck in favor of a hotel that is not performing will probably not work to the hotels advantage any way. News of bad service or a less than desireable facility travels through more sources than just one on line resource. Travelers should search multiple sites to research a location. Glad that Tripadvisor is working to identify and stop these types of actions.

     
  10. Margot Bigg

    Great piece and good on the hotelier who forwarded you the pitch! That there could be any doubt about whether such activity violates TripAdvisor’s policies is beyond me.

     
  11. Margo De Bruin

    The Con of Cons comes to mind – The corrupt attracting the corrupt! As so it goes on and on whilst the industry suffers nobody knowing what to believe.

     
  12. Heather Turner

    LOL “Hotel Oracle is currently undergoing scheduled maintenance.” http://hotel-oracle.com/

     
    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @heather – yes, was about 10 mins after our story went live… 🙂

       
    • Anil Varghese

      Now not even maintenance – possibly disappeared 🙂

      TripAdvisor is one of the top referral sites which ‘convert’ to bookings for half of our hotel clients. Our experience is that if the hotel has offered wow service, it shows up in the reviews. No need to depend on any review generators!

      It’s shady operators like this who create a confusion and doubt not only at hotelier’s level (was that negative review from my competitors?) but also at the guest’s level (all reviews 4 or 5 star – this hotel seems shady!).

       
  13. Frederic Gonzalo

    Excellent article and proactive enquiring with a matter that is a heated topic in the travel industry! Keep it up!

     
  14. Andre Privateer

    I give props where props are due. This is great reporting on a subject that effects us all. Bravo !!!

     
 
 

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