Online DNA – how TripAdvisor puts reviews under the microscope

For years TripAdvisor has kept how it vets its reviews a closely guarded secret, prompting calls for verified reviews and column inches from the media on supposed mistreated hotels.

Now, the review giant is shedding a little more light on how it keeps the boosters, vandals and optimizers at bay.

The company feels strongly about the verified reviews route and says it believes its scale of the reviews is what maintains its content integrity and that verified reviews are still open to manipulation.

The process it takes follows a general pattern – review is submitted and goes through an automated process with about 50 filters for integrity and moderation issues.

It then falls into one of three paths:

  • no issues are identified and it is published.
  • definite issues are identified and it is rejected e.g. for profanity – the system scores words and gets more accurate at removing inappropriate reviews.
  • issues are highlighted and the review needs closer scrutiny by an analyst to determine whether it meets guidelines. It is then published or rejected.

TripAdvisor says it has a bank of 300 content specialists, many of who have backgrounds in law enforcement, credit card fraud and even forensic computing.

Business owners also have a role to play and can report a potential blackmail situation i.e upgrade or bad review. TripAdvisor senior vice president, global product, Adam Medros, says 80% of the time no review materialises.

He adds that of the 139 reviews the company receives every minute, the percentage that is problematic or fraudulent is in the “low, low single digits.”

He argues that the gain is not worth the risk and the threat of penalties alone is enough to put most people off.

That said the three most common problems are boosting, vandals and optimization companies and this is where the process gets interesting.

As part of the vetting process TripAdvisor uses visual analytics tools which highlight normal review behaviour versus fraudulent behaviour.

trip dna reviews

The image shows healthy reviews on a property on the top left versus dubious activity on the bottom right.

Without giving too much away, Medros says signals are gathered including IP address, reviewer history, information gleaned from owners and the community

“By understanding what normal behaviour looks like from a forensic perspective, TripAdvisor is able to identify suspicious activity.”

He goes on to talk about connections in the data being made along the way such as the device being used and the time of day which go further in alerting the company to signals it should be concerned about.

In March 2014, TripAdvisor received a review about a hotel from the property’s own IP address. Straight away an email was sent to the reviewer for verification, the user did not respond and the review was not published.

Later, in July, a second review was submitted on the hotel from the same reviewer and hotel IP address and again, an email was sent to verify. This time the reviewer responded.

The TripAdvisor team then put his/her name into publicly used systems such as Facebook to reveal that it was a member of staff.

“So now we have other reviews that start to form clusters of behaviour. As we start to dig in the weak signals start to become strong.”

While the above example set out to boost the property’s standing on TripAdvisor, the removal of a fraudulent review has the opposite effect.

Next comes vandalism whereby properties seek to increase their own ranking by lowering that of the competition around them.

Finally, there are optimization companies out there which promise to write reviews for a price, say $500 for 10 reviews and TripAdvisor responds in a number of ways when dealing with these companies.

  • It can examine the reviews submitted for a particular property and identify other clients being written for.
  • Where it spots review writing jobs being advertised it applies for them enabling it to write some reviews, identify the property and from the sort of text required, uncover other properties
  • It can act as an optimization firm itself

Medros points out that with when it catches a property working with optimization firm and starts to take down reviews, the property’s ranking slips down.

“More effort and focus should be put around the optimization firms. There are regulations but little enforcement. We don’t mind being held to a standard but others have to be equally pursued.”

One recent example resulted in 150 properties being penalised for working with a single optimization company.

But, why has TripAdvisor decided to open up all of a sudden?

According to Medros there as been internal debate for some and one reason is to simply give the content integrity team credit for its work.

A further reason is to do with the discussions happening around content law and who owns the copyright on review content and therefore has the power to take it down

“We can’t talk about the right to write without all the safeguards we put in place.”

NB: Crime scene tape via Shutterstock.

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About the Writer :: Linda Fox

Linda worked at tnooz from September 2011 to June 2018 in roles including senior reporter, deputy editor and managing editor.



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  1. LIZ Andrea

    I m having a problem with trip advisor and feel very frustrated and sad. I lost my job in 2001 crisis of Argentina. I decided to leave the country also with a professional degree and english language and after years working at big corporates. I spent bad times. I started by myslef and creativity (degree in tax account+postgrade in strategy) to do private tours in buenos aires (2004) when Mark Zuckerberg started. I was the only one and it was my original idea. Few years later I joined trip advisor and let me work and pay my food and expenses. Competitors grow up and I dont know how to organise myself. What I do know is that once I go up more than position 18 in the ranking of Buenos Aires attractions there is a fake review posted in Argentina against my business wich was built with hours and hours of working. And Trip Advisor deleted only 3 from 6 of them. And the forum for owners answered. Trip Advisor cant´check the reviews. So : How can a site with seriuos prestigio who grew up from us , now , respond that NOBODY go further investigation .I see how my competitors are buying reviews and how I receive fake reviews. I see that the app is a disaster. I feel part of trip advisor. Is sad and frustrated.

  2. LA

    How TA can review someone that ask their friends around the world to post a comment? I found a competitor that works a lot in facebook and ask for their friends in US to multiply the reviews in her TA also she works for a tour agency and use their visitors (caught by the agency) to post comments for her in TA . Is impossible for me, and individual, to compite with her! Is unfair.

  3. John Kearney

    With the help of technology today, you can filter negative reviews by keeping them in-house whilst helping your guests to promote via Tripadvisor their great comments. Also bear in mind, by creating a few guest video reviews is also a great way that will help you as well with visibility. Bear in mind that 40% of searches are for videos. Take a look at our blog where you can find further information regarding this.

    • Ron

      That is interesting – can you please explain how we can ‘filter’ negative reviews on Trip Advisor?

      • John Kearney

        Hi Ron, We use for our clients a reputation management system that allows guests to comment online about their stay. If they provide a 4/5 or 5/5 rating, then it automatically helps them to copy their comment to Tripadvisor/Google/Facebook. If they give your property a lower rating, then this option does not appear. We also advise our clients to use a tablet on check out for their guests to provide feedback and we also train the reception staff to deal with any poor reviews immediately. we recommend that our clients automatically send an email to all clients the day after their stay to connect to our online feedback form. You cannot eliminate all negative reviews but what you can do is help guests to post positive reviews and keep in house as much as possible negative ones, thus if you do get a poor review it will quickly be replaced by positive ones on Tripadvisor. From experience, while technology helps to filter negative comments, it is also dependent on having a great front office team talking to guests and making sure any unhappy ones, do not walk out the door without being heard and their comments resolved. We also highly recommend that hotels consider creating 30 second client review videos as 40% of all online searches are for videos.

        • Ron

          Thank you. That is a quite different approach, and we can see how that has the potential to work in a large Hotel environment; which we are not. However, the point I was making in my initial comment was that that currently one can do ‘nothing’ about reviews written by those that have not stayed, ones where the writer admits in their review that they have not stayed, but are still being published by Trip Advisor. Those reviews are knowingly being published based upon a lie – and there is no equity in that behaviour.

  4. Sheila

    And I know for a fact that this is true! More than 27 languages are covered by these analysts, of course it takes time to go back to everyone, do you think you’re the only one writing reviews? Have you read in the interview Adam saying that the reviews go through filters? It takes time, that’s why the reply or publishing is not straight away. The customer support team was built to mostly take care of owners’ issues, that’s why there’s a helpline. As a user I can’t complain about the company, always sent me emails when the reviews were up to standards (guidelines) or removed. The charity this company do is unbelievable, they don’t go braging about it, they treat their employees with respect and dignity giving them oportunity to grow inside the company. I think just that for me is enough to judge their character.

  5. Mauro Calbi

    A way for avoiding fake reviews is to delete the top list. It’sn’t funny to find your hotel with all conforts, good service, heated swimming pool in a worst position than others with minor performances. Reviews are opinions, and you know, we’re different.

  6. Mike

    300 on their fraud staff???? That is a lie. I know for a fact that it is a very small team and they take days to get back to you about the review posted on your page. They don’t even have 300 people on their customer support team that support millions of hotels, restaurants, and attractions!
    I would stop looking at the integrity of the reviews and look at the integrity of the company. But hey they are a big corporation now, you can’t expect to tell the truth. LIE LIE LIE and if you get caught in that LIE, just LIE so more.

    • Tia

      Oh Mike – without a credible source, you’re just running your mouth. Those who know about the processes at TripAdvisor can confirm that customer support has nothing to do with investigations and that the fraud team indeed spans across the entire continent with many teams in multiple countries. It’s not a small team by any stretch of the imagination. Unless, of course, you like rumours and conspiracy theories.

      • Ron

        Why isn’t one of the 50 filters that if a writer states in the review they did not stay then that review does not get published. Very simple to implement and that would stop a lot of pain caused by those people who lie to have their negative (and generally malicious) review published. Examples:

        Surely to knowingly publish reviews that are based on a lie has to say something about the integrity of Trip Advisor itself?


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