Who Do You Blame for Fake Hotel Reviews?

Have you caught the most recent Hotels.com ad yet? The commercial is only somewhat interesting, but there’s an important tagline at the end that hits on problems facing the online hotel review industry.

You should have used hotels.com. Their genuine guest reviews are written by guests who have genuinely stayed there, instead of people who lie on the Internet.

Hotel review sites have been plagued by fake reviews – either by businesses bribing guests or hiring agencies to buff up their results. While most hotel sites claim to have 24/7 teams reviewing posts and flagging suspicious activity, some eventually slip through the cracks. Is this because the hotel sites aren’t doing enough?

Example: TripAdvisor

November 2013

Last November, a senior executive of Accor hotels was caught posting positive reviews of its franchises across the world on TripAdvisor. Peter Hook, self-proclaimed Director of Propaganda, reviewed 106 hotels in 43 cities in the span of a couple years. While that amount of traveling is in fact possible, it’s a blatant conflict of interest for a senior executive to be anonymously reviewing his hotels.

Furthermore, these reviews weren’t even somewhat honest. Under the username Tavare, the executive made such comments as, “I didn’t know much about the hotel scene so booked a brand I knew well. It turned out to be a good choice.” Right, he doesn’t know much about the hotel scene.

No good astroturfer is worth his or her salt unless they’re badmouthing the competition as well. Hook posted several negative reviews of competing hotels – Hiltons, Wyndhams, etc. – which obviously stood out against the majority four and five star ratings.

In the end, he was foiled by the TripAdvisor Facebook App. The main website lets reviewers stay anonymous, but the app pulls information from Facebook and displays the user’s name, picture, and location.

When you look at this scenario, you can blame two parties: the hotel or the review site. There’s a decent argument for blaming both.

Blame the Hotel

In the TripAdvisor example, Accor (or at least Hook) should be blamed for trying to con the system. It was the company, or one executive’s bad decision that lead to hundreds of fake reviews that possibly mislead consumers in order to increase sales. This same instance happened with New York restaurants on Yelp. The city ended up cracking down on the businesses for corrupting the platform.

In a way, hotel and restaurant online reviews are similar to drug dealing or prostitution. If you go after the druggies and “Johns” instead of the dealers and the ladies of the evening, then the demand will get cut off. Too often, we see the dealers and ladies serving jail time instead, which is only cutting off the supply – which will soon be met by others. To circle the metaphor back, if the hotels are punished severely for posting fake reviews, (with drop in rankings, deleted postings, and even banishment) then they won’t hire agencies or do it in-house.

(I understand that this logic is hotly debated in the criminal justice system and SEO industry, so feel free to argue your side below.)

In late February, Forbes listed a few characteristics of hotel “Johns” to help people spot potential fraud. Hotels that have competing neighbors, and are small, independently owned, non-chains have the most to benefit or lose from posting fake reviews. This is because they’re most likely run by passionate business owners who have a lot to lose, and because tourists aren’t as familiar with the brand names. Small businesses have to compete with travelers who simply check-in to the town’s Marriott instead of looking into local names.

Blame the Review Site

TripAdvisor and Yelp aren’t completely innocent in these scenarios, either. When the Accor scandal came out, a spokesperson said the company had no plans to add an additional verification step to the review process. She also confirmed that TripAdvisor has a team of specialists operating 24/7 to spot and remove fake reviews and the posters behind them.

While the spokespeople assured users that TripAdvisor was completely secure, reputation firm Kwikchex begged to differ. The agency rated more than 20 hotel review sites based on verification steps and fraud detection processes, awarding the traditional one star for poor security and five stars for the best. Yelp was at the bottom with one star (along with Google and Yahoo Travel) and TripAdvisor wasn’t much better with two stars.

Where did some of your favorites land? Orbitz and Expedia both had three stars, Booking.com had four, and Responsibletravel.com had the only five star rating. Expedia and a few other sites have opted to use third party verification to stay secure, which boosts their security ratings; however, those sites are so popular and widely used that it’s impossible to catch everything.

Both Parties Should Share the Guilt

Corrupt hotel owners have no place writing fake reviews, hiring agencies to boost their reputations, or bribing guests. Similarly, there is significant room for improvement in catching and eradicating these astroturfers.

But what about Hotels.com, the website from the beginning of this article that claims all of its reviews are written by genuine guests? It earned an unremarkable three stars. Don’t believe everything you read online, and don’t believe everything you hear on TV.

About the author

Amanda Dodge