Hotel review sites

Think twice and double-check before trusting a user-generated review.
 
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01 .Reliability check

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User-review sites are the second-most trusted source of information for consumers around the world - easily beating out editorial content, ads and marketing. Only personal recommendations from friends are considered more reliable. So it's no surprise that 88% of Aussie travellers check user reviews before booking a hotel. 

TripAdvisor is the world’s biggest online travel review service by far, with more than 260 million unique visitors every month to websites based in 30 countries. The free service has published more than 100 million reviews covering in excess of 2.7 million places to stay, eat and visit. But how trustworthy are the reviews? 

Regulatory intervention

In February 2012, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) forced TripAdvisor to drop claims such as “reviews you can trust” and “trusted advice from real travellers” from its website. It turned out to be a good bit of regulation. In May this year, the general manager of communications for Accor hotels in the Asia-Pacific region was caught posting more than 100 positive reviews on TripAdvisor for Accor hotels around the world. (The manager used a fake name in reviews but claimed he’d stayed in the hotels.) Unfortunately for Aussie travellers, the regulatory action only applied to TripAdvisor’s UK website. The Australian and US sites both still claim that TripAdvisor “offers trusted advice from real travellers”. 

Yet that’s hardly any truer here than it was in the UK, since local hotels have been known to post glowing reviews for their properties and slam the competition - a ruse known as astroturfing

TripAdvisor was caught out again in July this year when a UK restaurant that had received rave reviews and increasingly high rankings over a couple of months turned out not to exist. Since the ASA ruling, TripAdvisor has repeatedly defended the reliability of its site. In June this year, its global vice president of sales, Julio Bruno, visited Sydney for a travel industry event, where he argued that fake reviewers eventually get caught.

The local accommodation industry, at least, is not convinced. In August last year, the Accommodation Association of Australia published survey results indicating that half the 381 hoteliers in Australia who took part regard TripAdvisor reviews as inaccurate. And more than half of respondents had been threatened with a bad review or had a malicious review posted about their hotel. “TripAdvisor won’t fact check, so they’re seemingly unconcerned with the facts surrounding a guest’s stay,” says AAA CEO Richard Munro. “We had one property accused of theft during a checkout transaction. The property offered video evidence showing the theft did not occur, but was denied the option of the accusation being removed.” 

 
 

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TripAdvisor spokesperson Jean Ow-Yeong told CHOICE it has “a world-class international team of specialists that spends 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, making sure our reviews are real”. Further, the team can “handle 21 languages, has a wide range of fraud-detection backgrounds and utilises sophisticated data-mining, visualisation and analytic tools to uncover patterns of abuse”. Ow-Yeong added that TripAdvisor has used “sophisticated filters and behavioural modelling” to scan for fake reviews for the past decade.

Yet, according to our calculations, TripAdvisor’s “nearly 100” fraud monitors would be responsible for checking about a million reviews, assuming its claim of publishing 100 million reviews since starting out in 2000 is correct. It's not hard to see how a fake might slip through the cracks. 

TripAdvisor allows registered users to report reviews they think are suspicious, but this only goes so far. Among other concerns, there’s nothing to stop a hotelier from maliciously reporting a positive review for a competitor as suspicious. However, TripAdvisor told us that user input is a mainstay of its fraud-detection system. “Our large and passionate community of more than 260 million monthly visitors lets us know if they see something amiss,” Ow-Yeong said. 

Third party players

In the absence of more reliable ways of checking whether reviews can be trusted or not, third-party verification services have begun to crop up. One in particular that appears to be changing the game is UK-based Feefo, which partnered with four Expedia websites in Europe (UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands) in February this year. 

The arrangement appears to give Feefo significant reach, since Expedia claims to offer access to 160,000 hotels and 400 airlines around the world. We asked Feefo why travellers should trust reviews on these sites and others it manages (including some sites of Expedia subsidiary Hotels.com) more than those on TripAdvisor. Head of marketing Paul Cranston told us it’s mostly a matter of ensuring the reviewer was actually a customer. 

“Our relationship with merchants is built on the condition that they provide information about every transaction, and this is used to give every customer the opportunity to submit a review,” Cranston said. “As part of the process, we request either a transaction identification reference or evidence there has been a commercial relationship. This process, skipped by other review providers, assures consumers of the trustworthiness of Feefo ratings and reviews.” 

TripAdvisor said it has no plans to partner with an independent verifier. 

We also asked a number of other review providers, including Hotels.com, Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia Australia, whether they had any processes in place to verify the authenticity of reviews. Despite repeated follow-up attempts, only Hotels.com got back to us. Public relations rep Taylor Cole told us: “We only allow guests to post reviews to our site if they have booked the hotel on hotels.com and have completed their stay. Once the stay is completed, we send the guest a link so they may write a review. No incentive is offered for this information.” 

We asked Expedia Australia whether it would be adopting any verification processes to help ensure its reviews are trustworthy. Unhelpfully, we were grilled by a third-party PR agency on behalf of Expedia about why we wanted the information, but didn’t get an answer to our questions in the end. The US-based Travelocity and Orbitz also didn’t respond to our inquiries.

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Without independent checks, some basic detective work can help filter out the fibs. 

  • Check reviews about the same business from different sources. 
  • Keep an eye out for telltale signs of fakery, such as a sudden increase in positive or negative reviews over a short time frame that don't quite fit in with earlier reviews. 
  • Beware of reviews that appear to be submitted by different people but are suspiciously similar in tone and style. 
  • A one-star rating by a reviewer for a five-star hotel should be regarded with suspicion. 
  • A website, reviewskeptic.com, developed by prestigious Cornell University in the US, claims to “identify fake hotel reviews with nearly 90% accuracy”, although a disclaimer mentions the service “is offered for entertainment purposes only”. 
  • UK-based KwikChex verifies the authenticity of online reviews for businesses and allows customers of its clients to raise concerns. 

TripAdvisor tips 

We also asked TripAdvisor for tips on how to ensure its reviews are reliable. 

  • Becoming a registered TripAdvisor user may seem like surrendering your anonymity (to the extent that you have any at all online!), but you’ll be able to find out more about the reviewer and the hotel and be in a better position to check on the review's authenticity. You can opt out of being sent promotional material. 
  • Check the public profile of the reviewer to see what other reviews they’ve posted. Do their reviews seem balanced and consistent? You can also email the reviewer directly with questions about a specific property if you’re a registered user.
  • Connect with Facebook friends who’ve posted reviews on TripAdvisor - another way of double-checking the authenticity of a review.

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