Does TripAdvisor have a problem with fake reviews?

by Christopher Elliott on July 17, 2012

Who is hunnyb62?

The answer matters to Daniel Corcoran and a group of contributors to TripAdvisor’s Baltimore forum. It should matter to you, too.

TripAdvisor, which claims to be the world’s largest travel site, bills itself as a place that offers “trusted advice from real travelers.” Corcoran, an office administrator in Baltimore, says that trust was broken when a string of flattering write-ups about the Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel began appearing on TripAdvisor and Sheraton’s corporate site in June.

“These reviews have always awarded the hotel the maximum five stars,” he says. “They gush about the wonderful service.”

Corcoran has never stayed at the hotel, so he can’t say whether the reviews are fair. But the sudden influx of raves aroused his suspicions. As part of a group of self-appointed travel site watchdogs, he’s aware that some properties have found ways to sprinkle the Internet with bogus reviews.

So what’s the problem? Well, the integrity of user-generated ratings is important. Fake reports don’t just sway travelers into booking a hotel that doesn’t deserve their business or turn them away from one that does. They also destroy the credibility of the host site.

TripAdvisor says it ferrets out fakes with a proprietary fraud detection algorithm, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which owns Sheraton, says it also has an aggressive policy toward manufactured ratings.

Corcoran started asking questions and connecting dots. On the Sheraton site, most of the reviews were coming from a user named hunnyb62. On TripAdvisor, similar write-ups appeared under different user names from various cities. Yet they were all saying the same thing: The City Center Hotel was one of the greatest properties ever.

Corcoran tried to contact the reviewers to determine whether they’d stayed at the hotel. He says that no one responded. He asked TripAdvisor whether the reviews were legitimate. More silence. But Sheraton agreed to look into hunnyb62.

A Starwood representative responded to him by e-mail, saying that although he would not be able to discuss the details of Corcoran’s complaint because of  “a privacy concern,” he could confirm that there was a “known glitch in our review system.”

“We have identified a fix and are working to address it,” the representative wrote.

But that wasn’t enough for Corcoran. He asked me to help him solve the hunnyb62 riddle.

I asked Starwood whether it could fill in a few details. Helen Horsham-Bertels, Starwood’s senior director of consumer affairs, said after concerns about hunnyb62 were raised, she spoke with the hotel’s general manager.

“The manager confirmed that her team was encouraging guests to share their positive experiences,” she says. One employee in particular had been “a little overzealous” in her efforts to recruit positive reviews. “That said, the reviews are legitimate and an honest assessment of the guests’ stays,” Horsham-Bertels says.

So, then, who is hunnyb62?

The Starwood system arbitrarily assigned that handle to certain reviews — an electronic hiccup that Horsham-Bertels says has been fixed. “I can also offer you our assurance that the hotel team will be less aggressive going forward in their encouragement of guests to post reviews,” she told me.

What about TripAdvisor? A representative told me that the site had removed “a number of reviews” of the City Center Hotel in response to a complaint, but it declined to say how many. It also erased the forum thread in which Corcoran and other members had presented their initial concerns, claiming that the discussion violated its forum guidelines.

“No system is perfect,” TripAdvisor spokeswoman Amelie Hurst says. “We’re continually working to stay ahead of those attempting to game the system.”

I sent her response to Corcoran and his cohorts, who deemed it unsatisfying. They say that TripAdvisor should be more forthcoming about the way it identifies and deals with questionable reviews. Its approach to the string of Sheraton reviews, Corcoran adds, makes him “uneasy.”

“Why remove the thread?” he asks. “They could have simply added a note declaring the matter closed and locked it.”

TripAdvisor’s actions are troubling to me, too. And a little ironic.

Here’s a publicly traded company that has made millions by offering a platform for user-generated reviews, insisting that transparency would help the entire travel industry. Yet when it comes to being transparent about the way it operates, it goes strangely quiet.

When questions about the authenticity of a review are raised, the legions of reviewers who made TripAdvisor what it is today deserve a prompt and unambiguous answer. In fact, we all do.

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  • http://www.heritageletelfair.mu/en/mauritius-accommodation Mauritius Resorts

    That’s not a crucial move by TripAdvisor.

  • Peter

    Which is why I never trust just one or two Trip Advisor reviews, but look – instead – at the overall tenor of the reviews (both positive and negative).  Especially if you omit (in your mind) those reviews that are extremely positive and those that are extremely negative (usually due to some specific event or failing), TripAdvisor has always been very helpful.

  • Jpmccarthy

    I can attest to having experienced and reported to TripAdvisor what I believe were fake endorsements on a local Bonita Springs, FL restaurant, Molino’s.  A few reviews were most detailed and very similar in content.  Nothing apparently has changed. 

  • http://www.hobotraveler.com/blogger.html Andy Lee Graham

    I would guess that 75 percent of the review are gamed by the Hotels. I have been receiving comments on my Travel Blog and Web Sites for over 12 years. The sure tell of the truth is when their are mispellings, awkward sentences, and truly bad English. Yesterday, here on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, me and Jeff went to look a Hotel that two Mexican girls said was perfect. We both started to laugh, the Hotel was horrible. I said, “What happen is myopia, they have only been in one hotel and never compared it to others” They have tunnel vision. I have live in 1000-1400 hotels in 14 years of perpetual travel, I can talk about the Hotel bundle of benefits for hours. How does a person that went on a vacation for a week, lived in one hotel know much, the only thing they can do correctly, is complain, and TripAdvisor whitewashes the complaints. Andy Lee Graham of HoboTraveler.com. Thanks for being brave Ellliot, to talk about the truth is the sign of a good Travel writer, when all is too good, a person should not believe. Andy Graham HoboTraveler.com

  • DCTA

    I tell my clients to read TripAdvisor and throw out all 5s and all 1s and then read the rest – paying most attention to the 3s and 4s.  THEN even more important, look at reviewer photos – not the professional one.  I feel you can learn more about a property from the “unstaged” photos than you can from most other means.

    It is a useful site for basic research but should not be the final decision point.

  • Haloastro

    There’s no “glitch” that would “accidentally assign” the same UN to reviews submitted by (supposedly) unique users (I’m a programmer), so that’s a load of BS for sure.  It sounds like Starwood spoke to the hotel, the hotel realized that they’d been caught posting/encouraging biased reviews, and they agreed to keep things on the D.L. by deleting the thread and essentially sidestepping the review complaint.  That is the simplest explanation.

    Hotels are often posting fake reviews, and I find it hard to believe that management at their parent chains doesn’t know anything about it – it does help their revenue after all.  

    Personally, I don’t particularly consider TripAdvisor to be a very credible site for reviews, given that they have no way to verify the reviewer actually stayed there.  Their “propriety algorithm” claim sounds very vague, and therefore I’m suspicious of its effectiveness.  I have read several reviews of places that I have stayed in multiple times, and it’s very obvious to me that the person writing the review never actually stayed at the hotel.  Instead, I only look at a few of the reviews that rated the hotel as average to try to get a sense of the trend of experiences, and I pretty much ignore all the 1-star and 5-star reviews.  Or, I look at sites that only permit a review to be submitted by a user who has purchased the stay.  One way that I spot the fake reviews is by reading some the 5-star ones that read/sound just like an advertisement, and use the same language that is on the hotel website.  Those are obviously fake reviews.

    To me, it’s unfortunate that rather than spend time and effort actually doing the jobs that they’re paid to do better, some hotel staffs are gaming the system to fool unsuspecting guests into staying at their hotel.  I know that I will purposely avoid any hotel that I suspect is posting fake reviews, just because I can’t help but wonder what they are trying to hide.

  • Haloastro

    That’s a great tip about the reader photos – I forgot about those :).

  • Pauletteb

    Another recycled article!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LFBLSYLEETJFIOUZAR2T4LTBFQ Jeffrey L

    First of all, of course hotels try to game the system, either by offering perks for reviews (or outright begging) and also hiring people to fake post.  Tripadvisor is better than most at catching them, but the sheer volume of posts means it takes a while (disclosure – I am a TripAdvisor DE).

    I asked about it once, and the response was basically we don’t want to give away our alogrithm because it may make it easier to game the system.

     

  • Vicki

    I generally just use TripAdvisor for the user photos. I use them to get an idea of how the place will look.

  • http://whichhotel4me.com/ Spencer

    Interesting post. That is why we promote our verified guest reviews system. 

  • Jim Loomis

    I trust good reviews that include one or two minor complaints; ie: room service took 45 minutes to bring dinner; no convenient electrical outlet for plugging  in laptop, etc. No fake review would include any negatives’

  • http://www.clubvillamar.com/ Anonymous

    Interesting share.. I think, the finest and the best reviews makes people comfortable and important for them to plan the trip. The sharing of pictures are also necessary for the trip.

  • Anonymous

    Trip Advisor also selectively decides what reviews to post. What they do is the following: If they do not like a property, they do not post user reviews for it thus pushing it down in the list. I have posted many reviews (legitimate) on Trip Advisor and most the time they get posted right away. A few they want email verification for. That’s ok – as they just want to be sure the reviews are yours.

    I have stayed at some properties though and the review just stays in the queue and after about a week and a half disappear. For these properties I then write a second, third, and then fourth review. I contact Trip Advisor and ask what is up – usually this is met with no response. after a week and a half, each subsequential review disappears. as such, I have stayed at a place; written a legitimate review; and Trip Advisor if they hate a property just won’t post the review.

    Hopefully it is just a technical issue that causes it – but if it is motivated by some internal policy it is quite disturbing.

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