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Travel Industry Fighting Off Counterfeit Reviews of Hotels, Vendors

4 Nov, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

It’s called ‘astroturfing:’ the posting of false reviews on sites that cater to the travel industry. And right now, it’s a practice the industry wants to weed out. A number of new initiatives are aimed at preserving the integrity of online reviews of hotels, venues and more.

The use of online reviews in site selection has long been ripe for exploitation because of the convenience factor. After all, it’s easier for sports event planners to point, click and eliminate unsuitable properties than it is to travel in order to do it in person. But as Internet commerce continues its explosive growth, attempts are being made in all sectors to regulate the accuracy of the information that appears online to potential buyers.

According to PolicyBlog on MediaPost, Amazon has taken the lead recently in confronting fake reviews which are paid for by the companies that are advertising products on its site. Amazon has accused more than 1,100 individuals of offering to post positive write-ups of e-books and other products, for fees of as little as $5 per critique. In some cases, companies have sprung up to offer their services to bolster reviews. Yelp also has sued three such website operators who allegedly promise to help business owners improve their reviews.

Online travel journals, airfare and hotel booking sites, plagued by similar problems, are also taking measures to stop counterfeit reviewers in their tracks.

ABC News noted, “The influential travel website TripAdvisor has been quietly posting disclaimers to warn customers of hotels writing fake reviews to improve their popularity rankings or hurt competitors.”

The warnings, known as ‘red badges,’ state, "TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that either this property or individuals associated with the property may have attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans." And while some industry members say this casts aspersion onto all online reviews, there is no doubt an event planner appreciates the heads-up when trying to narrow down a list of possible properties.

Amazon recently shuttered its travel booking website, Amazon Destinations, but that move is largely attributed to the site's failure to gain traction in an already competitive arena.

Writing counterfeit reviews has become such an industry that it merited a scholarly paper. Forbes Magazine noted: “A trio of business school professors — in trying to understand the potential effects on consumers and the economy by fake reviews — has identified which hotels are likely to generate or attract fraudulent reviews.

Authors Dina Mayzlin (USC), Yaniv Dover (Dartmouth) and Judith Chevalier (Yale and NBER)  stated that looking at the ‘differences in differences’ of two travel sites with extensive hotel reviews, they have shown that certain hotels distinguished by geography, ownership or management will post more fake positive reviews for themselves and more fake negative reviews for their competitors.”

Their paper, “Promotional Reviews: An Empirical Investigation of Online Review Manipulation”  notes the differences in the ability to post reviews on two travel websites, Expedia  and TripAdvisor.  “While anyone can post a review on TripAdvisor, a consumer can only post a review of a hotel on Expedia if she or he actually booked at least one night at the hotel through the website,” they write.

In some cases of counterfeit reviews, positive information is posted about properties; in some cases, the comments are negative. The research paper noted that, unsurprisingly, counterfeit negative reviews are often posted about businesses with direct competitors close by. And the industry has been trying to right the ship for some time.  In 2010, a hotel in Ireland received an early warning after it was discovered that employees were posting glowing reviews on TripAdvisor.

But hotels are far from the only sector of the sports travel industry to be affected. Vendors of merchandise or services, for example, are able to craft and post ‘customer reviews’ with details on the excellent value and so forth that vendor is providing. In many cases, all that is needed is a comment section and an unscrupulous nature.

Unfortunately, the many honest vendors who do not engage in such practices also find themselves coming under suspicion. Some have simply disabled the ability to post comments on their websites in an attempt to free themselves from having to worry about the whole problem of astroturfing.

In 2013, the New York Times noted, New York regulators announced the most comprehensive crackdown to date on deceptive reviews on the Internet. Agreements were reached with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties. The yearlong investigation encompassed companies that created fake reviews as well as the clients that buy them. Among those signing the agreements were a charter bus operator and an adult entertainment club. Also signing were several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.

A 2012 Gartner study estimated that one in seven recommendations or ratings on social media sites like Facebook would soon be fake. And there have been instances where all the reviews of a product have been secretly bought and paid for by the seller of the product.

For now, the websites are working to prevent astroturfing. Multiple resources also exist to help potential buyers weed out counterfeit reviews. And in general, Googling ‘How to spot fake reviews’ is a great start. However, stopping the industry itself is going to be a process rather than an event.

“Sadly, it will take continued policing, both by law enforcement and the review sites themselves, to make sure some businesses stop lying to customers they claim to serve,” Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, told the New York Times.

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