Excellent Review
Excellent Review

This article is meant to help my fellow travellers in being cautious while booking or rejecting a hotel solely based on its review score on Tripadvisor. But even before I start, I would like to clarify that I have a very high regard for the millions of travellers who share their actual travel experiences through reviews and forum posts on Tripadvisor. These genuine reviews are alone responsible for the massive influence that Tripadvisor has today over the global travel industry’s business. However, sadly, all does not seem well there. In May 2014, BBC ran an online story titled “Trip Advisor ‘fake reviews’ investigated in Italy” (Link: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-27486870). In fact if you type three words in Google: “Tripadvisor Fake Reviews”, you will be surprised to see how hot this topic is. From what I could learn online and from my own personal knowledge and experience, these are the problem areas:
(i) Fake positive reviews by hotel owners to attract more business, (ii) Fake negative reviews by a hotel’s competitors meant to hurt its business. (iii) Totally fake business listings, and (iv) Reviews solicited by Tripadvisor by offering incentives. Now let us talk about the above problem areas one by one…

Fake positive reviews by hotel owners to attract more business

This tactic is used by many new hotels and many of those hotels who otherwise do not have a high review score on Tripadvisor. Fake users are created on Tripadvisor and fake positive reviews are posted to increase the average review score of a hotel. Fake positive reviews are easy to spot too. The fake users do not have a long history on Tripadvisor. Such users would have contributed only a few, maybe just one or two, reviews in all. Their stated location may also provide a hint as to their genuineness or otherwise. I have seen a Hong Kong based Tripadvisor user having posted several positive reviews on the hotels and guest houses located in Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. Another time, I saw a Kandy (Sri Lanka) based user writing several positive reviews on single a hotel located in Kandy over a period of a few months. Sometimes, the Tripadvisor review score of a hotel gets inflated due to a positive review posted by a user who never stayed in that hotel. See this example: A Tripadvisor user review titled “the most helpful people in hk” on Canada Hotel, Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by a user “Hani T” (Total Reviews posted by the User: 1) on February 1, 2014. The user rated Canada Hotel “Five Star” which is the best possible user rating for a hotel. Hani T writes, “we we’re kicked out from our hostel in mongkong the owner sold our room to others even were alreaddy paid online. i came to them but theyre fully booked but managed to helped us to get other room in mongkong. thank you so much.” (Link: http://www.tripadvisor.in/ShowUserReviews-g294217-d2491604-r192724762-Canada_Hotel-Hong_Kong.html)

Clearly, “Hani T” never stayed in Canada Hotel but has contributed a “Five Star” rating that contributes to the overall 44% approval rating of Canada Hotel that has an average review score of 2.0 out of 5. Now consider Tripadvisor’s claim that “Every single review goes through our tracking system, which maps the how, what, where and when of each review.” Funny, this totally irrelevant review was not detected by Tripadvisor’s systems. Disclosure: I am interested in Canada Hotel, Hong Kong due to the bad experience I personally had there. Read my page on “The Good and Bad of Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong.”

Fake negative reviews by a hotel’s competitors meant to hurt its business

Due to the imperfect world that we live in, another equal possibility is of fake negative reviews on a hotel managed by fake users created by the competitors. In such a case, travellers will miss the opportunity of staying in a good hotel if they believe in the fake negative reviews. Again, that leads to the question whether Tripadvisor does enough to remove fake reviews from its site particularly in view of the trust people have in it.

Totally fake business listings on Tripadvisor

Tripadvisor's Second Highest Rated Restaurant in Varanasi
Tripadvisor’s Second Highest Rated Restaurant in Varanasi

Consider this: According to Tripadvisor, “Vishnu Tea Emporium” is the the second highest rated restaurant in Varanasi out of the total 135 restaurants in that city. It is rated 4.5 out of 5 and has been awarded the Tripadvisor “Certificate of Excellence”. The only problem is, Vishnu Tea Emporium is not a restaurant. It is a small shop that sells loose tea leaves. Take a look at the picture of Vishnu Tea Emporium above. That is all this so called restaurant has. Not even a cup of tea is served here. Some Tripadvisor reviews suggest that the owner of “Vishnu” “brought tea and samosa for them from a nearby shop”.

Reviews solicited by Tripadvisor by offering incentives

As many of us know, Tripadvisor offers incentives like “Airline Frequent Flyer Miles” to the users who post hotel reviews on Tripadvisor. As a result, some fake as well as irrelevant hotel reviews appear on Tripadvisor. I have seen a review on a hotel located in Patiala (India) that the user just visited to attend a wedding reception, never stayed in the hotel but had a good time dancing and eating during the reception, and gave a “five star” rating to the hotel. I wonder how many airline miles he got in return for that review. But seriously, offering incentives for writing reviews is one Tripadvisor policy that is totally questionable.

What to do

I know we will still read Tripadvisor reviews. My only advice is, be careful. When a property has a total of less than 50 reviews, be extra careful. Scan through a few of the positive reviews and see how many total review contributions those users have made. If there are not many, be wary. Never decide solely on the basis of the total or average review score, like a “3.5 out of 5”. This number may conceal more than it reveals.