tripadvisor

Unscrupulous business practices, untrustworthy reviews, quantity over quality and no means of verification. TripAdvisor knows what it’s doing – but do you? 

I have recently been away for 60 days roadtripping across Europe, covering 16 countries and countless stops on the way. We rarely stayed in one place for more than one night, and regularly took in two or three further sights per day. Basically sight-seeing on speed.

During my travels I found myself increasingly reliant on TripAdvisor. I would use this tool to get a quick overview on what the main sights were in the next town, where to eat lunch, and what any given church/ cathedral/ castle might have to offer. I’d had an account for years but didn’t use the site much, then suddenly I was relying on it to figure out where my next meal was coming from.

I came home and found myself wanting to post reviews about the places I’d seen. I posted numerous photos with each review, believing it might be a way to raise my profile as a photographer just a little bit. I soon became committed to boosting the number of ‘TripCollective Points’ I had (what a nonsense), desperate to become a Level 6 Contributor which is attained after reaching 10,000 points. After the mini-obsession faded, I questioned why I was so taken in by the site and wanted to find out more.

After a short while, I began to delve into the murkier side of TripAdvisor’s offering. Much of the information in this article is based on American Paris-based tour-guide Heather Stimmler-Hall’s excellent exposé ‘What You Don’t Know About TripAdvisor – How the World’s Largest Travel Monopoly Ultimately Hurts Travelers & Small Businesses’. Her extremely well-written article elaborates on many of TripAdvisor’s more unscrupulous or questionable practices.


TripAdvisor knows its reviews can’t be trusted.

TripAdvisor may have built its brand on trust, but in 2012 it was banned from claiming its reviews are trustworthy. Countless lawsuits across the world have led to it removing words such as “trusted” and “honest” from its marketing. Not least of these was the 4-month long British Advertising Standards Authority investigation which ruled that wording such as “reviews you can trust” and “real travellers” was misleading because the company couldn’t prove that reviews posted were genuine. Largely because there is no form of verification whatsoever.

Stimmler-Hall writes, “Instead of taking measures to verify and guarantee the reliability of the reviews, they simply changed the “trust” slogan to “the biggest” and began making money as a booking engine, charging companies for preferential visibility, acquiring the booking engines like Viator to profit from the tours they supposedly recommend without bias, and pressuring companies to give up 20–30% of their sales in commissions for added “access to traffic”.


Ranking is based solely on popularity, not quality.

It’s actually called a ‘popularity ranking’. The more reviews an establishment has, the higher its ranking. There is no adjustment for scale, nor for businesses that break in low-season. To be fair, the secondary factor computed is how recently each review was posted, with newer reviews leading to higher rankings, but this means any business can briefly pop to the top if they pester enough customers to write positive reviews on a given day, which is against the ethos of a travel review site. The businesses within each category being ranked, for example hotels, are incredibly varied but this isn’t controlled for. As a result, “…Hotels like the Four Seasons and Ritz [are] in the same category with little boutique hotels or youth hostels. Or […] burger joints are competing with Michelin-starred restaurants. This doesn’t help travellers make informed decisions. So it’s important to remember it’s a popularity contest, not an equal, merit-based ranking.”


Proportion of fake reviews could be as high as 40%

So, nobody knows which reviews are fake, but 40% is an estimate given by TripExpert in this article. The problem is further described in this Huff Post Tech article, focussing particularly on findings in Ireland. “Reputation management” companies can be hired by businesses to write highly believable fake reviews and negative ones to sabotage their competitors. An Italian magazine even got a fake restaurant that didn’t exist to #1 in the restaurant ratings. Anyone can create an ID on TripAdvisor where they operate in near-anonymity. There is also no verification required such as a receipt or booking trail (like with Expedia, a TripAdvisor spin-off) to prove they actually visited any given establishment.

There is zero accountability. Compare this with other sources of information such as guide books, blog writers with local knowledge and the New York Times which verifies each user’s identity. Stimmler Hall writes, “Unlike anonymous reviewers, journalists and travel writers know they need to be fair and truthful when writing bad reviews because they can be prosecuted under libel laws for defamation if their claims are unsubstantiated”. Perhaps if people can’t put their name to something, they shouldn’t be saying it at all.


TripAdvisor pressures businesses into participating, and they can’t opt out.

While anyone can go ahead and create a listing on TripAdvisor, there is no way for the business to remove it if they do not wish to be listed. TripAdvisor then pressures the owners into managing their page by adding photos and interacting with reviewers. These are the ‘customers’ of TripAdvisor, but they did not choose the service. Every business listed is lumbered with added work. In the words of Steven Brenner, Owner of The Beehive Hotel in Rome, and cited on Quora, “We felt obligated to add on the extra task of monitoring our reputation in this new arena so we could respond to crackpot reviewers, signal false reviews, and request from people (without being annoying) to write their positive comments to TripAdvisor, as well as other sites.”

If that doesn’t sound too bad, then consider that it costs a business over €400 a year for the privilege of having their website listed. “The default of TripAdvisor is that they list everything about you, whether you agree to it or not, except a way to book with you, unless it’s through their affiliate booking engines. If you want them to list your website address, you pay,” writes Steven Brenner. Hotels which opt to pay for TripAdvisor’s hefty “Business Listing” package get preferential treatment, increased visibility and “access to traffic”, no matter their reviews, rankings and ratings by travellers.

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So is this really where we want to get our travel, accommodation and restaurant recommendations from? Is this behemoth really going to care about the real people running the businesses that its anonymous, zero-accountability ‘reviewers’ can destroy in a heartbeat? And how can we trust a site filled with opinions of every Tom, Dick and Harry but with no quality control or steps taken to verify that they’re even genuine guests? Stimmler Hall advocates turning to local blogs and trusted travel writers. I would add to this publications such as travel guides (eg Lonely Planet) that can usually be provided upon to dispense valuable, well-researched, impartial information.

Ultimately TripAdvisor can be a valuable tool when used as one source of information, not the be all and end all of one’s travel research. Combined with other forms of information, and taken with a a pinch of salt, it can be convenient, useful and often hilarious.

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If you are interested in anything I’ve only touched on here, be sure to read this incredibly thorough and eye-opening article by Paris tour-guide and experienced travel writer Heather Stimmler-Hall: What you don’t know about TripAdvisor.

There have been several academic studies on the subject of spotting fake online reviews. A few of them in their entirety are listed below. They hypothesise sophisticated algorithmic methodologies for detection of fake reviews or reviewer/ establishment profiles. They provide novel quantitative insights into the characteristics of natural distributions of opinions in the TripAdvisor model. If you are a nerd like me, you might find these fascinating.

Promotional Reviews: An Empirical Investigation of Online Review Manipulation – Mayzlin, Dover & Chevalier, August 2013

Distributional Footprints of Deceptive Product Reviews – Feng, Xing, Gogar & Choi, 2012

Reliability of Reviews on the Internet: The Case of TripAdvisor – Chua & Banerjee, October 2013